Defcee: We Dressed the City with Our Names

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Photo courtesy of Michael Salisbury

Chicago area emcee, Defcee ended 2020 with the release of a joint EP with producer Nick Arcade called “ceenick.” Defcee wasted no time releasing the full-length version of ceenick in the spring of 2021 and kicking off the summer with an entirely new project paying homage to the art of graffiti.

“We Dressed the City with Our Names” is an EP inspired by the early 1980s graffiti documentary, Style Wars. The 6-track EP is produced entirely by Dallas, Texas producer, August Fanon.

Defcee chatted with The Real Hip-Hop about the impact that graffiti had on his life, working with August Fanon, and their new EP, We Dressed the City with Our Names.

TRHH: Your new EP “We Dressed the City with Our Names” is inspired by graffiti artists. Did you come up as a graffiti artist?

Defcee: I’ve actually never written graffiti. I had a little tag I used to write in my notebook when I was doodling, but I never wrote it on a wall. I was telling SLLIME today that I never even used a can of spray paint. In watching Style Wars, it made me think of a lot of the parallels than the spoken word and Hip-Hop scene that I grew up in and the graffiti writing community that’s present in that film. A lot of the people that I came up with as poets and emcees were also writing graffiti as well. Some of my favorite emcees are also graffiti writers because I think the skill-set that it takes to be a graffiti writer translates really well into the imagery that people use as emcees. So, even though I never wrote graffiti myself I always had an immense appreciation for the craft, as well as an immense appreciation for writers and rappers who also happen to write graffiti as well.

TRHH: I was talking to Jay-Ef and he was saying that out of all the elements of Hip-Hop, rapping takes the least amount of skill. His theory is that deejaying, graffiti, and break-dancing is more difficult to do and anybody can rap. What are your thoughts on that?

Defcee: My opinion on that is the barrier for entry into those elements is a lot higher than the barrier for entry into rap music. Because if you can speak, in theory, you can rhyme. My younger brother doesn’t rap at all, but he will kick his little goofy freestyles whenever he feels like it. Versus, if you want to write a throw up on a wall you can’t just do that off the cuff. It takes a lot of discipline and it takes a lot of skill. Same thing with breaking, turntablism, and beat-boxing – well, beat-boxing maybe less so. But the barrier of entry is definitely higher than those in rapping. I don’t think it’s a controversial take. I would argue that it takes the same amount of skill to rap well and to master your craft, study, and practice as it would to be great and master any of those other three crafts.

You have to constantly listen to music, you have to write, you have to edit, in order to really be considered great, in addition to whatever business considerations come into play when you want to boost your brand. I disagree as far as rapping well. I think you have to put in the same amount of hours as you would in those other crafts in order to master it. But, as far as the barrier of entry is concerned I actually agree. If you can talk you can rhyme. That’s the beauty of it and on the other side of it that’s also why breaking, writing graffiti, and deejaying are a little bit more for people to be able to do off the cuff.

TRHH: How did you hook up with August Fanon?

Defcee: He worked with a homie of mine named Iceberg Theory, who is a rapper and producer from Jersey. Iceberg and August have worked on a lot of music together. They have albums that they have released together and they’ve got one on the way that is really dope. I’ve heard it already and it’s super-fire. Probably the best Iceberg Theory album yet. Iceberg reached out to me a few years ago to hop on this Fanon beat and I was really excited about it because I’ve heard the work that Fanon had done for Mach-Hommy, the worked he’d for Armand Hammer, the work he’d done for Westside Gunn, and it was kind of a no-brainer. That verse, I made sure it was super-ill because I was looking at it like an audition tape. Then last summer during the pandemic I had a little bit more time to just work on the music, so I reached out to Iceberg and said, “Hey, would Fanon be open to working with me?” That led to larger conversations. Fanon sent me a beat pack and the rest is history.

TRHH: The project has a mellow feel. Why’d you choose these particular beats to represent the EP?

Defcee: I just picked the best beats. Out of those 40 beats I picked the best five and then he sent me another pack. The first five had been done for almost a year and we had to wait a little bit to roll everything out the way we wanted to. And then he sent me another pack of 40 and I picked one from that pack and added it in. But, I was just picking the best beats. I was going for production that didn’t sound like anything I’d rhymed on before, with the exception of Tragic/Magic. I wanted to put together the pieces that would create the most compelling work. There wasn’t really a mood or a subject matter I was going for. I just kind of picked the six beats that stood out the most to me and were of the highest quality.

TRHH: What’s your favorite song on We Dressed the City with Our Names?

Defcee:Just Beautiful” is probably the best rapping I’ve ever done. I feel like I’m hitting all the right elements. Ken Griffey, Jr, right? Willie Mays, too, the ideal 5-tool baseball players. They hit for contact, hit for average, hit for power, you can field, and you can get on base. So, Just Beautiful, as a 5-tool emcee, everything you need to do to be a great emcee, I was doing that on that song. I would say Just Beautiful is my favorite.

TRHH: This year you also released the deluxe edition of ceenick. Why didn’t the new songs make the original version of ceenick?

Defcee: ‘Cause I hadn’t made ‘em [laughs].

TRHH: Oh, they’re “new” new.

Defcee: Yeah. All five of them are new. Nick and I had kind of put together the original EP on a whim. From the first song I recorded, to the entire joint being uploaded to bandcamp it was 8 days. He sent me five beats and they were all fucking fantastic! They were all written in that day 8 day span and knowing that Nick is also somebody who owns his own clothing store in Tucson, AZ and owns his own clothing brand as well, we just kind of figured, “Okay, let’s see what we can do as far as building out the merchandise.”

Nick came up with the design, pressed the clothes, packaged them and sent them out, sequenced the track listing, we made five new joints, I hollered at Add-2 and Rich Jones because those were two names that kept coming up when I asked people who they wanted to see featuring on the ceenick deluxe addition. It came together very organically and it also came together very quickly. We kind of wanted to see what we could do with a little bit more time, maybe a little bit more of a rollout, and a little bit more intention.

TRHH: In the song “Crime in the City” you say “Only takes less than a second to fire a weapon/American math, White violence designed the lesson.” Please explain what you mean by that line?

Defcee: A lot of times when we speak about crime, especially violent crime, we, meaning white people who American institutions serve, tend to think of it as consequence of the inherent nature of the people who live in those neighborhoods where it occurs the most frequently. Which is bullshit. Because when you look at the United States of America, pretty much since its inception, we have been a violent country. Especially white America. We came to this country, we used violence to take it from the indigenous people who were here, we used to enslave black people for hundreds of years, we used violence to enforce racist segregation laws, we used violence to enforce other racist practices like mandatory drug minimums and police brutality.

Also, if you want to look at the rash of mass shootings that have been occurring over the past 20 years an overwhelming majority of them have been committed by white people, particularly white men. I think that’s something that white America does not like discussing, but projects onto people who are not white. I think White America is inherently violent and we’ve been violent for centuries and we never really addressed that. So, that’s kind of where that came from when I wrote that bar.

TRHH: I’m in agreement, but why do you believe there is this push to rewrite history and say that America is not a racist country?

Defcee: Let me try to answer this in a direct way so it’s not super-circuitous. So, I’ll answer the question and then I’ll try to explain my answer, So, I think that the reason why we want to rewrite American history as not being racist and we as white people want to keep Critical Race Theory out of the schools is because shame and embarrassment are two of the most, and it’s not an excuse at all — I’m just explaining it, people will kill to prevent themselves from feeling those emotions. They will kill for the consequence of having felt those emotions. And on top of that, if you want to look at America as an institution, the minute that we own our culpability in institutional and interpersonal racism, white America specifically, I think at that moment it’s going to be, “Okay, we’ve admitted that we are wrong, now what are we going to do to make up for it?” And I don’t think that white America is really ready to make up for it yet, so, the answer that we’ve come up with essentially is we’re just going to literally and figuratively whitewash history, so we don’t have to confront these demons and we don’t have to change.

And, on a very petty and small level so that we don’t have to feel uncomfortable and we don’t have to feel like we were wrong or that we are ashamed of our past. I think that’s where it comes from – this desire to not hold ourselves accountable for stuff that we should hold ourselves accountable for. We don’t want to change and we don’t want to do anything to make up for these atrocities that we’ve committed in the name of whiteness and white supremacy across centuries of white supremacy in America.

TRHH: It makes no sense though because if you look at Germany they look at Hitler and say, “Hey, that’s a black eye on our history and we won’t tolerate that kind of shit anymore!” I don’t understand not owning up to what happened. It is what it is to me.

Defcee: I agree with you 100%. That’s the crazy thing too. People try to turn this into a partisan issue when really if you lay down the facts of how the United States has operated since its inception, the racism is as plain as day. It’s right there in black and white, no pun intended. I think the difference is, and I have to figure out a way to phrase this carefully because I don’t want what I’m going to say to be misinterpreted. I’m Jewish and as a white Jewish person part of our assimilation into mainstream American culture was this heavy burden that had fallen upon the shoulders of powerful white United States of America to hold Nazi Germany accountable for its crimes even though we weren’t going to get involved until Pearl Harbor happened. I think it was a lot easier for us as white American’s to empathize with white Jews who were being oppressed over there.

If you look at the difference in a reaction to the Holocaust versus that way that we look at lynching in this country or the genocide of Native American’s, and a lot of times we get so caught up in who had it worse that we can’t see that ultimately these experiences should be bonding us to one another. But I think a lot of Jews chose whiteness because it was the safe place for us to run in the United States. Therefore, it was easier for white people in the United States to say, “I can’t believe that this is happening in Nazi Germany. We need to do something to stop it because the majority of the Jews who were massacred over there were also white people.” Also, I don’t think the United States has ever officially apologized for slavery.

TRHH: No.

Defcee: So, yeah, I also think a major part of it too is the United States – the bedrock of this country is racist violence. That’s what our economy is built on, that’s what our institutions were built on. We would essentially have to as white people reassess, tear down, and work with people who are not white to rebuild this country if we really want to fully own up to what we did, and who we harmed in the process of what we did in the process of establishing the United States as a global superpower. I really think that  corporate interests and religious interests here, in addition to white supremacists, just don’t want that to happen. I think that’s the major difference and I think where in Nazi Germany you had this entire overhaul of their government where the Nazi party was pretty much ejected from the establishment due to foreign intervention, that has never happened here when you talk about white supremacy. When you talk about how many politicians who are in office who advocated for segregation, slavery or advocated for mandatory minimums that targeted black and brown people, and who are now basically trying to repeal black and brown people’s voting rights.

I know that I went on a lot of tangents, I don’t have all the answers and there are people who are much smarter than me who do. But ultimately, I think we as a country would have to reckon with the full weight – hundreds and hundreds of years — of institutional racism and oppression, up until present day. And it would involve us tearing things down and having to rebuild it in order to truly address what we screwed up as white America. I agree with you. It’s plain as day, but we’re not really ready to face that and act on it. Even something like Critical Race Theory, which is really just telling the truth. It’s not controversial, it’s not partisan, it’s not political, Critical Race Theory is basically telling things how they are. The fact that that’s a controversial thing for some school districts to teach is super-crazy to me. It’s because we as white people don’t want to hold ourselves accountable for our B.S. Nazi Germany was forced to have to reckon with their atrocities by a bunch of other countries and what other global super power is going to hold the United States accountable for its history of institutional racism and oppression?

TRHH: Right. That’s true. Last question, who is the “We Dressed the City with Our Names” EP made for?

Defcee: It’s made for people who love Hip-Hop. It’s made for people whose lives Hip-Hop has saved. It’s made for the homies of mine who we all kind of came up together participating in Hip-Hop culture, participating in the spoken word scene, who saw a world that we wanted to improve and are in the process of improving it. I made it for people who love this culture fully and sincerely and who want to participate in it for their rest of their lives. I made it for Hip-Hop culture as a thank you and knowing that I can never repay that debt of gratitude that I owe to it. That’s who I made it for.

Purchase: August Fanon & Defcee – We Dressed the City with Our Names

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