Sometimes I forget how much time flies. I did this interview with Cormega sometime around late Summer of 2001, and it ran in Elemental Magazine shortly thereafter… maybe Dec ’01 or January ’02…
I don’t know about you, but I sure do miss Elemental! They offered some of the BEST coverage of independent artists (then dubbed only “underground”) and gave shine to a lot of rappers who couldn’t get love in the other mags.
Fortunately, Elemental was gracious with me posting articles I wrote for them on the net once the issues published, because I’m able to pull up so many without having to scan in the magazines. Lazy, I know. Shouts to sites like DaveyD.com, HipHopGame.com, AfricasGateway.com, RapStation.com and so many others who took my articles, even non-exclusive, and shared the love!
But back to Cormega. At the time I did this interview, he was fully on his own. No publicist, no real team… just him and Landspeed Records. Through hearing his words (mostly frustrated), I gathered that he had a lot more to share, and that dwelling on this Def Jam mess (they were holding on to The Testament) was just going to stress him out. I introduced him to Jackie O. Asare (4SightMedia.com), who is his publicist to this very day.
He’s also still one of my dearest friends, and I’m thankful that two people from such different worlds could talk on the phone for 40 minutes or so and realize a lifetime connection.
Without further ado, here is the interview:
Cormega: More Than Wealth
~Sheepish Lordess of Chaos~
Courtesy of Elemental Magazine
Child of the streets. Crack dealer. Convicted felon. Cormega. Born from the belly of the beast that is Queensbridge, this lyrical outcast with fists of fire opened his eyes to take in the world that might have otherwise shut him out. His soothing voice bears an audible callous of life’s cruelty, and his wistful manner pledges unspoken oaths of experience.
After seeing his own mother shot and killed when he was only four years old, Cormega lost an aspect of his childhood that most of us take for granted. Although he was taken in and raised by his stepmother, by the time puberty hit he was already indulging in the life of a grown up – or at least his idea of what grown up was. A natural entrepreneur, Cormega hustled to become a man amongst men in the crack game.
By the time he was a legal adult he was already a kingpin in his crew, the Goodfellas. After being arrested in 1992, Cormega served a three-year term. While in prison he completed his GED, took up boxing, and gained a formidable reputation for his skills on the mic. Needless to say, he was an overachiever in all activities he undertook, and when he was released in 1995 he was already prepared to step into the next stage of his game.
His first official encounter in the music industry was with fellow Queensbridge native, Nas. Nas brought Cormega into his lair with a guest appearance on “Affirmative Action,” which led the duo to form an alliance with AZ and Foxy Brown, better known as The Firm. Cormega never expected his friendship with Nas to be undone by bad business, nor did he anticipate the vapid venom that Nas would later spew.
When The Firm announced to the world that Cormega had been ousted and named Nature as his replacement, Cormega found himself practically blackballed by the New York music scene, even though the nation was screaming for another taste of his skills.
He explains the confusion and ensuing rivalries with a familiar cadence, obviously wearied by answering the same question over and over again: “Me and Nature was cool as people, but then he said something about me in one of his rhymes – so we dealt with that and ever since then we was cool. It was never a fallout with The Firm, it was just me and Nas wasn’t getting along.
“Some crews is based on love, some crews is based on being in the right place at the right time – The Firm was financially based. It’s simple what happened – I didn’t pay the initiation fee. They wanted me to pay but I didn’t see where I should have paid, because [Nas] was supposed to be my man. Certain people are educated different – a street person has a certain mentality and an industry person has a certain mentality. Right now I understand the industry. If Dr. Dre or someone was to come to me and say ‘I want to be the executive producer of your album for 50,000, etcetera – I might do that right now, because I understand I’m gonna recoup that money. But somebody straight out of jail – you can’t come to them and say ‘give me 50,000 and three points or we’re gonna wash our hands of you’. I just didn’t fit in.
“If you look at it, Steve Stout was controlling The Firm, he also controlled TrackMasters which had a production deal with Foxy Brown, which also had a majority of production on AZ’s album at that time, which also had the production deal with Nature. So it’s like ‘Cormega is the only one who is not financially benefiting us’. The frontline was ‘Nature replaced Cormega’ but what was the reasoning behind that?”
Without missing a beat, Cormega began focusing on his first solo album The Testament. The project was never officially released, and Cormega found himself in the middle of yet another confusing business deal. He also discovered a need for his entrepreneurial protocol. “The album was supposed to come out on Violator/Def Jam, but I wasn’t seeing eye to eye with Chris Lighty and the vision he had for me, so I asked him let me go. After I left them I started just getting on separate projects.” The label offered Cormega his project for a price of $250,000. Although he wanted his album, he opted to wait it out.
Saddened by the constant upheaval in his life and vision, a dejected Cormega took a time-out from the rap game. “This whole industry thing is enough to just drive you crazy. I just took a break from rap as a whole and I was just living my life like a regular person, or at least trying to. Then in late 2000 I started getting in on projects, I made a Best of Cormega mix tape – a part two – because a friend of mine had made the first one and it was very successful. It was just a mix tape but it was getting rave reviews.”
With a deep desire to release the work he did on The Testament, Cormega approached Violator/Def Jam once again to buy his masters. “While this [activity] was going on I was on the QB’s Finest and I’m on Prodigy’s stuff, and during all this time labels is hollerin’ at me and I’m getting good write ups – I thought I was smart in the system and trying to getting my music back at a good time, because music depreciates as time goes on. I tried to get my music back from Def Jam around the time QB’s Finest was out, and they said they wanted $350,000. I took that as a compliment. My lawyer and I figured they were gonna do something like that, because in the same month I was trying to get my music back Vibe wrote a story on the whole Queensbridge. It had everybody’s face in the mug shot pictures, and it said ‘Cormega’s unreleased album is rumored to be excellent’.”
Although he has tried to set aside his aggravation, it is not easy for him to see his art shelved. “That’s enough to break you – that’s like telling me I can’t have my kid.” He takes a deep breath and vows that he will forge ahead with his new ideas and more mature demeanor. “Okay, so y’all took something that was very valuable to me, but now I’m gonna show you what a strong artist I am. I don’t know how to judge the first album against the new one, I mean The Testament was dope, but this new album [The Realness] has a lot more emotion with a lot more feelings on it.”
Another important aspect of moving on is being able to get past his affiliation with Nas. “The other day I was doing an interview and the writer kept asking me about The Firm shit. I told him I don’t want to go through the Joe Frazier stigma – as great of a boxer as he was, all he’ll be remembered for is his rivalry with Muhammad Ali. I don’t wanna go through that. I hate going to industry parties because I could bet money that when you get in the door everyone’s gonna hug and kiss, and then talk shit later. I can respect not being cool with Nas. That’s real.”
Cormega’s first official solo release is entitled The Realness. The project is a powerful collection of Cormega’s inner demons, exorcised with forceful vengeance. He chose to take on this musical journey without the lyrical assistance of the entire rap community. “It’s structured different from other albums – there’s only two guest appearances, one from Prodigy and one from Tragedy. Nowadays rap is so predictable, before you even read the album credits you can say ‘I’ll be he has at least five features’. People can’t identify with the artist if you have a bunch of other people on it – I mean, what’s the difference between that and a compilation album?”
Stepping outside his artistic comfort zone was a welcome challenge, and a noteworthy production appearance by beat-guru Alchemist brings to light Cormega’s appreciation for Hip Hop talent. “Alchemist is affiliated with Mobb Deep, we are in the same circles – I wasn’t really up on him but then I started hearing some of the tracks this guy made. Prior to that he always made it known that he wanted to work with me, but I just didn’t know he was as dope as he is. When I was on Prodigy’s album, he did the track for that – and for the Tony Touch album. I started to take notice that when I rhyme on his beats it’s stand-out production. Those are the tracks that people notice. It would be senseless for me to not work with him.”
Finding himself within his music has been a healing process for the Queensbridge emcee. “Certain people don’t care about the positive stuff – they only care about the bullshit. When I do my music, I know people look up to me, or they see people’s badness or toughness or street credibility as something they wanna emulate. I’m not a thug – I don’t even like that word – I am what I am, but I’m not what I am by choice. I didn’t ask to be the way I am – if I coulda been another way I would have. The things I’ve been through I wouldn’t wish for other kids that’s comin up and I wouldn’t wish for rappers. Sometimes I wonder how I’m still maintaining mental stability.
“At first I was just a reflection of my wildness. If you look around right now, everyone’s saying the same thing – it doesn’t matter how good you are or if you suck. If you listen to my album and then listen to the average album you can see the difference. I’m definitely more emotional and I’m not afraid to show my vulnerability. I did a song on Hi Tek’s album about a girl. At first I was like – damn, I shouldn’t have done that song, worried that people would say I was selling out, but at the same time I had to ask myself ‘how am I selling out’? In the end I was rewarded because I’ve never met a person who don’t like that song. I got write ups in the Source and all that while they was writing up the album and everyone was talking about that song.”
Cormega’s advice to young people emulating the things they hear in some of today’s thugged out rap music is stern. “You know how many people are in jail right now because they kept it real with their man – cuz they’re sayin ‘my man got beef’ and they went out there and shot somebody? Don’t let your man dictate your life, cuz one day you might find out that the loyalty you’ve given him isn’t what he’s gonna give you. There are people out there who will literally kill someone for the love of their friend or their hood – but the question is, does your hood love you like you love your hood? There are other ways you could rep without doing something stupid. There are people in jail right now for murder, and their friends ain’t sending them a dime. They got 25 years to think about their friends.
“A lot of times you look at the square person – that guy who’s wearin slacks while we all got jeans on and we’re laughin at him – but that square dude has something a lot of us don’t got, and that’s stability. I had no stability in my life, I never knew if I was comin or going – I ain’t know how long I was gonna be in jail, how long I was gonna be on the run. These dudes had goals and they stuck to them. I respect them dudes more than I respect the people that wanna be thugs. Anyone can be a thug, but the guy who says ‘you know what, I don’t wanna be down with none of that’ and while we’re looking at him crazy – he’s achieving his dreams. The people like that – that’s your Hype Williams’ and your John Singleton’s in the world. Don’t let machoism ruin your life.”
Realizing that there are thousands of emcees locked down, Cormega offers kind words. His tone becomes somber, and one can feel the emotion welling up in him. “For people that’s in jail, if you’ve got a chance to come home, don’t think that you can’t do what you dreamed of doing, cuz that’s not true. I’m living proof of that. In a way I’m glad I’ve been through it, because I’m a reflection of that, so people can look at me and be like ‘well he did it, I can do it’. Maybe there’s people in jail who can be the next Cormega, or even exceed what I’m doing.”
Once a streetwise character slangin’ substance to gain power, Cormega has become a man of character and substance, slangin’ his powerful wisdom to the streets.