Rap groups are an endangered species. Revenue streams are tight, and having to split what little earnings are left after writers, producers and managers have taken their cut isn’t something your average rapper in it for the money is willing to do. For those who are instead motivated by a creative itch to simply make good music, groups retain an important place in hip-hop. And one of the best groups making good music right now is Detroit’s Clear Soul Forces.
After releasing several projects since their 2010 debut Clear Soul Radio (No DJ), the group broke through on a wider scale with the impressive Detroit Revolution(s) (2012) and Fab Five (2015) albums. Several solo projects have followed, but Clear Soul Forces have now returned with an excellent new group album Still.
I recently caught up with all four members of the group—L.A.Z., Noveliss, Emile Vincent and Ilajide—to discuss the new album, their creative process and their place in the canon of Detroit hip-hop.
Ben Pedroche: Tell me about the new album Still. To me it feels like vintage Clear Soul Forces, but with a lot of growth since your last group project.
L.A.Z: Still is a return to the beginning of everything in a way. This was the first album we put out since the homie Brogainz passed away, and I feel like this is the most connected we’ve been as a group musically since Detroit Revolution(s). Still is pure to me.
Noveliss: We’ve all definitely experienced a lot of growth. Picture each individual member of the Avengers achieving that top tier level on their own, then coming back and joining forces to fight the good fight again.
BP: In the press notes, Noveliss talks about how each member of the group having gone away to do solo projects was a way of proving yourselves as standalone artists, which in turn has made the group stronger as a whole. Can you elaborate on this?
Emile: We were able to explore our individual sound, learn, and bring something new back to the table to contribute. It was that simple.
Noveliss: We write together a lot. Not to be confused with writing for one another, but we occupy the same workspace simultaneously, and when we're not together, we're constantly sending verses back and forth. You have to be ready to catch that next alley-oop from your brother.
L.A.Z: Releasing solo projects is something we’ve all been destined for. We were doing open mics and local shows as four solo emcees, and being the hype man for each other’s sets before we officially became a group. The world doesn’t know that part of our truth. Making music as Clear Soul Forces is destiny, that shit was supposed to happen, man!
We acknowledge that and push ourselves to be great. But at the same time—me growing up in Colorado and writing my first songs out there—I can’t hold back Ilajide, who grew up in Detroit, from following his other passions just because we’re in the same group. It’s oppressive to even be like that so we just doing what we feel like we’re supposed to be doing right now.
Ilajide: I engineer all the records. It was ultimately my idea to have everybody chase their solo ventures and come back to essentially be better. My theory was by being solo, it would help everyone have a chance to have their own canvass. Give each artist a chance to dive deeper into themselves, allow the fans to experience that as well. But more importantly, it allows for shorter Clear Soul Forces records. Now songs ain’t gotta be five to six minutes because you got four high lyrical emcees trying to fit all on one record.
BP: How does the creative process of writing and recording work, and reaching an end product usually go, when there are four distinct artists involved?
Emile: You have to set aside ego and sacrifice bars [laughs]. It’s the only way!
Noveliss: Anytime you're in a group, you naturally sacrifice your own creativity and individuality to a certain degree. Stepping away and taking the time to explore ourselves as individuals and really sharpen our blades was necessary. Only to come back and channel that energy into being a unit. It's not about who's the best in the group, it's about who's better than the group, when the group is one.
BP: Are there disagreements at times? And how do these get resolved?
L.A.Z: Yeah of course, it’s part of being in a group and on a team. Just as brothers we stay experimental and compromise. It keeps us loose and we understand that.
Emile: Of course, when dealing with any group of people there will be disagreements, but communication is key to getting them ironed out and we’re getting better at it.
BP: Ilajide produced the majority of Still. I’d describe the production as classic true-school beats with a modern twist. How would you guys define your sound?
L.A.Z: It’s a combination of backpacker meets subwoofer rap.
Ilajide: I’d define our sound as Clear Soul Forces. I’ve never heard anything like us. It’s crazy because for years I tried to make beats like Dilla, Q-Tip, The Ummah. But eventually my sound took on a life of its own, and it became a thing to where it would only sound complete if Clear Soul Forces was on it.
I do a lot of beat sets and play a LOT of beats for rappers. That “Hit Me Now” beat has been shopped around and dropped at various sets. NOOOOOBODY responded to it like how they’re doing now. With Clear Soul Forces on the track, it has a life of its own. And that’s the type of sound that I think we bring. I know L.A.Z. calls it a combination of backpack/subwoofer rap, but for me....it’s hard to categorize our sound because we’re not limited or subjected to anything.
BP: One track that stands alone with a unique beat is “Pump Pump.” It’s very fast-paced, complemented with equally fast verses. What was the thinking behind switching it up so dramatically on that song?
Ilajide: See what I mean when I say we’re not limited or subjected to anything [laughs]? That beat was done years back. R.I.P. Propaine for helping me discover that sample. The thinking behind the switch up was always calculated. The beat was made years before the song was written, and there’s a switch in there, just not for lyrics. When Emile came with lyrics, I knew I had to beef up the switch up a lil’ bit and the next time he heard it it’s what you guys hear now [laughs]. Maybe he wants to talk about that one.
Emile: It just felt different from everything else Ilajide was sending over for the project. I like different sounding shit, and once I laid the verse and hook, I sent it back to Ilajide which inspired him to jump on. And once we had our verses down, Noveliss and L.A.Z had to get on it.
BP: Still touches on topics like racism and police brutality, but in a fairly subtle way that frames it in the context of hip-hop, like on “They Shootin.” Is it hard to find the right balance between having something important to say while still keeping it entertaining?
Noveliss: No. If you have a voice and the opportunity to speak on certain topics along with somewhat of a platform to be heard and you choose not to do so, you're a coward.
BP: Something that impresses me about Clear Soul Forces albums is how they are usually self-contained with few features. It’s refreshing, especially as features often feel added on just for the sake of it. Is this intentional?
Ilajide: It’s four of us, man. Emile is always pushing for the features [laughs]. But yo, part of the solo ventures was to make enough room on the tracks for the four of us. Not saying we’re dead set against it, but it’s like we all got somethin’ to say, and since we all have to split our time and message, for me it would take away from a Clear Soul Forces record if we started adding features. That Kooley High joint was a perfect example of how we’d do features. But see, they’re a group already so they can pass the mic the way we do, so it’s seamless as for as the sonics go.
Emile: Yah, we all have a lot to say and are selective with the artists we work with individually, and as a group. Plus, with four emcees, it’s not a lot of space on any given song, but we are working on doing more features in the near future.
BP: I’d like to talk about Detroit hip-hop. From the outside, the local scene has always felt like a big family tree with pretty much every artist at some point or another crossing paths with each other, under the shadows of Eminem and Dilla. How do you feel Clear Soul Forces fit in with the legacy of the city?
Emile: We definitely cross paths with a lot of different artists all the time, but when it comes to the Dilla tree or the Em tree, we don’t really fit in with either foundation. While we acknowledge, and give props to the impact those artists and their family trees have on us and the city musically, we didn’t come up directly under anyone in particular. Technically we’re an anomaly, and get love from a lot of people on both sides of the Detroit hip-hop coin. We’re mostly looking to leave our own legacy, independent of what currently exists.
BP: What does success for a project like Still look like to each of you individually? Not so much in regards to sales or streaming numbers, but in terms of how it is received, appreciated and understood?
Emile: I’d like for Still to be viewed as another classic. I feel like the growth is evident and in the end, I want it to stand head to head, if not surpass Detroit Revolution(s).
Ilajide: For me, the success is already happening. The fact that people have been waiting on something like this (a classic hip-hop album), while simultaneously waiting for us to return as a group, was enough for me. Because seeing as hip-hop is a young guys’ sport, they tend to tell you that your time is very short. That people won’t be paying you much attention after a certain time. Shit, they tried to tell me Clear Soul Forces was irrelevant.
But at the same time, we had all those fans who just knew. Like it was never a doubt that we had it. Because we make timeless and classic music. And that’s something everyone will always pay attention to, no matter the time. And I’m feeling like we’re living up to that expectation. The reception of the record is already proving that to me.
L.A.Z: It would mean a lot to me if people recognized Still as a part of a real-life catalog, for real. Just respecting our history and not acting like we’re a brand-new group. There’s been a lot of articles I’ve seen that make it seem like we put out Detroit Revolution(s) in 2012, and that we’re just now coming back out, without making note of the other albums we did. I just wanna change the narrative on the group with that.
BP: It’s an Albumism tradition that all interviewees get asked their favorite five albums of all time. Go…
Emile: In no particular order; this is difficult. Madlib’s Shades of Blue, Jay-Z’s The Black Album, Kanye West’s College Dropout, 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, and Juvenile’s 400 Degrees.
L.A.Z: Reflection Eternal’s Train of Thought, OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo, Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, and Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere.
Noveliss: Nujabes’ Metaphorical Music, The Roots’ Illadelph Halflife, Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, Black Star’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, and MF DOOM’s Mm...Food.
Ilajide: Redman’s Muddy Waters, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2, and Busta Rhymes’ Extinction Level Event.