It’s not uncommon nowadays for producers to claim that they don’t listen to new hip-hop, and that they only listen to the classics from the early 90s. It’s a ridiculous statement because many of these same producers are making new hip-hop themselves; it’s almost as if they’re devaluing their own art. At the same time, they’re distracting the audience from discovering and enjoying the dozens of artists that have kept the art form alive and thriving.
One of those frequently ignored artists is Blue Sky Black Death.
Blue Sky Black Death consists of two West Coast producers, Kingston and Young God. The two made an audacious debut in 2006 with A Heap of Broken Images, a two-disc set released on Mush Records that included an all-instrumental CD and a CD with vocal collaborations. The second disc included Guru from Gang Starr, Rob Sonic, Lil Sci from Scienz of Life, Hieroglyphics’ A-Plus and Pep Love, former Jedi Mind Tricks rapper Jus Allah, Wise Intelligent and many others. It was unusual for a new group without a considerable track record, neither apart nor as a duo, to release a double album packed with so many guest stars.
After A Heap of Broken Images, Blue Sky Black Death signed with Babygrande. For better or worse, Babygrande has earned a repository for hardcore rap that blends backpack thug-isms and conspiracy theories. Its flagship group, Jedi Mind Tricks, personifies those contradictions to the extreme, espousing a worldview that seems informed by Scarface, Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman and William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse. But I think music critics often unfairly dismiss Jedi Mind Tricks and the rest of the Babygrande roster. Too often, they look at the label instead of listening to the music.
With each new release, Blue Sky Black Death refines and focuses its sound into something admirably symphonic and epic. There was 2006′s Blue Sky Black Death presents the Holocaust, which featured former Black Knights member (and Wu-Tang affiliate) the Holocaust; and last year’s Razah’s Ladder, a collaboration with Hell Razah, another Wu-Tang affiliate that briefly enjoyed major rap success as part of Sunz of Man. Razah’s Ladder was particularly impressive. Hell Razah’s lyrics were both street aggressive and philosophical-wise. Blue Sky Black Death’s beats, which incorporated classical instrumentaion alongside samples, made his rhymes sound like street day dreams.
Blue Sky Black Death’s new album, Late Nite Cinema, may be its most accomplished work to date. Released on April 29, it is drawing wide acclaim. After two and a half years of solid work, Young God and Kingston may finally be making an impact beyond Babygrande’s loyal hardcore fans.
I spoke with Young God on May 15. The 23-year-old producer is based in San Francisco; his musical partner, Kingston, calls Seattle home.
A side note: Please don’t misconstrue the statements Young God and I make in the following interview. While I have my issues with Jedi Mind Tricks, I respect what they’ve done as an influential and popular underground rap group. And I think Young God would agree that the overwhelmingly positive reception to Late Nite Cinema proves that it’s dangerous to pigeonhole the fans who flock to Babygrande’s message boards, and stereotype their views on what constitutes good hip-hop.
Plug One: How did you come up with the name Blue Sky Black Death?
Young God: Well, originally we just had it as a song title. When we were working on our first album with Mush, we had a different name. Then the owner of Mush [Robert Curcio] convinced us, for some reason, to use that as our actual name. I didn’t even know what it meant at the time, but Kingston’s dad is a professional base jumper, and it’s a skydiving term. Blue sky, black death. That’s where it comes from.
Plug One: How did you get to the point of doing a double album with Mush? I hadn’t heard of you before then.
Young God: We weren’t really working as a unit until a year, maybe two years before that album. Kingston was doing some production for some people, but I was mostly working by myself.
The Mush thing was originally going to be just an instrumental album with a few vocal tracks. Then we decided that the vocal tracks wouldn’t have gone that well with the instrumental tracks, so it was, like, why don’t we just do a double album, because that’s bold and no one really does that [on their first album]. The guy from Mush was cool with it, so we just decided to do that.
Plug One: Who has Kingston worked with before Blue Sky Black Death?
Young God: He had done stuff with Jus Allah, formerly of Jedi Mind Tricks, and Virtuoso. I can’t think of too many others. He had actually produced a whole album for Jus Allah, but once he took it to Babygrande they scrapped those beats and got a well-known name to re-do the beats. [Kingston eventually landed one track on Jus Allah's 2005 album All Fates Have Changed. The rest were handled by several producers; Agallah from Dipset handled most of the beats.]
We basically came out of nowhere on Mush, so we’re pretty lucky that we even got that deal.
Plug One: You guys had a lot of features on the second CD. It seems like they would be pretty expensive to get, especially for two producers that didn’t necessarily have a track record.
Young God: When we’d go to somebody we’d say, “This is what we have to work with. It’s coming out on Mush, which is a respected label, but they’re not handing over that much money.” And I don’t know, but everyone was pretty cool about being underpaid, I guess. Some of it came out of our pocket, but mostly we just used our whole advance and it came all together.
Also, the reason why we got the deal with Mush is because Kingston was talking with Bigg Jus. We were going to do an album with him, and so we brought the idea to Mush. But Jus already had an album he recorded, Poor People’s Day. So we pitched the idea of an instrumental album.
Plug One: What happened to the Big Juss project? Is there a chance you’ll revisit that?
Young God: At this point, I doubt it. Basically it never panned out.
Plug One: How did the first album do?
Young God: I don’t know the sales numbers on that. As far as critically, it did well. I don’t remember reading one bad review. We’re pretty happy with how it was received. But I’m sure it didn’t move that many units. I look back at it now, and it seems dated to me.
Plug One: How would you describe the group’s sound? It seems like Blue Sky Black Death has a very distinctive sound, but at the same time it’s reminiscent of the Wu-Tang era and a lot of the super-scientifical beats from the 90s.
Young God: As far as when we’re making actual beats and we have rappers in mind, I guess we’re definitely influenced by the 90s sound. Obviously Wu-Tang is a big influence. We really like listening to 90s rap…I guess it’s self-indulgent on our part, but we just want to make stuff that we want to listen to.
As far as instrumental stuff, we take influences from all over the place. We don’t have a certain sound in mind, but we’re definitely influenced by that kind of epic music, cinematic stuff.
I don’t know if I’m really answering your question!
Plug One: You’ve answered it a little bit. I guess I’m wondering what makes you different. That’s a weird question to ask you, since I should know the answer to that question.
Young God: Right!
Plug One: But if you could be a little bit self-conscious for a minute and answer that question.
Young God: We take the foundation of the 90s sound, but we take it a lot farther. We really get carried away with all the details and layering. What we’re trying to do most of the time is use live instruments and sampling in a way to where it’s blended so well that you can’t determine the difference between the sample and the instrument, and create an organic feeling from blending the two.
That’s the only thing I can think of that makes us different. We try to go for a complex sound. I think that’s self-indulgent in a way, because when I listen to rap I think minimal beats sound really good. But when I’m making music, I don’t think it’s challenging enough to just do that minimal sound. But I don’t know…we really fuss over the details.
Plug One: Do you play these instruments?
Young God: I play synthesizer, keyboard and guitar on a lot of the tracks. Then I have friends – actually, just one guy – who plays organ and synthesizer. Kingston and I both do samples. Then we get string players on most of our instrumental stuff.
Plug One: So you have them play sections and then loop those sections?
Young God: Usually we just give them an instrumental track, and then we tell them, “Do what you want with it, and we’ll take what we like.” When I’m [playing an instrument on a track], I’ll just loop a section, play a little melody and then loop it. Most of the time, you won’t hear me play live all the way through the track. I’ll take a 16-second or 30-second loop.
Plug One: Do you credit the musicians?
Young God: Yeah. Evan Gordon is the guy who does all the organ. We have a few string players. [Other contributing musicians include violinists Valerie Coon and Nancey Kuo and trumpeter Tony Rogers.]
Plug One: Are you a full-time musician or do you have a non-music job?
Young God: I just quit my job. But I’m definitely not making a living off music. I’m making a little bit of money, but it’s not sustainable at all.
I just do bullshit jobs on the side that I don’t take too seriously. (laughs) I mean, I’ve worked retail jobs and I’ve worked in restaurants. I’ve feel like any job I take seriously will take away from my music.
Plug One: But why focus on music? Why not get a job and be able to pay rent?
Young God: Well, I’m hoping…well, who knows…but I feel like [Blue Sky Black Death] is just getting noticed right now after we’ve put out four albums. I’m hoping to go on tour. I’m hoping this will become more of a career later on. I’m not doing it as a hobby. We’re pretty serious. Yeah, I could go back to school, but I don’t feel like my head’s really in it, you know? So I’m going to try and fully pursue music, I guess.
Plug One: Which major would you pursue if you went back to school?
Young God: When I went to school, I was interested in writing and philosophy, something I wouldn’t have made money with anyway. (laughs) Unless I was doing something like what you’re doing.
Plug One: You mean, like, being a journalist?
Young God: Yeah.
Plug One: Journalism’s tough, man. I mean, you can make money at it, but you can’t be wealthy at it.
Young God: Yeah, I feel you. I feel like, either way, I’m going to be in music. I’m never banking off being rich at all. But if I can make decent money off it, I’ll be happy.
Plug One: So apologies if this question seems a bit uncomfortable. But I find it interesting that on all of your work you’re collaborating with very militant black rappers, especially in the case of Hell Razah, who espouses a lot of Five Percenter beliefs on Razah’s Ladder. Are these things you believe in, or are you more into the musical aspect? What’s your position on being a producer on these projects as opposed to what the rapper says?
Young God: As far as the content, and the black militancy on that Hell Razah album, I just think it makes for good music. I just think it makes for an interesting listen. If I’m working with everyone, I’m not like, “I have to agree with everything he says, and if I don’t, I’m not going to produce for them.”
I guess I don’t really care that much.
Plug One: I’m not saying that what he raps about is bad. I’m just asking, with you being a white person and working with a rapper who spouts a lot of radical views, are these views that you believe in, or does it not matter to you?
Young God: Well, it doesn’t really matter to me. You’re working with these people who you think are going to be one way because of their lyrics, but what it really comes down to is that they’re really nice guys. They’re just regular guys, you know? I’ve worked on tons of music where I’ve gone, “Oh, I don’t really agree with that lyric.” But it’s all about the music, you know. I guess I’m more concerned with making good music than being in love with everything the dude says.
Does that answer your question?
Plug One: Yes, to a certain extent. My next question is, because you’re not as concerned with those kinds of ideas, what are your thoughts on being lumped in with the Jedi Mind Tricks camp? From my impression, it seems like that’s what Blue Sky Black Death is associated with, at least at the moment.
Young God: Honestly, I don’t want to be lumped in with them. That’s not a diss towards any of those artists, and it’s probably our fault because of the people we’ve worked with. But we try to drift away from that with our instrumental music because we don’t want to be pigeonholed with our sound.
I’m a fan of [Jedi Mind Tricks’ style of] music, but it could be my own assumptions that I think their fans would resent us if we tried and went in a different direction and not work with the same people we’ve been working with. I feel like those fans are only into that hardcore hip-hop stuff. But our inspiration goes so much further than just that. We’re trying to expand out sound and not just be lumped into that JMT hardcore underground rap.
With Late Nite Cinema, we tried to show what we can do. We’re not just late 90s scientifical backpack revivalists.
Plug One: So tell me a little bit what Late Nite Cinema is about.
Young God: It’s not like it’s a straight concept album. It’s just basically what our sound is. It’s a cinematic sound. We feel like you can take a story from every song and place it in a movie. Like “Ghosts among Men,” that track actually has a specific theme to it. It’s like a World War II kind of nostalgic…I don’t know, you hear the vocals and everything, and it tells a story. But it’s basically just our love for epic, cinematic music. So we called it Late Nite Cinema.
Plug One: So you come up with the story after the music is completed, not before you make the music?
Young God: Yeah. I’m not like, “I feel really dark and sad right now, let me make a track.” It’s, like, I’d start out with a really simple sample, or just be playing a guitar melody, and I’ll build off of that, and then see where it goes.
Plug One: One thing I noticed about Late Nite Cinema – and don’t take this the wrong way, because I think it’s a great album – is that a lot of the tracks sound similar. That’s why I wondered if it was based on a single concept. It seemed like you were riffing on a theme because the songs were relatively similar to each other.
Young God: When we’re working on an album, maybe we’re too overly concerned with it being cohesive, so we end up sticking to the same sound. I guess it’s a subconscious thing we do because we want it to resemble a whole, a nice, flowing, conceptual album. It’s not a conscious decision to have it all sound the same so it conveys some concept.
I know what you’re saying. It’s the type of album where I think you should listen to it from the start to the finish, and you can feel like it’s almost just, like, one track. Not one track is too unique that it takes you out of the mind frame of the journey of listening to the album all the way through.
Plug One: How did you meet Kingston?
Young God: We met through a mutual friend. Before we had even met in person, we were talking on the phone and talking online, just because we found that we had a lot of the same ideas and influences in music. Before we even met, he moved here to San Francisco – he was in Hawaii for a little bit – and that’s when we started taking it really seriously. We started working together in person rather than just over the phone and online.
Plug One: So how do you make your tracks now that he’s in Seattle and you’re in San Francisco?
Young God: Basically just file sending. Most of Late Nite Cinema was made when we were living together. Most of that is two years old. I did a couple of new tracks a couple of weeks before we turned it in [to Babygrande] because I felt like we needed to update it. I get like that. If I sit on something for too long, I need to update it because I feel like I’m always improving [as a producer].
As far as the hip-hop beats, sometimes it’ll really just be my beats – sometimes it’ll be his beats – and we don’t really do too much to [each other’s tracks]. We have the same equipment, so I’ll just send it to him through the computer and he’ll add details after I’ve done the bulk of the beat, and the other way around. It’s not as complicated as it would seem.
I guess when we create instrumental music it helped a lot when we lived together because we could work on stuff every day. [Editor’s note: Young God and Kingston actually lived together in Santa Rosa, which is several miles north of San Francisco.] We made most of Late Nite Cinema within two months, right after our first album. But Late Nite Cinema sounded a lot different then. It went through a lot of changes.
Plug One: What is Kingston doing in Seattle? Does he have a job as well?
Young God: Yeah. He manages an apartment complex. I want him to move back here, but I don’t know. We’ll see.
Plug One: From your perspective, what’s been the response so far to Late Nite Cinema?
Young God: It’s been really good. We haven’t had many reviews in yet, but the response has been really positive. It’s overwhelming. I thought people would like it, but I wasn’t sure if our fan base would fully appreciate it because, like you were saying earlier, we’re associated with that JMT crowd. So I’m actually surprised that those kids were open-minded enough to appreciate it.
Plug One: What does the future hold? Do you have any upcoming projects? I’m curious…why don’t you do DJ dates?
Young God: For one, I would totally like to do that. But Kingston lives in Seattle. At the same time, we’re not really DJs, so it’s not natural for us to do that. I mean, we could definitely do a production kind of show. We’re going to try and do that in the future, maybe this year, maybe next year.
We’re working with a few different MCs on different projects. We have one that’s halfway done with Crooked I out of Long Beach and Ill Bill from Brooklyn, like a collaborative thing where we brought them together. It’s pretty crazy…no one would have expected that. But it has turned out cool.
Also, we have another project called Slow Burning Lights, which is us producing for a female singer [Yes Alexander]. That album has been done for well over a year, and it should be coming out this fall. I actually play shows with that – I’ve done two shows in San Francisco with Slow Burning Lights.
Plug One: It sounds like, judging from the Ill Bill project, you’re still going to have some connection with the hardcore rap world. Is Babygrande comfortable with you branching out, or does it want you to stay with the hardcore hip-hop that Jedi Mind Tricks is known for?
Young God: They don’t push any artists on us. They’ll have ideas for us sometimes, but usually we have all the ideas and we have to shop it to them. But I guess we’ve carved out a niche, and so now it’s easier to work within it. It was much easier to get a hold of Ill Bill because we’re already friends with Sabac [Ill Bill’s former partner in Non-Phixion and a guest rapper on Razah’s Ladder]. It worked out for us.
We love to do other stuff that’s not associated with hardcore hip-hop, but it’s harder for us to reach out to [other types of artists] because they think we’re on that hardcore style. We’re still trying to do hardcore stuff, but we also want to do less hardcore stuff. We want to do everything.