Queens rhyme-stacker Kool G Rap has never been in the Top 40 – unless you count the boisterous two syllables of "Poison" sampled on the Bell Biv DeVoe New Jack Swing classic – but his rap style has an influence greater than any metric could show. Coming up with the Queens-based Juice Crew collective in the late Eighties alongside artists like Biz Markie, Roxanne Shanté and Big Daddy Kane, G Rap was a technical stylist who practically solidified the toolbox of modern-day "lyrical" MCs: internal rhymes, repeating syllables and effortless cool. As early as 1988 he was spitting lines like "making veterans run for medicine 'cause I put out more lights in a fight than Con Edison," a progenitor to the tricky wordplay of modern artists like Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, T.I. and Lupe Fiasco. In songs and interviews, Jay Z, Nas and Eminem have all acknowledged his influence, as has Raekwon, who joins him on "Out for that Life," a new track you can hear below.
The song comes on his fifth solo album – eighth including his pioneering work with DJ Polo – Return of the Don. It's a cohesive, street-centered record made entirely of beats by Canadian producer Moss, whose dusty breaks-style beats sound time-warped from the era of puffy coats and Timberlands. The massive guest list includes tons of artists whose motormouth style and/or Mafioso energy run parallel to the rap royalty that kickstarted it all: Sean Price, N.O.R.E., Freeway, Cormega, Lil Fame of M.O.P. and more.
Rolling Stone caught up with the legendary MC to talk about lyrics past and present.
How involved were you with the guest list on Return of the Don?
Dan [Green, executive producer] was pretty much making the collaborations happen, but they just happened to go right along the lines of people I was actually planning on doing new product with. He got Sean Price, rest in peace. Sean Price just told me, "Yo, G, if you ever need me for anything, yo, all you gotta do is say the word." And I kept that with me, 'cause, you know, me being a lyrical artist, I have a lot of respect for Sean Price.
Is there one rapper on the album that you could point to as best version of what you tried to accomplish in the Eighties and Nineties, of what "rapping" meant to you?
Psh. Conway the Machine, Westside Gunn right now, you know what I mean? The material I heard on them dudes is straight fire. And to me, what I heard, it does keep the tradition going of G Rap and M.O.P., maybe even similarities to a Mobb Deep. Another person I would say definitely is Crooked I, you know, lyrical beast right there. A flow master. A lot of skill with that cat.
What are your goals when you go into a studio to make a rap album at age 48? What do you want to accomplish with a record like this?
Still being able to sound relevant in a sense to my fan base, to my audience. Not outside of that. Because I know it's a totally, totally different definition of "relevance" to the younger generation right now. That's a totally different production, different approaches, there's a lot of Auto-Tune. You know what I mean?
So we're not gonna catch you using Auto-Tune anytime soon …
You never know because, hey, look at back in 2001. I did a record called "My Life" that was Auto-Tuned. People probably just don't remember that, but it's a reality that happened. G Rap had an Auto-Tuned record.
The whole crime aesthetic and Mafioso themes, these things people know you for, this is still the stuff you rap about. You haven't haven't changed that element ever.
Why is that still so important for you?
'Cause that's what moves G Rap, you know? That's what motivates G Rap. That's what I grew up around. Not to say, I've been through all, everything I ever rapped about. You know what I'm saying? But no, I did experience a lot of things growing up in Corona, Queens. There was a lot of major cats out there – serious dudes. They got movies about 'em. They got documentaries about 'em. And I was subjected to a lot of things, so it's like a part of me. I love the art of being able to still talk that gangsta shit, the street shit and still do it in a different way, which it keeps being interesting every time. When I hear another artist that does it well, I get it every time. It's never repetitive. It's always hot to me.
And still, when you hear rappers do that, it's still exciting to you.
Yeah. It's keeps its potency to me. Hey, you ever get tired of watching gangster movies?
If you go back and listen to what rap music was in 1989, what you did was like a quantum leap stylistically. Just the way that you stack the syllables internally in "Road to the Riches." Maybe like a little bit of Treacherous Three, maybe a little bit of Big Daddy Kane was doing that before, but it feels like the intensity you brought to that was unlike anything that was around back then. What is the origin point for the complicated technical stuff?
To me, it was the influence of hearing artists when I was younger. To me, they was one step into the future, outside everybody else at the time, and that was Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee, Silver Fox from Fantasy Three. A lot of people are not aware of them, but Silver Fox was a dope, dope rapper. It was listening to those guys and see how they didn't just settle for being just like everybody else. They wanted to go the extra distance to stand out and be better than everybody. I was an artist that had the same desires. I didn't want to blend in with anybody else and what they doing. I wanted to be technical. I wanted to be complex. I wanted to make my act a hard act to follow. Bottom line. And so I just kept pushing and pushing myself. Just do more than what everybody else was doing.
Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five came out with a record as earlier as I was maybe 11 years old. Oh yeah, that was my record right there. And it was rapping. [Raps opening bars from 1979's "Superrappin"] "It was a party night, everybody was … and the bass was." Yeah yeah, that was crazy. But I was listening as early as that, all the way up to [raps bars from 1984's "Beat Street Breakdown"], "Newspaper burns in the sand, and the headlines say, 'Man destroys man.'" You know what I mean? To me, he was advanced. He wasn't rappin' like nobody else. I wanted to be that person like Melle Mel. Be different, rap about something that's, like levels beyond what dudes is doing right now. Everything ain't about a party all the time. He would be my influence for incorporating the street. Kool Moe Dee would be my influence for incorporating the rapping fast and sounding intelligent. And then Silver Fox would be the influence behind tricky flows, complex patterns.
Right now, it feel like being a complex rapper is kind of uncool.
Yeah, it reversed.
Well, why did being complex appeal to you? Like why was that something you wanted to be?
Because that was cool back in the days. It's cool to be smart. It wasn't so glorified to sound as ignorant as you could possibly sound. But now it's like, oh, you know, "You're being too lyrical." I don't know why it went reverse like that. I do honestly think it was just the dumbing down of society in general.
I mean there's still definitely room out there for lyrical rappers. The biggest MC in the world is Kendrick Lamar and he's as lyrical as it gets.
You were on some of the best posse cuts of all time, like Marley Marl's "The Symphony" in 1988 or Heavy D & the Boyz' "Don't Curse" in 1991, both of which featured some of the most formidable MCs of their era. Did you go in being like, "OK, I really have to bring my …"
A game. Absolutely!
Do you treat it like a competition a little bit?
All the time! All the time! I feel like if somebody approached me to do a service like, "G Rap, I need your presence on this," you know, I'mma go all out. Like no holds barred. Yeah, I'mma go in. I'm definitely gonna try to decapitate whoever's in the way.
Can you listen back to those songs and feel like the winner?
I do feel like the winner. I feel like the winner on "Don't Curse." I feel like the winner on "Symphony." And I've got all the respect and admiration for Big Daddy Kane and Ace and Craig G. Craig G's a problem. He's really a problem. It took me longer than just the Juice Crew days. To hear what he started doing like even years later. To really notice the monster he was, like, yo, Craig G was really a problem, yo. He was a real beast. But um, yeah, I pretty much felt that I got it.
What you did on the Sway & Tech "Anthem" posse cut in 1999, just sticking to the same syllable pattern. It really went over my head for a while what you were doing on that track ...
[Raps] "I sway the TEC with the Tech and Sway, step away, wet and spray ..." [Laughs]
Unbelievable. Do you feel like you won that track?
That one was hard to call 'cause it was so many phenomenal dudes on that track that just destroyed it. Psh. ... Tech N9ne, oh, my God, yo. I was just happy to be a part of that one. I was content not feeling like, "Oh, I killed everybody on the track this time." I was just glad that I was a part of it 'cause it was a great track. RZA caught a body on that.
You can almost visualize that rhyme on graph paper. Did you sit down and visualize that, or was it a little more instinctual?
Yeah, it was pretty much instinctual. Just getting those first two lines, you know what I'm saying? Then after that you could just keep the momentum going. I just needed that to lay the groundwork, the rest would come easy.
Shortly after that Rawkus Records gave you $1.5 million. What did you spend that money on?
Well you know, it's not like I pocketed the whole 1.5. [Laughs] A lot of it went to the record. A lot went to the record [2002's The Giancana Story] and the production of the record. I just made my deal structure $1.5 million. That's what G Rap did at that time. I made my deal structure $1.5 because I never had a deal budget that huge and I wanted to give myself that opportunity, you know what I mean? A feeling like, "OK, I'mma have everything with this one."
So how much of that went to the record?
Psh. At least a good million dollars. Some of the money didn't get tapped into because Rawkus had lost their distribution situation and their investor, all at the same time. And my deal structure was in a way like they couldn't release G Rap unless it was through a major distribution. And this led to Rawkus selling the album to Koch Records because they couldn't fulfill the commitment. Yeah, I think they was trying to hurry up and do a quick situation with MCA. But, it just wasn't quick enough. And then the album began to just sit and sit. …
It just took the initial hype of, "We signed Kool G Rap! We signed the dude who invented all these flows and we are gonna make him the star he always deserved to be." And then they just imploded.
Yup. The ball got dropped and another bad break for G Rap. Unbelievable.
Was there ever a rapper where you heard a song and you said, "This dude is doing something lyrically that I could not have done, and this surpasses my many achievements."
Maybe not so much "couldn't do," but certain dudes might have beat me to saying a particular thing. Like, "Damn, I know I could have thought to say that." For instance, the Big Pun "Little Italy" [line from "Twinz (Deep Cover '98)"]. I was like, "I know I coulda thought of that, dogg! Come on, that's right up my alley." But I love the fact that Pun came out and took something that G Rap would do.
"I don't remember what I was doing or where I was at, but I think I heard 'Poison' on the radio. 'Hol' up, that sound like me right there. …'"
What was the first time you heard Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison?"
Maybe on the radio. I don’t remember what I was doing or where I was at, but I think I heard it on the radio. "Hol' up, that sound like me right there. …" And then I kept hearing it, I kept hearing it. They eventually got in contact with me. I think they just wanted to me to just get in the video to shut me up, you know what I’m saying? Like, "Yo, we used this dude’s voice like 80,000 times on the record. You know, give him a little cameo in the video. Keep him cool."
How does it feel when you hear that song? You are officially a part of ...
A smash. I’m honored. I still be hearing it to this day.
Do you have a favorite name check or line check in a song, like another rapper paying homage to you?
The intro to my show is a whole collage of Big Pun, Jay Z, Nas, when they quoted my name or something like that. That's how my show starts. And the simple fact that R.A. the Rugged Man lives by the slogan, "I don't want fans that don't know who G Rap is." I just did a show up in New Hampshire Saturday and the promoter was telling they had R.A the Rugged Man not that long ago and when he got onstage, he said, "Listen. Whoever out there don't know who G Rap is, get the fuck out the room." [Laughs] He's a beast. He's a problem.
Do you listen to contemporary rap music?
I just now started opening up to the Migos, you know what I'm saying? [Laughs] I'm so, like, out of the loop with what's going on right now. And, uh, I kept getting a brush with the Migos here and there in little spurts. To the point where I heard something and it really caught my ear, and I was like, "Yo, I gotta give these dudes a listen" I like 'em. So far ... I'm still not deep, deep into them yet, I'm just getting there. They just turned on the G Rap button, you know what I'm saying? I'm just getting started.
They're such a unique case because they get known for these really catchy, simple hooks, but then when they start rapping, it's this really intensely lyrical ...
They go hard. Yeah, they got the balance of having that catchy chorus and what's going on right now and then, like you said, when they come time to spit, they going in. So they make a nigga like G Rap appreciate them, not just the 17-year-old kids, you know what I mean?