Written by Drew Ricketts
After a five-year hiatus from a classic album, Cormega finds himself strangely enough in the shoes of his supposed rival Nas. He’s been acclaimed for both The Realness and the follow-up The Testament but has chosen to limit his projects thereafter and shift his attention to live performance. Being out of sight in today’s climate makes for a difficult return and critical favor is as hard to come by as fan loyalty.
Cormega may lack some of the renown of other Queensbridge stars like Mobb Deep and Nas, but his charisma is patently more genuine. He has been the underdog in his mind since his epic origins as a footnote-style mention on Nas’s Illmatic. After raging against the living legend on mixtapes, he chose a more tepid existence crafting cerebral hustler tales and making appearances on a number of other artists’ compilations. However, it’s his status as the odd man out that gives him added motive to explain his story through his words, minus the bickering-beef slant now associated with him. Mega was never short on emotion in our conversation and in revealing himself gave further testament to his own place as a living legend.
Note – This is Part I of a what will be a two part Smoking Session. Part II will publish shortly.
TSS: You [are] known to most hip-hop fans as a QB legend. You released one of the classic albums of your time and your area. And I’m sure that makes your name buzz around the world. What’s one of the most surprising responses you’ve gotten since putting out The Realness?
Cormega: I been on the cover of magazines — one of the biggest magazines in Spain, Canada…and just people hearing my music and appreciating it for what it is. If you would’ve told me this years ago…that people who don’t even speak English would be accepting my music and embracing it, I would’ve never believed it.
TSS: What made you decide to keeping pushing on the international circuit even when your recognition stateside wasn’t as big?
Cormega: I mean honestly, I just did my little independent/underground thing and I never really tried to go outside the U.S. It just happened that way. I never initiated any shows from overseas. They always contacted me. So once I had an awareness that people was fuckin’ with my music overseas, I was like ‘wow’ and I just embraced the relationship. So now I understand that hip-hop is a multicultural, multi-country thing. It’s not a one-faceted thing. It’s not a one city thing or a one country thing.
TSS: You released My Brother’s Keeper last year with Lake. What was the concept behind that album and were you satisfied with the response to it?
Mega: The concept was basically me doing an album with Lake. The guy from Koch told me straight up and down if I don’t do the album with him, he’s not going to get the deal. So I basically did it as a favor, know what I’m saying? But once we did the album, I fulfilled my obligation — my obligation was to do an album with him and I did the best that I could. I can’t really tell you what the response was because I really didn’t follow up on it. I did the album and went on with my life because at the same time I was working on my solo album. I wasn’t going to stop what I was doing to do that album.
TSS: Word. Speaking as a listener, I got the impression that you didn’t record the songs together with Lake. Is that true or am I misreading?
Mega: Uuumm…I dunno. Some of them we might have recorded at separate times but some of them we did around the same time. Some of them. Some of them we did at different times though.
TSS: You also are very involved with your fans through the internet..because that’s the new grassroots way of staying in touch with people. You mentioned on your forum how there was a Queensbridge concert with MC Shan that went down recently that you were proud to be part of. Can you describe that for me?
Mega: Yeeeah. That was one of the dopest shits ever – that was probably one of the dopest feelings I ever felt in Queensbridge ever, because there were so many rappers there. There were people, like, that never really made it but are still local heroes or local legends. It was like Disco Twins. The Disco Twins – people from Fab Five Freddy on up know about them but they never blew up in the industry. They were there. Shan was performing. DJ Hotday was Shan’s DJ that night. So Shan didn’t think Marley was coming and then Ralph McDaniels said ‘We got a special surprise guest’ and Marley Marl came out; and the way that Queensbridge embraced him, I think even Marley was caught off-guard. And then Craig G came out. Poet was there. I was there. But the most dope thing about it was there was no bullshit it in the air, no tension in the air. No ego. It was just all love. That’s what made it so dope. Like, we did a Queensbridge Finest video out there before and damn near every rapper – more rappers were in that but it wasn’t as unified. That day was like no tension in the air, no bullshit. So that was the dopest sign of unity that I probably ever seen in Queensbridge.
TSS: Why do you think that Queensbridge ends up being this crossroads of major major artists and guys who haven’t made it to that huge level but are still recognized. What is it about that area that has birthed so many influential people in hip-hop?
Mega: I think it’s just one of those places, man. Certain places breed certain types of individuals. I think Queensbridge produces rappers. Queensbridge has a reputation of making emcees, like legitimate emcees…and coming from Queensbridge, that’s part of the heritage and history you have to live up to. There are so many emcees coming from that area and emcees that are still making music now. It makes a standard that the new people have to live up to and that the people still rapping have to live up to. So I think it’s the competitive juices and the history that makes it so great.
TSS: Despite being from Queensbridge, you were never isolated to that. For instance when I was younger, the first time I heard you was on a mixtape where you were dropping over the Biggie instrumentals. That really changed my life. I grew up in Brooklyn and I was hearing you go over Biggie songs. I was hearing a new artist who was going hard; and you had a special relationship with Biggie. What do you think forged that relationship with artists like Biggie and AZ and others?
Mega: I think a lot of the artists that forge relationships forge ‘em out of respect. Because at the end of the day, we all fans of music. See, one of the things that [makes] Biggie so beloved is — people don’t understand — Biggie was one of the most charming, charismatic people you could meet. When I first met Big, he was the top rapper in New York. I’m not saying skills-wise; I’m talking about sales and prominence at the time. He was that dude. When I first met him, he gave me props when he didn’t have to. And that said a lot about him because I’ve met other rappers that won’t say much or they’ll say ‘what up’ to you but Biggie was like “I heard a lot of good things about you” and he gave me mad love and I was like “wow.” For him to show me love like that – I had just came home at the time; I was really nobody. I was a street dude. He had heard about me from rappers. The respect that he gave me said a lot about him ‘cause a lot of rappers are on they own dick. Biggie and Ghostface didn’t even know me and they showed me love out the gate. That’s why I respect them as people and not just as artists.
TSS: You talk about how rappers are kind of inflated now and some of the guys you met back then were a little bit more on the humble. Could you ever have foreseen the rise of certain guys and how their hustle back then (like a Jay-Z) would lead to their stature right now? Or is that how the cards played out?
Mega: I dunno. I guess you could say both but I would’ve never thought Jay-Z would be as big as he is. Jay-Z is huge. You know what I mean? Like when he says he’s Michael Jordan of recording, I don’t know if I would say he’s Michael Jordan as far as emceeing…or if he has the skill of Michael Jordan, but as far as marketing…the marketing? He is Jordan of rap. Nobody in rap is more marketed than Jay-Z. So if you asked me if Jay-Z would be as big as he would, I don’t even think he would think he would be as big as he would. He probably thought and hoped he would go platinum and make his noise but the boy is real big. And 50 Cent? Forget about it. 50 Cent is the biggest street rapper ever. He was a straight gutter dude from Southside, Jamaica you know what I’m saying? So, you could never predict who’s gonna do what [he’s] gonna do. You can’t predict it nowadays. There’s no way of telling who’s gonna do incredible numbers and who’s gonna be that phenomenal. Look at Lil’ Wayne. People don’t give me credit. I was the first n*gga from New York to do a record with Lil’ Wayne. If you go back to the Violator album, the song “Who Can I Trust” I had Lil’ Wayne on it. When I had Lil’ Wayne on that record, n*ggas was like “Why you did a song with him? You shoulda did it with Juvenile.”
TSS: What made you do the song with him instead? What did you see in him then?
Mega: I dunno man. I just felt his vibe and his energy. I mean, I don’t know why. I don’t know what it is but I guess I’m a good picker of certain things. Like Sha Money XL, I’m the first n*gga to get a beat from him. And look how big he is now. He’s a monster. But the thing I love about Sha is that he’s so humble that I could still call him right now and get a beat from him. He won’t even go crazy on the price. And the same way I say I’m the first n*gga to get a beat from him, I don’t gotta say that. There’s times when he’ll say that. He said that at a convention in Vegas last year. He didn’t have to say that. That says a lot about him. Sha Money XL…I did a song with Lil’ Wayne before everybody. My man E Mill, that guy’s doing beats right now. He’s killin’ it. I was the first dude to get a beat from him. SOHH did a story on him recently and said another name but I was the first to get a beat from him. He did the intro on my True Meaning album.
I never been a dick-rider as far as people’s [reputations]. You can’t judge music with your eyes. You gotta judge it with your ears. You could be a nobody and walk in my room and play some music for me. If it’s incredible, I gotta go with that. Music is music. Music is to be heard and felt. You can’t go by reputation or who people think is hot. You gotta go by what you feel, know what I’m saying?
TSS: Yea. You know I’ve talked about guys who are visible and you spoke of Jay-Z being the Jordan of recording – that analogy. If you could make an analogy about yourself – maybe to an athlete or someone else – who would you say you’re most similar to?
Mega: (Laughs) Me? I think I’m like Rod Strickland.
TSS: (Laughing) Aha.
Mega: I’m Rod Strickland because Rod Strickland was always underrated, never got the props he deserved, he never made an All-Star game even though he led the league in assists at one time. And at one time, he was a basketball player’s basketball player. People in the NBA would tell you he was one of the best point guards in the league. I look at myself – I see rappers…I remember ’98, ’99 when The Source did a cover about future rappers. It was like a full-page spread. I think it had like Kurupt and these other rappers on it. Of all the rappers they put on that list, some of them ain’t even really doing they thing no more, yet I’m still here. Like Rod Strickland had problems with the commissioner David Stern, and then they blackballed him. I had problems with the commissioner [Steve] Stoute and then they blackballed me. But it’s like the industry – I’m not even supposed to be here right now, for real. Everybody counted me out. I wasn’t on Def Jam no more. I wasn’t in The Firm no more. I didn’t have no radio records. I didn’t have no big manager.
Everybody counted me out yet I let my game speak for itself. So when I put out The Realness …people gotta understand, The Realness was done in like two to three weeks. It was a rushed album. And I just got off the phone yesterday with ThaFormula.com, [who] said it was the best album of 2001. Amazon.com has that ranked as the best album of 2001. A lot of people say that’s one of the best albums, if not the best album, that year. And that was 2001 that it came out, July 24th. Then June 25th, 2002 I came out with True Meaning. That’s less than a year…the follow-up to that. And that album won a Source Award and an Impact Award after that. I just let my music speak for itself. And for real, honestly, I was in the studio doing those sessions and I never had an A&R. On my vocals on some of those songs, you could hear where I could maybe have added an ad-lib or something but didn’t. Some people would say Mega punches in a lot. It wasn’t that I was punching in. I was coming in from a different track. Whereas if I did an ad-lib over it, it would smooth out and you wouldn’t hear that.
What people gotta understand is I was coming straight from the ghetto, from the projects, from the block to the studio. No A&R, no major budget…just spitting. We put it out and that album made an impact so if I have to put myself in an analogy it would be Rod Strickland or like, Bernard King: two native New Yorkers who did they numbers, who did it with the best of them, and never got they props. I’m not saying I’m the best but I did it with the best. When I rapped, I rapped with Nas. I rapped with AZ. I rapped with Pun, know what I’m saying? I rapped with Prodigy. I rapped with Havoc. I rapped with the best man. And I stood out. The thing that I love about myself is – you have to be content with yourself and be comfortable in your own skin – another reason I say I’m Rod Strickland or Bernard King because, at the end of the day, I know I’m not gonna get my props. When they did the 50 Greatest basketball players, it was a crying shame that Bernard King or Dominique Wilkins wasn’t on that list. So I know I’m not gonna get the credit I deserve from the game. My peers give it to me and the fans give it to me but, at the end of the day, I’m content being the underdog.