[Interview] Add-2 talks “Between Heaven and Hell,” working with 9th Wonder, and learning from Common

Photo credit: Luis Malagon

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Add this name to the list of Chicago emcees you should be looking out for: Add-2. The Englewood, Chicago emcee has been making a name for himself in the past several years, with his music getting cosigns from the likes of Common – whom he’s developed a relationship with – Tajai from the Souls of Mischief, and everyone’s favourite emcee of the moment, Kendrick Lamar. Perhaps the biggest sign that his time has come, though, is this: the culmination of his work – including his latest mixtape, More Missed Calls – led to him signing with 9th Wonder’s incredibly talented Jamla roster. If you thought he’s been making great music already, just wait until his Jamla debut. We caught up with Add-2 to talk about his upcoming EP with Khrysis, working with 9th Wonder, learning from Common, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: Tell me about your infamous first rhyme book.

Add-2: Ahhhh man! My very first rhyme book was an all-white binder, and I had so many rhymes in it that it bent in half. It’s really ridiculous; it probably weighed about a couple pounds, and everywhere I went, that’s what I was kind of known by. I used to go to open mic poetry spots, and even though I would know what I was performing, I’d bring [my rhyme book] up anyway, and people were like, “geez!” If you dropped it on something, it would make a loud thud, you know what I’m saying?

I used to write every day. Every single day. I still do that, but now I type it. But I used to write every single day, so you’d see pieces of paper, napkins, print paper, the back of menus, just random stuff. I was a writing fanatic, and I kept every last one of [my rhymes], whether they were good or not.

TCUS: What significance does Y.A.L.L.M.C. have to you?

Add-2: Y.A.L.L.M.C. was the first crew that I was a part of. Man, I gotta run through everybody’s names now. It was me, L Speech, my homie Young Papi, my homie Mikael, Dave, my homie Josh… it was maybe six or seven of us, and we were all juniors and seniors in high school. We all went to different schools around Englewood, Chicago, and we came together to make a crew called Y.A.L.L.M.C. It was our first time being in a studio, rapping and recording, and it was a fun experience. That would have been 2004? 2003?

TCUS: Speaking of your high school days, what can you tell me about Luther South?

Add-2: Basically, it’s a private school, but it really wasn’t. [Laughs] It was a private school on paper, but once you went there, you realized it was just as rundown as anything else. It had to be the brokest private school I ever went to, but over there, I met a lot of good people, man, a lot of good friends. That’s where I really honed in on my craft of rhyming. We’d be rapping in the lunch rooms, in the hallways I’d be battling juniors and seniors, and anybody else who was around who also rapped. Anything we’d go to away games [for football], we would be rapping on the bus. That was where I got a chance to hone in on everything that was me, musically.

Photo credit: Luis Malagon

So even though it wasn’t a musical school, we didn’t have anything else better to do. We’d just be rapping. We’d be over on [West] 87th [Street] and [South] Kedzie [Ave], man, rapping in the parking lot [laughs]. Oh man, there are so many crazy stories I could tell you. Wherever we rapped, other schools would come in, and whoever was the best person they had, they’d be like, “go get Dre, go get Dre!” So then I’d come in, and we’d be rapping and battling and going back and forth about who had the better verses. That was definitely one of my memories about Luther South.

TCUS: I want to rewind just a second to something you said earlier. You mentioned playing football. Tell me about playing for the [Luther South] Braves.

Add-2: Man! I played for four years; I was a captain my junior and senior year when I was on varsity, and I was the running back. For anybody who’s seen me in person, I’m not tall – I’m probably like 5’5” on a good day [laughs] – but I loved playing football; I’ve been playing since I was a kid. You know, we’d play in the streets. So once they finally took a chance on me as the running back, I showed out; I was like a little Barry Sanders. It was hard for them to find me behind the line [in the backfield], and by the time I broke out, keeping up with me was the toughest thing to do, because I’d be putting all sorts of little moves on people and they didn’t know which was I was going. Our senior year was the worst year I’ve ever played football, because we didn’t have a quarterback who could really throw, we didn’t have a line – our whole line was all freshmen – and I was getting the ball all the time. Needless to say, it was pretty much one against eleven [laughs]. So it didn’t end well; I ended up messing up my shoulder thanks to that, and that’s why I can’t play football now.

TCUS: After high school, you went on to Valparaiso University. Tell me about Professor Brunson, does that name ring a bell?

Add-2: Ohhh man! Yes! God rest her soul, as well. Professor Jane Bello-Brunson was one of the main professors who was very helpful for a lot of multicultural students, man. I’ll never forget, when I was first performing out there at the university, she pulled me to the side and told me to keep pursuing music. The Dean of my department, one of my advisors as well, he told me, “the music is good, but you need to focus on what you’re here for: your major.” [Professor Brunson] was the one that told me, “no, if [music] is what you do, you do this. You have a bright future in this, and this is where your passion is. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.” And she was right.

Unfortunately, she got sick. I got a chance to visit her right before she passed, and I tried to convey how much gratitude I have for what she gave to us. For a lot of the students there, she was really a shoulder that we could lean on; she was a place of comfort. She’d be trying to get us jobs if we didn’t have one, and trying to keep us [at school]. She was a really great soul; I can’t speak enough good words about her, man. She’s definitely missed. I really do respect and appreciate everything that she’s done for everybody.

TCUS: Going back to Luther South for just a moment, of course, one of its most famous alumni is Common – someone who’s been a supporter of yours. How did your connection with Common begin?

Add-2: I always thought it was a myth that Common went there until he invited us out to an event. Low key, a lot of people don’t know this, but if you ever get a chance to watch the MTV Diary with Kanye West, he has this moment where he goes to the Cultural Centre – Common invited us to that. None of the class wanted to go except for me and maybe two other people. I ended up going, and by [chance], I met both [Kanye and Common]. They actually saw that infamous rhyme book I was telling you about, which is crazy.

I was sitting there, and because I didn’t know what to expect, I brought my rhyme book and everything. I ended up being pulled back to this other area where I was supposed to be helping them haul in boxes, because they thought I was part of the [help crew], and I ended up meeting them when they came in. After I shook hands with them, they looked at the rhyme book, like, “yo, that’s fresh! Keep doing what you’re doing.” The other guy, the security guard, was like, “alright man, you need to get out of here.” But if you ever get a chance to see that moment on MTV Diary where Kanye comes onstage and performs, and people rush to the stage, I was actually there.

As far as me and Common go, I had ended up putting out some music, and one of his homies, Sean, had heard it and sent it to him. After that, he kept saying, “whenever he has music, just have him send it to us while I’m on set.” I think he was either filming Hell on Wheels or a movie at the time. I kept sending him music, and he invited me out to his release party for The Dreamer, The Believer. So I’m out in New York, and I end up meeting him at the same time that I meet Nas. I sat with both of them talking about my music and a song called “Modern Day Coons”, and all this other stuff that I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do.

Ever since then, he’s been like a mentor. Anytime he’s in the city, I kick it with him. They invite me to all the events, and anytime [we talk], I’ll pick his brain about music and how to stay in the game, how to make sure that the career is intact. He’s one of those people who I’ve never been disappointed by. Like, you ever meet certain [famous] people where you’re like, “man, I wish I’d never met them”? He’s one of those people who I’ve never gotten that vibe with, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to meet him. Much respect to the big homie Common.

TCUS: What’s the most important advice he’s passed on to you?

Add-2: He told me to be grateful. You know, he told me to be grateful for what you get, especially if you ask for this lifestyle. [That day], he had flown in from LA, and then went to do some press, and then did a show, and then went right from there to another show an hour later, so I asked him, “how do you do this?” He said, “sometimes I do get tired, but I have to remember that this is the life that I asked for. Once I get the lifestyle that I’ve wanted, I can’t complain now that I’ve got it. There’s so many people who would love to be in this position, and this is the dream that I wanted, so I need to keep that in mind and be grateful for the opportunity that I have, because it could very well be gone.”

That’s something that I keep in mind, especially when it comes to working and giving your all. Sometimes you may not get the rewards that you want, but you also need to keep in mind that you’re a lot further [along] than somebody else, and there are other people who wish to have what you have, or wish to have that freedom where you can pursue your dream. Some people don’t even have the courage to do that much. So when you have something, you’ve gotta hold onto it and cherish it, and appreciate it, because it can be gone.

TCUS: Let’s talk a little bit about More Missed Calls. How has your perspective on music changed since Tale of Two Cities Vol. 1?

Add-2: When I was making music around the time of Vol. 1, my only concern was making really dope punchlines or witty lines that would make people go, “ooh!” That was my main concern. As I grew as an artist, I started realizing that songs are a lot bigger than that, and it’s more so about the feeling that you give people. A punchline is dope, and you can be the illest when it comes to putting rhymes together, but it really doesn’t mean anything if the people can’t listen to it all the time. Now, I’ve learned how to make songs. I’m at a point where the song comes first. I could have a dope line, and at that point, I might just put it off to the side, because it’s more important that I capture this feeling.

When people listen to my music, I want people to really feel it; I don’t want them to turn around and say, “those were some dope lines, but they didn’t match the vibe of the song.” That’s the main concern, and my perspective has changed a lot in many ways. I’ll think about how a song will be performed live. I think about how are people going to be consuming this song? Is it going to be in their headphones? Are they going to be walking to campus? Are they going to be on the bus? Are they going to be listening on the subway? Are they going to be working out to this song? I dissect music in a different way, as opposed to just, I’ll make this song and whatever happens, happens. Now, there’s more thought behind it.

TCUS: In one of the songs off More Missed Calls, “Eulogy”, you rap, “South Side of the Chi ain’t a safe place to live/ Watching these grandmothers outliving their grandkids.” Tell me about this line.

Add-2: In Chicago, that’s the reality, unfortunately. Some of us come from places where we’re raised by people who weren’t necessarily our biological parents, but at the same time, our life expectancy is so short. Before, they used to say living to 21 is a great thing. Now, it’s like if kids manage to make it to 18, that’s a beautiful thing. It’s almost as if you’re not expected to make it, and it’s not even any fault of your own; it used to be because you were affiliated with the wrong people, but now it could be just anything. Anything. You could be doing the right thing all the time and just be at the wrong place.

It’s unfortunate that that’s the reality that people have to deal with, but when you’re young and in Chicago, you’re used to it. It’s a sad thing. I wanted to put it in perspective, to let people know that, yeah, in normal circumstances, kids should be burying the elders, but now it’s to the point where it’s the opposite. We hear it on the news all the time, more and more kids are being grieved over by their parents. Hopefully we can change that in the future, because it’s not a conducive neighbourhood to live in when that’s a reality.

TCUS: What do you think the solution is?

Add-2: I believe there’s several things. The structure of the family has to come back. I think there has to be more households with both parents, and households where both parents are agreeing to be parents and not too caught up in their own selfish ambitions, where they’re fighting all the time. That needs to be put to the side. I think that’s one key element. I think another element is that neighbourhoods have to be communities again. It can’t just be, “ahh man, I’m minding my own business, and whatever happens over there happens over there. These kids are acting bad; I’m not getting involved.” It can’t be like that.

You have to be willing to sidestep whatever you’ve got going on and talk to the kids, say what’s up to ’em, look out for them, see if you can help them grow in some way be a mentor in some form or fashion. I think that has to happen. I think we have to start providing more job opportunities for ourselves in our neighbourhoods, because a lot of people who they look down upon for doing illegal activities, they would all give it up if they had an opportunity to do something that would pay the bills and keep them out of trouble. People would do that. The problem is, there’s no opportunities to do that, so we need better schools. It’s all interconnected.

This is the way I describe it. You start out in adolescence, and our schools are bad, so you get a bad education. Now, let’s say you do graduate, where do you graduate to? You don’t have enough money to go to bigger colleges, so immediately, that’s cut short. Your education – the foundation of it – is already cutting your expectancy of growth in half. Now, you look in your neighbourhood for opportunities – there’s none. There’s no jobs; there’s nothing out here. Now what do you do? You have to survive, and the only jobs available are going to end up putting you in jail, which messes up the family structure. It breeds negativity and it’s a cycle. If we can’t break the cycle, this is only going to get worse, because it’s only going to [keep happening] to more people.

TCUS: For a lot of rappers, the necklace is a sort of rite of passage. Yours has a particularly special meaning. Tell me about what it means to you.

Add-2: I wear a black wood Jesus piece that my [late] friend Johnny Bravado gave to me. At the time, when I first had it, he had given it to me on set of the “Cotton Fields” video. And I said to him – because I left the chain at the house – I told him, “man, I really wish I had a chain right now.” And he said, “hell, you can wear mine.” I was like, “ahh thanks man! I appreciate it. I’ll get it back to you.” And then the next time I saw him, I didn’t have it, so he was like, “[no problem], just give it to me when you see me.”

The next time I came up to him after that, I had it on, and I was like, “man, here’s your chain back.” He was like, “wait a minute. You really like that chain, don’t you?” And I was like, “yeah.” At the time, I had just started getting myself more spiritually in tune. He told me, “well, if you like it, man, you keep it. It’s yours. It means a lot more to you than it probably does to me. I can tell that you really, really like it, man, so hold on to it.” Ever since then, I’ve been wearing it. It’s the only thing I really wear all the time – it’s even on right now, and I’m wearing, like, three layers of clothes [laughs].

But it means so much more now. At first, it was just me getting more spiritually in tune, but now it reminds me of just how short life is. It reminds me of leaving a legacy just like he left. He really believed in a lot of people, so I wanted to keep that in mind and keep that on my heart, just in case if I ever lose scope of things, I can easily look down and see it and put it right back in perspective.

TCUS: Let’s get into what you’ve been up to lately. How has life changed for you in the short while since you’ve been signed to Jamla?

Add-2: It’s changed a lot [laughs]. That’s the easy way to put it. Things went from going at a pace of maybe twenty [or] thirty miles an hour to where now, it’s definitely like sixty [or] seventy. It’s going really, really fast, really quick. The workload, I’m built for that; I’m used to that, but 9th Wonder is a person who pushes you and wants you to succeed. If he believes in you, man, he’s gonna take that to the moon and give you so many more opportunities. So being around that type of energy has helped me to create even more and stay motivated even more.

Also, being around my label mates, man, they all work hard as hell. They say iron sharpens iron, and being in that type of environment where competition is high and everybody’s trying to make better songs and push themselves, that just [puts] me in the right type of place. I love competing; I love making songs; I love hearing people make music that makes you wanna go back to the drawing board. I love hearing someone rap and going “ooh! They went in on that one. Alright, don’t worry, I got something for y’all.” [Laughs] You know what I’m saying? I love that.

And it’s a family thing. It’s not just a group of artists; it’s really like family. We spent half the time at A3C just sitting at the table, playing cards. Everybody over there is like family. I like where it’s going; I’m excited to see what happens from hereon out, and yeah, Jamla is da squad.

TCUS: Tell me about meeting Young Guru and DJ Premier.

Add-2: Oh my God! When I met Premier, we had just gotten rained out from a show at A3C. We go upstairs and 9th is sitting at this table, Rapsody’s on the other side of him, and Premo’s sitting right there. There’s a chair that’s open next to him, and the first thing I thought was, I shouldn’t sit there. Then 9th called me over and I’m thinking, yo, I’m sitting across the table from Premo, man! [Him and I] just started talking about football, because I think the Cowboys were playing the Broncos. It was just bugging me out, because every bone in my body just wanted to say, “yo!!! You’re Premo!!!” I had to keep the fan in [laughs].

After that, Premo went to go set up for his set, so we went back downstairs to get something to eat, and at the table is me, 9th, Young Guru, and DJ Flash. We were just sitting there, talking and listening to samples. Khrysis came down after that, and we were just listening to some of the illest samples and breaks and stuff like that, just sharing stories and cracking jokes, which was surreal to me.

TCUS: I have to ask you about one more hip-hop legend. Tell me the story behind meeting Kool Herc.

Add-2: Ohh man! You’ve got some really good questions! I had performed at SOB’s back in June, and right at the end of the show, my brothers Rebel Diaz came up and told me, “Add, we’ve got a special guest that came to see you.” I was like, “oh word, who?” I saw his face, and then I really had to pick myself up off the floor. I was like, “hold up, man! You can’t be sneakin’ the godfather of all of this [into my show without telling me].” The first thing he said to me was, “my apologies, brother. I didn’t mean to miss your show.” I was like, “man, you don’t have to apologize for nothing – at all. Just the fact that you came up here is crazy.”

He was like, “please tell me you have a CD or something that I can take home with me,” and I was like, “yes I do, man.” I was just handing him everything, like, “yo, just take it. Whatever you want, man.” [Laughs] He was like, “how much do I owe you?” I told him, “you don’t owe me nothing.” It was just crazy. That was one of the most surreal things, because I didn’t expect it. I think everything else, I kinda knew about. The Premo situation, I kinda knew we’d be in the same vicinity. Young Guru, he’s always around 9th. But that was completely [unexpected]. They didn’t tell me they were bringing him. Shout out to my brothers Rebel Diaz, man, and of course, nothing but respect to Kool Herc. I’m getting chills just thinking about it.

TCUS: Coming up next for you is the EP with Khrysis, Between Heaven and Hell. It’s an interesting concept to think about. What does it mean to you?

Add-2: When we first came up with the project, I had come down to [North Carolina] for a week just to work on some songs. We didn’t know what we were going to do with everything; we did one song and I said, “alright, this is going pretty good.” He said, “well, just fly down here and we’ll work on the rest.” It ended up going so well that we pretty much did the whole thing. We had it done pretty much within that time frame.

We sat down and were thinking about titles, and I said, “I need something that conveys the imagery of being stuck between the good and bad” – that middle ground, you know what I’m saying? We threw out a bunch of names, and I think I randomly said, “it just feels like we’re between heaven and hell.” I stopped and said, “yo, do you think that would work?” He was like, “between heaven and hell, between heaven and hell, between heaven and hell… yo, that works!” That’s how it all came together, but really, it means being in that place where you’re in between. Things are good, but they can also go dramatically bad. You’re trying to get better, but you’re constantly in that state of going through your worst.

At the time, I felt like this album summed all that up, because literally right before I [got signed by] 9th Wonder, I had four people I knew die within the span of maybe two weeks, just a couple days between each other. I was at my lowest of the low, really depressed, to the point where my family was worried about me. I would just leave the house; they’d be calling the house up, and they couldn’t reach me; they’d call my phone, and I wouldn’t answer. After that, literally I went from being at my lowest point to being at the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life. Sometimes you get heaven; sometimes you get hell. You’ve just gotta survive both.

TCUS: So far from the EP, we’ve heard “Don’t Go”. In the song, you rap, “sometimes I even wonder why I bother to rap/ until I look back to cats whose only father is rap.” Tell me about this.

Add-2: Music, to me, is the most powerful tool we have. Some days, you want to fall back from it; some days you don’t get the results that you want; sometimes you wonder to yourself if it’s even possible. After that, you kinda put it in perspective, where it’s like, think about how much what you’re doing means to other people. Think about how your words mean something to someone else. What you’re saying, what you’re doing, could be inspiration for the next generation.

There’s a generation of kids out there who have never even been able to express themselves in this way, and you have to give them hope that they can do it, too. Not just that they can do it, too, but that they can do it better than you did. That’s what I want; I want the kids who may not necessarily have the right type of situation at home, or may not have the right people around them to believe in them, to be like, “man, because I’ve seen him do it, I know I can do that. It’s possible.” And not even possible, maybe that it’s imminent. That it will happen if you just stay true to what you’re doing.

It’s important that if you don’t have the proper people behind you, at least let this music give you that confidence that you can be whoever you want to be. Let that be the tool. So that’s what that line means. Sometimes you may want to give up, but just think about who you’re doing this for.

TCUS: This is something 9th Wonder has told you: “Sometimes it takes the world time to catch up to your genius.” Tell me about this.

Add-2: The first time I came down to record with him, maybe two or three years ago, he asked me, “so, where are you going with everything?” I was telling him about how I wanted to evolve my sound and change this and that – just really ambitious stuff – and he said, “you know, sometimes it’s not that what you’re doing is necessarily wrong and that you need to change something. Sometimes it takes the world time to catch up to your genius.”

I didn’t get it at first; I was like, “I’m just trying to make it sound better.” He was like, “you don’t hear me, but it’ll sink in later.” Sure enough, after years of just doing what I do best and doing what I know people love to hear from me, it started to make sense. More and more people started to really understand it. That was my goal. Once I started realizing, people do understand what you’re talking about, people do dissect your lyrics like that, people do get those punchlines, it just takes some time to get there. You just have to give it time.

Look at Jay-Z; he wasn’t appreciated when he first dropped Reasonable Doubt. People can say it’s a classic now, but they weren’t saying it back then. People weren’t appreciating Missy Elliott back then [either]; when she first came out, people thought she was weird. Outkast. Lauryn Hill; she was booed at the Apollo. The list goes on, and [in each case], it takes people time. You never know what are going to be the right conditions for everything to line up, [but] once it lines up, everybody understands it and they don’t leave. That’s the goal now. It’s like, don’t worry, don’t fret. Just take your time.

TCUS: This is a quote of yours: “The only time you fail is when you quit. Everything else is just an adjustment until you get it right.” Can you elaborate on that?

Add-2: Some people try to measure [life] out, like, “if I do this and this, then it’s gonna equal this.” Sometimes the equation is wrong. Sometimes you can be doing the right thing and [still] not get the result that you want. I think Farrakhan said, “you’ve gotta understand the importance of time, because you can do the right thing at the wrong time and not get the right result.” Sometimes it’s going to take effort after effort after effort. You have to keep going. The only time you really, truly fail, is when you stop. And the only person who can make you stop is you.

You can lose, but through losing, you get better. You have to know how losing feels in order to really, truly appreciate winning, because if everything is handed to you and you never have to work something, then you’re not gonna appreciate it; you’re not gonna try to maintain it. But when you lose, and you’ve had those struggles, you’ve gotta pick yourself back up and figure out where you went wrong. [Ask yourself], “how can I adjust?” Once you do those things, after that, success is on its way. You’ve just gotta keep going and keep trying.

Follow Add-2 on Twitter (@ADD2theMC) and on Instagram (@ADD2theMC).