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Pick 6 with Cormega

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

Queensbridge Houses, North America’s largest public housing development, has given us some of the greatest hip-hop talents ever. From MC Shan to Craig G to Tragedy to Nas to Mobb Deep, its legacy is lengthy. And one man on that list of legends who truly embodies Queensbridge spirit and wisdom to the fullest is veteran MC Cormega. Though Mega had been doing his thing locally years prior to Nas’ Illmatic release in 1994, the masses first became aware of him when his name was dropped on “One Love,” an Up North shoutout of sorts that came at a time when he was incarcerated. Then rap fans began to connect the dots when he came home and started popping up on mixtapes, and of course on The Firm posse cut “Affirmative Action” off Nas’ platinum-selling sophomore LP It Was Written.

Cormega was noticeably absent on The Firm’s album in 1997, and his well-publicized Def Jam deal never produced a full-length release, but he was able to persevere and build a truly incredible solo career, lacing many more memorable guest appearances with artists in and out of Queensbridge, and dropping a string of solo albums in the 2000s that hard body hip-hop fans hold in high regard, including his classic debut The Realness. And now in 2014, he’s preparing to put out a new solo album Mega Philosophy, produced entirely by fellow Queens representer Large Professor, and led by his latest single “Industry,” an unfiltered lesson on the fuckery that goes on behind the scenes in the music business.

To get warmed up for Mega Philosophy, we hopped on the phone with Cormega earlier this week to discuss a handful of throwback gems from his celebrated discography for our latest Pick 6. Our selection is made up of Mega joints that we personally rocked ‘til our tapes popped, featuring Queens rap A-listers Nas, Mobb Deep, and Large Pro, out-of-borough superstars Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes, and production greats Marley Marl and The Alchemist. And he gave us the history behind each one (and a bonus), plus an added breakdown of his latest single. Check it out.

1. Kamakazee ft. Nas and Cormega “On The Real” (Original Version)

Cormega: “That was the first song I did when I came home from jail. I did a freestyle, also. I came home and went to Marley’s house, Marley scooped me up. Marley had a record deal for me before I went to jail, and a production deal. It was up to me [to sign]. So as soon as I came home from jail, Marley was ready to go. He came, picked me up, I was at his house, and we knocked out some music. And that was one of the songs we did. The track was already done, and Marley wanted me on the track, so I jumped on it. I didn’t know what it was supposed to be on, I was just a participant on it.

“I just came home at the time. I wasn’t used to being in the studio. I wasn’t comfortable. It took me a while to get acclimated to being in the studio again. But I was definitely anxious to get on a song. I thought it was a cool record, and people ended up enjoying it, and I was happy for that. That was my first real song that was out since I came home. People liked it a lot, more than I did. I liked it then, but I don’t like it as much now. I see where I could’ve done better at on the song. But everybody appreciated it at the time. It was a street song, and it definitely made a mark.

“The next song I got on was ‘Affirmative Action,’ which to this day is one of the most popular feature songs I’ve ever been on. The response is always incredible, and it was an honor to be involved in that project. I’m glad I was on that song. Then I did a freestyle for Funkmaster Flex Vol. II, and I was happy to be on that album. People said that I did my thing on there. And then the first feature I ever did for a soundtrack was ‘Unusual Suspects,’ with me, DMX, Ja Rule, and Fatal from the Outlawz. That’s a song that goes under the radar unless you’re a real hip-hop head.”


2. Mobb Deep ft. Cormega “What’s Ya Poison”

“I almost was on Hell on Earth, but the song didn’t make the album. It was called ‘Crime Connection.’ That was a dope joint, [but I think they couldn’t clear the sample]. So when the opportunity came for me to be on Murda Muzik, Havoc had a crazy beat, and I just made sure that I was gonna make the cut this time. It wasn’t gonna be my fault, because I was gonna go as hard as I possibly can. So I spit my verse, and I dug it.

“I still didn’t know if the song was gonna come out, because, people don’t know, Mobb Deep makes numerous songs before they put out an album, and then some of them don’t make the cut. That’s why they got so many unreleased gems. So when it made the album, I was proud. Being on a Mobb Deep album was something I wanted to do at that time. The feedback that I get from that at shows—that’s one of the songs I still perform, and when I do that, people lose their mind.

“[On the bootleg version of Murda Muzik], there was an acapella with Prodigy talking to me, and then I just start spitting in the car. It was on the bootleg, but it didn’t make the album. But the song did, so I was happy about that. It was called ‘Deer Park’ at one point, then ‘What’s Ya Poison’ [when the official album version came out].

“One of my favorite songs I ever did is ‘Killaz Theme’ with me and Mobb Deep. Like, I can’t listen to that song once. That’s Havoc. That’s what you call producing. If you play ‘Killaz Theme’ right now I’m gonna rewind it. And I don’t even like listening to my own shit, but that song is like, ‘Whoa.’”


3. Cormega ft. Lil Wayne “Who Can I Trust”

“I wrote the whole chorus and everything. At the time, Juvenile was the hot one from the Hot Boys in New York. People didn’t even know who Lil Wayne was at that time. I was like the first New York dude to do a song with Lil Wayne, to be honest with you. So, I remember when I did the song, the complaint in the hood was, ‘You should’ve got Juvenile.’ But I was like, ‘Nah, I like this guy Wayne.’

“I wrote the chorus, and he just said what I needed him to say. I was in the studio with them. Baby was in there with two Rolexes on. [Laughs.] Wayne was there, Turk was there. I met a lot of them. They [were] cool. You could tell they’re really from the street. That was something Chris Lighty made happen, God rest his soul. I was on Violator/Def Jam, that was the deal I had. It’s just that album never came out.

“My man Biz did that beat. Biz and Arkim, who was a guy who used to rap in Queensbridge. Then Violator got Alchemist to come in and do some stuff to it. Violator was perfectionists with their shit. But I doubt Alchemist would take credit for it if you asked him [even though him and Chris Lighty’s brother Jonathan ‘Lighty’ Williams are credited as producers on the song]. My man Biz did that beat straight up. It was fine the way it was. But the reason they didn’t beef with me is because they know I had nothing to do with that shit. Biz was like my manager, he was with me every day at the time. I was just as shocked as him. If anything, [the production credit] should’ve been shared.”


4. Cormega ft. Busta Rhymes “Freestyle”

“I was at Soundtrack Studios, and Busta used to record there also. I had that beat looped, and I wanted to spit on it, just to throw something out. So then I was like, ‘Yo Bust, you wanna do a freestyle with me?’ And then Bust was like, ‘Fuck it.’ He had that look like, ‘Wow. Yeah, I will. I am an MC, after all.’ And Bust was one of the biggest rappers around. He ain’t have to do that shit. But that’s what I love about Bust. We started rapping and freestyling, and you can hear that we [were] really having fun. He’s in the back laughing and shit. That was a fun moment in Soundtrack Studios. We just did it.

“That was just a simple loop [that I made]. I don’t like calling myself a producer, I don’t consider myself a producer. I consider myself a looper. If you give me a live band, I can produce, and tell you what to do, and the arrangement and all that. I did a lot of that on my new album, Mega Philosophy. But at that time, I was just a looper, so I don’t take credit for that shit. Like ‘American Beauty,’ I did that too, on The Realness album. That’s a loop.

“When producers give me simple shit, I don’t take it, unless their price is simple. You can’t try to give me a simple loop and charge me thousands of dollars. I’m like, ‘I can do that myself.’ I grew up in a black household, so soul music ain’t new to me. You ain’t gonna play me something that I heard my aunt play 300 times. And drums are easy. That’s easy, too. I can do the basics. What Havoc does is production. I can’t do that.”


5. Cormega “Fallen Soldiers (Remix)”

“That was the first [legitimate] beat that Alchemist did for me. That’s a song I get requests for at every show, pretty much. It’s too heartfelt. I just did a show in Chicago where they asked me to do that, and lately, I find myself fighting back tears when I do that song, because it’s so sincere and so real for me. It’s not some shit I created.

“Some rappers, somebody will die, and they’ll talk about that one person for thirty years. If I lost one person, I’d feel relieved to only grieve one person. I’ve lost countless people. Unfortunately, when the new year starts for me, my thoughts be like, ‘Damn, who’s gonna die this year? Whose last year is this?’ To even have [those] kind of thoughts is crazy, but that’s how my new years are. So many people died that I could make a ‘Fallen Soldiers’ on every album.

J-Love did the original one [which was also on The Realness], and Alchemist did the remix. On the remix, the verses are [about] different [people who passed away. I’m glad people like the songs], but I wish I never had to create [them].

“I met Alchemist through Jonathan Lighty, and through the Mobb. From what I understood, he appreciated me as an MC. A lot of the producers I met appreciated me as an MC, and that’s one of the things I’m proud of. I’m humbled and thankful to them. Like Hi-Tek, he wanted to work with me because he was a fan of mine as an MC. And I think it was the same with Alchemist. He gave me some beats to choose from, and ‘Fallen Soldiers (Remix)’ happened to be one of them. And ‘The Legacy’ was another one. He gave me those beats at the same time, I just saved ‘The Legacy’ for the next album.”


6. Cormega ft. Large Professor “Sugar Ray and Hearns”

“I remember that, that’s fresh in my head. It was off the Legal Hustle compilation album. I was in The Cutting Room in Manhattan. J-Love played me the beat, and I’m the type of dude who likes to have my beats in advance. If I’m gonna work with your track, you’ll know, because I’ll have the beat way before I go to the studio.

“So I was in the studio, and I was knockin’ that out. And I told Large, ‘Yo, you need to get on this.’ Large had just produced on my True Meaning album, but he didn’t rap on it, and I was hoping he would. I was like, ‘Yo, I want you to rap on this. People be forgetting you’re an MC too.’ He was like, ‘Word, Mega?’ And I was like, ‘Word.’ So we did it. He got on the joint, and it was short, and it was sweet, and people gravitated towards it.”


*Bonus* Cormega “Sex, Drugs, Bitches & Money (Part 2)”

“I did that at Hydra [Entertainment], that was the home of Screwball. They had a studio, and they said, ‘Let’s do some vinyl.’ And I did that. That was some recreational, fun shit. And I wanted to do it because I did it at a show one time, and everybody really liked it. I did [the original] ‘Sex, Drugs, Bitches & Money’ in Queensbridge back in the day [years before the new one came out]. That was one of the songs that had me buzzing in the hood. It had different verses [and a different beat].

“That song is crazy [with the last verse about having sex with famous female cartoon characters]. That’s not the type of song I’d do now. I wouldn’t perform that with my daughter near me. And the old one was just as vulgar.”


*New Single* Cormega “Industry”

“I did ‘Industry’ because a lot happens that needs to be spoken on, and there’s a lot of cowards in the industry. They just whisper amongst themselves, but they don’t try to change what’s going on, or speak on what’s going on. They just complain about it. Then, there comes a time when you have power—use it. There’s a lot of younger artists that tell me I influence them, so I said, ‘I’m gonna use my influence to give them some wisdom, so they can see what it is.’ I’m putting a mirror up to the industry.

“I’m very happy with the album. The album took longer than I wanted it to take, but I’m proud of the music that came out, and what I created.”

Follow Cormega on Twitter, and stay tuned for the Juice Crew remix of “Industry” coming soon. Mega Philosophy drops July 22nd.

Images via Cormega, Discogs, UpNorthTrips, Droptops and Stacy Lattisaw Tapes, and Trizzmatic.

Previously: Pick 6 with The Black Sheep Dres | Mixtape Memories: 20 Classic Nas Mixtape Cuts

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