Chicago emcee and producer Neak ended 2020 with a thought-provoking and head nodding release called “Innenstadt.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines the German word “Innenstadt” as “city centre.” On the musical release Innenstadt, Neak takes listeners to the much-maligned inner-city of Chicago and digs beneath the surface of what most people only hear on their nightly news.
Innenstadt features appearances by Philmore Greene, Yarbrough, Since9ine6ix, and Rashid Hadee, who also executive produced, mixed, and mastered the project. The 8-track release is produced by Neak, Slot-A, and the aforementioned, Rashid Hadee.
Neak spoke to The Real Hip-Hop about the disastrous results of the human family being disconnected, why it’s important for him to honor black women in his music, and his new album, Innenstadt.
TRHH: What’s the meaning behind the title of the album, Innenstadt?
Neak: Innenstadt has two meanings; it’s downtown Frankfurt in Germany, but it also translates in the English language to “inner-city.” Innenstadt is a twist on the words “inner-city” and all that it encompasses from a Chicago perspective.
TRHH: Rashid Hadee produced “4Eva Eva” on the album, but also served as executive producer. What did Rashid contribute to Innenstadt and what was it like working with him on this project?
Neak: That’s my brother. We’ve been working together for many years. Basically, all my projects he’s oversaw all of them. He just serves as the last checkpoint. When we’re working together he does the mixing, the mastering, and some co-production. He’s just making sure that the project is really dope and fine-tuned from beginning to end. When you hear the final project, the sound, the track listing, and everything, that’s all through the hands of Rashid Hadee. He’s just overseeing it and making sure that it comes to light and to fruition.
TRHH: What inspired the song “What Would 2Pac Say?”
Neak: Basically, the lyrics to the song are talking about a lot of stuff that we go through, especially as black people. Police brutality, low-income, low wages, and we’re asked to vote but there is nothing in return for our votes. The lyrics are basically about all of those things. I was like, “What would 2Pac say about this? If 2Pac was here right now what would his comments be on that?” If you hear the excerpts in the song it kind of plays off the stuff that I was talking about. He’s one of my favorite artists of all-time. It was like if I had a conversation with him about these things what would he say about it.
TRHH: He’s an important figure in Hip-Hop and a lot of times I think the last year of his life sort of clouds his legacy. There are fans who like the controversial/Death Row 2Pac and have no idea of the political artist he was prior to the drama in his life.
Neak: Yes, especially with his earlier work when he was in Oakland and on the east coast. You’re talking about “Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.” and “Me Against the World” and those types of records were when you got the essence of 2Pac. I agree with you, it got lost in the Death Row era because of how his image was portrayed and also the demons he was battling with.
TRHH: At the end of the song “What’s Really Here” you say, “What’s really here, life, in the form of death.” What did you mean by that line?
Neak: Basically, what I meant by it is when you’re living day to day and you’re living in the worst parts of the city; when I say “what’s really here, life” we’re living. We’re going through life day to day but it is in the form of death. You’re not really living. It’s like you’re living to die. There are no resources, there’s no uplifting, and there is no space where you can grow into your higher self. Everything is meant to trap you and keep you in a maze. So, you’re living but you’re essentially dying at the same time. You can’t get through these things because of the way it’s set up economically and politically. It puts you in a position where you almost feel like you’re in a cage. It’s like, what’s the point of living because the way I’m living is not really taking me to a higher level.
TRHH: It reminds me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory. A lot of black people don’t truly live, we survive. We don’t know how to. It’s generational. My parents never told me to get a college degree and see the world. They said, “get a job” because that’s what they did.
Neak: It’s perspective, right. So, if you go back to the beginning of that song he said, “The police authority don’t like the way we live. We actually don’t like the way that we live!” So, it’s projection at its finest. You’ve got a lot of our parents and elders living a life that they hate, but that’s all that they know, so, they’re just projecting on you what they think is best. Get a job, get you some money, work, work. But, they aren’t telling you to upgrade your perspective and see life outside of this. It almost reminds me of Common on “Respiration” where it’s like, “I asked my guy how he thought traveling the world sounds/He found it hard to imagine, he hadn’t been past downtown.” It’s the same premise. You’re living, but you’re really dying at the same time because you’re not growing.
TRHH: How do you begin to tell someone with no concept of this that this is what they need to do to grow, expand, and live?
Neak: I think at the best rate it’s exposure. The more you know, the more you see, the more you engage with, the more your perspective can shift. You can’t really change your perspective if you don’t have anything else to see. What ends up happening is, if this is the only thing that I see it’s the only thing that I know. And if it’s the only thing that I know, this is the only way I know how to operate. But once I get a shift in perspective, which is exposure to different things from an educational standpoint, a behavioral standpoint, and an experience standpoint, now my mind gets to open up. I think that’s the biggest issue that we have is we don’t have any exposure. Especially in Chicago. It’s so gentrified that we stay within our blocks.
TRHH: That’s so true. I’m from the west side. I didn’t experience any other cultures until I was teenager. It’s mind blowing.
Neak: It is. Chicago is really a very cultural city. If you go to different parts of it there are a lot of different cultures in this city alone. Like you, until I was a teenager I barely knew what the north side looked like. The only time I went up there was when my mother and father took me to a doctor’s appointment. Other than that, we weren’t up there eating dinner, hanging out, shopping, or going to different thrift stores. We didn’t do that. Wherever we lived that was where we were at.
TRHH: One thing that stood out to me was some of the hooks on Innenstadt were samples from 2Pac, Common, Nas, and Andre 3000. You don’t hear those types of hooks as much these days. Did the vocal samples come to you before or after you wrote your verses?
Neak: On some songs they came to me after, and on some songs they came to me at the same time. For the 4Eva Eva song that came to me around the same time. I just had one standard hook like “I just wanna live my best days forever” and automatically that 3 Stacks line popped in my head. When I was rapping and talking about how life could not be extended to us, like, we could die at a young age. The Nas record “If I Ruled the World” came to me. What did he say? “Days is shorter, nights is colder.” A lot of these things started coming to my head as I was writing. On top of that, it was also a way for me to pay homage too because these are my favorite artists. I’m really inspired by these artists. It’s kind of a twofold thing because the inspiration was there, but also me paying homage too, in a very subtle way.
TRHH: If you look at the last election and the protests throughout the country, black women are leading the charge in bringing about true change in the world. The song “Broken Princess” speaks to black women and their strengths despite harsh circumstances. Why was it important for you to write a song like “Broken Princess” and give black women their much-deserved praise?
Neak: It was two reasons; number one, I have a teenage daughter. As I’m watching my daughter grow up I want her to understand that because she’s a black woman and because of who she is, she can be proud of who she is. And just know that the historical context of what black women had to go through, for her to understand that, but also for her to know that, that’s just a society thing. You are great the way you are. Don’t let culture, friends, or misogyny degrade you outside of who you are truly meant to be as a young black woman.
Also, number two, it was a way for us as black men for us to honor black women, because we don’t necessarily hear that. We don’t hear a lot of honor when it comes to black women. You hear, “She’s this, we had sex doing that, shorty did X, Y, and Z.” You never hear a flat-out honor code when it comes to black women in Hip-Hop culture. That was also my way of speaking to black women directly saying the same conversation I’m having with my daughter – you’re good the way you are, you’re fine the way God made you, you’re not to be degraded, and you’re not to be seen as a lesser vessel. It’s basically honoring black women in that way.
TRHH: What you said about not seeing black women being honored in Hip-Hop caused me to think about the Jungle Brothers song “Black Woman.” There was a time when it was normal to honor black women in Hip-Hop. You hear it a little bit today from people like Common, but on the mainstream it’s not as prevalent.
Neak: Right. At least I haven’t heard it. I’m not saying it’s not out there, but it ain’t come across my ears.
TRHH: It ain’t been pushed, right? It ain’t been promoted. That’s for certain, but there was a time when it was. Why do you think that changed?
Neak: When things become corporate, and what I mean by that is the history of Hip-Hop becoming the main, major form of music across the music world, you’ve got to understand that once white corporate America gets a hold on something the narrative is pretty much at their hands. Whatever they decide to push out there to the culture. I think a lot of times we allow the narrative to get changed through corporate America and the culture is like, “That’s what people wanna hear. That’s what’s dope. That’s what sells. That’s what makes money. That’s what people wanna consume, so I’m just going to follow suit.”
I think it was a lot of that going on, especially from the late 80s/early 90s ‘til now. It just became a way of brainwashing like, “This is what people wanna hear, so I guess I need to talk about women in this way. I guess I need to discuss girls in this way.” I think that’s the danger that you have when you don’t control the narrative. When you’re dealing with all of these major record labels in the 90s and early 2000s who are putting out the music that they want people to have. I think it’s a corporate backing to that as to why that shift was there.
TRHH: What do you want people to take away from Innenstadt?
Neak: It’s kind of like the song “What’s Really Here.” I want people to get down to the bare minimum and bare bones of valuing life. I think that when we talk about things that are going on in the world, we don’t understand that at the core of it and at the end of the day we’re all just human beings. The things that we’re experiencing as human beings, even in the inner-city and the depths of Chicago, that affects everybody. So, whether you think you’re removed from it or not, if you’re black, white, Asian, or whatever, humanity is suffering because that aspect of humanity is suffering.
The takeaway is, we’re all in this together, whether you know it or not, or whether you like it or not. Like 2Pac said in the excerpt, if you don’t reconcile this, karma comes back and then you’re going to have to pay for that. It’s a karmic energy that you’ve got to understand. You’ve got to treat your brother like you treat yourself. But if you don’t love yourself, guess what, you have no love for your brother. Just understand that we’re all human beings at the end of the day and be mindful of that. See things from outside of your own perspective and understand that people have different experiences in life – especially us as black people.
Purchase: Neak – Innenstadt