In Hip-Hop we’re all hypocrites. We deride our favorites for stepping outside the box while at the same time criticizing them for sounding the same on every project. With the exception of Outkast, no other artist can recover from doing something a little bit different from the norm. But how else can you grow if you refuse to try something new?
Don’t Sleep Records co-founder Awon finds himself venturing slightly off the beaten path with his new release, Moon Beams. Moon Beams is a 9-track EP produced entirely by French producer Linkrust and boasts only one feature from Awon’s wife and fellow emcee, Tiff the Gift. Awon doesn’t change much lyrically, but Linkrust provides more buoyant beats for the emcee to tell his story on.
The Real Hip-Hop talked to Awon about what he looks for in an artist for his Don’t Sleep label, why he’s in a happier place as of late, and what it was like working with Linkrust on their new EP, Moon Beams.
TRHH: How’d you link up with Linkrust?
Awon: Actually, Tiff knew Linkrust. He did a remix for her – The Same Old Tree. I thought that that joint was wild crazy. She had been telling me that he was real dope and when I went to France I actually got to meet him. He met up with us when we were out there. He’s actually from France and we had a show in his hometown so he made sure he was there. We built for a minute and when we got back he sent all of us those tracks that I eventually got on. At the time Tiff and Dephlow was busy. He kept hitting me up and I said the hell with it, I’ll do it. I was interested in his style of production. I have a very diverse palate in terms of what I actually listen to musically. He fit into that mold. He actually won a Stones Throw producer battle some time back. The obscure style just reminded me of some of my heroes like Doom, Madlib, and Dilla. It was a no-brainer to just gravitate toward his style and just do something with it.
TRHH: Moon Beams is more upbeat than your previous projects. Was that a result of Link’s production or where you are in your life currently?
Awon: It’s a little bit of everything. It’s a result of his production as well as my state of mind right now. Things are better. We’re doing music professionally now. We’ve been to different places and done a variety of shows. I think all of that success independently has helped to shape a more positive attitude toward Hip-Hop, toward the culture, and what it is that we can actually achieve together. When I speak about “together” I mean myself and the crew, Don’t Sleep and what we can actually do without having somebody kick in the door for us we actually created our own lane. I think that’s true for anybody right now trying to put their foot in the door. Technology is giving anybody a green light to put out music and create content that might be viable. God bless the internet.
TRHH: Speaking of the internet, how was working with Linkrust different from working with Phoniks?
Awon: Because we don’t talk [laughs]. His English is okay. It’s better when he’s speaking than writing. Most of the time it was just me zoned out by myself with his beats. With Phoniks we talk over the phone and when we record he’ll come down to Virginia and we’ll just do marathon sessions in the studio. This I recorded myself, I wrote the rhymes, and I sent it to him and he mixed it, mastered it, and sent it back. It was just e-mailing back and forth and no real dialogue.
TRHH: Wow. That’s incredible, man.
Awon: Thank you, thank you. I’m glad it came out that way. This is the second time I did something with language barriers. The first time was with MZ. MZ’s English is really good. He’s a very intelligent dude but sometimes writing things can get misinterpreted than if you’re sitting in front of somebody’s face and you can see the affect and kind of use deductive reasoning to figure out what they’re talking about if you can’t understand it. But behind the keyboard and the screen it’s really difficult to do that. It’s very difficult with deductive reasoning. It was a challenge but it came out dope. I think part of that separation helped to bring it together and be more cohesive because I didn’t have him telling me, “Yo, I don’t like that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” He took it all and I just trusted him. I said, “Yo, in the mix do what you feel.” He took it to another level and I was very impressed.
TRHH: What’s the meaning behind the title “Moon Beams?”
Awon: As of late a lot of negative things have happened in the social climate of the world. Sometimes negativity takes us to places that are not necessarily here. We get inside ourselves and inside our spirituality. I had grabbed lot of records from a friend of mine, an older cat. He gave me a bunch of records and a lot of it was Funkadelic, Parliament, Bar-Kays — a lot of the stuff with artists that took on an Afrofuturistic persona. Moon Beams comes from the Afrofuturistic idea that we are not just a ray of light. It’s a ray of light coming from somewhere that’s not of this earth – extraterrestrial – something different. The concept of Afrofuturism is one that intrigues me because when I think about the artists who gave us these ideas of black people being something different, something other, that type of upliftment to think about your race being something more than just human. Something out of this world is a beautiful concept when your sovereignty and your freedom is threatened in the least bit of a way.
I had to get away from the negativity surrounding the political realm and everything because there’s a lot of things that are gonna happen to a lot of brothers and sisters soon. I wanted to take people to a realm that was still pro-black and righteous but just somewhere different and out of this world. That’s where we got the title from and that’s where we got the style for the art, which is inspired by Sun Ra, which is the original Afrofuturist. Everything came from a place that’s either from my record collection or from the people that I admire. Nas said it best, “No idea is original.” I just borrowed from elders and put something together that I felt was the perfect mix of Hip-Hop, funk, and every other genre that I listen to. That’s where we arrived.
TRHH: What inspired the song ‘Cloudy’?
Awon: Anxiety, depression, and just negativity online on social media. Waking up and going to your timeline and everybody’s angry but not doing nothing about it. Everybody got an opinion and yet they’re hypocrites because they’re self-righteous but they’re doing the same shit that they complain about. A lot of that is about just dealing in the world and how even being online adds a weight to us like, “Damn, I don’t feel like this.” You don’t ever wanna just shut it down and not be a part of it because as creatives we have to do it. At the same time it is daunting. Like, everybody’s problems is on your shoulders. Everybody’s self-righteousness is on your plate every day. That’s where it came from, ‘cause I’m beginning not to like people That’s where Cloudy came from, man. I hope that people immediately ask questions about that joint because I hope that people identify with some of the things I was speaking on.
TRHH: I definitely identify with it, but for me it goes beyond the internet. It’s kind of how I’ve always been [laughs]. The internet definitely makes it worse.
Awon: [Laughs] I got you, I got you. Like you said it’s the ugliness and the things that I see in other people that just impede on my world to a degree. Nobody realizes that even some of the decisions that you make become consequences for others. Nobody is accountable and that lack of accountability creates a reckless situation for a lot of people. It’s just me being fed up with everything – my job, politics, politicians, TV, the internet, the content. Everybody is trying to get over or everybody’s full of shit. You get fed up. I have a lot of friends that have been going through anxiety and social problems just because of it. People get real stressed out. I hope that people catch it and resonate with it and maybe they might find some sunlight somewhere to know that somebody somewhere does face the same things that they do on an everyday basis.
TRHH: Your wife Tiff the Gift appears on the song “151” and kills it. The last time I spoke to her she talked about the competition in your household. Was there a competitive situation when recording 151?
Awon: Yep! Yep! She heard my verse and was like, “Oh, that’s hard!” I remember her writing her verse right there and I was like, “Oh shit!” I instantly knew that she stole the show on that track and I just let it go. I didn’t revise anything because I had already recorded my part. She thought it was so strong that she just wanted to do it. That was one of the first times that she immediately recorded, too. It was a good day. She showed out on that joint. If you read between her concepts she took it the 90s for real. I’m talking about things that are more abstract – who’s a villain and who has your best interest at heart? Who’s pulling the wool over your eyes and who’s not?
She’s coming at it from a perspective of grandeur so every punchline she is basically naming the most expensive things in the world. The Michelin Stars, the chef, the six ring queen is an ode to Jordan, nobody else has more than six rings, the Lamborghini V, the most expensive car in the world, and it just keeps going on. The Space Shuttle toilet when she shit, the Pink Lotus Tiffany Lamp, is the most expensive lamp. She just went crazy doing research and everything. It was very GZA-esque to put that shit together and I was blown away. How she was in the pocket the whole time was just ill. It was a rappity rap song. Real emcee shit and I was real impressed. That’s why I put it out first. When everybody heard it they were like, “Yeah, this is the right order.” That played a lot into the sequence and everything.
TRHH: MZ Boom Bap said you were responsible for bringing him to Don’t Sleep Records. What qualities in an artist are you guys looking for at Don’t Sleep?
Awon: I feel like doing something that is your signature and something that is unique to you. And while MZ is a producer that goes through great lengths to produce his beats. You know everything he does is all analog. It only becomes digital at the very end. His set up consists of tapes, rack mounts, there’s not really beat machines there. It’s like the MPC 50 something, I forgot the number, but it’s a rack mount, it’s not even a fuckin’ beat machine. It bugged me out when I saw his set up. He would show me pictures online and we would talk. To know that he’s doing it in the purest form is one thing. His engineer is a beast, too. His name is Koar. Koar has done a lot of work with Ruste Juxx and Duck Down. When I found out the whole back story and said, “These dudes are in Portugal? Wow.”
I don’t know anybody else who does it that way, who doesn’t have a lot of money and has been in the game for years and chooses to do it that way. In fact I believe it’s only Adrian Younge who is completely analog still until the final process of actually getting it to the people. The whole process with Adrian Younge is analog until the very end and that’s the same with MZ. That was real dope to me and that’s why we brought him there. In terms of emcees, I just surround myself with people that I feel like hold their own and that have something that I feel like I admire. If I admire somebody that says a lot because emcees are usually very egotistical. I’m humble enough to admire when somebody’s ill. It works to our success and not our detriment so I feel blessed to know that we’re making some great decisions.
TRHH: Who is Moon Beams made for?
Awon: I was hoping a wider audience. I was hoping people that listen to Hip-Hop but are willing to dabble in different genres and people that listen to different genres but are willing to dabble in Hip-Hop. It’s not necessarily for my core fans. This is something very experimental that I wanted to do so I was hoping that I may catch some people on the outskirts and bring them. Everybody’s palate is different, everybody’s iPod is different, and I respect that. But I wasn’t pandering to any specific audience besides tailoring what I did to Linkrust’s style of production and really just letting him guide the way. It was challenging. He really challenged me with the production ‘cause it’s not the typical beats that I would normally gravitate to, but sometimes you have to break the norms to get the best out of you. Hopefully we might revisit this conversation and it may be a success down the line. Today I’m happy though. The response has been really warm so it’s already a success in my eyes.
Purchase: Awon & Linkrust – Moon Beams