If we overhauled the term "The Sweet Science" and used it to describe language instead of boxing, we'd ultimately end up in a conversation about hip-hop: Beneath most every fire-breathing emcee's armor is a complex writing organ, obsessed with and fueled by detail, emotion, drama, irony and—ultimately—ego. Trouble is, these mean emcees are the sort that aren't often awarded for their brash brilliance. Too often, we often go for hooks and charisma, not narrative and odium, leaving some of the best wordsmiths in the dark.
This is one of the reasons you don't know enough about L.E.G.A.C.Y., a former North Carolina rapper who moved to Baltimore two years ago. For L.E.G.A.C.Y., 2003 was the year that might have been his proper introduction to the rap world. His pathological, image-filled verses were some of the bravest, most tunneling and literary verses I'd heard south of New York. His Justus League crew was earning worldwide attention. And people loved his Legsclusives EP. The anticipation for his first LP—the bulk of which he says he recorded in 2002— built like the pressure beneath a geyser. Inevitably, it was delayed, and the momentum stalled. After five years, that LP, Project Mayhem, finally dropped. Trouble is, it dropped until it fell mostly off the map. Fans had either already heard the majority of the LP's songs or had lost their enthusiasm for the project. A concurrent tour with Little Brother left L.E.G.A.C.Y. in their husky shadow.
L.E.G, it seems, was neither too happy with the Project Mayhem ordeal nor the company he was keeping. Despite continuing to work with some of his Justus League peers, he went for a different path, returning with two mixtapes, a heightened attitude and a sharper pen. On the mostly one-man mission, Suicide Music, he returns with some of his heaviest verse yet. And, yes, he's totally willing to tell us how good it is.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Your debut, Project Mayhem, was released as part of the Justus League, which, at the time, included yourself, Little Brother, The Away Team, 9th Wonder, Khrysis and a few others. Would you call Suicide Music a Justus League record, especially since Khrysis produced it and Hall of Justus released it?
L.E.G.A.C.Y.: No, I wouldn't call it that at all. I'm focusing more on the L.E.G.A.C.Y. name and L.E.G.A.C.Y. lane. The Justus League didn't really have nothing to do with this record. This is my brainchild, and I brought Khrysis along. He threw in a couple of valuable things to make it all work. I don't know what a Justus League album is, not even in a disrespectful way, but I don't even technically know what goes on with the Justus League.
Earlier this year, we reviewed your latest mixtape, N.C. Chainsaw Massacre. We described your persona as that of "bloodthirsty douche-baggery." You weren't too pleased with that description. Have you come around to it?
Honestly, no. People know what kind of person I am. If I'm out somewhere and people come up to me, I don't wanna talk about music. I downplay my music when I talk to people. It's not about egos with me. I've done some things but I'm not the one to steadily remind people of what I've accomplished. I've accomplished way more than the majority of these artists around. I just didn't get the joke, but maybe I'll use that as the title of my next album.
I was referring to your brand of aggressive content. Sometimes it seems like you're in offense mode because of your ego and your anger that you're not one of hip-hop's most talked-about storytellers.
Well, I don't really get into the rankings, but I don't wanna be in corny things like a Vibe magazine bracket. I don't go out of my lane. To me it's all about the people that know versus the people that don't. And as far as the storytelling thing, maybe people will finally catch on. The hidden song on Suicide Music, "Do What's Right," is a great storytelling record. I love that song. I don't get a lot of credit, and that has a lot to do with not having a major-label push or a big budget behind me, like some of these corny, younger rappers. But I make dope music: "The best writer since the Donald Goines joints." [That's how L.E.G.A.C.Y. refers to himself on "T.K.O."] But, yeah, fuck other rappers: Put me with Shakespeare and them. I don't mind being slept on. I'd rather be the most slept-on than the most nothing.
"Do What's Right" tells the story of two women who have lived very tragic lives.
That's actually the only song we recorded sober. We didn't even know if it was good. It was hot that day. I remember getting frustrated in the booth after we recorded it, so I said "Fuck it, just leave it." We left it, and we didn't listen to it again for the next few days. When we finally listened to it, it ended sounding dope to us. It actually came from another song I was working on, "Cotton Sheets," which is actually about three different girls. I had to slice one off for the record. "Do What's Right" is my favorite song on the album.
Your video for the album's single, "Bang," reminds me of the movie Hard Candy, in which an underage Ellen Page drugs a predator who picks her up. Of course, you romance a woman, then butcher her...
Actually, the video for "Bang" came from the movie Hostel. I told the directors [Rob Underhill and Dave Eckert] I wanted it to be gory, just like that movie. I use sitcoms, movies, old book references and try to turn it into metaphor and similes that have something to do with my life and make them all crisscross into crazy, crazy concepts. Take it for what it's worth, but I'm the writer's writer.
You never seemed to be too impressed with newer hip-hop. Why is that? Are you just not impressed with rappers lyrically, or do you just hate everyone because it makes more sense to you?
I've had to put this out there a lot. When I'm listening to artists and hip and hop, I'm not listening from an artist's perspective. I'm listening as a fan of the music. The music that they've been pushing now has been pushing me away, making the fan in me go away. I just don't wanna listen to other artists. If I disliked other artists because they weren't better than me, then, hell, I wouldn't like anybody. These new artists are all gimmick and egos. The industry, period, is a big turnoff.
Your first LP, Project Mayhem, had 19 tracks. Why did you feel the need to have only 11 songs on Suicide Music?
A lot of things went on behind the scenes. I couldn't use certain songs that I wanted to use because of bullshit politics that happen in rap. Between that and Khrysis pretty much brushing off beats from other producers, it just got to that point where I wanted it done correctly, and we had to cut off some things. We cut off some dope records.
I've been spreading myself thin with the mixtapes, giving away a lot of free quality music. I wanted people to be like, "Damn, if he's giving this away and it's dope, then what is he sellin'?" I just wanted everything crisp. It's all there.
The last mixtape, N.C. Chainsaw Massacre, was 32 or 33 minutes, and Nas' Illmatic was 32 or 33 minutes. [Editor's note: Illmatic is 39 minutes.] People say that Illmatic is classic. So, bang. And there were some songs on Project Mayhem that I could have done without. It could have been better if it were a slimmer album.
Why the decision to go with Khrysis as your only producer?
Around 2007, we ran a long span where all of the songs we recorded were coming together better, and we starting gelling more. Initially, I don't know if it was Khrysis' idea to produce the whole record or maybe it was that after we recorded a few songs, then he said, "Whoa, I might wanna do this whole thing." I never intended on him producing the whole thing. Never. I had dope songs that I had recorded with other producers, and I had other beats.
I took it all to him, and he would take it to the studio, listen to it and say, "Yeah, that's dope." Then he would turn around and get on the computer and make a new, crazy beat on the spot, or he'd play something from his stash that he'd never played for me before. I would just forget about whatever I had just brought him, and we'd make something fresh. But who knows? He might have been playing a mental chess game the whole time.
The song "T.K.O." features three other hard-laced rappers. They're the only guests besides Durham slam-poet Dasan Ahanu on Suicide Music. Would you say that your style of emceeing mirrors the free-verse technique used by a lot of spoken-word poets?
At times, I guess I can get too deep. If I wasn't trying to flow it out, I guess I could say it how poets say things. I wrote a few poems way back when. Some of my best work is poetry that I wrote way back. I wrote a joint called "Blood on the Sun" in 2000. To this day, if I record it, it could be the best song I ever did. I just have to find the right beat for it.
How has living in Baltimore, Md., changed your outlook on life and, more specifically, your creative process or how you approach hip-hop these days?
I already had a track record of making dark, gritty music, so being up here in Baltimore helped me write a great portion of the record. It's all about making your own lane now, and I don't like how the other lanes look. I do the heavy lyrics and dark tones. That's my thing, and it's been my thing. But as far as life in general in Baltimore—it's a lot more humbling. [Laughs.]
You're fascinated by gore and suicide. But why Suicide Music? Do you have a history of suicidal tendencies?
Nah, that's never been my thing. But if you wanna off yourself, go ahead. Do it.