Bumpy Knuckles: Pop Duke

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Photo courtesy of Michael Nathaniel

Bumpy Knuckles is a Hip-Hop survivor. Since the mid-80s he’s put out music and has seen the sound and culture of Hip-Hop go through various changes. All the while, the artist also known as Freddie Foxxx has remained a pillar of underground grimy Hip-Hop.

Twenty-nine years after the release of his first solo album, Bumpy Knuckles released one of the best Hip-Hop albums of 2018 – “Pop Duke, Vol. 1.” Pop Duke, Vol. 1 is a ten-track album produced entirely by Nottz with appearances by Chuck D, Kool G Rap, Lil’ Fame, Big Gov, V Stylez, Kuye Mason, Raheem DeVaughn, and Biz Markie.

The Real Hip-Hop had the pleasure of speaking with Bumpy Knuckles about working Nottz, the twenty-year anniversary of his incredible verse on Gang Starr’s classic song, “The Militia,” and his new album, Pop Duke.

TRHH: Why’d you call the new album ‘Pop Duke’?

Bumpy Knuckles: I wanted to speak from a position of authority. We call our father’s “pop duke” in the community where I come from. That’s the one who handles the household – that’s the man of the house. Pop Duke is just me speaking to the generations as somebody who has been here doing this for a long time and speaking from a position of authority without me having to say it on my songs.

TRHH: How did you end up hooking up with Nottz for Pop Duke?

Bumpy Knuckles: Just us wanting to work with each other for a long time and then a buddy of mine was working with him and said, “Yo man, I mentioned your name to Nottz and he was like ‘Me and Bump was supposed to do something.’” We just linked up after that. I went to Norfolk and sat in the studio and he just started dumping music at me and it was so hard to pick so he just gave me folders and folders and said, “Whatever you like, rock on it.” I liked it all so I rapped on everything. It was like 100 records. I broke them down into volumes of ten because I didn’t want to throw out one hundred records at one time.

TRHH: On the song ‘Grumpy Ol Man’ you said, “Y’all crackers is racist by default/You wanna hate niggas/ But fornicate with niggas/Making it your fault,” explain that line.

Bumpy Knuckles: A lot of times when I encounter Caucasians that are not from our era – maybe a little older than us, you kind of see right now what’s going on with people calling the cops on people, white people saying stupid shit like, “Oh, you’re in the supermarket with slippers on, I’m calling the police!” or “You’ve got earphones on and you’re driving! I’m reporting your license plate!” You don’t see them doing that to each other, you see them doing that to us. The line “Y’all crackers are racist by default” is the history of white people to be racist toward black people and unless you show me otherwise that’s what I have to accept about you based on your lineage and your history. I have to accept that unless you show me otherwise.

You ever see when a white person has a black boyfriend or girlfriend what white people say about them? They call them “nigger lovers” and totally denounce them for that. I said “you fornicate with niggas” and when you do that it’s the demise of your white pride or whatever the case. I didn’t want to say it all that way so I made it very simple. “Racist by default” means that when you come in the door I’m automatically saying at some point this dude is going to call me a nigger or think about me being one until he shows me otherwise. I meet a lot of white people who ain’t with that shit, but that’s just how it is. You have to show me more than you can tell me. You can tell me you aren’t racist all day long, but until you show me and I feel in my spirit that you mean it then that’s the way I have to accept it.

TRHH: What’s your take on how “in your face” the racism seems to be since Trump’s presidency?

Bumpy Knuckles: Well, I think he perpetuates an attitude. It started with the “Make America Great Again” comment. That’s a way of saying “We need our shit back.” This is how they feel, “We had this nigger in office. He shouldn’t have been there any way.” The history of America shows you that black people are not supposed to take that position. The fact that he did it was such a huge deal. This country was founded on racism and bigotry so when he said Make America Great Again he was actually insinuating that at the time he decided to run that America wasn’t great — you’ve got a black man in office. One of the worst statements I hate is when somebody says to me, “What did Obama do for black people?” and I’m like, what the fuck do you mean by that? He was the President of the United States. His job wasn’t to especially do anything for black people just because he was black. If he would have done that of course it would have been cool, but at the end of the day whatever he does should be doing it for the United States of America. The United States of America is built up of a bunch of different races.

So here comes Donald Trump who totally has no idea on how to be a President, but he was voted in by a bunch of people who hated Barack Obama and hated Hillary Clinton – I’m not fan of Hillary Clinton any way, but at the same token women have always been considered a minority in their own cultures and outside of their cultures. They automatically are on the list. They don’t want a woman President. I thought that was the craziest thing ever. The bottom line is he perpetuated that racism by using that line “Make America Great Again.” And if you really look at what he’s doing, he doesn’t apologize for his disrespect of black people. When he talks about peoples’ intelligence he’s automatically trying to minimize your mere existence. Nobody wants to communicate with people that aren’t intelligent, so one of the biggest insults you can give somebody outside of calling them a derogatory term about their race, is to speak on how intelligent they are. He doesn’t know how intelligent LeBron James is or Maxine Waters. He’s saying that based on his anger. He’s not somebody capable of uniting a country, but he’s uniting a people that are cheering him on. His narcissistic attitude toward life shows that he’s definitely not qualified to be the leader of the free world. Talking about building walls and taking kids away from their families — he’s very cold hearted. It’s a very dangerous the game that he’s playing.

As an artist I’m not even 100% comfortable with traveling abroad these days because he’s got it so fucked up that people are doing all kinds of crazy shit out here, man. This guy is causing this reaction. I just think it’s horrible that we have to be subjected to somebody in the White House that’s supposed to be for all of the people. And I don’t think politics has ever been for all of the people. They’re built on division, that’s why you’ve got Democrats and Republicans and these new developed parties. There’s no unity there, so you can’t have unity abroad when you don’t have unity in your house. If your mom sleeps upstairs and your pop sleeps downstairs and they only see each other on the way in and out of the bathroom kids can’t possibly think there is a family structure there. To me it’s horrible to see somebody going on a social media platform and disrespecting somebody and it’s obvious it’s about his race. He did it to his own people, too. People that don’t like him he says things about them, but he hasn’t insulted the intelligence of any white people. Whether it’s Maxine Waters or LeBron James it’s always about intelligence, and he appears to not be as intelligent as he thinks he is because he sold a few buildings and made some money in his lifetime. His father gave him all kinds of a head start so how intelligent was he anyway? It’s very sad, man. It’s very sad to see somebody in the oval office that’s that blatantly racist and blatantly disrespectful. He’s a bigot and I’ll stay that 100 times over – Donald Trump is a straight bigot. Without a doubt.

TRHH: Let’s deviate from that topic. I want to go back. Most casual fans know you from your verse on “The Militia.” You absolutely destroyed that verse. What was it like in the studio recording that song?

Bumpy Knuckles: The Militia verse was definitely a highlight of my career. I remember when I got the call to do it and they said it was going to be me, Guru, and Big Shug. To me I was just doing another song. I didn’t expect it to be anything other than, “Bumpy Knuckles is doing a verse on this record.” The effect of ‘Hot Potato’ was everybody wanted me on their songs because it was such a strong performance. I was just doing another song. The title alone already told me where we were going to go with it. When I heard the music I was like, “Whoa, okay, cool.” Premier had sent me the beat a couple of days before. I wrote it in the crib and I went into the studio and laid it. The rest is history.

The energy had to be right. It was important to me to make sure I put my best work in, because I knew Guru is one of those emcees that lyrically he can go there on another level. I only try to make songs with guys that I believe lyrically can make me step my game up or either that I fit in with them. Me, him, and Shug actually fit in very well together on that song. It was a pleasure to do it. I love them for life for giving me the opportunity to do it. I’m glad that I can go in a club and do the verse acapella and the club will say the whole rhyme with me. It was a long verse. I was raised on writing long verses and not hooks and songs. Even though it was long I thought they were going to cut it at one point. Even when we did the video they cut Guru’s verse so that my whole verse could fit in there. I was honored that they considered me being on the song.

TRHH: I saw you on the Smokin’ Grooves tour twenty years ago with Gang Starr and you were spraying people with the Super Soakers [laughs]. You wrote about it on ‘The Gang Starr Bus.’ What was your experience like on that tour? That was a heavy tour – Busta, Public Enemy, Cypress, Wyclef…

Bumpy Knuckles: Canibus was on there, too.

TRHH: Yeah, Canibus came out with Wyclef.

Bumpy Knuckles: So was will-i-am and his crew.

TRHH: Black Eyed Peas opened the show!

Bumpy Knuckles: Yeah, they opened up. Mya was there. Remember Mya? Rah Digga? Yeah, that tour was amazing. It was like a family. Every city you’d see the same people and a lot of us became close. That experience of being out on the road in different cities we would run into different issues and we looked out for on another. We had our crew tight. There were some issues that went down, but we all worked through it. I remember being out there with Dilated Peoples – they popped up in certain cities. The song ‘Gang Starr Bus’ was me saying there’s a lot of people out here shooting off their mouth about Guru and Gang Starr, but they wasn’t there when we had to live together on that bus. We’d have fights with each other and by the time we get to the truck stop and gas up we’re all laughing and cracking up, shooting dice, and playing video games on the back of the bus. We got pulled over by the police and all laughed about it – it was an experience.

Like any other tour, when you’re living with other people in a confined space you have to know how to vibe with them and get along in that space. Me and Guru used to compare each other’s rhyme books. I’d never let anybody read my books. That’s just where we come from. He never let anybody read his books. We’d trade books and after three minutes it was, “Okay, give my book back!” [Laughs] We created a ton of memories and everything I said on that song was true. I just painted the picture verbally so people could visualize in their minds what it was like on that bus. I have a ton of footage of it. I think I might have put a few pieces of it up on my Instagram page. It was definitely a great experience. You can never bring that back, but you can sure enough relive the moment in your mind. We played amphitheaters. That was my first time playing amphitheaters. I was like, “Yo, this is dope!” M.O.P., us, and the Gang Starr family all together – it was amazing. I had a great time.

TRHH: I’m from Chicago and the venue y’all played in Chicago was a dump [laughs].

Bumpy Knuckles: It’s funny you said that. I’m going to tell you a story they told me about that venue. If I’m wrong then somebody lied to me, but they told me that place was where they used to have cattle for slaughterhouses and that’s how the Chicago Bulls got their name because it became a basketball arena for the Bulls in the early years. That place was definitely a dump.

TRHH: That’s true. The International Amphitheater. It’s been gone a long time now.

Bumpy Knuckles: We went to George’s Music Room. That was my first time going and we had so much love. A lot of cats came out from the hood. I love Chicago, man. That place is amazing. You pull in the city and get love. We ate at places with great food and met great people. The acoustics in that place were horrible though, I have to admit. That shit was terrible.

TRHH: [Laughs] Yeah it sucked. Your last few projects have mostly been collaborations with other artists like DJ Premier, KRS-One, and Nottz. Was that done purposely to keep things cohesive or did it just turn out that way?

Bumpy Knuckles: As much as I produce I’m like a chef that doesn’t like to eat his own food a lot of times. Not because it’s not good food, I just feel sometimes I’ll give a stronger performance when I don’t have to focus on doing so much. If I just have to write I love it. I have a great phone book. My phone book is powerful, so I can make a phone call to a guy like Pete Rock, Premier or KRS-One and say, “Hey, let’s do a project together.” These are my friends for like 30 years. It’s a combination of things — It’s me liking the vibe that these guys bring out of me and it’s also me keeping my peers in the loop of where my head is for Hip-Hop for our generation, especially with this new project, Pop Duke. I wanted to make sure that people see that a 51-year old emcee is still rocking bars, still picking the right joints, and still bringing people into the fold that make a difference on the music. Raheem DeVaughn, Biz Markie, Kool G Rap, Lil’ Fame, and a bunch of other people that I have on the other releases. I have Das Efx, Kool Keith, and some new talent like Sy Ari Da Kid. Some people aren’t known and some people are known. I’m kind of acting like as if in my mind I’m the President and I want to pull it all together from the young to the old to different nationalities. It’s all about talent. It’s not about anything but talent. There are people out there that don’t see greatness in other people because they’re so busy looking at themselves. I don’t like that. I think it’s a lot of great talent out here. I bet you any amount of money I can make a hot record with any artist. I don’t care who he is. He could be a mumble rapper or whatever you want to call him. I bet you I can put him on something and make a hot song with him.

As an elder or what they call an “OG” in the game I have experience. To tell somebody, “This person is too old” is to disrespect their experience. Even the oldest, dumbest guy you know has more experience than the newest guy in the room. He’s been around and seen a lot of things. You can’t shoot down experience and I believe that collaborations with people — the right collaborations with people, because I’ve turned down a lot of collaborations because I didn’t feel like they were the right ones for me. I have to first connect spiritually and emotionally to the music, then I’ll start looking at other things way before we even talk money. I have to be able to feel it in my soul and my spirit. I don’t want to fake like I’m loving a song and rap on it just to be rapping on it, I don’t care who is on it. Every artist is handpicked, every song is very well thought out, and lyrics are thought out. If you listen to Pop Duke you’ll see there is a broad range of lyrical content. I’m not stuck on one particular subject matter for 5 or 8 songs. Some guys can tell you how many drugs they sell and how many people they’ve shot for ten records on five albums. That shit becomes a headache.

My dude, you can’t possibly wake up every morning and just start shooting before you roll out of bed. That doesn’t sound right. Don’t you eat breakfast? Don’t you brush your teeth [laughs]? You want to hear the lyrical content because that is what’s going to give you the idea of where the art is going. What are we talking about? When I did “Ol Morning” I wanted to let people know that this is how I feel at 51 when I wake up in the morning. “My back is fucked up/But don’t get it fucked up.” You go there and then you move on. You don’t have to stay on that. It’s a line or two in the song that will say what needs to be said and then you go on. Collaborating with guys who know how to do that is what makes it great. Those projects with Premier – musically he gives me a certain vibe. I have catalog of collaborations with people that I haven’t even put out yet. I have a group with Treach and Trick Trick called O.G.ology. The stuff on that is so powerful. We just have to batten down a few more hatches before we let this fly. I always said when I die and when I’m gone all my verses will be collector’s items because I’m selective with who I rock with. So if you have one, luck you.

TRHH: On the song ‘Legends’ you pay homage to the emcees that came before you that never really get the proper respect. Why was it important for you to write that song and what’s your opinion on different generations of Hip-Hoppers and fans that don’t believe that they have to go back and learn their history?

Bumpy Knuckles: Number one, if you listen to my old songs I’ve always paid homage to those guys in shorter form, but I feel like people never mentioned that I did that. I didn’t think some of the lines that I would say to pay homage to those guys didn’t inspire too many other rappers to go back and do it, so I did it again in long form. Now I see a lot of people saying that like, “Wow, I remember Grand Master Caz is responsible for more than two handfuls of emcees in the 90s that studied his demeanor, style, and rhyme writing ability.” Melle Mel is another one – legendary — Lil’ Rodney C and even Sha-Rock. A lot of people don’t go back and look because they’re so busy looking at themselves and they forget. The most important part of the tree to me is the trunk. The branches come and go, but when you’ve got a solid tree in the ground the only way to get it down is for some kind of natural disaster to take it down or you cut it down. Branches can fall off because something is too heavy on it, but you have to grow into the trunk of the tree. Those guys are the trunk of the tree to me. We’re just branches. Some of us have a thicker foundation than others. That’s how I felt. Legends is a very important record to them. I don’t care if people don’t buy it and I don’t care if people don’t like it. I was able to say something to those guys through my music while they were still here to hear it. Kool Moe Dee is legendary. When he posted that I had the best album he heard in fifteen years I was blown away by that statement. He texted it to me and I posted it. For him to say that, call it what you want, but I call it respect. It was very important to them.

I think when you’ve got a young guy out here saying, “I don’t want to listen to them old dudes,” he’s doing himself a disservice. I always tell cats, don’t ever leave your talent in an old era. Take it with you to the new era and show the new guys how they did it and they can use some of your teachings on their work. They don’t have to do what you do. I don’t suggest that guys make the kind of music that I make. If you want me to rap on your album and you give me a beat that I feel like I don’t belong on, I’m not going to waste your time. I’m not going to do that. As soon as I hear it I’ll know, “Nah dog, I can’t do this. It’s not my thing.” It ain’t that I won’t try new things. If I’m not connected to it I won’t do it. Also, for the young guys, when we make music for our generation, our fans grow up with us. It would be wise for any new artist to say, “I study the guys before me because I wanted to know how they got that sound.” There were people successful at this before they did it. They would be fools to think that they don’t have to look back. People think money is the end-all and be-all. When money runs out all you have is your talent. If you have talent, that’s all you’re gonna have left. You have to go back and study. When we were coming up in school they gave us social studies books. Those social studies books never talked about the present or the future, it always talked about the past.

TRHH: You have over 30 years in the Hip-Hop industry. From working with Eric B. to Flavor Unit to being independent, what would you say is the greatest lesson you’ve learned about the business of Hip-Hop?

Bumpy Knuckles: To hear one word and understand two. People have a tendency in this game to say a lot of shit. You can’t have expectations. You have to learn to take what you have and build a lane for that, or get in a lane that already does it and do it your way. There is such a thing as being in a lane inside of a lane. This game is divided by horrible things and statements like, “who is your top 5?” or “top 10?” Talent is so broad out here that it’s almost a disrespect to narrow it down to a top 2-3-4-5 anything. I think that’s another form of controlling the slave mentality to believe that we can be minimized down to one rapper being the best or one DJ being the best. That shit is dumb. You can have guys that have all these different styles and approaches to lyricism. The corporate guys remind me of the passive guy who stands on the side of the road when everybody’s fighting and when the fight is over he runs to the front of the line and says, “Yeah nigga! Fuck that! We did that shit, son! Fight the power!” But he wasn’t in there banging and throwing bones when everybody was in there fighting. He was on the side with his camera on. That’s what the corporate guys do. They don’t have talent, they just have money. So they want to buy their way in to simplify the game. Instead of you being able to do it this way, we’re going to build this so you have to do it this way. You can rap into your phone now and it will make a song for you. Those are the guys that are very passive. Fighters, we keep pushing through. You have to remember that in this business people will say one thing and do something else. They think those words, “I want to sign you,” is so powerful that it can automatically change your personality to making you a different person that acts different and treats people different all because they want to sign you ‘til your death. If the business deal don’t work for everybody, then it’s a bad deal. Money has no power when one person in the crew has it. When everybody in your team is eating that’s one thing.

You have to remember to have fun, too. When you walk into your studio and say, “Let’s get drunk, high, pass out and whatever comes out of us comes out of us,” they may be selling that corporately but there’s going to be a time where you have to get on the stage and show people what you really do. I just think people are blinded by the dollar. They’re blinded by people purchasing trash, buying spots on radio stations, magazines, websites, playlists, and shit like that. There are a lot of talented guys that I know that are like, “I can’t see myself paying to be on this shit, dog.” It’s not supposed to be that way and there are people that still hold on to that principle. If you have to do things organically in order to get the peace out of it, then that’s what it is. At one point we’re all going to be laying in the ground and covered in dirt, or cremated and thrown into the ocean and all you’re going to have left is your legacy of music and talent that you’ve left behind, so you have to be mindful of what you leave people. That’s it. This is not the street, this is the music business. It comes from the street, but the music in the street is the street. Crack selling ain’t Hip-Hop. That’s not Hip-Hop, I don’t give a fuck what nobody say. They can talk about it all day long. Shooting a motherfucker in the head and leaving him in the alley may be mentioned in Hip-Hop, but that was happening before Hip-Hop. We have to learn to have broader ideas on concepts and stuff like that. Don’t be blinded by the dollar. Going on tour and chasing old popularity and shit like that for no money – it’s just horrible, man, it’s a mess.

So I try to live by certain standards, excuse me for having a long answer but there’s so much to that question that I’ve learned. You’re talking about having over thirty years of experience, so I have a ton of lessons. No to spend your money. You better save your coin because you’re only as good as your pockets. On Industry Shakedown I said, “See, labels be all on your dick, when they see you have some paper/But I flip the game, ‘cause I pull the capers.” You don’t want to be a dude where everything is based on you only working with somebody if they’re popular. Everybody is using each other in a bad way when you do that. And there’s a guy that will walk up to you that’s probably ten times more talented than your favorite DJ or favorite rapper, but because he don’t have a name already you don’t bother with him or her. I think that’s a detriment. You can’t feed a generation that’s coming behind us if you don’t have a trade-off of wisdom and strength. We’ve been there before. These young guys need some of our wisdom and they show up strong for you, so there has to be a trade-off. Without that trade-off we’re writing ourselves right out of the future. Soon they’re going to be saying, “Black people came over here on cruise ships.” That’s what’s going to happen in 20 or 30 years from now. It insults the shit out of me when I hear guys say, “Who is Eric B & Rakim?” or “Who is Grand Puba?” How could you ask those questions if you’re in Hip-Hop? You’re supposed to be studying that shit. We ain’t teaching them nothing and it’s sad. The shit is sad as a motherfucker.

TRHH: When will we hear Volume 2 of Pop Duke?

Bumpy Knuckles: I’m doing this really, really organic, man. When I saw organic I didn’t hire no publicist, I didn’t want to do none of that industry shit. I just put the record out and people are hearing it and reaching out to me just on the strength. I wanted it to be a gem that people would have to find, and that’s what’s happening. No publicist called you to interview me, bro. That’s what makes me want to do these interviews. And I’m not downing publicists. I think having a publicist is great, but it only works out as long as you can pay the tab. Usually a lot of publicists if they don’t have as many followers as you they’re selling their relationships – which is cool. I wanted to try something different. I’m gonna let this one rock for maybe the rest of the year and I’m going to drop volume 2 and let the music speak for itself — if not the end of the year, then the top of the year. I may drop two volumes next year though. I’m not going to throw out five and six volumes at one time. Being that it’s 100 songs it’s a ton of music. I’ve got some great collaborations.

October 28th in New York City I’m doing the Pop Duke Family Reunion Show. I’m going to open up the stage to family – all of the guys that I’ve come up with – the Premier’s and Pete Rock’s and we’re going to tear that shit to the floor and have a good time. And then I’m going to take it on the road and just keep working. Hopefully people show up to see my presentation of Hip-Hop. Maybe I can shake hands with some of the great people that have been reaching out to me organically to say, “Yo bro, you did this album organically. I really love it!”

I was at the Playlist Retreat on Jazzy Jeff’s property and I met so many people that said, “What an amazing job you did with Nottz on Pop Duke.” That’s what makes me smile, that’s what makes me happy. The money comes – the money shows up. It’s not the fake, “It’s the greatest album I’ve ever heard in the world!” they’re breaking down the songs and saying, “You did the Biz Markie flow and then got Biz Markie on the record and in the video you played him and he played you.” That kind of shit makes me feel gratification. These guys really paid attention and they’re looking for volume 2. I can’t wait for the next volume. That was my intention to build up that anxiety and that hype for more. I’m in a place full of straight musicians. It was very humbling to walk in this place and see all of the talent there. I’ve seen keyboard players, bass players, emcees, and DJ’s. It was a smorgasbord of talent there, so for that to be said to me gave me another sense of fulfillment for that, and that I’m grateful for.

Purchase: Bumpy Knuckles – Pop Duke, Vol. 1

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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