Parrish Smith Interview (by A to the L)
If you’re even THINKING about asking “Who’s Parrish Smith?” then you’re on the wrong site, listening to the wrong music, and are in serious danger of me getting on a flight, jetting to where you’re at, and PERSONALLY kicking your ig’nant ass. As 50% of EPMD, rap music’s own version of Starskey & Hutch, Parrish (PMD) Smith is already a Hiphop legend. With the release of his new album “The Awakening” imminent, I had the opportunity to chat with P on his own career, the current status of EPMD, and a whole host of other shit. This is how it went down…
You started out as a dj right?
In the Rock Squad?
P: Wow… yeah.
Did you ever imagine that both you and Hiphop would ever be so big someday?
P: Nah. It was just that I had a big heart for the rap game… and it was just an idea. And then I just kept following my heart, made sure I didn’t get distracted… and it led to this.
And what made you make the jump from DJing to rhyming?
P: Because, before Hiphop was even NAMED Hiphop, my brother used to be cool with Bambaataa… and he had DJ Red Alert and DJ Jazzy Jay and all of them… and so the first thing that I got introduced to was the turntables. Then you had the Run DMC era come out, you had Rakim come out… and Rakim was like 3 towns away from us, and it created a buzz. And that’s when I switched off the turntables, and became the Microphone Doctor! (laughs)
And where did Erick fit into the equation?
P: Erick moved to my neighbourhood. He used to live in a different neighbourhood maybe 10 miles from my home. We ended up going to the same school… we used to ride the same bus… and he used to have dope rhymes all the time – stories, not just regular raps. I already had turntables and DJ equipment then, and I used to tell him “One day man, when we get the opportunity to get in the studio – watch we gonna blow up.”
When you put out “Strictly Business” you were rolling with Teddy Ted and Special K and your rep immediately came across on wax as that of two chill cats who seemed that they’d be cool to hang out with. Did they ever put any pressure on you to come out rocking the same style that Nice N Smooth eventually had success with, with the whole suits and hats and shit?
P: No, not at all. The situation with Teddy Ted and Special K was this – basically, if there was any hot record out there, they had the clean version. So when me and Erick went into the studio and we did our first tape, Sleeping Bag records liked the song, but the copy that I looped from ‘7 Minutes Of Funk’ was all scratchy, and I couldn’t find nobody who had a better version. And Special K and Teddy Ted was the only ones we could get in touch with to get a clean copy – actually Sleeping Bag hooked that up. And from there… that’s how our friendship started. But they never tried to change us, and switch our styles… we already had the style from Long Island you know? Just straight B-Boys.
And when you finally did get into the studio, what way did you handle the production? Was it a 50/50 split between you and Erick?
P: Basically, with EPMD when we first started, I did all the production… cos, you know, I was coming from the background of the whole DJ thing. And plus my brother was signed to Tommy Boy records – Smitty D and the Rock Squad… so I’d seen all the stuff that he and been through with whatever the case may be. So my perception of the industry at that point was wrong…
In what way?
P: Well, I thought that you had to write your own lyrics, and do your own beats. That’s the way I came in the game… and luckily I DID come in like that… because the game is like – somebody writes for you, somebody else does the beats… and you’re the third party. But I came in with a good background in music – I’d heard so much music by the time I was 13 or 14 years old from my older brothers and the T-Connection going to the Bronx. And ‘Seven Minutes Of Funk’ was always that song they threw on, and the emcees would start wiling. So when I got old enough, a generation later, I went right in the studio – and NOW it makes sense because Red Alert was running Hiphop, and all those people who were making Hiphop back in ’79 were now in business positions to make things happen for people like myself.
I’m sure most of Hiphop is aware of some of the circumstances of the EPMD breakup, so I aint gonna cover old ground –
P: Don’t sweat it man… feel free to ask me anything!
Well rather than focusing on what led to you guys breaking up… what happened with Parrish Smith in the immediate aftermath?
P: Well, in ’92 when EPMD broke up I just took like a whole year… almost 2 years off… because there was really like no competition out there for me personally. I mean, Erick and I worked on rhymes and music together, but the business I did myself. So after doing 4 gold EPMD albums, the Redman success, and the Das EFX and K-Solo, I felt it was time for a break. And also, you know, the family life comes in… I mean you have a lot of success, and you make a little money, but how successful are you really, if your family ain’t doing good? You look like a schmuck.
So I had to go back to the hood… help some people out… and what that actually did was give me a better perspective on who I am. And it also led me right back to what made me want to grab the mic in the first place… but this time, with a better understanding. So from ’92 up to the present, its just been basically learning… and its led up to the PMD “Awakening” album coming independent. Because I did a 360 – I came IN on an independent label, Sleeping Bag… I sold 80,000 records, they told us to do an album, and from what I understand they SAY we went platinum… but we only ever get credit for 800,000. Then after 2 successful albums I went to another independent label, Def Jam. And then I tried to do my own thing – but I didn’t have enough knowledge… but I was around Russell and them.
Now that the game has changed, and the politics have changed, and its outta the hands of the streets and its more in the hands of the corporations, you HAVE to know how to run your own label. To make a long story short – I couldn’t continue to be a dope emcee if my music couldn’y get out. So, I can’t take that risk – I never took it with EPMD and I’m never gonna take it with myself. So I was out there doing music, but my mind was somewhere else learning the game, you know? Steve Rifkind was telling me a couple of things, Russell was telling me a couple of things, and Lyor… to the point now that we’re in 2003, and if you don’t know how to run your own independent label like myself, or see 50 Cent – he had to do all of his independent stuff in order to GET his big chance with Eminem. There’s no more bringing in a demo, on that put me on and blow me up style. So as time went on, I rocked with Das EFX, then me and E got back together, we starting rocking EPMD again… but I always knew that there was another side of me that had to come out… and that’s what this album is.
If I remember right, Erick dropped his solo before you got yours out. What did you think of his first solo joint when it dropped? (Did you go back and rework some of your shit based on what you’d heard? Did you think “Damn we both coulda killed that beat as a team?”)
P: Its sorta wild that you say that, cos for me to say I felt just one thing wouldn’t be the correct answer. I felt a couple of things, you know? Because before Erick did his solo, he didn’t really do too much music – he really only started producing seriously with Redman. Prior to that, the first 3 EPMD albums I was doing all the music, and then he just started catching up. But to be honest with you, I’d already let go of the line in ’92… and by the time Erick’s album came out, I was already in the hood, just listening to it… and the beats I was definitely feeling, and it kinda turned on the side of me that I’d turned off, you know? But as far as me going in the studio – my first thought was that I didn’t think any EPMD fans would want any of us going solo… so I was already in my mind like, “Yo I don’t wanna do this, and I’m NOT doing it.”
Well yeah it did sound strange, because you listen to the solo joints from then, and you’re hearing Erick spit and you’re waiting for P to come in with a follow up verse and vice versa…
P: Right. I’m still there. And that’s why as you grow older and you start to look into and find out about the history of music, you do stuff as a group, but then you also do stuff on the side to occupy yourself… because the key to life is to basically make yourself as happy as possible, and be all you can be. So, I work good at my own pace, and each of us is getting stronger in our lives, and then you come back and its like we mean business. We go in the studio, and we don’t even have to think about the rhymes anymore, we’re already THERE… we’ve learned it from Run, we’ve learned it from Russell, you know… EPMD is some serious shit! (laughs)
Yeah but there ain’t many veterans still around pushing records. What’s the secret? I mean Kane is making a 2nd comeback attempt, Rakim has struggled, but on the other hand, LL and Dre are still getting the job done and shifting units. Is it truly a commercial thing, or is there more to it than that?
P: See, that’s a great question, because at the end of the day, its all about how you wanted to be perceived in the Hiphop game. The industry only remembers what you did last… so you’re on the phone with the guy who dropped ‘Crossover’… and to this day I feel that there’s a way of doing Hiphop music to define it. Because nowadays you can’t tell what’s Hiphop, and what’s cross over pop. So that’s why with myself, in order for me to be who I am in the game, I have to understand the business side (that’s why all my titles are business-related), I have to understand the lyrical side, and the music side, to the point where I don’t ever have to sacrifice or put myself in a position where I’m sitting in a room, and somebody’s saying, “Well we feel you need to go this way with your career. We feel that you should take the hook and make it more like this.” Nobody tells me that. But by the same token in my heart and in my mind, I know where today’s music is to make something just as hot, but without selling out.
But don’t you find it hard to take that nowadays even cats that was down with you in the day, are doing that very thing? Redman, Meth, Dre, Rakim have all busted out verses and beats on commercial shit, and it seems that because of WHO they are heads aren’t screaming at em. But 10-12 years ago we’d all have been raising up and screaming “Sellout”…
P: Right. You on top of your Hiphop man. You’re there. And there’s very few of us left. But we gotta stand fast – we ain’t supposed to fold… because all that shit is gonna go. It comes and goes – I mean Hammer came and went… and I mean I know Hammer, but now that time has gone on and we all have more insight on the game, we can speak. So that’s why I’m like, “OK, fuck it.” I’ll do my independent label I’ll put my own shit out, and this way I don’t have to get 70 or 80 cents a record. I can sell 4 times less what I normally do, and still get double what I normally get back. And all the time I’m doing something that makes me happy in life. I already rocked 20 cars, I already have 7 houses, and all the chains and all of that. Now, I’m focusing on Hiphop and rebuilding that bridge for the next generation so they can catch an opportunity.
You’ve always seemed to carry that image as the guy who was taking care of business…
P: Right. And that was when I was young and that was just a lot of energy. Now I’m older and wiser, and I got that knowledge and experience… matter of fact today’s my birthday! This shit is crazy.
Happy Birthday man!
P: Yo, thanks a lot man!
What are you? 18? You wish you were 18?
P: (laughing) Nah, nah, nah man…. I wish. I’m 35 years old, but I’m good though, cos Dr Dre is 39. So I’m chilling. I’m real good man. I’m where Russell was when he got that $120 million! No more letting time go by now for P – you know, you’re home in the hood and you’re listening to so many people telling you who you are, and you be like, “Alright, fuck it.” Next thing you know, you’re doing that shit, and its coming natural. Next thing you know, you’re in your rhythm. I ain’t here to sell records, or try to be all out there on the TV. I lived the life man, and I’m still living it! I don’t go to work – I rap!
P: Yeah ain’t it a trip? But think about what I could’ve been – I could’ve dropped one tape, and went out there and played myself. I could be gone. But I love the game so much, that I stayed and stayed and stayed, cos there’s something here – and its for anybody who understands this game, and wants to bang hard, 48 hours out of the day when there’s only 24. So I ran hard from ’87-’92… then I rested up… learned the game, seen it from the back… me and Erick have done a lotta shows off the back of his ‘Music’ and ‘React’ joints… and now I’m like, “OK – I’m good.”
After the EPMD split, the Hit Squad went their separate ways. And you’d have to admit that Redman (and later Keith Murray) have had more success than Das Efx and K Solo. How did you cope with seeing that situation developing amongst your friends at the time, and did it make things difficult at all when everyone hooked up again on “Back In Business?”
P: Well basically when we first broke up, we were all young. K-Solo had been rocking from ’88 I think, so he was just as tired as I was. Das EFX had sold 2 million records, but they were more commercial than Redman and us. And then Keith Murray came in behind the breakup, when EPMD and the Hit Squad was still hot, and he came through on ‘Hostile’ and he caught a good look. But after everybody got to where they got, including myself, we realised we needed each other. And it wasn’t about what we thought – it was about what the fans and the heart of Hiphop thought… and those who accepted that, would continue to make progress… those who wouldn’t would continue to be struggling with themselves. I did that for 11 years, thats why I had to let it go.
So you’re still cool with Das EFX? I know they trying to come back out on the independent route too…
P: Yeah. Drayz is actually on my album, on a joint called ‘Next Chapter’, and he’s ripping it… and then me and Erick got a track together, and on ‘Back To Work’ I’m kicking it with K-Solo and Fat Joe. But everybody basically just had to learn. I’m just fortunate cos I was there with Steve Rifkind, Russell Simmons, and Lyor Cohen, and Sylvia, while they were taking care of business, as WELL as rocking the mic in the studio.
Whatever happened to that Top Quality cat that was out on PMD Records?
P: Yo, I think he’s still doing music. You know whats so bugged about that to me? At the time I’d taken a step back, but people were still running my company and putting stuff out, and to this day people still bring up Top Quality, because the kid was dope. I just never really got to work with him.
Well personally I copped it blind, just because it was on PMD Records… I think a lot of people probably did the same…
P: Ain’t that crazy? And that’s how you learn the business and the skills of marketing and promotion and economics. Even the whole Hit Squad image with the hoodies and tims, and everyone dressing down and unique, but still recognisable as one unit… that has helped to mould the whole Hiphop culture to what it is today. Like Hit Squad’s the first squad of all squads… but now you have Terror Squad, Firing Squad, Flipmode, coming off the back of Hit Squad, and that’s all dope. That’s like a compliment. I’m showing everyone another part to this – I showed you the business… and now if you listen close, I’ma show you how to get it. I ain’t into this for money, or to sell records, cos I’m already happy with myself. I did 11 years of hard work to reach this position –
Yeah, but you were still enjoying yourself, right?
P: Oh no doubt. I was having fun. I was on the ground, on tour, making records… I was definitely enjoying the hard work! But then I came back to the real world, and learned all over again. That’s what they say – sometimes you gotta lose your mind to reinvent yourself and be free.
Lets talk about the new album. What’s the significance in the title, “The Awakening”?
P: Because I led the first team to get to where we at, at this point. And basically I left with the understanding that I did my job, and its time for you guys to represent and take it to the next level like we did. The same way that Bam and Herc left it to Run DMC… the same way we thought it was gonna go down in Hiphop – but it didn’t work out that way. And how could it, when me and Erick was acting the way we was acting? So, we’re expecting Hiphop to evolve THIS way… but meanwhile we’re not leading by example. So a lotta cats today don’t have that growth, and that older figure to kick that knowledge and provide a foundation… like if we messed up, we had Russell standing there, we had Run there, DMC, Chuck D, Fresh Prince, all like “Yo! Slow down! Yo, you wilding – you don’t need no rims that size! Yo, why is your chain down to the cement? Fall back!”
With these guys, basically we set this while thing up for them, put the money there, and the whole atmosphere and then bounced with no instruction. And now a lot of them are gonna experience what we experienced, but they’re not gonna make it back, because they ain’t got that older figure who brought them through correct. Look at it! Look at the generation gap – you got Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc. Then you got Run DMC in ’83 with ‘Sucker MCs’, with Flash before that. Then you got Kane, Rakim, Slick Rick, Doug E Fresh, and then we came towards the end. EPMD was really the last of the golden era, and what we did was bring in Redman, Das EFX, K-Solo with the business knowledge from Russell, Lyor, Steve and Sylvia. But then what happened was, the breakup came… I didn’t say nothing, so I was guilty… Erick moved forward with his solo project… but basically the whole Hiphop community was following us, and one guy went forward and the other vanished. And the kids came in and they had the love for the music, and they got the music right, and they got the rap right, but they don’t understand that other side of the life is gonna be waiting for them.
I certainly couldn’t see that shit at 17, 18, 19, 20, 21… so these guys can get a small glimpse when they’re out there and they’re hot, and they’re making a quarter million in a week… they gotta be able to look and say “OK, what happens if all this stops? How am I gonna maintain all this shit?” In order to AVOID all that, you need to have stability in front of you, and older cats behind you helping you steer in the right direction, but they DON’T have that. So, its not like we can get mad… because nobody showed em. I keep bringing up Russell and them, but for real they showed us ALL the right way, and if you take anyone out of the golden era regardless of how the chips actually fell, you’ll find that they were shown the right way. If after that, your business fell apart – that’s on you.
But do you think that the young artists today are ready to listen to pioneers coming back and telling them how to do things?
P: No. But you gotta give it time. That’s why you don’t preach. I never preach in my music. I just drop the shit, and they be like “How you do that?” I’m in the position now where I’m comfortable with my career. I don’t have to worry about no battle records. I don’t have to worry about going to another man and saying, “Can you put this out?” and worry about him saying “Not now. I got 4 artists before you.”
Any artists that’s out there right now in the heat of the battle, HAVE to have full range – that means that if you hear something, (not that you’re supposed to be feeding into the negative) you should be in a position where you can just go to the studio and have your wax in 7 days. They don’t have this opportunity so you can’t win the fucking battle. Some nigga diss you, you diss him back, and his company’s behind him, but your company’s not behind you – you already lost. And now you go back to the hood with that stamp for LIFE. Whereas if you got your your own machine set up, and you know how you’re doing the damn thing, then you don’t have to worry about that.
That’s what these guys are gonna have to see, and so you don’t gotta come and preach, you just gotta come thru and do your work and hope to lead by example. Like “Damn P, how you drop 4 groups, and all 4 groups sell 100,000 across the board… that’s 400,000… which is equivalent to a gold EPMD…” Well, would I rather impress you with my video or how much time I’m on the radio, or would I rather handle my business correctly and live for real? You see what I’m saying? Some of these guys in 2003 dont’ wanna hear you… by about 2007, they’re gonna get the picture.
You’ve been rolling with DJ Honda for a while now, and he’s did some work on this album. Who else have you been working with for this joint?
P: I did a joint with Alchemist. I did another joint on his album that he’s working on… First Infantry with Noyd and Prodigy. I did a song with Ghetto Pros… those cats are dope. Me and E did a song called ‘Look At U Now’. Pete Rock did the last joint on the album – its called ‘Buckwild’, and then on the song with me and K-Solo and Fat Joe, I produced that. Kutmaster Kurt actually did my single that I got the video to. So while I was outside the game, I didn’t wanna come back and grab all the names that people know – I wanted to grab those cats that are thoroughly working out, and are on top of their beat game. Alchemist was always on top of his – so boom. Kutmaster Kurt, he’s been rocking since the Kool Keith days, but he’s also rocking with Linkin Park, so cool.
The reason why I didn’t want to do an album with just me producing, is because this album was to get a perspective on how Hiphop perceives me, and how producers perceive me. Now that I seen and I experienced it – it woulda been a crime for me NOT to do it this way, cos there was so much love. It wasn’t like they just sent me a cd, I do the shit in my studio and send it back, and they send it back mixed… nah, we was up in there, I was seeing the beats getting done, the shit was getting laid, we were having conversations… so its like there’s an allegiance of people who are tired of the same shit you’re looking at. And they’re all standing fast, they’re not gonna sell out and play themselves. When you sellout, you can’t come back.
When we came out, the thing I tried to do was I always tried to stay listening and stay open minded. Most people when they get on and get some cash their nose starts to go up in the air… but my family;s too real for that. I got brothers and sisters to keep me grounded, and my crew is tight, you know? So when you come throught like that, then you can hear what people are saying. Plus at home I did my homework – I watched all the movies, and read all the books… I been around people, around big companies… all this stuff – I’m seeing this shit, and I be getting the point.
The biggest companies run well when the biggest person is in tune to every little detail that’s going on, and its the same in Hiphop. When you’re in the studio working with producers, you gotta listen… they can hear shit and tell you shit… but if you’re too standoffish, then they just give you the beat, sit in the back and let you rock. So you basically just gotta keep your ear to the street and stay open minded and focused… but of course that’s where the alcohol comes in, the drugs come in, the females… everyone always be starving and hungry with no cash in the beginning, and then they get the dough and the nose goes in the air. Niggas be buying helicopters, and fucking tigers and wolves and shit! What the fuck you need a wolf for man? You’re a rapper! Rap! He got that fame now, and he don’t wanna ride with the crew in the truck no more. He wants his own shit with fucking 30″ rims and shit… a whole big tourbus just for one instore signing, you know? You SEE it happen.
How did you first hook up with Honda?
P: Well he was working on his album “H3”, and he wanted me to work with him on a track called ‘Hiphop 101’. Then after we did that song, the beat was so hot, that we did another song on the album. Next thing you know, we were like “You know what? We need to do a whole album.” See, I wasn’t ready to do production yet – I was still going through all the stuff that I was going through, but with his whole vibe – I just felt real comfortable… and then the writing part starting coming out of me again. So I got to do some nice work with Honda before we actually came to do “The Awakening.” And after this, we’re dropping “Underground Connection” in the United States. Its cool too, cos it ain’t just an album thing… we tight. We already been to Korea twice, playing in front of 10,000 people… its crazy. There’s Korean kids coming up to me crying and shit… its like everybody speaks a different language but the music is the same shit!
Yeah, I remember a guy once said, “Rap is outta control”…
P: Definitely! But you gotta do that shit right . You can’t be a veteran and go out there and be like, “Yo, here’s my show… it’s all about me… peace.” You gotta come with more and give more to these heads.
You’ve redone “You’re a Customer” on this joint : you weren’t worried about Hiphop fans screaming at you for reworking a classic?
P: Nah, not at all. What I was thinking when I was doing that joint over, was really how long EPMD has been in limbo. “Back In Business” and “Out Of Business” was cool, but I think a lot of people felt that we didn’t really come with that electricity. And I think some of that was politics, and a lot of it was just chemistry – we were still trying to get back into working together again, and getting a feel for each other. So I was thinking with the music being out so long, I’d be able to come in and play with it, cos there ain’t really nobody else messing with it lately. You know, so many people have built their careers on looping and sampling my music, and now I can’t come in have fun with my shit? (laughs)
What’s the current EPMD situation. Erick is on this album, and you’ve been on Erick’s solo shit. Are you still a unit or is just gonna be guest spots on each other’s joints?
P: Yo, this is what’s going on. I’m dropping this album, and then me and Honda are doing the “Underground Connection”… but you know me and Erick as EPMD… its just so ill, that if we gotta do a show we just show up and blow the spot without even TALKING about that shit first! So we already did 7 songs for the new album, “We Mean Business”, and out of that there’s already 3 smoking singles that will shut the whole Hiphop game down. But… you know… everything happens in God’s time.
And is the whole crew back in the piece? Is DJ Scratch back onboard too?
P: Well the first 7 tracks, me and E did. We just wanted to bring the regular approach were we get about 80% of our album done, then we rock. You know, cats today… their entire album sounds like a sequence of special guests, whereas I feel you gotta be solid on your own before you look outside, and then you’ll be good.
No update on the Jane situation on “The Awakening.” Is she ever gonna make a return?
P: Oh are you kidding me? Of course there’s gonna be a Jane cut. Jane is in effect right now. How you think I got here? (laughs)
Well you know you left people hanging with the last episode…
P: Word. But listen this is how it goes down – the way that people perceive it ain’t the way its gonna happen. It ain’t gonna be Jane dead. Jane is like EPMD – you can’t get rid of her! She’s part of the Hiphop landscape… and if I’m trying to roll up on any other shorty, Jane might show up and shut the shit down. Way the fuck down!
Lets finish off by talking about what cuts we really need to look out for on the album and why?
P: ‘Back To Work’ for sure. I did that cos its the kind of thing that cats WANNA do, but can’t do because of their situation. ‘Alls I Need’ is a dope track… I like how is different, plus I’m rocking with the younger cats like 275. I like ‘The P Is Still Dangerous’ for the simple fact that its the first song I did on the album. ‘The Next Chapter’ with Drayz from Das EFX… ’87 To The Present’ with the Ghetto Pros… yo ALL of them are dope!
“The Awakening” should be in stores round about now. For further info you can check out the new site, www.pmdhitsquad.com
Thanks to Parrish for taking part, and to Carrie Davis for hooking this up.