Cormega Looks Back at Queensbridge, Jail and His Return

[caption id="attachment_14717" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Cormega photo courtesy of Legal Hustle."][/caption]

Cormega's roots go back to the '80s heyday of hip-hop, but a four-year prison sentence from a drug charge derailed his career in the early '90s. While he was locked up, Mega was first introduced to the world by way of fellow Queensbridge rapper Nas, who wrote a letter to him with the now classic Illmatic single "One Love."

After coming home in '95 Cormega hit a few major label stumbles -- Nas' Firm collective unceremoniously dropped him before the recording of their album and Def Jam shelved his own solo project -- but he still held the street's attention with his cinematic rhymes and quickly rebuilt through independent labels. His new double disc collection, Raw Forever -- half greatest hits retrospective, half new recordings with live band the Revelations -- hit stores on September 27. Hive sat down with him to talk about the hip-hop history of his housing projects, why he eventually chose the studios over the streets and his transition towards rapping with a live band.

What's your earliest hip-hop memory?

My earliest real memory of [rapping] is Muhammad Ali rhyming. Other than that I remember Sugar Hill Gang coming on at my father's house. I thought it was cool, it was different and it was fly. I remember hearing T La Rock's "It's Yours" and I remember the momentum behind Run DMC.

When did you realize that you wanted to be involved with it?

Immediately. I wanted to be involved in it immediately. I was writing rhymes and joking around with it. When I moved to Queensbridge that's when I knew that I knew how to rap, because my cousin had me rapping around people that was good and I stood out. So from there I started taking it real seriously.

What was the hip-hop scene like when you moved to Queensbridge?

When I came to Queensbridge MC Shan was the king. Craig G, Tragedy, Poet, those were the notable emcees on the rise. Shante was making noise. That was it. Back then it was quiet. But then it was other people that you really don't hear about that was making noise, too. People like Dimples D, she was down with the Juice Crew, there was Arkim, there was Tee and Tasheem. All these people had records out before, that was the momentum from Queensbridge. And the ultimate prize was being down with the Juice Crew back then.

Being that you came from the Bronx but were living in Queensbridge, what was your take on the Juice Crew vs. Boogie Down Productions battle?

It was funny to me. When "The Bridge Is Over" came out I was back and forth between Brooklyn and Queensbridge and at that time I started living with my sister. So because I came from the Bronx I liked "The Bridge Is Over." Even people in Queensbridge thought it was a dope record. But if you had asked me who my favorite rapper was at that time I would've said MC Shan. KRS-One developed into a better emcee because he put out more work throughout the years but during the early '80s until the "The Bridge Is Over" MC Shan was better. MC Shan had "Left Me Lonely," that was a song for girls like LL's "I Need Love" and that was a big record. MC Shan had a song called "Cocaine" where he's talking about cocaine like it's a women. That was the first concept record I'd ever heard. That song is like how Common Sense made "I Used To Love Her" or how I made "American Beauty." So Shan had the first concept record I ever heard in hip hop, he had the first anthem I ever heard in hip hop.

I heard that you had a deal with Marley Marl in the early '90s.

If I had never went to jail I would've come out on Pendulum records. When Lords of The Underground got their deal it was a package deal - Cormega and Lords of The Underground. I got songs at Marley Marl's crib that have been sitting in his vault since '92. My album would've come out in like '92 or '93 the latest.

The only problem with me back in the day is that during all this time, I had been [selling] in crack houses more than I had been in the studio. That's the thing that stopped me from being able to go where I needed to go early in my career. I was so fascinated with the streets, it seemed like the money was faster in the streets. Like if you took a picture of any rapper from my hood during those times and you look at pictures of me and my man Black Jay, in our circle we was flyer than the rappers. So it's things like that that made people stray. I knew guys from the street that could play basketball better than Ron Artest -- and he'll even tell you this -- but those guys didn't take it as far as him because they didn't go as hard as he did. I wasn't going as hard as I should've with rap because I was in the street.

When you got locked up did you then decide to get your head on straight and focus on rapping?

Hell yeah. Especially when you see all your peers doing their thing. It's one thing to know that you can rap but when you're in jail and you're watching TV and you're seeing people from your projects. All your friends, people you hung out with. It was like when I go home it's on. I came home from prison with books, books of rhymes.

I guess the hip-hop industry had changed dramatically in the four years you were in.

It changed but I didn't understand the change, I didn't feel the change. Mind you I was never really a part of the industry. I was in the streets, I could tell you what the changes in the street was, but I couldn't tell you too much about the industry because I never was fully in it. So when I came home the industry was right up my alley. Think about it: you had dudes rapping about street shit and drugs. You're talking to a guy that just came from jail. A lot of rappers had never even been to jail. I'm trying to be the opposite! I never want to go to jail again. That's why I started rapping, to stay away from trouble. So everybody's rapping about [the streets] and I was like, "Oh this is easy." I can't even explain it. It's like hiring a fat person to eat. He would do it for free.

What made you want to bring in the live band for the new record?

The live band elevates you as an artist, the live band makes you an artist. A lot of people don't look at rap as an art and a live band elevates us, there's a whole different sophistication to it. Once I did a show with the Revelations and the turn out was good I knew I was doing an album with them. So we went in the studio and we made it happen.

Musically what can a band do for you that a traditional producer can't?

Let's say a producer does a track and I might not like his drums, [a live band] can make the drums better. I could be performing and they can make changes during the song. They can do breakdowns. I could be tired and they could do a solo set. As opposed to just a beat playing they could really kill it on the drum solo. It just raises the stakes so much.

Has working with them made you change the way you write at all?

Nah, not really. I write the same. That's why it's Cormega Raw Forever, I'm still gonna write the way I write, I'll just add more maturity to it. But it definitely influences the way I perform.

What's your plan after this record?

I've got two albums on deck. I've got one called A Different Cloth, which is the next solo Cormega album, and I've got another album that is a secret project I'm working on and it's gonna be a collaboration. I can't really break down the album yet, but it's gonna be incredible. It's gonna be so crazy I might even put that out in front of A Different Cloth.