Earlier this year, prior to the release of Still Based on a True Story — the sequel to the classic career-highlight Based on a True Story — I spoke in a conference call with rapper Shady Nate and producer DJ Fresh. Fresh — an occasional Nas tour DJ — is an exceptionally talented producer with an ear for a broad range of music and a skilled sound engineer. Particularly when compared with other producers working at street level, his work always sounds lush and pristine, and his samples suggest great knowledge of music history. Shady Nate has an extroverted personality; his voice kept peaking out my recording equipment during the interview, and his enthusiasm was infectious.
First off, your name, and how old you are?
Shady Nate: Yeah mane my name is Shady Nate mane, I’m from West Oakland and I’m 24 years old out here!
DJ Fresh: DJ Fresh, 29 years old.
I was wondering what the first cassette tape or CD you ever bought was, the first time you paid for music with your own money, and how old you were at the time.
Nate: Shit, man, I’ma go first every time, aite Fresh? Actually, the first CD I bought with my own money was Snoop Dogg, the – what album was that first album?
Nate: The first album I ever bought was Doggystyle, but the first album I ever listened to was when I was five years old, my momma had moved us from Oakland to Portland, Oregon, and she gave me a Too $hort CD when I was five years old, and she was like, he from Oakland, like you! You feel me? And that’s when I started bumpin– I was bumpin Too $hort and Whodini and that type of shit. But that’s the first CD I ever really tapped into, when I was five years old.
Fresh: First record I ever had was Run DMC “Peter Piper.” My daddy was a DJ and I had two brother that were older DJs so I was turned on to records hella early. The first tape that I ever bought was EPMD. I forget the name of the album, but it was one of their first albums. I was young, nine years old or something.
What drew you to EPMD early on, what was it that drew you to it – production, rapping, whole package?
Fresh: I was on that song “You Gotsta to Chill,” that was my shit. “You got to Chill”!
Nate: “You got to Chill!”
Nate, I was wondering the first time you started noticing how someone’s rapping—the kind of thing you’d want to imitate, memorize their lines.
Nate: Tupac. That’s when I was about eleven. I never was gonna be a rapper when Tupac was alive, but when he died, and other people started [phone drops out], I felt like I could do it too, if they could do it, I could do it. And I ended up doing it better, I never thought I could do it better, but I did end up doing it better. I started off just having fun with it, and it was a hobby, you feel me? And then it became a job and now it’s a business.
When did you make the decision to make it a career?
Nate: Me and my partners started going to the studio when the block got hot, you feel me? Once everybody started—a couple people died, a couple people started going to jail, know what I’m saying, and I kept doing it and I kept getting more fans…that’s when I started making it a business. When I really made it a business—I used to sell dope, I’ma keep it P.I. with you, I keep it P.I. everywhere I go, that’s keeping it real—I started selling more CDs than I was selling dope. I took the obvious route, you feel me? I was just on the block. This is before we were in stores, I was out on the block with a bundle of CDs and a bundle of coke, and my CDs would sell out faster than my coke. So I chose the music.
How did you decide that was the way you were gonna make music, did you ever think about doing live shows, how did you get involved in doing recording in the first place?
Nate: I had the opportunity, to really–with my brother J Stalin, you feel me, to fuck with him, to be on the same level with him as an artist. He already knew a lot of industry people. He already was fucking with Richie Rich and all kinds of other types of people before we even started getting into stores. So we were coming off the streets, he would just take me around, and once everybody heard me, that’s when I got accepted. Nobody ever told me to stop, nobody ever told me I came weak on nothing. You feel me. So I kept going.
When you started rapping, taking it more seriously, were you thinking about making youself sound different from everybody else, or…?
Nate: I never really thought like that. I always just kept doing me, you feel me. I feel like the more I come with something that nobody’s ever heard before, that’s a mark of being myself, you feel me. So I never try to imitate anybody, namean. Tupac is my favorite rapper, and if you ask anybody, I don’t rap anything like Pac. I rap more like E-40 than I rap like Pac, you feel me. So I always kept my own style, my own swag, and it bled off, you feel me.
What was it about Pac’s rapping, about his style that you represent?
Nate: He’s real, you feel me. Anything that makes you feel a certain type of way, either it makes you mad or makes you happy or makes you sad, that’s a good song. And that’s the type of music Pac played, you feel me. So that’s the type of music I try to make. But I don’t try to be like Pac, I try to come from my perspective. My perspective is, I really was doing–I was really out here on the streets, I really could have been doing twenty years right now. Instead of out here rapping. That’s my perspective.
How did you and Fresh meet? through J. Stalin?
Fresh: We met through Stalin. My nigga Mr. Tower was the one that introduced me to Stalin. Then me and Stalin and Tower, we had a session one day and Shady was there. We didn’t do no music yet, but he was there. Somehow we got to talking and clicked immediately—just talking, though. We wasn’t even talking about no music yet. We all exchanged numbers, and me and Stalin started working on a project called The Real World, and Shady was all on that. He was all over it. I was like, you know, let’s do something too, me and Shady. We came up with the first Based on a True Story. We was in the lab, putting in hella hours, working. I remember he went to go sit down for a brief intermission. The day he got out, I took the whole lab, I took my mic, my laptop, everything. My mind was like, I’m not finna let this nigga get back into no bullshit. I’m finna go get this nigga in the lab and we’re gonna record. Shit, I believed in the nigga. I believed in the movement, and the chemistry we had and everything. We just kept it lit, just kept working. Our whole attitude was let’s work, let’s work, let’s work. And that’s how we met.
When was it that you started making beats? When you were working towards making money, and you knew it was a career you wanted to follow.
Fresh: I started doing beats in 2003. I was fresh off tour with Nas. Everybody was doing the mixtape thing or whatever, and I ain’t even want to do the mixtape thing. I wanted to do my own beats or whatever. I did my first project with Mistah F.A.B. I fell in love with doing beats, having something that was my own. Sampling all the songs that I grew up on and my momma used to play and my daddy used to play, and just playing my own stuff too. It just inspired the hell out of me. I decided it was gonna be my career right when I did my first project. I never really paid attention to the money aspect, always felt like if you do what you love then the money will come. That’s what I stuck to, that’s what I stick to, and here I am today.
What was the first beat that you felt was a success, that really resonated with a lot of people?
Fresh: It was a song called “We Go Dumb Out Here in the Bay” that Fab had did. At the time, no one really believed that it could be on the radio. Not even Fab at the time. He had just gotten signed to Atlantic, and he was working his Atlantic thing. We kind of did it just for fun, but they started playing it on 94.9. That was the first thing I had on the radio.
One of my favorite tracks you guys did together was “Bottom of the Bottle.” Can you tell me a little about your process with making a beat like that. It sounds very pristine. What’s the process like for you?
Shady Nate & DJ Fresh – Bottom of my Bottle
Fresh: I made “Bottom of my Bottle,” I was on the Rock the Bells tour at the time. I was with a group called Living Legends. I was with Nas too. It was a tour bus we were on. I was just trying to make like ten beats a day. I was in super grind mode, because I knew what I’d come home to wasn’t really a good situation at the time. Every beat was like, I’m fighting for my life to try to get out the situation I was in at the time, because I was struggling like a motherfucker. I remember that sample and everything. I was in South Dakota. I went into a gas station out there, we was pumping gas. I bought a CD—you know they had those CDs you could buy—who was it..it was Sting! It was a Sting CD. It had that little sample on there. I wasn’t even thinking it was gonna be called “Bottom of my Bottle” when I gave it to Shady. I just kind of hear a sample, and I just make it, I just go into it. It’s like abra cadabra, it just comes together. And I’ll shoot it to Shady and he’ll take it to the next step. Then I’ll go back and add to it. It’s all chemistry, just working together. Me and Shady got a relationship where if I give him a disc of ten beats, he’ll choose at least nine—or all ten of em.
Nate: Yeah not all of em! Just nine of em! [He and Fresh laugh].
When you did your part of the song—its a very strong vocal—what’s the background on that track, what’s the story behind that?
Nate: Man, I was getting drunk! And I actually felt like I seen the devil at the bottom of the bottle. I ain’t even think about what I was writing until after the song was done. I didn’t even think about how deep it was until after the song was done.
What’s your writing process like? Do you write a lot in advance, or do a lot in your head?
Nate: I switch it up, you know? When I actually did that song, Fresh was gone and he sent it to me. When I was in the studio, I knocked it out right then. When I knock shit out, as long as I got the beat, that’s something I’m going through right then and there, you feel me. Half of the time, I’ll already be ready when I come to the studio, I’ll already have a song written or a concept in my mind that I want to put it on. But that “Bottom of the Bottle,” that came as soon as I heard the beat.
Another one I wanted to ask you about was that “Gimmie Da Loot,” which I think I found on YouTube at the end of 2009 or early 2010, and it only existed on YouTube for a long time. Now it’s on this new record. I was wondering about the process for that one.
Shady Nate & DJ Fresh – Gimmie Da Loot
Fresh: “Gimmie Da Loot”–we got this other partner named Khalid. He’s a dope producer too. He had the sample first, and it was cool. But I felt like, damn, I wish I had that sample. Because I had a whole idea of how I wanted it too, so he gave it to me. And I was like, I want to give this to somebody who will really complement it. I didn’t even hear it for a long, long time.
Nate: You know why you didn’t hear it for a long, long time? Is because I wrote three different songs to that beat. Man, when I first heard the beat it was intimidating. You probably won’t hear no other rapper admit that. But when I first heard the beat it was intimidating, I couldn’t just put anything on it, you feel me? So I wrote one song, didn’t like it. I wrote another song, I didn’t like it. Wrote the third song, and I dropped it. It just came out the way it was supposed to come out. I’m a perfectionist, man, you feel me? There’s a method behind the madness to my music. I don’t just put anything out. I don’t freestyle, none of that. Everything is premeditated.
What do you like so much about Fresh’s beats, what works so well with those?
Nate: It’s the music. I’m young, but at the same time, I’m an old soul. My moms would play this stuff, the oldies but goodies—I’m out here at the park right now, we having a barbecue right now, these O.G.’s playing oldies but goodies. And DJ Fresh seemed like the only one that was one of my peers that, understood, that could go there with me with the oldies but goodies songs. That’s why I love DJ Fresh beats. That’s why we got so many songs together.
Fresh, what is it that drew you to Nate’s rapping?
Fresh: The style that he had was like, it’s smooth but it’s sharp. His words are on point. There’s a lot of artists that say a lot of words, but they’re really not saying nothing. I didn’t feel like he was like that at all. His words is on point, his lyrics, everything that he’s saying needed to be said to paint the pictures that he’s trying to paint. When I make some of my best stuff, I’ll feel good about giving it to him, because I know he’ll always put 120% into it, not 110, 120! And it’s going to be fresh. Aside the rap, me and Shady can sit down and have a conversation. For a whole hour, hour and a half, whatever. We’ve got a strong chemistry, just in life, period. Where we’re trying to go, what we ain’t trying to be. It all ties in together, you know.
What would you say is the main difference between this project and the original Based on a True Story.
Fresh: I know for me personally—the first one is a classic. Usually the first project, if it’s a good artist and a good producer, it’s a classic. But for me on this one, the second one has been a long time coming. I think it shows the maturity of the first one until now. The production, the lyrics, the artwork, the sonics of the whole thing. From a boy to a man type of thing. We were young when we did that. We’re still young, but we’re much more mature. Our business is a little bit sharper. For me, it’s really a great accomplishment. A lot of people know how to start something, but don’t know how to finish something. This is a great finish, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what I think on this. And it really is based on a true story, everything.
Nate: With me, I think the difference between part one and part two is, what Fresh said, we matured a whooole lot. It was funny to me, how I look at the 2007 Based on a True Story to the 2011 Based on a True Story, because I’m more in pocket, if you listen to the music, listen to the lyrics, I was in pocket back then. But now I’ve really got control over my style. I didn’t really have control back then, I was just going, you feel me. But now it’s over, you’re gonna laugh once you peep what I’m peeping, you feel me! It’s lovely.
Do you have a favorite song on the new one?
Nate: At one point all of them was my favorite. But right now, “Real Nigga Recipe” is my favorite. The beat go crazy. When I recorded that song—we probably recorded that about three or four in the morning, I didn’t even remember the song until my little brother—one of my labelmates, Jay Jonah got on the last verse and he brought it to me, like, “yo remember this? You was goin’ on this, listen!” Ever since then it’s been my favorite song, I’ve been performing it from Kansas City to Utah to Oklahoma back to Oakland, back to the Bay Area.
Shady Nate feat. Jay Jonah – Real Nigga Recipe
How much touring do you guys do? Constantly, one time a year? Is that where most of your musical income comes from now?
Fresh: I know myself, I stay going somewhere. Or flying somewhere, getting on a bus to go somewhere. A lot of my progress comes from touring places. It all counts. I know Shady stays going somewhere too. We’re always going somewhere. I may be going where he’s leaving from and vice versa.
Do you like touring, do you enjoy it? Do you like the life of being on the road?
Fresh: For me, I’ve been doing the tour thing for so long, when a tour opportunity comes, that’s how I look at it: an opportunity to make some money and feed my family. For me, it’s not so much ‘I wanna go on tour and I’m finna go fuck with some broads and get drunk’ and shit, for me it’s a blessing, another opportunity that I’m gonna say “Amen” to. And I’m gonna go get it and come back and keep it going. For me, know what I mean.
Nate: For me, touring, I love touring! I love traveling, love driving, I do this, I’m a hustler so I’m already on the streets, you feel me. Me going to another city anywhere is always lovely, you feel me. I look at it how Fresh look at it though. Now I’m starting to get paper. When we first started off, I wasn’t even getting paid. I was just going to get my name out there. Now, touring is lovely, because they know me now and they respecting it, they know what it’s about. I ain’t even got to say too much. All I gotta do is get on stage and rap and do my thing, pass my CDs out. So it’s lovely.
Fresh, obviously you know a lot of music. I was wondering if there was any old stuff you’ve been listening to lately. Early 90s, mid-80s, 70s records, any old school you’ve been listening to lately. That you put on when you’re not making music?
Fresh: I’ve been listening to a lot of 90s shit. Early SWV. Bell Biv Devoe, a lot of stuff like that. Tony Toni Tone. I kind of burnt the ’80s out. I still love it. I listen to jazz too. I listen to a lot of different things. I’m influenced by damn near every type of music, even if I may not like it, I get something from it. I’m very musically inclined and I’m able to grab inspiration from anything I hear.
Nate, anything you’ve been listening to lately?
Nate: Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Lil Blood! I don’t listen to– I listen to everything, I check everything out, the Rick Ross’s, the Young Jeezy’s, but I keep it close to home. I keep my ear to the streets, I listen to the young cats that’s coming up, and that want to get on, you feel me. That’s what I do. That’s where the real lyrics is. It might not be the real beats or the real money behind it, but that’s where the real music is. The lifestyle that I come from, that’s what I listen to.
Anything else you guys want to say?
Fresh: I love everybody who supports this DJ Fresh movement, Shady Nate, Livewire, it all counts, and every drop of good energy towards it. It’s from the heart. Blood sweat and tears.
Nate: Blood, sweat and tears, man. Period.
This interview was conducted by Telephone June 30, 2011.