If you don’t know the Yardfather by now, that’s just a damn shame. While most of the world has been sleeping, Saigon has been putting out straight Hip-Hop classics that the streets have been eating up.
Yeah, classics. Like Illmatic, Rakim and early WU-type classics. As in the type of records that will be revered, studied, debated upon and dissected for years to come. Why? There are many reasons. Primarily is Saigon;s ability as a writer. There is an amazing amount of talent and skill incorporated in the man’s vocabulary, both of which were hard-earned through a life of struggle and violence. Lyrically, there ain’t nobody in the game that is touching the kid. His masterful vacillations between the literal and the figurative are nothing less than poetic, and his visually charged narratives are cold and compelling. He is armed with a vast array of searing, incisive weapons that keep his lyrics razor sharp. His language is steeped both in the vivid realities of street life and the underlying social implications that same street life embodies. His slang is thorough and on point, his vision and focus are clear. Here is a lyricist in the purest form, able to construct lines of rhyme that resonate with a very casual kind of brilliance.
Take, for example, some of his earliest work. A track like the self-produced “Favorite Things” displays its subject matter in a playful and clever format of question and answer. To the tune of the old standard by the same name, it is deceptively simple as a concept. Nonetheless, it is elevated to masterpiece level with a crafted series of lines whose only object is to describe what moves its author. Or, take the Alchemist-produced banger: “Contraband (Pop Quiz).” Using an SAT-like format of multiple choice questions, Saigon poses queries like …”First question for motherfuckers spittin’ this type of thug shit/You claim you blew out a nigga’s brain: what color was it? /A: Reddish? Like the dark shade of oxygenated blood? /B: Brownish, like water that’s mixed with dirt to make mud? /C: Whitish like the man that created the virus to slay us/or was it D: Grayish, like a gloomy and rainy day is?…” In a later verse he spits: “…The fourth question is a question that’s still in me/Who do yâ€™all niggas think it was that killed Biggie? /A: South Side Crips cause Puffy owed them a grip? /B: Some crazy Pac fan that flipped and unloaded a clip? /C: Missiles from pistols of government officials? /D: The same cat that came back and sang I Miss You?…” Other tracks like “Kiss the Babies” and “Shok TV” not only examine the oppressive and defeating aspects of poverty, they are righteously angry and revolution-inspiring songs.
The story goes far beyond his music. From a very early age he learned life through the broken-bottle eyes of a misspent youth. Born in Brownsville, he spent ten years there before moving to Rockland County (aka Mooseknuckle). He found the streets early and in return they led him down an all-too-familiar path of violence and self-destruction. Prison was inevitable, and it didn’t take long for Saigon to become just another number in the system, a number he would come to wear with blazing defiance even after he was released, using it as yet another alter-alias. But something happened during those long years of incarceration (all told, his various sentences earned him over seven years of serious time). Through the influence of older inmates Saigon was introduced to knowledge. The kind of knowledge that a man can really only acquire through living it. Endless hours of reading fed his mind, while the rigors of prison life kept him sharp. Through it all there was Hip-Hop. He spent his battle years pacing the claustrophobic perimeters of the prison yard at Napanoch. It was there he earned the alias The Yardfather, coming into that name by utterly destroying every bit of competition that came at him. From his countless battles in the yard he honed both skill and hunger, all the while furthering his erudite aspirations.
Upon his release he battled within himself, constantly walking the thin line between getting his music to jump off and falling back into the relative comfort of street life. Through his music he emerged as a conscious and angered man, leaving behind the “animal essence” (so named by corrections guards in one of the first youth homes he spent time in) of his youth and becoming an activist. At first his records were met with the typical resistance that the sometimes-elitist world of NYC Hip-Hop shows to newcomers. Nobody was trying to hear the kid. It was only through persistence that he cracked into the ultra-competitive world of the Mixtape circuit. Through some stellar appearances on tapes from Kay-Slay, Whoo Kid and a host of others, word began to spread. He pollied his first single (the aforementioned “Contraband” and another Alchemist-laced heater; “Say Yes” into some noise, and the streets responded.
Now, it’s time for the rest of the world to hear this remarkable story. With the release of Warning Shots, Saigon presents a collection of the infamous tracks upon which he has begun his musical legacy. With a proper debut album in the works (produced almost entirely by Just Blaze) and a buzz hot enough to melt the face of Dr. Doom, it’s all for the taking. Saigon has lived through hell. Mental, physical and spiritual hell, and now he has come to speak about it.
HHS: For those that don’t know, tell the people, in your words, what it is you bring to the game.
Saigon: My shit, I’m like from the ’93, ’94 era. I ain’t the pimp; I ain’t none of that. I just love Hip-Hop. I’m from the era when it was cool to have MTV; you know what I’m saying? Not all this “you need a four-hundred-million-dollar car” and all this crazy shit. I’m from the True School of Hip-Hop, man. From where we did it for the love of the art, before the money came, before the corporate bullshit came. When it was all about who was dope and who was not. Not about who had the most muscles or who had the better marketing scheme and all that other shit.
HHS: Where did you get the name Saigon?
Saigon: I came up with that name. I read a book called Bloods and it was about the Black soldiers in Viet Nam. During the war the people of Viet Nam would drop pamphlets telling the Black people; this ain’t your war, we don’t have no problems with yall. They were actually teaching the Black people, like: you guys are fighting in a Civil Rights Movement back at home where they don’t even look at you muhfuckas as people. Y’all over here fighting for a country that don’t give a fuck about you. At the end of the day it may not have necessarily made a big difference, cause muhfuckas went over there and did everything the American government told them to do, and now you have all these Black Viet Nam veterans that have dope problems, or came home with one leg and they don’t have nothing. If these are the ones fighting for your country they the ones who should be living in these big mansions and shit, not a basketball player. But that’s where I got the name, and I’m glad that they changed the name of the city, so now it’s officially mine. In there is like a war within myself. A lot of times I’m tempted to go back into my old ways and I gotta be strong. There’s easy money in the streets, but I can never, ever see myself going back to hustling, or even promoting that shit.
HHS: Can you give us some insight into how you approach songs as a writer?
Saigon: I like to zone out, I like to have validity in my music, but at the same time, make it lyrical to where you hear the cleverness and the thought going into it. I don’t really have a set writing process, I just go with the flow of how I feel at the moment and how it comes out and how I manifest it. But I take time on my rhymes, I like every line to make perfect sense, you know, I try not to sneak in a bullshit line. When I really do something from the heart, line for line I like my shit to make perfect sense, to where if you read it like a story you’d see the whole thing.
HHS: That’s one of the more striking aspects of your songs. It’s almost like you could write them out on paper and you’d have a collection of full, coherent thoughts, as opposed to the sum of a bunch of lines.
Saigon: That’s what I love, because you can actually read it. Some guy called me from The Source the other day, they was gonna give me a quotable for “Shok TV”, it was between me and RZA. The dude, he don’t know if I got it or not, but he read the lyrics to “Shok TV” and was like; “I had heard the song before, but when I read it, it was so much more powerful.”
HHS Yeah, that song is a perfect example. You have this ability to flip instantaneously from the type of street shit that you do into some whole other political-type shit.
Saigon: I think Hip-Hop is ultimately gonna lead me into politics cause that’s where I think I could make more of a difference. Right now these record companies are not fucking with artists with a political edge, they don’t wanna hear about that; that don’t sell records right now. Right now, what’s going on, like I said; it’s the pimp culture, fake gangstas. You know, a bunch of muhfuckas who like to look at other people’s lives and delve into their lives when they never even lived these lives, and they’re fascinated by it. I call it fantasy rap, we’re living in the fantasy rap era.
HHS: It goes beyond Hip-Hop, though. The world, in general, is fascinated by violence as entertainment, to the point where they’ll exploit it until it becomes a caricature of itself.
Saigon: The bad part about it is they’re real quick to say “this is just entertainment.” How you gonna say it’s just entertainment, and then in the same sentence say “this is real, I ain’t no actor, this is real shit?” You’re confusing the minds of young people. You’re quick to say “this is just entertainment and it’s up to the parent to do this and that” but if it’s entertainment then tell people it’s entertainment.
HHS And especially if the subject matter is dealing with Black Men in America, people are even more fascinated with what I have come to call “Black Death”, meaning that those who oppose Hip-Hop just love it when rappers are talking about killing each other, and those behind the scenes in the music business love to profit from this kind of “Black Death”.
Saigon: Exactly, and it’s fucked up cause we’re the ones that partake in that life. My whole shit is like, damn, if children are the future, like we say, then what the fuck are we giving the kids? How is it gonna be for them growing up? It was fucked up for me growing up because the people older than me didn’t teach me nothing but dealing crack, shooting guns and shit like that and music wasn’t nowhere near what it is now, it’s only getting worse. Now you got these little young muhfuckas thinking they Bloods and Crips in New York, you got them thinking they’re pimps, they jump little girls into their gangs by having them fuck the whole gang, shit like that is killing our youth. Without the youth, man it’s like, we fucked up; we’re heading nowhere fast. It’s like driving a hundred miles an hour into a brick wall.
HHS: There’s a great line in “Shok TV” that says: “imagine the Black Panther Party today using Hip-hop to say the same thing that Marcus Garvey would say, imagine Malcolm X over a beat trying to rally up the troops and take control of the streets…” That’s some for real shit right there.
Saigon: This is the battle we have with Hip-Hop. Imagine if these dudes, with that type of mentality, lived in our era. Hip-Hop went from like a twelfth grade level to a second grade level. When I went down South to do a show, it’s like, I never really understood what this whole crunk shit was about. I went down there and I seen like grown men shaking they ass in the club, like booty-shaking in the club, and it was grown-assed men doing it! I was like; “this is what yall call crunk? This is what you like to do?” This is not what Hip-Hop is. I feel like it should have a whole new name because if that’s what yall call Hip-Hop then I’m thinking about giving the shit I do a whole new name, cause that shit ain’t Hip-Hop. I’m trying to use this shit as a weapon, for what it’s really for. I’m trying to do like what Marvin Gaye did with “What’s Going On?” and songs like that. Shit like Bob Marley; artists who are not here with us no more, but their music touched people’s lives. People telling me; “get crunk”, or “get low”, that shit ain’t got nothing to do with me. I mean, it’s good to have fun and all, but that’s not the focal point of my life. You gotta work before you play.
HHS: There’s definitely a progression, lyrically, from some of your older stuff to the newer tracks, where you are almost going in the direction of a revolutionary or some kind of political activist.
Saigon: Yeah, definitely. The first single (to come off the new album; Dear Black America) is called “Color Purple”. The song is about gangs. Bloods wear red, Crips wear blue. Together they make purple, and the whole song is based around muhfuckas coming together like at the end of the day we’re all Black. It’s a fucking immaculate record. People know I’m coming, all these artists know Imma shake up the game because if I’m coming with the truth and you still kicking that bullshit, you’re gonna stick out like a sore thumb. It’s only a matter of time before people wake up and be like; “hold up, man. What the fuck is really going on?”
HHS: And the thing about it is, regardless of what you’re saying, in the end, you’re putting out dope, dope songs. It’s one thing to have a message and an agenda, but the crux of it is, can you bring it? Can you get you’re point across and still make a banging track? And I think that’s what’s so galvanizing about some of these songs you’ve recorded. Not only do you come with heat, but also you’re using the medium as a weapon, as it should be…
Saigon: That’s why I’m glad I have my independence. I don’t give a fuck, fuck these record companies. These record companies are nothing but fucking pimps. All they do is they take an artist and they tell him: do this, say this, do that… Give a muhfucka a few dollars, you take them out the hood and they’ll do anything for a few dollars. You can get muhfuckas to say anything, you can get these muhfuckas to say “yeah, I’m a homo, I take it up the ass” if you give them enough money. I have validity, I refuse to let these muhfuckas break me, I don’t give a fuck about no record company. They gonna come eventually when they see I’m making crazy noise without them.
HHS: Obviously prison life is a big part of who you are, and the time you’ve spent locked away has had an immense impact on you, as a man and as an artist.
Saigon: I had a lot of time to read in there, so it definitely broadened my vocabulary so I wasn’t just rhyming “nigga” with “trigger”, you know what I mean? The more I read, the more I learned about social conditions, about slavery, about history itself; it gave me more shit to talk about. Before I went to prison I had no sense of direction. I was what these other rappers talk about, bussin’ my gun, shooting people, stabbing people…I stabbed one of my closet friends, you know what I’m saying. It’s not something to brag about, but I just had no sense of direction, I was living reckless. When I went to prison it gave me time to sit down and reflect and to look at things for what they are, what they were. When you meet somebody your age and they got forty-five years to life cause they was living that gangsta lifestyle…these dudes in prison don’t like these rappers, they hate them. These muhfuckas is out here rapping about my life and they getting paid and I’m in here suffering.
HHS: After Warning Shots drops you’re dropping the official, right? Greatest Story Never Told is the title?
Saigon: Nah, I changed the title cause Shyheim, he got the same title and I didn’t wanna beat him up for the name (laughs), so I changed the name. It’ll be all new shit, never heard before. The only thing I’m leaking is “Color Purple”. Imma press that up and put it out cause I really think a lot of people are gonna die this summer, a lot of gang members. If I can save like three of them with this record then I did my job. This record is probably the most powerful record I ever did. I gotta get it out.
HHS: Who you got handling production on the new album?
Saigon: Just Blaze is doing like 90% of the album. We already knocked out like ten records in the past three weeks. We all got our hopes up, everybody’s spirits is high, we all looking at the big picture. It’ll be dropping next year. Dear Black America, that’s the title, because before I go anywhere in my career I gotta address the people first. I gotta let people know what’s really going on behind the scenes. It’s so crazy right now because they showing us how they make stars. Like you look at shit like Making the Band and they show you how marketing and promoting and shit like that could turn anybody into a star. They could go get a fucking bum off the street and through marketing and promotion, make him a star. It has nothing to do with his talent, nothing to do with what he’s about. It’s all about the money they put behind you and how many times they put you on TV.
HHS: They just flipping what politicians have been doing for years…
Saigon: Exactly. It’s the same thing. A lot of artists brag about all these records they sell, but that shit don’t make you hot because, you know, who’s buying it? It’s the muhfuckin’ little white kids in the suburbs, the kids who watch MTV and see your video and they run to the store and get your record. It ain’t like when N.W.A was going platinum without no fucking radio and no TV. That was something that was phenomenal, selling a million records with nothing. No radio, nothing. And they proved that you could do it.
HHS: And it’s almost funny because with groups like N.W.A., they’ve already proved that it can be done, yet no one wants to man up and do it that way anymore.
Saigon: Yeah, because it’s the cookie-cutter era now. Everybody’s following what one person does and they’re following trends. It’s more where you from now than who you know. I mean, right now St. Louis is hot. If I was from St. Louis I would be the man right now. (Here Saigon breaks into an extremely hilarious rendition of Chingy’s “Right Thurr”, complete with an affected Midwest drawl that is too fucking funny for words. Much hilarity ensues…) These muhfuckas do one thing and they run with it. It’s sad right now cause they using this shit to sell deodorant. When I seen Meth and Red doing these commercials I’m like “these muhfuckas can sell Speed-Stick but they can’t get fucking crack out of their communities?” They can sell this, but ask them why there’s no gun control. Muhfucka, if yall didn’t want guns in the ghetto, there would be no guns in the ghetto. It’s funny when you see dudes like the guy who damn near started the Blood gang, if a guy like that can tell you that bangin’ is wrong and to stop doing it, why would you come out as a little punk-ass rapper who never been through nothing, and promote it? If the guy who started it, built it, probably killed more people than you probably punched, why would you come out and promote it? You know the kid Game, that rapper from G-Unit? He was on that TV show Elimidate. He was on Elimidate and he got fuckin’ Elimidated! C’mon, dude. That fake gangsta shit… you poisoning these little kids’ minds into thinking its cool to be a gangbanger, to kill each other, when that may be the same muhfucka that kills your child. He might be the same muhfucka who don’t know how to use a gun and shoots a stray bullet that lands in your son’s head or robbing your grandmother, snatching her purse and she ends up dead. The same muhfucka you influence, now see how you feel about that. Go talk to some of these gangbanger’s mothers who lost they children to the gangs and let them know how you feel…
HHS: What’s Abandoned Nation?
Saigon: Abandoned Nation is my crew, Abandoned Nation is what I’m about, Abandoned Nation is my non-profit organization which gives school supplies and things of that nature to the children of incarcerated people. It’s a foundation where we go to inner cities and teach literacy and teach the importance of education. It’s called the Book Bank Foundation (www.bookbankfoundation.org). The Abandoned Nation Foundation and the Book Bank Foundation are separate entities but they work together trying to just change the ghetto, man. Trying to better the conditions instead of giving people this bullshit fantasy. We walking the walk this year, it’s time to put plans into activation.
HHS: So you don’t just talk about it, you be about it…
Saigon: Exactly, I walk the walk. That’s why I keep the gangsta shit in my music. I do that for a reason. I do that so all the gangsta muhfuckas and all the wanna-be gangstas can listen to me and I hit them with the real, like that shit ain’t cool, homie. I let you know that I lived it and I been through it and I always use the example of how a person can tell you about having safe sex and using condoms and shit, and they can tell you about AIDS and diseases all day. And muhfuckas be like “yeah, yeah, whatever,” and they listen. But when a person who has AIDS tells you, you listen more intently. You listen real intently.
HHS: Is there anything in the world that a man like you fears?
Saigon: Yeah, I fear a lot of things, man. I fear failure. My biggest fear; I fear dying and having nobody know I was here except my friends and family, you know what I’m saying? I wanna die and be talked about a hundred years from now. I wanna be in Social Studies books. I got a lot of friends who died and the only people who would know they ever existed would be their family and their friends. I would rather do something with this one little life I got that changes people and be remembered forever for what I did.
HHS: Last words?
Saigon: I just wanna tell the people to be true to yourself. The sooner you find yourself the better you’ll be as a person, as far as making things happen and being productive. Don’t be a follower, man. Don’t be a follower because 90% of the world is followers and we need more leaders. That’s the reason why we live in these fucked up conditions. Not just Black people, all people, from all walks of life.
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