Hezekiah, Philly's Finest
Hezekiah is ill- literally. The multi-talented emcee/ producer/ musician with a sound deeply steeped in Philly’s soulful underground hip hop scene is feeling pretty under the weather when he answers the phone on the evening of our interview, and I begin to worry that this may not be a very fruitful exchange. My doubts are put to rest, though; as soon as we begin discussing the topic of music, he audibly perks up and exudes an excitement and passion for doing what he loves that should already be evident to anyone who has heard the man’s music.
With a musical upbringing that was equal parts funk, blues, soul, and gospel, Hezekiah really honed his hop hop chops in ’93, as he became immersed in the burgeoning Philadelphia underground scene. Hezekiah found himself in the presence of the Legendary Roots Crew, an experience that he definitely credits in shaping his skills behind the boards. “I was traveling from Delaware to Philly all the time,” he recalls. “I learned a lot musically and production-wise, being in that circle, especially in trying to make beats sound like a live band.”
It was time well spent. Hezekiah’s production has been the highlight on his own albums, as well as the work he’s done for the likes of Musiq Soulchild, Bilal, Bahamadia, and the Jazzyfatnastees. His 2005 debut album Hurry Up and Wait garnered plenty of positive press, particularly for a deep sound that combined live instrumentation with samples, a practice that still is hard for some to grasp, much to Hez’s chagrin.
“I get mad because a lot of times people will be like, ‘Oh man, he just does loops.’ The first album is about 65 percent live,” he stresses. “It’s all about making shit sound like a sample. Most people don’t know how to mix live instruments. They forget it’s about how the bass sits with the drums- the foundation of the beat. A lot of cats don’t study that and so they’re just doing live band shit and rhyming over it. You have got to study the foundation.”
“And then a lot of people got on me like, ‘Oh, he’s not hip hop because he uses live instruments!’ And I don’t know what these fools think, but I’m like, ‘The records you’re sampling is live instruments!'” he laughs. It’s evident that this is a topic that has been a long-standing source of frustration, but it hasn’t stopped his methodical approach. His latest album I Predict A Riot continues his history of well crafted beat-making and effortless rhyming.
On the emceeing tip, Hezekiah refuses to be confined to one style or subject matter, providing a complex and diverse voice that can go from positively conscious to abrasively raunchy from track to track. Don’t think that he’s not aware of the contrast- he rejects any type of title that people may try to slap artists with. “We don’t set out to be conscious, we just try to do music,” he explains. “People confuse the message with how the music sounds. Like Slum Village was far from conscious, they were saying get money, fuck these hoes. Common gets called conscious but that’s not always the case, I think he just runs with it. Kurt Cobain ran with the grunge hat- they [Nirvana] considered themselves a punk act. But they ran with it all the way to the bank.”
“I think that’s where Philly fucked up with the neo-soul thing. When everybody was calling it neo-soul, they should have took it and ran with it. But everybody ran away from it. That’s how they fucked up. The whole conscious thing is a label and it’s personal. It might be a moment in time that you are going through that mindstate, but the next moment you might want to get on some porn shit. That’s why I did the song ‘Conscious Porn’ (off Hurry Up and Wait), to label myself before people label me. If people ever tell you they’re just one thing, they’re lying to you,” he laughs. “Don’t trust them people.”
It’s that realistic, complex ideal that drives the idea behind the new album, particularly in its title. “Growing up a troubled teen, I never handled a lot of issues. I’m a conscious cat but I’m also a violent cat. When the Columbine shootings happened, I was sitting there with my girl and as soon as the news came on, I called it: ‘They was picked on.’ I could relate to that because I went through a lot of the same things in middle school. Not justifying what they did, but if shit would have been addressed beforehand, the outcome would have been way different. If you don’t address or take care of certain issues, shit is bound to pop off. Those type of situations influenced the title of the album.”
With the album done, Hezekiah is looking forward to really getting it out there. Recent shows with Mos Def brought the Philly native greater exposure, but now he’s looking to branch out on his own. “I’m trying to hop on certain tours, but I’m mostly doing it by myself- which is another thing Rawkus should have taken care of,” he mumbles. His relationship with the label hasn’t been all that he had hoped. “I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot, but I can’t hold my tongue on this one. They’ve got some really dope product. I just don’t know why they went on their second venture if they’re not gonna put their money behind it. But I’m doing what I gotta do.”
With a live show that features a horn section, percussion, and DJ Static, it’s an experience that is a different beast from the album. “I was raised watching Run DMC, Public Enemy, Leaders of the New School…I studied that energy, it’s definitely not a lazy show or a jazzy show.”
Beyond touring, Hezekiah’s got more on his plate. A remix album for I Predict A Riot is completed, and he’s worked with Oddisee, Illmind, and Nottz to crank out what’s sure to be dope material that should see the light of day soon. As a member of Beat Society, he’s also working to bring the producer showcase back in January in a bigger and better way. The man truly eats, breathes, and sleeps music- and the end result is a steadily growing catalog that speaks volumes about a true craftsman in his field.
“To all the backpackers and okayplayers, stop complaining about there not being any good music out there! If you’re downloading and burning CDs and talking for two hours about how there’s no good artists for you, you gotta shut the fuck up, because you have no right to talk,” he laughs. “It’s like not voting and then complaining about who’s in office. So vote- buy music that you want more of. Put your money where your mouth is.” Wise words from a wise man who’s about to share his predictions with the world.
– Sean Kantrowitz