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The years as a New York City rap underdog and inadvertent participant in record label musical chairs has granted Café with a savvy business sense he is now applying to his own Shakedown Records, where he's focusing his efforts on rap newcomer Lore'l. All this is to say, don't let the stunted rap resume fool you, you will learn plenty watching Red Café's moves. Read on as the storied rhymer opens up about his industry struggles, his plan of action for Shakedown, working with Diddy and the direction his music has taken him in.
You started your official rap career as a member of a group, correct?
The very first deal was Franchise as a group with Q Da Kid and Gravy. We were signed to Violator. Even that coming about, I was locked up for a while. The plan for me, I was locked up with guys like Lakey, Cormega, Littles. Me and Cormega, our rooms were next to each other. When he was locked up he was getting letters from Nas and he was still attached to the Firm at the time. He ended up going and I was supposed to go home a couple of months after him, I caught another case when I while locked up and I ended up doing another year and a half, I ended up doing four years [he came out in '98, '99]. When I came home my plan was I'm going to be down with Cormega man, it's on!
That was the play when I came home.
Who were some of the MCs that inspired you from rhyming for recreation and being serious?
When you start hearing music like Nas' music, and you going through that... Nas music was more so connected to what we we're going through -- Nas and Wu-Tang -- this was s--- that we could relate to as opposed to the guys that were talking about partying. Jay-Z was talking about ballin' [but] I was young, I wasn't ballin'. The guys that I could relate to, those guys inspired me to do it for real.
The first deal was with Violator, that never really manifested into anything. Then [music executive] Todd Moscowitz had an idea that I should go solo, him and [Violator founder] Chris Lighty, then I went solo. They created a budget for me and we started doing records. That's when I linked up with Whoo Kid and G-Unit at the time was recording with Sha Money. We were all recording at Sha Money house [and] we started building our buzz in the street, me as a solo artist. Then I had a bidding war for me, different labels wanted me -- Universal, Atlantic, Trackmasters. I ended up doing the Trackmaster deal. They fell out with Arista, and then right after that Arista folded.
I kept spiraling into situations like that. Then I went on to Capitol, same thing. We started poppin', I did the 'Coach Carter Soundtrack,' everything was moving. Then [Capitol] folded, they fired [Capitol Records executive] Andrew Shack. It was just the same situation started happening over again. Then I got with Akon and we tried to make it work. We got in the studio -- me, him, Gaga -- we was all recording at the same time, before her first album came. I was working with him before his first album came.
Why did you decide to bring Diddy into the circle you had already established with Akon?
I was working with [Akon] before his first album came. At this point I'm with him for a few years and we trying to make this s--- work. He had a lot of artists at the time, like nine artists, signed -- trying to do something with everybody and it wasn't working. It was taking a strenuous toll on me. Me being a fresh artist, I didn't spend no money at the company, but still the company, he left a stigma there. I was like, we gotta figure out a way to spin this. So I brought Puff in. I said let's do the Bad Boy deal, I think all three of us should do it and we spin it and do it a little differently so I don't have this stigma on me from what you were doing from all these other artists. He had 10 other artists: Brick & Lace, Rock City, Ray Lavender and
Colby O'Donis and all these guys that didn't work. So now I gotta come behind that s---, and it ain't nothing but smoke n----. You ain't even put me behind fire [laughs]. You set up for failure.
What's your mindstate knowing you've dropped plenty of music that resonated with people, yet politics have gotten in the way of an album?
It's definitely frustrating because I know I put out great records that never reached its potential. Like 'Money Money Money' got 1.5 million views on YouTube and the record company never worked it. I shot the video myself, I shot all my videos myself. A record company never shot no video for me.
Why is it that you have these big records but the visuals were always a bit late?
Yeah, the video was delayed because I'm putting the [cash] together myself. A record company didn't spend no money on me, ever. I signed a deal, do the deal with them, I might do an advance or something. I never had an A&R, I never had a producer. All these other guys that come alive, they have those things. They had a n---- in the studio like, 'Do like this.' I was a great rapper but I never knew how to make those records that was going to be the commercial records. I'm more of a centered hip-hop artist. That comes from listening to Black Moon and Wu-Tang; I can make that s--- all day. But we talking about a different business now. Then, I don't want to compromise myself. So if I do make a record that has commercial success, I still want that s--- to sound like a n---- could get with it.
It's frustrating to know I had records like 'Paper Touchin'' [and] 'Hottest in the Hood' and they don't really manifest the way that I would like them to. It still motivates me to keep pushing and I'm like I'll get it. One of these days they gon' figure it out. They gon' look and see how I got no promotion and no money spent on the marketing and motherf---ers just want the music.
When did you figure that out, since your records appeal to bigger audiences but aren't considered soft either?
Probably say the last four or five years, I figured out [that with] 'Paper Touchin',' I come with records like that because I still want to come edgy and not compromise. Still keep that hip-hop feel but I wanted to be able to grab the attention of everyone. You might think it's easy. You get luck with a record or whatever, it's not easy. Me rapping with a f---ing with a n---- singing on the hook, that's easy. Even my single, 'Fly Together,' records like that are not easy to make. Even though you got Ryan Leslie on there singing, that's an [infectious] record. I'm talking about making them anthems, that stick. That don't go away. 'Hottest in the Hood,' 'I'm Ill,' 'Paper Touchin',' that's not easy, 'cause we would have a million of them right now. People come up with little things, throw a little sample here and it might sound cool for the time being, but it's not timeless. That's what I strive for, making that timeless s---. That's why I'm still here and I'm still relevant with no album.
How was the reception to the 'Above the Cloudz' project?
It was really the first body of music I ever gave out and people took to it well. Let me make them a project where they can say, "Ya know what, I can really listen to an album from this guy." For people to feel that passionate about it, that tells me something, and I'm still touring from it. I'm going to continue to work and get more people excited about the project. Now we got to make them anxious like me. I'm shaking, I'm so anxious. I need people to hear it. We need to give them trailers to make them be like, "Oh man, I know this s--- is going to be crazy."
I noticed that joint with Talib Kweli on 'Above the Cloudz' was a Pete Rock beat.
Yep, Pete Rock produced that. I'm a hip-hop guy man. People will say, "Oh, he's a street artist, he's a backpack rapper, he's a pop guy." I try to make music that works for everybody but I come from that. I come from Pete Rock and CL Smooth, I come from listening to Brand Nubian and Black Moon. They inspired me to start doing it. These guys that come, they're here today and they're gone tomorrow. They got one hot song, I don't know them. I'm not interested in knowing about them because I'm not connected to what they do, they just got a hot song. I don't want to name any names, but you know who's who. I try to make it so I'm never that guy.
Who is on your label, Shakedown?
Lore'l is where I want to focus. I don't ever want to do a bunch of acts and I can't really focus. All my energy is focused on her. As we get to a place where she's in cruise control, I can move on to someone else. Right now, I focus on myself and on her. I really believe in her and I think she's going to take it to the next level. [I linked with Lore'l] just hearing about her, man. She had little whispers out there in the streets and I just wanted to hear it. It took me forever, man. She never wanted to play me anything. Finally she played the joints for me and I was blown away. I just wanted to be a part of it. There's guys that can't do nothing with her -- she's tough, she writes her stuff and she just wants to work. She's excited. She's really good to look at. I think it's dope. It's going to be good for her.
What's your vision for Shakedown?
There's a lot of talented guys that got the legs because there's a lot of people that want to do it, but a year later [since] they're not living in the penthouse, they like, "That's it, I'm done. I don't want to do this no more." I've been through that with a couple of artists that I was working with. They wasted my time, my energy, my money. For Shakedown, I want to find people that's not going to let down the people. I find those artists that's going to go hard and give the people what they want. They're able to endure the dramas of the business for whatever you looking forward to in the future. As long as they willing to do that, they can f--- with the Shakedown.