Interview by: Martin Bauman
Overlooked in last December’s year-end lists of 2013’s best albums was a slow burner by Denmark Vessey and Scud One, the aptly-titled Cult Classic. Through a mix of gritty and soulful production, the Detroit emcee and Chicago producer weave a tale of a rapper who decides to start up his own cult to gain power and wealth. In the process, Vessey explores the use — and abuse — of power through religion and politics. We caught up with Denmark to talk about Cult Classic, getting cosigned by House Shoes, whether music is the new religion, and much more. Read the interview below.
TCUS: To get started, let’s go back to the beginning. What was the moment when you realized you wanted to be a rapper?
Denmark Vessey: Ahh man! When I was in eighth grade, they had [an assignment] where you could do whatever you wanted to memorize [and recite] a passage, and I rapped – and I liked it. I always listened to rap, but that was the first time that I actually rapped in front of people. From there, it just built my confidence up.
I went to high school, and I was actually doing art for a little bit – I was serious about drawing and stuff – so I wasn’t really rapping like that in high school, but occasionally I’d rap, and I ran into some people [to rap with]. You know, your friends are rapping, and just to be social, I started rapping. It became more than a hobby; I was actually going to studios and recording. In between that time, even, I was way more serious about producing. That was my first introduction to producing and rapping, that little time.
TCUS: Do you remember what song it was that you memorized and rapped in grade eight?
Denmark Vessey: No, it was something I had to write myself. It wasn’t like “Rapper’s Delight” or anything like that. It was something for school, and I had to write a report. You could do whatever you wanted to do, so I decided to rap mine.
TCUS: You don’t have that verse written down anywhere, do you?
Denmark Vessey: Ah hell naw! I don’t have stuff from yesterday written down [laughs]. That was damn near twenty years ago almost, you know what I mean?
TCUS: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. You mentioned moving on to high school and getting serious about rap. What can you tell me about St. Alphonsus High School?
Denmark Vessey: Wow. I went there for my first two years of my high school career. It was a Catholic school, [but] it was a wild Catholic school. There were a lot of kids that came from the hood that [went] there, so it wasn’t like a prim and proper Catholic school; it was like a Catholic school that was in the hood.
TCUS: Talking about early beginnings, what was the most influential album for you growing up?
Denmark Vessey: Man, I can’t even name one. I guess regular stuff like Life After Death. I remember where I was the first time I heard Life After Death and Tupac’s All Eyez On Me. I had no older brothers or sisters, so nobody was giving me [guidance], like, “you should check out [so and so].” At the time, that [music] was on the radio, so that’s what I listened to. In Detroit, I was listening to FM 98 WJLB – where hip-hop lives [laughs]. [That and] 105.9 were the major urban [stations], so that’s what I was listening to.
Whatever was on the radio at that time was classic shit anyway, so that’s what I was listening to. I’m talking about Aaliyah, you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t necessarily just hip-hop; it’d be like Anita Baker and all types of crazy shit. When I was in my teens, I remember Talib’s first album was really dope to me; Eminem’s first album was really dope to me; Wu-Tang; Stillmatic was dope to me… and this is coming from someone who wasn’t really conscious of Illmatic [at the time].
TCUS: Let’s move from influential albums to the one you just put out, Cult Classic. What inspired this project?
Denmark Vessey: St. Alphonsus, man. I had been in Catholic schools since I was five, so for ten years straight, I was going to Catholic schools, and then I was going to church with my family. My whole upbringing was in some type of religious institution, so that shaped me to who I am today. That was my biggest influence.
TCUS: One of the biggest supporters of your music has been House Shoes – he was involved in the release of the Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid mixtape. What’s your best House Shoes story?
Denmark Vessey: I don’t even know if he’d want me to put it out there like that, man! Okay, I remember one time it was me, Scud, and my homie Rio – he did a lot of my videos. We went to go pick up Shoes, because he had a show in Chicago. He did his show, killed it, got smashed, and we pretty much spent the whole night together, going to diners. The dude was smashed at the time, so we had to tell him everything he did, but one instance was this: he was trying to get out of the car — we had parked, and there was a car right next to my homie’s car — and House Shoes kept slamming the door of my homie’s car into somebody else’s car. Like, he repeatedly did this for enough times to be mad at [him]. If that was my car, I would totally be mad at him.
My homie was real cool about it, but I was made for my homie, like “dawg, the dude is being nuts right now!” [Laughs] After that, we go in the diner and my man just started throwing food and talking real wild. I can’t really go into everything else, but it was pretty exciting. I’ve got more stories, but that was my first House Shoes experience, like, “damn dog, you’re a wild guy!” Shout out to the homie House Shoes, because you probably wouldn’t know who I am if it wasn’t for him.
TCUS: Speaking of that – House Shoes being such a huge part of the culture in Detroit, especially – what is it like for you to have someone like him support your music?
@HouseShoes is probably the most selfless dude I've ever met… The rest of yall are some bums…
— Scud One (@ScudOne) February 10, 2014
Denmark Vessey: It means everything, man. Like I said, if somebody like him didn’t say, “yo, check this out,” then would you have checked me out? I don’t know. But to get that vouch [from] a person who has that history of presenting great music, it means the world to me.
TCUS: Getting back to Cult Classic, one of the main themes on the album is this notion of cult followings and groupthink. This is something you deal with particularly in “Do You Believe” and “Thank You Based God.” What interests you about groupthink?
Denmark Vessey: I’m not gonna pretend like I’m super educated on it, but I had seen that Erykah Badu was hashtagging #groupthink for a little bit. I didn’t know what it meant, but based on the word, I had an idea that “okay, this is when a group of people think the same way.” I did a little investigation on it and adopted that word into my vocabulary. It’s pretty much what I’m talking about throughout the whole album – that’s just another word for it.
TCUS: I want to get into a few of the lyrics off the album. This comes from “That One Thai Joint”: “Homie, this is motherland music. One man’s Jesus is another man’s Judas.” Tell me about this line.
Denmark Vessey: Yeah man. That’s actually one of my favourite lines. Jesus is seen as one of the best people who ever walked this planet. But I guarantee, just because of perspective, somebody who didn’t know Jesus or had heard of him was like, “nah, I don’t like that n—a.” You know what I mean? It’s like Robin Hood. Was Robin Hood really bad because he stole from the rich? He stole – so that’s amoral – but he also gave to the poor. He could be considered a villain or a hero – same thing with Jesus. Depending on how you look at it, he can be considered a hero or a villain. Judas could’ve gone back to his crib, and his family would have been like, “Judas! I’m so glad to see you! Thank you for feeding us.” We don’t know Judas’s story, other than that he snitched on Jesus. I don’t know….
TCUS: I guess there’s two sides to every story.
Denmark Vessey: Yeah, exactly.
TCUS: I want to pull another quote, this is something that I found on your website, and I think it ties to something you say in “Cult Classic.” Carl Reiner once said, “I have a very different take on who God is. Man invented God because he needed him. God is us.” That line reminds me of you saying, “I reach beneath the surface for God.” Can you dig into that?
Denmark Vessey: [As far as] “man invented God because he needed him,” what I took from that was, let’s say God doesn’t exist. People need a reason to be good. To me, religion is incentive-based. Other than that, and without the existence of a higher power that could possibly kill you at any moment because he or she wants to, man would be savage. That’s how I see it. That’s how religion is put upon us. We need something, because naturally you’re an animal, and if you didn’t have some big scary dude to strike you down, you’d be killing and raping everybody. That’s what I got from that: “man created God out of necessity.” But I don’t necessarily think that’s true; I just thought that was an interesting quote.
[As far as the other half of the quote], it’s just science. I’m not a big science dude, but sometimes I read stuff, and we as people get our information from people who [are more qualified]. I say that to say this: there’s overwhelming evidence that says that whatever’s in the universe is inside of us, on some molecular type stuff. The same stuff that’s in the universe is inside of us. That’s what I took away from that.
And also, to [touch on] the very last part of what my man said, there’s always middlemen that religions set up that we have to go through to talk to our creator, which I think is wack. If we came from him, why do I need to pray to a priest so he can in turn pray to God? That doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s another reason why I’m like, hell nah, I’m straight on this, because if I really need to talk to the Most High, then why can’t I do that myself? I should be able to have my own relationship with the Most High.
TCUS: Getting back to the album and speaking of cult followings, I’ve heard it argued before that music is the new religion, and musicians are the new religious figures. What do you think of that?
Denmark Vessey: I mean, yeah. It’s like a zeitgeist. The Game came out with Jesus Piece – something with a little bit of [religious iconography] in it – and so did Kanye with the Yeezus thing. It’s like a movement, man. There’s a lot of people in my age bracket that I know that don’t go to church anymore. Coming from [the black] community, black folks love the church. Every [street] corner, there’s a church. But black people my age don’t go there no more [sic]. They might have gone there as a kid with their parents, but it’s just a different era right now. Slowly but surely, people are waking up to an alternative lifestyle – in terms of, you don’t have to go to church to be a good person or contribute to society.
I think musicians are the new icons that people look [to] for consoling sometimes, you know? There’s some stuff that Jay Electronica says where I’ll be like, “man, that’s incredible!” Or Quelle [Chris], or anybody that I’m around. I’ll [hear something] and be like, “yo, that’s really dope! I never thought of it that way.” I like hearing people’s perspectives. People like hearing things from other people, you know what I mean? You might know [something] as the truth, but it’s good [to get that] confirmation. If somebody else is saying the exact same thing you’re thinking, it’s like, “yeah man, somebody gets me.” This woman or man is on a platform that everybody can see, and that makes me feel connected to that, and that’s why I rock with this person. It’s very powerful, you know? Can’t nobody stop music; it’s just here.
TCUS: Now, realizing that your music affects people in this way – where people will pay attention to every word an artist says – how does that shape the way you approach your music? Or does it?
Denmark Vessey: At the end of the day, I write stuff that I think. It just so happens that we live in a society where I can possibly make some money off of it. I like writing; I like putting words together, so I’d be doing this anyway. I take it into consideration, but I try my best not to let that be something that’s a factor in how I write, because it’s coming from my perspective. I can’t do it for that person. That person is either on the same wavelength as me or we’re not, and that’s cool.
I don’t like to get anal about lyrics either. If it seems esoteric, then go ahead and look into it and figure it out. You might come up with something totally different, then come back at me, and I’ll be like, “oh man, I didn’t even think of it that way! That’s very interesting.” But I try not to let it affect how I write, because that’s why you initially liked me anyway, right? Because of what I’m saying, not what [I think you’ll want me to say].
TCUS: You know what? You mentioned Talib Kweli earlier – when he was talking to me, he said almost exactly the same thing. The minute you start to do whatever you think people want you to do, that’s when they lose interest. You have to follow your own intuition.
Denmark Vessey: Yeah! Like I said, that’s why they like you. You have something different [to offer]. They’re not gonna change up the burger after 50 years, you know what I’m saying? They’re gonna keep it meat, cheese, ketchup, and pickles. Don’t switch it up. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There’s tons of adages that people have made to just say, “yo, be yourself. If people like you and gravitate towards you, that’s cool. If they don’t, then you’ve done your job, because those people don’t want to be around you.” I don’t know [laughs].
TCUS: [Laughs] Back to the subject of musicians having a platform, Nas recently did a Q&A at Georgetown University, and on the subject of hip-hop today, he said, “I don’t see enough emcees who are brave enough to be honest.” What are your thoughts on this?
Denmark Vessey: I don’t know, man. You know how many people are rappin’ right now? There’s a lot of good people. Maybe as far as on a commercial-wide level, then yeah, but we’ve been having this discussion since 2000 – talking about how stuff is fake and plastic now. I don’t want to hop on that, because there’s a lot of honest emcees out there that are making great music and saying things that are different. That depends on who you ask. If you ask me, I don’t agree with that, because I can name a bunch of people that are heartfelt and dope. I don’t see why they’re not on the radio. Yeah dude, there’s a lot of dope people out here that are being real artists, so I never really pay attention to that [criticism].
TCUS: Before we wrap things up here, let’s talk about the next album in this series, the prequel to Cult Classic. What can you tell me about Chemtrail Soup?
Denmark Vessey: Chemtrail Soup is basically where the character of Cult Classic‘s mind state was, what made him want to do that work, what also shaped him outside of religion – just regular, everyday stuff. Him being a black male in America – that affects you. Everything in your life affects you, from the day you’re born until the day you die. Little tiny stuff’ll be the catalyst for things like why you don’t cross the street unless you yell in the air four times, you know what I’m saying? You never know what the reason is why people do the things they do. So it’s going a little more in depth into that dude’s life.
I don’t want to keep doing the religious theme, because I don’t have anything against people who practise a certain religion – whatever stops you from harming anybody, if that’s what you need to tell yourself to do, then do it. I don’t want to keep being like, “these Christians and Muslims,” and all that stuff, because I’ve got Christian friends and family, and I’ve got Muslim friends and family, and I’m definitely not trying to make them feel any type of way. At the same time, I’ve still gotta tell things how I see them, because this is my soapbox, and I get to say whatever I want to say. So Chemtrail Soup is pretty much a time capsule of what this brother was going through that made him want to start a cult.
TCUS: Last question, what’s coming up next for you?
Denmark Vessey: Well, I’ve got a couple things brewing. I’ve got a project with a brother named Raj Mahal – he’s actually about to have something on House Shoes’s Gift series. Him and I have an EP that we’re finishing up – we’re like 90% done with that. Also, I’m working with a brother out of Oakland. Him and I have a couple songs. It’s untitled. The biggest thing I’m pushing right now is Chemtrail Soup. Storefront Church is a band, which is me, Tyler Berg, my homie Brendan Forrest, and my homie Ben Hoffmann. It’s a four-piece band. We’re doing a little EP; I’mma be singing a little bit more than rapping. I want to do whatever I want to do [laughs]. I don’t want to do just hip-hop. As long as it’s good, I want to do whatever I want to do.