By now, you should all be familiar with Zilla Rocca, one half of Philly's Clean Guns, the hip hop duo that's been repping the City of Brotherly Love about as well as any group in recent memory. Up to this point, we haven't had a chance to hear much from Zilla's partner in rhyme, Nico The Beast, a tremendous emcee in his own right. Nico was kind enough to take some time out on the release day for No Beast So Fierce, his new solo album, to answer a few questions about life as a full-time emcee with a full-time career, his thoughts on Philly hip hop, his connection to the Roc-A-Fella dynasty and some details on the album itself. Special thanks to Zilla Rocca for actually transcribing the interview (if any of you need someone to take care of your audio transcripts, holler at Zilla because he banged this thing out in record time):
People from this site know you through the songs you've done with Zilla as part of Clean Guns, so let's start there. He says you were the person that got him involved in hip hop, way back in the day. So what were you and Zilla into as kids? I'm told that Remedy had an impact on your early development as an emcee - what was it about him specifically that had such an influence?
Nico: Well, as kids, we were more into sports and chilling with our friends. Music was a part of my life, but I wasn't collecting crates of records or nothing like that. It wasn't until I heard Wu-Tang that I really started getting into the culture. So, I'd say right about '97 was when I first started rapping. Since I was into the Wu, when I first heard Remedy on The Swarm, I dug the way that he had something to say that was relevant to him. He wasn't just spitting grimy shit, ya know.
Speaking of Zilla, I promised I would try to dig up an embarrassing story about him. You've known him since he was three, so I'm sure you've got some dirt on him. Care to share?
Nico: Only story I got on my boy that we still laugh about is when we were like 9 years old, right when Major League came out, that young man (Zilla Rocca) shaved the back of his head to look like Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen's character). I still bust his balls about that to this day. Other than that, it was like anything else as kids, messing with chicks and getting in trouble.
Outside of your life as an emcee, you seem to be living something of the American dream. You've got a wife, two kids and your own business - that's very different from the stereotypical rapper's lifestyle. I'd be interested in hearing how (or if) that affects your approach to emceeing.
Nico: Fresh, real talk, my wife is my biggest fan and at the same time my biggest critic. This actually
helped me during the maturation process as an emcee. My kids were somewhat of a savior to me, because
before them I was on some wild shit. Fighting and getting into trouble with corners, some real wreckless
shit. It wasn't till my first daughter Gianna was born that I finally took a step back and slowed down
and channeled my anger into words. As per my schedule, my wife is cool with me being a lab rat, because in
the long run that pot of gold is worth it. Feel me?
Nico and the Family
We have a lot of unsigned artists that read the site, artists who work a (more often than not menial) day job, essentially just killing time until they're in a position to make a full career out of their music. Given the financial realities of the music business these days, that's unlikely to happen for many of them. I get the feeling that many of the artists think that taking their 9-to-5 job seriously is equivalent to giving up on their dream of being a rapper. As someone who seems to have found a pretty good balance between your music career and your non-music career, what would your advice be to other unsigned artists?
Nico: We are all in this for the love first and foremost, but that being said, we also need to eat, right? I can only explain it one way, if you wanna play minor league ball don't step in a major league stadium. Some cats ain't built to work a job (career), and then work a JOB (Hip-Hop). It wears on you if you don't learn to separate the two. Music is a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week job. My brain don't take no days off, neither will the passion.
Zilla tells me that you have a bit of a connection to Beanie Sigel through his cousin News, and that at one point you were close to signing with Criminal Records. Can you elaborate on how you know News and what went down with the record label? Have you ever had any contact with Beanie himself?
Nico: Ok, to set the record straight, the whole Criminal Records thing was more a South Philly rumor, urban myth
if you will. I met Sigel once and that experience is what drives me to this day (not in a good way). That's a story I will have to tell you, off the record. News, on the other hand, is a good dude. I actually chilled with News a few times and at the time (like 6 years ago) I wasn't as seasoned as I am now. I guess I am kinda glad nothing came of it, where would I be now, ya know? But the other brother that nobody really knows about who is a real good friend of mine, and who actually introduced me to News is my man, Pudge. Anybody who really knows Sigel and News know who Pudge is so I won't delve too deep into that. Pudge is a great dude, period.
Can you give us your take on what the Philly hip hop scene is like?
Nico: Philly hip hop is a segregated trash can with a few jewels in it. Real talk. Everybody raps, and not everybody does it well. Everybody hates, and everybody does THAT well. That's why, for me, I wanna do tracks with anybody. From Tank Nitty (Mainstream monster) to Reef The Lost Cauze (Underground Icon). It ain't about all this, "I rap so fuck these other cats." Nah, if you got that mentality, eat a dick.
From my perspective on the Philly scene, it's seemed to me like, historically, there was always a balance between hardcore rap and more lighthearted rap. For every Schoolly D or Steady B there was a Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff, for every State Property there was a Roots crew. Over the past few years though, it seems like everyone's gotten a harder edge. So is that just a situation where, if you're coming up now as an emcee in Philly, it's inevitable that you're going to be influenced by the success of rappers like Beanie Sigel and Cassidy? Or has the city itself gotten harder, with rappers just responding to that?
Nico: I think that most of the cats out of Philly sound the same, in that, the material is the same, the flow is the same, ya know? So if you can separate yourself from that, than you get placed into another bracket i.e. Hardcore or lighthearted. So for Clean Guns it was more of a well balanced clash. Zilla being more crazy and outgoing, me being more laid back and gritty. It meshes well for us. The city as whole, though, would be better suited to listen to whole CD's and not just go off of one person's style or flow.
Beat Garden's Big O with Don Magic Juan
What's the response to the music been like from West Coast heads? What was Don Magic Juan like in person? [When Nico originally agreed to do the interview, the whole Beat Garden crew was planning on flying out to L.A. to do a few shows. It wasn't until a couple of weeks after they returned from their trip, during which they met Don Magic Juan on the streets, that I finally got the questions for the interview set up.]
Nico: Damn Fresh, it really did take you a long time to get me these questions.(Laughs) Nah, L.A. is a dope hip hop city. It's pretty much a hipster town for the most part, but they took well to us, so I can't complain. I loved it there and I would go back tomorrow if needed. The bishop drives a lime green 89 Rolls Royce, and can pull any chick he wants, no bullshit. I think he almost had Big O [the Suge Knight of Beat Garden] wearing a skirt.(Laughs) Just kidding, Don Magic is a good dude, but the real "star" if any that we met was [DGK founder] Stevie Williams a.k.a. "The Black Tony Hawk". Maybe one of the dopest cats I ever met.
Let's talk about the new solo release, No Beast So Fierce. What can we expect from the album?
Nico: "No Beast So Fierce" is out now and available for purchase soon on CD Baby and Itunes. It is me. From my wife and kids, to my family, to friends passed, to the beast, to the street I grew up on, the city I live in. It is a ride and if you are willing to take it, you WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED. Everything on it, from the beats to the lyrics is unbelievable. It features Zilla Rocca, both as emcee and producer, Two Gunn Ciz, Reef The Lost Cauze, Black Russian, Dame of Triple Nickels, Toke Jones, and Angela Rastelli. Production by Zilla Rocca, Alex Wood (he is a goddamn problem!), Evolve One, Stupid Genius (What up Genius?), and my main man, my brother, Noochman, whom you will hear a lot about very soon.
Ok, on the realer side of things, these next three cats needed an extended mention. First, my man and my brother Slim Dsm, who in my opinion is the best emcee, bar none, I have ever heard. This man is what lit the fuse inside the beast. Give credit where credit is due, he's a legend, real rap. Second, my man and my brother Blessa, who in my opinion is the best of what Philadelphia has to offer (next to me of course.).(Laughs) From his flow to his energy to his lyrics, dude is flawless. Last, but definitely not least, my motha fuckin brother, Jerm a.k.a M.O.G. a.k.a. Man Of God or Mutation of Greatness. This man is undoubtedly a messenger of God. He steered me in the right direction, so now it's on from here on out. I got you Jerm. Walk Wit Me.
To promote the album, you're currently running the "Feed the Beast" campaign, with you rhyming over beats selected by the fans. When you freestyle, are you coming strictly off the top of your head or do you mix in some prewritten stuff as well? When you use someone else's beat, are you conscious of the original verse when you start rhyming, or do you just approach it as a blank slate and do your own thing?
Nico: I approach "freestyles" if that's what they should be called, with a mentality of 'I am going all out.' Bar for bar fury from top to bottom. A genuine freestyle would come off the top but I won't step to the mic with off the top unless needed. I feel when I present myself when the record button is on, I want nothing less than monster mentality. Not saying I can't freestyle, but I know for sure my written is better on a quote, unquote freestyle. I try not to pay attention to what someone else has done on a beat, cause if I did I would stray away from me and do them.
I know that you're taking suggestions from everyone, but is there one beat out there that you personally want to rhyme over?
Nico: Truthfully, I have no preference in instrumentals. But I love going over Wu joints and Premo beats.
Do you take a different approach to doing work as a solo artist as opposed to when you're putting together a song as Clean Guns? A lot of emcees tell me that, when they get on a track with someone else, they raise their games lyrically because they don't want to get shown up by the other emcee. I know it's a little different when you rap with Zilla, because you're friends, but does it require a different mentality to write lyrics for a solo track?
Nico: I've never felt the urge to shit on anyone on wax. Mainly because people are gonna have a favorite on a track regardless of whether they spit the hottest 16 or not. With me and Zilla though, we complement each other on track so I don't need to murder it. It evens itself out. My approach when I write solo joints is exactly that, my approach. So, I don't think about what someone else would say. If I couldn't make music that I don't like hearing first, that would be kinda ass backwards. Right.
Later this year, I hear that you'll be working with your younger brother on another project. Can you tell us what to expect from that?
Nico: Fresh, no joke, my brother may be the most talented dude I ever met. I know a few people that "play a shit load of instruments", but Cuz, this man is a goddamn phenom. No bullshit, in 5 months he has learned how to make beats that shit on cats who been doing it for years. It really ain't fair.(Laughs)
His beats make me step my game up. The only other person who has done that thus far is Alex Wood. The project that we are working on is called, "Me and My Brother" which turned from an EP to an LP. It will be the first LP released under Beast Entertainment which is a subdivision of Yadibox.com and Beat Garden. You can expect me flippin flows, from double time to Big Pun like to melodic. Whatever you need, this joint will have. Once again, his name is Noochman, that is N-O-O-C-H-M-A-N. Yea, he is a problem. Get at em for beats. "Me and My Brother" due out late '08.
Last question: Zilla's been doing his own thing with his various side projects, and now you've got this solo album of your own and the project with your brother later on this year. Y'all aren't breaking the group up, are you?
Nico: NOOOOO!!!!, Clean Guns can't be broken up. I knew him my whole life, and you don't stray away from those who keep you grounded. Ying and Yang, but it works. Can't stop a locomotive when it's fully steamed, feel me? He's killing it, I'm killing it. Just imagine when we get back in the lab as a team again. Holy shit!!! Fire from Beat Garden and Beast Entertainment never stops. Shoutouts to Noochman, Davey Za, Mal, Byrd, Telly, Kev, Pop the W.G.H.M, Pudge, Mel, Slim Dsm, Blessa, Trip Nickels, Z-Rocca, Big OC Diesel, Randy Watson, Angie, Toke, 2ew Gunna, the rest of my family and friends. We got this. I NEED THAT!!!!!!!!!
Nico was also kind enough to pass along a couple of tracks to put up with the interview. Give them a listen and you'll hear how Nico tears into a beat, dude is nice for real. The first one is a track off of No Beast So Fierce, with Angela Rastelli singing the hook:
As he mentioned, the new album will be available on cdbaby and itunes in the near future. I'll put up an announcement once it's for sale, but in the meantime keep an eye out on Beat Garden's website for more updates, and Nico's myspace page for more cuts from No Beast So Fierce.