Words By Khalid Strickland
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t keep it funky, so I’m going to drop a self-incriminating dime.
My interview with super-producer Dame Grease went beyond The Smoking Section’s requisite fifteen minutes. It actually clocked in at twenty-four minutes and nineteen seconds.
Indeed, I went against the grain, but when you’re chopping it up with the maestro who created “We’ll Always Love Big Poppa” by the LOX, you can’t just interrupt him at the fifteen minute mark and wrap shit up. We’re talking about Dame Grease, the man who produced 13 tracks on DMX’s 4X-platinum debut album, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot. The guy who hooked up Freeway and Jay-Z with that hard-ass beat for “Big Spender.” The sensei who taught Swizz Beatz, another sample-free producer, and paved the way for his pupil to shine. Listing Dame’s lengthy resume alone would take more than fifteen minutes. LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Kelis, Kay Slay, Dipset and T.I. are just a few of the artists to grace Dame’s diverse instrumentals. If Dame Grease wants to talk about the Hollywood flicks that he’s scored (Exit Wounds, Cradle To The Grave and Never Die Alone), I’m letting him speak his piece, to hell with overtime. Hopefully Chief Gotty won’t strip me of my TSS badge for being a loose cannon, ala Dirty Harry (“I’ve had enough of your renegade shenanigans! You’re off the force, Strickland!”).
When I arrived at Grease’s state-of-the-art Lot Musik Studio, I was greeted by Donny Goines, the Harlem-bred rapper who’s been grinding like a madman, online and in the streets. Cool dude. Grease produced the tight first single, “I Am Moving”, from Donny’s upcoming album Minute After Midnight. This is one of many projects Dame Grease currently has on the market. Aside from contributing bangin’ tracks to the latest albums by Styles P and Hell Rell, Grease’s own cohesive compilation album Goon Musik is in stores and on iTunes right now. Goon Musik features talented emcees from Mr. Grease’s Lot Musik imprint, such as Meeno, Messiah and Bigga Threat, unloading bars of raw over his street-saturated beats (Although ex-Dipset affiliate Max B. makes an appearance on “Connecticut Kush”). Grease himself contributes a few bars as well. Loaded in the chamber squarely behind Goon Musik is Dame Grease’s other LP, Sour Diesel, which boasts a fearsome line-up of seasoned emcees; Pusha T of the Clipse, Sheek Louch, Freeway, DMX, Drag-On and the aforementioned Styles P all put in some heavy work.
Before we re-cap the rogue interview that broke the fifteen-minute mold, I’d like to send a shout-out to Cynamin Jones, a woman who’s definitely on her game, for making it all possible. Good lookin’, ma.
TSS: With a title like Goon Musik, it doesn’t sound like you’re trying to chase the mainstream, MTV-crowd. While everybody else is chasing the limelight and looking for that next commercial, why’d you keep it street?
Dame Grease: It’s more of a cult following type album. In the music todayâ€¦ there’s underground Hip-Hop, there’s mainstream Hip-Hop, there’s pop Hip-Hop; there’s different types of music that we all do. At the same time, Goon Musik actually is a descriptive of the music that I’ve always done. Like DMX’s first album is goon music. My beats are goon music. So it’s self-explanatory. That’s why even on the album, as my vocal presentation, I’m not rappin’ or spittin’. Like I tell everybody, I’m a hood narrator. So I’m just really telling a tale and usually the guys come on after me and go in. I’m more like the narrator figure.
TSS: Aside from the obvious financial gains, is there anything you’d like to accomplish with this album?
Dame Grease: This album was actually not put to be the big first-week selling album and all that hoopla. This album is not for that. This album is like a classic type of album that’s going to go along a timeline with the other music we put out. There’s going to be volumes. â€˜Cause a lot of my music for now is going to be primetime. You got “Big Spender” with the “Hey, Big Spen-der!” (vocal sample) which (sounds) real big. You’ve got my song “Sour Diesel”, it’s real big. A lot of my music I’m doing like that big. But my element where I come from is street music, hard music. So I always got to keep a balance. That’s why I got to make my Goon Musik serious, then go to the mainstream and do big songs with big artists.
TSS: The very first compilation LP you did, Live On Lenox was distributed by Priority Records, which is basically a major-indie label. How was that experience for you and what have you learned since then?
Dame Grease: It was a super learning experience. Real talk, based on the triumphs and failures of Live On Lenox, it’s been a super learning experience for me as more than a producer, but as a label owner, because I own Vacant Lot Records. As a label owner (it helps) to understand different aspects of retail, radio promotion. As far as street promotion and underground, that’s our rock, that’s where we come from. As far as mainstream promotion and having it lined up with the timeline of hyping the album, all that’s a learning process. Now when I do a Goon Musik album, this album’s actually on a so small-but-large scale. Because it’s more of the learning process that I used from Live On Lenox and I’m using that same pattern and process with all my albumsâ€¦ which is actually the Vacant Lot Records way. It’s been a beautiful thing; I’m not going to cry over spilled milk. Thank God for all blessings. You’ve got to learn from everything and make it beautiful.
TSS: What do you think you’ve contributed to the production game? When you listen to the music now, do you hear influences and things that you’ve done?
Dame Grease: It’s cool that you asked that â€˜cause I’m a producer that respects other producers. I put on an instrumental mixtape, for the respect of the producers, with all my instrumentals. After thatâ€¦this is a quote for Easy Mo Bee, a producer I look up to; he’s an O.G. in the game. Me and Easy speak all of the time. And he told me, “Grease, you know what? You originated the strings in the game. You originated all the strings and all the horn-type of things that everybody be doing and different types of things”. I’m like, “You’re right, Easy”. I know I do it, but it’s cool when another person recognizes it. â€˜Cause in this game, some producers will be like, “You originated that”. I tell Easy, “That jazz, hard-drum thing? You already know (you originated that)”. Like Timbo, he got his thing and shit. That’s cool.
TSS: Back in the days when you wanted to make beats, you’d have to spend an enormous amount of money on equipment and studio time and such. Nowadays, that’s not the case. Now, you can download a program like Reason and put a studio in your computer, so you get a lot of overnight producers. Do you feel that the accessibility to equipment helps the game or waters the game down?
Dame Grease: As far as people wanting to do things, you never want to block or hate on that. That’s a good thing. But it does water the game down a lot becauseâ€¦even now a lot of artists, emceesâ€¦the choice of production they’re choosingâ€¦they’re going back to distinctive production. That’s why I’m doing my thing ten years later. When you use a lot of the same programs, you got a lot of the same sounds. So it be that hot beat, (people) are like, “Who did that hot beat?” Like fifteen muthafuckas; it’s the same beat, actually. That’s cool, but as far as longevity with them guys, it’s not ever gonna be that.
The music game has changed. It’s not on that prosthetic sound. It’s back to more on that natural sound with guys getting back to more live tones, getting crazy with it. So the more distinctive producers like myself, Kanye always, Timbo, Pharrell; guys who have their own sound. It’s really coming back to more of that. So the duplicate sounds and the Reason and all them digi-type sounds, it’s gonna start wearing out, people are gonna get tired of it. But it’s all good, though. â€˜Cause the funny shit is I have everything. I’ve got Garage band, Reason, Fruity Loops (and) keyboards. I got old school Hammond [guitars] in the back. I’m a real producer, I use everything.
TSS: Speaking of technology, have you had to change your approach as far as how you release your music, as opposed to the Live On Lenox days?
Dame Grease: Yeah. I tell you no lie – the music game is down. Record sales are down due to the internet and things like that. So if you don’t have a tremendous amount of money to put your records on radio, the street promotions and everything now is the internet. Goon Musik is almost 90% internet. So this album is a product of new wave of test marketing and different aspects within this new realm that we’re in.
TSS: So what are some of the other endeavors you’ve got poppin’ off other than Goon Musik?
Dame Grease: I got a couple of tracks on the new Clipse album; it’s gonna be a great album. I worked with Pusha T; he’s on my album, Sour Diesel, as well as Styles P, Noreaga, Freeway, Sheek Louch (and) Yukmouth. I’m trying to get Nas on there. I’m making a whole movie for Sour Diesel, almost like the musical. As a producer, all of my albums have to be like that, because I’m not the average artist. When I was a little kid, I drew good. Teachers said, “You’re going to be a great artist.” But a drawing artist, you know? And then you grow up, you get into fightsâ€¦. you’re in the streets and BOOM! You’re a hardcore street record producer (laughs). But it’s still from art and it’s a cool thing. But it’s funny.
TSS: I was surprised to see Donny Goines let me into the building. What’s crackin’ with him?
Dame Grease: It’s funny you say that because I grew up on 129th street in the center of Harlem. Donny grew up right down the block on 130th and Lexington. Meeno grew up on 120th and Lenox. Cam’ron grew up on 140th and Lenox. In Harlem, we have a lot of different people, but everybody isn’t known for it. Donny do his own thing. We got a record we about to drop called “I Am Moving” and that’s tough. My basis is hardcore street joints, but my first song was “We’ll Always Love Big Poppa.” So it was more of a mood music, sentimental song; a tribute. So I have more elements of music that I do. What Donny does is a different element, you know? I like to work with different artists who have their own element.
Even me, I don’t know what to call this. A label, a production company, a distribution companyâ€¦ it’s just Lot Musik (laughs). It is what it is. We got artists. I’m starting the website Hip-Hop Brain, which is more informative for Hip-Hop, with me, myself, Cynamin and Donny Goines. (We’re) just taking a different approach; an all-around edge with everything. People can even send in drawings and different things; it’s more art stuff, that’s why it’s a Hip-Hop brain. We’re putting together a lot of different arts with it.
TSS: Being a street dude, have you applied your street knowledge to the music industry?
Dame Grease: All of it. I remember a quote by some Fortune 500 guy, I don’t remember his name. I remember he said that a guy who could be a 40 million dollar drug dealer is an entrepreneur, despite what it is. If a person can build up an organization like thatâ€¦ now, I don’t say that I use that brain activity that much for that situation. But it’s recognized that just because you come from the street doesn’t mean you have to take (illegal) means. It’s a thing that they try to label on everybody who says they’re from the streets. I actually went through that several times. I went through that in Hollywood at first.
When I did my first movie score, and I’m not going to say any names, but a (movie industry) guy said, “Okay, you’re a rap producer; you produced all those DMX albums. What are you doing in Hollywood?” I said, â€˜I’m going to work on this movie, kick ass and score it.’ Then he (showed his) ignorance. We were driving in a Saab car through Warner Brothers (Studios); me, him and my artist Meeno. And I remember him pressing the OnStar (navigation system). And he’s like, â€˜This is an OnStar. Do you know what this is?’ I take everything as a test from God, being a Black man and being from the street. I’m a humble guy. But I had to tap him on the shoulder and say, â€˜Sir, I hate to say it, but I’ve been a millionaire since 23 and I have two Benzes and two Cadillacs at home. They all have (OnStar) and I don’t even know how to work that thing” (laughs). But you know it’s cool.
As we went along I went into the studio and I displayed a whole different sound; aggressive music. â€˜Cause the music I do is rap music but I do techno, disco, house, slow jams, classical, R&B, every other type of music. So it took me a couple of days to get down the chemistry in the studio and everything. But once I did, the same (industry) person said, “Hey, you’re kickin’ ass!” So at the same time, you kill ignorance, you become good friends and so forth. But some things, someone’s gonna look at you as just a (thug) until they hear words you say or see do an action that’s positive. Plus, they’ll see you while you’re probably smoking “sour” and ya’ll (have a session).
I’ll say one thing, man. The cool thing about this is people like to prosecute Hip-Hop, but check the status. Hip-Hop brought every down rate down. If there’s been one or two casualties through something that’s good that’s happenedâ€¦ especially gangsta rap. When people be aggressive, people be angry, you can’t just hide that. You need to tune that out and if you listen to some good music, you relate, like “Cool, man. I’mma chill the fuck on out. I’m going through that same thing” or relate to a problem. We still have heavy racism. We still have heavy situations like that.
But to a degree, (Hip-Hop) kind of unties everybody. It’s like, “Where you from?” “I don’t know but we like this song, that’s a cool song”. “I like that shit too”. You could be a church-going person and you like that same song. It’s like you could be burning or whatever, like “pass the joint”. Pass the joint to the White guy. Pass the joint to the Chinese guy. Pass the joint to the other guy, the Japanese guy; you know what I’m sayin’? That shit is beautiful. I need to puff one (laughs).
TSS: I know all of your tracks are like your children, but do you have one particular track that’s particularly memorable. I hate to say favorite, â€˜cause I know it’s hard to pick.
Dame Grease: Some joints I did, I’m like, “Aw, man”â€¦ but I still love it â€˜cause it’s my kid. It’s like your other kid, but you got your favorite kid (laughs). I’d say one of my favorites is actually “A.T.F.” on It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot. A lot of people don’t know that “A.T.F.” and “This Is For My Dogs” is one whole song. It went to one skit to an action-packed scene in the beginning, to the more mellow quality. So I was actually scoring before I knew it, you know what I’m sayin’? I’d say that’s the best one because I can do beats all fuckin’ day, but you want me to do some masterpiece shit? Come to the studio, we gonna make a movie.
My thing is to score the whole album. Like, what I want doâ€¦ I don’t know; should I put this out there? It’s like for every great producer, an artist should do an album with that producer, like I used to do back in the days. Every artist should do a whole album with just that producer. That’s the thing, give it some more funk, pizzazz. It’ll be other people doing tracks, but that producer will guide the direction of the sound. Like Snoop and Dre. (Like) a whole Jay-Z, Mannie Fresh album.
TSS: Like Kanye and Common.
Dame Grease: Exactly. That’s that hot shit.
Goon Musik Vol. 1 (Vacant Lot Records/Lot Muzik) in stores now.
For more info, visit www.myspace.com/damegrease.