Kwest Tha Madd Lad loves hip-hop. It’s clear speaking to him for even the briefest amount of time that he has an undeniable zeal for the music, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. People often believe artists who recorded during the ’80s and ’90s are bitter about hip-hop’s current state of affairs, but the Queens, New York emcee looks at the contemporary landscape and sees a lot to be excited about.
Kwest’s career as an emcee on a major label was characterized by starts and stops. He was signed to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings in the early ‘90s, and recorded what would be his first album, the aptly titled This Is My First Album, throughout ‘92 and ‘93. However, the completed album sat on American’s shelves until it was finally released in the spring of 1996.
If the album had been released in 1994 as originally planned, it would have fit in perfectly with the hip-hop paradigm that year. But American Recordings dragging its feet killed a bunch of the album’s momentum. Kwest still got some shine, famously appearing on the cover of Rap Pages. Both Kwest and the album are appreciated by hip-hop heads in the know, as his quirky humor and lyrical bona fides deservedly drew critical acclaim.
While he waited for the album to be released, Kwest had recorded more material, just in case American asked him to make changes to This Is My First Album. Or, failing that, he would put them on his follow-up release, to be titled This Is My Second Album. The material from these later sessions, plus remixes, B-sides, and guest appearances, was released independently almost a decade later as These Are My Unreleased Recordings (2007).
After things didn’t work out with American, Kwest got a day job, but still recorded music and appeared on the battle circuit. He was involved with the 1997 Rap Olympics along with Eminem, J.U.I.C.E., Otherwyze, and others. He also made it to the semi-finals of the inaugural Blaze Battle in 1998, losing a close contest in the semi-finals to Young Zee. Kwest kept on his grind in the independent scene, recording songs with the aforementioned Eminem, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Thirstin Howl III, Rok One, and Eddie Ill & DL. However, he laid low during much of the ‘00s and ‘10s.
But now, Kwest is back. After reconnecting with his fans and fellow artists through social media, he began recording new material, inspired by X-Ray of the Monsta Island Czars (M.I.C.) crew. Around the same time, some of his older music got placed in a quality TV series, with his tracks appearing during a couple of seasons of IFC’s Hap and Leonard.
Kwest first recorded a pair of appearances, including a solo track, on the Organik Poisons’ A Chemical Monkeywrench (2018). He then set about recording an EP, releasing S.P.I.T.R. (a.k.a. “Smartest Person In the Room”) earlier this year. The seven-track, nineteen-minute EP was produced entirely by Anyway Jones, and features appearances by M.I.C. members Darc Mind and longtime friend and rhyming compatriot Life L.O.N.G. Lyrically, Kwest is as skilled as ever, able to bang with the best of them.
After pressing up the CD and selling it through his Bandcamp page, S.P.I.T.R. is getting pressed on vinyl. Chopped Herring Records is pressing it up on wax, with one side featuring the S.P.I.T.R EP, and the other featuring older songs from his American Recordings era.
Kwest spoke with me at length about a whole multitude of topics, from what inspired him to start recording again, to balancing a job and recording career, to what he missed about hip-hop while he was “gone.” His passion and love for hip-hop is always palpable, and he’s eager to pick up where he left off, a little older, but a lot wiser.
Jesse Ducker: What has the response to S.P.I.T.R. been like so far?
Kwest Tha Madd Lad: I’m definitely happy with the response, man. I took maybe a year, year and a half to do it right. I didn’t want to rush it. I worked with Anyway Jones from France. Shout out to Anyway!
JD: So what was your inspiration to start recording again?
Kwest: I reached out on Facebook when I decided I really wanted to do this again, because I was unsure. I wasn’t even a social media person. I joined Facebook at the request of my dude Mr. Live; I don’t know if you ever heard him…
JD: Oh yeah, he did “Supa Dupa.”
Kwest: That’s my people. He’s been my people for the longest. To join Spotify, you had to have a Facebook. I’m a music dude so I definitely wanted to be on Spotify. So I set up a fake page, didn’t put any pictures up or anything. I just set up a page with my name backwards: My last name first, first name last.
I was looking through friends or whatever, and I saw [Mr. Live]. Didn’t tell him who I was at first. After awhile, I started posting music stuff and people started responding to the music and then I started getting a few friends. When I finally reached out to him he was like, “Yo, definitely put ‘Kwest’ up there. You’d be surprised how many people love you.”
After I put the name out there, X-Ray a.k.a. King Cesar from Monsta Island Czars hit me up, saying, “Yo, Kwest, always loved your voice thought you were a dope emcee. If you want to get back in the game, I got a song I want you to do.” We started going through beats. I ended up doing two songs with him, both of them made his Organic Poisons album, A Chemical Monkey Wrench.
Anyway Jones sent me 40, 45 beats. He let me just go through his whole catalog. Picked out maybe 10 or 15 that I really liked. I said I wanted to do an EP, and I talked with X. X was like, “Let’s do it.” He said you’ve been out of the loop for a long time, people would love to hear you. Let’s do it. We recorded the first song, “Bourbon Street.” “Bourbon Street” was recorded a couple of months after that guy got elected, I don’t even call him the president, like in April and people loved it. People were asking, “When is the EP coming out?” I still wasn’t too keen on doing it. I just wanted to see what the response from “Bourbon Street” would be, and the response was dope. People were like, “Oh, you back. You didn’t lose a step. Keep doing it.” So we had recorded three songs by then and I added two more. Dude, people loved it. People have been giving me props about it, I’ve been getting write-ups in a couple of blogs and I’m happy man. I’m definitely happy. I’m glad that people want to hear me again.
JD: What made you want to do an EP rather than a full album?
Kwest: Because I didn’t think I had an album in me. Let’s be real. I’m 48. I was 45 going on 46 when we did it. I have a day job. So it was easier doing it at twentysomething when I didn’t have anything to do but to smoke, drink, run around, chase girls, and just go to the studio all the time. When American Recordings was paying for it, it was easy. But 20 years later, when you’re a grown man and you’re trying to hold down a life and paying bills? Dude, it’s hard. So I give respect to everybody that’s doing it and that’s pursuing their passion and definitely putting out quality music, ‘cause there’s a lot of quality independent stuff out there from my age bracket and I salute all of them.
JD: You said you didn’t know if you had an album in you. Now that you’ve released the EP, are you going to start recording an album, or are you going to sit back and chill and wait?
Kwest: Oh, I’m back. I’m back full-fledged. We’re working on Organik Poison’s album now with X-Ray producing and Johnny Cement, who plays bass for us, DJ Joel Lopez a.k.a. Bazooka Joe is going to be doing production. I was thinking about doing another EP, probably S.P.I.T.R. Pt. 2, which might come out somewhere down the line. I’m thinking about doing a whole S.P.I.T.R. series where it’s me picking one producer to do the whole thing. But the Organik camp thing is going to come first. That’s an album. That’s going to be a full nine or ten songs.
JD: So do you think there’s a lane for emcees from the ‘90s era that are still out there?
Kwest: I think it’s all about the mindset. People that really recognize good hip-hop and still want lyricism involved. They respect what we were doing in the early, mid, late ‘90s. People who know about it, know.
Then we have fans that are our age and older that grew up on Sugar Hill, Treacherous 3, Jimmy Spicer, Supa Rhymes, and Furious 5, all the golden era dudes. The pioneers, they still listen, they still love it. I know they’re at odds with what’s going on with hip-hop now, but we’re still in our lane. We still respect lyricism, we still respect hard, boom-bap beats and good production and doing songs with two or three verses instead of doing one long verse. I mean, even doing one long verse as long as it’s dope.
So there’s a lane out there for us, and they’re getting towards it. I know a lot of the dudes my age and they’re on tour, all over America, all overseas, and they’re getting money for it. So there’s definitely fans out there that still love and respect the art form for what it was and keep it alive and thriving. I definitely don’t see it dying.
JD: So did X-Ray do the production for the album?
Kwest: Anyway Jones from France produced the album. X-Ray co-produced it. He actually did the interlude that comes on before the “Power of Three” with Darc Mind. That album is coming. Oh my gosh, their album is going to be dope. [The plan is to] drop mine first for the year, and theirs is coming up next. They’re putting the finishing touches on it now. Shout out to Kev-Roc. Kev didn’t lose a step and I’m glad that I got him and X together on “Power of Three,” because when I put out the track list, people saw it and were like, “‘Darc Mind’ Darc Mind?!?!” I’m like, yeah, that Darc Mind. He killed it on it. He’s always been a favorite emcee of mine because he’s complex. I love complex emcees. They make me step my game up.
JD: How’d you hook up with L.I.F.E. Long for the EP?
Kwest: L.I.F.E. has been the homie forever. L.I.F.E. is like a brother. We lost touch when I basically did my MIA act, but he’s always been cool. We got cool back in the early, mid ‘90s during the Stretch Armstrong, Washington Square Park cypher days and we’ve been cool ever since. We used to run into each other at shows and different cyphers or whatever, we always vibed. So him and Anyway Jones had a good working relationship. They’ve done projects together and they consider each other brothers. I had done the Darc Mind collaboration and I was like, “You know what? I want another collab on here. I don’t want it to only be me. Four songs with me and then one with Darc Mind. I want another collab to show people I play well with others,” so to speak.
JD: In the past, when you were on American Recordings, you mostly rolled by yourself. I don’t believe you had any guest appearances on either of your albums. Is your mindset different now that you’re rolling with a crew?
Kwest: I think as far as Kwest goes, I’m always going to be a solo artist, but I’m more open to working with a lot of different emcees. It helps me step my pen game up, it helps me get better at writing, because I’ve always wanted to kill a track. It’s dope for me to do it by myself and kill two, three verses at a time, but to build off it and hear another emcee, what he can do on the same track as me, it helps me get better, it helps me. Like, “Oh, this dude came at it from a whole different angle then I thought about coming at it. Okay, so let me see what his verse sounds like. Let me see if I can step my game up and try to come at it from a different angle too.” I’m going to be working with a lot of different emcees in the future. I got a couple of collabs already set up. It’s probably going to hit you on the Organik Poisons album.
JD: Does it surprise you that you were able to jump so heavy back into this rapping after taking so long off?
Kwest: A little bit. It’s like riding a bike. When you rhyme and you love this art form for what it is and you love hip-hop in general, it never leaves you. If you’re a b-boy you might not breakdance for 10 or 15 years or you might get injured and think, “Oh, it’s over.” But then when you heal up and you hear “It’s Just Begun,” or you hear…what the hell is the name of the record?
JD: “Give It Up or Turn It Loose?”
Kwest: Yeah, or another dope ass beat boy record. Or you hear Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” dude, that shit’s in you. You’re gonna get back out there and give that floor some work. So I was always jotting down stuff on little pieces of paper. I used to have so many balled-up pieces of paper in my back pocket, where I would think of lines on the train or wake up in the middle of the night writing. Stuff would just come to me in my dreams and I’d wake up and start writing. I was never really writing full verses, but I would write down couplets or maybe four bars and just leave it.
I didn’t think I lost the fire, I just didn’t have anything that was pushing me to want to be back out there full-fledged again. And then when X and Anyway hit me up and people started loving “Bourbon Street.” Even on the songs I did with X for the Organik Poisons album, I didn’t struggle, but after being away from the mic for like eight, nine years it was a little different. It took me a couple of takes to get certain stuff down, but after I got comfortable with it, it was like, “Oh, let’s go, let’s do this. Yeah, I’m back. I’m good with it again.”
Now I write at least eight to sixteen bars every day. I try to write at least a verse every day. I’m trying to do it a different way. I used to only write the beats, I’m trying to write verses as they come to me in my head and then fit them to beats. It’s a process. You’re older and you’re thinking about world and current events and all this stuff that’s going on, but you still have to find time to give yourself that little solitude and you got this song coming up. Or X gave you this beat or this person sent you this beat and they want you to write to it, write to it, do something.
JD: You mentioned you’re working a day job now. Do the people at your job know that you released a project?
Kwest: Funny thing is when I first left hip-hop, I never used to tell [people that I rapped]. I’ve held down a steady 9-to-5 day-to-day job since I was about 27, 28. After the whole American Recordings thing fell apart, I got a job. So I worked my first job for like eight, nine years. Around that time I was doing little projects. I went to rap a little bit while I was there, didn’t tell anybody. I went to the battles at 88 Hip-Hop and didn’t tell anybody at my job. My cousin worked there, so he knew. But I told him, “Dude, don’t tell nobody. I don’t care about that, I don’t want nobody to know.”
When I came back from Rap Olympics, me and Eminem and a bunch of us exchanged numbers. I remember having Em’s number, and I think I spoke to him once while I was at my job on my job phone. I scribbled his number down on the desk and I wrote Eminem over it. I know a bunch of people saw that shit, but didn’t think it was the real Eminem, so they was like, “Why the fuck is he scribbling ‘Eminem’?” I actually carved it in wood. I wish I could find that desk; that shit’s a part of history, because it was his number back in Detroit. But people [at that job] found out eventually. I don’t know how certain people found out but they tell me, “Oh, Kwest, I didn’t know you rhymed, kick a rhyme.” I’m like, “Nah, bro, I don’t do that shit no more.”
My new job, the job I have had since 2004, I didn’t tell anybody there either. But a couple of my coworkers, they’re devout hip-hop heads too, so one dude came up to me and was like, “Yo, I’m not going to say nothing, I’m not going to saw your spot, but dude I saw your video.” He called me Kwest, and I’m like, “Fuck he knows.” I’m like, “Bro, don’t tell nobody. I don’t want people here to know that shit.” I know he told people because people started coming up to me and asking me. But he was only telling people he knew were hip-hop people.
Now? They all know. Because, fuck that, I want them to buy the EP. Fuck that, I told everybody, bro. I told 65, 70-year-old ladies at my job like, “Look I know you don’t listen to rap but this is me.” A couple of them bought it for their kids. So shit, if I got to get 85, 90-year-old women that have twentysomething-year-old grandkids that listen to it? Fuck that, I’m about them sales.
So yeah, I told everybody at my job and they’ve been really supportive of it. All my peoples at my job, they bought a copy. They bought CDs and they’re asking me to sign them, which is embarrassing a little bit, but you have to do it, it comes with the territory. You have to do what you need to do to get back up there.
I’m sort of an introvert, which is crazy to be in a game where you have to be on stage and perform in front of hundreds or thousands of people at any given time, but yeah I’m sort of an introvert. I don’t like a lot of people in my face. I’m really down to earth and to myself and like to be left alone reading or with my headphones on and listen to music and listen to beats. I’m trying to break out of it because I know if the EP has the success we’re forecasting it to have, I’m going to have to get back out there and do shows and do interviews like this, and I’m going to have to do what I was doing 20-odd years ago. So I’m slowly but surely getting acclimated back into it.
JD: What did you miss the most about hip-hop when you were away?
Kwest: Hearing all the different emcees. Just going to shows and meeting different emcees and hearing them rhyme, whether they were known or unknown. Because there’s a lot of unknown emcees out there that might never get their shot, whether they don’t want to do it, or they don’t have the push from people or the backing or the money to do it. I met so many dope dudes and females ciphering in clubs and ciphering outside of clubs in New York and Cali and all the other places I’ve been. Ciphering in the parks and just somebody was throwing a beat tape with a radio. Or standing outside of Fat Beats ciphering. I’m a fan first and foremost, so to hear dope people? Dude, that shit is like a shot in the arm to me.
Then rekindling relationships with people I haven’t seen in years and they still digging me up. Dude, that shit puts a lump in your fucking throat, like “Holy shit, these dudes still like me.” So I miss the camaraderie, I miss the fan thing. I hate the word, “fan boy,” but I miss fan-boying out a little bit.
This thing is built on family, and I love the fact that there’s still this family vibe in it. I know they say there’s a divide now with the new emcees and the old emcees. The new ones hate and don’t give respect to the old ones. The old ones don’t respect the new ones. Dude, there’s some emcees that are still out there doing what they need to do and we give each other respect and everything, and I love that. Like I said, I’m happy that people are receiving the EP the way they are because I’m probably going to be able to get back out there and meet some of the people I never got a chance to meet and I’m going to shake their hands and give them love and give them props the way I did when I was younger. It’s going to feel fucking amazing.
JD: On the flip side, is there any time you hear something and think, “I’m glad I left hip-hop?”
Kwest: Honestly? No. I try not to listen to a lot of garbage shit. I’m mad that there’s certain emcees that I wasn’t put up on when they got their start on the game. I got into them four or five albums deep or maybe six or seven albums deep and I didn’t know about them because they were so underground and they were independent and doing their thing. Not only from New York but from different states and different countries too. I wish I had known about them earlier. But I pride myself on knowing good hip-hop and trying to stay up on it. I never really hated anything about hip-hop. Even this generation I don’t hate it, I just don’t like that it’s so money, clothes, and status oriented and everything.
But… we did it. I used to look at it bitter, but I take it with a grain of salt now. Because 20, 25 years ago when I was a 23-year-old running around with a Champion sweatshirt on and my big ass pants and the latest Nike boots and Carhartt. I’m pretty sure someone there was 25 years old and looked at me like I was a fucking idiot. So, I can’t be mad at them for doing what they do because it’s a generation thing. I don’t hate them, like I even tried to send out or listen to some of the stuff. I’m not going to say I like it all, but some of it is listenable.
Whether you consider it hip-hop or rap or whatever, they’re still trying to keep the culture alive regardless of which direction they’re taking it. So you got to give them some sort of love because this thing wasn’t supposed to last past a certain amount of years, as someone said. In the late ‘70s, early ‘80s when it started up, “Oh, it’s just a fad it’s not going to last.” When they were doing all the commercials making fun of it and you had the Colonel rapping about Kentucky Fried Chicken and Captain Crunch rapping. It was on Saturday Night Live with people doing parodies of it and making fun of it.
It wasn’t supposed to last past that, and 40-plus years now and it’s still here? So that says something about the staying power of it. Who knows what it’s going to be in another 10, 15, 20 years. We might be rhyming over just bloops and bleeps. It’s good to see that it’s still growing and progressing. It’s all about progression. There’s still emcees that are keeping what I consider dope lyricism and boom-bap beats alive. There’s other emcees that are taking it in the direction they feel it needs to go in. Then there’s still another lane where emcees are doing so much abstract stuff that you have to listen to it five or ten times to get the meaning of it. But at the end of the day, it’s all relevant because it’s all hip-hop. There’s somebody still doing it. Because without them doing it and trying to keep it alive and keep it thriving? I don’t know what I’d be listening to now.
JD: So new hip-hop still excites you?
Kwest: Now that I’m back in it, there’s so many people that I want to work with. I’m going to start reaching out to a lot of them. I listen to a lot of new stuff and everyday I’m finding out more about new emcees. I love hip-hop, man. Like I said, if it’s dope, I’m on it.
Yeah, bro, there’s so much dope stuff coming out. When people say it’s dead? It’s not dead. You’re just looking in the wrong fucking place. With the internet being so popular and producers and even emcees not having to go through the major label shit that I had to go through. When they picked up on their independent stuff and started doing beats on the computer, getting Fruity Loops and making drum machines actually affordable. There’s all these producers coming out and doing dope shit. You can’t say that there’s not good hip-hop out there. There’s a hell of a lot of good hip-hop out there.
For every one record that you hear that’s wack, there’s at least two or three records that are dope. You just got to look on websites and on Bandcamp or ask your peoples. Ask the younger people. You might get the radio answers, but for every radio answer you’ll get, “Have you ever heard of Noname? Have you heard of Vic Spencer?” And dude, that’s dope shit.
JD: So we always ask artists, what are your five favorite albums of all time?
Kwest: 3 Feet High and Rising from De La Soul was a game changer for me. They let me know I can be as free and as different as I wanted to be, because at first, I was a structured emcee with the standard A-B, A-B. I was like, “Yeah I like that shit but I write crazy.” So when that album came out, it let me know I could be me. No One Can Do it Better by The D.O.C.. ‘93 ‘til Infinity by Souls of Mischief. I don’t even have to go into it; the album was fucking incredible. I’m a New York dude, so Illmatic of course. Dare Iz a Dark Side from Redman. That’s when Redman became Redman. And both Organized Konfusion’s first album and Stress: The Extinction Agenda.
BUY Kwest Tha Madd Lad’s ‘S.P.I.T.R.’ EP here