Doing Music His Way: Rap Veteran Cormega

The beauty of rap today is that it can be more than one genre at once. Lil Nas X combined rap with country. Doja Cat is combining rap with pop. Rico Nasty is combining rap with alternative rock. We love to see it. But when I think about the foundation of rap I remember that it’s only two things: a fire beat and an MC who has something to say. Rap veteran Cormega is bringing that simplicity back and he’s using intricate rhymes to do it.

On April 10, Cormega dropped his album Mega which presents hip hop in its purest form. The sound of a choir singing opera floats over piano chords, like the calm before a storm. Cormega cuts through the calm with a lyrical wisdom that reflects his 20+ years in the rap game. Hailing from Queens, New York, Cormega continues to use his voice to make an impact on hip hop but does it on his own terms..

FRONTRUNNER spoke with Cormega about being an independent artist, the evolution of his music, his experience being in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and more.

Photo credit: Cormega

In an age where people are doing music independently, you were one of the first. You even started your own label, Legal Hustle Records. How did you do that? 

I did it out of necessity. I did what I needed to do. I used to be in the streets hustling which is something I did because I didn’t know any better. I was young and that was life for me. But during that part of life, I learned how to survive. I learned certain instincts and those same instincts apply anywhere in business as you can see with people like Jay-Z or Master P. It’s a mindset. I wanted to put out my music my way. I didn’t want to answer to A&Rs who don’t know my culture and don’t know my music and only want me to do stuff that they think is cool. They are not me. If it does well then they get the credit and if it goes bad then it all falls on me. I said I want to do music on my terms and I did it.

So many songs have biblical references and mention God. On “Say No More”, you rap, “No army formed against me shall prosper,” and on “Fast Livin” you say, “I stood on a mountain of sin and spoke to God about repentance.” You even have a song called “City of God”. With your music being so true to who you are, how has God and music perhaps intertwined for you?

When you listen to rap music, what do they talk about? They talk about materialism and things that people see as cool. They talk about drugs. I didn’t even know what molly was. I learned about molly from hearing it in songs. We glorify stuff that is detrimental and not beneficial to us so why not glorify God? I’m a spiritual man but it doesn’t matter to me what religion someone is because God is God. Say you go to a Latin country and you’re dying of thirst and someone says to you “agua” and you say “no, I want water,” that’s how people look when they argue about religion. People will argue with a muslim about Allah, but Allah translated just means God, just like agua translated means water. I respect God and I want people to see that. I want people to know who I am. When you’re an artist, you’re expressing yourself. God is something I think about everyday. I pray everyday. I let my music reflect that. In my music in the past, the streets were one of my highlights but now there’s more to me than that. I want people to see the other side. I want people to see that I believe in God and that God is real. 

What are some things you know now that you wished you knew back in the day? What’s your advice to young artists who want to follow in your footsteps to be independent?

My advice to young artists is to stay true to yourself. Stay true to your vision. Be professional. Treat it like it’s a job. The problem is a lot of artists don’t respect it as a job. They see it as fun and they’re the person who is in charge and the world revolves around them. Just treat it as if it were a job. When you go to the job, you show up on time and you have a certain way that you conduct yourself to keep your job. It’s the same thing with music.

You have to know about publishing and your rights. See what’s going on with your publishing and your splits. Know about the money part, the business part and not just the standing in front of the camera, looking good and driving part. Focus on the long term money. Those were some of the things I wish I knew more back then but I was on point.

The songs flow so well that this album felt like a seven-part song. What goes through your mind when ordering songs?

Every project has to be different to me. I wanted to show people some diversity. The producer, Streetrunner, does a lot of stuff with Meek Mill and artists that are current right now. I wanted to see what I could do with this current production. Every beat is a different experience. It’s like going on vacation. If you go to Barbados, it’s going to be a different vibe than when you go to the Dominican Republic. Every song has its own feel to it. I go in the direction that the song takes me in. A lot of times when I go into the direction of a song, once I get halfway through I’ll see if this is the direction I want to take my project in then I’ll mold the songs to fit. That’s how it goes, as long as the beat is nice. I’m not the type of artist that just takes any beat and raps to it. I don’t want to be rap for hire. I only want to do great shit. Every song brought something different. When I made this album, I just wanted it to be a vibe.

Photo credit: Cormega

As a veteran, you’ve collaborated, performed and befriended artists including DMX, Mobb Deep, Foxy Brown, Big Pun, I mean the list can go on. What have been some of your favorite collaborations or moments touring?

Some of my favorite collaborations have been with Prodigy from Mobb Deep. Working with Mobb Deep has been some of the most fun music collaborations. As far as being on tour, there’s never a dull moment when you’re on tour with DMX. One of the best experiences was going to Haiti to do relief after the earthquake. Kicking it with Styles P and Immortal Technique. Those guys are beautiful human beings. When it comes to touring, I love doing shows. I show appreciation everywhere I travel. For example, if I went to 100 cities I probably enjoyed 98 or 99 of them. It’s a beautiful experience that opens your mind to the world. It’s culturally reinvigorating.

You started out as a battle rapper. How has battle rap shaped you as a rapper? How has battle rap changed?

With battle rap you wanted to be heard. It was a New York thing. It wasn’t just battle rap. Life was a battle back then. Everything you did, there was a challenge and you wanted to show people you were good. If you played basketball in New York City and you were a legend in the Bronx, someone from Manhattan who was really good may come and play you. That’s how rap was. You were representing yourself. Battle rap and being a recording artist are two different things. As I’ve grown as an artist, I’ve seen that. There are people who can demolish you in a battle but they can’t make a record or a song that people will gravitate toward. But if they battle you then people will gravitate towards that.

One thing that’s evident about you is your love for hip hop. When did you fall in love with rap and what about the genre gets you so passionate?

I fell in love with hip hop immediately. One of the first songs I heard was Sugar Hill Gang even though I would later find out that they stole their rhymes. That rhythmic thing really caught my attention. But prior to them, Muhammad Ali was doing do it. He used to say little rhymes sometimes. “I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and something would rhyme with bee. I always thought that was cool and when it ended I was like “Wow, I wish he kept going.” So when I heard rap on a beat but an extended version, I thought it was cool. It just grew. A rapper that really caught my attention was MC Shan. His cadence, his delivery, his voice, and his presence was like wow. He was one of the first people I studied extensively. Rakim came out and he changed the game. I just have always loved hip hop. It was something that I embraced and could escape to. I love it and everything about it.

How do you think you’ve evolved as an artist?

Me as a human being has evolved. My evolution as a human has reflected in my music. For example, I don’t use the word “bitch” in my music and I haven’t used it in like ten years. It’s because I have a daughter and a lot of female friends. When you’re young or closed-minded you’re not being empathetic because you’re not putting yourself in their shoes or feeling how they would feel. If the word is offensive and I’m not trying to offend anybody then why would I use it? So I don’t use the word “bitch” in music. If you listen to my last few albums it has very little profanity to none.