Co$$ is alternately cerebral and street level, but always candid. With a cadre of obscure producers he met on the Internet, Co$$ delivers a vivid debut album that seamlessly blends astral musings and lyrical smack downs. He’s a hip-hop head in the first degree who claims to know the lyrics to every song on Me Against the World and gushes over the finer points of rhyming styles used by Ras Kass, Black Thought, and Nas. In our interview, the Leimert Park, CA rapper talks about his creative process, religion, and the Flying Lotus collaboration that never was. Before I Awoke is out today and you can listen to it here.
ML: What was the concept behind Before I Awoke?
Co$$: Basically it just represents self-consciousness, like knowing oneself. I called it Before I Awoke because I tie in the concept of sleep which is being fully conscious, fully aware of who I am as a man. At the time when I started working on this I was 22, 23, so it was just being in my early twenties and not having a full understanding of who I am or exactly what kind of direction I want to go in and that kind of thing.
ML: We last talked in August 2009. What’s been the biggest change for you since then?
Co$$: Having a complete product. Around that time, I hadn’t actually finished the album. I couldn’t actually tell you what the cohesive sound of the project was, because there was no cohesiveness, because I didn’t have a full product. Finally having a record that’s complete and like the anticipation of having a release and feeling like, ‘OK, once this album drops, then things change and maybe it’ll increase the awareness.’ So just the excitement of knowing I have a product out there, knowing in a small amount of time, people are finally going to be introduced to me and my full sound. I always get criticism on the blogs that I just drop songs or I drop mixtapes or I never drop an album, so I’m just excited about finally having a product coming out.
ML: Are you still getting used to that artist lifestyle and promoting yourself?
Co$$: Yeah just in the way that I have to adjust who I am as a person just because being an artist is a big, big – maybe almost equal to the music – is a social aspect of hip-hop. It’s basically a community of artists all making money together. So if you want to flourish in the rap game, you have to get out and network with people. Even negative energy is good. Sometimes beef helps an artist out. Any kind of socializing, negative or positive, in the rap game is better than none at all. So yeah, I have to alter my personality a little bit to get out the house and really start shaking hands and networking.
ML: I know LA is very cliquish. You, as far as I can tell, don’t have a clique. You have the Tres Records guys and you have your own team of producers. Why is that?
Co$$: Just because I kind of stand on my own. I feel like a lot of artists in LA, they run with each other for the whole face value of it, the way it appears, but these niggas ain’t really friends. I’m not going to call them fake. I don’t know what their reasons are, I can’t read their minds, but I’m not gonna run with niggas that I don’t have a personal rapport with. I consider my circle of rappers Shawn Jackson, Blu, Ta’Raach, Sene. I have MCs that I feel like I’m very close with. Almost any project that I put out has Sene on it. And it does disappoint me that I’m not closer with LA-based artists. I’m such a West Side dude. I’m so loyal to this West Coast shit, but if you look at my projects, it’s almost like I’m making it a point not to fuck with anybody in LA and that’s not my intention. It’s just I’m not gonna fuck with you if I don’t fuck with you. And a lot of these dudes I have reached out to, they’ve rejected features, requests, they act funny. And I don’t have time for that. I’m a real dude. If you wanna work, let’s work, if you wanna be an asshole, then be a asshole. I’m only gonna get burnt once. That’s pretty much the reason.
ML: You talk about faith a lot. What attracts you to that topic?
Co$$: I grew up in a Catholic church, so I went to private Catholic school my whole life. Transfiguration in Leimert Park and then I went to St. Monica’s and just having a lot of religion imposed on me. People trying to impose their subjectivity onto me and trying to make me feel as if faith is equivalent to fact. So a lot of times, I just question it because I feel like growing up, a lot of people don’t question what they’re told, they just believe and they project those beliefs as fact as if there is no other forms of belief that are valid. It’s just the way I was raised. A lot of times when you’re immersed in religion, it causes a form of rebellion towards it, because you’re so overwhelmed by it and by all the judgement that’s involved with it. That’s where it comes from.
ML: Are you religious?
Co$$: I’m spiritual. I’m a agnostic, so it’s hard for me to sound religious because I think religion is one of the big dividers in human society. Not just America, not just any country, I think religion is very divisive, but I’m not anti-religion in the sense that if you’re a Muslim or you’re a Christian, I’m not trying to get in the debate and take validity away from your beliefs. I’m very spiritual, but I’m definitely not religious.
ML: The only typical West Coast sound I heard on the album was the high-pitched synth on “Spaceman.” Do you purposefully avoid sounds like that?
Co$$: No, I actually love that. If you listen to “Khakis & Taylors,” that sounds very-
Co$$: And then if you listen to “In the Wind,” for me that’s very West Coast. And then “Da Meanest,” it’s not typically West Coast sound-wise, but the lyrics – I say some shit in that song that’ll piss some niggas off [laughs]. But I just do me organically. I actually like that question, because a lot of times people peg me as like, ‘Oh he got that West Coast swag’ and I’m like ‘Where is that in my music?’ I appreciate people saying I have West Coast swag, but I just don’t understand how people peg me as a typical West Coast artist. I think I’m the furthest thing from it. But I don’t do it on purpose, I just let it flow. I’m more worried about the cohesiveness of the album sound-wise. I just want each song to flow into the next, for each song to sound like it belongs as opposed to embodying a West Coast or a East Coast or a Midwest or a Down South sound.
ML: How do you decide what you’re going to talk about on each song?
Co$$: See, that’s funny because I used to have that conversation with Blu. I never pick a topic, I just let it flow organically. My only objective is to not be repetitive. A lot of times I find I talk about fake MCs a lot. I try to suppress that. A lot of times I’m like, ‘Alright, you already did four songs about fake MCs. You don’t want your whole catalog to be about how all the other rappers are fake.’ I try to diversify my content. Like when I wrote “No Allah,” when I first heard that beat, I planned to do some West Coast cruising shit and it flowed out where it became very spiritual and the topic was anything but casual West Coast. I feel like a lot of rappers, they sit down, they hear a beat, and they go, ‘OK, what can I do to appease other people?’ When I sit down and I hear a beat and I go ‘How can I get over this beat the most genuine depiction of the way I feel right now?’ I do keep in mind what people are going to like and dislike when I pick beats and I write hooks, but when I’m actually writing the subject, I don’t go, ‘OK, this beat sounds like this kind of song,’ because I feel like that’s what makes a lot of music generic.
ML: You get compared to Ras Kass a lot. Does that bother you?
Co$$: No, actually a lot of my influence as far as being lyrical came from Ras. The only mistruth that’s put out there is that he’s my favorite MC. I just feel like it’s not accurate because I can’t name ten Ras Kass songs. I was more influenced by his style than his actual catalog of work. My favorite MC is probably Tupac Shakur. But yeah, I have no problem with that. The biggest difference between us is flow. Ras Kass was a lot more content based and I’m very focused on content, but also I’m big on flow. I feel like Ras Kass didn’t limit himself as far as flow or schematically.
ML: What is your proximity to gangs?
Co$$: I grew up in the gang culture in LA. Most of my homeboys are either directly members of gangs or have close affiliation to ‘em, but my whole angle is that – one of my biggest influences came from Nas. Nas gave you a clear portrait of Queensbridge without feeling the need to interject himself in the first person and that’s what I do. I’m not a Crip, I’m not a Blood, I’m not a gangsta, I’m not a thug, and I’m not going to exaggerate my persona. And in the same sense, you get a lot of street dudes that’ll say, [mock street dude voice] ‘Oh that nigga, he wasn’t in the hood, he can’t speak on that.’ That’s bullshit nigga, you can’t tell me I didn’t go through the shit I went through, I didn’t lose the homies that I lost. I’m gonna speak on the shit because I grew up in it. That’s how I feel about it. It’s like, I’m not going to hold back. I remember what 2Pac said, ‘You can’t always be worried that what you’re saying is going to offend somebody. You just need to speak from the heart and let it do what it does once it’s out there.’ Yeah, I got close affiliation to gangs. I grew up in a Crip culture. I grew up in a Crip neighborhood. All my friends are Crips. If anything, through my message, I want people to hear that I’m telling you the real about this shit. And that’s not to disrespect anybody’s lifestyle, because gangbanging in Chicago and LA and a lot of urban communities is a way of life. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh it’s stupid, it’s ignorant.’ It’s deeper than what’s stupid and what’s ignorant. If you grew up in that culture, that’s how you live and that’s how you live. Through my music, I want people to take from it that this is something that’s real. It’s not a game when you see Lil Wayne or you see one of your favorite rappers on MTV waving around a red bandana. That’s not what it is. You will get your head blown off in LA if you take this shit for a joke. That’s how I feel about it. I don’t even like to say I’m affiliated. I just happen to have a connection to that because if you grow up in LA and you live in a middle class to lower middle class community or a lower class community, you’re going to be exposed to gangbanging.
ML: What’s your favorite 2Pac album?
Co$$: Me Against the World. I think his most advanced album lyrically was Makavelli. A lot of people criticize Pac for being a simplistic lyricist. I don’t think 2Pac’s angle was to be the illest. Comparing 2Pac and Biggie is like comparing a point guard to a center. Biggie was more lyrically focused, 2Pac was more focused on the message. But yeah, Me Against the World just because I can probably rap every lyric off of every song on that album, but Makavelli, I think, was his most advanced lyrically.
ML: “Pot Ash” is amazing.
Co$$: That’s my favorite song on the album.
ML: Do you read any magazines or websites?
Co$$: I’m a 2dopeboy addict. I’m a political junkie so I pretty much sit around listening to political talk radio. I’m a addict for politics both conservative and progressive. I’m probably listening to Thom Hartmann, I listen to Mike Gallagher, I listen to Michael Medved, I listen to Mike Malloy, I’m just big on politics. My favorite show is Rachel Maddow. Every day I’m in front of the TV watching MSNBC. I just like to be influenced on what’s going on with our government, what’s going on in our communities, and that kind of thing. I’m not as big of a reader as I want to be.
ML: You said you really wanted to do an album with Flying Lotus. Do you think that’s any closer to reality?
Co$$: I’m just going to keep it real, because that’s the only way that I know how to keep it. I had a song on my album called “Palm Trees” that I had to remove. It was probably one of my favorite songs. I had personally played the song for Lotus face to face, not like I sent him the song via email. I thought I had the thumbs up for the record. Push comes to shove, I don’t know if there was a misunderstanding. Around the time I was turning in the album I was just trying to get all the publishing information verified, he told me I couldn’t use the song. Artistically, I’m a big Lotus fan. I feel like if I came together with him, I could really do my ideal West Coast album. Like when we talk about futuristic West Coast, that was my dream. Link up with Lotus and kind of do what Blu did with his last release – electric hip-hop but more g-funk. I just felt like if I took Lotus’ sound and put that West Coast stamp on it, it could be an incredible project. But after that, to keep it real, much respect to Lotus, much respect to his sound, there’s no ill will on a personal level, but professionally that really burnt me. I was just like, ‘It was one song.’ To my knowledge, Lotus has not released the beat. To be blunt, I thought that was an asshole move on his part. Now my desire to work with him has really been diminished. But still much respect to Lotus. I’m still a big fan of what he does, but as far as working with dude, I’m just the kind of artist where I value the way we interact personally as much as I value the way we interact on a business level. I don’t like the way dude treated me. I don’t mean to sound like a bitch-made nigga, but I don’t like the way he dealt with the situation. So I’m good on working with Lotus.
ML: What was the last thing you bought?
Co$$: I bought a button down from the Five Four store at Fox Hill. I bought a button down for the “Pot Ash” video. To be honest with you, the last thing I bought was herb from the herb store yesterday. OG kush.