Written by Adam E. Smith (@theadamesmith)
Founder of Weightless Recordings, Rhymesayers Entertainment signee, half of the duos Soul Position with RJD2 and Greenhouse Effect with Illogic, and thirteen years deep in the game as a well respected emcee and producer, Albert Shepard aka Blueprint aka Printmatic is a purists personification of hip-hop. Bred and educated both academically and musically in the Columbus, Ohio area, Shepard has a revealing regional history that finds itself intertwined with the rise of some of the genre’s most influential members of the last decade. A dip into his vast discography presents conceptual instrumental records, acclaimed rap efforts, and unique projects that reimagine rock and roll greats The Who and funk legends Parliament Funkadelic. All of that before you branch out into his collaborative pairings with the likes of Aesop Rock, Slug, Eyedea, Vast Aire, and the previously mentioned Illogic and RJD2 (who debuted a new track two weeks ago on RollingStone.com that features Blueprint).
Now just weeks before the drop of his newest project Deleted Scenes, Sherpard has leaked two tracks that cames as a result of the 75 he recorded for 2011’s Adventures in Counter-Culture. The first, “American Dream,” reflects what we have come to expect from the producer/emcee – a uniquely engaging beat, expertly forged lyrical content, and a boldly paced cadence that serves as the parameters of his flow. The second, “Never Grow Old,” dropped last week and utilizes a two-stepping tongue wrestle flow in slow motion that is iced by sultry vocals from Angelica Lee. Today the Daily Chiefers are proud to present an exclusive track from Deleted Scenes, “Senseless,” to accompany Part 1 of our in-depth conversation with Blueprint about what it took for one of Ohio’s finest artists to reach this pinnacle in his career.
Senseless by BLUEPRINT
Ohio is an undisputed producer of high caliber hip-hop artists, yet still remains underrated, and the target of an inexplicable skepticism. What do you think it is about your home state that produces noteworthy and driven artist like yourself (musically, culturally, and socially), yet still seems to remain a backburner hub for the genre?
Ohio is able to come up with so much talent because, even though most people don’t know it, the state is pretty heavily populated. People think that Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio are similar just because they’re considered Midwestern states, but Ohio is a completely different animal. It has more large cities than most states, you’ve got Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, which are all cities with well over a million people in each of them. On top of that you’ve got cities like Dayton, Toledo, and Akron that are smaller, but are still larger than the capital of a lot of other Midwestern states. Within that you’ve got a lot of different types of people. Cincinnati feels like a Southern city, Columbus is really liberal and artsy, and Cleveland is just rugged. We’ve even got some smaller towns like Yellow Springs that are considered more “hippie” towns. People underestimate Ohio. I think the mentality that allows us to create the music we make is our blue-collar environment rooted in the state’s manufacturing history. Our artists aren’t afraid to take a workman-like approach to their music. Granted, there are some lazy cats here too, but I would bet that even the lazy people have family members who have been a part of the manufacturing or auto industry in our state, and applied that to their lives.
What was the Columbus, Ohio hip-hop scene like when you were coming up? What is it like now, and who are some local icons that outsiders should know about?
When I first started getting into the Columbus hip-hop scene, it was around 1995, and that was strictly as an observer. Back then there was a lot of activity among the artists, but there wasn’t necessarily a scene to support them in place. There were open mics and lots of battles, but the venues in Columbus didn’t start allowing hip-hop to play there until several years later. The crews that I considered pioneers of the time were The MHz, which was Camu Tao, Copywrite, Jakki The Motormouth, Tage, RJD2, S.P.I.R.I.T., The Intalec, DJ Drastic, DJ Phase, and Brothers Grimm. There was really only one big local hip-hop event in Columbus for a number of years, The Hip-Hop Expo, and that’s where you would go to see battles and the biggest crews performing. The Expo was like Columbus’ version of the Scribble Jam, before the Scribble Jam existed. Other than that, there was also an open mic at a spot called The Groove Shack.
I started watching the scene then, but I didn’t live in Columbus at the time, so I wasn’t confident enough to participate. I started participating around 1998 or 1999, when my crew Greenhouse released our first tape. People responded to it well, so that was our in. When we started coming up, The MHz, Weightless, and Spitball were the crews in Columbus that helped push our scene into the national spotlight. MHz had released 12-inch singles on Bobbito Garcia’s label Fondle ‘Em, and they blew up off that. They were the first local legends as far as I’m concerned. They were the first people who had music that people knew the words to. My crew, Weightless, came up next with the Greenhouse Effect and Illogic tapes that started spreading on the internet. Then I went on to form Soul Position with RJD2, which led us to Rhymesayers and Def Jux. Spitball was DJ PRZM’s crew, and along with us, they were one of the most prominent crews in Columbus between 1999 until 2005. They weren’t as big nationally, but they were legends in the city and well respected.
As for the current Columbus hip-hop scene, it was built while Spitball, Weightless, and MHz were on their game. Prior to that there was really no support in retail, press, or in music venues. Those crews helped change that. Now the scene has changed a bit because there isn’t as much national momentum with the younger cats, but there are some guys that I think have the potential to do big things. I would say that P. Blackk and L.E. for the Uncool are my two favorite newer cats on the scene. They’ve both got good heads on their shoulders and really strong music.
On that same point, does regional affiliation really even matter anymore in the digital era? The hip-hop community restored that rock and roll theme of geographic significance – Southern rock, Chicago Blues, West Coast Jam Rock, etc, – that defined entire generations of music. Are we losing the core foundation of location-based sounds, and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?
I think it matters when the artists make it a priority. One of the biggest examples of it still working is with what Rhymesayers has done for Minneapolis hip-hop artists. As a collective they’re able to get the kind of momentum that would be hard for any of them to get by themselves. It gives the people in their state something to be proud of. I think people want to be proud of things that come from their backyard and what they represent, but the artists have got to do the work and give them something to be proud of. If you manage to create a strong local following for your collective it can be a really effective thing.
Releasing music digitally does allow some artists the ability to skip certain local steps, but I think it still matters once the press and fans find out where they’re from. They’re going to get affiliated with whatever sound is going on in their area, even if they don’t have any direct ties to it. That’s probably just a consequence of fans having more information than ever, but in terms of regional affiliation it’s also what keeps that concept intact. Plus, if you build your career totally on the press, and ignore the grassroots stuff, it can be taken away from you as soon as the press stops writing about you as much.
What was the moment, or series of events in your life, that pushed you to take the plunge and dedicate yourself to making music?
First of all, I never really thought I would be able to have a career in music when I first started releasing records. I was a computer programmer with a degree in computer science. I had just started working. I was making good money and music was just my escape and hobby at first. Then after a couple records I released started to stick, I started to change my feelings. I remember when I produced a record for Illogic called “Got Lyrics?” in 2001, and right after it came out he quit his job and started touring with Eyedea. He was doing music full time. Then I saw RJD2 do it around the same time, right after his album Deadringer came out. It was really weird to see my dudes living off music at first. I was still apprehensive because I was caught up on how society defines success. Having a 9-to-5 job, health insurance, and a steady income. People tend to look down at artists as if they don’t work hard, or assume being a full-time artist is easy. I think I was going through the process of shaking those expectations off, and really re-evaluating things because my friends were doing it before me.
Around the same time that my friends were becoming full-time artists, my job wasn’t going well. I didn’t like the work I was doing, and I couldn’t seem to get promoted or moved into a department that did the kind of work I wanted to do. I had actually tried to quit long before any of my rap stuff took off, but my boss talked me out of it. So, I went back to work, but decided that I needed to choose a different path in my life at some point. I started saving money, with hopes of relocating from Cincinnati to Columbus, but little did I know that the Soul Position record was going to stick like it did. That record hit and changed everything for me. I got offered a few opportunities to tour, and accepted one of the tours using the vacation time I had saved up from work. I expected to have to go back to work when the tour was finished, but I was financially able to stay away a little longer. I told myself that it was a month-by month-decision. Since then it’s been ten years of doing music full-time. It’s been the best thing that’s happened to me, and has change my life for the better in many ways.
Your commentary and lyrics reflect your scholarly approach to hip-hop. Did you always study hip-hop? With so much in the way of history and daily developing news, how do you stay in tune with it all?
I never really considered myself a student of hip-hop until the 1988 record. That was actually the first time I made a deliberate decision to study a certain style of hip-hop, and try to understand it at an emotional and technical level. Go beyond what a fan does. Prior to that I did what I was feeling, but never really tried to understand the nuances of it. After that experience I felt like I should be studying more music, and I opened up the scope of the music I sought to understand. That’s a large part of the reason Adventures in Counter-Culture sounds like it does. It was me going from studying one year in hip-hop to now studying almost every genre of music I had ever come in contact with.
I think most hip-hop producers are naturally students because what they do requires a lot technically. You have to be able to understand drums before you program drums. I was into vinyl and listening to records for loops and samples, but what I didn’t know at the time was that I was actually learning about every genre of music that I came in contact with. Even if I didn’t sample anything off an album, I still had to listen to it. That opened up my mind.
I have asked other hip-hop artist this question, and it is usually the most revealing of all inquires in an interview. If you had not pursued music, what do you think you would be doing right now?
I would probably either be programming computers, hopefully with some sort of software development company, or I would be editing film. After graduating with my degree in Computer Science, I wished I had studied video editing. This was before everybody had the ability to do it on their desktop. I didn’t want to feel like the degree I got was a waste, so I just pushed forward doing what I was doing, even though I was always fascinated with video editing.
What initially inspired you to rap and make music before you ever really did it as a profession?
I grew up in a musical house and attended a very musical church. We had choirs, quartets, and bands. I was around ten or eleven when I first started playing trombone in the band, and got exposed to that part of it heavily. There were some guys who could read and compose music, but everything I learned was by ear. I had a really good understanding of music by the time I was fourteen from being in R&B groups with my buddies. It wasn’t hip-hop, but I was in a group that had a management deal, and we had a production contract before I graduated high school. That whole situation got really ugly and intense, so I kind of gave music up when I graduated, and never got back into it until I met my college friends who were into hip-hop really heavily. By the time I got to college, I had been through so much that I didn’t want to think about anything but books.
Did you rap or produce first?
I was freestyling first, but I got into DJing before that, which is what got me really into beat making. I was deeply into beat making long before rhyming. To me, there’s nothing like that feeling you get when you’re lost in the studio for hours on end, searching for that perfect sample, or trying to write that perfect melody. I feel like rap is something I need other people to fully enjoy, but production is something I can fully enjoy by myself. Early in my career I didn’t care about being a rapper or frontman, I just wanted to make beats and play my role in the group. I never thought about being a solo artists until RJD2 asked me about recording with him.
You seem to balance your endeavors into those two facets of hip-hop, and it’s often hard to weigh in on which one you are “better” at from a critical perspective. Is there a tangible rationalization for why you might put out a full instrumental record one year, and then drop a rap-driven album with almost no overlapping themes next?
There are probably a couple reasons for that. The first is because as an artist, the first thing I always look for is inspiration and challenge. Sometimes that challenge means doing something more consistently or better than anyone else, and other times that challenge is in proving to myself that I can do things that nobody else is doing or has done before.
The second reason is that at a fundamental level I am a huge fan of hip-hop. My desire to do instrumental albums comes from being a huge fan of the early work of DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, Prince Paul, DJ Spooky and the first wave of trip-hop producers. Because I’m such a fan of those albums, and because I saw myself as a producer before I ever saw myself as an emcee, I always find enjoyment in those kinds of records. Now, over time I’ve found that releasing no two records that sound the same makes it somewhat hard to gain momentum, but as an artist I’m just doing what I feel in my heart. I’m thankful that I’ve had the outlets to express that, and I definitely feel like Rhymesayers has been really supportive.
What is the writing process like for you? When you are producing and rapping on a project, do you make the beat first and write to it, or produce the beat to bars you have written with a cadence in mind?
When I first started writing I would just write to write, and it didn’t matter if I had a beat or not. I would just write. But for the past five or six years I’ve written only to specific pieces of music. I’m inspired by the mood of the music, and my goal is to write things that compliment that piece of music. Because I only write to specific pieces of music I don’t ever have random verses laying around that could go to anything like I used to have back in the day.
Also, I rarely produce a song fully until I know it’s good. I start all my ideas at the piano and try to write a piece of music, or a melody, or a riff that moves me. Once I find that riff I write to it. Just to the piano. Very rarely do I have any drums behind any of the beats I write to. The mood is more important to me than the drums or rhythm of the beat nowadays. Once I understand the mood of the music, writing songs becomes much easier. I didn’t really learn that process until the Adventures in Counter-Culture album.
What inspires you beyond music, after being at it for the amount of time that you have been doing it, to keep producing, writing, performing and innovating?
I’m inspired by the fact that music is endless. Some people may be considered masters in their respective field or genre, but because music is so vast it is impossible to master. That challenge is what inspires me. I wrote in one of my blogs that music, at least to me, is like a beach. Any person’s knowledge of it is restricted to the amount of sand they can hold in their hands. So even if you pick up two handfuls of sand, you can never hold it all. Knowing that even if I learn everything in my reach, there’s still an infinite amount of things I don’t know. Because of that, I’m inspired by music as a fan more than ever right now. A lot of artists get more jaded and uninspired as their careers go on, but I’m the opposite. The more time I get with music, the more inspired I get to take it higher. I become more appreciative of the time I’ve already been blessed to put into the craft.
You thrive in the context of collaborative efforts. Hip-hop seems to be a genre that is not only open to that approach, but can seemingly define and verify your skill level in a self-policing kind of way. It can be exploited, of course, and that wasn’t always the meta-game. For you personally, what is it about working closely with so many different artists that has made you into the rapper you were previously, and more importantly, are today?
Well, one of the first things that I can say I’ve learned from the different people I’ve worked with, that isn’t even a technical thing, is that every artist has a different way of doing things. Every artist views the world differently, and because they view the world differently, their approach to their art is different. The art is an expression of the way we see the world, so what I’ve learned from everybody is more personal than technical. I’ve come to understand them as people by being so intimately involved in the art they make. I understand what inspires and drives them, and even what they don’t want to be. I think that’s the biggest takeaway from those experiences. Also, working with other people allows you to see yourself in a way that maybe you never would have. The fact that I never used to see myself as being a solo artist was changed mostly due to the talented artists I worked with telling me otherwise. I was empowered by their confidence in me in a way that I couldn’t empower myself. That understanding molded me into the artist I am today. I believe I have also had the same effect on them.
How did you first come to work with RJD2? He has been killing crowds of all different backgrounds for a long time. Now that the electronic era has come back two fold, he seems to be finding his past due success. Hell, even you have dabbled in that style of music. How do you feel about that current electronic-rooted sonic trend that seems to be dominating mainstream pop, hip-hop, and anything else it can touch?
I first met RJD2 in Columbus through a mutual friend named DJ True Skills. It was around 2000, and True Skills was DJing for my crew Greenhouse Effect. He heard the instrumental album I was working on called Chamber Music, and told me that I should meet this cat named RJ. He had just moved back to Columbus from the Bay. He told me RJ made instrumental music too, and we would hit it off. So one weekend when I was in Columbus visiting my family, True Skills took me over to RJ’s house and we played our demos for each other and hung out. My demo at the time was Chamber Music and his were of Deadringer. A few months later, RJ came out to a Greenhouse show and saw me and my crew perform for the first time. He asked me if I had ever thought about doing any solo stuff. I said no, so he asked me if I wanted to record a couple songs with him for a 12-inch deal he had on an European label. He and I started working on music, and decided to form Soul Position because the demos were coming ou strong. The first songs we recorded were “Final Frontier”, “Just Think”, and “Share This.” RJ got signed to Definitive Jux Records, and I wanted Soul Position to be on Rhymesayers, so we took that album over there. We had great relationships with the people at both labels, so it was just a matter of doing what made the most sense. He and I were working together long before Deadringer came out, so we were just happy to see things pop off.
As far as the electronic thing goes, I try not to get too caught up in where it’s at currently. Not that I’m ignoring it, because I think it’s in a great place, but I try to view electronic music and instruments with as much historical context as possible. That way I won’t follow or resent any of the trends, you know? For me, I have a relationship with synthesizers that is more emotional and ideological, rather than what they mean to popular culture at the moment. Synths make me feel a certain way, and allow me to express certain things that I can’t express using samples. Because of that they’re always going to be fresh to me. When I started making Adventures in Counter-Culture in 2006, there weren’t many underground acts using synthesizers except El-P and Anti-Pop Consortium. J Dilla would sample them. Those guys were pioneers for doing that at a time when nobody else in our lane did.
When I was working on Adventures I went and studied a lot of the early electronic records. All the early vinyl records where the Moog started to pop up playing classical songs. You know, early Krautrock stuff where they were experimenting with electronic music like Kraftwork, Tomita, Jarre, and Tangerine Dream. I studied a lot of those albums and then moved forward to shit like Daft Punk, drum and bass, and early trip hop. Once I took that approach I had a better understanding of electronic music, and my understanding was more about its place historically, as opposed to the cats who are only fucking with it now because dubstep is the most popular music. I love electronic instruments, but I try not to trip about what electronic music is doing at the current moment. It’s good to see an art form that has been around for so long finally get it’s due. I just hope that the new fans of it go back and do their diligence and study the pioneers.
Blueprints’ new record Deleted Scenes drops October 16th on Weightless Recordings. Check back here for Part II of our interview.