Hip-hop is music of collaboration. An emcee needs a DJ. A producer requires someone to rap over their beats. A superstar needs a hype man and an entourage. There have, of course, been solo rappers since the beginning. But some of the most creative times in the history of the genre have been dominated by rap groups, in particular duos consisting of a rapper and a producer.
That's why the breakout success of Run The Jewels has been such a joy to witness. It’s rapper and producer in perfect sync (with the bonus that El-P also doubles up as an incredible emcee himself). There’s a nod to the golden era hip-hop duos of the past, while pushing the art forward at the same time.
There is something Run The Jewels-like about RSXGLD. Maybe not so much in the music, but certainly with respect to their formula, ethos, and work ethic. Comprised of rapper Ro Spit and producer 14KT, both from Detroit, their sound is contradictory in all the right ways. It’s classic era and modern, gritty and soulful, brash and introspective, all at the same time. It works beautifully, just like Killer Mike & El-P, DJ Premier & Guru, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Q-Tip & Phife Dawg.
Constantly challenging each other like all good musical combos, the long-time collaborators and friends have created a unique sound with their self-titled debut album, and it has turned out better than perhaps they even could have imagined.
I recently spoke to Ro Spit and 14KT about RSXGLD, their working process, and much more.
Ben Pedroche: Firstly, congratulations on RSXGLD. It’s a very well-rounded record, and feels like an actual album, not just a bunch of tracks grouped together. How did the project come together?
14KT: Thank you! The project came together very organically. A mutual friend of Ro’s and mine named Marc, who’s a fan of our music individually, suggested that we work together on a project. Although Ro and I have known and worked with each other since the late ‘90s, we never created a project together. I live in LA and because Ro operates in the fashion industry, he takes trips to LA often. On one of his trips, he was out in LA for a week, so he stopped by the lab. In that week, we recorded four to five joints. We loved how the songs were coming out, so we decided to keep recording and see how far we could go. Ro made a few more trips to LA, until we felt we had enough records. One of my favorite pastimes is putting together cohesive bodies of work. It’s like piecing together a puzzle of emotions.
Ro Spit: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I always wanted to do a full-length project with KT but our schedules naturally wouldn’t permit it. Marc pretty much made our schedules work out and we started working. I also have to credit Marv Won and Denaun for making me see the potential of what this could be for everyone involved. Originally I was selling it short because I was just trying to do however many songs we could do on one trip and put it out. I came back and let them hear the records and they were like nah bruh, y’all got something here, y’all gotta put some real energy behind this and go for broke.
BP: As a group consisting of an emcee and a producer, RSXGLD feels like a modern take on classic duos like Gang Starr and Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, but there's also parallels with STS & RJD2, and of course PRhyme and Run The Jewels, who are even referenced on “4 2 1 7 5.” Who else inspired you to make this sort of album?
14KT: Huge shout to all the old school and new school hip-hop duos. RSXGLD is definitely a nod to classic duos. There really wasn’t any specific groups or artists that influenced us more than the ideas that went into creating the songs.
When you look at all these classic duos you’ve mentioned, they all have their own unique identity. That’s what really inspired us. Ro would always remind me while we were recording to just “do me.” He didn’t want me to make records that sounded like anyone else—he wanted me to create whatever I felt fit. From both a lyrical and personal standpoint, Ro bought the same creative energy to the table.
Ro Spit: Much respect to all those guys that you mentioned, they’re all legends in their own right. I have no interest in being a solo artist anymore, so I knew going into this, that this was it for me. Once the chemistry and vibes started flowing, you could just see that it was more than just recording a couple of songs and putting them out—it was a feeling and a presence that took over. That’s God telling us something, you can’t go against God’s plan, err’body know that. “4 2 1 7 5” was the first song that we did for this project and it just felt like PRhyme and Run The Jewels, so I gave people a reference into our thoughts and where we wanted to be placed.
BP: Ro Spit, you sound invigorated on RSXGLD, with a lot of passion in your voice. I've heard you say you were disillusioned with the music business during the writing and recording process. Do you see this project therefore as a make or break moment?
Ro Spit: Yeah man, thanks for noticing. I for sure was over the music business and how fake everything is—it’s literally smoke and mirrors. Some of what I witnessed is like finding out that Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy isn’t real. It just turned me off completely. It made me see that I’m playing against a stacked deck, or loaded dice. I can’t even compete…it’s not set up for success. I really don’t see this project as a make or break moment personally. I feel like I been “made it” or “broke.” From the outside looking in it may seem that way, but nah I’m content with what I’ve done musically. I know people would kill to have obtained some of the things that I’ve experienced in my career. That’s why it was so easy for me to walk away when I was about to. The passion comes from working with my favorite producer and friends, and doing exactly what we wanted to do; not caring about anything that anybody has to say. On top of that, I’m always going to give it my all. And I’m still hungry, I’m still getting better. I’m so pretty, I’m in the best shape of my life. Originally, this album was my “swan song,” but now it’s turned into a reincarnation into the next chapter of this book.
BP: The lyrics and subject matter are incredibly honest, which is refreshing in a genre where a lot of artists feel like they can’t be sincere. Was it difficult to open up about raw emotions like those you felt about your father’s passing?
Ro Spit: Yes, it was difficult to open up like that. I never wanted listeners to know that part of my life. That’s 100 percent Marc and KT challenging me to give more of myself. They said from the jump, we know you can rap, we know you’re fresh...now what else? During the time we started recording RSXGLD, I started to see something in myself and realize my purpose. People look to me for inspiration. I see it and hear it on a daily basis, but I didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t want that pressure on my shoulders. Now that I have matured, I know that the things that I say and the things that I do inspire people to grow and become more. If I’m not using this platform that God gave me to do that, it’s a slap in God’s face.
BP: The story on “Brilliant Cut (Up)” about you father and Ronnie McNeir blew me away, and the following track, “What’s Happenin’ Brutha,” is a fitting tribute. Can you elaborate on the story for those yet to hear it?
Ro Spit: It’s basically a story about me finding out that my father did something in music. We didn’t have the best relationship so there was a lot of things that I didn’t really know about him. He was a complex dude, he had many talents and a great mind, he just didn’t apply himself in the right areas, at the right times. I held a grudge for years so a lot of stuff that I learned about him wasn’t until later in his life or after he passed. But for the most part, when he was alive he told me about it, but it still didn’t register until after he passed and we were cleaning out his house. I found the record that he was featured on, and I was floored…I couldn’t believe it. I went straight to my turntable to play it and that was the only song on the whole record that skipped. I was devastated. I jumped on social media and asked people to help me find this record. I was so out of it that I forgot to even consider searching Google or YouTube, so I ended up getting 1,485,938,203 links to the track and all of this info [laughs]. I told KT the story and he found the record and chopped it up, and the rest is history. It was surreal, I couldn’t believe it. Another crazy thing is that I met Ronnie McNeir— beyond recording the track with my pops, he told me stories about ‘em and my family that I would’ve never have known otherwise. We sat in the studio and chopped it down for hours. It felt like I was talking to my long lost uncle.
BP: 14KT is known for his chopping skills, and there's a fair amount of it on the album, including some intentionally off-beat bars and beat switches. Are tracks like that more of a challenge to rap over?
Ro Spit: I’m going to go ahead and say it…KT is the top three to ever chop a record. By the time it’s all said and done, he will be number one. The time, the effort and the attention to detail that he puts into his craft is unmatched. With that being said, it wasn’t tough at all, I was just putting my mark on what was handed to me. It’s like asking Lebron if it was tough to go up and get that alley-oop from D Wade. I wasn’t thinking, I just went up there and slam jammed it home for a basket.
BP: You seem fully focused on RSXGLD right now. Do you think you'll still make solo records?
Ro Spit: Nope! Never! I’m done. It’s RSXGLD or nothing.
BP: 14KT, what's the process with RSXGLD when creating an album? Do you give Ro Spit beats to select from, make them based on his lyrics or themes, or meet somewhere in the middle?
14KT: The whole album was created in a bedroom studio from scratch. I didn’t email or play a bunch of beats for Ro to select from. There wasn’t any specific sound we were going for. We just wanted most of the records to have raw energy like “ICU” and “Chainsaw.” Every idea was created in that moment, at that time. Every record started with a regular conversation. We would be chillin’ in my kitchen or in the studio, having conversations that range from talking about our favorite emcees to our fathers passing away. Most of the time, I start creating the beats in my head before I even sit down in front of the Maschine. I would take inspiration from the conversations, and then find the right drums and sounds to sample.
BP: There's a raw, organic feel to the album, like at the end of “What’s Happenin’ Brutha,” where Ro Spit starts laughing, and we hear people talking in the background. Was it important for you to capture Ro Spit's emotions and vibe as honestly as possible?
14KT: Yeah definitely. I remember at the end of the track, Ro wanted the beat to keep going and he just wanted to rap for as long as he could go at that time. He started messin’ up towards the end and we all started crackin’ up at the same time. It was just a fun moment, so we kept it in the song, you know? Good times.
BP: Having said that, there's also a slickness about the album. It’s polished in a good way, very crisp, clear and wide, similar to the sound of something like To Pimp A Butterfly. What kind of atmosphere did you set out to achieve?
14KT: Wow, thank you. That’s a huge compliment, especially since I’m a fan of Mixed By Ali and Kendrick Lamar’s work. I think most of the atmosphere came in the mixing process of the album. I wanted the album to sound as wide and clear as I could, without it sounding too clean. I also wanted it to sound somewhat cinematic, so it sounds like an experience. Songs like “4 2 1 7 5,” “I Believe,” “Give It All,” and “Thought Bubble” are good examples of that. Although, I work “in the box” a lot on computers, I still aim to achieve a certain level of warmth, rawness, and dirt in the mixes. This album was me trying to do that.
BP: How does working on an entire project with one artist compare to making individual tracks for different people? Do you prefer one process to the other?
14KT: Yeah, I’m for sure an album guy. Creating a cohesive body of art is a true challenge for me. I enjoy making individual tracks too, but albums is how my mind naturally operates. I think of albums as like movie soundtracks actually. I know we live in an age in the music industry where an entire album might not hold as much weight or be as meaningful as it’s been in the past, but that’s also why it’s my preference. It’s a challenge in itself to keep the concept of an album meaningful to the listener. I hope people understand that vision when listening to RSXGLD and every project I create and release through my Karat Gold Music imprint.
BP: You've spoken in the past about growing up making pause tapes and having a preference for basic software like Cool Edit Pro. Having had to work hard to make do with what you had, do you feel a lot of production skill has been lost since technology became so readily available?
14KT: Yes and no. Yeah, I do feel like technology has made it easier for someone to produce without necessarily needing the true skill to do it. However, I do believe that there are certain production skills that aren’t necessarily lost, but are still much needed and neglected nowadays in order to be fully effective. Regardless of how readily available technology is at your disposal, you can’t replace the skill of conveying emotions with sound. You can’t replace the focus you need to get through the distractions of being on your computer while working and creating (social media, texts, notifications, etc..). You can’t replace the knowledge of knowing how to put together a song and be able to translate that to an artist you are working with. Those are just a couple skills, but there are many more.