Long-time collaborators Damu The Fudgemunk and Raw Poetic talk to us about their new album, The Reflecting Sea: Welcome to a New Philosophy, which includes the Master Plan single we premiered last week. They also discuss Redefinition Records, Panacea and more. Read on, stream the new album in full below, and watch the video for the single Think Back.
Tell me about the concept of The Reflecting Sea. It feels like an expansive album that aims to transcend hip-hop.
[Raw Poetic]: It’s a multi-layered facet. It’s sort of a life-based paradox hidden in one of the lines of the Freedom funk chant “The Sea Reflected, the Reflected Sea”, that is meant to question whether life (or tears) are falling up or down. Down toward the death of something (your past), or up toward the excitement of a new beginning. Its kind of like, life is a figure 8 that always meets in the middle, never beginning nor ending… I think I’m still working my way through this one.
[Damu The Fudgemunk]: We’re very proud of the album and what we were able to accomplish. We both started out with the intentions of making new music and providing an additional outlet for creativity. As long as we’ve worked together off and on there’s always been an existing chemistry that we’ve been curious to explore given the things we’ve done on our own and with others. I don’t think it was a conscious effort to transcend the genre. Though the final product may sound like we were looking beyond hip-hop, we identify as hip-hop artists. Honestly, we wanted to transcend ourselves which was very easy for us. It was a matter of embracing the “anything goes” philosophy and embracing all of our skillsets. The album we made was rooted in hip-hop influences, but we equally incorporated influences from other styles of music and the verdict gave us an album that has no dominant sound.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by describing the album as being a ‘New Philosophy’?
[Raw Poetic]: Yeah! Continuing from the last point, we’re in the process of welcoming you into a new philosophy. I think the new approach toward our self-expression is where we begin to look at our philosophies. I think when Damu and I talk, a lot of those conversations leave mental notes (or footprints) somewhere in the untapped abyss of the psyche. So when we get to work, the songs are crafted to describe whatever it is we talk about and may be going through at the time or until the next. I think it allows us to truly create a conversation in the song. One of the main things I wanted to make sure we touched on in The Reflecting Sea were our three ways of oral communication – Talking, Poetry, and Singing. I think the songs navigate between all three in order to illustrate the full scope of what we have in mind.
[Damu The Fudgemunk]: Philosophy is a product of thought and observation. For us, we looked at ourselves and asked, “How can we connect and do what we haven’t done before as a unit?” The monotony of life and our general patterns will sometimes dictate how we operate and impose unnecessary rules. There was no reason to neglect our full capabilities just for the sake of maintaining expectations. We both are capable of playing instruments. Jason sings, raps, spoken word and regularly experiments on his own. I’m similar in the regard that I’m constantly exploring my creativity. Once we put everything on the table it all made an appearance on the records. That was a new approach for us and it gave us a blueprint to move forward with our new sound which stemmed from fresh ideas. The whole process was fun and fulfilling.
Damu The Fudgemunk; When you know a beat is going to have an emcee on top, do you approach making it differently to a track you know is for an instrumental project?
It depends. If I’m in the act of working on an instrumental album then I’m not thinking of vocalists, but most of the time I have someone in mind. I don’t make a lot of beats like I used to so when I do, it’s when I’m inspired. As the music comes together then I visualize vocalists. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter if there are vocals or not to determine the direction. I make the music (it’s incomplete at that stage) then present it to the rapper for their contributions.
You tend to only work with a select group of rappers. How do you chose and filter who to collaborate with? Is there a vibe you get that just feels right? A personal connection you need to build first?
Well, you’re right about being selective. There’s tons of great rappers out there, but it doesn’t mean I need to chase them down to work with them and truth be told none of them are approaching me for production either. But, I’m fortunate to have access to the mc’s that I do work with. They’re all great in their own right and personally some of my favorites. Musically, I don’t need anyone else when I collaborate with guys like Insight and Raw Poetic. Both of whom are friends and the rapport calls for better collaborations.
With Raw P, he’s in my opinion one of the greatest of his time. There’s nothing he can’t do and he’s always challenging himself. When I’m in the zone and I’m making something I like, first thing that comes to mind is “Raw P is gonna kill this!”. I don’t ever have to explain what I’m thinking or musical direction and if I do it’s super minimal. He and I can just make music without talking to each other. We can just be in a room or apart and still make cohesive innovative music we like. Having that kind of faith in someone you work with is irreplaceable so I rarely look elsewhere. We know each other well enough in real life that when we create, either one of us can present an idea for the other to complete. We have a ton of fun too. I’m not the type of producer that works with a bunch of artists and sells beats. I tried to be that years ago and found my results were more satisfying and productive when I focus on myself and friends.
Your production features a lot of live instrumentation and musicality, including the ability to recreate classic breaks. Are you a trained musician, or self-taught?
I wouldn’t say a lot of live instruments are in my production. In comparison to some of the other producers in my era, I’m one who still relies heavily on sampling. When I do use instruments, it’s a garnish or enhancement. In The Reflecting Sea, we included more of our instrumental abilities. Several times a year we lock ourselves in a room with our real musician friends and jam for hours. Raw P will sing and play guitar while I’m on drums. That’s some of the best entertainment for me personally. We tapped into the energy of those sessions in the album.
Neither one of us is classically trained, but we train in whatever we have in our hands whether it’s a guitar or bass or vinyl or mic so that we’re comfortable enough to use it on record. Though you may hear or think you hear live instruments, we want it to be an afterthought. Does it sound good? If so, we’d prefer that people simply enjoy the music instead of picking apart the creative process beforehand.
I’d like to talk about Redefinition Records for a minute. To me, its always felt like a producer’s label first and foremost – a platform for your own music but also beatmakers like Klaus Layer, and K-Def, who I honestly believe is one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time. Is the producer-heavy focus a big part of the label’s ethos?
To date, that’s what the label has become, but it wasn’t intentional. Redef is in its 10th year. It started with my partner John together with Ski and Camp lo and in year one I came aboard months after releasing the Y Society debut.
Ski’s camp eventually moved on and my career became the focus of the label. We weren’t really a label at the time until being forced to release records on our own after years of soliciting other labels for deals that were unsuccessful. Once things picked up for me, we slowly gained the experience and relationships to run the label as it grew. John had an existing relationship with K-Def and I was friends with Kev Brown, we were able to experiment with expanding our roster which proved to be a good call at that time. It just so happens we know more producers than rappers and the rappers we do know have all contributed to the label with Raw Poetic being the most prominent.
Our audience has grown to look to us for producer-centric releases, but a lot of it comes from the early days of pushing my aesthetic. That has become synonymous with the people who check for what we do. We’ve tried to work with more rappers in the past, but producers have been easier to manage. At least 80% of the demo submissions are producers. Speaking of which we’re never seeking new acts to sign. It boils down to, “will this artist do well with our audience”. When John discovered Klaus Layer, it was a matter of general appreciation, but a vision of whether Redef’s core would buy into his brand.
We’ve mixed it up over the years and fans show us what they like and what they pass on. Because we’re aware of that, satisfying that demand means not shifting focus too far from producers. In our personal lives, we check for all types of music. John loves Drake, The Lumineers and Nine Inch Nails. I zone out to Amadou & Miriam, Warpaint and Joanna Newsom. We check for a lot of new music, we’re just not in the business of branching out releasing it (though we’d like to). The MC K.A.A.N. is our attempt to introduce something modern that appeals to both of our sensibilities. Check him out if you haven’t.
The label is incredibly prolific with a dedication to vinyl. It’s also become an outlet for the vinyl release of music by independent icons like J-Zone and People Under The Stairs, taking on the expense that comes with pressing records. The current vinyl resurgence probably won’t last too long, but do you think they’ll always be a market for small/limited edition vinyl runs by smaller indy labels?
Thanks for the high regards, but I tell people all the time, “we’re just 2 guys with computers and cell phones”. We learned what it takes to make our records and sell them. We’re good at that process, but our quest for improvement is ongoing. Thanks to our loyal fanbase, we can take on projects like J-Zone and PUTS with the confidence that people will support. It goes without saying that certain acts have strong cores, and those two have very loyal bases of their own which makes a difference.
The vinyl resurgence will definitely peak and fall off at a certain point, but I don’t think it affects us or our peers too much. We had a demand for vinyl prior to the inflation. I’m sure our audience will continue to seek vinyl because it’s a part of life for many of our fans to buy things they like on vinyl regardless if it’s cool or not. However, if those values change within our core for whatever reason, then yes we’ll be affected, but it won’t be dictated by the masses. We’re not sold in Urban Outfitters or Barnes & Noble to casual and introductory listeners (we’d love to be in those places) so we’re not dependent on revenue from that market who is fueling the resurgence of the format.
Raw Poetic; One thing I’ve always liked about your music is the ability to change up your style. Sometimes you use a fast-paced, throwback emcee style, but at times a slower and more introspective flow. Are these different parts of your personality shining through, and how do you decide which to use?
They are different parts of the personality. I don’t think I really control any of them at this point in my life. I do know the beat does to a certain degree. Rapping, rapping, rapping… rapping is the skill you practice from about 5 to 27. Okay. Your mother helps you write your first one. It ends in “Jason, stop wasting your time with me- yell Kiya, Kiya, and bend your knee.” Then I counted to 5 and said, “I’m alive.” Then at 14, your older cousin shows you the ropes of freestyling and battling and tells you to stop listening to other MC’s if you really want to find your own voice. Next thing you know, you barely listen to it (rap) anymore and you get absorbed into what you and your friends are making.
Finally, you make a piece of a career out of your dream, realize you’ll probably die broke, discover that all the people who ask “can you do this for the love?” really have no love for you, and finally find out… you have no control over what’s coming out of your mouth anyway. You’re the vessel. Your life is speaking through poetry, and somehow it works. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you have a friend like Damu who is the same way with beats. Anyway, that’s my lyrics in a nutshell.
A lot of heads probably first heard about you as one half of Panacea. How does working with K-Murdoch, a producer you came up with, compare to working with beatmakers like Damu, K-Def or Kev Brown, who were already established by the time you recorded with them? Does it take you out your comfort zone?
The funny thing is, I’ve been friends with Damu for just as long as K-Murdock. Damu did shows with me and my band Restoring Poetry in Music before Murdock and I ever made an album. So there wasn’t a big switch there. One friend makes more fantasy based worlds drifting type of beats, the other makes a more deep soul brooding boom bap type of sound. Here’s the biggest difference. With K-Def and Kev Brown, I got the chance to rap over beats I learned my craft in. True Boom Bap, hip-hop beats. For some reason, I could never find that in my career. With Damu, I get that, intertwined with live instrumentation, along with my own elements of guitar thrown into the mix. It’s like a smorgasbord of sound. That’s my bro.
Oh, sorry. Does it take me out of my comfort zone… Hmm… I don’t have one.
What’s the current status of Panacea? Are you still recording together?
Umm… whenever it makes sense. I just talked to Doc yesterday. We have about six songs recorded. Four I would actually put out. Doc has a family these days, so I just wait for him to be ready and move when I feel compelled. What I did explain to him is that at this age for me, music is a solo journey more than anything. I don’t have kids, so these songs/ pieces are like my children. Right now, my main concern after The Reflecting Sea is more Raw Poetic. The next Raw Poetic album is Paging Mother Earth, which is a party album based on the afterlife and legacy of my ancestors. I’ll gladly play it for you. But I can’t say much about Panacea until the album or EP is done. I always find it amazing that Panacea is still talked about. It’s awesome. I greatly appreciate it.
The group went through a run of different label situations, including a stint on Rawkus. The industry has, of course, changed beyond all recognition since then, but there’s still a lot of decent indy labels out there. Beyond the obvious financial side, what other benefits are there for an artist to work with a label like Redefinition Records? At the very least I guess it helps you stand out in a world saturated with so many Soundcloud links?
As far as Rawkus Records, Sony, etc… I never saw a dime. Talking about those days is almost like talking about your first girlfriend in high school. At the time, you thought you were in love and it would be forever. After 10 years removed, you realize you didn’t even know the meaning of the word… and you didn’t even have sex! Not that that matters.
Redef is more like dealing with family. I’ve been an independent artist most of my career. I’ve never been on a label as a solo artist, so that’s probably the biggest difference. I think the communication is better, and I never get the feeling that they’re trying to get over on me. After many years in the industry, this is the first time I didn’t have to watch my back with a label. It’s been fun. It’s also been a great experience in learning how to brand myself instead of getting your name lost in a group. I’ve been Raw Poetic for 24 years, but people only knew Panacea and RPM. So, yeah! Check out the Raw Poetic albums if you really want to know where I’m going – starting with Cool Convos in Quantum Speech (Raw Poetic & K-Def), and Concentrated Maneuvers (Raw Poetic & Kev Brown).
DC and the wider DMV area has generated so many dope hip-hop artists, but its still criminally underrated outside of those who know to check for you, Oddisee, the rest of the Low Budget Crew and a few others. Is that something you’ve ever been conscious of?
Yeah, but I don’t have an answer for it. I’m happy to see that Oddisee and Kev Brown are doing well. They’re dope and deserve all of their success. It’s all hustle at the end of the day. There’s no one formula. If you want it, you go get it. Even if it means separating from others. If you want some more DMV stuff, check the solo projects. It’s all live instrumentation, and I play everything: Charlie Brown Parents, Belong Anywhere, There’s a Moon in the Sea, Nature Girls Walk on the Wild Side (The B Sides), and Paging Mother Earth will be out next year, as well as the Raw Poetic & Mars V project. And most importantly, get that The Reflecting Sea… Welcome to a New Philosophy by Damu the Fudgemunk and Raw Poetic.
Interview by Grown Up Rap Editor Ben Pedroche.