[Interview] Dag Savage talk “E&J,” what makes for a classic album, and why they still love hip-hop

Dag Savage Interview on The Come Up Show

Interview by: Martin Bauman

What happens when you combine one of the best hip-hop producers of the past decade with one of the most energetic emcees on the West Coast? In short, you get Dag Savage. Los Angeles beatsmith Exile and San Diego rhymespitter Johaz have teamed up for E&J, their latest — and greatest — in a long line of collaborations since they first paired up for a track on 2006’s Dirty Science. Exile has proven himself twice already as a full-album producer, first with the 2007 cult classic Below The Heavens with Blu, and again with the 2009 fan favourite Boy Meets World with Fashawn. Now, with Johaz on the mic — and a lot of things he wants to say — he’s going for the threepeat. The result is pretty special. We caught up with Dag Savage to talk about their latest release, what makes for a classic album, why they still love hip-hop, and lots more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: You guys were in Japan just a few months ago. What was that experience like?

Johaz: Ahh man, Japan was amazing. The main thing out there is the language barrier, you know, so us not speaking the same language that they’re speaking, the main connection was through the music. I felt a real tight bond out there; the customs were different, but at the same time, they were really embracing us, they were really into what we were doing, and we just felt that love out there. We didn’t speak the same language, but the language that we did speak was music.

Exile: We were able to even communicate just through saying funny shit and making fun of each other through simple words and shit. I’d guess about 30% of the people maybe spoke broken English. But it was a good time, and digging for records out there was real dope, because I was able to buy records I’ve never seen out here before. There’s a lot of dope shit out there.

TCUS: What kind of stuff did you come back with?

Exile: Some Japanimation records… just eighties and seventies music from Japan.

Johaz: I copped a few Transformers and vintage toys – G.I. Joes and Voltron, stuff like that.

TCUS: Before we get into talking about E&J, I want to get into a little bit of the backstories for each of you. Exile, I’ll start with you. What can you tell me about Koo’s Cafe?

Exile: That was the spot in Santa Ana; it was actually the second place [Aloe Blacc and I] ever performed. We first performed out in Long Beach with J Rocc, but [he] was one of the deejays that was always out at Koo’s Cafe in the beginning. DJ Drez was out there a lot, the Youth International Party (YIP), Ugly Duckling would be out there, Tony da Skitzo… man, it was like a punk rocker place, but then they had their hip-hop night. It was all-ages, there was no alcohol, there was a graffiti yard in the back, and it was just a place for youth to go to express themselves. There would be big dance [circles], freestyle cyphers, and performances, and it was just the place for us to discover our talents, you know?

Dag Savage Interview on The Come Up Show

TCUS: Johaz, what would have been one of the early venues for you as far as music goes?

Johaz: Man… There used to be this spot in San Diego called the Loft, and it was put on by these guys called Closed Sessions. That was like the first place that I actually used to go to and get into emcee battles and stuff like that. You had to be 18 [to get in], but there was a back door I used to go through and sneak in. One time, [the bouncer] caught me, but he was like, “yo, you come in here every night and rip it, so I’mma let you go through,” so I didn’t have to sneak in anymore.

Exile: How old were you?

Johaz: I was like 16. We would catch the bus from high school.

Exile: Yeah, Aloe was 16 when we were rockin’ out there. I was like 17.

Johaz: I was going to open mics and freestyle battles and shit.

TCUS: Is the Loft still around?

Johaz: Nah, hell naw. A bunch of spots in San Diego got bought out. They turned it into some condos. But the Loft was real big at that time, you know? If you were a [hip-hop] artist [performing] in San Diego, you’d definitely have to come through there, whether you were big or not. I remember seeing Smif-n-Wessun there; I remember seeing Buckshot there; I remember Brand Nubian came through there one time, Chino XL, Masta Ace…

Exile: What about local cats?

Johaz: My man Orko – shout out Orko the Sycotik Alien – he would always be there. Who else? Mr. Brady was there. It was a cool little melting pot of the hip-hop community; it was dope. They used to always do freestyle dancing too. I was in a crew that was full of dancers, and I was the only emcee, so you’d go there and there’d be b-boy circles and everything. It was real dope.

TCUS: Getting back to you, Exile, you have a rich family history of musicians, starting with your grandfather Alberico, but it also extended to your father as well. What can you tell me about Lost and Found?

Exile: Lost and Found was my dad’s band back in the sixties. It was like garage slash psych rock. They pressed up a 45 and it’s bangin’, man. I made a beat out of that; it should surface sometime soon. It actually got re-pressed out in London. Actually, later, my dad – Albert Manfredi – went on a solo venture in 1973, and I got a call from Groove Merchant in San Francisco. They just looked up my father’s last name in the L.A. area, and they were looking for copies of the record. They were trying to buy them off me for $60 a pop.

I went to my dad’s storage facility – he had passed away, but his girlfriend had a storage unit with all of his stuff in it – and I found a bunch of boxes full of his reel-to-reels. I found like 16 copies of that record, and I looked it up on eBay, and it turns out it sold for like $700 in Japan. I needed some cash, and I sold two of them for $500 a pop. It kinda blew my mind that people were actually seeking out my father’s music.

TCUS: Johaz, speaking of early musical influences, what kind of music were you growing up with in the house?

Johaz: It was pretty diverse. My step pops was heavy into Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix, but at the same time, he exposed me to groups like Public Enemy and Rakim. My mom played a lot of Public Enemy, to be honest. She played a lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot of soul music, and a lot of early conscious hip-hop – that was what was blasting in my house. I remember being like five, six years old, and my mom coming home, like, “yo, you like rap? Check out this guy Big Daddy Kane” [laughs].

TCUS: I know you two have known one another for years already – well over a decade. How did the two of you first meet?

Exile: There was actually a group – one of them was the little brother of one of Johaz’s crew members, a dancer for Urban Dynamics and also Deep Rooted – and he had brought Johaz out to a show. I had been hearing a lot about Johaz, and we met there and started building, you know, listening to each other’s music. I had brought him through to some of the earlier Below The Heavens sessions, and [again] when I was doing my Dirty Science album, where I had a bunch of different rappers on it. Our first song we put out together was on that Dirty Science record; it was a record called “Do Not Touch.”

TCUS: Let’s talk about E&J. When was the idea for this album birthed?

Dag Savage E&J

Exile: Well, we had first wanted to make an album, and my initial idea was to kinda make a raw, grimy album. We started making songs along that nature, and we had put out The Salvation mixtape, and then later the EP, but as we progressed, I came to realize that Johaz was more than just a one-dimensional emcee, and he had a lot more to speak upon about his life. Eventually, we were just stacking up songs, and we made E&J. After we finished E&J, [we] went in and put in a lot of work, and we finished a mixtape too called The Warning Tape.

Johaz: We originally were just working on tracks together, and we were like, “yo, we’ve got some dope shit, let’s try to do an album.” In the course of recording the songs, we came with the mixtape, The Salvation, and then once we started progressing, we put out the EP just to hold people over. After that, I think we hit the moment where we knew “we’ve got something” when we did “When It Rains.” It took a minute [to release], because of all the stuff we’ve got going on, but I’m pretty happy with the result.

I feel like Exile, out of all the producers I’ve worked with, he brings the best out of me, because he challenges me and pushes me. He doesn’t let me just [stay satisfied] with one dope song. A lot of the songs that we recorded have like three, four, five versions, just because we’re trying to get the best song. I think [him and I] working together and pushing each other [is] why, to me, E&J is my best work.

TCUS: Tell me about how he’s pushing you then. What’s that process like?

Johaz: You know, as emcees, we all think we’re the dopest shit ever. But Exile’s the type [of person] where I’ll do a song, and I’ll be like, “I know this shit is hot!” And he’s like, “yeah, that’s dope, but could you try it this way?” [Laughs]. If you don’t have thick skin, that can rattle you, but I took it as a challenge to exceed the last verse I did. It was just constantly trying to get to a point with the music where he was satisfied with it and I was satisfied with it.

He had a dope track record already with Below The Heavens and Boy Meets World, so [I figured], “if he’s feeling it, then I know we’ve got something.” I was basically doing these songs to impress Exile, so it took me back to the days of [rapping] on some cypher shit. Every time Exile gives me a beat, I’m trying to step to it and knock it out of the box. When I know we have something dope is when I’ll be like, “yo, give me a beat, what do you want to hear on it?” He’ll explain to me what he wants to hear, and then I’ll try my best to come with that. Most of the time, when he explains to me what he wants, I usually deliver.

That’s what I like about working with Exile – not just “here’s the beat, do your own [thing],” it’s like, “let’s work hand-in-hand with this shit to make a cohesive song.” Sometimes I’ll go do my own thing, but I felt like we got the best shit out when he explained to me what he wanted to hear.

TCUS: You mentioned “When It Rains” as being the one when you realized that what you had was something special. Why that song?

Johaz: It was just one of them moments, man. I can’t really explain it. It’s one of those moments where you look and you’ve got the hair raising on your skin. Of course, with Aloe Blacc on it – not that we were using that as a selling point – but with Aloe Blacc on it, the way he was killing that hook, he just came in with that shit [mimics singing]. I remember looking, like, “yeah motherf—er, we’ve got something now.” To me, that was the crowning moment, like, “yeah, this shit is ready.”

TCUS: An interesting common point you two have is the early influence of LL Cool J on your love for hip-hop, something you subtly make reference to on E&J. Tell me about your different experiences with that.

Exile: Well, I was just a big LL Cool J fan. Actually, LL Cool J’s Radio was the first hip-hop tape that I ever got. Man, he was the dude; he was my number one rapper at the time [laughs]. I used to memorize his lyrics and lip sync them for my mom when I was younger. When we decided to name a song on our album “LL Cool J,” it was mostly because of Johaz’s last line – he had quoted an LL Cool J line, and it just made sense to call it “LL Cool J.”

Johaz: I mean, “I’m Bad,” that might’ve been the first video I can remember seeing. I had an aunt who was younger at the time, and she used to wake me up and be like, “yo, that video ‘I’m Bad’ is on, come check it out!” That was like the first video I ever saw, so I always had love for LL. To me, LL represented the fine line between dope lyrics and [also] having shit for the ladies. He was young at the time; he just looked like he was the man you wanted to be. He’s definitely still one of the top emcees of all-time. [He was a] big influence growing up.

TCUS: Johaz, you mentioned earlier how Exile had done Below The Heavens and Boy Meets World – two albums that, today, could be considered classics. What do you think makes for a classic album?

Johaz: I think for me, what I consider classic albums is when there’s many layers to it; it has a lot of variety, but it’s cohesive. They explain who they are, you know what I mean? When you hear a classic album, it’s basically a description of where that person is at in their life, or a description of how their life was. When I think of a classic album, it’s either explaining their upbringing or where they’re at in their life.

When I hear some old Ice Cube shit, his albums were real descriptive – he’ll talk about shit that was going on in his neighbourhood, shit that was going on in his upbringing, and his current situation. When you get that type of cohesiveness to where it all blends, especially with the beats and the rhymes, to me, that makes a classic album. It has a theme. Illmatic — that had a theme. Lethal Injection had a theme. When they have a theme, that’s when I’m like, “yo, this is classic.”

Dag Savage Interview on The Come Up Show

Exile: Most of the records that I consider classic will have one producer [throughout], from Big Daddy Kane having all Marley Marl, to Ice Cube having all Sir Jinx, King Tee [having] DJ Pooh… I think it brings together a cohesive sound and a comfortableness, because they’re working with the same producer. When you have that in combination with either them talking about their life and letting you know who they are, or coming out with some crazy character that you haven’t heard before – like some fun shit like the Pharcyde, or the Alkaholiks on some party shit – or Ice Cube talking about 1992 in L.A. and painting the picture perfectly, [showing] you the mind state of somebody in South Central at such a wild time as 1992. They take you right there. When somebody takes you where they’re at, and you’re there with them when you’re listening all the way through a record, that makes a classic record.

TCUS: I want to get into a couple songs off the album. Let’s start with “The Beginning.” Johaz, you rap a little bit about your frustrations with the Zimmerman trial on that song. How did the results of that trial impact you?

Johaz: I mean, it definitely pissed me off. It just took me back – like Exile was saying – to the riots in ’92. It just felt like a big injustice, like a slap to the face. I just thought about that shit, like, coming up, [all my peoples and I] wore hoodies. All the time, we were always f—ed with by the cops and the higher-ups, so that shit affected me.

I was really pissed off about that, because I thought, even though we have Obama as president and we have change, ain’t no way in 2013 that [someone] would get away with that shit. Like, damn, shit has changed, but it hasn’t changed. I had to drop that in, to be like, “yo, that was a bullshit call.” It still pisses me off talking about it [laughs], but I had to put that in there, because I feel like to this day, there’s still a lot of injustice that goes on, based off somebody’s appearance.

TCUS: It kind of reminds me of another line, in the song “When It Rains” actually, where you say, “this country’s got cancer in her breasts.” Tell me about this line.

Johaz: Well, initially, I was just quoting a Biggie line. It’s just saying, even though [it’s] American the Beautiful and America the Brave, there’s still some dirty shit that goes on within our country. There’s still a lot of injustice, still a lot of poverty. It’s America the beautiful, but [there’s] still a lot of ugliness in there. She got a breast job, but shit, she just found out she’s got breast cancer, you know?

TCUS: Another song – really, one of the more powerful songs on the album – is “For Old Time’s Sake.” On that, you talk about some of your early history, saying, “at 4 years old, the first time I was molested/ 13 years old, the first time I was arrested.” How did these things shape you at such a young age?

Johaz: Man… I’m still getting shaped by those experiences, but I definitely walked around sometimes with a lot of pent up rage and frustration. I held all those [feelings inside for so long]. The molestation part, I barely revealed that shit to anybody in the past six months. Sometimes, I would walk around and just have this pent up rage in me, and nobody would know why. I kinda channelled that into my creative outlets, but at the same time, that rage in me drove me to get arrested, fighting in the streets and doing the shit that we were doing. 13 years old, that’s a young ass age to be going to juvenile hall and be in and out of jail. It shaped me to be a passionate person, but at the same time, sometimes my passion gets misplaced, because I have this pent up [emotion] that hasn’t been released.

TCUS: Exile, when you have such a powerful song like that, how do you go ahead and craft the music around it to make sure that it’s as impactful as possible?

Exile: Well, the beat was made first, and I thought it would be a good beat for Johaz to create a timeline of his life and speak about it. He decided to really open up, and I applaud him for that. After the song was made, I did have keys laid over it to accentuate the emotion and match the emotion and passion that Johaz was giving.

TCUS: Let me ask you another question. You mentioned how you tend to think that a lot of classic albums are done with one emcee and one producer – this is something you’ve done with Blu and Fashawn in the past. What drew you to Johaz’s music and made you want to collaborate on an album with him?

Exile: His voice and his lyrics. To me, it was something new, a type of emcee that I haven’t worked with. Even seeing Johaz live onstage, he’s very captivating and aggressive onstage, and he’s just the perfect addition to the music family, you know? He was just a good missing piece to the puzzle.

Dag Savage Interview on The Come Up Show

TCUS: Johaz, what about you? What made you want to collaborate with Exile?

Johaz: Exile’s got dope beats, man, basically [laughs]. I was around for Below The Heavens and the creation of Boy Meets World, so just seeing how he [crafted] albums really made me be like, “damn, I wanna do a record with Exile!” I love how he puts albums together, and I love his creative process. Just the beats, initially, but seeing what he did with artists when he got with one guy and did a record – and how dope he was – is what drew me to Exile.

TCUS: A question for both of you, what makes you still love hip-hop after all these years?

Exile: Ahh man, it’s just like anything in life: you have your highs and lows with it, but as long as you can tap back into what initially made you happy with making music, that’s what makes me still love hip-hop. As music changes, I definitely experiment with different types of sounds, from electronic shit, to even indie rock-sounding stuff, and I might get caught up in doing too much electronic music. The fact that I can reinvent myself and go back to the classic, traditional type of shit, as of last night and today, I’ve been really back to my classic shit.

I’ve been making some really cool, raw, emotional and hard-ass bangers right now – I just got through making two, can’t wait to get back to the MPC – but really, it’s just making sure that it’s fun for you. It’s like when the summer ends and fall comes in, things look different and you smell these smells that remind you of when you were little. The type of beats that I’m making can kind of do the same thing – almost like a season, bring me back to why I love hip-hop – and make me feel like I’m 17 again. I kinda feel like that right now.

Johaz: Initially, all I ever wanted to do music for was for somebody to be like, “yo, that shit is dope!” With me, I still get a charge when somebody says, “I love the music; I love what you’re doing.” I just like making dope music that people like. If I think it’s dope, and somebody else thinks it’s dope, that makes my day. With me, man, my passion is to make dope music and hope people like it, whether it’s a million people or it’s 50 people. That’s just what I love doing. I love getting in front of somebody and doing my thing, and having them shake my hand, like, “yo, that shit’s dope.” That’s basically all I ever did it for. I just love hip-hop. I love rhyming, and I’m a fan of this culture forever.

TCUS: Final question for you guys. What does the next chapter hold for each of you?

Exile: I just finished an album with Aloe Blacc, the Emanon album. I’m working with this new emcee, his name’s Choosey – I’m finishing up an album with him. I’m finishing up an album with Fashawn, The Ecology. It’s pretty much done; I think we’ve got like one more song left that we’ve gotta nail. I’ve started working a little bit with Denmark Vessey, ADAD, and definitely a Dirty Science album will be coming out soon. Also, new Blu & Exile. There’s talk of me being on the new Domo Genesis album. And Asher Roth is actually gonna come over later today, so who knows?

Johaz: You know, with me, I just wanna keep creating, keep reinventing myself. Right now, I’m on the Dag Savage wave. Within the year, I definitely want to drop another free project for the people. My main thing is just making music and hitting the road, man, so that’s what I want to be doing. Keep making projects and hitting the road, and keep my relationship with my Dirty Science crew strong. I’m definitely writing right now for the Dirty Science album and to keep my pen sharp. But [I plan to] keep creating, hitting the road, and getting in front of people. Expanding. Expanding and staying sharp with the pen.