Cormega Breaks Down Themes Of Mega Philosophy, Solidifying Legacy, & Addresses Flow (Food For Thought Interview)
In Phoebe Hoban’s biography, Basquiat: A Quick Killing In Art, the New York painter is remembered, at the pinnacle of his fame, hiring stretch limousines, and riding around Manhattan self-medicating and watching cartoons—alone in the back. He yearned for the world around him, but only could experience it on his terms. With fame, comes sacrifice. And the mere image of a crown (something prevalent in much of the painter’s pieces) changes everything.
Approaching 25 years in Hip-Hop, Cormega is on the phone, sitting alone on the third floor of his home on a July morning. Aside from his family, this New Yorker is often alone—and he prefers it that way. While ‘Mega says he never illustrated the crown in his own lyrics, the poetic MC is a product of the era where a city’s brightest talents abandoned unity to claw their way to a man-made throne that seemingly broke the bough.
Long removed from that world, the artist born Cory McKay is disinterested with jockeying for position, or finding the best seat in Rap’s royal court. Instead, the veteran looks to his fourth studio album with one thing in mind: legacy. Released 13 years to the week after his independent debut, The Realness, Cormega’s Mega Philosophy (July 22) is a completely different aesthetic from the MC-turned-hustler-turned-poet. Produced by another Queens icon, Large Professor (with lots of input from ‘Mega), this album is rooted in the wisdom, artistry, and courageous vantage point of a Hip-Hop mainstay for three decades. As Cory tells it, this is the album that will decide if his autobiographical, metaphoric bars have staying-power.
Like Basquiat cracking the limousine window to breathe in Times Square, Cormega explains that he often makes incognito pilgrimages to the world he is a product of. He tells Ambrosia For Heads about properly honoring his influences, and widening perspectives he’s experienced since trading the parallel-parked rental for a passport.
Ambrosia For Heads: Between Born & Raised and Mega Philosophy, you’ve done a lot of traveling. You talk about that on the new album. I know you were active in relief to the Haitian Earthquake of 2010, and I believe you’ve traveled with your family to different Africa nations. Sonically, if you look at a song like “More,” it has a worldly feel to it. Did your journeys affect your sound?
Cormega: I actually didn’t go with my family; I went with a close friend. I think you hit the nail right on the head when you talk about “More.” It has a worldly feel. I think me doing these travels, seeing things, and just reading and things, it’s inspired me to be like that. That’s exactly what I tried to do. The production on there…I had somebody tell me that that’s the type of song they’ll play in Brazil and other places. If you look at the production, during the third verse, there’s changes in the production that I personally added—such as the conga drums. That’s a big Afro-Cuban pattern that I added to it. Also, the lady that’s on the hook (Chantelle Nandi), she’s from Zimbabwe. I specifically wanted somebody that was not from America, ‘cause it gives it a different feel, a different atmosphere, and a different aura about it.
Traveling definitely broadened my mind. One thing it made me do was be more appreciative as an artist—as opposed to expecting everything or thinking everything’s supposed to be some type of way. When you go to certain countries, you’re not gonna have certain amenities. You just have to be real with yourself and think, “I’m so fortunate to travel the globe due to my pen, due to the words I write.” It made me see differently, made me more humble, and made me more content. Seeing people with no shoes—especially Haiti—after the devastation of Haiti, to see people pull together, people still happy, and people still content, whereas over here, we lose the simple things and act like it’s the end of the world. Look at people committing suicide during [stock market crashes]. You can always rebuild. I’m glad that I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mention production input. I know that although Large Professor produced Mega Philosophy, you had tremendous input and some hands-on responsibility, similar to Guru’s role on Gang Starr albums. This LP sounds unlike anything that Extra P has ever done, and since you guys go back, was that a deliberate intention?
Cormega: I can definitely relate to what Guru [did]; there’s been a lot of input [from me], a lot of mixing. A lot of the mixes and changes, I handled myself. I just sent it to Large Professor for his approval. Large Professor gave me a pat on the back. He said, “On this album, you learned to be a producer.” I never looked at it like that. I just looked at it as me finishing my project that I’ve taken the longest with. Now I realize what he meant though. Now, my mind’s so open, and I want to do some new stuff. Like, we have remixes now that’s not out, and I wanna add live elements and instrumentation to it, and do certain changes to it.
Ambrosia For Heads: You brought up your eye-opening experiences overseas. Within your whole catalog, there’s two things you rarely do, especially now. You never get super name-brand or materialistic, at least compared to peers. You also, outside of metaphor, rarely speak about love or intimate relationships…
Cormega: When you start getting older, your mind has to grow. Like, the first time I heard about Gucci underwear was from Slick Rick on [“La Di Da Di”]. You hear certain stuff from certain rappers. We have to take into consideration: some rappers over-glamorize certain material things. I think it’s a slap in the face to the common folk; a lot of people that buy a record or are fans don’t have the money like that. It comes a point in time where you have to say, “Wait a minute. What am I doing?” The influence that artists have is so strong that we don’t even realize sometimes that we keep these brands alive. I can’t just question Rap, I have to question myself. “’Mega, why is it necessary to walk on stage with a bottle of champagne?” ‘Cause I saw other rappers do that and thought that was the cool thing to do. When I thought about it, it’s really stupid! That has nothing to do with the show. There was no champagne on the album cover; I don’t even drink. Basically, we’re doing free branding. That’s one of the reasons I stopped. Two, I’ve seen a lot of people who have nothing. Nobody wants to hear you keep braggin’ about somethin’, but at the same time, you’re expecting them to buy your music. Three, I just outgrew that. At my house right now, I have enough clothes to come outside with a new outfit everyday—a person wouldn’t know it, unless they knew me. I’m a sneaker-head; I love sneakers! But I’m not gonna brag about spending X on sneakers, ‘cause to be honest with you, I try not to—‘cause that’s even stupid. I don’t care about these companies ‘cause they don’t care about us. I’m not into that no more. There’s a lot of people who don’t have anything. If you don’t implement change, then you can’t complain about there needing to be change.
Ambrosia For Heads: There’s places on this album where there’s curses, but compared to most, it feels like a clean LP. Unless you’re making a comparison, you avoided talking about hustling or your past life in the street on Mega Philosophy. It feels very deliberate without being over-arching or corny…
Cormega: It was very deliberate, and it’s a huge risk. At the end of the day, there are a lot of people who don’t grow—as you and me both know. At the end of the day, there may be some people who still want the old drug-reference ‘Mega or the old Queensbridge ‘Mega. But I’m not that person. I haven’t lived in Queensbridge in many a years. I haven’t lived in Queensbridge since the ‘90s—but people don’t understand that. I haven’t sold drugs in many years; I’m in a different place mentally.
As far as legacy, and being an artist, I needed to step out of the box, because history won’t be kind to me if I don’t. In your business [of media], there are some people who think they have me figured out. There are some people who are dismissive of certain artists because they think they know it all. “Oh, Cormega? I know what he’s gonna talk about. I know what it is already.” But this is the album that makes everybody—who thinks they know me—shut the fuck up. This is the album that I really wanted to show that I’m an artist. I’m not somebody who’s trying to live off of glorifying my past street life, I’m not somebody who’s trying to sensationalize or use beef or conflict or controversy [to sell albums]. I’m trying to show that I’m a creative artist. This is the album that I’m taking a risk on. It feels so worth it, and from the reception that I’m getting so far, from some of the songs, I’m glad that I went the direction that I went.
Ambrosia For Heads: Over the years I’ve watched so many people quote that first verse of “The Saga.” That’s one people might have tattooed: “I grew away from people I grew with…” Your verses on loyalty supersede everything else within your catalog. You do that again on “A New Day Begins,” saying, “I weigh my mans like grams, understanding there are losses when you measure weight”…
Cormega: Loyalty is very important—in everything that you do, in every aspect of life, loyalty is essential. When you’re a generous person, you definitely need loyalty, ‘cause people will use you like a sponge. Like, right now, I have a show in New York on July 21st, my album release party. I know what’s gonna happen. The day of the show, a bunch of people that I’m cool with—but that don’t contact me much—they’re gonna call me or they’re gonna be outside, getting somebody in the club, “Yo, tell ‘Mega I’m out here.” So there’s gonna be all these people trying to get in free—who probably didn’t buy my album, but just [wants]. They want, but they don’t want to give. On this album, I’m not doing that. I have friends that live in California that bought tickets to fly to New York City to come from my show, Connecticut friends who are driving…but there are local people who will burn my phone down so they can get in for free.
My first contract that I got with Koch Records was the fuckery of all fuckeries. It was initiated by the guy (Bob Perry) that I helped get the job at Koch. The [same] guy who used to work at Landspeed [Records]—I’m the one who made Landspeed pop. Landspeed made noise prior to me, but it wasn’t loud noise. A fart is noise, but it’s not a gunshot. I fuckin’ carried Landspeed and took it to a whole ‘notha level, got certain people in position—that’s loyalty right there. And I stayed on Landspeed. The Realness? I did not have to be on Landspeed. I had Interscope callin’ me, I had TVT with a contract—TVT had a lot of money! They had Lil Jon. I had numerous labels wanting to sign me, but I stayed with Landspeed. That was loyalty. But how was my loyalty rewarded? I got a fuck-you-deal when I signed with Koch by the same person I was working with at Landspeed. That’s loyalty right there. Loyalty is something that you might not get back. That’s why I always put it in my music, ‘cause my music reflects my life. And it reflects what’s important to me.
Ambrosia For Heads: Last week, “Rap Basquiat” was released as a single. As somebody who’s known you for over a decade, and somebody who’s read a lot about Basquiat, I can draw certain parallels. Both of you are highly reclusive—talented artists who seem to be loners. You both run in street and in art and fashion circles; he was friends with Andy Warhol and friends with Rammellzee. Also, one could argue that your art—like Jean-Michel’s—is to possibly be more appreciated after you’re gone. How did you reach that comparison?
Cormega: See…the thing about me and you, you and me have a weird kind of relationship. Me and you remind me of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell, just not as sarcastic with each other. [Laughs] They had a mutual understanding and respect of each other, and Cosell knew things about Ali that Ali didn’t even know at times, and he reminded him. There’s times where you say stuff… like, I remember specifically, you’re the first person who I ever did an interview with that I really sat down with. You were able to tell the public, “’Mega’s shy.” People have an idea of who I am, but they don’t know me. So you’re one of the people who really knows me. Throughout the years I’ve heard things about me from people that made me laugh, like, “He’s mad ‘cause he wanna shine.” I just bust out laughing. Anybody that knows me knows that I hate fame. The only fame I like is [Lil] Fame from M.O.P. [Laughs] I like the fans, and I love the art, and I love being on stage. But I don’t like it; I’m not a limelight person. I am shy—girls will tell you that, you know that, but people don’t. [Jean-Michel] Basquiat and me have a lot of similarities. I’m in my house, by myself right now. Me, by myself, three-floor house, and I’m on the top floor. And I’m cool. Lately, I’ve been infatuated with riding the bus and the train. I hate the NY Transit, but I like Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and Long Island Railroad. I love them, ‘cause they’re comfortable, you’re by yourself, and you’re just seeing the world. There’s time when I’ll be in Queensbridge, sitting in a car, and nobody even knows I’m there—by myself, enjoying the atmosphere, admiring the city. I like being by myself a lot—myself is the only person who I know won’t fuck me. Myself is the only person who’s always gonna give me the honest answers. When I’m alone, that’s when I’m at my best, as far as creativity. I like to draw creativity to myself. Its parallels to Basquiat fascinate me—not just on the art and the loner shit, but we also just try to sneak conscious shit in our art. Even at my thuggest, with my music, I always try to sneak jewels, and upliftment—rather than just tell you to sell drugs or do [negative things]. Both of our art has received such [strong] criticism before people really started to fully embrace it. Now people are starting to see the genius. The parallels with me and him are uncanny.
Ambrosia For Heads: Your comment about public transportation brings to mind that Common line, “Sometimes I take the bus home, just to touch home.” Being away from Queens for so long, do those experiences reinforce the authenticity in your writing since you left in the ‘90s?
Cormega: Sometimes, I think when we start gettin’ a lil’ money, some of us lose a sense of who we are, what we was, or what made us or our culture. Especially in Black neighborhoods—my white friends aren’t like this—[there is a stigma against] public transportation. I have rich friends from out of state, executives at MTV, etc., who all take the train. So why don’t I take the train? Black artists don’t ride the train—‘cause they’re embarrassed. They think somebody’s gonna look at them as less. Recently, somebody put a picture of Jaz-O riding the train. So what if he’s on the train?
Ambrosia For Heads: Plus, Jay Z took the train to his own concert at Barclays Center.
Cormega: Exactly! Beyonce took the train recently [too]. I asked myself, “Yo, why the fuck don’t I ride the train?” What do I got to prove? The average person that’s gonna say something about me probably lives with somebody [else]; I got a fuckin’ house, and I got cars—not a car—cars, with an S. Yo, everybody brags—I’ve given away two cars. Here, why don’t I—why don’t we take the train? You see the people, you get the atmosphere, you see what they’re wearin’, what they’re talkin’ about it, you see their aura. You see how everybody differentiates in New York. The [MTA] is the main pulse of the city: you see the youth, you see the old people, you see the working people—you see the city, and you feel that New York energy. When you’re on the buses, it’s the same thing. When you’re walking around too, you’re absorbing it all. That’s the one thing I never wanted to lose: my New York aura. Ralph McDaniels said to me somethin’ like, “Yo, you’re the heart of New York.” He said that to me; I didn’t make that up. That’s how you keep your balance. Sometimes when you drive a fly car all the time, or you live amongst certain people, you forget. You get softer—not even as an artist, but as a person. You lose that edginess that makes you who you are. I always wanna be ‘Mega.
Ambrosia For Heads: On your last album, you made “Mega Fresh X,” with KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, Grand Puba, PMD, DJ Red Alert—who, to some degree, are from the same era when you made your first song on wax, alongside DJ Hot Day. You saw the way those New York giants operated and competed in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Yet on “Reflection,” you say that the mere mention or an idea of a crown in New York—in the late ‘90s—ruined the unity…
Cormega: King in the highest of names. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, you could have the lowest of names, but if your bars—lyrics—were the greatest, then you were respected. I never heard Rakim say he’s the king; I never heard any of those greats say they were the kings. It was the people who put them on their pedestals.
Nowadays…when [The Notorious B.I.G.] called himself the king, people got to understand, Biggie wasn’t trying to say he was the best rapper—even though he pretty much was the king, for bringing New York back. What people fail to realize though, is that was a marketing strategy; Biggie also called himself Frank White [the title character from The King Of New York film]. But these rappers are so dumb, and they don’t see that! As soon as Biggie died, it’s “I’m the king now!,” which I found to be disrespectful—me, myself, that’s no slander on anybody else. If my man died, I don’t want his crown. Like my man Blue, from North Carolina, he was a big-time drug-dealer. Everybody knew him; he was a legend—like how Rich Porter is Uptown, no exaggeration. When he died, his girlfriend offered me his Mercedes-Benz. I said, “No. I don’t want it.” So when Biggie died—if Rap wasn’t such a mother-fucking, blood-sucking leech industry, people should just let him remain king, just like Michael Jackson’s still the King of Pop, Bob Marley is still the king of Reggae, Elvis [Presley] is still the king. You didn’t hear Paul McCartney like, “Aw, fuck it! I’m the king now!” [Laughs]
Everybody began to fight [over who was king], and shit was wack! In essence, fans don’t give a fuck about the title, it’s only the music [they want]. It’s only the blind that are intrigued by the bullshit. So once that happened, you had a lot of division in Rap. A lot of sets, a lot of crews, a lot of division.
[In the ‘80s], you had to be a super-fan to catch what Kane and Rakim were saying to each other. The respect was there, that’s why it was so complex in the subliminals. The streets wanted that—they didn’t even want that. At one time you had KRS-One, Kane, Rakim, and you can’t forget Kool G Rap in that equitation! Kool G Rap could stand toe-to-toe with any of the greatest rappers of all-time, any of ‘em. You had Chuck D. You can’t forget LL [Cool J]! You had all these great artists makin’ noise, and they wasn’t trying to cut each others’ heads off, trying to put career roadblocks out there. It was music. In their mind they may’ve felt they was the best, and they’re supposed to. It was enough space for everybody to flourish.
I’m not gonna sit here and say that I haven’t had my share of verbal bouts, but it was never over some king stuff. I’d never consider myself a king in Rap. I consider myself who I am, which I’m proud of. I might not be a king of Rap, but I’m damn-sure a male-version of Harriet Tubman to the Hip-Hop underground and to the independent movement. But I’m comfortable in my skin.
Ambrosia For Heads: That’s great to hear.
Cormega: This is another thing for new artists: they need to respect. You have to earn respect first. You can’t be a brand new artist, not even poppin’ yet, and you want legends or veterans to do songs with you for free. If you want them to do somethin’ with you, let them [initiate the idea]. I’ve had artists wanting me to do shit for free—and I don’t even know them. I don’t know you, I don’t know your name, I don’t know your name, I don’t know your music. They’ll say, “Do it for the love.” In order for there to be love, there needs to be like first! I don’t even like ya shit, ‘cause I haven’t heard it.
I’ll use me as the perfect example, ‘cause you said “Mega Fresh X.” When I did “Mega Fresh X,” I asked Parrish [Smith], “What do you need?” Parrish said, “I got’chu.” Parrish did it on the scram, so I owe Parrish a favor. Big Daddy Kane? I paid Big Daddy Kane; I didn’t talk him down either, and say, “Nah Kane, can you do it for this much instead?” I paid KRS-One what he wanted. I paid Grand Puba; I had one person tell me that I over-paid Grand Puba. I said, “No I didn’t. The way I see it, half of that was for being on the song, and half of that was for being an inspiration to me.” I paid dues. [The producer was] Buckwild—Buckwild gave me a free beat before; the next beat after that, I paid him! There’s a lot of ways of paying dues and comradery. Any artist that’s an icon, I did [features] for free. Any artist will tell you, I never charged. I told ‘em, “I don’t even want the money.” That’s respect. A lot of that respect wasn’t there during that king-ring. Everybody was so [pre-consumed] with shining, and that ruined the game.
Ambrosia For Heads: You may not want to comment, but I think it’s important to ask since I have not seen you speak on it. In my last year of high school, I had a Violator poster on the wall of my room. In addition to LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, and others, you were illustrated. You and Chris Lighty worked together between his eras with Native Tongues and his days with 50 Cent. How do you remember Chris?
Cormega: First of all, rest in peace, Chris [Lighty]. I think Violator was the quintessential management team of Rap. Bar none. And Mona Scott [Young] is also very integral to that too. For a very long time. Chris Lighty is the one who brought that television thing to Rap, when you started seeing Busta [Rhymes] in the early Mountain Dew commercials. Chris Lighty has been a very integral and essential part of Hip-Hop. He did a lot!
I learned a lot from Chris. One thing I didn’t learn from Chris was patience, because I wanted [The Testament] to come out so bad when I was on Violator Records—I wasn’t on the management, but I learned a lot from behind-the-scenes. Me and Chris had the craziest relationship, that Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner sort of relationship. Like, he’d drive me fuckin’ crazy, but the respect is there. “You’re fired!,” but I’m gonna re-hire you a week later. In the end, I got off Violator because I was on the shelf for like five years. During that time, there are things that I must always credit Chris for. One: my first recording contract was from Chris Lighty, Violator/Def Jam, before anything. Not only did he give me my first deal, I had fair points in my deal. Not only did I have fair points, I believe I had my publishing. I don’t think you’ll ever hear an artist say Chris Lighty jerked ‘em. Let’s be clear on that. Two, at the time I got my album, that was the biggest record deal for a new artist, ever. I got like a $250,000 deal. After that, artists started gettin’ deals like that. I can’t front on Chris like that. Penalty [Records] was gonna sign me for $60,000. I didn’t do it. Chris Lighty gave me a fair deal. Chris definitely pushed me. He was like that big brother that’d give you props, but never to your face. A lot of times I did shit just to prove to Chris that I was better than he thought. He pushed me, because he didn’t really give me a lot of opportunities when I wanted them, but I guess he gave them to me when I needed them.
When The Realness came out, some executives were talking, and Chris Lighty was amongst them. Somebody said, “What you think ‘bout that ‘Mega?” Chris Lighty said, “I messed up on that.” It made me like, “Wow!” Sometimes when you think somebody’s underestimating you, they’re not. They’re just givin’ you tough love. I didn’t even know [about the conversation], another rapper told me that, I think N.O.R.E. told me this numerous years ago. Back in the days, I was in more videos than the God-damned video hoe. [Laughs] I was in Big Pun’s [“Still Not A Player”] I was in N.O.R.E.’s [“N.O.R.E.”]—that was Chris Lighty. Also, there’s never been anything like The Tunnel, and Chris was integral to The Tunnel. Rest in peace to Chris Lighty, God bless him, and I’m glad that we got to speak before he passed. It was love, when we seen each other, it was like we never had any differences. That was beautiful.
Ambrosia For Heads: My final question is a different one. Looking at “Industry” and “Rap Basquiat,” I’ve read a lot of comments, almost all favorable. Then somebody, almost always, says that you have an off-beat flow. It’s probably a criticism you’ve heard a lot in your career. Then I think, 2Pac did not have perfect timing, KRS even said, “Rockin’ off-beat with a smile.” How do you embrace that criticism, skepticism, or what some might deduce as just “hate”?
Cormega: There are some people who always look for a chink in your armor. If that’s the best thing that they can come up with, then I must be doing something right. There have been times when I have had to work on my delivery, or work on my infliction or whatever. Over the years, I think I have worked on it. I know people who are skeptics, who have told me that my flow’s improved a lot. But for those people who complain, it’s like this: even during that time, I still was making some of the best music that was coming out—especially independently. There was a time when people said I punched-in a lot, like The Realness. I wasn’t even punching-in, I was coming in on two different tracks. It was a technique that I first used on Mobb Deep’s [“What’s Ya Poison”], but the engineer didn’t freak it right. If anybody criticize my flow—especially the recent stuff—than Cormega’s just not for you. My man Sean Price was like, “Yo, your flow got better.” [Laughs] When I got my peers, rappers tellin’ me I’m one of their favorite rappers—when I got Rakim lettin’ me rap at his show and he’s singing along to my verse—when I got Chuck D sayin’, “’Mega, your music is hard”—when I got Guru, rest in peace, saying, “Cormega’s my favorite rapper, and you can quote me on this,” everybody else can kiss my ass! [Laughs] I will always try to improve, but I like my flow. I like whatever it is that I do. You hit it on the nose: KRS-One didn’t always go on-beat. He didn’t. 2Pac, exactly! You named two of the greatest rappers, ever. Fuck that! I’m not a robot, I’m not goin’ by the formula.
That flow-shit is another excuse in Rap. There’s people who flow that suck. If you’re gonna judge greatness on flow, then we’ve got to change the rules. We’re gonna have to go back in the books, ‘cause Vanilla Ice had one of the fuckin’ dopest flows, ever! So we’re good. [Puff Daddy] can flow his ass off! Ma$e has a crazy flow! There’s mad people with flows who [fans] don’t give credit to. So which one is it? If it’s about flows, then you’d better put Ma$e up there at the top of the list. What is it about?
I’m a lyricist, I’m an MC. I look at myself as a poet. I could put my words on paper. Some of my rhymes are in college classrooms, straight up! My friend recently texted me, “Guess what my nephew got in his book in high school?” Cormega. I must be doin’ somethin’ right. In ego trip’s Book Of Rap Lists—“The Greatest Rap Albums That Never Was Released,” The Testament was one of the top albums they mentioned. The critics used to bother me—the critics don’t even realize how much I love them. I love them, ‘cause they make me work so much harder. Why do you think I did an album to show diversity? To show that I’m not a one-trick pony? There’s people who think they know me so much, but they don’t. So that’s [Mega Philosophy].