18 Years Ago Today, Do Or Die Released Picture This. Belo Tells The Story & Reveals A Sequel (Food For Thought Interview)
Eighteen years ago today, on September 3, 1996, three fearless 20-year-olds from the Westside of Chicago, released a debut album that would forever assist in the establishing of the Midwest’s presence among the already ingrained rap heavyweights of cities in the East, West, and South regions of the Country.
In terms of monumental personalities, significant releases, as well as toxic turmoil amid the same imperative personalities that brought extensive acclaim to the flourishing landscape, Rap music and its culture as a whole in 1996 was arguably in the midst of its most heightened sense of adoration it had ever seen itself exist in. The superiority of all of the hysteria though, was prominently located in the previously vested Hip-Hop hotbeds of New York and Los Angeles.
With the bulk of the onlookers’ focus being allocated between the two familiar regions, it was the Midwest, and specifically Chicago, who’s musical momentum was making immense headway and on the verge of demanding significant attention themselves. Whether they were aware of it at the time or not, it was Belo, AK-47, and Nard, who collectively made up the group Do Or Die, and their inaugural Rap-A-Lot Records-released album, Picture This, that would become one of the most imperative components to the inception of the Midwest’s and Chicago’s ever progressing Rap culture.
Eighteen years later, we sat down with Belo, the group’s most candid MC, and talked with the now 41-year old about everything from the roots behind the creation of Do Or Die and Picture This, the emergence of Chicago’s Rap scene in the mid-’90s, to his four-year prison sentence for second-degree murder in 2007, the contrast of senseless crime and murder in Chicago back then in comparison to the disarray the City sees itself in now, to rap’s involvement in the deterioration, the role it can play in repairing the City’s wounds, and ultimately the legacy that Do Or Die has achieved with the timeless Picture This.
Ambrosia For Heads: Belo, 18 years ago today, Do Or Die released the Chicago Gangsta Rap classic, Picture This. Do Or Die consists of yourself, AK and Nard. Can you talk a little bit about how you guys all knew each other, and really the first time you guys started getting your feet wet and performing as a collective unit?
Belo: Wow man, 18 years ago… that’s just crazy. Yeah, so [AK-47] and Nard are actually blood brothers. We all grew up in the same neighborhood on the Westside of Chicago, and we first met through a mutual friend. We actually started off as a dance group called Do Or Die. We were big into dancing, and then we ended up just getting involved in Hip-Hop just through being big fans of it. To be honest, we really got into the Rap game heavy, specifically because of how much we were fans of N.W.A. and what they were doing. We were always Hip-Hop heads from the start though. From Grandmaster Flash, to The Sugarhill Gang, Kool Moe Dee, to LL Cool J, and the Geto Boys. So we always had that passion for Hip-Hop, but when N.W.A. came about, that’s when we became really influenced and got very serious about doing this shit for a living.
Ambrosia For Heads: Can you shed some light on the origins of the group name, Do Or Die, and what it really meant to you guys?
Belo: You know what, what Do Or Die meant for us was more of a competitive thing. Some people may have interpreted it differently and whatnot, but you know, in whatever endeavors that you may have in life, you know you’re going to either accomplish what you set out to achieve, or you’re going to fail. So, from our perspective, that’s really the insight on what our name meant to us. We saw everything as a competition or a battle, you know? Even when we were dancing, it was like we are either going to win this battle, or we’re going to lose it. There was no in between or second place. To sum it up, it really just has to do with everything you’re going to do in life, you’re either going to win or lose. You’re either going to do or die.
Ambrosia For Heads: The album title, Picture This, was that symbolic of what you guys wanted to accomplish on the album in terms of introducing people to what was going on in Chicago through your lyrical accounts?
Belo: Yeah man, definitely. It was basically just like us saying, “Here are our lyrics, here is our lifestyle, here is how we live, and here’s what we had been through.” You know, even what our family members had been through, too. Growing up in the heart of the Westside of Chicago, we had seen and been through some shit. We really wanted to expose all of that to people through our lyrics and really just let people know who we were. The title of the album was really just our way of saying, here is everything we are about, now picture all of it.
Ambrosia For Heads: In regards to the Gangsta Rap scene in Chicago at that time in the mid-’90s, Do Or Die was really part of a very small collection of artists that put the city on the map in the genre. Along with you guys, it was Crucial Conflict, Twista, and Da’Brat, who were all releasing new music right around the same time. Can you talk about the local scene back then and the atmosphere around it?
Belo: Like you said man, it was a very small group of people who was really deeply involved in that scene. Us on the Westside though, we were really all close together for a lot of that time. A lot of the cats out there was part of Do Or Die at one point and then they all started branching off and forming other groups such as Psychodrama, and groups like that. But yeah, Crucial Conflict and I are from the same neighborhood. I went to school with some of the members of Crucial Conflict. So they were coming out at the same time as us, and we were really the two biggest groups who were doing it at the time. I mean there were guys like Common, who was starting out, and there were guys like R. Kelly, too. But Kells had already stamped his Chicago seal of approval by that time. Twista was doing his thing too, but all those guys were doing a different kind of sound, you know what I’m saying? Twista wasn’t rapping like he is now, until he got with us. Rap wasn’t really being respected in Chicago until Do Or Die or Crucial Conflict came about.
Ambrosia For Heads: Even though he had a couple albums under the name Tung Twista prior to being featured on Picture This, it was that album, and more specifically the track “Po Pimp”, that really thrust both Do Or Die and Twista into a more universally known realm. Can you talk about the success of that single specifically, and how it became so popular so quick?
Belo: You know what, it was really just something new, man. Me and AK got together, and we were like we are going to break off this sound and break off this style that had never been done before. It was a true blend of Rap and R&B music, that really hadn’t been explored before. And you know, to be honest with you, I think people received it so well and so quickly because back then, 2Pac and [The Notorious B.I.G.] were the biggest artists out, and they were doing some major beefing at that time. I think fans of Rap music were really tired of that beef era, and all that nonsense that was going on surrounding those types of Rap music, and “Po Pimp” just happened to be this new ass sound at the perfect time. It was fresh, it was original, and people took to it very quickly and then it just spread like wildfire. Especially in our hometown of Chicago.
Ambrosia For Heads: Were you guys more focused on building your reputation within Chicago, and creating a specific sound that people could associate with the city, as opposed to really trying to compete with the hip-hop heavyweight cities of New York and Los Angeles?
Belo: Yeah man, you know, we didn’t really concentrate at all on what New York or Los Angeles, or any other city was doing. Our whole thing was, this is our sound. This is what Chicago sounds like. You know, we respected the cats that came out of New York, and we really respected that whole movement on the West Coast, because like I said, we was hard on N.W.A., man. That was our group. Even those in the south, like the Geto Boys, you know? We had love for all them, but we really wanted to focus on our own sound. This was a Chicago sound, a Chicago style, and we blocked everybody else out.
Ambrosia For Heads: In regards to that specific sound you guys established within Picture This, there are definitely certain tracks on the album — “Playa Like Me And You,” “Paperchase,” and “Money Flow,” much like “Po Pimp,” that were essentially laid back, ride out, smoking records. Would you say that was consciously a big part of Do Or Die’s identity, and something that was important to you guys? Making music that a consumer could just put on, let it play and effortlessly ride out to?
Belo: Honestly, on that initial album we just wanted to make feel-good music that was real, that the people could relate to. We weren’t necessarily making songs specifically for people to ride out to, or smoke to, although that’s how people ended up feeling it. I think we were just trying to make real-ass music, and people seemed to react to it a certain way. You have to keep in mind, that at that time, a lot of shit was going on. Not just in Chicago, but all around the world. So I think people just related to our music because it allowed them to escape from all the bullshit, and just feel good about the moment. Although we did talk about some harsh realities, and the streets, and the violence in Chicago, and how crooked some of the police were, you know, but at the end of the day, all of that stuff we rapped about on Picture This, a lot of people could relate to, and it made them feel a certain way they had never felt. So they just continued to gravitate towards it.
Ambrosia For Heads: As you just mentioned, on the other end of the lyrical spectrum, a lot of your tracks, like “6 Million Ways To Die,” “Kill Or Be Killed,” and “Shut Em Down,” were very graphic in terms of the atmosphere that surrounded you guys in your neighborhoods, and the familiarity you guys had with the excess of murder and crime. Was the honesty in lyrically illustrating those harsh realities equally as important to you guys as making feel good music?
Belo: I think it really was, man. I mean, we were in the midst of that shit, bro. We were in the hood. We were in the ghetto. So either we were living that life, or we were exposed to it, or we had family members and friends who were victims of it. So it was important for us to express that vision through our music. But even then, we would tell people that “Hey, this may be the life that we live at the moment, but don’t you live this life.” Or, “This is the life we see and we were raised in, so here’s how it is, but please don’t you live this shit.” So even if we were talking about some street shit, and getting high, or riding and smoking in our lyrics, we were also always trying to ultimately express a positive message in our music as well.
Ambrosia For Heads: You had some legal troubles in 2007 and ended up spending a little over four years in prison after pleading guilty to second degree murder charges. Looking back on that time, do you think that the type of Rap you guys made and some of the lyrics in it, made it more difficult for you to prove your innocence in that case? Did you feel the judicial system had already assumed you were a certain type of character simply because you were a gangster rapper?
Belo: You know man, to be honest with you…it was a very tricky and testing trial. Obviously, I was going to be stereotyped anyway, but it was a very tricky trial. The judge in the case knew the family members of the guy who…[pauses]…I don’t want to use the word “murdered,” because what happened was in self-defense. But, the judge knew his family members, and the state prosecutor sent my kids’ mother to prison, and lied on her and said she tried to pay somebody off. Like the whole damn case was just rigged up for me to go to prison, man. I fought the case for six years on the outside, and I ended up just pleading out. I could have continued to fight the case, but I was just tired of fighting it because I was going through so much at the time. But yeah, I do believe that I was stereotyped because of my lyrics in my music and all that. They brought all of that up, like, “We heard the songs and what you were talking about in them, and this and that,” and I’m sitting there like, “What the fuck do my songs have to do with this situation right now?” You know what I’m saying? But yeah, man, you’re right on that, they did use that shit against me. When they say be careful what you say, because it may come back to haunt you later on, that is true. You always have to be conscious of the words that come out of your mouth, because you never know when that will come back to bite you.
Ambrosia For Heads: You were released in 2011, and regardless of the circumstances around your case, you really came out of prison with a matured sense of reality, correct? What did going through all of that teach you about yourself and life in general?
Belo: It humbled me more than anything, man. I was already mature at an early age just because of my life experiences. I moved out of my mom’s place at 15 years old and got my own apartment. I learned quickly through the streets, and through all of my other life experiences how to handle my own business. So by the time I got to prison, man, it was just another hurdle that I had to get over. It did truly discipline me in some ways, though. It taught me how to sit still and think more clearly. It mainly just taught me how to appreciate life more and not take anything for granted, man. No doubt about that.
Ambrosia For Heads: When you got released, you came back to a Chicago that was in the midst of one of the worst stretches of crime and murder ever, and unfortunately it’s seemingly only getting worse today. Looking at the current situation in the city, in regards to the senseless murders and crime, how much different is it now than it was back in mid ’90s?
Belo: Man, a lot of this shit was going on back then, too. It’s just that it wasn’t reported on as widely as it is now because the media and Internet wasn’t around like it is today. You know, people died everyday in my hood and on my block back then. People were dying every single day, man, and shit was being swept under the rug. But now, because of how easily everyone can see everything at any given moment, we look like the worst damn city in the world. Granted, the younger generation now a days is a little more wild than they were back then. So that’s a big difference, for sure. There are so many different drugs these kids are doing now. Syrup, and pills, and all this other crazy shit they are on. All that wild stuff wasn’t around back then, so it’s definitely more reckless today than it was back in the mid-’90s. But, this shit has been going on forever.
Ambrosia For Heads: Being able to look at it through a widened lens, with you living in the chaos at one time, and then going through everything you did, and now having a refreshed grasp on it, why do you think there hasn’t been much progress on finding some solutions or relief to the influx of crime and disorder?
Belo: If I’m being completely honest, I think one of the worst things that Chicago ever did was lock up all of the gang chiefs. That was a fatal mistake. They left a lot of people out here with no guidance and no one to look up to, man. Half of these kids out here, and even back in my generation, a lot of kids didn’t have both a mother and a father. Either you had one or the other, or you had no parents at all. So, we learned those core values from the streets. But when they took our so-called ‘leaders’ away, all structure was lost and it was total chaos. Everyone began fending for themselves, which led to these ruthless street wars that you are still seeing today.
Another major thing that has led to even more chaos and murder, is when Chicago tore down all those projects across the city. They did demolition on a lot of standing projects, especially on the south side. But we had projects up north, and projects out west, too, and Chicago tore down all those fucking projects without a plan. So now you got all these people who have been living in the hood for 30, 40, 50 years, moving into these other areas. If they’ve been living and hustling in the projects for thirty years, and now they’re living in these new and unfamiliar areas, they are sure as hell going to try and eat in these areas, too. So you got people who were forced to move to these spots, who are on the block trying to hustle where these other cats have already been hustling for quite some time. There is always going to be some major problems in situations like that, man. It’s not a good situation at all.
Ambrosia For Heads: There is a whole Rap movement in Chicago, the “drill scene”, that really influences that reckless lifestyle and almost encourages and convinces these young cats to embrace that culture and to participate in the crime. Being a veteran in the Gangsta Rap game, can you talk about how you feel that whole movement can really continue to negatively affect the situation in Chicago?
Belo: It definitely negatively influences the culture, but it’s just a small part of the problem. It’s a mixture of that music, the things I just talked about, and also the school systems. The school systems are totally fucked up out here, man. That’s really that’s the most important issue. Because of the lack of structure in the schools, and the fact that they have tore down the recreational centers, basketball courts, and public places like that, these kids have nothing to do, and don’t have anywhere to go. So what are they going to do? They are out here getting high, surfing the streets, they listening to that music, and they are running wild. So it’s definitely a mixture of all of those things combining to make one greater negative outcome.
Ambrosia For Heads: On the constructive end of the Chicago Hip-Hop scene, there are guys like Chance The Rapper who are using the colossal platform they have acquired, to tackle these issues in a positive way. He’s got the mass attention of the younger generation and is really encouraging kids to remove themselves from the chaos and channel their misplaced energy in more useful ways. While Rap can obviously encourage and manifest the negative aspects of that lifestyle, it can also do the opposite, right? How important is it for the rappers who have these stages to reach millions, to use their voice to help the situation in Chicago?
Belo: It’s so very important, man. It’s very important that the message of hope gets out to this generation. All entertainers, including Do Or Die, Common, Twista, Kanye [West], and all of us who have roots here in Chicago. It’s so very essential that we deliver a positive message and that we are stressing to these kids to put the guns down. I really can see a trend where cats are coming together through this music to rise above it all and stray away from all this wild shit. Especially the younger guys who have a voice. I’m reaching out to some of them, too. I’m doing this project called We Are One Chicago, just trying to reach out to all the young cats in Chicago and pull them together, man. As you said, just using their voice to spread that positive message, and doing marches, and free benefits, and just really trying to get a hold on this “Chiraq” bullshit. That stupid ass name needs to be wiped clean from all these kid’s vocabularies. If we can all bring light to both the problems and solutions, I can definitely see it becoming more positive than negative in the near future.
Ambrosia For Heads: On a more positive note, what is Do Or Die currently up to, man? Do you guys have some new music in the works, and have you guys been rocking any shows recently?
Belo: Man it’s funny you ask, because we just got off a little mini-tour. I just got back yesterday. We still got shows up the ass, and we are dropping a new album called Picture This 2, which will be coming out this year. Our first single is with Rick Ross, and we of course got our homeboys Twista and Johnny P on there, and we’re reaching out to Chris Brown and Ludacris, as well. There’s a lot of stuff we are looking forward to accomplishing this year with some new music.
Ambrosia For Heads: Seeing that the landscape of the music industry has taken on infinite amounts of changes from your initial release to today, what is the biggest obstacles for you guys now a days, in continuing your pursuit of making new music and reaching a mass audience?
Belo: I think the biggest obstacle is radio, bro. Simply because it’s so political right now. I mean you really have to have a big budget to be heard in today’s industry. The system is much different now a days. You used to have program directors and DJs where you could give them your record, and if they liked the shit, they’d spin it. But now, it’s too much politics in radio. So it takes more effort and persistence to get your music heard if people aren’t familiar with your past work.
Ambrosia For Heads: Do you think that having such successful albums right off the bat with Picture This and Headz Or Tailz, could almost be considered a detriment in any fashion? Where a lot of your fans unfairly compare your ensuing releases, to those initial albums? Or is it just pleasant to have those albums still be echoing with fans?
Belo: You know what, I just think we have loyal fans. When we came in, it was during an era that involved a lot of loyal fans in general. Whether it was ‘Pac, Biggie, Snoop [Dogg], or any of those guys, they all had the same thing with their supporters. In my opinion, we caught the last era of the loyal fan. Now, we have put out some albums with no promotion or marketing dollars, and they definitely didn’t do as well as the first two albums did. The third one didn’t do extremely well, but it still sold over 300,000 copies. Then the following releases were up and down, as well. But we’re like eight albums in, you know? So our fans are always going to be loyal. You have to think about this, too. Even with the younger generation today, their parents who are a generation below us, like yourself, are still listening to our music. So the young kids are still aware of our music, and that all comes back to having loyal fans. So with the right marketing campaign, the right digital push, and most definitely the right music, sky is still the limit for Do Or Die.
Ambrosia For Heads: In closing, when looking at how much Picture This still resonates with fans to this day, 18 years later, why do you think that is? What made Picture This so significant that it has stood the test of time and is still so special to so many people and continues to transcend generations?
Belo: You know, when we did Picture This, we really made history. Our sound was just so different. People wanted something new, and they were screaming for something fresh, and we just happened to come along at the right time with the right product. We made music on that album that everyone needed at that time. The people wanted it, and once they heard it, they embraced it. It was truly some classic shit. It was music we loved making though, and we put our hearts and souls into it. You know what man, In anything you do in life, but especially in music, whenever you make something that comes from a heartfelt place, people are going to gravitate towards it. And that’s exactly what happened with Picture This. It’s a heartfelt album, that is about some real shit, and it makes people feel good. Time can never put up a fight against something like that. Picture This is going to be a classic forever.