Saigon Speaks On Why Rap Has Lost Its "Realness," A Possible Hand In Ludacris' "Runaway Love"
November 07, 2012 | Paul Meara
The label fiasco; over the years signing major deals has almost hurt as many artists as it has helped them. From the standstill situations of many artists in the mid/late 90s to current day bearings on those wishing they had never put ink to contract on a day when money was the only thing on their mind, major deals often can be an artist’s most regretful decision.
When it comes to Saigon, a major deal gone wrong hasn’t been the only thing that’s stumbled the Brooklyn rapper. Admittedly, he looks back and says that some of the decisions he’s made have been on his account but when it comes to his decision to sign with Atlantic Records in 2004, Sai said that his regrettable decision was on the fault of multiple people. Fast forwarding to 2010 and through his music Saigon talks about moving on but never forgetting about the figurative prison he was in at Atlantic, far removed from the period when he actually served time in a correctional facility.
“They were not only like we’re not going to drop you but we’re going to shelve you and not let you go sign no where else cause then we’ll sue the s*** out of you and sue whoever puts the music out but we’re not going to let you make money and we’re not going to put you out. And so that’s why I was, ‘Hell yeah, I’m getting out of jail,’” Saigon said.
Saigon also talks about how there’s a major disconnect between the most celebrated rappers and the everyday person.
“The average person is doing bad, the economy is bad,” He said. “It’s hard to get a job. We’re in some of the worst economic times in modern history so for you to come out, and Hip Hop is to reflect and you rapping about million dollar cars and Lamborghinis and Bugattis.”
HipHopDX recently caught up with Saigon about his newest album Greatest Story Never Told Chapter 2: Bread and Circuses as he compared it to his first critically acclaimed effort and also spoke with him about the social power rappers have without them even noticing it.
HipHopDX: What’s been good with Saigon recently, maybe not even musically?
Saigon: Ah man, you know, just dealing with having two daughters man, it kind of changed my aspect on life. I’ve got a four year-old who’s actually on the album and I have a 14 month-old, two daughters who just changed [me] and sent my life in a whole different direction. It’s one thing when you’re living for yourself, when you start to live for another human being it gives life a whole new dynamic so. And then just other than that I’m just being productive. We still got the non-profit organization thing going and trying to help the kids and trying to make the next generation coming up under us better than how we had it. I feel like a lot of people, not just artists, but a lot of men don’t feel like they’re adult men and women but more so men. We have a responsibility and we really do whether we like it or not.
DX: That’s really interesting that you say your life really changed after having that first child and I love how you said you’re now living for two people. How did that change your life?
Saigon: Yeah, a lot of things I did and a lot of the things I would do were under the pretense of you know, if something was to happen to me God forbid, I’m the only one responsible and my friends and family would be sad but nobody’s really relying on me before or depending on me for how they life turns out. Now there’s somebody that really needs me and the things that would jeopardize my freedom or even my life I had to eradicate from my life and get rid of it so that was the major way it changed me. Another way is just my responsibility and my music because I see with a lot of Hip Hop music, it’s overly sexual and I wonder if these guys even think about the affects it has on a young female.
Saigon's The Greatest Story Never Told As A Series
DX: That’s very true. You mention your music and shifting to that, you’ve got Greatest Story Never Told Chapter 2: Bread and Circuses coming. The first Greatest Story was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of last year. To you, how does this one compare?
Saigon: The message is along the lines, the message is along the same lines. What I would say the difference is is obviously the budget, a huge difference in the budget and when you’re on Atlantic Records and you have $350,000 to make a record it’s going to sound different when you have $25,000 to make a record. It sounds different from quality of studio to everything all down to the producers, features 'cause all the fans don’t realize it but all those costs, everything there’s a cost. A lot of artists don’t talk about when you see artists with these features on it, they pay for these features. A lot of these guys are friends but at the same time it’s a business. We couldn’t go through the typical thing and go, “Oh, for our single let’s go get Drake or let’s go get Chris Brown to get 10,000 radio spins.” When you’re an independent label you don’t have those budgets. When I recorded the first Greatest Story Never Told I was clearing Luther Vandross samples and we were doing a bunch of stuff that you can’t really do on an independent budget but for the budget we had, I maximized it and I squeezed the most out of it. And another thing, Just Blaze wasn’t as involved with the second one as he was for two reasons. First, 'cause time didn’t permit like it did, you look at the last album, we worked on just the album alone we worked on it just dabbing the scene with transitions, and tracks all blended together, we called in orchestras, we had people come play. We had sometimes 17/18 people choruses so the time and the money didn’t permit for us to do that again 'cause Just Blaze is working on features outside of music. I didn’t wanna wait another four or five years for my album to come out again and that’s why it took so long for the first one to come out with all the red tape and all that. But I think as far as the messages in the music and the songs I felt like it could compete with the first one, I really believe that with all my heart.
DX: You recently came off the Wu-Block Tour back in September, how did that go?
Saigon: [It] went wonderful man. I learned so much from those guys, those are two guys that have been doing it way longer than me and they’re both legends in they own light, Wu-Tang [Clan] and D-Block so just watching how they control crowds and how they interact with fans. I feel, even though I’ve been in this game for a long time, I always feel new, I always feel like I’m always learning because my message is different than a lot of other artists. Asides from the obvious ones, the creativity and effort they put in like Kendrick [Lamar] and that whole Black Hippy camp and J. Cole and a lot of these new artists who we really hear the time and effort they spend on it, the music, the lyrics and the things. Most of the time you can tell when somebody is in for the catchy jingle hits and trying to make money and I never went that route. Like if you look at Metacritic, I had the highest-rated album of last year, Metacritic where they take all the ratings and make one, I got like 89/90, which is actually a better rating than what Kendrick’s [good kid, m.A.A.d. City] album is getting right now, he’s at 88 [Editor's Note: At publication time, the score had increased to 90] so that says a lot I mean I did my job but I didn’t have the Interscope [Records] machine go out there and push it and I didn’t have a Dr. Dre out there saying, “Yo, this is that dude.” So I mean I’m still happy, man, I’m blessed, I look at this opportunity like I came home from prison and for me to get on at Atlantic Records even though my album never came out just to achieve a record deal, for me to be on HBO, for me to meet Just Blaze and work with Just Blaze. I’ve over-achieved anything I thought I would ever do. A lot of times people look at me like, “You’re a failure.” And I go how am I a failure? I’ve passed my personal goals, you know what I’m saying? I might have failed in your eyes.
DX: Yeah but with all the unfortunate events you’ve been able to make the most of it. But going back to Wu-Block, you’ve been in this game for a while but those two legendary groups, every real rapper grew up on Wu-Tang and younger ones on D-Block more so but for you, as a New Yorker yourself it has to be a special thing touring with these guys. How did that make you feel?
Saigon: Yeah, and to record with Jay-Z and that will go down in history, lord willing the Earth lasts long enough and I see my grandchildren I get to tell them, it was documented that I got to work with one, that’s like if an artist from the '50s did a song with Elvis Pressley. Even if I was young, it was documented that I’ve achieved so much and I’m just blessed, man. I’m still moving, I’m still at it 'cause when you’re chopping down a tree, you’re not going to get it in one swipe, they’ve got these machines, hacksaws that chop down trees real fast but I believe in the Paul Bunyan way of doing it.
DX: Right and you’ve got a lot of like-minded type people on the album, like Styles P. At least in my opinion, street Hip Hop has lost it’s edge and a lot of people still doing it are older. I would put you in that category and I personally miss it but do you feel that street Hip Hop, not even gangsta rap but that genuine street element is being lost at all and do you still think there is a thirst for that music?
Saigon: Absolutely, not only do I believe that they are out there but like you said, they’re thirsty for something like that. The reason why, and when you say “street.” I wouldn’t limit it to gangsta, I would say street like everyday person and I think an artist like a 50 Cent resonated when he came out was because there was so many people that felt like this guy was just like me. So many people always go he got shot but know he’s like, “Damn, I almost lost my life.” When an artist like DMX came out, everyone had bling bling and shiny he came out with a pit-bull tattooed on his back and a dog chain and he resonated. This guy sold six million records two times in one year [with It's Dark & Hell Is Hot and Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood], something in this day in age we couldn’t even fathom. And it’s not because of the Internet or nothing like that it’s because artists really don’t resonate. There’s a big disconnect with Hip Hop and the streets, big disconnect and you’re the smartest interviewer I’ve had an interview with because you brought that up. Usually I have to bring that up and it’s so true. The next person I feel that resonates with the streets in a major way is gonna be a huge, huge success and it’s not about hey go shoot ‘em up bang bang but it’s all about... here’s an example: I don’t agree with the message and the music and how he’s carrying on but the kid who’s resonating with the streets is Chief Keef and look at this guy’s 20 million YouTube views. This guy, to the young kids he’s iconic cause there’s 16/17 year-old kids in the street, the only thing is is he lacks leadership, he doesn’t know where to bring them. “I’m resonating, they digging me, what do I do with all this power, what do I do with all this recognition?”
DX: Yeah I kind of feel like people weren’t ready to give up hardcore or street Hip Hop and here comes the gangsta scene that’s been missing for the last few years on a mainstream level and people are basically hungry for whatever. I feel like you specifically are more of an introspective, survey the scene type lyricist. Do you maybe feel that that is being lost too and why do you tend to bend toward that?
Saigon: Absolutely it’s being lost and that goes again with the disconnect. If you listen to Hip Hop right now, you look at the state of the world, they’re polar opposites. Everybody’s celebrating, we got money and abundance and that might be your case, you’re like a lottery winner. The average person is doing bad, the economy is bad. It’s hard to get a job. We’re in some of the worst economic times in modern history so for you to come out, and Hip Hop is to reflect and you rapping about million dollar cars and Lamborghinis and Bugattis, there was a time when the economy was better than it is now and a popular car was, Nas said in “If I Ruled the World,” which was 1996, “If I ruled the world and everything in it, sky's the limit, I push a Q-45 Infinit.” A Q-45, which was a modest $45,000 car. Now it’s like if you don’t have a Bentley or a Bugatti, that’s how they gauge your success level. And that’s not reality and people can’t relate to that. As much as we like to look at it it’s almost like when we were young and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous would come on and we’d watch it and go, “Wow, but this ain’t my life.” So there’s a supreme disconnect between popular Hip Hop, I mean there is good Hip Hop out there but you got to search so hard for it and sometimes just looking for it you get frustrated and going, “Damn man I might as well just turn on the radio and circum to the b*******.” And Paul, if you look what’s going on in the inner city with Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and even in New York with the crime rates starting to go back up with the violence, I believe this is collateral damage of what’s happening in Hip Hop. When the image is money is everything, this is the end all be all of life, getting money and being rich. People who poor [and say] “Well what good is my life?” So it devalues life because it’s like, “Oh, I’m not rich, I’m worthless, so f*** it, I’m gonna shoot up the block to get rich.,” which is a figment of their imagination because you’re not going to obtain these kind of things selling drugs, that’s not real, you’re not going to obtain these things robbing banks or doing anything like that or flipping kilos, which is what rappers are saying in the music, that’s b*******. But these guys are going, “Damn, if I don’t have that, I’m not even attractive to a woman, I’m worthless. I’m worthless to a women if I can’t go make it rain in the club or poppin bottles.” So when they try to go obtain these things on a small level, they’ve got to sell drugs, which breeds violence and the next thing they know they devalue life.
DX: Yeah man, it’s just sad.
Saigon: Yeah it’s sad, bro.
DX: Right. And moving on to a different sort of topic though, On “Game Changer” you talk about being signed to Atlantic Records and how they did you wrong. And how they weren’t feeling that you had a message about your music. I’m sure you were pressured to cave in and do what they wanted but you stuck to your guns and waited it out. You also say in that song that it felt like you were getting out of the pen when you were released in 2010 from Atlantic. How big of a jail was that situation?
Saigon: It’s because they’re paper gangsters. What they do is, they like, “We gave you an advance, we gave you a recording budget so you owe us.” So I was like I don’t want to put the music out, let me go shop it and they’re like, “No.” So it wasn’t just like they’re not going to put it out, we’re not gonna let you put it out either. They waited so long but they felt like I was dead, a dead fish, to where they were like, “Nobody cares about this guy.” I was on Atlantic since 2004 to 2010 without putting out an album, that’s six years. That’s longer than some people’s whole career if they put out albums so when they finally let me go, they gave me the music and they only did that because somebody I was friends with climbed the corporate latter over there and he became a VP and was like, “Let this guy go and let him have his music if you aren’t going to do anything with it, what’s the point of just shelving him and sitting him around.” They wouldn’t let me go for five years and people go, “Oh, you got dropped.” Nah, what they did to me was worse than getting dropped, I wish I would have gotten dropped when I wanted to get dropped 'cause I still had momentum, a lot more than six year later. So they were not only like we’re not going to drop you but we’re going to shelve you and not let you go sign no where else cause then we’ll sue the s*** out of you and sue whoever puts the music out but we’re not going to let you make money and we’re not going to put you out. And so that’s why I was, “Hell yeah, I’m getting out of jail.”
Saigon Says "Pain In My Life" May Have Inspired Ludacris' "Runaway Love"
DX: And then you get out and drop the album and a ton of people were feeling it…
Saigon: [Laughs] and then I was like, “See, what did I tell you.” That happened with me while I was on Atlantic with “Pain in My Life.” I made “Pain in My Life” and they wouldn’t even take that process about putting out that song and I talk about that. I told them put in the studio with Trey Songz and he wasn’t the star he was now but he was a budding superstar. They shot me down, “No, this will never work, no this stuff didn’t matter.” 'Cause my song starts like this, “Young Felicia was only four when she learned how to ride a bike, now she 14 riding every time thinking of money.” And they shot me down, “No, no, no.” I bumped into Ludacris while the record was out and he was like, “Yo the record’s great.” Not saying he stole my idea but he comes out on his next single and it’s called “Runaway Love” and it’s about runaways or whatever and he starts the song and Ludacris had never done a song like this up until this point and it says, “Little Erika only four years old, she’s trying to figure out why the world’s so cold.” And he won his first Grammy [Award] and I go to them and I say, “Look!” And they go, “Oh, well that’s cause he’s Ludacris.” Come on, what you’re saying is ludicrous. [Laughs] But I was just like give me a chance. It’s like baseball. I feel like with Atlantic Records, every time I step to the plate it’s like homerun, homerun, homerun and I just wanted to line up the bases, just let me get people on base, every time I come in here it gotta be a homerun. Like Nas first album [Illmatic] wasn’t a homerun, Jay-Z’s first album [Reasonable Doubt] wasn’t a homerun but it was a solid foundation for them to build they career and they didn’t understand that.
DX: But then overtime albums like Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt were known to become classics.
Saigon: Exactly, they wouldn’t even let me get a foundation and that’s why, in “Game Changer” I say, “I love all of you m************ but just as some friends, I can’t do music if it ain’t got a message within.” I came to this s*** to be a voice. Y'all gonna let me speak to millions of people, I’m not going to say drop it low and pump that p****, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to die and that s*** be on my epitaph. I don’t want to die and people look back, “Oh, he was the p**** man,” 'cause there’s gonna be a time when we’re old and all we have to represent us is our memories and that’s called foresight 'cause when it’s 50 years down the line and people are saying, “Who is part of the problem and who is part of the solution, I want people to remember my name is some who tried to change the world with his music and sometimes with art, Paul, I hate to say it, but I’m being realistic, I got a song called “Blown Away” wait what’s your e-mail, I’ma send you a video. This is my favorite video I ever did and there’s a song on the album that’s called “Blown Away.” I’m a visual artist and the video we shot just changed the game. When they see this visual it’s gonna resonate more [Saigon stops interview and watches interview with writer]
DX: Wow, I took away two things from it. People in the class were not listening to what you were saying signifying what you believe to be that people don’t care about someone with message. And two, you see all these figures of history and then Saigon comes along as someone who has a message for all those who want to listen and is this going to be his fate as well.
Saigon: Exactly man and it’s sad because I’ve been doing it so long and I know that it’s innovative and progressive but in the end it’s gonna go overlooked 'cause it’s not the b******* and people don’t get it. My struggle has been very uphill when it come to Hip Hop and the state of Hip Hop and me not having a machine. If I did have a machine it would be a lot better and a lot easier but I would still be in an uphill battle. I feel like chopping down a tree, I’m not gonna stop, I’m still gaining fans, man, I still believe even if it takes me five more years. I feel like there’s not an age limit for when I’m doing truthful s***. When you’re spreading truth, you can’t be like, “Man, you’re too old to be out here telling the truth.” You could really age to any other kind of music. If you’re talking about shooting up people there’s a point for when you’re too old for that. When you’re out here trying to save lives I don’t think that that has an age limit.
DX: Right and I’ve talked to a lot of artists who have felt that same way. Also going back to the situation with Atlantic, I want to play devil’s advocate a little because people might say, “Well that’s what he signed up for, if he didn’t want to be on a major label, he didn’t have to be.” Did they B.S. you at the beginning, how did that all come to play?
Saigon: I signed to Atlantic because the people, I was signed through a production company, which was Hip Hop Since 1978, and they believed in the business, they believed in my business and everything they asked Atlantic for Atlantic never did it and then [Kyambo "Hip Hop" Joshua] quit and left Atlantic probably not even a month after signing me and I was left up there with no A&R, I would never sign to Just Blaze, I would never sign, we did it contractually, it was a contractual agreement to work on that album. We went and we made a great album and luckily for me we became great friends, through business we became great friends and then it became about more than business and now he’s like my brother, but I never wanted business to mess up good relationships 'cause money comes and f**** things up and that’s why you’ll never hear me badmouth Just Blaze about the way the situation went down. I’ll never badmouth Hip Hop, I’ll never badmouth Atlantic Records hardly. When I do badmouth them it’s like, “Y'all screwed me, that’s it.” But I’m not bitter because I learned from that. I signed that contract, like you said, “I signed it” so I should have known better than to know that they could do that. I should have had a clause in that contract that said hey if y'all don’t put me out by such and such then you gotta let me go, there’s a lot of mistakes that I made and I own up to those mistakes cause I didn’t have pay or play in my contract. Now looking back, I should have asked for pay or play, which is like if they don’t put my record out, you gotta pay me or let me go and I had enough buzz at the time of the deal to get that but the lawyer didn’t ask for it, I didn’t really know about it at the time. I was poor, I was living on my cousin’s couch, I needed to get my own apartment so it came at me as a check, there’s a bunch of s*** that goes into it.
Saigon Says He Loves Prodigy Despite Past Beefs & Book
DX: Another not so positive situation that I’ve always been interested in is your relationship with Prodigy. There was the situation at S.O.B.s that obviously tore a rift between you. I remember you being happy though when he was coming home from prison so it seemed like things were cooling off. What is your relationship like with him though now at this point, five years after that infamous fight and about two years since he’s been home from prison?
Saigon: I’m a fan of [Prodigy], I love P, man, I think P’s a good guy deep down inside, I know he’s a good person but I think what he gets caught up in is having to live out this image of being a mobster, a gangster and that’s not really who you are. Like be a family man, you’ve got kids, you’ve got family, you’re a good dude, there’s nothing wrong with being a good dude. He wrote a book, he threw my name in [My Infamous Life] and he’s bad-mouthing and then when he comes home, he reaches out on some, "Okay let’s squash it" and I’m all for it and then he comes back and starts dissing me again so everything is confusing, why is this guy doing this? But overall, I wish P the best man, he has my blessing. I want to see him continue to thrive and be able to take care of his family.
DX: Yeah, I get where you’re coming from. Finally though, what’s next for Saigon in the near future?
Saigon: Well man, I wanna keep putting out progressive Hip Hop. I really, really think I need to step my game up still. I’m still trying to get better 'cause I love music, I love literature. I want to go into not politics but I would love to do lectures, I do them anyway, but I want to do them in a bigger scale. I’m going to these inner cities and I’m talking to these kids man, without the beat. I want to take the beat away eventually and say the same things in my music and come to the people and go out there even if I had a megaphone in my hand or something. I really wanna change the world, man, and I believe God put me here for that reason and when you’re cognizant of certain things and certain doors are opening in your mind it’s hard to act like you don’t know. You know when you’re being conscious, there’s a curse to being conscious cause it’s like you can’t act like you don’t know. If I leave the room with an alligator in it, I can’t walk in there calmly like I don’t know that there’s an alligator in this room and it’s the same thing with conscious 'cause there’s times when I lane out. I wish there was times when I could make this ignorant Hip Hop but I can’t, I’d be a hypocrite, not only am I a hypocrite, not only am I living up to my responsibilities and my potential but now I’m devaluing myself kind of.