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Back to the Lab

The original Baltimore MC takes his art to a higher level

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Long, natty dreads dangle from beneath Labtekwon’s fisherman’s cap as the veteran Baltimore rapper, standing in the shadow of the giant Grand Prix grandstands, recalls the epic cyphers that took place in the Inner Harbor amphitheater nearby in the ’80s and ’90s.

“The amphitheater was like the proving grounds, because there was no home field advantage—it’s the Inner Harbor,” he says. “You would often get out-of-towners that were walking by and would gather round and listen to the cyphers—you just had to be good. And there was a lot of guys that were good.”

As the memories flood back, Labtekwon (pronounced Lab Tech One) recalls the night Porkchop—now a personality on 92Q, but then an MC from Baltimore County, considered one of the area’s best—faced off against a considerably grittier opponent, named Wop, from the inner city, who pulled out a gun in the middle of his verse.

“It was for effect—there was never any fights or anything like that—it was a matter of him being like ‘I’m serious, this is real,’” Lab recalls. “Porkchop had a heart attack. An actual heart attack. The paramedics came.”

Labtekwon, who won countless cyphers in the amphitheater, can’t help but laugh at the memory. “It’s not that funny, but it kinda was—I mean, he was OK,” he says. “It was just one of those Baltimore moments.”

The MC, who’s released upward of 30 albums, including mixtapes and collaborations, in his decades-long career, releases another on Sept. 15 called Hardcore: Labtekwon and the Righteous Indignation/Rootzilla vs Masta Akbar. It combines Lab’s typical hyperliterate, high-speed wordplay with three extended tracks that sound more like history lectures set to hip-hop beats.

Those three tracks, called “The Truth About Christianity,” “The Truth About Race,” and “The Economy of Tricknology,” provide textbooks-full of historical insight that occasionally veers into conspiracy-theory claims about the Illuminati and the Rothschilds. It’s all couched in fluid academic speak, which makes sense since the 2004 grad of UMBC (where he was president of the Black Student Union) recently started work on a master’s degree and doctorate in American Studies at Morgan State University.

Needless to say, Labtekwon’s latest is miles away from pretty much anything else in the local hip-hop world, which doesn’t bother Lab much, since he’s appreciated by aficionados and collectors all over the world—some of whom pay upward of $200 for his early albums on vinyl—and he says there’s no Baltimore hip-hop scene anyway.

“People ask me, ‘You still rapping?’” he says. “It’s like asking Miles Davis, ‘Do you still play the trumpet?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s what I do. It’s not a phase for me.’”

The MC, who first won the City Paper title of Best MC back in 2001, fills us in on the new album, diagnoses the problems with Baltimore hip-hop today, and remembers it’s golden era.

City Paper: I didn’t know you were starting grad school, but it makes sense—this album definitely has an academic vibe.

Labtekwon: Yeah, I’m a little older than the average dude. I have kind of a deep catalog, over 30 different albums, and at a certain point you have to evolve, just as much as with conversation, like, what I would discuss when I was 17, hanging out with my friends, is not the same as 27 or 37, and God forbid at 57 you’re still talking about what you were talking about when you were 17.

MCing is a conversation. It’s a way of communicating ideas, experiences, stories, and entertaining through thoughts that are manifest in words that have been timed to rhythm. So what I did on this album—it’s really a double album, that’s why the title’s so long: It’s a combination of two projects—those three songs, the trilogy, I wanted to give to kids that are listening to rap. Everyone has a moment where they want to know more than they knew before. When I was a kid, I listened to KRS-One, Boogie Down Productions. He had “Why Is That?” He had that song “Beef.” He had songs that were talking about stuff that I had not been exposed to. It made me want to learn more. Of course, you can’t stop at a rap song. You gotta actually read books.

I always thought that, as an MC, you have to evolve with the art form, you have to grow as a human being. You can’t keep talking about the same stimuli, the same girls, the same party. I just wanted to separate myself. There are things that haven’t been done. There hasn’t been anthro-rap, as I like to call it, or research-rap. The final product of this album has a book, there’s a bibliography, all the songs are written out. The bibliography is APA style, so it has all the books and web sources that I researched to get that information. It’s not about hyperbole or “believe me because I’m supposed to be smart.” Really, what I want to do is trigger a movement to show that the art of MCing is so new, is really still in its genesis, so there’s a lot of room for it to be expounded upon. It’s not to say everybody’s going to want to listen to a whole album of just lectures, but it’s nice to show that diversity of style. The dichotomy of this album is that half of it is really serious, scholarly work, and the other half is me being totally, like, “Shut the hell up.” It was really a tribute to KRS-One, and what he represented to me early in his career. He was the teacher. And I consider myself the master student of KRS-One. This is real research, it’s not internet conspiracy-theory stuff. It’s sourced.

CP: But some of that stuff is clearly controversial, like the Illuminati and the Rothschilds and all that stuff.

L: And that’s the nature of the beast. I tell people, don’t believe what I say, research it. One of the things a professor said recently in grad school is that history is made in the present, it’s the people in the present that look back at what happened and try to reconstruct the events of the past to create history. Also, no lens of history is monolithic. There’s not one way to see it. Like in academia, if someone wanted to deconstruct my lyrics and counter it, that would enhance the culture of hip-hop because then you have people thinking in an academic, scholarly way to analyze ideas about those three ideas—religion, race, money. That’s the world we live in.

I have another album that’s gonna come out next year, which is the opposite of this album. It’s a lot more emo stuff, a lot of the stuff that girls like. It’s a lot more easy listening. But I decided, from now on, I’m just gonna always stick two or three knowledge raps in there.

CP: What you’re doing now feels so disconnected from what else is going on in the scene here—do you still feel connected to the Baltimore hip-hop scene?

L: Here’s the thing. There is no Baltimore hip-hop scene. It doesn’t exist. When I was a kid, there was a Baltimore hip-hop scene. People were doing shows at the Civic Center—local acts, like Kevin Liles with Numarx, did shows in front of thousands of people that came to see them, not opening up for a major label artist. When I was growing up, WEBB-1360 was dominant. There was a lot of hip-hop culture and you knew it was real. You knew that Z3MC were the best on the west side, and you knew that when they did a show, there was gonna be girls there. There’s no hip-hop scene here now.

The most dominant part of Baltimore hip-hop culture is the graffiti. Period. Their element rules this city and a lot of rappers don’t even have a concept of what that means. When you pay attention to the walls—not just in graffiti alley on Howard Street, but look around. You see pieces on rooftops, pieces on the back of billboards, tags everywhere. There are guys who have been doing graf as long as I’m alive and a lot of them are my friends. I grew up with these kids. Right out here [at the amphitheater,] they would have their sketchbooks, I would be in the cypher, that was the Baltimore hip-hop culture. The problem is, now you have a lot of raps and you don’t have a culture. The average rapper doesn’t know four graffiti artists. From growing up, I probably knew 20 to 25 that are still doing it now. They’re always gonna do it. It’s like, people ask me, “You still rapping?” It’s like asking Miles Davis, does he still play the trumpet. I’m like, “Yeah, it’s what I do. It’s not a phase for me.”

Graffiti is the dominant element here. After graffiti, it’s dancing. After dancing, it’s DJing. Rap is the last thing that people care about. These guys are delusional. People use the term “relevance”—somebody told me, “You’re not relevant,” and I always think that’s a funny term, because relevance is subjective.

The truth of the matter is, everybody wants to generate an economy from the music. Baltimore does not have an economy for rappers. People don’t buy the music. You’re not gonna fill the Civic Center, cause you don’t have enough fans. There’s all these little tiny pockets where rappers have 20 or 30 fans that are really hardcore and people might’ve heard their name, so you have these parasite promoters that do these events and they put the 10 groups that have 20 or 30 fans and you get them to sell tickets and then you have 300 people there, and that’s the scene? That’s an open-mic karaoke night, that’s not a scene. There’s no love for the art form.

Baltimore rappers have this tendency to try and create the illusion of success by garnering accolades from their peers. It’s like a big circle jerk. Everybody’s like, “Oh, you’re dope,” “you’re dope,” “you’re dope,” “we’re dope!” You look at the audience, it’s all rappers. There’s no girls here—every girl here is with a dude that’s rapped. When I was doing shows here locally, when it was my focus—which was years ago—the objective was to meet new girls.

CP: What was it like out here at the amphitheater?

L: Oh, man, the amphitheater was like the proving grounds, because there was no home field advantage—it’s the Inner Harbor. And you would often get out-of-towners that were walking by and would gather round and listen to the cyphers—you just had to be good. And there was a lot of guys that were good.

I’ll tell you a funny story—it wasn’t funny then, but in retrospect, years later, it just tells you the nature of the beast. I love Porkchop, that’s my brother. He was in a group called New Testament, and they were mostly from Baltimore County. There was another group called the Firm, another called the Borg, and my crew was called Blackhead Assassins—there was only like three of us, and the rest of the groups had like 15 or 20 guys. There was a Saturday night cypher, I didn’t come this particular evening, but the New Testament, the Baltimore County guys, they were really, really good. Lyrically, they were way up there. The Firm was a lot of dudes from the inner city. They were good too, but they were a little more gangster—a lot more gangster, it was a lot more shoot-em-up, bang-bang. New Testament was more like spaceships flying in your living room. A lot of people don’t realize this, he’s on 92Q now, but Porkchop is a really good MC. He was like top-five from Baltimore for a long time. He was battling this guy Wop from the Firm and Wop pulled a gun out while he was rapping, because he was doing a gangster verse—at the harbor! It was for effect, there was never any fights or anything like that. It was a matter of him being like, “I’m serious, this is real.” Porkchop had a heart attack. An actual heart attack. The paramedics came. It’s not that funny, but it kinda was. It was just one of those Baltimore moments. Shit would happen. There would be dudes with guns in the cyphers. That was one time where it ended up dark.

There were times when we would get guys from out of town, from Philly or New York or wherever, and there would be a feeding frenzy on them. We would stick together more when there were out-of-towners.

Every week, everyone wanted to take me out. And every week, I was looking to take everyone out. And because of that, the skill level went up. I had peers. I had to be better than somebody every week. You had to earn it every week. You would write more and focus more. And then we would go to the studio to record. There was this period of innovation, from ’92 to ’98. And then, I took my show on the road. I went to [Project Blowed] in L.A., I did [Lyricist Lounge]in New York. I did a lot of stuff from battling my peers in Baltimore and Baltimore County, and that’s gone now. You have these battle leagues, but they’re not real. They’re pretentious. You don’t have a sense of community, where MCs really respect each other and realize, “I have to write, I have to get better. It doesn’t matter if my friends all say I’m good, I’ve got to be better than you. I can’t do it through Twitter, I can’t do through Facebook, I can’t get likes on YouTube. I have to be better to be elite in this city of MCs.” That’s gone.

CP: Do you have relationships with some of the guys trying to make a name now?

L: A lot of those guy have fallen off. In the hip-hop culture of Baltimore, my closest bonds are with the graf artists and the dancers. The rappers—most of the guys that people look up to now—they were kids who couldn’t get in the cyphers. There are a few guys that are young, that I think are good. I like Kid Only because he’s an intelligent MC that values the art form, that really takes it seriously. He doesn’t rest his laurels on a group of people that exalt him. Apex, I respect because he’s been in all these different battle leagues. Trace Blam, I think he’s pretty good, he’s been working, doing stuff outside of Baltimore, been working with producers from Europe and across the country.

CP: Who’s the best Baltimore MC of all time?

L: Oh, me, definitely. There’s no question, I know that.

CP: I saw that coming. And then after you, who are the top five?

L: I can’t say it in any particular order, but beside myself, One Speaker Supreme, Romeo Z of Z3MC, 4-O-D, Black, Steve Colossal, Illogic, Kumasi. Those are the names that pop off without thinking really hard. Those guys, at their peak, was who I was competing against that gave me the advantage to be the best I could be. I knew that if I wasn’t at the top of my game, I would get embarrassed by one of them.

CP: Does rap pay the bills for you?

L: Yeah, actually it does. I’ve reached a point with career where vinyl’s really popular, so I have vinyl pieces that go for anywhere from $30 to $200. Some of my older stuff, like [1993 EP] Ghetto Gospel, the original prints are, like, anywhere from a buck to $200, and that’s a blessing, because it means the art is appreciated and valued. I feel like a jazz musician. I don’t make music for everybody. I make music for people who enjoy the kind of music I make. It’s niche. It’s boutique.

I genuinely love the art of MCing. I love it, I enjoy it, I find it pleasurable, I do it when I’m alone. I truly mean that. I believe rap is in its bebop stage and a lot of rappers are stuck in swing.

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