Interview by: Martin Bauman
Iron Solomon is on a roll right now. After just releasing his debut album, Monster, and receiving a shout out from Drake, the Manhattan battle rapper turned emcee appears poised to establish himself as a strong presence in hip-hop. All this after having already cemented his legacy as a legend in the rap battle circuit, taking out Immortal Technique in his teens and later battling the likes of Jin, Math Hoffa (in a classic Smack DVD battle), 106 & Park champion Avalanche, and E. Ness. The Come Up Show caught up with Iron last week while he was on tour in Seattle with Boot Camp Clik, and discussed his debut album, his transition from battle rapper to rap artist, the current state of hip-hop, his love for New York City, and his comedic side, among other things. Check out the interview below.
TCUS: I wanted to talk first about your debut album, Monster, which just came out last Tuesday. How’s the response been so far?
Iron Solomon: It’s been great, man. Great. You know, a lot of great critical praise, a lot of great feedback from fans. We cracked Top 25 on the iTunes charts, and you know, for an independent artist on their first release, it’s something that I feel good about.
TCUS: I wanted to ask you about a line from your debut album, this is from “Almost There”. You say, “Everyone I look to as my idols give me cosigns.” What kind of cosigns have you been getting with your latest album and with your transition from battle rapper to rap artist?
Iron Solomon: Well you know, just over the years, different people that have reached out, from Busta, to Snoop, to Kweli, and DMC. Recently, Drake shouted me out, and getting work with Paul Wall. And also of course, the underground cats that I grew up on, you know, Boot Camp, Sean Price, even Poison Pen, and C-Rayz Walz. Just the guys from around New York that just support what I’m doing. And getting that type of feedback always feels great.
TCUS: Now, you were recently at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and you had the chance to meet with a lot of different artists there. What was that experience like?
Iron Solomon: It was amazing. That was my first year down there, and again, you know, [there were] so many different artists that I look up to, and that I’m a fan of at the moment. Machine Gun Kelly, A$AP Rocky, Slaughterhouse… you know, all these guys are out there, and they just show mad love, and everybody’s real supportive. It was a great ride.
TCUS: Coming back from there, are there any artists that you’d like to collaborate with?
Iron Solomon: Yeah, definitely. I mean, A$AP Rocky and I were talking about doing something, and me and Machine Gun Kelly are kinda going back and forth, trying to connect the dots. Those are the two artists that I saw out there that I’m probably looking to kink up with in the near future.
TCUS: I’m gonna go back to “Almost There” again, this is another quote. This time, you say, “Time won’t wait and I’m getting grown/ Tryna build a legacy out of flesh and bone/ Either way, each stage is a stepping stone/ But sometimes, the spotlight’s best left alone.” Can you talk about what you were feeling when you wrote this?
Iron Solomon: Yeah, some of the content in that song definitely relates to people wanting me to battle, and you know, people sometimes being resistant to change. And also, just feeling like you’re only working with the tools that you’ve been given, and that flesh and bone is destructible, it’s not the strongest thing in the world. And when you’re trying to build something that’s bigger than a human being, that can be difficult when those are the tools that you’re given to work with. And then, sometimes the spotlight’s best left alone. Sometimes, I felt like when I stepped away from things was when I started to actually make progress. So when I was really hungry, hungry, pushing to be in every single battle that I could possibly be in, I didn’t always feel like I was getting the response that I wanted. And when I stepped away from the spotlight, sometimes I felt like that’s when I made the most progress.
TCUS: That relates pretty much directly to my next question. This is from a video that Soul Khan put on YouTube. He says, and I’m quoting here, “No battle rapper who has a successful music career on the level that I want to achieve is an active battle rapper. That’s not me hating, that’s scientific fact.” Would you agree with those sentiments?
Iron Solomon: Yes, and no. I think in this era, where being a battle rapper is a very specific thing, that people are making careers out of being battle rappers, that it’s been difficult for people to make that transition [from battle rapper to rap artist], but you know, Eminem was battling and making songs, I guess you could say he was a battle rapper, Jay-Z battled DMX back in the day, Big Pun battled a million people… So I think, in hip-hop, the thing that’s unique about this era is that there’s a separation between battle rapper and rapper. Whereas, historically, and in my opinion, the way I want to be as an emcee, is that battling is one piece of being a rapper, one piece of being an emcee. I think you’re definitely right that it’s difficult for the people who have gotten most of their, you know, notoriety and made most of their career in hip-hop off battling. It has been very difficult to make that transition. But I think that, historically, at the root of what hip-hop is to me, it should just only be a piece of who you are as an emcee.
TCUS: How has your own experience been as a battle rapper trying to make it in the music industry?
Iron Solomon: Honestly, it’s been kinda good, because the reason I put so much energy into the battles is because it was actually getting me some notoriety, it was getting me a lot of connections. And networking with the industry, I’ve been able to be in amazing studio sessions with some legends that I look up to, and I’ve been able to write for people in the industry, and produce for people in the industry. And it’s really been a great tool for me. And at the same time, I think, right now that I’m releasing my own music, and my album is out, that there is resistance, or there is a preconception that certain people have, but I think that ultimately, as long as I’m consistent with making quality music and continuing to improve and strive to make better music… that stuff is all just challenges and hurdles that can be overcome.
TCUS: This leads me into my next question. This is another song of yours, “Rule #4081”, this comes from your chorus: “If you wanna make it in hip-hop, you gotta start beef/ Gotta be iced out, gotta hold heat/ Follow the lifestyle, gotta get locked/ To make it in hip-hop, you gotta get shot/ Gotta be Big Pop’, or gotta be Pac/ Gotta make big hits, gotta go Pop/ If you a big shot, you got a rap sheet/ If you got it like that, then you ain’t gotta ask me.” Can you talk a little bit about this? What do you feel the current state of hip-hop is?
Iron Solomon: I think that the current state of hip-hop is actually a little more optimistic than that chorus. I think obviously, there is a frustration for a lot of upcoming artists that want to become famous and develop a career out of quality music, and making music the way that they want to make it, and not necessarily following certain paradigms or certain predetermined paths that exist in the industry. So I think, in a way, when you take anything and you make it into a business, and you’re talking about marketing a product or selling something, the more simplicity you have in the packaging and the more easily you can boil down the bullet points of what that product is, it’s easier to sell. But at the same time, you see artists like Kendrick Lamar, or Big K.R.I.T., you know, artists that are making well-rounded music and are clearly making music that they want to make without bending to what they think they should be making, and they’re having success. I think that the internet and the direct relationship that artists have with their fans now actually opens a lot of doors for those kinds of opportunities.
TCUS: Absolutely. I wanted to talk about freestyling, too. This is a quote from your twitter. You said, “ Freestyling is when you rap on the radio and you’re reading from a Blackberry but there are no cameras so no one knows.” What are your thoughts on the loose definition that’s been applied to freestyling nowadays?
— Iron Solomon (@IronSolomon) March 28, 2012
Iron Solomon: [Laughs] Oh, you know, obviously I was just f***ing around, being sarcastic, but I think that honestly, there’s always been kind of a loose definition. And I think that there’s positives and negatives. I mean, even in the 90s, when I was a kid and I was going to rap battles, and people were freestyling, and in the era when that was like the most important, and people really cared about the spontaneity, everybody still had their little punchlines in their pocket. You’d go to a battle and you see somebody use the same punchline more than once, but that didn’t mean that [they were] spitting, like, 16 bar verses that were written. So, I think that there’s different kinds of freestyling. I think you can mix a spontaneous thought with something that you thought of before, and your ability to connect all of those different ideas and those different words in that one moment is really difficult, and to me, is definitely freestyle. And you could just go completely spontaneous, and that’s definitely freestyle. And then, I think, there’s been a lot of years where the word freestyle has been used to just mean a free, not necessarily conceptual, verse that’s on someone else’s beat. Like the old Funk Flex tapes, or the old 50 MC’s Tony Touch tapes, would say freestyle but it didn’t mean totally spontaneous, off the top. So, I think it’s just a matter of clarifying what you mean when you say freestyle, you know? And people rapping on the radio, when the cameras are rolling, when the people are tuning in, you want to make sure you put your best foot forward. And not everybody is great at the spontaneity, so just being prepared at times is kind of the best route.
TCUS: I wanted to ask you about New York City, because it seems pretty obvious that growing up in New York has been a big influence on you, and that definitely shows in your song “The Empire” with Talib Kweli. What has it meant to you growing up in New York City, and what kind of a connection do you feel with the history of hip-hop coming from there?
Iron Solomon: Yeah, I mean, one of the most valuable things to me about my upbringing in New York has been just the diversity of experiences and the diversity of people that I’ve been exposed to. It’s one of the most integrated cities in the world. Like, you really have various backgrounds of people living right next to each other, various tax-brackets, and different economic strata living next to each other. And for me, that has broadened my horizons and made me feel like I can relate to almost any kind of person in the world. And then also to be exposed to so many cultures, and so many different kinds of music, and have it all at my fingertips. And all of those life experiences have helped to shape me and mold me into the person I am, and mold me into the artist I am, or the way I want my music to sound. So yeah, I love it, man. I love New York City, I love the culture and having, like you said, the rich history of hip-hop, something that was all around me, you know? I remember being a little kid, before they switched the train, and you could just see graffiti everywhere, and just the way that people walked, the way that people talked… it’s just kinda all around us.
TCUS: People may not recognize you for this, although maybe they should from your punchlines, but you’ve got a comedic side too. You recently put out a video called “Shit Indie Rappers Say”, how did that come about?
Iron Solomon: With that one, Duck Down 3D and Red Bull kind of approached me with the idea, and they had the concept, and wanted to get a bunch of different rappers in it. And then we just started filming, and it was fun, man. It was something that I wasn’t immediately jumping at, because I’m not an actor… I think the last time I was in any time of acting situation was my eighth grade production of Grease. [laughs] I was Danny Zuko. But yeah, I like to joke around, I write skits, I take notes and write down skit ideas and stuff all the time. So to get a chance to be in it, and then there’s the feedback that it’s gotten, and people have actually liked it, it was fun. It was kind of a risk, and something I was a little hesitant to do, but I’m glad that we did it and I’m glad that people enjoyed it. And it’s good to make fun of yourself, it’s good to show a different side, because ultimately my message in my music is just that everybody has different sides, man. Not everybody is gangster from the second they wake up to the second they go to sleep, not everybody is emo all the time, and it’s okay to just be a diverse human being and not have to be one way or one thing every minute of every day.
TCUS: Yeah, I was going to mention that the ability to self-deprecate is pretty valuable.
Iron Solomon: Yeah, definitely.
TCUS: So, you’ve had success in the rap battle scene, and now with Monster, you’re making your album debut. What’s the next chapter for you?
Iron Solomon: Right now, actually, as we speak, I’m on the west coast. I’m in Seattle on tour with Boot Camp, and there’s a little west coast promo run. So I’m gonna be hitting the road a lot more, really working on the live show, trying to connect directly with people and deliver the music in a live setting. And then also, just releasing a lot more music. These past couple years, where I’ve been super-focused on my own projects in the studio, I have a lot of songs stockpiled and I just feel really comfortable creating music the way that I want to create it, and achieving the type of things that I want to achieve. So, people are gonna hopefully be pleased with just the volume of output, because I have so much stuff in the stash, and I’m just creating music at a quicker rate than I ever have in my life. So just getting out there, man, and releasing more great music, better music every time, and just hoping that it grows and people receive it the right way.
TCUS: That’s all from me, but were there any last words you wanted to say to the people out there?
Iron Solomon: Yeah, I just want to say that I appreciate you guys for creating this media outlet, and I’ve always gotten a lot of love from Canada, and I really appreciate it. And I hope that the music reaches people and that people are affected by it the way that music has affected me in my life. And hopefully, it makes somebody’s day a little bit better.
TCUS: Absolutely. Thanks very much for your time, and best of luck in the future.
Iron Solomon: Thank you man, likewise.