The scene is nearly one year ago. It is three days into the 2014 SXSW Music Festival, and Mass Appeal is hosting a showcase at the Austin Music Hall featuring the likes of Flying Lotus, B.O.B., and the venerable Nas, who is headlining the show. Though the showcase serves as a means to display a wide array of talent, unbeknownst to most is a surprise announcement from Nas that he would be leading the launch of a new independent label, Mass Appeal Records. As murmurs from the crowd erupts to cheers following the announcement , Nas takes the news one step further, introducing several artists that would make up his inaugural roster, including the Fresno, California native, Fashawn. For Fashawn, a member of the 2010 XXL Freshman class, it’s a pivotal moment, his very own “chaining day” so to speak, and one that for him was likely a long time coming.
“There was rumors going around that Nas wanted to sign me or something like that or at least wanted to meet me…and, I didn’t even believe it,” recalls the MC. “SXSW comes along, and Nas had the idea of flying me out to Texas just to shake hands. That same night he ends up bringing me up on stage. It was kind of like the birthday of Mass Appeal records. He brought out more artists on the roster as well. It was that night where we shook hands and we said we was gonna do this, and he was like, ‘Welcome to Mass Appeal.’”
I feel that should be every artist’s responsibility, to document life and time as it was in that era. So when you listen back to The Ecology thirty years from now or ten years from now, you’re gonna remember that moment and feel what we felt in this era, through music like that.”
Almost a year later, Fashawn is only days away from the release of his magnum opus, The Ecology. Sitting alongside longtime collaborator Exile at the 9Five store on Melrose, Fashawn seems quite confident and relatively calm, considering the momentous occasion that is steadily approaching. The duo, who worked together on Fashawn’s critically acclaimed Boy Meets World, spoke on The Ecology and shed light on what the process has been like for the past several months. When speaking on why he chose Exile to lead most of the production on the album (Exile has credit for nine of the fourteen tracks), Fashawn speaks on the dynamic between the two, and why he felt it worked. “Most of the artists that I grew up listening to, they all had that ‘go-to’ producer, and I kind of wanted to carry on that tradition as well with my music and what I do. So, when I found him, I was like, you know what, I’m not letting this dude go. He’s gotta be on the second album and throughout my whole musical career, he’s gotta be present…somewhere, you know what I mean?” In a time when artists are quick to pick the flavor of the month producer to contribute to their releases, Fashawn continues on why his approach is different. “We just have a certain chemistry…The most personal music I’ve ever made, I’ve made with him. I’ve never brought you so close into my world [before], but that’s all inspired by the kind of music that he makes. He really puts you in this setting where you really feel the emotion.” Exile expands upon the point by adding his perspective. “That’s always been my aspiration as an artist…to follow the footsteps of the greats like Marley Marl, Dre, DJ Pooh…you know, to bring out your people and make music. I’m producing the whole thing, I’m there with [him] throughout the whole process of the album, and you begin to understand each other in that moment in time in our lives…how he’s going to tell a story, how he could tell a story, and how my music could help that process.”
We just have a certain chemistry…The most personal music I’ve ever made, I’ve made with him. I’ve never brought you so close into my world [before], but that’s all inspired by the kind of music that he makes.”
Originally set for release on February 24th, the album leaked days before and thus prompted the release to be pushed ahead of schedule. In addition to the production by Exile, there are a handful of other contributors, including the likes of Alchemist and DJ Khalil. One of the more notable tracks (produced by DJ Khalil), is “Something To Believe In,” which features a powerful chorus by Aloe Blacc, and a perfectly incorporated verse by Nas, an obvious perk of working for debatably the greatest rapper alive. A quick listen to the track gives those not familiar with Fashawn a snapshot of what he’s about as an MC. Though the song paints a broad stroke, the overall theme speaks to the desire for inspiration, and touches on real emotion that often lacks in today’s hip-hop. An excerpt demonstrates this simply: “Believe it or not, legacy means a lot/Fiending to reach for the top, ya’ll dreaming I drop/ Damn, how I break, free from their locks/Make prisoners up at Rikers Island think out the box.” When asked about this song, and whether recent social events such as Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner impacted his lyrics in general, Fashawn offers this: “That was just a reaction. Of course we were making music like we usually do, but that was a pure response to what was going on in society. I didn’t get real specific with it, like I didn’t name the cop who shot whomever, but I was touching on these topics.” More than just talking about what is socially relevant, Fashawn also expresses his desire to make music that is timeless as it relates to these topics. “I was simply trying to document time as it is now. I feel that should be every artist’s responsibility, to document life and time as it was in that era. So when you listen back to The Ecology thirty years from now or ten years from now, you’re gonna remember that moment and feel what we felt in this era, through music like that.”
That’s always been my aspiration as an artist…to follow the footsteps of the greats like Marley Marl, Dre, DJ Pooh…you know, to bring out your people and make music.”
In furthering the conversation about production on the album, Exile reveals that although he produced most of it, he originally was set to produce the entire release. “Originally, I had produced the whole, entire album, and there was a point where we were done with the album, and we were like, ‘This is the album.’ And [there] was a point where I had done all the beats, but then as we went on and had to sift through sample clearances and stuff like that, we ended up needing to work with some other producers because of time restraints and the types of records that were important to make a classic album.” Exile continues to recount how he felt after finding out that he wouldn’t be able to have all of his tracks on the album, and how there eventually ended up being a silver lining. “At that time, it kind of took me back and I low key was a little bummed out, but what’s more important is the album. There was still a missing record, which was the party record. I got party beats, even though I’m not really known for that. But I really wanted a least that one more beat…I kind of just had to adjust my mind state as far as having to come to terms that I’m not producing the whole record. I literally went on a real long walk and I was just trying to psyche myself into making this record. Came back home and made the record “Out the Trunk,” which is to me a great party record, radio record, club record, and it’s now getting a real nice buzz going on the radio…and I got Busta Rhymes to do the hook on there…dream come true.”
The term ecology refers to the study of organisms and their interaction within an environment. Though there may be a more accurate term to describe the interaction between the multicellular, music making organisms that make up the present company, it is a dynamic that seems to parallel the title of the release. In spending a few minutes with both Fashawn and Exile, it is clear that their working relationship has also yielded a friendship, or at least the ability to joke around with one another, as evidenced by a number of photos taken prior to the interview. They will have their first show to kick of the release on Thursday, February 26th at the Echoplex in Los Angeles, and both are excited to share with the world their latest endeavor. If the weight of working under arguably the greatest MC of all time is causing them to fret, they certainly aren’t showing it. When asked to describe the pressure associated with his new circumstance, Fashawn coolly replies, “Good pressure. The kind of pressure that makes diamonds. It’s just pressure for me to be a greater artist, and to leave a better legacy. I don’t take it as a negative thing, it gives me more fuel to progress at what I do.”
Words: Mark Anthony Jenkins
@MarkAnthonyJ20 (Twitter and IG)
Photo Credit: Samantha J.