Yo Cuns, it’s an honor and a pleasure to interview you! We would like to start off asking you about your role as a beatmaker: probably the first time we ever heard of you was on some releases by Noyz Narcos, Truceklan and, especially, on Gast’s “Underground Legend Mixtape” (One of the best Italian HH releases of the last decade in our opinion).
How and when did you first come into contact with Hip Hop culture? Can you tell us in detail about your first moves as a beatmaker, your artistic evolution, your ties with Gast and Truceklan and the various collaborations you entertained within the Italian scene?
Yes, you’re absolutely right, I had been playing around with beats for a while, but my first placements came out around the year 2000, in collaboration with Quadraro Basement. At the time I would often hang out with the guys from Truceklan, some of which I had known since the 90’s. They were of great influence during my adolescence. I came up between the writing scene, social centres and the Roman rave scene. I would open up their shows with DJ sets, meanwhile, I was producing beats for Louchano, who was working on the Ministero Dell’Inferno project, as well as for Noyz Narcos, Metal Carter, Gel etc…
Basically, during that time, two or three tracks I had produced were released. They were still quite rough and primitive. Gast (one of the best and most original Italian rappers) is certainly one of the people I have kept close contact with after all these years and the rapper I have the best chemistry with from a musical standpoint. That’s how, after a selective process, two of my beats made it on Underground Legend Mixtape. I personally considered that to be the first step ahead in the quality of my work.
After a hiatus of a few years, a new chapter began during which I began collaborating with overseas artists. This phase was direct consequence of the establishment of Tuff Kong Records. Having said that, I want to take a step back again to the end of the 90’s and name the person who first introduced me to this culture. It was my cousin Simone. He did this by means of two simple actions: the first was to lend me a copied cassette of “Funcrusher Plus” by Company Flow and the second step was to lend me a care package of 5 vinyls:
- O.G.C. “Da Storm”
- Heltah Skeltah “Magnum Force”
- Pharoahe Monch “Internal Affairs”
- Mobb Deep “Hell On Hearth”
- Method Man “Tical 2000”
What can I say, after that I was insatiably hungry for hip-hop. Even today the hunger persists
You were among the first to jump on the Griselda “wave” and fully understand the whole street-underground movement which was generated by their hype. In fact, we were very surprised to find out that already 3-4 years ago you were a part of two mini-projects with Conway The Machine and Benny The Butcher. How and when did you discover them? How did you establish a connection?
As I mentioned previously my hunger for hip hop never stopped growing. I was constantly buying vinyl, as well as downloading and listening to music on a continuous search for new sounds, as well as finding classics which had previously fallen below my radar. One day, as I scrolled through a nerdy website, I noticed WSG’s “Big L Half A Mil” video and I was transfixed by it.
I had already been listening to stuff by Marci and KA with that trademark “mellow” mood and drumless beats and was trying (to no avail) to get my friends to like it as well. So, that track by WSG and HWH2, that I listened to back to back only 5 minutes later, left me with a distinct feeling that something new was in the air. The next project I listened to was Reject 2 and that feeling started to become a certainty…
I simply contacted Conway and Benny via message, in a serious and concrete fashion, to talk about dropping a shared project and thats how these two mini Ep’s came about. I used this same technique to get in contact with all the artists I have worked with thus far. It seems overly simple if I think about it now!
The project with Conway was, if I’m not mistaken, Tuff Kong Records’ first release. Can you tell us about Tuff Kong Records? How and why did you embark on this adventure?
Yes, “Torch/Till I Go…”, with Sine on production, was Tuff Kong Records’ number 001 release. I would say that the label was set up for two main reasons: the first reason was practical in nature, I had made this mini EP with Conway and wanted to release it on vinyl.
The second reason was more ethereal, neither me nor Domenico, my business partner, knew at the time what we were doing, we didn’t have a clear intention or objective. But we did what we had to do. Both him and me have been into music since we were kids, he’s younger than me so he wasn’t even shaving yet ahah… what’s more at the time he had a newborn online vinyl shop that was slingin’ the best new releases. All this considered, starting Tuff Kong was as natural as walking from the couch to the fridge to get a beer.
Nowadays Tuff Kong Records, is a point of reference in the underground Hip Hop circuit for the pressing and distribution of vinyls, not only in the Italian market but worldwide. In other words you have exclusive rights for the sale and distribution of loads of LP’s especially ones produced in the US. Its safe to say you have accomplished a small miracle in a global industry that is dominated by streaming services and big labels… How did you achieve this level of success? What sets you apart from all your competitors in Europe and Worldwide? What is the future of this business?
I think the results we have achieved are a due to effort, passion and a bit of luck, which is always necessary. The Conway release started us off on the right foot and allowed us to make connections with people who were already willing to listen even if we weren’t yet on the map, it definitely helped us in the beginning phases.
For this reason I want to take the opportunity to thank people like PF Cuttin, Danno, Sine, V Don, Giallo Point, Mayhem Lauren, Benny, A.G, Daniel Son, Scarful “the wizard”, Stabber and all the others who helped and supported us from the start. After a delicate initial phase the wheels were set in motion and were well oiled. We started to fully realize what we were doing and the role we had in the scene, our collaborations with big names such as Alchemist, Muggs, AZ and Evidence, just to name a few, were a testament to this.
Everybody’s contribution to the scene is precious, however, two or three labels definitely inspired and were therefore instrumental in the creation of TKR. These are Daupe and Chopped Herring from the UK and Mello Music Group from the US, even though the last one I mentioned has a bit of a different setup and is more similar to classic record labels, at least in relation to what we have accomplished so far.
These considerations are also connected to my perception of our future and the vinyl market’s future in general, which today is fairly prosperous but tomorrow you never know judging by how fast the world is changing. Our interest in music though will never change, therefore sooner or later we will start t work more on 100% Tuff Kong releases rather than just the pressing of vinyl versions…
Going back to your role as a beatmaker, after your project with Conway you have collaborated with many other American artists: you have produced for some of the best MC’s in the underground scene from Crimeapple to legends like A.G and Guilty Simpson, just to name a few. How do these collaborations usually start? Can you tell us something about the work process? Is it all long distance or did you have the opportunity to work with some of these artists in a studio?
I have had the honor of collaborating with some of my favourite rappers. That is a great satisfaction. However long distances and day to day life has not enabled me to be in the studio with any of these cats, unfortunately. My collaborations have all been long distance. It is not so unusual for artists to collaborate via internet. For example I believe that Madlib and J Dilla made “Jaylib” (which is in my top 5 ever) without meeting even once personally. In any case I know that working together in a studio always gives the project a little something extra, so I hope to be able to set up a face to face collaboration as soon as possible.
Your latest international collabo, obviously released by Tuff Kong Records, is a two-man production with E.l.e.m.n.t (who also produces for Roc Marciano) on the album “Family Jewels” by Knowledge The Pirate, a rapper who often collaborated with Marci. What can you tell us about the creative process on this album? How did you find the right chemistry to work on this album?
On April 17th the album “Family Jewels” by Knowledge The Pirate will drop. The whole project is produced by me and E.L.E.M.N.T and will be preceded by the single “Oni Experience” which will be available April 3rd on Hip Hop DX. After successfully pressing up Knowledge’s first two albums, we decided that we wanted to work with this great artist on a whole project starting from scratch, we also wanted to increase the number of TKR releases.
The work process was very fast paced, we compared notes a couple of times to straighten out our differences in opinion here and there. We were always very active and that, in my opinion, is the best way to work. I’m not impressed when artists say everything is all good from the get go, sometimes that equates to a lack of interest on their part. A little discussion and loud talking are just a healthy symptom that you care about what is being done, especially when you are working prolifically.
Its safe to say that you are one of the main players (and a source of national pride we would add) in this underground street rap “renaissance”, as it is being called by many insiders. How do you explain this sudden rebirth? Who are your favourite producers and rappers at the moment? Do you feel that there is a similar movement in Italy? For example, in Rome, among the newcomers we have noticed Roma Guasta and were definitely impressed having seen they collaborated with you…
The phase we are currently going through in hip hop, not only in the underground, is a direct result of the previous dark age during which a lot of mediocre music was released, without a clear direction. Aside from legends and sporadic unknown dope rappers, which are very difficult to find in the underground maze, both new and old kings were only just staying afloat. In that scenario, around the year 2000, you would find guys like Sean Price (R.I.P), Roc Marciano, EL-P, Action Bronson, Mayhem Lauren and many other valid artists, some of whom have since disappeared. The sound we are talking about was already there in those days, but no one was listening so it didn’t last. The aforementioned artists lit the flame that would subsequently feed the fire of this new and expanding scene. As regards MCs, my favourites are: Crimeapple, Eto, Conway, Benny, Al Divino. Daniel Son; right now I am obsessed with Jah Monte and General Back Pain. Obviously I could also mention cats like Doom and Sean P who hold a special place in my heart, but there are many more I cannot include as the list would be too long. They know who they are.
As regards producers: J Dilla (RIP), Alchemist, Madlib and Muggs are at the top but, also in this case, there is a long list of pad murderers I would like to mention: Daringer, Sadhugold, Giallo Point, JOD, Ice Rocks, Real Bad Man, Icon Curties, Buck Dudley. Once again, I must be excused for not mentioning everyone I have in mind. In Italy things have been moving in a new direction for a while now.
As well as our little brothers from Roma Guasta, with whom we have something cooking, I would like to mention: Gioielli, BloB, Armani Doc and their whole click, Creep Giuliano, Silla DDR, D.Ratz and many other good artists who have recently emerged. I have to say I am rather optimistic right now, especially if I compare today’s scene to the state the Italian Hip Hop world was in previously. Of course there were always cats who were doing this shit in the right way from day one…
As well as making beats do you have other passions? You are a tattoo artist right? Can you tell us about it?
Yes, I have been a professional tattoo artist since 2008, when I found myself working “by chance” with something I had always considered as just a passion. To be exact, this is exactly what happened with Tuff Kong as well ahaha. However that story is too long to get into right now.
Tell us briefly about your past as a writer. Do you still find the time to dedicate to this discipline? What crews did you militate in? What can you tell us about the roman scene nowadays?
Regarding graffiti I want to tell you a short story about how my passion for this art form started. My efforts as a writer have always been checkered and not very prolific, mostly bombings. However even today I really enjoy painting a wall on a nice summer day with beers, a stereo blaring and a joint in my hand. I try to keep it “safe” because at 40 years of age, if I start running, they’re gonna catch me for sure ahahah… anyway back to my story:
It was 1994 during an occupation of the Tasso high school in Rome. I was sitting on the courtyard steps with some friends, rolling up joints and smoking, while three youngsters were painting the wall in front of us with some spray cans. At first I was too busy to notice but, after a while, as I smoked and chilled, I realized that shapes, letters, numbers, colours, bubbles, stars, cracks, lights and reflections were starting to take form on the wall and I found myself sitting there for two or three hours, in silence, soaking up the magic that was taking place.
Then, as I lay hypnotized, I saw they had completed their back to back and it said: “CINNA60GREY SAN LORENZO 1994 KIDS SIX LONG YEARS”. It was obviously the KIDZ from San Lorenzo CINA, NAPAL and GREY. That was so cool! Even more so because I myself am from the neighbourhood of San Lorenzo. This is the main reason why I decided to pick up a spray can and start doing tags and throw-ups. I would like to finish off by saluting the kings who most impressed me during those years and who are forever part of Rome’s graffiti history:
KIDZ, MT2, ETC/TRV, TBF/SB, TMH, SHM, 015, WAK, IEMS, KOMA, GAST, STAND, ASER, GAME, NOYZ, HUBE, KEMH, BINK, COT, SUGO, PANE, JOE, KAMA/ZOIA R.I.P., KIMO, ZEUS, GUFO, CHINA, CREMA, MEYO plus all the other friends and “enemies” who were “getting up” at the time. A special shout out goes to those who are still active today, I really respect them!
Any future projects you want to talk about? We noticed, for example, that Tuff Kong Records is currently working on something with Skyzoo and a group of Italian jazz musicians…
There’s a lot on our plate at the moment. Skyzoo & Dumbo Station is an amazing Jazz/Hip Hop collaboration between the Brooklyn rapper and a Roman Jazz band which pays homage to Blue note records and the Borough of Brooklyn. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it! I believe this project can go beyond the realm of Hip Hop, it is truly on another artistic level, you’ll see! Aside from this, a lot more is being forged in the gorilla’s foundry. For example there are three projects almost entirely produced by me, ready to be released. We are just touching up on the artwork and other details right now, I don’t wanna spoil anything… but they revolve around three cities: NY, LA and Toronto.
Mad props and thanks again Cuns… Big up for all the results you are achieving!
Thank you guys and I hope to meet again soon for another chat. Peace