Hip-Hop Fridays: Exclusive Q & A With Keith Murray
About a year ago if you mentioned Keith Murray's name to Hip-Hop aficionados, you probably would have seen reactions of respect, fond memories and curiosity. Something similar to how one reacts when they are asked about a popular classmate of theirs, from high school or college, that they haven't seen for a while. Because of his creativity, charisma, public troubles and admitted recklessness, Keith Murray has established himself as one of the most interesting and paradoxical figures in Hip-Hop history. With his first single, "Yeah, Yeah, Ya Know it" from his upcoming album, He's Keith Murray (released on April 29th), earning the Long Island, New York native the most radio airplay in years, now is as good a time as ever, to catch up with the Hip-Hop wordsmith (even Amazon.com notes his "multisyllabic lyricism") whose debut album was one of the most successful of the 1990s.
This week, Keith Murray talked with BlackElectorate.com publisher, Cedric Muhammad, about his past, present and future as well as his thoughts on a wide-range of subjects. True to form, Keith Murray spoke with the kind of candor that offends some but which many find all too rare in today’s Hip-Hop genre.
Keith Murray: Cedric, The Entertainer, What's Up? How are you?
Cedric Muhammad: (laughter) I'm good Brother, how are you?
Keith Murray: I'm good, man.
Cedric Muhammad: It's good to talk to you, as we never met when I was with Wu-Tang...
Keith Murray: Yeah, word!
Cedric Muhammad: So, in all of those years we kept missing each other, although paths were crossing pretty closely. Look man, most of us are familiar with you from 1994...
Keith Murray: October '94...
Cedric Muhammad: Yeah, from "The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World" and all that...
Keith Murray: ummhuh..
Cedric Muhammad: I don't want to give you too big of a question to start, but can you break down your life as an artist, into eras for us?
Keith Murray: I came out in '94; and in late '94 and early '95 I came out with The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World album on Jive Records. I dropped that single, "The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World" and it took off. Then I dropped the second single, "Get Lifted." The record was doing well and I was too, on tour with Das Efx; and then, my Soundscan sales slowed down at like 450,000 units. So, then I went to the record label and expressed my dissatisfaction with the way my units were being moved and there was no solution. So, I decided that I wanted to get off of Jive Records. I told Erick (Sermon) - I was signed to his production company at the time - 'Take me off Jive, because Jive ain't doing what I need it to do!' Everybody I was on tour with was selling but me. My popularity was crazy and I was killin' the shows. So, I was like, 'what's up?!?' The answer was, 'well you know they don't want to let you off the label.' Then the case (second degree assault) came about. I was doing shows luckily but I had to record for money, and I couldn’t get off the label. That was a black cloud. The case was a black cloud. Then, I did the Enigma album. That was a more aggressive, angry album from The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World. I came in the game with no black cloud, no pressure, no restraints, no label bullshit. I was just wildin' goin' berserk! But with Enigma I was more concentrated on the aggression, the frustration. So that blew over but I was sitting in court the day Enigma came out. Then I did the Mary J. Blige song, ("Be Happy"), which gave me a good look. The Enigma album did like 400,000 units. I did not want that. And then, after that, came the R. Kelly cut, ("Home Alone"). But keep in mind I still want to get off of Jive. This was like '96 and '97. So I had to record with those pressures, the court pressures and I was pissed. But the R. Kelly, "Home Alone" hit I did, that gave me a good look! That shit is a classic; it was bangin'. But I am still like 'yo, I want to get off of the f------- label.' They are still like 'No, they won't let you off.' So I had to record for money - I didn't have any money and wasn't really making any, so I started the It's a Beautiful Thing album but I had to go to jail and didn't finish it. And I told Jive to not put it out. But they put it out anyway. They got whomever they wanted to get, in order to finish the album. But it sounds sloppy, like niggas' chopped the songs off at the end. It sounds like nothing I would have done. And then they put out a 'Greatest Hits' album, although I told them not to do it. But they put it out anyway, while I was in jail.
Cedric Muhammad: Now how long were you in for, Keith?
Keith Murray: 36 months.
Cedric Muhammad: To me, those 36 months, for you, in the context of being a powerful artist, are like what Ali and Tyson went through, in terms of the changes that you go through...
Keith Murray: Yeah...
Cedric Muhammad: How did that time period help and hurt you?
Keith Murray: Well, it didn't hurt me. It only helped me because there is no telling where I would have been and what I would have been doing in the streets. I was a ringleader of random violence and not concentrating on the issues of life and gaining monetary advancement and moving with unity with others like men. So we were headed down the wrong dark path anyway. So I feel that prison was just a sign to make me slow down or even stop and think about where I came from, where I am, and where I want to be and how to get there. It took me out of the fast-paced life and made me get a grip and really analyze life from a distance before I got put back into it. It saved my life. I know a lot of people are like, 'Jail saved your life?!?' But they don't understand jail...
Cedric Muhammad: Jail is school…
Keith Murray: Jail is a poor man's university that you can't even pay for. And I went through a thorough investigation of the human psychology when I was in there.
Cedric Muhammad: Well, we are glad that you are out now. Look Keith, I heard you when you came out on one of the Kay-Slay mixtapes; and you murdered the track...
Keith Murray: Oh word?
Cedric Muhammad: You were always hot; but I felt like I could pick up on a man that was just so focused, now...
Keith Murray: yeah...
Cedric Muhammad: So, do you think that in addition to what you learned in prison, that it narrowed your focus on the art and the business?
Keith Murray: Most definitely. It made me sit back and analyze it, 'cause I always was studying it as a business, but I was just overwhelmed, as a young artist growing up in public, having to be out there as an artist, plus striving to get a grip on the understanding of the mechanisms of the business. I was self-contained. Redman was self-contained. Erick (Sermon) was self-contained. I don't have a Puff Daddy. I don't have a Suge Knight. I don't have a Irv Gotti. I don't have those people so I have to be in the streets and do how I do, and learn how I learn and make the transition like that.
Cedric Muhammad: How has management been for you?
Keith Murray: I have never had a manager! Never. I had a booking agency that would call Erick's office that was set up to contact me, Redman and Erick. Erick's office would book the shows and take a percentage out of it.
Cedric Muhammad: Yeah, I remember you all were dealing with Marc Cheetham (booking agent for ICM).
Keith Murray: Yeah, so Marc Cheetham would call Chris at Erick's office and would book shows for me and Redman. Marc Cheetham would take a percentage. Erick's office would take a percentage and me and Redman would take the rest and go do what we do. But now I got a manager...
Cedric Muhammad: Who you rollin' with now for management?
Keith Murray: James Ellis...
Cedric Muhammad: Oh, that was Redman’s manager...
Keith Murray: Yeah...
Cedric Muhammad: Look, quiet is kept, he is one of the best.
Keith Murray: Yeah, he is educated, understandable. He knows me. He watched me grow up...
Cedric Muhammad: People like to deal with him, so I am happy to see that.
Keith Murray: yeah.
Cedric Muhammad: That's a good move right there...
Keith Murray: That's what's up...
Cedric Muhammad: On the business tip, you are back out now...but how was the paperwork getting off of Jive and onto Def Jam?
Keith Murray: Oh, well, now I got a new lawyer - Larry Rudolph - who has represented Britney Spears. And I got him before I went in to jail. And when I got out, I expressed the fact to him that I needed to get off of Jive. So he sent over a letter to the record label that was like, 'Listen, Keith's coming home the people are really not interested in him...' and Jive in response was like 'You know what? You are right. Let's let him go.' Cedric, I ran to Def Jam and multiple labels to see who's who and what's what. I talked to everybody. And I felt Def Jam was the best situation for me. I knew Def Jam from my days with Def Squad. So I had a rapport with Kevin (Liles) and Lyor (Cohen). And we always had discussions about my energy and my persona and we agreed that I represent Def Jam and Def Jam represents me.
Cedric Muhammad: I just talked to Russell (Simmons) a few weeks ago; people think it was a real good interview. I will send it to you.
Keith Murray: Cool.
Cedric Muhammad: I'm real straight up, kind of critical. And I expressed this to Russell. I had a problem with last year. I felt like the labels, especially Def Jam, just stopped the flow of product, man. I don't feel that Hip-Hop has the same problems as rock does, with the file-sharing and what not. I think it is a little bit different. Do you feel real comfortable that Def Jam is going to sit on its punches with you, so to speak...
Keith Murray: I'm not ever comfortable. Never comfortable; about what a Def Jam is going to do for me. But I sit in these meetings; I go through each department; I strive to put them on the same page as me; which will propel my career, but it is an ongoing struggle. You never know, B. That is why I am talking to these niggas' - Kevin and Lyor. The streets ask me all of the time, 'Murray, are you going to do it?'; 'Murray are you going to at least be able to live up to your standard, of gold and then beyond?' I am like, 'Listen, I deliver a great product, it is up to the machine to work it properly.' And it is up for me to stay on each department - me and (James) Ellis. Each department. To make sure m----------- are doing what they got to do and ain't playing games. Because you know it is a lot of games that are going to be played! They (record label) want to sell records off of hype - more than hard work and dollar signs.
Cedric Muhammad: Ok, check this out, from the vantage points of where you came in this game, and where you are right now. Almost 10 years total. Look at radio. You came in with "The Most Beautifullest Thing..." comes out and it was radio-friendly, although we as fans didn't care whether it was radio-friendly or not. We loved it!
Keith Murray: Yeah...
Cedric Muhammad: How do you feel radio has changed?
Keith Murray: Radio is so f------- crazy! You’ve got independent promotional companies that got better relationships with the radio stations than the labels do. So, the record labels take money out of your budget to pay some guy to go to a radio station and get your record added. So they pay him a certain amount of money for all of their acts. He goes to the radio station because he has a relationship and tries to get the record to get paid. You've got to buy slots...The new mix shows now are not mix shows; they are programmed mixshows. So the program director (at the radio station) tells the mix show DJ what to play and what not to play. This is a real crazy business. The stations are like, 'OK you want your record played on my station, how much are you going to pay? What time slot are you going to buy?' The shit is crazy.
Cedric Muhammad: Are you set up right? Do you feel like you are in the best possible situation you could be in right now - as best as you can tell?
Keith Murray: Well, anything can always be better but I am comfortable with the fact that I am not at Jive!
Cedric Muhammad: (laughter)
Keith Murray: You know what I am sayin'? We have to see what is going to pop off at Def Jam. And this is a business. Of course, I know my records are bangin'! It is just the fact of who is out there buying me? Who is out promoting me? Because I know that niggas' cannot f--- with me! And I got records that are going to be played prime-time, daytime. But they have to be worked.
Cedric Muhammad: I hope the pipeline is working for you. On another point, I have been talking to a few people in the industry of late looking at the rise of 50 Cent. I don't think it is just about him and good music. I see a lot of things happening at once, and in a sense, the stars were all in alignment for him...
Keith Murray: Look, they are pumping money like a m---------------. I mean, how many records do you think they done bought?
Cedric Muhammad: On the Soundscan?
Keith Murray: Yeah, c'mon those White men over there ain't playin'. That Jimmy Iovine (former Fleetwood Mac producer and current Chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M) character is not playing, homes! That m------------------ will buy every record that he put out just so he don't look like he failed. Me and you know that, but the average person doesn't! Hey, the album comes out April 29th - He's Keith Murray. I got Just Blaze, Trackmasterz, Jazzy Pha, Clark Kent, E-Double (Erick Sermon), Pete Rock and DJ Khalil. My second single is called "Candy Bar" and it is going to be a mix of "Most Beautifullest Thing In The World" and "Fatty Girl" so it is going to be some shit! Oh, that one is going to be the summer anthem!
Cedric Muhammad: On business again, what are some of the multiple streams of income, other than royalties and shows that you are looking at?
Keith Murray: I'm looking at setting up LOD. Setting them up. I mean, everyone knows who LOD is...
Cedric Muhammad: Is that on the label tip or as a production deal?
Keith Murray: On the label tip. I really want to attack that. I got DVDs coming. I got this agent, looking to get me into movies. But I really want to do dramadey (dramatic comedies). I am looking for those types of parts to play. I don't just want to rush in because they want to give me money to do a movie. I am not f------ with (Hollywood) like that
Cedric Muhammad: Are you doing anything with clothing or are you going to leave that alone?
Keith Murray: Naw, but I stay fresh. I am a fly ass dressin' nigga' though!
Cedric Muhammad: (laughter) No question, Keith. You can get some endorsements, though. Don't leave money on the table.
Keith Murray: (laughter) Yeah, that's what's up!
Cedric Muhammad: Let them pay you to wear clothes, instead of you paying out to make them, if you like.
Keith Murray: (laughter) Yeah...
Cedric Muhammad: Do you have anything on your mind politically? How are you feeling about the environment for entertainment right now, period? Because we have been putting a lot of stories on BlackELectorate.com about how the entertainment business is funny right now...
Keith Murray: Yeah it's fickle and it has always been fickle.
Cedric Muhammad: Do you think with the war it is making things even moreso?
Keith Murray: Yeah, the war is a f----- up situation. Because I really don't know why they are over there... This is politricks-politics. Innocent people are over there who are going to lose their lives. Their families are all f----- up, just because President Bush says , 'Saddam got weapons.' If Saddam got weapons and they can harm me, I say, go get'em. But if this is about Saddam trying to assassinate your father and the control of oil and land, then leave those people alone, man. So, I am torn between two aspects of the situation.
Cedric Muhammad: On the subject of Black economics, Keith - where do you think we are, when it comes to the entertainment industry? We know we don't have distribution. That is so tired - everyone has said that...
Keith Murray: We are most definitely last on the totem pole. You f------ know that (laughter). The Jews got it locked down. Got it locked down! You can forget about it. A few of us do slip through the cracks but we are so busy trying to go after each other all the time while they are making mad money. It is a shame.
Cedric Muhammad: How do you think that can change?
Keith Murray: Man listen, just take everything underground.
Cedric Muhammad: Yeah, just look at the mixtapes. I keep telling people to examine that and how much money that has circulated there. That's distribution right there!
Keith Murray: Mixtapes is a whole new different thing now, though because they got whiff of it. The Jews got whiff of it. So now, (their attitude) is 'you have to scan that [record sales under the Soundscan system] or we are coming after you.'!
Cedric Muhammad: Keith, I had been away for a while and I went through the record store on Saturday, and the mixtapes were so saturated with wack product...
Keith Murray: They are over there in Europe – everywhere it's mixtapes. They are a hot commodity. MTV is broadcasting the 'mixtape of the month'.
Cedric Muhammad: (laughter)...you've got D.J. Clue on –air pushing his.
Keith Murray: (laughter) Yup. It is full-blown now. LOD is the last underground crusade.
Cedric Muhammad: Explain that. How does that work? What is the underground?
Keith Murray: The underground is when you have love for the art and you go through certain channels to let your art be heard. You are still frustrated, though. You want to get to the next level but you ain't got it together to the point where you Soundscan it. You are doing your thing. You are a pirate of the Hip-Hop game. Like pirate radio.
Cedric Muhammad: My thought is that if you (Blacks) have management, radio, an agency, a label, some law firms. That is how you are going to control it all.
Keith Murray: Yeah.
Cedric Muhammad: Oh, by the way, how are you feeling about New York radio right now?
Keith Murray: Oh man. They play the same bullshit over and over again that advocates such senseless acts of violence. But I ain't worried when it's mine (laughter)...
Cedric Muhammad: Do you think Power 105 represents anything new for New York radio? Competition, but not anything really new?
Keith Murray: They try to put in an old type of format but it just seems like radio doesn't know what's what.
Cedric Muhammad: Any last things you would like to say? What is the most important thing you would like people to know right now?
Keith Murray: April 29th! He's Keith Murray. It is a new, fresh, honest look into my life. It's a good look for Hip-Hop. Check out my website, www.keithmurray.com. Understand where I am going. Understand my form of art. Put this one in your collection because you are going to need it.
Cedric Muhammad: Classic?
Keith Murray: Classic...Classic Keith Murray.
Cedric Muhammad: I appreciate this Keith and wish you the best and let me know when you are coming through D.C. on a promo.
Keith Murray: Oh, I'm coming this week!
Cedric Muhamad: Really?
Keith Murray: Hell yeah!
Cedric Muhammad: So we'll get together then.
Keith Murray: No doubt.
Cedric Muhammad: Alright, Peace Brother.
Keith Murray: One.
Friday, April 4, 2003