I’m a big fan of concept albums. I feel there aren’t enough of them tried in the hip-hop world. And when I first heard the PA-born, lower-Manhattan based emcee PremRock was releasing an album based and inspired by Tom Waits, my interest was piqued and couldn’t wait to hear it. In a recent interview/review of Waatu’s latest offering, he mentions that sampling hip-hop for hip-hip is easy, because it’s already tailored for that sound. Sampling other genres and infusing them into hip-hop, that’s where the challenge lies.
Now enter in PremRock and his cast of producers for his new album, Mark’s Wild Years, a 13-track album 100% based on Tom Waits music, both old and new. Each song title is either the same as one of Waits or, like the title, a play on them. I had the opportunity to sit down with Prem to pick his brain on each individual track. I invite you to first, head on over to his Bandcamp, download the album (yes, for free), and then think of this as a listening party. BYOB of course.
Hit the jump for the interview…
Verbal Spacey: Tom Waits is sort of the Louis C.K. of musicians, because he’s the perfect “musician’s musician.” He’s got a voice that sounds like he was involved in a gravel accident but churns out album after album and has been doing so since the 1970′s. I’d be hard pressed to find his influence in many rap circles, but he’s clearly had a huge impression on you as an artist. Let’s start with the album name, Mark’s Wild Years. Just a play on Frank’s Wild Years or is that album one of your favorites of Waits’?
PremRock: Yes to all of that. The title is a play on Frank’s Wild Years, and certainly one of my favorite records of his. He originally intended it to be a play and I believe it ran for short time in Chicago. It’s weird how that record wasn’t really all that lauded but to me it’s one of his best and representative of breaking out of his shell in some ways. It also is conceptual itself, so therefore naming the record after it made sense. And also my name’s Mark and I am living in some wild years.
VS: Yuri Beats did an awesome job at making the first track sound just enough like Tom Waits’ version. Why did you choose “Step Right Up” to be the lead single?
PR: I wasn’t exactly sold on that track right away. I was debating between a few different songs when it became clear this song was going to work as the lead. It’s really a topic as relevant in ’76 as it is today and it even hearkens back to dust bowl era snakeskin oil salesmen as well. I love the tone of the original and tried to convert it to the new one. Yuri really did a great job but what Green did on the mix/master cannot really be understated. Yuri loved what Green did so much he hit him up to thank him for putting in so much work on the mix. It was one of those 3 part scenarios where MC, Producer and Engineer all aced it. Which kinda happened all over this record but for a lead single it worked the best here.
VS: “Tango Till You’re Sore” is the first real glimpse into some of the aforementioned “Mark’s wild years.” Drinking enough to hit the floor and drudging up some past memories, this track could’ve been written by Waits himself. You think you’ll be throwing confetti in your hair during live performances?
PR: Yes, yes indeed it is the beginning glimpse into the wilder years. “Tango” was a challenge because I had the idea but the writing didn’t connect right away. It’s a big song of his, one that does certain things to my whiskey infused soul when listened to, so I had to do it the way I heard it in my head. I would love to fall out of some sort of window with confetti in my hair onstage once I have the budget. Until then I might have to settle for being tossed from a dive bar by my hoodie with a ripped up napkin in my pocket. Waits has been notoriously tight-lipped about the decoding of his songs so I chose my interpretation. This happened to be a drunken party at my funeral… Or was it New Orleans??? Or we’re we even there at all??
VS: “Temptation” is the only track with a credited guest, as billy woods stops by to give his two cents. Did you have billy in mind specifically or did it just work out that way?
PR: I’ve become friends with Woods in the past year and a half or so and was sincerely blown away by History will Absolve Me. Woods is one of those people you just like to hear talk about whatever. Sports, politics, music, funny names of strands of weed, whatever. (And for the uninitiated, watching him and Nasa argue in person is one of life’s more enjoyable things to witness.) When I was putting together this record I never envisioned very many features but I figured Woods to be one I’d consider if the right beat came up. I originally sent him “A Soldier’s Things,” but reneged in favor of “Temptation” once I marinated on it a bit. I was extremely happy with his verse and the Baltimore/Cleveland series of lines is an all-timer for me in terms of rap-related sports references.
VS: Did you ever trade addresses with ladies of the night while you were in Prague? Without ever being in either Minneapolis or Prague, my money is on Prague hookers having better Christmas cards.
PR: Ha! Well this is a tricky one. I absolutely love the original and always have, so when it came time to choose another song to remix this was an easy choice. I sent it to Steel Tipped Dove and he completely aced it. The subject matter is loosely based on a personal experience in the fact that a woman I met in the Czech Republic who kind of thought we were destined to be together after a chance meeting. A series of broken conversations via the internet made me realize she may be a bit cray-ola, so I kind of fleshed out an imaginary past and gave her a chance to tell the story. It may be unfair but sometimes you need to add some poetic license to your life experience to make a good song. And she wasn’t a prostitute for the record. THAT story is for another day.
VS: “Singapore” is probably my favorite track on the album, I love the backdrop provided by Mr. Simmonds. And on this one you matched Waits’ cadence from his version perfectly.
PR: Yea I actually was really pleased with the way this track turned out. Mr. Simmonds is a great dude from the UK who has been living in Queens for a little while and we met through some mutual friends. He approached me with this flip and I loved it, truth be told this song wasn’t on my radar for the record but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Drunken madness on the other side of the world? Sounds like wild years to me.
VS: “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” uses Waits’ voice matched up with a, presumably young, Elijah Timlin. The adolescent voices over Waits’ growl is some crazy juxtaposition. I would love to see if Jim Jarmusch can make a video for this version as well.
PR: That would be incredible! Yuri and I already had the other songs in the bag and I wanted to give him a challenge and also thought I hadn’t used enough of the more recognizable Waits songs yet. I sent him this and absolutely loved what he did. Elijah is six years old and a pretty cool little dude, we’ve been buds since he was born and have a lot of inside jokes. He got an iPod for his 5th birthday I believe and asked his Mom for all my music, which was awesome to hear. He messes around with singing and rapping and whatnot so I thought the ultimate bond would be to get on a record together. His Mom told me even if you don’t release it he won’t know the difference and he’ll be happy, but hey it’s like a standout track now.
VS: “Make it Rain” is some of Tom Waits most anger filled lyrics. And with the title, thankfully you didn’t, you could have taken it in Adam “Pac Man” Jones direction. Instead you took his opening line and used it in an eerie loop, “She took all my money” with an equally as eerie echo. And this “she,” both you and Waits refer, to is indeed an evil skank.
PR: Steel Tipped Dove’s enthusiasm for this project definitely helped jumpstart the whole thing. He loves Waits and actually made this beat years ago. He dug it up and we were able to piece together the stems of the track even though it was made so long ago. The song is actually a metaphor for the whole drinking motif that kind of permeates the record. Even though Waits gave up the bottle about 30 years ago, your protagonist for this tale hasn’t quite gained that wisdom.
VS: Your version of “Alice” is much more fast paced and upbeat than the O.G. version. But producer Spills kept a horn loop from the original which helps bring it back to Waits’ dreary sound. Was this one of those tracks you had to make your own version of because the original hit home or was a favorite?
PR: Spills was one of the first people I contacted about the project. I knew him to be a Waits guy and had been listening to this track repeatedly on my way back from Europe. I thought it’d be a good exercise in writing to the take the perspective of a crazy obsessed lover. Which was kind of the point of this project, putting myself in the perspective of situations I didn’t quite understand or experience. Spills kind of killed it and I immediately began free styling once I heard it. It took a minute to get the actual format down in my head but once it was there it clicked quite nicely.
VS: “A Solider’s Things” is a short but sweet track, straight through with no hooks or bridges. The chopped up vocal sample used sets the tone, which is very similar one to Waits’ “Solider’s Things.”
PR: My man Talpas from the Czech Republic is a chop master. He does it all day, so I knew this one had a lot to work with and he didn’t disappoint. I decided to follow a “The things They Carried” type of theme as suggested in the original. I pretty much wrote the narrative in one sitting and didn’t see the need for any type of chorus, bridge or any of that, just let the verse do it all.
VS: The next track is the first one on the album produced by Willie Green. And even though the Tom Waits sound is prominent, this track could fit in perfectly on a sequel to PremRock & Willie Green. Waits called “Chocolate Jesus” an “immaculate confection” and as someone who enjoys puns more than any man should, I find that one of the funniest things in the world. I digress. Did you break out the megaphone for this track?
PR: His performance on the Letterman show of this track to me is one of the greatest things to ever exist. He’s such a showman and an enormous personality and I selected this one super early in the process. And yes I’d agree with you on this being able to fit on a sequel for the two of us, it seems like a logical progression. As far as the subject matter goes I was raised Catholic and this is sort of my rebellious rebuttal to a few things I’d been ruminating on in my young adulthood. Not trying to be controversial or anything like that and there’s a bit of contradiction within the lyrics themselves which could kind of subtly illustrate my conflicted feelings on religion. Not sure how my Mom will react to this one but she did love “Johnny Rotten” so who knows?
VS: Once Mark’s Wild Years dropped, Adam Selene took to Twitter to help promote it and said “I produced the weird one, ‘Earth Died Screaming.’” Waits’ version could certainly be called weird, as his octaves and pace go all over the place, reminiscent of Austin Powers when he couldn’t control the volume of his voice. But obviously in much less hokey way. I love the use of the original horse-gallop sounding percussion.
PR: I hit up Adam because I remembered we had some exchanges about us being Waits “Stans” and was a fan of some of the stuff he had done also. He jumped up immediately and suggested he flip this one. He definitely did a great job and yea it probably qualifies as the weird one on the record, as the original is definitely out there. It’s funny the perception people have of Waits really does vary. It’s either the lone drifter shooting whiskey and playing seedy dive bars or it’s the progressive weirdo on his later works. I think I did a fair job of balancing the two personas on this album and this would be the latter.
VS: Another Willie Green track, “Drunk on the Moon” tugs at the old heart-strings. And it revolves around our old friend alcohol again.
PR: Indeed it does. I lean on Green a lot when it comes to my career. I trust him with my sound, which there really couldn’t be a more important aspect to a musicians life. So I was bugging him for one more beat and picked this one-off Wait’s first record. Gottdamn he killed it and set the mood exactly how I wanted it. I had this different idea about stumbling through different settings of drunken debauchery until I hit a patch of personal turmoil, and without getting too specific I was going through it with my lady and kind of was at a crossroads. So I filled up my proverbial flask and got to writing it all out, and you may be happy to know the ole drunken fool realized the error of his ways before it was too late and this song kind of documents all of that.
VS: The final track, “Dirt in the Ground” is produced by Taj and has a trio of back-up singers. When you made this one where you hell-bent on letting it finish out the album?, because it’s quite fitting.
PR: Interestingly enough this was the last beat submitted. Super last-minute and barely made the cut. I wrote it in like two hours and decided there would people singing the chorus in a final completion of the thought. It couldn’t have worked out any better as a closer. Initially I wanted like 30 heads singing on the chorus, like hitting up every one I know and doing this majestically epic conclusion… Until Green brought me back down to earth and made me realize we had a deadline. I have this strange streak of three albums in a row now that the final song I write becomes the closer. It could be coincidental or it could the way I operate, not really sure but I’m also not complaining. I really love this track, and although the idea is a bit dark I hoped to twist it in a more positive direction.
And there you have it. All 13 tracks of Mark’s Wild Years dissected by PremRock. You’ll be able to catch Prem live in concert at the 6th annual Yule Prog, Wednesday December, 5th in Brooklyn. He’ll be performing with Ka, billy woods, A.M. Breakups, Elucid, Jesse Abraham, Adam Warlock, Taiyamo Denku, Shortrock and more.
Filed under: Album Talk/Review, For All The Broke Willies, Hip-Hop, Music, This Is Not Hip-Hop Tagged: | Adam Selene, Adam Warlock, billy woods, Corina Corina, History Will Absolve Me, Jeanette Berry, Mark's Wile Years, Mr. Simmonds, Nasa, Nasa/ADAM, PremRock, PremRock & Willie Green, Steel Tipped Dove, Talpas, Tom Waits, Willie Green, Yule Prog, Yuri Beats