“Not that I stopped making beats, but I focused more on DJing probably for a five or six year period because I kind of lost interest in what was happening in underground rap, so to speak.”
That’s 7L, the producer and one third of Czarface, who alongside MCs Inspectah Deck and Esoteric recently released their second LP Every Hero Needs a Villain, the follow-up to their underground hip-hop record Czarface. He’s describing a time that he and his bandmates agree hip-hop went through a stagnant period.
“Everything kind of took a turn for the worse in the early 2000s, late, late 90s, when it was OK to be as overtly greedy as possible,” Esoteric echoes. “Being a businessman was just as cool as being an MC. Or being an entrepreneur was just as cool as being an MC. In the real world, it is cool! But in terms of artistry, there are things that suffer when you put that stuff first.”
At times when you talk to the members of Czarface, it seems they can’t come to a conclusion on a mission statement for the group. They vacillate between just wanting to make music they enjoy, and railing against the pitfalls of corporate rap.
“Hip-hop got so ravaged, it's snobby now,” says Deck. “People rap about being the richest. ‘I got all that and you got nothing, you broker than me and you wanna be me. Look at me, I'm fuckin' extra cool. And I'm super thugged out, too. And I'm rich.’ That’s all rap is for me right now. I think this is gonna cut through that. Give people something they just like! I'm not forcing you to like it, either. You just like it on your own.”
“I think if you were to look at the bigger picture and wanted to put Czarface in a bigger category it would be somebody that represents the good, vintage appeal that hip hop was built on,” Esoteric says. “We're not trying to preach or anything, we're just trying to lead by example with the songs we make.”
The origins of Czarface go back to the late 90s, through a mutual connection at Loud Records. Inspectah Deck shows up on early an 7L & Esoteric track, “Speaking Real Words,” providing the introduction but sounding like an older brother as he cedes the first verse: “Speak on it, kid!”
The trio stayed in touch over the years, and sometime around 2010 7L proposed to Esoteric that they do a collaborative project. Esoteric proposed it to Deck, who was game to try something new. “Being from Wu-Tang, one of the most hardcore groups in hip hop from our time, coming from that to this was definitely a step outside the box and I wanted to do that to show the people that I could pretty much create whatever I want,” he says.
From there, the Czarface concept came from Esoteric. Deck and 7L concede that he’s the most involved in the comic book world. But real thought went into creating the concept. “In a more abstract sense, Czarface is kind of an antihero in the spirit of Wolverine or something,” Esoteric says. “He has good intentions but he'll be reckless in the way that he distributes his justice and lives can get lost. Buildings get destroyed.”
The name’s resemblance to “Scarface” is no coincidence. “He became a hero even though he wasn't a hero in the movie,” Deck says of the cult classic starring Al Pacino. “He was so iconic, and we want to be something like that. We want people to look at us and say, ‘This is not just a group,’ that they see us as iconic MCs in the game. We have the face of a czar. I didn't want to make it about me and he didn't want to make it about him. Together we were just Czarface, We're people that you have to respect. We have the look of some importance. That's Czarface.”
Noisey: Why does hip hop have such a correlation with comic books?
Esoteric: There's a relationship between hip hop and comic books that isn't really tangible. A lot of MCs have heroic aspirations or super villainous aspirations. They can be real, they can be fictional, but I think a lot of it ties into the attitude, the ego of a superhero or the way that they're admired by the general population.
Obviously the Czarface sound is inspired by 90s hip-hop.
Esoteric: I think it just comes naturally. If there was any effort involved it would appear contrived. We just put the music out. Every time that we make a record, we're trying to give the listener something new and not rehash old things. I think it's just who we are. We're trying to make a beat that captures this real intense vibe that makes us want to rhyme, that gives us the energy to crush buildings. We're not setting out to not be 90s, it's just that this is the music that we love.
Deck: It's new and innovative, but it keeps the balance of what the foundation was. It's not like we're stuck in the 90s or we want this to sound like 90s or whatever, that's just how it comes because we're doing what we do.
7L: I think when we started the record we just wanted to make something that we like. We weren't trying to make a 90s record, but obviously it has that vibe. We'll just make music we like and see what happens.
Esoteric: There's pros and cons to everything but I think one pro is that we were lucky enough to be a product of that era and we have a real understanding of it, so a lot of it just comes naturally. It isn't forced. You can tell that it's not coming from an inauthentic place.
Why aren’t there good hip-hop groups anymore?
Deck: Everybody wants to be the man now! I remember watching Tribe perform, and it was all four of them. It was one of those shows where I was like, man, Wu-Tang, we gotta step our shit up. Nowadays everybody wants to be the man, so the group aspect is lost.
Esoteric: I think a lot of people decided, "Why am I going to be in a group with somebody when I can be a star and take home a bigger paycheck?" I want to be the guy.
Deck: That's why I don't want it to be like, Inspectah Deck and 7L, like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, you know what I mean? I wanted it to be us. I'm down with them. Whatever level you might think I'm on, and people say that [I] stooped down to that level, I'm like, “You know what? This is a level that's on the way up.” So if you think I'm stooping down, no. I'm getting with something that's on the move.
Esoteric: People don't want to admit it but they love to hear different voices on an album. It's more colorful. With Czarface, we have a nice chemistry but you also have other guys on the record. It takes a better understanding that a whole can be bigger than the sum of its parts. It just makes a better listening experience. It takes a wise, unselfish group of people to sit down and make a whole album like that and not worry about the money.
What’s the biggest difference between working with Czarface and Wu-Tang?
Deck: Pretty much, the RZA preach that notion that you go in there and you play your part. I know that's how it's been on the later end. In the beginning we had more creative influence, but the last couple albums are pretty much blueprinted for you. Whereas with Czarface, there's no guidelines or restrictions on anything and there's really no one to impress but us.
Does that change how you approach the actual music?
Deck: For me, Wu-Tang is like the Justice League, the X-Men. And I can play any character I want. It's like I'm more of the Martian Manhunter, I'm like the Vision. I'm on a team with Superman and Iron Man and Batman. It's always like the Danger Room. We're always testing our weaponry on each other. It's more of a friendly competition when it's Wu-Tang and you're basically slinging your blade. It's more of a combat, Game of Thrones type thing over there. When it's me and Esoteric, it's more a verbal thing. You know? Where it's like he's trying to say the sickest shit and I'm trying to say the sickest shit but we're not trying to outdo each other. We're more trying to be on each other's level. That's the biggest difference. Wu-Tang is more straight direct, sword swinging, cut off your head, bloody scene left behind. Czarface is a more fun atmosphere.
Todd Olmstead is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.