[Interview + Podcast] Saukrates talks “Amani,” overcoming obstacles, and the 20th anniversary of “Still Caught Up”

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Saukrates might be the best trifecta artist in North America. Beats. Singing. Rhymes. Name someone else that can do all three well.” Adam Bomb’s words are absolutely true. From his debut twenty years ago on “Still Caught Up” to today, few — if any — come close to touching Saukrates in all categories. It’s a crime that for all of his ability, his name hasn’t quite permeated the masses on the level of his peers. Blame it on a string of bad label situations. In two decades, only two solo albums and one group album have seen the light of day: The Underground Tapes in 1999, Big Black Lincoln’s Heaven’s Caught on Fire in 2006, and Season One in 2012. It’s no wonder that Saukrates feels like there’s so much more ground to cover, and with a self-titled solo EP set for release on September 23rd, there’s no better time than the present. We caught up with Saukrates to talk about his Amani EP, overcoming obstacles, the 20th anniversary of “Still Caught Up,” and much more. Listen to the podcast above and read the full interview below.

TCUS: There’s a lot of things I want to ask, but let’s start with this. Where were you when you heard hip-hop for the first time?

Saukrates: I was living in Edmonton, and my parents and their friends used to have these house parties after cricket matches on Saturdays [laughs]. They’d play all kinds of music from reggae to soul, and when it came to rap, they played “The Message.” It blew my mind. From then, I was always trying to look out for rap and find it, [whether it be] on Soul in the City on MuchMusic with Michael Williams, or my cousins coming up from New York for Caribana after we moved to Toronto – they’d bring up all the mixtapes. But the very first hip-hop record that I knew about, shoot, I think I was probably three or four years old, and that was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

TCUS: You’re Guyanese-Canadian. What was it like growing up, in terms of the culture and music surrounding you?

Saukrates: Well, I don’t know if being Guyanese played a part as large as being Canadian, because my parents embraced all forms of music, be it jazz, reggae, R&B, calypso, or classic rock like the Beatles and Rolling Stones. I got to hear all of this music playing in the same house, over and over, so I guess that’s kind of why my music has become as eclectic as it is – not necessarily because of the West Indian or Guyanese influence, but just a worldly influence. My parents, once they moved to Canada, weren’t strictly West Indian. They put me and my brother into hockey – you know, “go learn,” because a lot of West Indian parents would shy away from that and say it’s for white people. My parents never did that, so we got a well-rounded upbringing, and I think that shines in the music.

TCUS: Speaking of listening to classical music growing up, you grew up playing the violin and singing in the school choir. Was that something you asked for or were you encouraged by your parents to get into it?

Saukrates: With the violin, it’s something that my mother believed I should get involved with. While in Edmonton at the time, we could start pretty early – I started playing the violin in second grade – whereas in Toronto, if you wanted to start that early, you had to go to private lessons. Schools didn’t start you until about fourth grade. But it was something that she wanted me to try. She felt that I needed some extra-curricular activities in my life, so sports and music became the things. By my second year, I got into the city orchestra and got the experience of playing in larger groups outside of school.

But it wasn’t necessarily my choice, to answer your question. It was more my mother saying, “we need to put some of this stuff in your life,” and I picked up on it easily. And then, when moving to Toronto and finding out that I have something that I’ve started long before others, it gave me more confidence in what I was doing and more excitement, and then I picked it up from there and stayed along with it. I joined the all-city orchestras and symphony orchestras, and got to play Roy Thompson Hall, and went to music camp every summer – me and the Barenaked Ladies, we were at the same music camp growing up in high school [laughs]. So it turned out well, thanks to my mother.

TCUS: If you were to pick up a violin right now, how would you do? Do you still have that within you?

Saukrates: You know, I have one. When I toured with Nelly [Furtado], she asked if I could bring it out, so I pulled it out and blew the dust off my skills. She bought me a new violin, and I spent a couple days in the studio by myself just trying to get my fingers back – because it’s not really like riding a bike; it’s more like muscle memory, so it took some work to get it back. I don’t think I’m as good as I was by the end of high school. I can still play a pretty strong lullaby [laughs]. I do record myself [on the violin, though]. On the song “Fades Away” with me, King Reign, and Drake from years ago, [I played] all the strings on that song. I’ve used my violin a lot in recent recordings, but I’m not as good as I used to be. [Laughs] I’ll tell you that much.

TCUS: What significance does the Fresh Arts program have to your career?

Saukrates: Oh, it’s huge. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for them. Up until Fresh Arts, when I was about 14, 15 years old, all I had was me and my next-door neighbour, and we’d write our own raps. We used to freestyle on the basketball courts. Chi-Ali came out when we were 14, and we were like, “Chi-Ali’s good, but I think our freestyles are almost as good, if not better.” We started writing it all down. But it all would have stopped there; we wouldn’t have gone any further if I hadn’t met Kardi, if I hadn’t met Marvel, if I hadn’t met Motion – who ran the actual program, if I hadn’t met my manager Chase through this program. I definitely wouldn’t be here. Jully Black wouldn’t be here; Kardinal would not be here; Baby Blue wouldn’t have had their long run with Kid Kut… none of us would be where we are without that program. Choclair – who was kind of an offspring of that – I got him into the right studios because of my experience with Fresh Arts. We couldn’t do it without them. Shout out to Motion, for sure.

TCUS: So at this time, you’re a high schooler at R.H. King. Tell me about the significance of CIUT’s The Masterplan.

Saukrates: That’s Motion! I used to listen every Saturday. Saturday was the day, because you got The Power Move from 1-4pm with DJX, you got Mastermind on Energy 108 from 5-7pm, and then you’d wait until about 10pm to get The Masterplan Show on CIUT. I used to sit there and clean my room with my cassette ready to tape all the new songs, and I looked up to the deejays and the hosts of that show – I still do. Once we got a chance to get on that show, I was nervous, like, wow, we’re making it somewhere! We hear all this great music on there, and now they’re playing our music. I was just like, this is absolutely nuts. So again, without not only The Masterplan Show, but Motion and DJ Power, and how much they helped me and other artists who eventually became The Circle, [I wouldn’t be here]. It was huge. Big up to Motion.

CIUT The Masterplan Show

TCUS: Whose idea was the Figurez of Speech crew?

Saukrates: The name… I can’t remember how we got the name, but the idea came out of Fresh Arts. Me, Kardinal, Marvel, Solitair, Ylook, Anthem, Lockjaw… we were inseparable, you know? We were better as a crew. We would do all these talent showcases and whatnot, and we realized that this is the crew. Kardi, Marvel, Bucktooth and Ylook had a group called The Troubleshooters, and as that started to dissolve but our group became bigger, we came up with that name to call all of us Figurez of Speech. That was the step before we actually became The Circle, when we added the whole Paranormal crew – which was Choclair’s crew – to our gang.

TCUS: Right around this time in the early 1990s, Ghetto Concept is building a following. Mr. Attic has called Ghetto Concept the turning point for Toronto in terms of ushering in a distinctly West Indian flavour and revitalizing the scene. How influential were they in your early days?

Saukrates: It was huge. Their record was playing, and it wasn’t a deejay just playing a cassette; it was actually vinyl which, back then, made everything real – obviously, as long as the music was good. But it made it real, not only to us as Toronto music fans or hip-hop fans, but to the world. So seeing that they had vinyl out was awesome. Them and Dan-e-o at the time [were] huge. That was a pivotal point, because the next era of emcees from Toronto was being ushered in by that move – and then I became a part of that early move by dropping “Still Caught Up.” Those three records in ’94 definitely became a turning point, but “Certified” came out before I put out “Still Caught Up,” so it was influential in saying, we can do this. I connected with my management, and he helped a lot to actually get those records pressed. We did it all ourselves, and the rest is history.

Saukrates - Still Caught Up

TCUS: Speaking of that, this year marks 20 years since “Still Caught Up” came out, and a lot has happened since then. You’ve had the unfortunate experience of being dropped from two labels: Warner and Def Jam. In 2004, Bad Addiction was set to drop – that never came out. A lot of people would be resentful of the music industry after a situation like that. How did you respond to those setbacks?

Saukrates: Well, first we change the language, because I wasn’t dropped – I asked to be released. Don’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia. All of those deals, I asked to be released because of how slow things were moving. My management and I felt like we could do better on our own and then possibly sign again somewhere else after doing it ourselves, because that’s how we [started] in the first place.

Warner Brothers… I sat there for three years with no movement. They were in a bad situation anyway. They were hiring and firing every two weeks, so I went through about six different A&Rs. When I asked to be released, they said, “you know what? [It’s] better off [that] you not be here at this time, because we can’t do much for you.” They [didn’t] even have control of their own jobs. Number two, they gave me the rights to my music back. They said, “take your music with you,” and that became The Underground Tapes.

With Def Jam, [I went through] four years of nonsense under Kevin Liles, who was the President at the time. He was doing well with Murder Inc. and Roc-A-Fella, but even Redman and Method Man couldn’t get any light. So me being with Red, as it trickles down, it made it even harder for me to get anything through there, because Red was having his own problems at Def Jam. So again, I asked to be released [laughs].

Then, I headed over to Universal and signed through Blacksmith with Chris Smith, who’s a good friend of mine, and Gadget – guys I’ve been working with for years already anyway, and they had a deal inked at Universal, so we went there. [We] went through some of the delays again, and we said, “okay, we’re gonna beat that anyway,” so I put out a different album with my group Big Black Lincoln and went on tour with Nelly Furtado. Basically, the label couldn’t control how we were planning to promote what I could do. So we made some waves, some good noise. But again, at Universal I still wasn’t feeling comfortable. With labels, you get this thing where sometimes staff isn’t in total control, and they can’t admit that they can’t help you, so you’ve gotta make that decision yourself.

So from all the situations I’ve been in, I’ve asked to be released and be given back my masters, and I got that. Now I’m in a position [with Culvert Music, which] I prefer out of all of them, where I’m more partnered with this label than I am just signed as an artist. We’re having a lot of fun with our independence. So yeah, I could be jaded – I would be jaded if I was just constantly getting dropped, because that’s a blow to confidence – but [if] you’re asking to be released and you’re still able to put music out that people love and can get a hold of, then it becomes more exciting to have your freedom rather than to be angry at the world.

TCUS: Here’s a tweet of yours: “Times are always hard for most and good for a few. Similar to a roller coaster. We choose our seats and hopefully enjoy the ride.” Can you build on that?

Saukrates: That was just a passing thought. A lot of these thoughts can be fleeting, so you try to capture them when they’re fresh. But that kind of explains what I just went through. You’ve gotta ride that roller coaster. You’ve gotta take your blows and learn how to get back up on your feet if you fall. A lot of that, success ends up being more about the trip than it does about reaching that goal. It’s about what happens between where you stand and where that goal is – and that can be challenging. It can bring people down. So you figure, if you get a better perspective on that situation, it can help you keep your excitement and originality instead of following somebody else and trying to make it. [You need to] keep your confidence and stay strong through the hard times.

TCUS: Now you’re back again with this Amani EP, dropping on September 23rd. What inspired this EP?

Saukrates: Well, I started recording for the Season Two album, and there was just a lot of music coming out of me. My team at Culvert and I said, “okay, we’ve got a lot of great songs coming here, let’s focus on clusters,” or what we’re calling “chapters” of what will eventually become the Season Two LP. This way, we can get more music out on a song-by-song basis – or in clusters, these four-song EPs.

The title itself, I wanted the fans – both old and new – to be able to get a little closer to what I’m about. I always looked up to emcees who would actually use their real name every now and then like Reggie, Keith, Eric, Kanye… [Laughs] There was always a cool ring to it when guys would use their real name. Obviously, people still call me Sauks – they call me Saukrates – but to know a little more about me, I think it’s interesting if you can do it in an artistic way. I thought because this is another new beginning, and we’re getting ready to do a lot more, that this would be a good place to start from the core of me.

TCUS: In “The Big Bang,” you rap about “watching Reggie Noble getting Brick City riled up/ Saying that one day, I’d do the same for Toronto/ Now me and Doc are tighter than teeth, piranha.” Throughout the majority of your career, the one artist who has stuck with you one hundred percent has been Redman. How significant has his support been to you?

Saukrates: Awesome. It’s a dream come true. To go from being a superfan in ’92 when Whut? Thee Album dropped and I had to have somebody bring that in from New York for me so I could get it long before it got to Toronto, to being the biggest EPMD fan, to actually meeting your hero and being able to work with him – who loves your music – is absolutely surreal. Again, it’s a confidence builder, because this game is very much about being confident about what you’re writing and what you’re putting out. We’ve got nicknames for each other, man. When we really get the ball rolling, he calls me Champ, you know? He’s the coach, and he’s going to do everything he can to keep me inspired. He’s become more like a big brother to me than just an associate, and I thank my lucky stars for that. You never assume that you’d be able to connect with your heroes on that level.

TCUS: You mentioned Season Two earlier. I spoke to Rich Kidd back in December, and he told me about how he’s executive producing the album and how it’s going to sound more like updated Big Black Lincoln music. Tell me a little bit more about the plan for this upcoming album.

Saukrates: Well, we’ve gone through a lot of music so far – me and Rich. I’ve asked for him to play a large role in this, not only to make beats but to help produce songs that I’ve already made myself – offer his input, help make bridges here and there. He saw the first cluster, and he suggested that I bring back some of that BBL funk and also keep some of that raw hip-hop that I’m known for from The Underground Tapes. Basically, I just picked his brain and said, “what do you think the people need from [me] coming back out?” He kinda listed out a few things, so I went in and started recording with that in mind.

I never want to forget about what people want to hear. Sometimes you can get lost in your own bubble, so for that reason, I brought Rich Kidd in to help me along the way. He keeps his ear to the street; he’s an amazing beatmaker and producer – from top to bottom, not just loops – he’s an amazing emcee, and he’s like a little brother to me. He’s told me he looked up to my work, and I can hear the influence of what I’ve done in his music – and that makes me very proud – so I couldn’t think of anybody else better to partner up with [than him]. I’ve got Rich Kidd as my righthand man, and we’re really excited about it. The sound isn’t going in just one direction, but he’s got his finger on the button [as to] what we should be hitting the people with, and we’re rolling with that.

TCUS: I’m paraphrasing you here, but you’ve said before that when you make music, you don’t consider what’s timely or what the latest trend is. What makes for timeless music, in your opinion?

Saukrates: You’ve gotta be fearless with the music. You can easily want to be successful and follow somebody else, thinking that’s what you gotta do, because you see other people out there becoming semi-successful by copying others. I don’t do that. I just get fearless with the music. If it feels good, if it sounds good, then it feels exciting to me. Lyrically, you want to be current, but you also want to be a worldly poet, rather than just an emcee who’s battling and cursing. You want to tell stories that ladies can get into, you want to get the brainiacs into [the raps] with political science… I find these topics never get old. And the music, you’ve just gotta be fearless with the beats [to the point] where you’re breaking the trend, rather than following it. I think that has been the key – for me, at least – to maintain some longevity and stay relevant.

TCUS: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from all of your years in the hip-hop industry?

Saukrates: I think being from Toronto, it’s important to travel. I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll keep saying it again. It becomes good advice, as well – not only a lesson to me, but good advice for others. Travel. Get some perspective. Toronto can become more like a planet than a city on a large planet to artists. You strive to make it and just hit this glass ceiling, and you wonder why you can’t get any further. If you can, try to get out to LA. Try to get out to New York. Try to get out to Atlanta. Check the scene out. Get in some powwows and conversations, and you’ll see that you get a lot more perspective. You might get wrapped up in Toronto, [and once] you get out there in those conversations, ain’t nobody talking ’bout Toronto unless they know that you’re from there. [Laughs] You know what I’m saying? I mean, that’s changing a lot now because of the popularity of some of our artists coming out now, but how do you think they got there? [It comes from] travelling and getting perspective. That’s been the best thing for me, because whenever I get off a plane and come back to Toronto, I always come back with inspiration. I don’t get stuck in the rut of Toronto the planet.

TCUS: Final question. What’s left for you to do at this point?

Saukrates: I want the popularity of my music to grow a lot more. There are always ups and downs financially, and you try to maintain that – I’ve been okay with that. But there are some parts of the world [that] I would love my music to be not only played, but loved. I got to see that in touring with Nelly Furtado, so I’d love to be able to go back to a lot of these places on my own steam. I’ve definitely got that left to do.

Subscribe to The Come Up Show Podcast!