Joe Budden Discusses Why His Music & Personal Life Are At Their Best In 2016
If you’re not constantly challenged, you’re probably not doing it right. Joe Budden entered 2016 with a proven career—decorated with a cult music following, reality television history, a podcast, and an Eminem-backed super-group at his side. However, throughout the last 15 years, Joe Budden never seems to get complacent. When things appear to get too steady, he shakes up his world.
This year has been one massive shake. Joe Budden has always provided uncut opinion about Rap peers, and he’s no stranger to Rap battles (of all sorts). This year, through seemingly going toe-to-toe with Drake, the Jersey City native not only disturbed the Rap universe, he did so while fighting for Rap skills and Hip-Hop accountability. As a byproduct of this conflict, Budden went viral—with an assembly line of records, phone-camera footage, and even corresponding interviews. As Joe found himself in the spotlight, he came well-prepared in all possible ways.
Speaking with Ambrosia For Heads, Joe details his 2016—through numerous lyrics on the upcoming Rage & The Machine (October 21). The lucid artist opens up about rediscovering his passion for music making, coming full circle as a father, and channeling Roc-A-Fella Records-era Jay Z for making an album that brings back a sense of NYC nostalgia, Rap lyric listening, and Hip-Hop pride.
Ambrosia For Heads: “Three” starts off the album on such a heavy note. You rap, “I’m old school, so my mind is in a New York state / Still feel like I’m the best rapper in New York State.” You’ve been doing this for more than 15 years. Does the spirit of competition in Hip-Hop feel more front and center than ever before?
Joe Budden: I won’t say “than ever before,” but it definitely feels more front and center than it has been in recent times—and I enjoy it. You know, a lot of us competitive MCs, we still thrive off of that energy and that adrenaline, so it’s good to see. I’m certainly glad it’s back.
Ambrosia For Heads: You’ve always been a very approachable MC. From social media to your relateable songwriting, fans feel like they know you. Listening to “Forget,” especially the second verse, do you think that approachability makes people feel that you owe them a little bit more than maybe another artist would?
Joe Budden: One hundred percent. One hundred percent. I think because the music has been so relatable for [basically] 15 years — that’s a long time to listen to somebody. Especially someone as personal as me, or introspective as me, so you kinda do feel like there’s that long-lost-cousin relationship, or long lost family member. So when [fans] see me…I’ve helped so many people through whatever it is I may have helped them with that they almost feel obliged to either say something or let me share their experience, and I don’t ever mind it—except for when it’s done in like the worst place possible, like a courthouse or during a meal. That’s a pet peeve of mine.
Ambrosia For Heads: Rage & The Machine is incredibly sequenced. What is the theme you’re conveying, and how you arranged and sequenced this album?
Joe Budden: I wanted the album to be reminiscent of all the people and the sound that influenced me and inspired me. So throughout the entire album you hear a lot of references to other acts. You’ll hear some lines from other songs—some odes. I wanted that to be a consistent theme, because it seems Hip-Hop is so far removed from that currently. So for the people that still have some adoration for that style, I wanted there to be a piece of work, or a body of work, for them. It’s my most concise album… so we wanted it to be a quick road down memory lane, sonically—and we just wanted to [rap nonstop] and show that ability and that skill set was still very much present.
Ambrosia For Heads: Being that this was a one MC, one producer battery, did you kind of have that mapped out in the writing, or did you record an abundance of material and then really kind of edit and whittle it down to what felt like it accomplished what you just said?
Joe Budden: araab[MUZIK] inspired me the entire time with just his ability, so any beat that he made on the spot, and I enjoyed, I rapped on it. I would give him different ideas and then he would kind of play with it. We basically lived together for a total of two months, so there’s plenty of music recorded—and maybe we’ll see [Rage & The Machine] Part 2 somewhere later down the line—but there was plenty recorded and we had to kind of pick what best told our story, and what best narrated and conveyed what we wanted to get out there.
Ambrosia For Heads: I think Jay-Z would be one of the figures that you just alluded to that you’re referencing in this album. You use the “Hard Knock Life” cadence and a few couplets on “I Gotta Ask.” In your career you kind of entered at the time when The Tunnel and other places still existed. In referencing these things of the late ’90s and early 2000s, are you trying to bring back some of that to the industry and to Rap?
Joe Budden: Oh, 100%, but…I try to do that in most of my outings—but I think this one more so. This was my first album where it’s not very introspective. It’s not so told from a personal point of view. It’s not so autobiographical. This one, we really just stuck to Hip-Hop and our passion for it, and that New York sound—heavy samples, hard drums, just a lot of that that has kinda been absent, or it’s not just as promoted as some other music — so yeah, we definitely wanted to bring that feel back as well.
Ambrosia For Heads: Also connected to Jay Z, you rap on another song: “If it’s gonna all implode before it blows up, we need to do more than overcharge cats for what they did to the Cold Crush.” What does that rhyme specifically mean to you, and how does it apply to the record?
Joe Budden: Well, that reference is [an] old Jay [Z “Izzo”] line, “I’m overcharging niggas for what they did to the Cold Crush,” which I thought was so genius that, for all of his success, he was still very much grounded and aware of the rappers that came before him, and their plight and their struggle. We kinda need to not only revisit that, but improve upon it, because there are so many more rappers on that list that kinda paved the way—and what we’re doing to the art, sometimes, the way that we exploit the art, the way that we take advantage of the art, sometimes, a lot of us don’t put the art first. It goes right back to that line. When you put the art first and you’re passionate about it, and your objective is the art and the music and the betterment of the culture, we might see some different results.
Ambrosia For Heads: Your relationships have been a big part of your career. Like Ice-T putting Darlene Ortiz on Power, and later Coco, your significant others have been in the spotlight with you. You have a teenage son and, without prying into a personal place, I’d like to know a piece of advice that you’ve given your son when it comes to romantic relationships?
Joe Budden: You know what’s so funny about this question? My son and I, we haven’t had too many conversations about his thoughts on my romantic life, but I can tell that he kinda looks at me that way—he kinda looks at me like I do pretty good in that area, for some reason. But, first things first, with him, I teach him how to be a gentleman. That’s just the most important thing to me, as a man. They always say that chivalry is dead. I don’t think it’s true. I think when people are raised properly, certain things are just by default. You open doors. You carry things. You pull out chairs. You’re mannerable. You’re polite. You’re just a gentleman—so I try to teach him that. I try to instill that in him, and if he masters that, he’ll be pretty fine later on in life with women.
Ambrosia For Heads: How has fatherhood changed Joe Budden?
Joe Budden: Well, I say to my child, it’s so ironic that I gave him life and—just the way the universe works…suddenly, here I am at 36 years old, he’s giving life right back to me. He’s changed my entire perspective on everything. I was an absentee father for so long, so now, for me to be so heavily involved in my kid’s life and just talking to him, seeing things through his eyes, his friends, that whole world, it’s changed everything. I no longer communicate the same way that I used to. Like, we need the elder statesmen to kind of be the elder statesmen. We need the grownups to be the grownup, and I think in Hip-Hop it’s very easy for that line to get blurred because our favorite rappers, they look the part—they look young, act young…It’s almost a part of the game now, is to identify with that younger audience and that demographic—so the line is easily blurred. [My son] un-blurred that line for me, and it’s manifested in all areas—all facets: the music, romantically, in business and with my family. I mean, he’s really changed that much for me. Thank God.
Ambrosia For Heads: You made some poignant lines about your relationship with your father on “When Thugs Cry.” To now be on the other side of it and watch, being a parent and a father yourself, there’s just something really special to that.
Joe Budden: I totally agree. My significant other actually—just a few hours ago—asked me at what age did I decide I wanted to be a rapper, and then I explained to her, I said, “Honestly, I don’t think I ever said in my brain, ‘I want to be a rapper.’” Rap was just something that I did pretty well, until I had a kid on the way and didn’t have any other skill-set or anything to put on a resumé, so then I had to try to make some money because I had a kid coming. I used to be so angry that, for whatever reason, there was a disconnect between my child’s mother and myself, and my kid was out of my life. It’s right there in [my lyrics], if anybody wants to go check for this stuff. So I used to be so angry, right? But today, in hindsight–it’s just why hindsight is so important–I don’t even know if I would’ve been able to go and rap and travel the world, and learn, and have all these different experiences if I was an active father then. It’s almost uncanny to me that I’m still blessed with this ability and I’m afforded this lifestyle, and I have all of this knowledge from my travelings in music, and my son is 15 years old and we are side-by-side for me to give it all to him. I’m so enjoying fatherhood — even the pitfalls of it. It’s just such a new experience. He’s [invigorated] me.
Ambrosia For Heads: On the album, you rap, “30 is the new 40.” Do you say that because you feel wiser, or worn, or both?
Joe Budden: I [rapped] that not because I feel worn at all, but one: I do feel wiser and two: age is to be welcomed, and it’s a gift when you achieve it. Like, only in Hip-Hop do we age shame —and I guess I didn’t even know that until I became of this age and, you know, the kids are saying, “Shut up! You old! You old! You 31.” But I remember, I used to think like that, so only in Hip-Hop do we just look at age that way but…Hip-Hop thrives because of people who are in that age bracket, as well.
Ambrosia For Heads: It’s funny, in football Steve Smith put “Sr.” on his football uniform, but in Hip-Hop it’s like a publicist or a manager or a label will tell you to hide your age—
Joe Budden: —That’s what they told me. Listen, when I signed [to Def Jam Records], they were trying to figure out what my “industry age” was. I said, “Why the fuck do I need an industry age and I’m 21?…What are you about to say, that I’m 19? I already look like I’m 26.”A lot of people thought my real age was indeed my industry age.
Ambrosia For Heads: On “10 Mins,” you rapped, “I’m an addict, and addicts can’t do half of nothing.” To what extent do you think that that line about addiction applies to 2016 and your relationship with the music?
Joe Budden: Shit, it’s more prevalent than ever. When I started recording [Rage & The Machine], every single person that I began to let hear the music, I could feel the different reaction. I could feel their eyes light up. I could feel their entire energy shift as this music played, right? There was a time where I’ll say I maybe wasn’t as passionate about not only music, but the business that came along with it during some of the ups and downs. I used to always say the alternate route may be a long one, but you’ll get to the same exact place. Where I ended up. Where I am. When I really stopped and spoke to a Higher Power and began to really have some appreciation and some gratitude for all that surrounded me, and then my kid. Everything just seemed to keep happening around the same time that kinda caused this amazing pocket—for lack of better term—where music just sounds a lot more inspired, a lot more passionate—[with] a lot more vigor.
Ambrosia For Heads: You kind of had that realization when you started playing this album, as it started to near completion or was completed, for some of your trusted inner circle?
Joe Budden: Yeah, 100%. Because, I mean, quiet is kept, everyone is not as straightforward as me. It must have been an elephant in the room where just the music just wasn’t as good. Either it wasn’t as good, or I don’t know—but the reaction was very, very different. It was different. It felt different. I could feel it, Araab felt it, everybody could feel it. It was just a very different energy.
Ambrosia For Heads: On the album, you rap, “My worthless self: when Joe felt hurt, I went out and targeted women who had no self-worth.” What changed for you and your relationships once you gained that self-awareness?
Joe Budden: Everything. Outlook, perspective, people—the people I dealt with, the people that I wouldn’t deal with. Everything. Everything changed. Self-awareness is just so important—so, so important—and that took a while to learn. That verse is me speaking on all the great things that hindsight has showed me. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to draft that verse in my twenties.
Ambrosia For Heads: Are you of the belief that people with more self worth are harder to earn?
Joe Budden: Yes.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mentioned you and DJ Premier being on the same team on “Idols,” and I feel that he makes his best music, aside from Guru, with hard-nose, introspective people. Very true of Royce 5’9″, Group Home, M.O.P. and Bumpy Knuckles—
Joe Budden: —A lot of people don’t appreciate the greatness of that Group Home [Livin’ Proof] album, beat-wise…
Ambrosia For Heads: Are we going to get a one to one Joe and Premier collaboration in the future?
Joe Budden: One hundred percent. One hundred percent. [DJ Premier] knows it has to happen. It’s on my bucket list. It’s on his bucket list. It’s something that we both want, and for me to be in the position to do it—because I see Preem’ the way everybody should see Preem’. It’s like an honor, so it has to happen.
Ambrosia For Heads: As I understand it, one of your causes in this album and its premise is to get people to appreciate lyricism and rapping in its full capacity once more. 2016, not completely by your orchestration, has been a lot of spectacle in your life. In all of that, whether it’s kids in the driveway or it’s the highest profile battle of your career, a Funkmaster Flex freestyle, or keeping it real over hot wings—whatever it is, in that process, people are paying more attention to the lyrics. Is that by design to make a younger generation that’s used to special effects and everything in their Rap music, to come back and have the same relationship with the music that you have?
Joe Budden: I understand [what you are asking]… That’s who I am, so I mean, that’s gonna always be my cause. That’s gonna always be my agenda. I always say people without passion are not really living… But, I mean, it’s been a good year! It’s been a good year. I will say that. I will say that. I am glad that so many people do seem to be paying attention, or at least it feels that way, to some of the core things that this culture’s based on and founded on.
Rage & The Machine releases October 21 on Mood Muzik Entertainment/Empire.