The BET Hip Hop Awards Cyphers have come to be known as a proving ground of sorts where commercial success goes out the window and the only thing that matters is #barz. This year, it served as the perfect place for New Orleans emcee Dee-1 to put others on notice that as long as he’s around, you’re not the smartest person in the room.
Before rap, Dee-1 was a middle school math teacher and even now, nine years into the game, the “One Man Army” is still kicking knowledge. He’s just doing it on a higher level.
In an exclusive conversation with BET.com, Dee, whose latest single, "Against Us," recently dropped on iTunes, spoke about overcoming his own personal demons for the sake of music, his quest for greatness and why he feels hip hop is not qualified to deal with political issues.
BET.com: In an earlier interview, you admitted that you felt a little unsatisfied by your performance in The Cypher despite the positive buzz it created online. Has that motivated you even more moving forward?
Dee-1: It created this burning desire inside of me to just take my craft to the next level and I’m most appreciative of that from this whole experience. I just felt like I could have done better and instead of getting upset and moping around, it just made me wanna work 100 times harder ... what I learned is I was put here for a specific purpose. I understand what my brand is and, with the talent I was given by God, I don’t need to overthink what I should rap about or how I’m gonna come across like I was doing with The Cypher.
How would you sum up that purpose?
Basically, I have to live a life of integrity all across the board in order to be elevated to that proper platform. The BET cypher was a turning point in my career because it gave me that wake up call, like, I’m so close to where I want to get — so so so close — but I had some inner demons to finish battling with and I got them out my system. And that was the turning point. ... Seeing Snoop hosting, seeing my cypher for the first time on the projector, that was the day I felt something inside of me that was like, “You’re here, you’re amongst the stars, you’re on The Cypher and all this, but you’re not living up to your full potential yet." And that day, I decided that I’m really about to go to the next level. And ever since then, like right now, all I can say is, "Just watch and see."
When you say you had to get past demons, can you talk about what those were?
I’m making music to live up to this standard of being real, being righteous and being relevant in everything I do and keeping God first. But if I’m not doing that in my personal life, that’s going to make me feel hypocritical for doing the music that I’m doing and that’s not right. I really have disdain for hypocrites. I really don’t like when someone has a large platform and they mislead people, either intentionally or they just know that they’re not fit to be that leader that they had proclaimed themselves to be. And in some ways, I felt like I was becoming that and it would affect the music ... So sometimes I just go into these cold spells of having writer’s block or I’ll be like, “This is a good idea for a song but I can’t fully rap this with passion if I know that I’m not living this all the way." I know that I was called to be a great leader. I know that I’ve been anointed to do great things.
Recently, there have been numerous incidents of injustice in the headlines, for example the murder of Mike Brown. Hip hop caught criticism for not taking action. Did you feel like hip hop should have done more to get involved?
I’ma tell you like this: I wouldn’t want most of the people in hip hop to speak out against injustice when it happens because the truth is, when it’s not a Mike Brown type of case, most of the people in hip hop are glorifying killing. They’re talking in their music like they’re the ones killing people. They glorify selling dope, they glorify this lifestyle, so when a Mike Brown type of case happens, I don’t want you speaking out against that type of violence all of a sudden but next week [on] the new song you put out, you’re back to the same old same old, glorifying killing and all these Black-on-Black murders. I would rather not have that. I wouldn’t want a car mechanic to try to teach me how to fix a five-course meal like a professional chef should do, so I don’t want the wrong people to speak up for the sake of speaking up. I would rather the right people speak up, but that’s when it puts the microscope on hip hop and calls the question: How many people in hip hop are really qualified? You got Talib Kweli, J. Cole, Killer Mike, myself and a few other people, but it’s not the masses.
You’ve been in the game for almost a decade. You haven’t really changed your style up much, yet your recent momentum has been crazy. Why do you think that is?
If you ever read that book The Tipping Point ... I’ve just been getting closer to my tipping point and, contrary to what you said, I feel like the bulk of the momentum that I’m going to pick up has yet to come. I started rapping nine years ago, the first five years was the grassroots building phase, the last four years I’ve been on the national radar, which is almost like four years in college. After that, it’s time to go to the pros. Some people go to the pros before they do all four years in college and I feel like now it’s time for me to elevate to that next level. And for me, elevating to the next level has been eluding me because it’s deeper than just rap. You know the type of music I do, and you know the type of platform that a rap celebrity has. So for me, when I get that huge platform, it’s going to be more than just fans. It’s going to be people whose lives are literally being changed and enhanced.
Check out Dee-1's "Behind the Cypher" in the video below.
Watch Kevin Hart in a new episode of Real Husbands of Hollywood every Tuesday, 10P/9C.
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(Photo: Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty Images for BET)