Originally published at The Well Versed
In the digital age, six years away is a eternity for an artist between albums. But, when you have a catalog full of quotables and songs that connect with fans, an extended vacation only increases anticipation for the return. So it is with Chino XL. The MC slash actor returns today with The Ricanstruction: The Black Rosary, a double album he dubs a “murder exhibition.” The Viper Records artist sat down with TWV to reveal why the writing process is like a fight, how he overcame depression and suicidal thoughts and why he doesn’t care what naysayers think about his appearance on Zane’s Sex Chronicles.
The Well Versed: It’s been some years since you’ve dropped an album, what have you been up to?
Chino XL: I’ve done at least 100 shows this year alone. On the road, finishing the album and conducting life.
TWV: Why a double album this time around?
C XL: It was such a labor of love. There were songs that had been leaked that I wanted to give to the world mastered the right way. I had a lot to say. The songs just kept coming. This was a complete vessel that needed to sail together.
TWV: We lost Chris Lighty a couple weeks ago. One of the topics you touch on this time around is suicide. As a very personal topic, what made you want to speak on that?
C XL: It’s I the context of one of my story records. I meet so many people on the road that connect to songs I’ve had like “Skin” or “Water” or “Kreep.” I realize that if you’re going through something tough and you think you’re the only one, you’re not. To be able to talk about surviving things, it’s cool to be able to talk about that and realize you’re not alone. Through all the bravado I use, if I can show somebody that doesn’t feel that confident that anybody can feel that kind of depression.
TWV: As black and brown men we’re taught not to show emotion. You’ve been doing this for so long, was there a point where you decided to be fully authentic?
C XL: First of all, I gotta applaud you for even speaking on the black and brown issue. Too often, artists of color aren’t pushed to talk about how we feel. We’re pushed to make party records and shuck and jive. Other artists of other nationalities can make records talking exactly how they feel. I always felt from the beginning that I would to use my poetic license how I wanted to. If I wake and feel one way about something I can. And if I wake up the next day and feel differently, I can. For me to stay interested there’s a certain authenticity that the music will have to have for me. Even if nobody else understands. If it’s not there, I can’t stay interested and if I’m not interested I can’t expect anybody else to be.
TWV: For people who don’t have that venue to express themselves that may be feeling depressed, is there anything you wish somebody had said to you?
C XL: I didn’t talk about how serious it was. A good friend of mine said, “Everyone needs help sometime.” It seems simple and cliché but we really don’t take advantage of that. If you call someone you might think they’re too busy. You give them a call and ask you’d be surprised that they’d stop and talk. In my situations, in the grand scheme of things, they were very light compared to the things that people go through. It’s really a readjusting of things and realizing that the sun is going to come up. You have to let life in. if it’s something you can’t control with your thoughts or physically, you really have to know that there’s help out there. I know it sounds corny and cliché but it’s really an issue.
TWV: It can be life or death. Did you find it easier to keep asking for help after you did the first few times?
C XL: Even at that point, I’m the type to self-medicate. For me it was my children. I felt like I couldn’t leave my children. I remember one time I was in France and I realized what a dot in the big tapestry we are. We think our life is so magnanimous and it’s really not. I was in France off the grid. No cell phone, nobody knows who you are, you don’t speak the language. That, to me was a microcosm of the world. There’s so much to explore, you just have to keep going.
TWV: I know you have a daughter and one of the things that I found interesting about Nas’ “Daughters” song is the end when he says God gets players back by giving them little girls. You have songs like “Chianardo DiCaprio” and “She Can’t Change Me,” do you look at those songs any differently in light of having a girl?
C XL: I’ve been a father since I was in my teens so you’ve never heard a record from me when I didn’t have a child. There’s a different… responsibility you might write with. You make sure things are compartmentalized. Not all women, but there types. You start to do that. I don’t feel like having daughters is a players curse. People kill me with that sh*t. I think a man is sent female children because he’s strong enough to protect them. I don’t mean physically, I mean emotionally.
TWV: You’ve always put a premium on lyricism and wordplay…
C XL: Thank you.
TWV: How do you approach the process and come up with these lines?
C XL: I’ll write almost a notebook full of stuff sometimes for one verse. I’ll write a notebook and use only eight bars. And maybe those eight lead me to another two. It’s like a marathon or a journey that the words go on by themselves. It’s like the words are riding a horse and I have to wrangle them. I’m ambidextrous so it depends on what hand I write with. I never force anything so it has to fit. The process is almost like beating myself up. It’s a fight to get the best out of me that I can. When it turns on, it’s hard to stop. There are times where I’m supposed to be somewhere but I can’t show up. I’ll pull over to the side of the road and write for three hours. When God gives it to you, you can’t shut it off.
TWV: Is there a point where you know you have something dope?
C XL: Sometimes I’ll get excited about something. It’s weird because what I’ll get excited about will be mundane. I’ll call people and say, I just wrote this and you might say, out of all the stuff you’ve written, you like this? Sometimes I’m shocked at what the world gravitates to. It goes two different ways. There’s a lot of stuff on Poison Pen that I didn’t appreciate at the time and I go back and listen to and feel like I was writing messages to myself later.
TWV: Any particular tracks?
C XL: I’ll say this, I had no idea that “Wordsmith” would affect people like it does. It almost brings me to tears the way people connect my idea was to write a song full of homonyms. I didn’t realize it was a story anybody could relate to. “Wordsmith.” “Skin.” A record I did called “Water.” “What Am I.”
Sometimes you’re so caught up in whatever you’re working on that you forget about those esoteric records until somebody says, “This really affected me” and you take a look from the outside.
I was working on a film and Scarface directed it. We were going over some of the scenes and the first thing I said was, “I really want to thank you for making records that got me through some tough times.” I love to write. I was a 14-year-old living in my room with not much access trying to find a way out. Not just economically or physically, but mentally. Writing has always been a magic carpet to take me where I want to go. I don’t write for commerce or occupation. It’s my life blood.
TWV: Was there a point where you thought about dumbing it down to get more mainstream attention?
C XL: I had two things that happened. I didn’t want to rhyme anymore after 2001. I still wrote, but I was in a deprivation to where I didn’t listen to music at all. When you listen to Poison Pen, I hadn’t listened to not one other person rap in years. The last thing I remember was Puffy and Mase and the golden era being dead. I stopped there. I didn’t come back to the world until 2004. I had no idea what was going on. After I dropped Poison Pen and started working on an album with Sway and Tech, I didn’t dumb it down, but we definitely thinned out the amount of complexity. If you had a line that had two entendres, maybe we cut it to one. If we thought nobody would get a line, we’d skip it. When I did songs with Snoop or Too Short, I was using a different part of the brain. I can write from that angle but it doesn’t affect my core. I learned a couple of new tools during that time. I just never came out with an album full of it. I also learned to turn the vocals up technically. You sit there and work for hours on a verse and you don’t have it sitting in a mix where somebody can hear it.
TWV: Do you feel like acting has made you a better artist?
C XL: It’s funny you should ask. One thing I learned from Rick Rubin is that you should never do vocals until you’re ready. Acting is almost the same way. If I’m supposed to do a scene where I kill a guy in an alley with a bat, I’m not friendly with the guy I have to kill. I don’t want to be near him. My mind state is with somebody that would really do that. When you’re recording and you’re not feeling it passionately, I don’t think the listener can feel it the same way.
TWV: I caught an episode of Zane’s Sex Chronicles that you were on, what was that experience like?
C XL: It was cool because I got to write all the rhymes. The character I played was an MC so it was close to myself. And the love scenes were some whole other sh*t. I’m there with some beautiful women and you get to rhyme too?
TWV: So much in hip hop is image this and image that, were you concerned with what people would think ?
C XL: No. Who doesn’t want to rhyme and be around fine ass b*tches? That’d be anyone, wouldn’t it?
TWV: Absolutely. That’s something you wouldn’t see a lot or rappers do but put like that it makes perfect sense… Tupac was one of the few that came at you while he was alive, were there any other situations where somebody took offense to something?
C XL: No, not really. I was in my teens and I’m a lot older now. I was just running around and being young. You get to be more responsible with those things as you get older?
TWV: Do you find yourself scaling it back as far as the metaphors that end with other people?
C XL: I have so many other tools. When you create something… Rakim created a compound phrase, he’d rhyme “roll up” and “hold up.” After he did that we all started doing it. Those kinds of things, the punch rhymes with names in it, those are always something I’m going to do, but it’s become something that every artist has. Sometimes I avoid it because I have a bigger skill set than having to do that all the time.
TWV: Do you find it difficult as far as the fans. When I first got introduced to you ,my cousins were big on the fact that you had so many punch lines about celebrities, was it hard to get away from that because the fans may have been expecting it?
C XL: Not at all. Depending on what rhyme I’m saying, you wouldn’t notice that I didn’t do that. You just say, “that shit was ill, he put a lot of work into that.” I don’t think I’ve ever been pigeonholed. My biggest records, “Don’t Say a Word,” “Kreep,” “Wordsmith.” They’re not those kinds of records.
TWV: I know that you have a lot of stories on the album, but are we still going to get you hopping on a record and killing the beat?
C XL: The whole album is a murder exhibition fam…
TWV: I’m not saying that you’re slacking…
C XL: I get what you’re saying. Those raging, aggressive, loud, wild records with all kinds of punch lines. Yeah, that’s probably 60 percent of the record. Don’t worry [laughs].