INTERVIEW BY TOM EVANS
ILLUSTRATION BY GABI MARRIOTT-WILKINSON
“I spent time in the hole. I spent time in solitary confinement and this isn’t that.” Immortal Technique, May 2020
Born in a military hospital in Lima, the capital city of Peru, Felipe Andre Coronel, alongside his family, would emigrate to Harlem, New York City in order to escape the Peruvian Civil War. During his teenage years, Felipe would be arrested multiple times and shortly after enrolling at Pennsylvania State University he was incarcerated for a year. Felipe honed his rap skills in prison, and when released, unable to find a job, he started selling his music on the streets of New York City. IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE was born. After first developing his name as a battle rap artist, Immortal Technique released his first album in 2001 ‘Revolutionary Vol. 1’ and now has a legacy that reveals him as one of the most successful independent Hip-Hop artists in the history of the art form. Immortal Technique’s third and latest studio album ‘The 3rd World’ was released in 2008.
URBAN KINGDOM SPOKE TO IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE IN MAY 2020, DURING THE GLOBAL CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC.
WARNING: This interview contains very graphic descriptions and mature themes. Reader discretion is advised.
I know you guys in the UK like battle culture. I used to battle in jail. That’s really where I learned to battle. One thing I realised when I was incarcerated is that most people who are there, it’s not that they’re crazy, it’s that they’re sick. For the people that have ever been arrested, they know that when you get locked up, that basically turns into a mental health ward.
There’s more mental health work going on in prison than there is in the free world, well allegedly free world. A lot of the people that were thrown out recently (because of pardoning for Covid-19) were given what they call in the hood a ‘get out of jail free card’; technically what they call it is administrative adjournment. That means that if you have a felony charge and you’re not in custody, they’re like okay you’re adjourned until this whole thing is over and we’ll see case by case if we want to reopen the cases. So when they let all those individuals out on the street with administrative adjournment, where do they go brother? Where are they going to get the drugs that they need to get normal? Where would they get a job to get the money to get the drugs that they need to be good. They’re just in a terrible position. So I’m out here just trying to do whatever I can just try to help people and remember that this quarantine is nothing compared to really being locked down.
A lot of people are in a lot worse circumstances than I am. At least I got a roof over my head. My parents are good, my family’s good. My uncle and my cousin had a mild case of the virus, but they got over it so I’m very happy about that. My friend’s mother, who’s a nurse, caught it very badly, very touch and go. I’m proud to say she’s on a road to recovery, but we have lost people, you know, Fred the Godson and then my brother Vice Verses from ELW and it’s just sad to hear about these things. Now of course some of these things we’re going to find out later on whether they’re related to Corona, whether it was the government making sure that people are really terrified so they don’t mind giving up more of their rights. That remains to be seen.
I’m just trying to do what I can. We can have that debate later, but I’m trying to do what I can on the ground now. So this just means I’m just living the life, writing a book right now and trying to finish up some extra songs. I’m about 11 songs deep but you know, we can’t just be in the studio every other day for nothing. I mean if I wanted to, I could release five, six songs in the middle passage now that are totally finished like a hundred percent but what good would that do? I want to give people the whole body of work. It’s always been like that.
I heard your verse on ‘Who Do We Trust’ on RA the Rugged Man’s new album ‘All My Heroes Are Dead’ and can I just say, it’s felt like so long since I’ve last heard something from you…
That verse is actually from a song that was going to be on ‘The Martyr’ (an Immortal Technique compilation album released October 2011). The first part of the verse was for a song I had wanted to release called ‘Martial Law’, the beat that you hear that R.A had on his album, that wasn’t the original beat that I rapped on. I just had this 12 bar/15 bar verse hanging in the loop so when RA came to see me I was like, alright cool, let me see what I’ve got for you, let me dig in the vault and basically got that. Then it wasn’t too long after that actually that Ill Bill called me and he wanted to do the song that came out in March called ‘Adios’. That song is about death, everyone chose to kind of give their own perspective. Nems (a feature artist on the record) was talking about how if you are a kid and you want to live that life, maybe you should talk to people about that life before you go out there and then you find out that you don’t get no extra lives like in a video game. Bill was talking about how it was more of a philosophical thing, like how his family had dealt with death over the generations. I guess my verse was something more encompassing about that. I’ve always been a very conceptual artist and all the music that I’ve done so far, I’m hoping to give the American fans that, the UK fans that and the global hip hop fans in general that when I come back.
‘I’m able to help all these people and afford to do all these runs and to provide support out here (for Covid-19) because people are still buying my music right now.’
Obviously you like to make very conceptual songs but have you ever thought fuck it, I’m just going to throw that all out the window and come out with a random track?
People randomly write songs for sure, however the people who are just streaming artists and no one’s ever bought a record, they have to understand the economic reality of how the world is changing and how it’s going to affect them. They can’t be propped up by the media and by these fake news outlets, the numbers will tell eventually. They won’t be able to maintain (the current music industry) because the vast majority of the money doesn’t come from records it comes from touring. These artists ain’t going to be touring. Also, remember the capacity of every venue whether you’re in England or the United States right now, the capacity of every venue has just changed overnight so if you thought that venue at the 02 was a thousand cap, half it, you can’t fit people in like sardines anymore.
One of the first shows I ever did was at Islington Academy when it was 800 or so people. Islington can’t have 800 people now, you’re going to go in there and there’s going to be 300/400 people if they allow things to reopen. A lot of booking agents, whether people know it or not, have a major role in Hip Hop – a really powerful agent can get you on festivals that you wouldn’t normally get invited to, and covers of magazines. You got a lot of people who are now trying to find out what their position is. ‘What can I actually do to justify the fact that I’m getting 10% of all this?’ Overnight everything’s gone. A lot of artists make their bread and butter from meet and greets. How are you going to meet and greet someone with coronavirus?
This is the time to be creative. I was really incarcerated as a child when I was, like 19/20. I spent time in the hole. I spent time in solitary confinement. This isn’t that, you know, you can make a phone call whenever you want. You have the ability to have internet phone capacity, you can have a video chat with people. Come on bro, please don’t compare it to that. It is no way, shape or form the same thing. We just want people to be good.
Now is the government going to use this particular incident to try and make a power grab? Absolutely, what government wouldn’t. What we have to do is not just focus on that but also focus on what’s in front of us, which is making sure that the elderly people aren’t caught in between the cracks and that’s really how I started helping out people. Recently I was just doing some groceries for my folks and then a couple of other people in the neighbourhood came out and were like, “Hey man could you get some for me?”. It’s been a little hectic out here obviously but I’ve been maintaining; just trying to keep me and my family safe trying to help out wherever I can. I’ve been doing some runs for some community groups and one that I think is the most popular is the ‘South Bronx collective’. I just bring them money and supplies. I’ve been out there and been blessed enough, and fortunate enough, to be able to have the funds to get people masks and gloves and all the protective equipment (to handle the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic). I’ve been able to purchase some food supplies for the people that really don’t have anything, the kind of the individuals swept under the rug during this period of time. A lot of people don’t understand what’s going on.
So just trying to help out wherever I can and do what it do and you know, not forget that I’m a hip hop artist too. A lot of people are on survival mode right now because not a lot of money is being spent on luxuries and you have to understand, while music may seem like a necessity to some people, it’s not categorised as a necessity, it’s categorised as a luxury. That’s not what people are focused on right now. People are focused on trying to eat and trying to live and all that. We are trying to find out what people’s essential skills are.
This pandemic situation has me actually working on a book right now. It’s a similar setup to an album where I want to get about 15/16 short stories but put it together in a book. People would get the format because they are used to the album of 15 songs from me but this would be something physical they could own. Not that you can’t own a CD, it’s just not as popular anymore – although I would still sell those whatever the case may be. I will say this about the music I’m making, and that I’ve made in the past, is that I’m able to help all these people and afford to do all these runs and to provide support out here because people are still buying my music right now.
With the book does the music come into it at all or is it more fictional?
The book isn’t about like my musical career. They’re just short stories in general, but there are stories about things that I’ve experienced in life that have occurred during that particular time.
So there is influence from real life experiences?
There’s some stuff in there that’s obviously fantasy, and then there’s some stuff that’s obviously based on truth and things that happened to me personally, and that’s a big part of writing in general. People always ask me the same question a thousand times: “Hey man, is dance with the devil a true story?”
Of course it’s a true story. It happens all the time. It still happens. It’s just not true in the sense that I was personally involved. I’ve known about those types of things that have happened because they’ve always happened in the community; where somebody gets violated and they find out, Oh my God, this person was related to this person and this is terrible, you know what I mean? I think that almost movie like twist at the end is what captured everybody but you know, I think they have to recognise the difference between having the skill to write in that person. You know what I mean? In third person or first person then switch the perspectives in the middle of the record. That is just good writing. When a person says “Oh man, you mentioned this and you know, if you didn’t really kill her then you’re not real” I just roll my eyes because that person is the type of guy who’s going to be taken to the park by his 80 year old mother and there’s just nothing we can do to fix that person.
Was it hard writing that song? Obviously writing from the perspective of somebody else?
I had just got into prison so I had seen all kinds of characters while I was there. There was a dude there who raped a 14 year old girl and then he crushed her head with a cinder block. So if you want many examples of monsters and creatures that nobody would want to be around or have their kids around, they right next door to me. I didn’t have to go far to imagine a person. That’s one thing that struck me about being incarcerated, the people who were real murderers and killers, they didn’t really talk much. They didn’t have too much to say. They weren’t big mouths. The people that I knew were big mouths and were talking all this tough shit were like, “Aw man, n****s can’t talk to me that kind of way.”, then I would see the CEO’s talk to them any kind of way.
In prison there was a quiet old white man in the corner and I’m like, “yo who’s that dude?”. They told me “Don’t even talk to them again.”They told me that dude woke up one morning and just cut his wife’s head off. When the police got there, they asked him “why did you do it?”. He said “I thought she was someone else.”. I realised that somebody that’s looks like they’re they’re scary,they’re not scary, it’s the people (in prison) that don’t look scary. They are usually the scariest people and they’ve done the most terrible things.
As an uncensored artist who doesn’t hold back their opinion, some people would label you a ‘conspiracy theorist’. What are your thoughts on that label?
Well let’s go over this real quick just for your audience. ‘Dance With The Devil’ was on ‘Revolutionary Vol. One’ and that definitely put my name in the underground conversation. The album that really put me in the mainstream of underground hip hop was ‘Revolutionary Vol. Two’. Now let’s take a good look at those conspiracy theories that were on that record. People stopped calling me a conspiracy theorist rapper about the time that I started bringing this up, maybe five, six years ago. What were the big conspiracy theories on Vol. Two? The first one was that the Iraq war was, was based on lies. Remember they said ‘Oh, they were responsible for 9/11’ when that lie fell through. What they said is “Oh, they have nuclear weapons.” No, they don’t have any nuclear weapons.
Essentially what took place is a reworking of what the interpretations of the truth would be going forward. and looking at it like a person who was involved in making music, I just wanted to speak plainly, so when I said to people, okay, the Iraq war is based on lies, I think the government lied about 9/11… “Oh my God. How could you say that?”. Now we’re finding out that the air wasn’t safe to breathe. They told us 10/20 years ago “Oh, they’re fine.” Oh, it’s fine. Just go back to work downtown. Meanwhile, half the first respondents die of lung cancer or some kind of respiratory ailment later. If a government can’t even tell a truth to its people about the air to breathe, how do you expect me to believe anything else you say? You really expect me to believe Grenfell tower had like 30 people in there? You know you’re lying and now everybody else does.
When I was a little kid, the secretary of defence, Robert McNamara came out and said that the Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened. Well then why did everybody die in Vietnam?
So what was the last theory that I put out? The big conspiracy back in 2003 brother, 2004 that the government was reading all of their emails and listening to their phone calls and they called me a lunatic and then you found out later, that’s exactly what the government was doing. Listening to all of your phone calls, jerking off to all the pictures of your wife.
So a rapper from this country who you did a record with, Lowkey, he’s spoken out on issues in America as well as the UK. Have you worked with any British artists since? If not, who would you like to work with?
I was supposed to do a song with an underground artist. The guy is legendary in the UK, his name was Chester P. We were supposed to do a record way back in the day. Somebody came to me and was like, yo I’m working with Chester P he’s heard of you, I was like sure send me the track. They never did, so it never happened. At the time I was in England because I had just gotten the unsigned hype in The Source. This was like 2000, I want to say 2001/2002.
I want to send a big shout out to this dude named Ralph Dog, a random guy from Edgeware which is in like zone five, way out there. He was a good dude, someone that let me crash in the spare room in his crib. I gave him a little dough from the money I made and it was all love. I was just going around doing whatever I was doing and he was just trying to hustle.
So how did the record with Lowkey come about? (Voices of The Voiceless, 2010)
I had done a bunch of shows with him already, just randomly. I had known him from an organisation that was in New York City called ‘The Existences Resistance’, which is an organisation that works with people from the Palestinian diaspora and people from Palestine. He was just a genuinely good brother, I think we did some stuff regarding the Iraq war, and you know and he just turned out to be a genuine dude, he’s somebody that I’ve known for a long time. He’s also friends with my part time nutritionist always harassing me about what I eat, my friend Shaka, always harassing me like “That’s terrible, that’s terrible!”. I post a picture of me at Morley’s and he’s upset like, “why are you there?” I’m like, “yo man mind your fucking business.” I love you shotgun but I think I need some Morley’s once in a while. I miss that right now. (Morley’s is a fast food takeaway chain in London)
Was the transition from battle rap to actually writing lyrics to the level of something like ‘Dance with the Devil’ quite difficult or was it something you were doing at the same time?
I stopped battling during vol. one, vol. two, there were two prongs to the issue. One was obviously that I was always going to get the moniker of ‘battle rapper’ unless I’ve moved on from battle rap. The other thing was that I did a battle for somebody who I thought was cool, in retrospect they were just trying to help themselves. Basically that’s when I realised the business of battling was all messed up.
Somebody said to me ‘we need you to do a battle, we got $500 for the winner.’ Cool, so these people went and did a battle. They recorded the battle and me, I’m ignorant, so I went and signed the video release for the battle. The video release contained the clause that says some shit, mind you I’m not reading it. I didn’t come to the projects with my fucking lawyer to do a battle, he just told me to show up to the projects, a hood where I’m not from, alone, and do a battle. So I said, all right, cool. So imagine I show up somewhere I’m not supposed to be where I’m not from. A lot of people think that England is so different from America bro but there’s neighbourhoods where if you’re not from there, don’t go there. I’m not saying you should be scared of them but if you go there and you look like you want to sell drugs, people think you’re coming to invade their territory. So when they show up, they don’t know you, they don’t know who you are, they don’t know if you’re going to kidnap somebody. In other words, people are all on high alert. People reacted in a very kind of crazy ass way (for me being there) and when I approached them about that and I said, well, you guys paid me $500 to do this battle and then you went and sold DVDs of the battle for $12 and I mean, according to these papers, y’all sold like 11,000 copies of this shit. So, you know, could I get another G or two too, and they were just like, no, I don’t think we’re going to do that, but we could invite you to the other battle and I said, “No, I’m not doing any more battles for you.”
The next time, someone actually from the UK contacted me, but they gave me such a low ball offer. Then they said they want me to write rhymes about another person. This is when the format of battle rap was changing too. I was like, wait a minute, you want me to write 400 bars about another n***a? You want me to write a diss track to somebody else basically and then spit it a cappella. and they were like, yeah. I was like, well how much are y’all guaranteeing? And they were like, well, you know we can get you like a thousand dollars. Why would I do that? I can sit down and through that time I take to write about somebody else, I could write a great song and I did. You know the song I wrote in reaction to that was ‘Peruvian Coke’ and I told these people to get the fuck out my face.
If you notice everybody that’s featured on ‘Peruvian coke’ was a battle rapper at some particular point in time so that was the whole point. I was like, yeah man, what the fuck are we doing wasting time with this shit when we could be out here really writing music and making songs and pushing the culture forward.
That battle style is always going to be a style of rhyming for me, it’s very aggressive, you know what I mean? Very hardcore. That’s kind of what I’ve always been on though so it’s not like that changed. It was just, you know, it wasn’t just an album full of dissing imaginary MCs.
“When did you come out with this album Technique? When you were 24?” Okay so when you’re 104 the licenses will be up. He was like, you know, you just gotta be smart about this.’
Do you think that the politics in the battle rap business are similar to the music industry in the sense that they’re both out to mug you off a bit?
I think it’s a lot better now than it used to be because battlers are independent contractors. But who owns the intellectual property to their music? I believe there was a UK artist, I’m not a hundred percent on his name, but from what I understand this UK artist took their lyrics that they battled people with and were like fuck it, I’ll just put these verses on a mixtape cause they’re dope. In the United States that hasn’t happened. I think that if that was successful, that some of the controlling bodies, meaning the leagues themselves would come out and say, “well wait a minute, we put this out, we showcased, it where it’s our cut?” Which then pulls it back to the artist to say, “well, wait a minute, you paid me but where’s my backend from the YouTube views? So, wait, so I did something for you and you gave me money up front and now you’re going to make money forever and I don’t get anything.”
You do realise how long those licenses are held for, right. 80 fucking years. When I became an artist after Vol. 2, when I was working on The 3rd World (2008) and a company for publishing approached me, they offered me $275,000 for half the publishing, I said, no. He came back with $350,000 and we got to $425,000 – by the time we were at $550,000 a good friend of mine, who was a lawyer, said “you’d be a fool to sell this” and I said, “why?”. He goes, “because you’ve got to realise man, you were born in a crazy era. You were born at the turn of the millennium, not the turn of the century, right. You were born in the time in which Hip-Hop, an interesting art form that has never been seen in the same capacity than it is now, began to exist. You were one of those people, not the first wave, not the second, but like the third wave of people that came in, which means you’re in the very beginning. Which means that in 10, 15, 20, 30 years, music from that era will be studied in colleges and if you own the masters and if you own this, you’ll own it until you’re old and grey, until you’re a hundred. When did you come out with this album Technique? When you were 24? Okay so when you’re 104 the licenses will be up.” He was like, “you know, you just gotta be smart about this.” This is not worth $425,000, this is worth whatever doubled that money is, for the tune of the adjusted price in the future, which is a lot more than $425,000. Motherfuckers out there in the seventies sold their publishing for like $800. Right. So let’s keep it a thousand.
So this sounds like the politics are pretty similar between the two industries.
Take a guy like The Saurus or ill Mac or Marv Won, these guys that are still active battlers, they will all tell you the politics has gotten better because in the past, only the winner would get paid. In other words if there were 16 people, 16 MCs on the card, 15 n****s were performing for free. 15 people could rap their heart out, give it everything and they would leave there with nothing. At least now we have eight cards, eight battles, 16 rappers on them, everybody’s getting paid. I think that’s fair. If everybody battles, everybody should get paid, man. It’s like a boxer. You can’t give a n***a that just got the shit kicked out of him nothing. You’ve got to give him something. He might not have won the fight, right? Maybe he doesn’t get the 60% but he gets the 40%. He gets something, man. Right?
A lot of your music from Revolutionary Vol. One and Two came to the UK in the form of torrenting. We used to see tracks such as ‘Dance With The Devil’ popping up on there and I know you’re talking about how you feel that artists should take care of their masters and get paid properly for their work but did you encourage people to torrent your music if it meant reaching a wider audience?
I took the anti-Metallica route. Metallica looked like they were old, decrepit, washed up and I hate to say that because they were a favourite band of mine but when they talked about streaming and people stealing music and you wouldn’t steal from a store, they just sounded like somebody that’s been fucked so many times by the industry they don’t understand no other way to be. To me at the artist level that I’m on I wasn’t doing stadiums by the way. No one’s doing stadiums now.
At the time I was telling people, “I don’t care if you download it, just do me a favour, if you like what you hear, please support me at Viper Records”. It was a strange era because there were people who, I don’t know if they thought they weren’t insulting me, but they came up to me and they’re like, “Hey dude, I just want to let you know I download all your music.” I looked at this guy one time and I said, “Thank you, I appreciate it. Did you show it to all your friends?” And he’s like, yeah. Dude, did you expect me to be mad at you for sharing my life’s work? No man, you’re not doing anything wrong for me. There are lots of people that got the record for free and then bought a different record. There are people that burn Vol. One and bought Vol. Two or burn Vol. Two and bought Vol. One so that’s what I tell people. ‘Hey man, if you like the music and you want to support and you want to hear more music like it, please man buy a T-shirt.’ You know what I mean? Get something from the store, get a record. We still out here, we still making music. We doing good shit. You know what I mean? We’re trying to support people. That’s it.
I just want to let everybody know, the first show that I ever did in the UK was not in London. The first show I did in the UK was actually in Norwich and let me tell you something about the composure that I have and I’m not trying to toot my own fucking horn here, but I deserve some props for this. I was at Norwich and I performed at a club which maybe had like 300 people and it was dope. It was off the hook. In the middle of ‘Dance With The Devil’, a girl flashed at me. I was like, what the fuck? Do you know what song this is? No, you have no idea. If someone has that recording, I’ll pay you money for it because like for two bars, I’m trying not to laugh. I’m walking around the street, I’m trying not to laugh so hard. That was the first show I ever did and Ralph Dog had hooked it up and they paid me £300 and I did 45 minutes on stage.
I had no idea Norwich was that wild.
I had no idea either, man. It was fucking insane. It was a performance in middle of nowhere. I went there by myself with a suitcase full of CD’s and watches. I was still trying to make bread back in the day.
Big shout out to Urban Kingdom. This is Immortal Technique, we out.
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