Tragedy Khadafi is a veteran in the rap game as well as in life. The man who layed the blueprint for what we’ve come to recognize as the signature Queensbridge grime returns with the third installment in his ‘Thug Matrix’ series and is primed to remind you that he’s still here. TRU had such a long and engrossing conversation with him that we’ve actually gotta split it up in two parts. In this first chapter the Intelligent Hoodlum speaks about his many experiences in the rap game, ranging from recording LA, LA at the height of the east/west beef to what he learned from working with late, great Big Pun and unsolicited phone calls to Chuck D.
TRU: You’ve been instrumental in the careers of many Queensbridge artists both directly and indirectly but mainstream succes has surprisingly eluded you yourself. Some fans suggested your slang was simply too dense and specific for mainstream acceptance.
I just bring myself to it. I bring myself to the track, however it comes across. Hopefully it comes across as an authentic sound. I can’t really see myself as sounding like anyone else, especially not consciously trying to mimic anyone else. Up on to this point I’ve gained that title, that label as one of the ones who should’ve been bigger, and that’s a great compliment! In itself it’s a great compliment and people may look down on it but I don’t look down it, because I know my own history, my personal history and the history of the music business. I bring myself to the track and hopefully it can be appreciated. Everybody brings something different. Well, not everybody does. I can’t really say that because I don’t see it that way but everybody should bring something different to the track. A lot of people are sounding like other people and for the most part it’s getting them over and it’s getting them by and maybe they’re achieving the goal they’d set out to achieve but I love music. I would love music if I was a janitor or a brain surgeon, I just gotta do what I do and I gotta be Tragedy. I can’t be anyone else. I’m not a cameleon in that sense. I could evolve, I could grow, I could change, but in essence I’m gonna always be me. I paid too much to be me. I paid to be me.
TRU: From the mid to late 90s Queensbridge was strong on the radar of hip-hop heads worldwide. During this time you readied a young Capone-N-Noreaga’s debut album, ‘The War Report.‘ You’re actually more on that album than Capone is so what informed the decision to groom a duo instead of releasing another solo record?
I’m an artist, before anything, I don’t just express my art through music, I express my art through different things. So being an artists first and foremost, I have to feel Passion for whatever I’m doing. If I don’t feel a passion for it, to me it’s not art. I’ve never had a problem with making money, I can surviving without being an artist per se. The reason I pushed that project out before pushing my solo album is because as an artist I didn’t feel the passion for [a solo record]. My goal was to create a project, an album that I had passion for but where I didn’t necessarily have to be an artist on. Now, of course, if you listen to that album, you will realize that things went wrong somewhere along the line. As we know, things don’t always go as planned. So I had to be an artist on the album, to carry the album. Initially no one was trying to hear them [Capone & Noreaga] because they were too new and people didn’t gravitate toward them yet. So when I went to the label to shop the album they said “we’re feeling it, it’s cool, but we want YOU on the album more because you already have a name, it’ll bring more attention to the project.” So I had to reinvent my whole strategy and definitely had to have more input as an artist and not as an executive. I had to wear all three hats, more than three hats; I had to be the executive producer; the manager; the artist and basically, the label. That’s the reason why I didn’t push my solo album, I just didn’t wanna come with a solo album at that time. My initial goal was to push that project and get in the background. I was trying to get my Russell on, you know?
Capone-N-Noreaga Feat. Mobb Deep & Tragedy Khadafi – LA LA (Kuwait Mix)
TRU: New York was getting hit pretty heavy from the west during the time of ‘LA, LA,’ one of the era’s only answer records. Why didn’t more emcees hop on that record?
It’s amazing because I’ve heard in Prodigy’s book how he talked about us being the only ones who went at the west coast, you know? I think P is a phenomenal lyricist and I respect his craft but that’s not exactly the truth. It wasn’t “us.” Because P put his verse on the record, and then he took his verse off! And he only agreed to be on the hook! That kinda bothered me because his verse was crazy! It made me wonder why he wanted to take his verse off. Of course Havoc, who always comes through 100% for me, he never took his verse off, but P did. Later on when I read an article on Prodigy basically saying how “we,” the Mobb, CNN and Tragedy took on the west coast, the order should’ve been a little different. Because I was the one who brought the whole idea to everybody. But we live in a world where people don’t necessarily care about the naked truth, they rather jump on a well-dressed lie. People roll with whatever feels good, sounds good. In all reality that was my song. I brought it to the Mobb ’cause I wanted the Mobb to get on it and represent because I knew it was gonna be a big song. But that was MY song, and my contribution to CNN. I’m not taking shots at P, I’m just being straight up. He didn’t even have a full 16 bars on it, to be able to say “us.” He was on the hook, and I kept him on the hook, again, ’cause I knew it was gonna be a big song. Any one of us could’ve done that hook and it would’ve sounded the same ’cause it’s not as if he wrote a new hook. We just took the actual hook that they used, which came from Kurtis Blow, then the Dogg Pound did it over and then we jacked it from the Dogg Pound. So all his input was, was his voice. I ain’t gonna lie, P got his aura, the way he does things and it works for him, it sounds good. But that was… it wasn’t a beef. A lot of people ran with it as a beef but we never had no beef with The Dogg Pound, we never had no beef with Snoop. I personally was a fan of Death Row music and all the stuff they were putting out. But at the same time, we gon’ represent where we from, we gon’ represent our square and that’s New York. I put too much work in the game to let anybody come at the head of New York and not speak up. Now to answer your question “why weren’t a lot of other artists from New York on that record?” I reached out to Fat Joe, Kool G Rap, I reached out to many dudes and a lot of them were reluctant to do it. You ask me personally, a lot of people didn’t wanna rub elbows with Suge Knight, but my personal opinion is this: I come from 96 buildings and 6 blocks and I know Suge Knight can’t do to me what the streets already did to me. Anything else anybody can do to me is lay me down, aside from that you can’t do nothing to me. Not to glorify anything but I’ve been shot, stabbed and everything else, I’m not gonna fear another man, I’m just not gonna do it like that. I’m not gonna say I’ll move stupidly or ignorantly, I’ll move accordingly but I’m not fearing another man. You’re not gonna disrespect what I partially represent over here and have me not answer you in no shape, form of fashion. And, after all of that, it was a come-up, I saw opportunity. Some of the biggest records in hip-hop were answer records, rebuttals, battles. There would be no KRS-1 if he hadn’t attacked Shan and Shan didn’t attack back.
TRU: Yeah, it goes as far back as Roxanne Shanté.
Exactly. Canibus catapulted off the beef with LL, Nas his Ether record going at Jay-Z catapulted Nas back into the mainstream and into the limelight. So let’s be real, I’m a warmonger as well. I’m a warrior and I’ll always strategize when I see an opportunity in war. It was even more successful, ’cause not only did we have a big record that catapulted CNN’s career and my notoriety but guess what, nobody got hurt. I think Death Row and The Dogg Pound were mature enough to take it for what it was and things didn’t get crazy and outta hand. The media couldn’t jump on it and make a frenzy out of it like they unfortunately did with Big and Pac.
TRU: You’ve been in the game longer than almost anybody else, what were your most memorable recording experiences?
The most memorable? I’d have to say; Chuck D, Nas and Big Pun. Those are like the three most memorable to me. The reason why Nas was one of the most memorable was the time we did this song together called ‘Calm Down.’ Everybody gave their energy and came a certain way on the song and killed it, I killed it, Nore killed it, but when Nas came he did a short story that was so graphic… He did a story in 16 bars. Most people would’ve taken a whole song to do a story. But he did the story like he wrote an essay, he wrote and spat a lyrical essay in 16 bars. An essay has an introduction, a subject matter and a conclusion. He gave you the story, he gave you the intro, the subject matter and he closed it. That was crazy how he did that. He killed that shit. That was one of the phenomenal joints to me.
Tragedy Khadafi ft. Nas & Noreaga – Calm Down
One time I was at Club Cheetahs [an exotic adult entertainment gentlemen’s club in Manhattan], I ran into Pun and he was like “Yo, you a legend, I respect you, I grew up on your shit” and I’m like yeah, I heard it before. But then he started kicking my verses from ‘Live Motivator‘ and I was like “Oh shit!” Obviously I’m a bit older than Pun, peace be upon him, may he rest in peace, but he knew the whole thing. I actually tried to walk away and he’s like “Nah,” and he sung the whole song! Very few people knew that song. From that point it was “Aight, cool” I said “I’d love to get you on a joint, I got the studio at Unique” and Cheetahs wasn’t too far from Unique Studios. I just stepped out to get some air because I had been working in the studio for two months straight and I wasn’t going nowhere, so he was like “Yo, I’ll come to the studio right now.” He had about 30 people with him, telling them “Come on, we’re going to Trag’s session, I gotta do a verse for him.” So he just brought the whole club to my studio session. We had been drinking, we were a little younger, little crazier, little wilder, on our G shit, know what I’m saying? So we’re drinking champagne or whatever, popping bottles, and he was laying his verse but we were drinking so much that he was laying his verse, and he just went to the side and threw up, and then got right back on the mic spitting his verse. That was the verse he did on ‘WWT.’
Another thing he did, and I don’t wanna bring no bad energy around him ’cause I know people asked him things to say about his relationship with his wife and all that, but he was just being Pun. The incident was, when we were going out of the club to leave for the studio for him to do the verse he had two girls with him, well, he actually had about seven girls with him, he grabbed the two girls closest to him by their hair and walked out the club. I’m like “What you doin’ sun?” and he’s like “These my bitches.” I’m like “You buggin” and they’re just laughing: “Oh Pun, you’re so crazy.”
I used to wonder, no disrespect to Pun, I love him, but I used to think “how does a dude this big rhyme without losing his breath?” I was three times smaller than him and I was loosing my breath when I rhymed! But when I was in the studio with him I saw how he did it. He layed his shit track by track instead of doing all his verse in one breath. All this fucking time I’ve been killing myself, losing breath, choking, and this dude is just utilizing the tracks. So not only was it phenomenal to be around such a great artist but he actually taught me something that day and I’ve been using that ever since. Why’d you wanna be on a track losing your breath? I came up in the old school where you did it all in one breath ’cause we didn’t have a lot if tracks and he was just utilizing the technology
With Chuck D, I basically stole his number out of Marley Marl’s phone book and was calling Chuck D because all his music was mad conscious. Back in the day, I used to think all black people did was pump, hoe, sell drugs and kill motherfuckas. That’s all I thought black people did, I actually grew up believing that when I was young. So when I went away, when I did my first bid, I started reading, looking for information that to a large degree has been kept from us for a long time. I started saying “Wow, we did that, that’s in me?” I started exploring that and I started listening to Chuck and I thought “Yo, this dude is crazy, who is he talking about when he says Assata Shakur, Joanne Chesimard, Eldridge Cleaver, Fred Jackson, George Jackson, Fred Hampton, Geronimo Pratt, Huey P. Newton, who is he talking about? What is he talking about when he’s speaking on Marxism and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who’s this dude talking about?” So I’d seen his number in Marley’s phone book and I stole that number and I started calling him. He didn’t even know who I was, I never told him my name. I’d just call him and say “Yo, who you mean when you talking about Joanne Chesimard, who’s that? Why should you support Chesimard?” and he’d just talk to me for about an hour and he was like “go get this book, go to the library, look this up.” I ain’t gon’ front, talking to him encouraged me to go back to school. That’s when I really started reading. Out of every moment, meeting him and talking to him was one of the most phenomenal moments I ever had with an artist, besides an artist, just a human being. You can run into the right people in life, and I have, and you can run into the wrong people in life, and I have. And sometimes the wrong person I ran into was me. But he encouraged me to become an autodidact.
TRU: Your older music often has a very confrontational, in-your-face attitude. While it still is confrontational, your new album makes it seem like you’ve grown beyond that a bit, it has more of a victorious feeling to it.
That’s exactly what it is, I see myself as really victorious. When you come out of the world’s largest projects -96 buildings, 6 blocks- and you grow up and was raised te way I was raised in the struggle here in so-called America, you’re battle-tested. I was definitely battle-tested throughout my life when I grew up. And I’m constantly being tested, the test hasn’t ended, but just reflecting back on everything and looking where I’m at now and seeing the direction my life is moving into, I know that I’m victorious. I am victorious.
TRU: What’s the overall goal you’ve set out to achieve with ‘Thug Matrix 3′ ?
The overall goal was to first and foremost bring back the awareness that I am in fact still here. Also to let people know that you don’t have to be ignorant to be real. You don’t have to dumb yourself down to be official. You don’t have to stop growing mentally to be a G. That’s what I wanted to do with this album. You basically summed it up in one word, which is ‘victorious’ and I wanted to give the listeners the opportunity to feel victorious with me. Be victorious with me, I don’t care what you’re going through, what life throws at you, how much you’ve been put down or going to trials and tribulations, you are victorious because guess what; you’re still here. You can still rise to the challenge.
Head on back next week as we discuss life, religion and politics with Tragedy Khadafi in our two-part interview.