Interview with Century Sam and Spliffhuxtable.com:
Most of you reading this site have undoubtedly visited SpliffHuxtable.com at some point, the greatest instrumental site on the internet. I've known Biz, the Toronto-based producer behind spliffhuxtable, for a few years now (well, not "known" in the real life sense of the word, but in the myspace/email/im way of knowing someone). From time to time he would pass along a track or two from a kid named Century Sam that he had been working on an album with, Hunger Is A State of Mind. Every song I heard blew me away, both in terms of the beats, which kept my speakers knocking, and the lyrics, which delved into some very personal details of Sam's life.
Following in the tradition of rappers like KRS-1 and Just Ice, Century Sam spent time living homeless on the streets of Toronto while honing his skills as an emcee. At one point in his life he depended on hip hop as his sole source of income, earning cash through performances, selling mixtapes and producing beats for other artists. In 2007, Sam released the album Hunger Is a State of Mind after spending four years putting it together. Now a year after the release, Sam and Biz are making the entire album available for free (link at the end of this post), and along with that the two of them took some time out to sit down for an interview. Over the course of the discussion, the duo discussed a wide range of topics, including their approach to making beats, Toronto's hip hop scene, Sam's life on the street and his thoughts on rappers who deal drugs on wax. I think everyone from casual hip hop fans to aspiring producers and emcees will find that Biz and Sam dropped a ton of great information in this interview.
I know most of you haven't heard of Century Sam before, so we'll start off with a track from the album just to give you an idea of what's going on, and at the end of the interview we'll have a couple of more tracks and a link to download the full album for free:
Let's start with the introductions first. Biz, you're known on the internet as the man behind spliffhuxtable.com, but a lot of people don't realize that you do production of your own. How long have you been making beats? Is there a definable "Biz" sound to your beats?
Biz: I've been seriously making beats since I was about 16, I was DJ-ing before that and still do, and my sound's gone through a few changes as I've got new gear or learned new tricks.
As to my sound? I'd say ask any MC's I've worked with and they'll say there is, but I think of myself as pretty versatile. IĎd like to think I can drop a soul-sample banger with a more "traditional" underground sound, a club beat, some left field Def Jux shit, whatever.... neither me or Sam stay stuck on one vibe too long, we keep it fresh...but two things you can always tell a Soul for Hire beat for are the drums and the bass. Gotta have the snares sharp and that bassline HEAVY.
For those who don't know, spliffhuxtable highlights instrumentals from mainstream and underground hip hop producers. You never really editorialize on your site, but I think people would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the current state of hip hop. I'd imagine that you're no fan of the current trend of making ringtone beats, but are there any current producers out there that you're excited about?
Biz: Oh most definitely. Black Milk is the future, Rza's still got it, Jake One, Neptunes can still pull it off...and I gotta give it to some Hometown boys who're doin it: Moss and Marco Polo got it going on for sure. As for the state of Hip-Hop? It's dead, but, like all music, only when it dies can it be reborn. There's always good stuff growing underground, but with so much money and so little talent in the mainstream, it gets drowned out by all that ignorant bullshit on MuchMusic and MTV.
You cats down south have it a little easier, simply due to a bigger population. We just donít have enough TRUE heads up here to keep quality music in the mainstream.
As for my site? You can ask Hip-Hop why it's not giving me any fire to post... I can't stay back in the 90's forever. Iím working on branching out to shine a little more light on some unsung heroes and rookies in this game.
Sam, you're not only an emcee, you also handled a fair amount of the production on Hunger is a State of Mind. Between producing and writing rhymes, does one come easier to you than the other? Do you get more satisfaction out of one or the other? From the various background material I've dug up, you point to Biz as your mentor as far as producing. Is there anyone that helped put you on the path to emceeing?
Sam: I gain the most from making a song, start to finish... cutting the beat, getting the vibe and writing a whole track. As far as rapping goes, to me, it's more therapeutic, you can express yourself more literally, talk about what's on your mind and connect with people. Iím really into the whole leaving the world with a message when Iím dead and gone aspect. Itís a well known fact that Biz really showed me what was up with production and I think you can hear that beat wise, but in terms of rhyming it was J.A.I. Murdah (featured on 881) that really put me on. We would record on the ghettoest shit before we ever even knew what recording was. He would play guitar an Marlon Brown would beatbox, then weíd record that on a tape and then play the tape and rap over it while recording that onto another tape. Marlon Brown was also instrumental in the advancement of my style, I took a lot of lessons on structure and flow from him. Lastly I gotta let the world know about Cheiko, this dude is a stage veteran, he showed me everything I know about being a stage mc. My game on stage was WEAK till he schooled me.
Biz: From what I see, Sam comes with more fire when itís the one two of a beat and lyrics done at the same time. I can see him plan how the breaks are going to come, how heíll tie the lyrics together with the changes in the beat, and it just makes it more organic.
The two of you work together as producers for Soul For Hire. What's the process like when you two are working on a beat? Is it a situation where one of you will lay the groundwork and the other one will come in and finish it off? Or is it a collaborative effort from start to finish?
Biz: It all depends on the beat. It could be nearly done and Sam will load it up, re-do the drums, I'll come back and it's way hotter and run with it. Or, we'll do a beat, finish it, come back later and re-flip the whole thing totally different. There's no plan to follow, we just vibe off a melody or a break or a dope sample and run with it. Some beats are started when Century leaves me some hot ass drums on the MPC, some are skeletons I'll come in and play keys over. Lately, now that were focusing on bringing the sound out from the lab to a live crew, there's been more of a collaborative effort in writing real songs, as opposed to just dropping blazing loops all over the place.
Sam: It really truly depends on the beat, we donít always both touch a beat the other produced, but Iíd say we're pretty good at knowing if we have something to add to something we hear. Initially I would NEVER play over a biz beat, lately though I been doin a lot more on that end of things. With Soul For Hire now working on a group album and the addition of singer/guitarist Marlon Brown we been letting the music just happen. If you have something to add, add it, if it suck it gets cut.
Biz: We just roll with whatever is best for the beat. No room for egos to start messin with shit when thereís work to be done.
From other producers that I've spoken with, there's a tendency to be very protective of the beats that they create, in the sense that many producers don't respond well when their beats are critiqued. I'd imagine that there are times when you two will disagree over what changes need to be made to a beat to make it work. How do you two resolve situations like that? Is it a matter of just having to compromise, or does it become a situation where one of you needs to defer to the other to get it done?
Biz: We argue, but not often. Generally we've been on the same page for like 5 years now, so that doesn't come up too much. When it does, we just go with whatever makes the song better. It's not a one shot deal, we keep going back to songs over time to improve.
Sam: I find if it does really come down to a stand off so to speak, whoever started it usually takes control. Generally I do a lot of the tracking even on a beat Biz made alone, thatís mostly because as the one whoís going to rhyme on it I care more about how its tracked then he would.
Can you give us some more details on Soul For Hire in general, as far as what you're doing right now and what the future is for it? What artists have you been working with?
Biz: We're still making bangers, but lately we've been really focused on the live show. The whole "For Hire" aspect is on a short hiatus. I've been to hundreds of shows where it's just play cd, rap, next track, rap, stop cd, next act... that's not much of a show, you know? So we're breaking it out, going live, with live beats, guitar, bass, singers and Sam rapping. It's gonna be ridiculous. Mark my words.
Sam: We have worked with a lot of artists over the years on countless projects. We did a count the other day and it was something like 20 albums deep for us at this point. A lot of what weíve been working on in the last year plus is caught up in label/management/artist disputes so really speaking for myself Iím focused on S4H and my own solo work. Iím working with Marlon Brown on his solo effort and I know Biz has been hard at work with Lupo tha Butchaís solo album "Blood on the Altar" and we both been workin hard on Bahís solo album entitled "Put That Man Down", I also might have a beat on the next Mathematik album I got my fingers crossed cuz Iím really feelin the track. Iím just tryin to get beats out to hungry MCs. Anyone interested can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Biz: The name came out of the fact we were doing a lot, I mean A LOT of beats just for money. And when that started ot take over our own output, we took a step back and have re-focused on putting out some slammin tunes to let folks know what we about.
Whenever I get a chance to interview a producer, I always find it interesting to hear where they get their inspiration from. What music were the two of you listening to when you grew up? Are there any established producers that you look to for inspiration? Do you have any singers/groups (or specific labels) that you turn to when you start looking for samples to use?
Biz: I cant speak for cench, but my influences are pretty random. I grew up in the 'burbs so I had a lot of exposure to Rock and Techno music early on, and after I started rolling downtown more and met Sam I got onto the Hip-Hop vibe in a big way. I actually went to school for music, so there I really opened up to Soul and Jazz and Afrobeat. I have no loyalty to any genre when it comes to samples. I made a reggae beat from a 50's doo-wop tune, my beat "Withdrawl" for Toronto crew Corrupted Nostalgia is a slowed down techno record and me tuning a guitar into a delay pedal. I've taken big samples before, but youíd need to use a microscope to find em. In terms of what Hip-Hop influenced me, I can make it simple: Rawkus Records 96-2000. Everything that came from that era, and the Fat Beats era, really set me off, and the explosion of the Tdot scene around 98 with "Old Time Killin" and the Circle movement showed me we can do it in Canada. I pull a lot more influence from old soul, disco and Techno music than other current hip-hop, thatís for damn sure.
Sam: Its funny cuz what is listened to growing up really influenced the way I made beats and it never really occurred to me until Biz was asked in an interview on 89.5 about what we listened to and how it influenced us. My mom was from Cali and she had such a wide range of musical taste. I grew up on the standard white family shit like: Beatles, Doors, Joplin, Hendrix, etc. (not The Stones she hated Jagger) but also: James Brown, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, Aretha, Shirley Bassey, and a wide variety or terrible 80ís electro clash stuff that I couldnít name for money, it was all off vinyl too I might add until someone stole our record and player in a b&e around 90. Lately Iím sick of samples though, a lot of the time Iíll just loop something for inspiration, play a whole beat around it and then take it out. On a beat like Am I Wrong theres like 2 different samples all in filters an then a whole song played around it, so like Biz I have NO loyalty whatsoever when it comes to a sample. In terms of rap for inspiration Iíll always bump a lil' bit of Jerseyís finest Joe Budden when I need to get in the mood to put down some fire.
Biz: Sam IS Canadaís Budden. You read it here first!
Most of the people reading this site are from America, and we tend to have this image of Canada as kind of a cleaner, more polite version of the U.S. It's not necessarily the kind of place that I would expect to have such a strong hip hop community (and I must admit, it wasn't until Rich London started sending me his mixtapes a few years ago that I was even aware of how big the Toronto scene is). So what's Toronto really like, both in terms of the actual city and what the music scene is like? I'm also curious as to which, if any, American rappers have had an influence on Toronto's style of hip hop.
Biz: Whatever the latest trend is, that's what 90% of the dick riders in the city jump on. If it's crunk, then they from the south, if it's the return of the Boom-Bap, everyoneís got breaks in their tracks.
Sam: The city truly is filled with haters, they call it the "Screwface capital" for a reason and Iím not really so down with that. I say all the time (and not proudly) that the scene here is like the movie Mad Max cuz itís a big barren waste land where everybody would just assume kill each other over scraps. Its funny because as soon as you go out of town its all love. People genuinely feel your music and sing along, in T-Dot I can barely get my boys to sing tunes they say they love! Interesting side note some of the first shows I did were open mics that Rich London used to rock at a place called Down One Lounge. Then my crew got in a lil' bit of an altercation resulting in us being banned from the spot.
Biz: I donít know how it is in NY / NJ you seem to love your own. Up here to make it as a local Artist you better make it big somewhere else or nobody gives a shit about you.
Let's get to the album itself, Hunger is a State of Mind. From what I understand, it took you almost four years to put it all together, in part because you ended up rerecording it on more than one occasion. Can you give us some more details on what the process of putting the album together was like?
Sam: A big issue with the album was always money. Iím not playin around in my raps, Iím a broke dude. So weíd get to a point where it was "finished", then it would sit for a month or two ('cause I had no dough) and Iíd end up doin a new song that was much better than at least a few cuts. Then weíd analyze it and Iíd always want to do better shit because I had made that progression. Donít get me wrong it's not like itís a whole new album, lots of the songs are really, really old and re-recorded. Take a song like "Youth" for example, the original recording was from when I was about 18 or 19, although it had tons of emotion and was a lil' more amped in terms of delivery in places, it sounded like it was recorded inside of a pop can. Father is the only one with original lyrics from when I was 19 and it went through about 4 different beats before the album version came together. The albums sound changed so much over its time that new beats were constantly an issue. Think about an old Timbo beat Ginuwine days and then think now. Any producer will tell u that you always take steps, you wouldnít even recognize a beat I made in 2000 right now.
You eventually did release the album, though, so was there a specific moment when you knew that this version was the version that was ready to be put out to the masses?
Sam: It was done in 2007 and sat on the shelf for about a year while I was goin through some tough times. J.A.I. Murdah resurfaced after about 5 years and helped me get me back on the grind. We also did 881 (featured on your site) which is one of the most meaningful songs and biggest moments in music to me, that song was 7 years in the making. In the end me an Biz also switched around some of the beats and got the final track order down, and I was happy with the finished product so maybe it's good that I waited. I finally had the money to get it pressed up in nice cases so it was time to go, I couldnít wait anymore I was ready to just move on to the next project.
Biz: Sometimes the songs just didnít feel right. You canít explain it, but after re-doing a verse or a beat or even something like a snare drum, it comes together and you just KNOW itís done.
After listening to the lyrics on the album, it's clear that you're significantly more "street", in a very literal sense, than most other rappers that claim to be. You talk about living on the streets when you were homeless, and what you had to do to make some money, including selling drugs. Can you give us an idea of what your life has been like over the past several years, as far as where you were living and how you were surviving, and what your situation is like today?
Sam: My life (and everyoneís) is a constant struggle. I have even ended up back on Bizís couch as recently as last summer. I just keep on grinding through it. For about 2 years I was living off of music, I would record, produce, mix peoples' tapes, do shows, sell mixtapes in the street, hell I would have sold you my soul for the right price, that mind state and life style is where the name Soul For Hire came from. Recently I been livin a little better but Iím still trying to get everything right, music really keeps me straight, it drives me to keep everything together. On a real tip me an Marlon used to live in a stairwell and so no matter the issues I face in my day to day, lifeís not that bad at the moment.
On the song Youth, you mention that you were selling drugs at one point to pay your bills. You don't ever glorify the act of dealing, though, which is very different from the kind of "coke rap" (Clipse, Lil Wayne, etc.) that's been popular in hip hop the last few years. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on rappers that promote dealing drugs as some sort of career achievement. Along with that, do you think it's possible to put references to drug dealing in a song without glorifying it?
Sam: I always looked at myself as a conscious MC, but conscious doesnít mean you have to write songs about sunny days and girls you like, you can be conscious an talk about reality, example: Mos Def, Nas, Common. Iím glad you picked up on the fact that I donít ever endorse it. Selling drugs is not fun or respectable (although supporting yourself and your family on your own is) and you know whatís even less fun? JAIL or DEATH! So I donít endorse drugs as a career choice by any means. Not to say that I look down on it though, some people are really good at it and run it like and actual business, hell some run it better and more successfully than some real businesses. I feel that some people are far beyond having to work within what society deems as "normal" or "proper" lifestyles, I still donít like whatís called the "real" world, itís anything but real.
With coke rap I have a lot of different opinions, it truly isnít good for anything involving hip hop really, although itís always been there. I respect anyone telling their story and giving you insight into their world, but there are little kids growing up taking the wrong view of what these people mean. They grow up seeing the older dudes in their hood doin it, then they hear Lil Wayne talking bout it an makin it sound all cool an swaggery like thatís what truly got him on tv. I lived in the states for a bit I never lived in the projects (although I been to some of them) I lived in the less dangerous projects of Toronto, so I canít really comment on the mentality that life conditions into your mind, but I can imagine from my own experiences that it does seem like all you can do. Regardless of what you do though I do feel like you can inspire others through your actions, just because what you did was considered illegal by the government doesnít mean it wasent inspirational that you managed to survive on your own, or that you managed to buy property, or that you can afford to help those less fortunate than you when your up.
Biz: I think too that Sam and I coming from such wildly different backgrounds helps us stay honest instead of becoming caricatures or cartoons like so many rappers today seem to do.
The whole album is very personal, with a lot of the lyrics discussing the intimate details of your life. Two songs in particular stood out for me, Youth and Father, where you talk about the very different relationships you had with your [deceased] mother and your father. How does your approach to a song like Father, which clearly had a lot of emotion invested in it, differ from a "club" song like Soul For Hire?
Sam: Iím glad that you asked me this question, because it is very different. I usually just write whatever I feel at the time to be honest, however it is MUCH harder to write club music and actually feel like its good or real. Anyone can slur the word lollipop a dozen times over a hot beat and have a single ready to go, but to be able to make club music thatís about something is nearly impossible (although weíre tryin that on the S4H album). I donít really have a problem writing personal songs at all, they just come to me, a beat gives me a feeling and I go with it. Music is really my therapy, yall are listening to my life.
Has your father heard any of your music? [On the album, Sam makes several references to the rocky relationship he has had with his father.] Do you have any contact with him today?
Sam: My dad was and is actually really supportive of my music, he used to be a soundman in the 70ís. He gave me his left over gear and ghetto computer which, along with my turntables, built my first studio. He hasnít heard Father but would probably like it if he did, Iím not sure he can truly understand rap but he can tell if someoneís good which is funny, and understands music is an expression of feeling. When I used to record in the kitchen back in the day he would know if someone was wack and heíd even tell me. He would say things when I played tracks like "I think your doubles are too loud" or "that guy has no timing". He always told me to keep doing music and not to give up on it, thatís about the only thing we see eye to eye on. Iím sure heís proud that I stuck with something and found success even if it is minor.
From what I hear, you're currently working on two new albums, a follow up to Hunger is a State of Mind and a debut album for Soul For Hire. What can we expect from those two albums, and when can we expect to hear them? Is Biz going to drop a few rhymes on the Soul For Hire album?
Biz: The Soul for Hire album is going to be major, mark my words. We're having trouble even describing it to cats. We think it's some real 21st century hip-hop, and it's all original, no loops. As for me on the mic? Don't hold your breath. I wouldn't want to show up my boy.
Sam: Biz rapping? I WISH!!! Secretly Biz can actually rhyme, heís dope, he just has no voice for it, or more to the point he hasnít worked to find it if he has one, but his vocabulary and thought process are in the right place for sure. I think it's more of a lack of material because heís co-wrote many a song with me, and heís usually involved in the writing process in some way. My hope is that heíll have a Biz version of Hi-Tekís verse on Hi-Teknology 1. In terms of what to expect from the Soul For Hire album? Thereís no way for anyone to expect what weíre coming with, it's totally different from what youíll all think weíre about if you listen to Hunger Is a State of Mind. Its kind of like "Out Here" (the 2nd track on Hunger) but on a next level! Lots of live playing and almost NO samples, its basically intelligent REAL music that girls can dance too, SHOCKING CONCEPT I KNOW! My 2nd album (or possibly EP I havenít decided yet) is gonna be the follow up, a little more of the same with the addition of a new producer or two (WHAT UP STYLUS!).This ones for the heads not the masses, its for the REAL Sam fans cuz I can't just leave them hangin, they need more pain in the stomach music.
Biz: I think you can separate it like this: Samís next EP is for the HEADS and the Soul For Hire Album is for people just down with good music.
Any live shows coming up, for our readers up north who want to see you perform? Any plans to head south of the border and do a show in the U.S.?
Sam: Iím always doing shows here and there so you can keep updated on me at: www.myspace.com/therealcenturysam. As for Soul For Hire weíre workin on stepping up the live performance to be far above just turntables and raps so itíll be a minute but trust me when we get there, itíll be different. As for the States, I dunno. I was actually setting up a tour to go around Canada and hit Reno after the west coast but it all fell apart. Its really hard to get shows here and in the states, generally promoters either wont pay up front, will pay you for the show but not travel, or theyíll pay me but not enough to bring Biz. Iíd love to tho, maybe this interview will help that cause a little, know anyone in Jerz? Anyone reading this thatís interested can e-mail email@example.com.
Biz: We try and get out there as much as possible, but we gotta stay focused on these projects to make sure the quality is there and we give our fans what they deserve.
And finally, anyone you want to shout out?
Biz: I'm gonna shout out my crew S4H, our newest member Marlon Brown [I'll be damned if I could find Marlon's myspace page, but just hit up the main Soul For Hire site for more info on him], and all the cats online still keeping it alive and reading 33jones, ya heard?! Big respect to all the cats we work with on the regular.
Sam: I wanna shout out anyone like you, who supports independent artists through whatever means. Support your back yard y'all! Go ahead an download, its not about that, how do you know if you like something right? BUT IF YOU LIKE AN ARTIST AND THEYíRE INDEPENDENT, GO OUT AND BUY THEIR ALBUM!! HELL GO GET IT FROM THEM EVEN!! BUY THEM LUNCH! Ok sorry thatís my rant.
Shouts out to: Marlon Brown, J.A.I. Murdah (FREE J.A.I. MURDAH!!!), Ms. Bedard you got this all started S4H thanks you, Mugz, D-Man, Big Shaggalicious, the original Blunt Rapz Fam, Bah, Ko, Pro, Nilz, Lupo, and Young Rob, Stylus (TRUST ME HEíS ON THE COME UP), Torontoís ORIGINAL Mindbender, Quanche, MIZ I GOT YOU DOG, Ali The Son of Abdul, all my DJís doin their thing (MIKE STOAN YOU KNOW I GOT YOU!), all the independent artists in the city and country that donít get the love they should, and finally shouts to the fans that have supported me over this long stretch Iím in the middle of, I do this for me, but it wouldnít be the same without you. Much love!
The album is tremendous, I really can't recommend it enough. The production is damn near flawless, the lyrics are on point, and it sounds better than just about any album you've dropped $18.99 for in 2008. Go get it! I'll probably be putting up a couple more songs off of the album in the next day or two in case you need further convincing, but do yourself a favor and go grab the album now.