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“Hip-Hop Saved My Life”: A Conversation With Joe Budden

Joe Budden is hip-hop's new uncle figure, who has plenty of stories and wisdom to share with youngsters on the rise.
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Jazz. I remember how the music would greet me moments after entering my uncle’s den. Elegant jazz; the kind that's pleasant to the ears and soothing to the soul. Muted BET rap music videos would appear on his big screen television―a weird, but pleasing juxtaposition. He would have a glass of scotch sitting on a table, adjacent to Jet, Ebony, and King magazines. Being able to watch Too Short’s “Blow The Whistle” while the magical horn of Miles Davis played is a memory that has stuck with me. I was young—the impressionable adolescent—and entering his den was like walking into the world of an adult that didn’t treat you like a parent. A grown-up that you could look up to; the one relative that was simply much cooler than the others.

I believe we all have one uncle that’s admired from afar. The uncle who runs the spades table at the family reunion while telling stories about his incandescent youth, and sneaks his nephews sips of whiskey. Snoop Dogg has always been that uncle to hip-hop; he practically calls everyone nephew, but in an age where rappers are growing much older, he isn’t the only representation of an uncle figure. Talking with Joe Budden is hearing from someone full of stories, wisdom and a history that makes a conversation with him very similar to talking with an uncle who is seasoned in age, youthful in spirit, and has lived a life that’s nothing short of fascinating.

“I was the last to know. It started with the Diddy-boppers and the whippersnappers referring to me as Uncle Joe. I guess because I been around for so long, and was the older guy. I get it. I don’t mind it at all,” Joe told me as we discussed how the younger boys that he’s around began referring to him as “Unc.” After being in the music industry for over 15 years, Joe was no longer a young calf—he had truly reached the status of a senior bull. Rage & The Machine, Joe’s forthcoming album, features the song “Uncle Joe,” a testament to him embracing his age and the new title that was bestowed upon him. Knowing the path he's walked throughout his career, one of the first topics I discussed with Joe was labels, and the choice of staying independent over signing to a major:

Rage & The Machine is coming out on Mood Muzik Entertainment / Empire. This is my first time being 100%, truly independent. Distribution only. I’m very excited about this. I’m very eager. I worked my entire career to get to this point. I put out my first mixtape in ‘01 and my first album in ‘03. There’s no ceiling with independence. You have all the opportunities in the world. If you're talented without resources you can go create, create, and create. Opportunity will present itself if you work hard enough and if you’re talented enough. That comes. It’s a part of every artist story. It’s not a ceiling because you’re without resources, there’s a ceiling if you’re without talent.

Joe sees the internet age as a gift for artists to be in a position where major labels aren’t necessary. This is an artist who was there when labels were still pressing up vinyl. He remembers the days of big budget videos, and can even recall when labels had to start paying attention to their new media department. The way he sees it, if you have Wi-Fi, talent, and something people want to hear, then the sky is truly the limit. Joe knows what’s it like being signed; creating art inside someone else's building, and compromising with their rules. Being 100% independent has given him something that wasn’t possible during the beginning of his career: the chance to freely release music without any of the worries that come with being an artist signed to a major.

If I’m an artist and I believe my music has value, why would I want to sign away all my rights? Not when the game is shifting. I can just continue to build and curate my fan base, something that I can do in my room with Wi-Fi. I always been about alleviating the middle man between myself and the fans. I’ve always been on message boards, always been attuned what people were saying about me, even when I didn’t have ways to get all across the country. I’m not a street nigga, I wasn’t standing on corners. I was there when labels paid zero attention to the internet. I was there when mixtapes switched to all original music. We’ve gone through so many changes in the last 10 years. There’s no way I’m signing a major recording contract today.

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Joe places Eminem’s career at the very top of the totem pole as an artist who has achieved what any rapper could hope to accomplish from rap music. He also has the career Joe never attempted to make his own. He’s not a fan of crowds; he prefers smaller, more intimate settings. He’s an introvert, instead of having the outgoing qualities that are found in most extroverted celebrities. When “Pump It Up” launched him to the peak of his popularity, he hated it. A career based on making hits and topping charts wasn’t what he desired, and the mood of the music he wanted to make wasn’t for the clubs. He has seen a number of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, the brightest days and the darkest nights, and he wouldn’t change anything that has occurred on this long journey.

If you change one thing, everything else changes. If I change one thing then maybe I don’t get the lesson involved that God intended for me to learn. I can’t say I would have changed anything, I wish I was armed with more information in my 20s, but that’s what our 20s are for in my brain. Is to trial and error. To make mistakes and go get your own information so your thirties can be a bit more pleasurable.

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The pleasures and pains of the music industry can be found throughout his 20s and 30s. Each and every scar has been another lesson that has helped him reach this point in his career. You would think all of the years, and all of the stress and aggravation, would have exhausted Joe’s passion for rapping and rhyme, but there’s a noticeable hunger that can be heard on Rage & The Machine. He still has the growl of an emcee with something to say. Joe considers this album the most hungry he’s been about rapping in over a decade. Spending every day with the album’s main producer AraabMuzik was a source of inspiration―someone who has also carried a similar passion for hip-hop. Having his son heavily active in his life was a big change that also carried a large amount of influence for Joe:

Hip-hop saved my life. That’s it. There’s nothing more to be said. I’m forever indebted to music and all that it’s afforded me. If you take music off this planet you have to take me with it. That’s always my stance, I’m always going to fall on the side of music. That’s just who I am. It’s just in me. It’s my spin wheel of a brain. It’s my insanity in audio form. It’s my therapy in audio form. It’s so many different things for me. It was a guy in that studio that wanted to rap. I was shocking myself in that booth. There’s vocal inflections that I’m doing, different cadences, different pockets of the beat that I was finding. I was in there going crazy like I was 21 years old. It was so much fun.

Being a listener of Joe Budden means you’ve received a portrait of his personal life. There’s no facet of his life that hasn’t been seen or heard. He is one of the most open books in all of hip-hop. Rage & The Machine doesn’t have the same deep introspection as his previously released All Love Lost and So Love Lost projects, but it does have moments where he allows listeners entrance into his deeper thoughts. He doesn’t regret anything he’s ever said. No line has been too personal, no moment too revealing, it’s all been a part of his crazy life and times. Even Love & Hip-Hop and Couple’s Therapy have relevance to the bigger picture in Joe’s life.

Sometimes I look back on Love & Hip-Hop and think, ‘Damn, I didn’t know doing that show people would try and take away my credibility as an emcee.’ Sometime I look at that show and say that. That show and all that occurred on it lead me to Couple's Therapy. Couple's Therapy and all that occurred on it lead me to approaching my child and his mother with a new found perspective. Which puts me where I am today. Back to my point with my kid in my life, all that I ever wanted. Fuck the world. I’m an active father in my son’s life. Goes back to what I was saying about changing one thing.

Before Rage & The Machine, Joe went on what was described as his last tour as Joe Budden. He was ready to retire his name, even if some made the assumption he was retiring his microphone. The passion to rap was still there, but he wanted to do so under a new moniker. He had every intention of releasing his next album under the new stage name Rage. Rage is the feeling Joe believes a person would feel if he described his career to someone who is unfamiliar with his hip-hop story.

Rage perfectly embodied all that I’ve endured throughout this process. When you destroy and rebuild from rage comes so many things. The album isn’t angry at all. When people were hearing “Rage,” I think people thought Joe Budden was about to give us the most angry sounding, mad album. In therapy they teach you to attack something at it’s core and if at your core is rage, when you address it so many things can come out the right way. Love is one of them.

Longevity isn’t easily obtained. Some artists will only survive two or three summers before they’re completely off the grid. It’s very easy to disappear in a business clustered with artists trying to reach the mountaintop. Joe Budden may not always be on the radio, and he may not make music for the club, but he has made a career in music that many will only dream of. It’s his honesty and self-awareness that has gifted him a voice that people are attracted to. Even if you don’t like his music, you can tune into his podcast just to hear his perspective. What makes Joe Budden so relatable is that he has lived a very human career. It has been far from perfect, but it’s not without some amazing highlights. The flaws aren’t hidden; he embraces his shortcomings. The good, the bad, and the ugly is what has made the last 15 years impactful in the lives of others.

Success in music is hard to quantify. Every birthday of mine, every album release date, every show, and in the streets daily I get no less than two people telling me I changed their entire life and helped them through a tough time. Or saved them from wanting to kill themselves at one point. How do you quantify that? But the feeling I get when I hear that from all of these people around the world. I believe God works through people, that feeling I get knowing that God has used me to touch other people if there was a way to quantify that that’s what I would say.

Uncle Joe is still full of life, full of passion, and full of hip-hop.


By Yoh, aka Nephew Yoh, aka @Yoh31



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