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Asylum 7 Interview

March 11, 2009

mihha7fam Asylum 7’s Zo!-produced album Overdue Process (released on New Year’s Day) has a fresh, modern feel to it, but Asylum is far from a new figure to Detroit’s hip-hop scene. As both a solo emcee and as a member of the group United States of Mind, the University of Michigan graduate has been sharing his crisp, equally clever and socially cognizant rhymes with fellow Michiganders and an international audience for nearly a decade. This year, he plans to follow up Overdue Process with an album with the Italy-based DJ Baser. In an interview with MichiganHipHop, the Motor City veteran talks about new and future projects, his role in the area’s music scene, and how a college education enhances his rhymes.

How did you first meet Zo!?
I first met Zo! at a place called Carpet Lounge in Hamtramck in 2004 where they’d have a couple of performances and a freestyle performance at the end of each show. After one of the freestyle performances ciphers, Zo! actually approached me and was like, “Yo, I’m feeling what you’re doing, and I want to work with you.” The relationship just kind of started from that point on. I think a week later I ended up going to his place and listening to some beats, and that’s pretty much how it all started.

What is it that makes you two such a good match?
I’d have to say our work ethics are similar and it’s just a mutual respect we have for each other. I don’t tell Zo! how to make the beats or how to arrange. Zo! doesn’t tell me how to rhyme or how to flow. Not that it would be a bad thing, but I respect his work enough where he does his thing, I do my thing, then we sit down and talk about what we like. It’s a very easy process. He’s a very easy person to work with. He doesn’t try to control anything. It’s just taking the two parts and putting them together.

The goal was really to make a good record that wasn’t really traditional in any hip-hop sense. There are a lot of records that come out that are good but they may sound like generic rap. We kind of wanted to step away from that, but still keep the foundation and have it rooted in hip hop. But we wanted to do something different and that’s where his whole live element comes in. Zo! plays all the instruments; there are no samples on the record. I don’t curse on records so that’s something different from what you hear on most hip-hop records. Anybody can really listen to it. The goal was to just to make a dope, listenable, mature hip-hop record.

You don’t curse on this album, but have you used profanity on any prior albums?
No. When I first started rhyming I was a heavy battle emcee who cursed, but when it came to putting down records I just sat down and thought to myself, ‘Considering the reputation that hip hop has with a lot of circles, especially the older crowd—25 and above—many people don’t listen just because its so profane. So I thought to myself why would you limit yourself by swearing on the record?’ And because I don’t curse I have a pretty considerable fan base that’s about 30 years and older. 

Do you think your message got across?
I don’t think it’s got across, but it’s getting across. Day to day I get people who contact me who say, “You’re dope. I didn’t even know about you, but now I’m going to check for you.” I think it’s slowly getting across but it will never completely get across. I think it will always be a working progress, but it’s definitely done a lot with me getting out there and getting to people who don’t know who I am.

What are a few of your favorite songs on Overdue Process?
I would say one of the songs I really enjoyed is “Crossover” featuring Miz Korona. I’ve always liked Miz Korona and what she’s done. The way that collaboration came about was pretty interesting. I found out that she appreciated my work so it was kind of a no-brainer to come together to make a song. It’s a favorite of mine because it’s kind of how I started rhyming. I always started rhyming on a battle-aggressive angle, and that’s going back to basics. And who’s better to do that with me than Miz Korona who’s just as dope if not doper on that same kind of level. 

Another favorite would be “One Bad Thing,” where I tell a story about my day from the moment I wake up. It’s a sequence of events. It’s a favorite to me because I enjoy telling a story in rhyme. It’s not something I do often but it’s a good brain exercise. It’s a way to step aside from political and battle rapping and be a narrator over a beat. 

Another favorite would be “Simplicity,” and that means something to me because that song’s about cutting off the excess in my life and just trying to get it down to the bare essentials that I need. That’s a favorite because it’s kind personal and how I’m trying to keep my life simple and balanced.

What makes Detroit music so unique?
Obviously we kind of have our own thing going. We don’t mimic east coast, west coast, or the south. We have our own sounds. But not even that, the people we have here have a stronger work ethics than other cats. I don’t know everybody’s work ethics but I know that when you are knee deep in an economy that isn’t doing well at all and you’re hungry and starving, that hunger is going to translate into some kind of work so that you can bring yourself out of it. I think everybody’s going though that to a certain extent.  Everybody’s broke and trying to break out of this rut that we all seem to be in. And with that comes a lot of producers and emcees that are developing or developed a work ethic that’s so strong it speaks volumes in their music. Every time I talk to the people I get down with they’re always recording, always rapping—whatever skill—they are polishing it so we can eat a little better.

How do you personally add to Detroit music?
I add to Detroit music in a sense that you’re going to get something a little different from me on the rhymes. When I first really started out with hip hop I was kind of a big east coast hip hop head so there’s traces of that in my flows that remains east coast but in time I’ve been able to take that and develop it and mold it into something that you wouldn’t say, “Oh that’s sounds straight up like 1994 or 96.” Being around Detroit artists you kind of develop your own style and sense of how you come off. I bring something a little different in terms of the rhymes because I still have a slightly old school foundation that doesn’t come off as new school rap. So it’s still a little bit of east coast mixed with Detroit that comes off as original.

What are the strengths of the great Asylum?
My strengths lie in my work ethics. I take pride in writing every day. I’m open to learn. I won’t ever be one of those emcees that feel that they’ve got everything locked up, like they know everything about rhyming. There’s always something more I can learn and I’m always pursuing that. Of the hip-hop that inspires me, 80 percent comes from Detroit. So, just the open-mindedness: I’m always willing to learn, listen, trying to rhyme over different beats and not stick with tradition so much.

What about your weaknesses?
Sometimes I feel like I come off the same way, like I come off repetitive. I’m outside of the phase where I think being super lyrical is superior to everything else. But being in that mind state for so long, sometimes when I write flows with simple structure I think I’m coming off as wack but that may not necessarily be the case. Trying to jam a whole lot of words into a bar to make the flow seem more lyrical, that’s not what makes the rhyme good or what makes the song good. Sometimes there’s a beauty in space, so [I’m] trying to break away from being wordy. I’m trying not to feel so guilty about it.

How do you enhance your own talent?
I listen to a lot of music and not just hip-hop. I’m a big jazz fan. I listen to a lot of 60s and 70s records and a lot of psychedelic rock. I listen to a lot of my favorite emcees too. Have a deeper appreciation for music. I read a lot about hip-hop—a lot of biographies. I try to understand different concepts, but a lot of it is just practice. Experimenting with different flows and cadences.

Do you use anything you learned in college within your music?
In an indirect manner, I would say yes. My plan was to get a bachelor’s degree in sociology then go to school for social work. A lot of people would say musicians are social workers because we speak about what’s going on. In that manner, I think I’ve used the skills and basics I learned in sociology. I like to talk about social issues, race, gender equality and sexuality and I try to incorporate that in my rhyme without being too preachy. Studying sociology has allowed me to talk about more social economic and social political concepts that I probably couldn’t speak on in extreme details had I not studied some of those things in college.

How much does education matter when you’re a rapper?
It can matter as much as you want it to. If you want to come off as an ignorant clown and talk about things that have no meaning or relevance then education probably wouldn’t mean a thing. But if you want to make music that lasts longer and will stand the test of time—music that will give people some things to think about—I’d say education is very important. That’s not me saying every emcee should get some formal education by going to college, there’s different kinds of education—there’s book sense and common sense. Some rappers are very good at explaining things at street level, the daily life street-smart education. Education matters as much as you want it to. In my personal example I’d say education matters a lot because it gives me more to room to talk about things and be able to articulate myself.

How can rap change the world? How has it changed it already?
I think it has already to an extent. The revolution isn’t complete. Hip Hop is the voice of our youth. Detroit rap in itself is getting a lot better and going to the next level. There’s a legion of people following it. People hear all the time that hip hop saves lives. It doesn’t have to be hip-hop. Music always has the potential to change lives, but the key is the direction we want to take it. Right now the playing field is level because major labels don’t really have the power or the resources to control. People are on the Internet now with their music. People can go and look for themselves and see what they like. We as independent artists have the power to separate that major industry influence and make it our own. We have the power to control where the art is going. It’s not about the major label anymore. It’s all about independent media. It’s about getting your piece of the pie without having to be funded by some huge corporate conglomerate that’s really just out to make money. It can go back to the art form now, which is really in our best benefit.

 

On March 6th Asylum 7 will be performing at the Metro Times Blowout at Trowbridge coffeehouse in Hamtramck. For more concert and music information visit http://www.myspace/Asylum7.

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