Founder of Weightless Records and signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment, Blueprint (Albert Shepard), has been in the underground hip-hop world for over 10 years. His works with projects like Soul Position with RJD2, and Greenhouse with Illogic, as well as his own solo albums, have explored various styles of rap and hip-hop while holding true to the roots of both. As he prepares for the “To All Our Friends” tour with Atmosphere, Blueprint takes a minute to discuss the hip-hop/rap industry, his art, and what it means to be an emcee.
By Andre Estournes
You’re about to go on tour with Atmosphere; what can we expect from that?
I don’t know, I just get out there and try to have fun. I’ll try some new material out and see how it’s received.
What are your plans after this tour?
In the future I know we’re going to have a full Greenhouse record that’ll probably come out early next year, and that’s pretty much done, we’re just taking our time and having fun with the EPs. Prior to that I think my next solo record is really the big thing. It’s called Adventures in Counter Culture and we’re just getting some final things together like art and videos, 7-inches, some remixes and remix contests are being done for it, all that stuff is being turned in now, but the record itself is done so it’s just a matter of setting a date and getting things going. We saw some things come in that were bigger opportunities, so we decided not to rush it and just let it develop, so that will be either the end of this year or early next year and then I plan on spending as much time as possible promoting that record and doing some Greenhouse stuff as well.
You work with Rhymesayers and Weightless; explain a little about how those balance out.
I don’t know about everybody else’s relationship, particularly new artists with Rhymesayers, because I met Deke and Slug and Eyedea and Abilities when Atmosphere starting touring in ’99. We all were really cool because we had started Weightless around then and they were putting out records on Rhymesayers and my relationship with them kinda started back then when Rhymesayers was strictly Atmosphere-Overcast! and Musab and Headshots, so I’ve known those guys for so long that I have a friendship with them. Granted, I do business with them, but first and foremost I have a personal relationship with all those guys to where my relationship with them is a little different…it’s still an artist relationship; when I put out records on them I relinquish pretty much all control over what’s gonna happen and trust in them to do the right thing and guide me the right way. When I do things on Weightless it’s pretty much me doing everything or setting the vision for that.
What is your take on how far hip-hop has come and where it is going?
I think there’s good and there’s bad, you know? I think the thing that’s better about hip-hop now is that, technically, the art of rapping and the art of doing beats has gotten better. The equipment guys use, the shit they’re saying now, the things they’re doing with the writing now I think is far superior. But, you’re in a situation now where there’s easier access, whereas back in the day guys would have to really invest a lot of time and money before they could even get into the studio; now you can basically build your own studio for nothing and put out a record for nothing. So, it kinda increases access, but I think it increases creativity ‘cause there’s more people doing it.
So, owning a record label, does that make it harder to find new artists?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily making it harder, I think it changes how you do things. The things we’re doing at Weightless I don’t think have changed a lot for us because we kinda built what we have on a grassroots thing; the touring, making sure the live show is good, putting out records that we feel good about as opposed to putting out a bunch of records all the time, and making things that we feel are really distinctive as opposed to the…I’ll call it the “mixtape mentality” where guys are putting out a lot of music, but not all the music’s good, you know? They just want to put it out because it allows them to be a part of the news cycle and they feel with attention comes other ways to monetize their vibe or whatever they’re thinking about. But, with us, it’s been about taking some time, do some music we feel good about, and if we get to do some shows we get to make some personal connections with fans, and that part has not changed.
How has your style changed and progressed over the years?
It’s definitely changed. It changes as you experience more. When we first started rhyming we were happy just talking about hip-hop stuff and we weren’t necessarily speaking to the people about the common person’s experience and that’s probably the biggest change I see now with our music. We’re rhyming from a place where our experiences are much more vast and we can touch more people because we’re talking about more things that are common. I mean, you can rap about hip-hop or hip-hop things, but a lot of people who are not artists may not be able to relate to that completely. So, I think the biggest change for us is that, and maybe having more confidence about who we are and not being afraid to tell our story.
You’re big on freestyling and it seems like that’s an art that’s almost being lost.
Well, when I first came into the scene, some of the people did see me just battling. Back then that was one of the easiest, fastest ways you could make a name and I was always part of the scene, going to open mics and freestyling, so battling, for me, was a natural progression. Plus, I was a silly dude, so I could just say funny stuff and it sorta lent itself to my style then. But, I fell back a little bit because I started to see a lot of artists that were known for battling get the perception that they couldn’t make good records…like, the guys that were the pioneers of battling and even the new guys like Jin who’s on Ruff Ryder Records, he was the new “battle-guy” but no one even tried to listen to his record and seeing all of those things makes me want to not battle anymore and just become a well-rounded artist who writes good choruses, good verses, but as a person who has spent time in that scene, I think it’s part of being an emcee. If you’re a true emcee you’ve got to have all of the tools. Some people will say “Yeah, I’m an emcee, but I hate doing shows” or “I suck on stage,” but you’re not an emcee then, you’re just a rapper. And that’s cool, but an emcee can do everything, even if they can’t do everything well; they can host a show, they can support a DJ, they understand how to talk to a crowd, they understand the live show, they’re good in the studio, they write good songs, they say things that are important and relevant. I think that’s what being an emcee is, it’s all of those things. Whereas some guys will say, “I don’t want to freestyle” because mainly they don’t want to be embarrassed, they don’t want to suck in front of whoever’s watching because they never really practiced on that. But, to those guys, I don’t necessarily penalize them; I just say they’re not well-rounded as we were taught to be. All these tools you learn being an emcee you eventually have to use. An emcee does everything; they’re not just a little specialized guy that does one little thing pretty good and doesn’t care about the rest of the art.