To hip-hop fans in the early-'90s, Heavy D was the original “Overweight Lover.” A rap generation later, he was name-dropped more in the reciting of one of hip-hop's most beloved lines: the first bars from another heavy weight, Notorious B.I.G's “Juicy.” Now? Without Notorious it'd be a wonder if the kids today even knew who Biggie was. Like all pop culture, hip-hop's cycles move quickly. Which makes Heavy D's 2009 Grammy nomination certainly surprising.
Lessening the shock–or perhaps increasing it–is that Heavy D's Vibes got its nod in the Best Reggae Album category. The album, released late last year, is an ode to the classic, feel-good reggae, more so than the delineations of the genre that are more prominently part of today's pop culture.
Vibes' standout track, “Long Distance Girlfriend,” like much of the disc, floats along a one drop rhythm and deep brooding horns…and Heavy D's singing sounds right at home. If hip-hop in 2008 was any one thing, it was about artists finally taking some chances outside of the music's rigid boom bap formula…of course, most of it sounded like robot.
LA Weekly: First up, why isn't there any Autotune on the reggae album? You didn't want to chase the robots?
Heavy D: [Laughs] I didn't need it. I figured I'd stay in my lane and stay in my range.
In all seriousness, what inspired you to make Vibes?
Well, you know, I'm Jamaican by birth and I've always had one foot in reggae and one foot in hip-hop. In the past, I've done records with all the greats like Super Cat, Coco Tea, Frankie Paul…and the list goes on. I was never really allowed to do it in my major situation because it wasn't as profitable for them as it would've been for me to do a traditional hip-hop album.
With that being said, while I was going back in the studio, thinking about coming out again, I just couldn't find myself inspired to make a quality hip-hop album. Well, then what do I do, retire? Yeah, I could put an exclamation on my hip-hop career, but retire all together? No. I still love being an artist and I was born to be an entertainer. I can't see myself doing anything else, there is no B-plan for me.
And I would always try to incorporate one reggae record on most of my albums and through this recording process, I just started making reggae records. They were coming out better, I was more excited, and it felt like I was starting over again. I had a vision, a point of view, a concept, all the things that you need to make a quality album were coming through the reggae vibe. I just stuck with it. Kept my head down and came out with what I believe is a wonderful work.
Being on your own label, how much did that artistically free you?
Oh man, there's no one to talk to. For better or worse, I'm the one making all the decisions. And I'm happy with it. I wasn't really bounded by the label, artistically, it was just the way they would want to promote something. These days, for instance, this album in a major label situation would have come and gone already.
I wanted to do a grass roots campaign with it, let it bubble up and let people discover it. Let other people talk about it, rather than just me talking about it. I had the single out since August and now people are just starting to catch on–and I haven't even chased radio yet. I mean, we're pushing the radio button now.
But I wanted to take it back to the days when we started…let it be an honest record. Let the people decide if it's something they really want to fall in love with, because you can't really fall in love over night. You can fall in lust and romanticize, but you can't fall deeply in love with anything. I'm going to work this album for one and a half or two years, I guarantee it.
Has hip-hop forgotten Jamaica's role in its birth?
Not only is it forgotten, I don't think it was ever even thought of. It is the birthplace of hip-hop. The idea of two turntables and a microphone comes from Jamaica, by way of Kool Herc.
But you can't blame that on the kids, they only know what they know. Every five years, the culture changes. That's in TV series, who's the hottest artist, everything.
Heavy D featuring Kool G Rap, Grand Puba, C.L. Smooth, Pete Rock, Q Tip, Big Daddy Kane. (Unfortunately, his plea for no cursing failed to catch fire in the hip hop community.)
So how do you get the kids interested in hip-hop, pre-Eminem?
Well, I don't know if they have interest in being interested. And I don't know if that's their place; their place is to enjoy being in the moment. Unless, of course, you plan on being a musician…then you should know your history. I'd just encourage, all the young, up and coming kids to just embrace all kinds of music. All of the greatest rappers like more than hip-hop, I guarantee that, their music taste is extensive, all the way to pop to rock and that's why they become popular: They have a sense of what everybody likes, not just what one clique of people like.
Do you see hip-hop getting more experimental, what with Wayne and Kanye releasing “rock” records?
I think so and I think the game itself is forcing that hand. Even the artists are thinking, “Shit, I can't come and do the same thing again.” I've been doing this for a long time and I can't tell whose album is whose because they're on so many guest appearances. They're over-saturated…in a quick amount of time.
The creative ones know that they have to switch gears…and I love that about Kanye and Lil Wayne. And I guess you can put myself in that category.
Where've you been?
I have a little girl, who's soon to be nine. I wanted to be a dad. I'm single. Mom and I are friends, but we're not together, and she works long hours, so I decided to take the bulk of the parenting for a little while. My daughter has never had a nanny, never had a babysitter. I just didn't want to miss that.
So I became the guy who was dropping her off at school, picking her up from school, making dinner, making lunch, going to meetings at the school and I loved it. I didn't miss a beat with her.
Think you'll find the inspiration to rap again?
I'll rap again, but I don't think I'll ever make another rap album. But maybe it takes me stepping away from it to be reinvigorated and re-inspired.
“It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up Magazine, Salt N Peppa and Heavy D up in the limousine…” What'd you think when you first heard that?
I wanna say that I was in the studio with them. I can't really tell you what I thought. But I believed in Puff, I had known Puff for years and seen him make things happen against, you know, everybody else's better judgement, if you will. At that time, maybe a year part, I was running Uptown Records.
When Puff let me hear the record, I was like “Whoa, who is this dude?” And when I met him, he was so anti-superstar, not in his attitude but in his presence. I was coming from a label where we signed people that looked decent or great and had talent. You want the combination, but even Biggie was like “Black and ugly as ever, however…” It wasn't the typical signing, but that's what I love about Puff, he was going on straight up talent.
There was really no other reason to sign him other than he was phenomenal and, at the end of the day, that's what it's really supposed to be about.
So when everything is said and done with your career, when you look back, what is Heavy D's place in hip-hop history?
I dont know if that's for me to decide. I think that I have the work, I've put the work in, I love the art and the culture and I'm not ashamed of anything I've done. I think that's a great way to be. I'm only 41, so I have a long life ahead of me, god willing.
Ain't no telling what I'll do in the next 20 years and I've already been doing this for 23 years, come this August. I don't think talent and age, I don't think one has anything to do with the other. It's all desire. If you have the passion, then you can do it.
That's the bottom line. But if you're out there doing it, just to do it, then that's exactly how it's going to feel. You can tell when that's the case. I was actually, hopefully, smart enough to bow out at a good time. I know that people will romanticize about what I've done, but if I really were to put out a [rap] record, then it wouldn't live up to what they romanticize about, and ultimately, it'd disappoint. (Brandon Perkins)