New York, N.Y. -- As I pulled into the driveway, a vast shadow rolled over my windshield. A chill rushes down my spine and I shake. If you are looking to make a sequel to
, this is the place to be. I think to myself this has got to be it. I turn off my Tom Tom, which by now is so confused and frustrated with me, I can almost hear him make a sigh of relief. I step out of the car and stretch my back. So this is where famous rap moguls hide out.
When hip-hop music emerged from the underground decades ago, many thought it was a fleeting fad, like flared jeans or blowout haircuts. Now in 2011, hip-hop culture reigns supreme, permeating society on many levels from music to fashion to films to marketing. At the center of this ongoing phenomenon is entrepreneur Damon Dash, the co-founder of
. And I was standing at his front door.
I’m at his private estate in Carmel, NY on September 15, on a chilly foggy afternoon, where Damon Dash and his closest friends seek refuge within a crazy world of music, touring, fame, and the ever evolving rap culture.
, L.A. raised rap legend, and
, arguably the most well known producer in hiphop, were set to arrive soon along with Damon Dash himself. The plan is to listen to some of Murs' new
Love and Rockets– The Transformation
album, do a few interviews and get a sneak peak into the life of some of the most well respected people in the industry.
A beautiful woman named Raquel Horn greets me, and I notice I am the first one at the house. As she tours me around, the sound of my boots echoes on the finely polished hardwood floor. The living room is at least three stories tall with full-length windows overlooking a pool and a hundred miles of post-card-esque reservoir and forest. The mansion is filled with fabulous artwork, comfortable furniture and an air of success. It was the perfect getaway.
Next I met the multi-talented
, a singer, rapper, businesswoman and amazing cook. She stood only about 5’4” with bleach blonde hair and an innocent face. But this girl could sing. We sat and talked about her company,
, and her new mixtape,
, which she played throughout the house.
He strolled into the room and looked out the window at his view. He was rocking green and yellow basketball shorts and a crisp white-T. He had either a slight limp or just a boss swagger that screamed ‘I’ve been through it all’. “Damon Dash pleasure to meet you,” he said in a calm voice. We shook hands. I made sure it was a nice firm handshake. Hopefully one he’d remember. With someone like Damon Dash, you gotta make sure your handshake is solid.
I followed him downstairs to the studio and he introduced me to my favorite guy of the group, the up-and-coming rapper Da$h, a 19 year old phenom and nephew of Damon. It was 3:00 PM and Da$h had just woken up from the long night before. He had just rocked a show and he had "hung-over as hell" written all over his face. As soon as his Uncle went back upstairs, bleary eyed and rasping, the first thing he said was, “You smoke ganje?” Come on. How could I say no?
Da$h was, how do I explain it, a character. He was hysterically funny and fully embraced his unconventional rapper lifestyle. His pants were almost at his knees with boxers in full view, but that’s how he liked it. Da$h was confident and cocky, but a kid at heart. As he rolled a blunt, he talked about his show saying, “You should have seen my stupid ass wiling out on stage, all f*cked up and jumpin’ into the crowd. I live for that sh*t.” So basically, whenever Da$h is around you know you are going to have a good time.
The studio was like Barbie’s dream house, but for a rapper. It had amazing mics, guitars, a bass, a full 30-piece drum set, keyboards, throwback synths and moogs, beat machines (including the 909) and a bunch of mixers. And last but not least, ESPN was playing on a flats screen overlooking it all. Damon Dash had perfected the musician’s man cave.
I was checking out the room, jealously inspecting each item when
, producer and musician came down and joined us. Only 25, Sean has been playing music for a decade and he was, as Da$h put it, “The mastermind behind the operation.” It took Da$h two minutes to roll a sexy blunt, which would have taken me 15-20. We blazed as he played me a few tracks off of his album,
, produced by Sean himself, as well as a few
joints, you know, to keep it real. I was feeling wonderful.
Soon enough, Murs, his wife, Ski Beatz and the rest of the media showed up. We all sat around the house mingled and had a delicious lunch cooked by McKenzie. Everyone seemed relieved to be at the house and away from busy NYC. There were hugs all around, jokes and stories. It seemed like it was a big family being reunited. After the dust settled, I finally got some time alone with Murs.
He sat down at the kitchen counter across from me with a short haircut, a fresh face and new energy. I had listened to a sneak preview of his new upcoming album,
Love and Rockets —The Transformation
, produced by Ski Beatz, which drops October 11. It was different then most hip-hop albums out nowadays. It was more relaxed, musical and diverse. So it seemed like it was a true transformation in a way.
Now in his 30’s, Murs’ life and priorities have changed. He’s married, is a vegan, doesn’t really drink and hasn’t been to a club in years. He told me, “I’m trying to set an example of how to swag out your 30’s. I see guys my age and even older who are poppin’ champagne in the club, going home with strippers, and I’m like, what are you doing? I want to set an example to kids that at some point the bullsh*t needs to stop and that its ok to change.”
In rap these days, no music video, MTV award or music blog really celebrates the normal life behind these rap icons. People forget that these guys need to make cell phone payments, feed their dogs, drive their kids to school and eat dinner with their wives like the rest of us. Murs admits that he was once trapped in his youth, with temporary happiness provided by material things or recognition. Now he says, “I’d rather be like Elton John or John Legend than Gucci Mane. But that doesn’t mean you have to be corny.” Murs was once like Da$h, getting wasted at shows and bars, cause that’s what you do when you’re young. But now that he’s older, those things get old too.
Murs has been in the game for decades, since 1993, and he’s seen a lot. He’s been touring with the best of the best and made tracks with the most influential people, not just in rap, but in music period. He’s made enough money to buy himself whatever he could possibly want and has enough celebrity to do whatever he feels. But Murs keeps it real. “I’m trying to take a stand against greed…There is so much wrong with America and it upsets me.” The thing that lasts and makes a real impact on Murs’ life is love. Not just with his wife but love for what you do, love for your fans and love for anyone trying to follow their dream. In fact, Murs recently did work in Africa building houses with Habitat for Humanity to really show some love to people who need it most.
On September 27, Murs is going on his
HipHop and Love
Tour for 51 shows in 60 days, along with Ski Beatz, McKenzie Eddy, Da$h and the rest of the group. Murs can’t wait to make people happy from his music and give his listeners a relief from reality even if it’s just for a moment. To wrap it up he said, “So I guess my message for the album is that “I love you and I give a f*ck.” He’s not your average rapper. I guess the transformation is complete.
Next I got a chance to speak to Ski Beatz. I myself am an aspiring producer and Ski is an idol of mine. He has worked with everyone and anyone who you need to know. So I was a little nervous.
“Hip hop is like a chameleon, its always changing colors. But you just gotta try to make music you love and hopefully the next generation will love it too.” Oh man. Words of wisdom.
Ever since Ski was a kid growing up in South Carolina he has been destined to make music. When I asked what he would do if he wasn’t a musician, he thought about it and laughed, “I wouldn’t be doing anything, I was born to do this.” That’s how a true artist should feel. A live and die connection with their passion. Ski Beatz totally embraces and connects with every aspect of hihop culture. He used to break-dance, do graffiti, and rap. What I though was amazing was how he can notice his personal influence on hiphop culture. He feels that the music he makes has a lasting imprint on other artists around him and where the direction of rap music goes.
I asked what Ski Beatz plays on his iPod and his response caught me off guard. I thought he would be bumpin the latest and freshest beats from unreleased albums and exclusive material. But Ski only listens to himself. “One time I was in Atlanta for a while on tour and I got caught up listening to a lot of hip-hop radio, Top 40 type of stuff. People kept telling me; ‘oh you should sound more like this guy or like that.’ And that started to affect my music. Now I like to be my own critic and get inspiration from myself.” Call it stubbornness or what you like but Ski truly makes music from the heart. His emotions, personality and life are what guide his tunes.
Lastly, on making this
Love and Rockets
album with Murs, Ski told me he got to know Murs really well outside of music first. Then, once they knew each other’s personality, he could work with him and get a feel for what he would like, music wise. That’s good advice for anyone making a collaboration. You can’t truly connect with someone musically before you know him or her inside and out.
We ended the interview and he thanked me for not asking him about "Dead Presidents" and working with
. “I get that s*it all the time. I appreciate you man.” It was one of my first interviews but guess I did something right. I gathered my stuff and as I was about to leave I saw a picture in the
of the whole gang, Murs, Ski, Da$h, Damon, McKenzie, Raquel and Sean on a trip to Thailand. I could tell this was a family. They trusted each other and depended on each member of the group to give something in return. It was a random group of people from all over the country with different personalities, ages, talents and backgrounds but it worked. And it worked well.
I said goodbye to everyone and thanked Damon profusely, maybe one too many times. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. I will never forget it. I thought to myself hopefully one day I’ll have my own music family with people I can trust and friends I can share anything with. And it would be sweet if we lived in a house like Damon’s. One day, one day. But for now I stepped out the door, down the stairs and back out into the cold.