Presence The Elder is an emcee that took a near two decade break from the microphone. The Chicago native released his last album, R.Y.E (Ready Your Ears), in 2006, then going simply by “Presence.” The now Elder made a triumphant return with the 2023 release of his new album, “Amplified Enlightenment.”
Amplified Enlightenment features appearances by DJ Shade and Paulina Pahl. The 12-track album is produced by Fran C, Cool Out Chris, and Presence The Elder himself.
Presence The Elder talked to The Real Hip-Hop about why he returned to rap after 17 years, the beauty of Chicago, and his new album, Amplified Enlightenment.
TRHH: What’s the meaning behind the title of the album, Amplified Enlightenment?
Presence The Elder: Amplified Enlightenment, obviously the first term is a microphone term, amplified. Meaning that you’re sending your vocal signals through a unit that amplifies whatever the message is. The Enlightenment itself has no religious connotations. It’s actually a reference to a period of time in European history where it represents like a phase. I’m actually reading this right now because I took a picture of it. I was like, “I like that term.” It’s called “The Enlightenment.” That’s the era in European history and it says “it represents a phase of the intellectual history of Europe and programs of reform inspired by a belief in the possibility of a better world.” I liked that, so, that’s why I chose Amplified Enlightenment because I think that really resonates with like my general message with this album and what I hope to do going forward, too.
TRHH: What brought you back to Hip-Hop after 17 years?
Presence The Elder: I don’t know if it was one necessarily sort of quantifiable thing. It was really just a moment in time. I remember, I even wrote it down, I had a little note on my phone. It was pretty much mid-October of last year and I’m just home at my dinner table and I said, you know what, I haven’t done anything in so long. I looked at this hard drive that I had on my table that I probably moved with over 17 years probably, 12 times, 3 different states. Never turned it on or anything, just had this hard drive. I looked at it and there it was, boom.
I had all these recording sessions from 2008 and 2009 when I went to engineering school in New York. I made like pretty good songs — two of them are actually on the album right now. Those songs are probably 14 years old and I hadn’t opened them or accessed the Pro Tools files. I hadn’t even turned the hard drive on in 10 years and I looked at it and I said you know what, I think I’m back. “I think I’m gonna open that hard drive and see if those sessions are still there with five songs and then just do what we used to do.” That day was I think October 22nd and here we are, man. I just made it happen like that.
TRHH: So, what was it during that time that kept you from recording?
Presence The Elder: I think around 2009-2010 I went back to recording engineering school. I was doing a lot of recordings, kind of like that old home studio closet stuff. And then I was doing interning for real studios in the Lower East Side for a while. And then I think around 2012-2013 I was just having making ends meet issues. Making ends meet issues, moving issues, life issues in terms of struggling in New York. Bouncing around so many times, not really having consistent income, not really having a place to live for like more than a year-ish at a time, constantly moving. That type of lifestyle just started to wear on me and I said I have to put this down for a second. I love the culture, but I turned like 32-33 years old and I wanted a little bit more security.
TRHH: How have you grown as an artist since Ready Your Ears?
Presence The Elder: I think the growth that I turned as an artist is kind of gonna coincide with the difference between recording an album at 29-30 and recording an album at 46. Those are just so different people. We look back at our lives 17 years later and it really doesn’t matter from what number to what number, you’re just going to be a different person. Society is different, the things that are going on are different. If you look at Ready Your Ears — 2006 – we didn’t even have an iPhone invented yet. I mean that was before 2007. No social media, I was printing physicals, so, it’s beyond reflecting as an artist, it’s about really growing into an older gentleman, if you will. That makes you a little bit more mellow, that has an ability to kind of retain what you haven’t been doing and actually ignite a flame that really even ignites more passion than when I was doing it at first, because I feel like I have a little bit more stability and resources to accomplish it.
TRHH: “Chicago Nights” is a song that celebrates our city and it’s perfect that you filmed it on Damen. Our city has its issues, but it’s been painted by conservatives as one giant hell hole. Why was it important for you to highlight the beauty of Chicago?
Presence The Elder: Well, I think that there’s multiple Chicago’s, as there are any big cities. Any city of over 100,000 people is gonna have a good side and a bad side, that goes without question. First of all, if you look at like the bad side that gets focused in the media on this city, look at the typical neighborhoods that those stories involved and if you grew up in those neighborhoods and a lot of the fact that a lot of this culture and really the creation of Hip-Hop as an art form in general is from neighborhoods where violence like that goes down. It’s a little bit of a catch-22. Not to glorify the violence, but the culture itself being created by people from neighborhoods like that, you have to respect that.
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t from people who are still ‘till this day getting shot and killed in neighborhoods like that. So, when I’m doing my art, A, I have to show the influence, but B, obviously I have to be true. I did that shot on Damen and Milwaukee because that’s where I’m from. That’s my stomping ground, that’s the Chicago that I grew up in. I was always around there and I think it’s got a cool vibe. It shows the side of the city that you allude to is accurate, it doesn’t always bring up the problems that we have. It shows more of a little peaceful, kind of almost bohemian aspect to a cool neighborhood here for sure.
TRHH: It seems like to me that the promotion of the violence has intensified because it’s fallen over into the Wicker Parks, the downtowns. It’s spreading now, so, it’s like, “oh, they’re coming for us!”
Presence The Elder: I see what you’re saying there. I kind of feel like, maybe not to where it is, or maybe not the focus, I kind of feel like Chicago has always had that side to it. Where it’s kind of like you could be anywhere and get got technically. Because I’m from Evanston and we have problems there. When I was in high school I had a gun to my chest at an ice cream store in downtown Evanston getting robbed as a 16-year old kid. So, definitely I see what you’re saying in terms of once problems like that start going into other neighborhoods all of a sudden it gets more attention. As a concept there’s no question about that, we’ve seen that with the crack epidemic, too. I just kind of feel like Chicago has always had a little bit of that element like, you never know, you could be anywhere and get jacked, or stuck up, or robbed, or something like that.
They almost robbed me on the on the red line like a year ago. He tried to grab my phone right out of my hand and run but I held on [laughs]. So, it happens definitely anywhere for sure. For Chicago Nights, the truth of the matter is Chicago nights is not a political song at all. Chicago Nights is not intended to drum up feelings about any of that kind of aspect that we’re talking about. It’s more of just a throwback, party, kind of not about nothing song. Just like me as an emcee talking about how what I learned growing up in the city, how it molded me and shaped me kind of thing. So, it’s not really supposed to be or have any intention about that type of like political angle.
TRHH: My favorite joint on the album is “Respect Your Elders.” The lines about the election, Frukwan, and the Lake stop were all fire. What’s your writing process like in terms of including punchlines?
Presence The Elder: Whenever I have any type of a beat the first thing that I do is I say, “What imagery does this track bring me?” What am I thinking about? What do I see? For example, really quickly on “8 Bit Dream” that song made me think of the movie Blade Runner. Like, future retro technology and it’s raining, and it’s dark, and it’s gray. So, when I heard Respect Your Elders that was on some, “Oh, I’m a better emcee than you.” Metaphors, kind of taking you back to like lyricist days, when people would really listen to lyrics. Like Ras Kass, or Canibus, or Organized Konfusion, when people were like really into lyrics in the mid 90s. It kind of made me think about those type of songs and I just wanted to flip some meaningless “I’m the best” type shit [laughs].
I have to say, that’s interesting, man, to hear you say that, A, it’s really one of the first kind of industry outside perspective of any listening ear that’s talked to me about what their favorite song is. And when I hear Respect Your Elders I’m in my head like, “they’re gonna hate this. This is a song that everyone’s gonna hate.” You just don’t know. I feel that way about a couple of songs on the album. I’m like, “Is this one of the stronger ones or are people going to reject this right away?” So, it’s interesting to hear you say that. That makes me feel really, really good.
TRHH: That’s awesome. Why would you think someone would hate it?
Presence The Elder: I don’t know. It’s something about the way my voice sounds during the recording. Sometimes I fear what I jokingly call like “white guy voice” and I start rapping too nasally and too in the nose like, “Hey, man, alright!” I feel like I’m edging in that direction during a song where you want to come off a little bit more the opposite way. It’s probably more of a nitpicking whenever an artist hears his own stuff type of thing they’re always really mad critical. It’s probably one of those things, but I just get those vibes from an artistic standpoint from my own song when I listen to it.
TRHH: What two songs from the album were from 2009?
Presence The Elder: “Bail Out” was from 2009, “There You Go” was from 2009. It’s actually three because “Let’s Get Loco” is from 2009, oh and “Day.” There were four.
TRHH: I feel like “Day” should be the next single. It just feels great. Will this album have another video and will Day be one of those videos?
Presence The Elder: So, the first video was Chicago Nights, so that one you’ve seen and that’s out. Day was going to be the next single, but I wrote that when I was living in New York City and I wrote that all about Manhattan. The first verse is literally “Avenue B imagery” like I talk about Manhattan life, but I live here in Chicago, so, I feel stupid recording a music video about Manhattan and I’m not in Manhattan [laughs]. To me that just doesn’t like make any sense. So, I am filming another video but it’s gonna be for “Better World” and we do that in two weeks.
TRHH: On the song “Time’s Up” you talk about people saying you’re too old to rap. How close to you were following that advice and never rapping again?
Presence The Elder: You know, that is such a great question. I never thought in my head that I was done rapping, that I would never pick up a microphone again, and that I was just like, “Blah, I’m done with this, I never wanna go back.” That was never really crossing my mind. I always would take time to write a verse here and there, even though I never lay them down and it never came to my mind to start recording again. I’ve always been a writer.
Never is basically a long time. I would never have said never, but there were times throughout this last process where it was miles away from my thought process. I was not thinking about dropping an album. That just never occurred until I had that epiphany that I told you I had. It was just kind of an afterthought. But never is a long time, so, I wouldn’t have gone that far. It was surprising once I did have that thought how fast everything kind of came into motion.
TRHH: What do you hope to achieve with Amplified Enlightenment?
Presence The Elder: Well, I think with Amplified Enlightenment now that I’m back I wanted to achieve a couple things. One, as far as a recording musician goes, kind of shake the rust off a little bit. You haven’t recorded in 17 years. It was good to go back in there and keep a mental registry not only of what we did as a writing and engineering team, but what the musicians did, what sounds we were working with, what kind of vibe we were going for. I’m already 7 tracks into the new album and we’re conscious of that now. We have a platform to build on. It’s almost like when a new coaching staff takes over and now it’s year two and year three, everything is a little bit more seasoned and you start to learn everything a little bit more efficient.
So, that’s the first thing that I want is to see myself improve as a recording artist. Get better with my flow, get better with the sound of my vocals, and do things musically that is always going to stand out and be a little different. A lot of the engineers and the musicians that we work with constantly come in and say, “No one’s really making music like this anymore,” where you bring in drummers, and you bring in live bass players, and live keyboard players and kind of craft it like that. So, that’s one of the things we want to keep doing is kind of getting better at that formula, for sure. And then just keep the ball rolling, make more music, keep recording.
I always tell people technically, hypothetically if I got to a point where I could make making music, as far as like let’s say a yearly living, what I make at this restaurant, if I could equal that and consistently make music, I just want to be able to make a living doing music. I mean, that’s the end goal. If I could do that I would quit my job today. If I can make a living doing this that would be perfect. Doing shows, releasing tracks, maybe traveling, selling records, although obviously you don’t make any money streaming, that would be what I would want to do, man, is to do this for a living, for sure. Which is why I’m charging you $80,000 for this interview. I’m just kidding, I’m just messing with you [laughs].