The city of Chicago has become synonymous in recent years with exceptional musical talent led, in large part, by the city’s vibrant hip-hop scene. While acts like Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa and Kanye West enjoy the current limelight, pacing music both national and beyond, the path to the top wouldn’t have been possible without pioneers like legendary group Do Or Die. The trio, made up of Belo Zero, N.A.R.D. and AK, developed the blueprint of hustles necessary to make it musically in a city without a true industry. And now they’re continuing to prove they are capable of making the kind of songs that brought them to prominence over 20 years ago with the Sept. 18 release of their first studio album since 2006, Picture This 2, on Rap-A-Lot Records.
The release is a long-awaited one for the seminal hip-hop act that put Chicago on the map in the 1990s alongside acts like Twista, Common and Crucial Conflict and finds the group re-uniting with the record label that signed them to their first deal. Part of what many locally call the “first wave” of acts to find recognition nationally, the acts gave way to a steady stream of artists that laid the groundwork for the current diverse and plentiful hip-hop community. With three decades and change already charged to the game, Do Or Die’s latest chapter is focused on solidifying a legacy that has paced much of the city and the westside of Chicago.
True to the group’s oft-repeated slogan of representing the “alpha and omega,” a theme consistent across their discography, Do Or Die brings things full circle with their first release in a decade. Like true vets, the three developed a collection that at once stays within the parameters of what fans and listeners have come to expect from the Midwest trailblazers while also evolving lyrically and adding well-placed features from Rick Ross and Twista. Developed over the course of three years, the project’s release is the latest chapter in one of the city’s most successful hip-hop acts. The hustling mentality that they and their peers developed in their hometown allowed them to overcome the setbacks of their city and create a library of music that not only stood the test of time, but acted as a sort of blueprint for that little extra those from the Midwest often have to put in to make it.
Ten years isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things. But in the contemporary music scene it may as well be a lifetime. The game that Picture This 2 was released into is drastically different from the one of 2006′s Get That Paper, or even their debut album, 1996′s original Picture This. The hustle has changed. The game has migrated online in a lot of ways and their hometown, largely forgotten on their own come up, appears poised to be the Atlanta of its time. It’s in this environment that XXL caught up with the guys at a studio in Chicago’s South Loop to talk about hustling rap music in Chicago in the 1990s, the current state of their city and what it’s like to see the influence they provided embodied in so many successful young acts today. —Jake Krzeczowski
XXL: It’s got to be exciting for you all to be putting out your first project in about a decade. What’s it like to be back here?
AK: Honestly, just excitement. Knowing that it’s been a minute to the point where it’s like you do a song or go on the road or do a show with people but it ain’t nothing like bringing an album to the table to let the people know you still there.
What was the process of putting this album together? Ten years is a lot of experiences and material to sift through.
Belo: I mean, we been at it for a minute. We been at it for a little over three years trying to put the album together, so you went through your ups and your downs. But we got it done, so I mean it was exciting, but at the same time it was kind of stressful. In the sense of just getting back and putting it all back together.
What’s it like re-emerging in this current music environment?
AK: It’s really not a new process. I mean, the things they doing now, we been doin’ them. It was something we had to adjust to. When I seen Myspace I was looking like, “What the hell is this?” So it was just like, “What do you do?” So the people that was around that was into the internet world was coming around showing us, slowly but surely. And as time went on we started catching on. But Twitter to me was more like us being on the block and hitting the mom and pop stores; that’s our Twitter, you know what I’m saying? Facebook to me was really just us being in the studio and being able to talk to our fans and stay in touch. And those were our Facebooks and Twitters, no doubt.
Could you imagine doing what Chance The Rapper is doing today, touring the country and so on without a deal at all?
AK: That’s crazy, right? You couldn’t have done that 20 years ago without a major company coming in and trying to capture you and be like, “Look, we’re going to throw all this money at you and you gonna go.” Because nine times out of 10 the way they was doing money back then was to the point where artists were definitely like, “I’ll take that deal.” There was a lot more money back then. But now, you’re looking at Slim Jesus and the crazy part about that is Puffy was like, “I’ll throw a mil at your deal.” So with Puffy throwing a mil at his deal, that’s just Puffy doing it the old school way. It’s a different time, a different era right now. But it’s all about adjusting.
Have you noticed any advantage you all may have from coming up in the old model?
AK: Just mom and pop stores, going out hugging the kids, kissing the kids, you know what I’m saying? Going out to do these shows and all that. If your fans can’t touch you, they really don’t respect you because they’ll change on you night and day, but if your fans are more into you… Like, when we go out we’ll do the show, once we get done with the show we sit down and take the pictures, we sign the autographs until everyone is out of the club. And that’s what the fans want, they want to be with you, kick it with you and be able to know who you are.
What was it like having to go through that kind of real-time hustle back before the internet?
Belo: It was a connection; you were able to connect. Everybody want to be a part of something, you know? So if you make the fans feel like you’re a part of them and they’re a part of you then they gonna adapt to what you’re doing, they’re going to support you. But if it’s just like, I’m behind a computer, I’m tweeting or Facebook-ing or what have you, it’s like, “Okay, but you never show up at the show, you never take pictures, you never do autographs, you don’t come out.” And people don’t believe you. They think it’s a lie because it’s over a billion people on the darn internet so anybody can post anything and it becomes unbelievable. It’s like your word. When you give your word on the street and then you back it up, people take you more seriously versus you saying, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,” and it be all talk.
You all came up in Chicago at a time when not many hip-hop artists were coming from the city. What’s it like to be seen as an influence for a new generation of acts from your hometown?
Belo: Wow, well just today earlier I walked to the store by my crib and these shorties come up and they must have been 20 or so and I had the Do Or Die shirt on and they were like, “What? You’re Do Or Die? Man, we love your music. My mama listen to your music, that’s how we learned it.” And it was like, wait a minute. You gotta pause for a minute like, “Damn, this a younger generation and they know my music?” It’s a great feeling because your music transcended over the times. When we came out, Do Or Die, you had that hardcore era. You had your N.W.A’s, your Tupac’s and Biggie’s and Snoop’s; that era was so crazy. It was so competitive, but it was crazy at the same time and it was a whole different genre of music. Now it’s everything; they love you today, they hate you tomorrow. And for someone to come up and say, “Hey, we still rock with Do Or Die,” that shit is crazy. That means you made an impact. We talking 20 years later, we made an impact, man.
AK: We was in, I think, Arizona or New Mexico and it was us, Twista and maybe a couple more guys on the ticket and the radio station said, “How does it feel to have the grandfather, grandmother, parents and grandchildren all in the crowd just watching y’all perform?” That’s timeless, you know? You don’t get that very much, especially if you think about our era, they call it the Golden Era. The 90s was the Golden Era because you had rappers that had timeless music and it’s still showing today. There’s the idea of the 20-Year Loop and it’s interesting because you all are kind of looping yourself back with this album, in a way.
AK: Like, even just watching the N.W.A. movie just made you think like, “This is never over with.” It makes you sit down and realize that what you put in is what you get out. From “Po Pimp” to now, when we do it onstage, the only response you get back is like it’s a new song. The yelling, the screaming, every time it’s done it’s like it’s a new song.
Is that part of the motivation to keep putting out new work?
Belo: I would say just do it because you love it, like it feels good. Even if you don’t get a response, you do it because it feel good. It’s like it’s a part of your culture. We’ve done shows with 20-30,000 people, we’ve done shows with 2-3 people. You do it because you feel good. It’s gotta be embedded in you from the heart. The shit get distracting when everything else come into play; the money, the women, the different crowd around you because there’s new people coming in and coming out and sometimes you might slip and you might cater to a certain lifestyle. Like, you looking for that cheer now. When you first started rapping, shit, you wasn’t looking for no cheer, you was MCing, you was actually battle rappin’, you was looking for someone to destroy. Like, don’t cheer for me, I’m at your head-type of thing, and all in a good way and all love because it was all love.
Do you feel like that competitiveness is still there in hip-hop?
Belo: Oh yeah. I mean Meek Mill and Drake showed you that just recently. It’s still there. Yeah, it was sad, but it’s still there. I was watching an interview that Lil Wayne did the other day and they asked him, “Are you better than Drake?” And he said he’d crush Drake. And that’s his artist in a sense, so the competitiveness is still there. In my opinion, I don’t think he said it in a hateful or disrespectful way, he just said it in an MC way.
Take me through being a rapper from Chicago in the 1990s.
Belo: 1995, 1996, wow. If I could say this. You talkin’ guys from the hood. Some had gang banged or sold drugs or whatever we was doing back then to saying, “Okay, I’m going to do something different” and started rapping and took it seriously. Because we was rapping since before ’95, we was rapping in the ’80s, the late ‘80s, but taking it seriously in the ’90s. We had a song called “No Love” which we put on a tape in ’93 but we had songs before that. Like in ’89 we had “Thief For The Night”—what was that, like ’88, ’89? But we got songs before that. So when ’95 came people were like, “Oh, Do Or Die got this song called ‘No Love’” and people think we was up just off of doing “Po Pimp.” Nah, we been telling our truth for a while. And then people started grasping on to it. But it felt damn good because it was like, “Shit, I came from this to that?” And you all went to Houston of all places to sign a record deal with Rap-A-Lot. What was it like dealing with the absence of an industry in Chicago?
Belo: If we knew [then] what we know now, we probably wouldn’t have gotten a record deal.
AK: And we probably would have been the record company for Chicago. Because the Do Or Die song, which is “Po Pimp,” and the Crucial Conflict song, which is “Hay,” are the two singles that broke the mold in Chicago and we was shorties. But if we would have understood the game… Like, we wasn’t even on no label, we was just shouting it out on record, we didn’t have any papers to our label but we was making great music and if we would have known what we should have about the music business then everything else would have fell into place as us being a record label for Chicago.
Today, it seems like you can throw a rock and hit four or five well-known rappers here in Chicago, but that wasn’t the case when you guys were coming up. What was it like then?
Belo: R. Kelly. Although Twista and Common had did they thing in the past, but they never reached that level of success like that. The only one in my opinion in terms of who the people knew—it was just R. Kelly. Nobody else was rocking. Now of course we had our blues, jazz, house music but they wasn’t even on that level. He was up there. That man was on the throne for a long time and not just for Chicago. But when you look at that—and this man has been on the pedestal for 10 years, 15 years now—you come along and you somewhat in that category? It’s crazy. In the Bible it says “Faith without works is dead.” So you have to believe and then you have to go out and do the work and act on that. Every action is a reaction. You have to cause an action to get a reaction and that’s what it was and we was out there reacting. Chicago’s hip-hop has never had the labels, but the music has always existed. What does it mean to you guys to be an artist from Chicago?
AK: Look at all the places that rappers come from. You got the East Coast, the West Coast, the South and then you got the Midwest and Chicago is the third biggest city. So with that being said, we in the middle. And really, if you look at it, the middle has always been the consumers for rap and we got a chance to see everybody do it. The thing about Chicago is that we take things and make things so original to the point where when it goes out—if you ever looked at any artist that went out of Chicago and made it, from Do Or Die to Crucial Conflict, all the people that made it out of Chicago—they never sold under a million. Under a million. From Kanye to Do Or Die, Twista, you can name them on and on and on and we’re innovators to the whole music industry.
What’s it like to see Chicago in the limelight after all the hard work you’ve put in?
Belo: It feels good because we planted the seed. So it feels good. You gotta be able to change with time, to adapt. It feels good to see Chief Keef come up and do his thing and then you like, “Woah, he’s a product of what we did.” Now I’m not saying the crazy shit, the shooting and all that stupid shit. But you feel good about Chance The Rapper, Lil Durk, all the cats that in some form or fashion Do Or Die was a part of this. Twista was a part of this, Crucial Conflict was a part of this, Psycho Drama was a part of this, Trackster was a part of this. You can keep going on and on.
You guys also linked up again here with Twista, who you recorded Withdrawal with earlier this year. What was it like getting back in the studio with him?
Belo: We always been working together. Withdrawal wasn’t the first thing we did, we did damn year seven, eight songs even before that. We all worked together, all of us, not just Twista. I won’t say everybody, but for the most part we’ve always tried to extend our hand to everybody; we done worked with Kells, we done worked with Kanye, we done worked with Twista and Crucial Conflict. All us, we all in the same community but we all worked together in some form or fashion back then. Some music got put out and some didn’t for whatever reason. There was a history there that we all had, so it ain’t like all of a sudden in 2015 people started networking; nah, we were networking back then. But it’s broader now because of social media. People can see it now, they can see the conversations. But it always happens. Just like the shootings and the killings, it always happened.
Since we brought it up, what do you think of the way that subject matter has been handled by the new generation of artists?
Belo: Back then, like I said, you had urban street kids, you had guys growing up in the community where if you were in a gang then you had chiefs, you had governors, you had people older than you, a little bit more knowledgable than you giving you knowledge or instruction and chastising you if you did anything that wasn’t in the means of righteousness. So we had a strong structure. These kids today don’t have that. Could I say our generation dropped the ball? Yep, I could say that too. But at the same time there’s the powers that be that have their hand in that shit too.
But us as a people, as a Black people in the community, I feel like there’s no structure, like we dropped the ball. You lock all the people up that we looked up to, then you took the structure up out the gang, so it caused chaos. Then in the city of Chicago you tear down over 40 or 50 different projects and you cram people up into these other communities, suburbs and the other areas. And with no plan. What’d you think you were going to get? And you wonder why the crime rate rise. Those schools ain’t teaching anyone anything and the jobs are damn near gone. You tear down projects people have been living in for 40, 50, 60 years and just say go?
In the music today it seems like it’s being approached differently, that the gunshots are almost literally in your face at times. What’s your view there?
AK: They a product of their environment. Just look at it like this. If Chief Keef was raised in a house with no mother, no father or a mother and a grandmother, he only going off of what he see in the house or outside of the house… Let me just say this. Nine times out of 10, when you talk to a shorty, what’s the first thing a shorty going to say to you when they out in the streets? “I’m trying to get this bread.” That’s the first thing out they mouth. Because long story short, they done changed the God and money is God to them. It’s cats killing each other over $20. For what? How do you kill someone over $20 in a dice game?
Belo: And to add to that and to answer the question in it’s entirety, we were able to take our music and say, “Hey, we have sold drugs, but our ass went to jail if we got caught.” We was able to give you the pros and the cons in our music. We would take our music and say, “If we did this, then this is what would happen.” Either we did it, either we have a family member that done it or we know someone who had done it and who gave us the knowledge and embedded in us and said, “Hey, there’s a consequence to all of this.” The younger generation don’t know how to implement that and they don’t care. And you can hear it in their music. We knew how to deliver a message in our music and they don’t know how to do that today.
AK: You just hit it on the head. There’s no message in music anymore.
Tell me about the album. What are you excited about, personally?
Belo: Honestly, the whole album. I’m excited for an accomplishment. Whenever you accomplish something you set your mind out to, that’s a great-ass feeling. Like, I won’t sit here and say the road to finishing the album was easy; hell nah, this was hard. But anything worth fighting for is worth having and this album is great, man. I love it. We got some amazing classical songs on there that are a modern feel that’s still Do Or Die. “Love in the Sky” featuring Rick Ross and Scottie B, that joint is crazy, Jonnie P, “Foreign,” that song is crazy. “Bloody Murder” is one of those songs where we touched on the hood thing like we just talked about. “Exclusive Love,” Do Or Die and Twista, that modern sound with that same type of feel.
I think naming it Picture This 2 was perfect, because people are going to be like, “Damn, those boys did it again.” So it’s exciting, bro. It was a struggle, it was a fight. A lot of people go to work, they got nine to fives and they punch in and they punch out and they deal with all sorts of things at work. But this is what you dreamed of. I dreamed of becoming a rapper and became that. How many people dream of becoming what they realize? That’s the abnormal. You can never take that from Do Or Die. You can say what you want to say, but how many plaques do you have on your wall? We have quite a few.
So what’s next for Do Or Die?
AK: Everything that come with the album, I truly believe that this will spark something big. So whatever it is, I want this to spark something big and put it on a different level.
Belo: And be looking forward to the Do Or Die movie. I’ve been writing it since I was in the penitentiary, which was eight years ago, and it’s halfway through. But I’ve been working on that shit for a minute because people don’t know the Do Or Die story. So I think people are going to tune in.