Published on March 1st, 2020 | by MuzikScribe0
Kool Taj The Gr8: Talkin’ Hip Hop
Kool Taj The GR8: As a youth growing up in the ’80’s, I was blessed to have both my mother and father in the household, well into my adolescent years. My father was big on jazz, soul, reggae, funk, afro-beat, and classic R&B. My mother was more into jazz music than any other genre, probably because her father was a notable jazz musician from Brooklyn, New York. So, with all these musical influences from Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, Al Jarreau and Peter Tosh, to George Clinton and the Parliament (Funkadelic), Charlie Parker, Maze and Frankie Beverly, it gave me a diverse perception of music, culture, and at the time my overall world view. Then during the summer of 1982, I may have been 8.5 years old, I first heard this heavy bass drum and snare, and felt the electrifying street edge synergy of Run-DMC. After which, my interest in hip-hop began. As hip-hop / rap music began to emerge to the surface of the urban-pop culture, my influences grew. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Cold Crush Brothers, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force inspired me. By 1984, my knowledge of hip-hop culture expanded, which also entailed b-boying – break-dancing – and graff-writing; graffiti-street art. My interest in hip-hop culture was solidified then.
So where exactly do you hail from? And growing up there, who all did / do you consider to be your strongest musical influences?
KTGR8: I’m from the States. New York State, city of Buffalo. During my youth, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house in East Orange, New Jersey, which is approximately 11 miles from New York City. While living in Buffalo, I was still engaged and attentive to New York based hip-hop music, the sense for urban-fashion and mannerism, street slang verbiage, and the vibrant hip-hop aesthetic of New York City during the ’80’s, all the way up into the ’90’s.
…My strongest musical influencers were KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions, Guru of Gang Starr, Big Daddy Kane, Cold Crush Brothers, Fantastic Five, N.W.A, Eric B. & Rakim, Native Tongues and many more. I was also highly influenced by the graffiti-culture as well, and thus began style writing. Before rhyming, I was a DJ. Me and a close friend were a duo. He was the rapper and I was the DJ. After a while, I began writing rhymes more seriously with more constructive thought and creative metaphors. Although I wrote my first rhyme when I was 9 years old, my adolescent years played a major factor in how I perceived the world around me.
…As for influences coming out of Buffalo, I honestly didn’t have any. Between ’89’ (to) ’99’ there were sporadic rap groups that came and went. Some were more notable than others. However, the Buffalo hip-hop scene began to improve, and over the course of time many dope emcees stamped their name on Buffalo hip-hop. I have always been one of them. Today, I am a fan (of) a few Buffalo emcees; such as, my man, Third Son, Slice the Mic Snatcha, Jay Nash, L Biz and MeechNewMoney, just to name of few.
At what point in time did you opt to pursue music on a professional level?
KTGR8: During my adolescent years, the rap industry appeared welcoming for new artists. The late ’80’s to early ’90’s era pushed the idea of being original. I was in high school at the time, and the rap groups that were dominating were A Tribe Called Quest, Main Source, KRS-One, Busta Rhymes, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog, Wu-Tang (Clan) and Mobb Deep, to name a few. Then, the most lucrative thing to do was to try to become an established rapper, backed by a high-end record label like Sony, Columbia or Def Jam. I was different and more into the culture of hip-hop than being a rap super-star. I began taking my career in rap music more serious while I was in my early 20’s. I began learning the business by going to the library and reading books. For example, “All You Need to Know About the Music Business” by Donald S. Passman was a book I studied like it was the Bible. When the Internet became more convenient for researching information, I began to go online. During my adolescent years, I gained experienced in studio recording, live performance, songwriting, marketing and promotion. I put all that of what I learned into my first LP entitled ‘Graffiti Language.’ I pressed several copies onto CD’s and hit the streets. Mr. Walt of the legendary (Da) Beatminerz gave me a helping hand by distributing a few copies of my music to artists and deejays. That’s when my craft became more serious to me.
Where does your moniker originally derive from?
KTGR8: My name is Taj. It derives from the Urdu, Aramaic cultures. Taj means crown, crown of faith or crown prince. My moniker is “KOOL TAJ THE GR8.” The streets been calling me “Kool Taj” since junior high. I rarely had any neighborhood or across-town opposition. I was cool with everyone; I mean EVERYONE! From the ‘hoods and street corners, to the college campus and local universities…anywhere I’d go, I was good. A lot of my own friends were just as cool though, and our crew was diverse in nature. We were from different neighborhoods all on some fly shit. Some of my friends were dope boys, stick-up kids, aspiring athletes and some were just on some cool shit; getting money and kicking it with the ladies. We were respected as individuals, so it made our collective respect unmatched. I didn’t have neighborhood restrictions or “beef” with different crews. My urban mobility wasn’t hindered like some of my peers and street-corner acquaintances. I also knew a lot of the OG’s from different neighborhoods, which in turn awarded me additional respect from my peers and those alike. So, “Kool Taj” has always been my moniker, which really had nothing to do with rapping. I added “The Gr8” as a subtitle because of three things: I’m great at what I do, I’m great at being me, and, most importantly, I represent God Almighty, The Most High, Master of the Universe, Holder of the Keys to the Seen and Unseen. Now tell me, what’s greater than that?!
That being said, how do you classify your overall sound and / or style?
KTGR8: I classify my overall style as traditional boom-bap hip-hop music. I’m edgy, but classy. Street-oriented, but grown and mature. Most of my lyrical content is laced with substance. I’m not preachy, but at times I do have a message and I aim to push the envelope with songs or content that will provoke one to think, to ask questions, to re-evaluate certain issues, circumstances, systems and ideologies. KRS-One is a great example of maintaining the traditional classic boom-bap sound, accompanied by lyrics of substance.
Your latest single / video is the Pete Rock laced “Llayers” — Tell me about this track specifically; how did it even come to fruition?
KTGR8: Ahhh, man! *Taj chuckles* It all started by an innocent conversation I was having with one of my teammates, Ron Atkins, podcast host and CEO of Blu Label Multimedia. We were talking about the Lo-Life culture, as he has been a Lo-Life since the late ’90’s. I don’t really remember how we started talking about the Lo-Life culture, but I do recall me being fascinated with what Ron was sharing with me. He was breaking it down. What further interested me was when he mentioned the annual retreat entitled Lo Goose on the Deuce, founded by George “Rack Lo” Billups, who is also one of the original members who spearheaded this amazing culture and movement. During this annual event, which takes place in the middle of Manhattan, Times Square, New York City, usually during the month of January, Lo-Lifes from all over the world meet up to flaunt their Ralph Lauren [RL] attire. It’s also a great time to network, engage in “Lo-Life brotherhood,” and, of course, take mad photos! What makes it more interesting is that Rack Lo conducts friendly contests such as “Best Goose on the Deuce” and “Head to Toe.” The former is what appealed to me more because the contestants must be dressed in Polo, not just from head to toe but socks and under garments as well. What makes a contestant stand out more is if they have on multiple RL garments. For example, Polo tank-top, Polo t-shirt, Polo sweater, and then over the sweater maybe a Polo hoodie or ski jacket. So basically, one is wearing “LLayers” of RL garments, and ain’t nothing cheap at all! It’s probably over a million-dollars-worth of RL garments at this annual affair! *More chuckles* So I said to Ron, “It would be dope if I made a record called LLayers, a tribute to the Lo life culture.” Ron smiled from ear to ear and responded, “Yeah, that would be dope!” At the time of our conversation – it was like the beginning of December – enough time to attend the 2020 Lo Goose on the Deuce event. I wanted to make this record a timeless anthem, so in order to do so I needed to do my research. I first reached out (to) Rudy Lo Chronicles, another original member of the Lo-Lifes who lead me in helpful directions in effort to obtain solid information. I reached out to the Polo King himself, Rack Lo. Once Rack gave me the green light, I went hard at my research, also informing him I would be attending Lo Goose on the Deuce 2020 to shoot a music video for the song “LLayers.” Rack was with it, which sparked fire under my seat to get this record done and to do it right. The music came from Pete Rock, via my manager, Phat Gary. Gary nonchalantly passed me the track like, “Here’s some Pete Rock shit, see what you can do with it.” Honestly, I was unaware of a prior recording of the Pete Rock song, which was registered as only an instrumental, entitled “My, My, Baby.” I just re-invented the record by lacing it with creative lyrical content. Once I did that, then BOOM! “LLayers” was born. The song title is spelled with two L’s as a way of reppin’ Lo Life culture.
What do you feel you bring to the music industry that we don’t already have in other performers?
KTGR8: Originality, honesty and integrity. To me, everyone is trying to outdo the next cat by using the same exact ingredients, how boring! I come from the era where YOU HAD to be original. Biting was a no, no, and could possibly get you hurt. Now-a-days, this one sounds exactly like that one and apparently that’s okay. To me, that’s not okay. So, originality is a pillar that I stand on. My rhyme-flow you know is already ginsu *Laughter ensues* What you’re going to receive from me is straight hip-hop music; whether laced with jazz, funk, soul or the other, you will always be able to identify KTGR8.
Have you encountered any problems in getting to this point in your career?
KTGR8: Oh, for sure. From general trials and tribulations and creative differences among former “adopted” teammates, to the lack of resources and finances. I ask myself if going 110% in this music business is worth my time, effort and sacrifice. The battle between my creative passion taking more precedence over my family also crosses my mind. I sometimes struggle with the idea that I don’t fit in with the “new guys,” but then that relentless spirit kicks back in with a response that says, “Later for trying to fit in, you the shit sun!” So, yes, hills and valleys. Over time, my relentless pursuit, consistency, dedication and hard work, become more frequent than the valleys. Ten toes down is my motto.
What do you want people to get from your music?
KTGR8: I want people to get that ’90’s hip-hop nostalgia. Honesty, transparency, and in some matters, vulnerability, will allow me to connect with my audience. We all go through it! However, I’m working to develop an entrepreneurial model that will give our young generation the know-how to be more independent, live on purpose and respect the God of the universe for your existence here.
If you could collaborate with any one artist, living or dead, who would it be and why?
KTGR8: Honestly, there was a time I could answer that question and have at least 10 (to) 12 artists to name right off the bat. However, that’s no longer the case. Yes, when I was in high-school I dreamed of working with many of my favorite emcees. Now that I’m becoming more active, more reputable and more involved with today’s current rap scene, I’ve observed more about character, aura and personal characteristics. If I’m gonna build with you, it must be worth my time and not just for a bag [money]. I’m not led by “the bag.” I’m led by my vision. I always wanted to work with Guru of Gang Starr. Gang Starr was and still is my all-time favorite rap group. Who would argue the legacy of Gang Starr?! Absolutely no one in their right mind! Guru had substance. Although still street-oriented, edgy and at times lyrically aggressive, he maintained that balance that I often talk about. The balance of wholesome music that doesn’t promote to its audience the façade of being a gangster, a dope boy, tough guy, a shooter or a goon. Guru kept it official across the board. I’m sure if he were still here in the physical, he’d be down to rock out a dope project with KTGR8. People have compared me to Rakim over the years. The Legendary DJ Kool once said, referring to one of my records entitled “Handle Bars,” “Yo, you sound like Rakim!” I have the utmost respect for the God MC, but Rakim is not who I patterned my style after, it was Guru.
If you could play any venue in the world, which one would you choose and why?
KTGR8: Hammerstein Ballroom. Located within the Manhattan Center, 311 West 34th Street, Manhattan, New York City. The property is 12,000 sq. ft. The capacity is impressive. I was always intrigued by the Hammerstein Ballroom ever since I was a kid. When my mom would go over to New York to do her weekend shopping, I was everywhere in New York City! Passing the Hammerstein Ballroom as a kid evoked something in me. One day, I’ll perform there.
One track of yours that you think defines you and why?
KTGR8: “Forever” produced by Castle Money Beats from my current LP ‘Down the Block & Around the Corner.’ The whole song basically embodies who I am, and what I’m not. It defines me by being honest. As I’ve stated throughout the interview, honesty and integrity are my closest allies. Honesty is gonna keep me grounded, while integrity will keep me sharp. An excerpt from the song “Forever”: “I don’t rock the latest threads, or came home from the Feds / I spit bars over hard beats for hip-hop heads / My imagery ain’t industry, but you’ll remember me, FOREVER! ’cause right now I’m building up my legacy / Tougher than leather like Jason Mizell / 45 still fly, Levi’s and Cazals you know?”
KTGR8: Hard work, dedication, and my WHY. I’m not easily influenced, and remembering my share of the street life creates this spirit of self-protection for me. I go with the “guilty until proven innocent” philosophy. Yup, that’s me! *Laughs again* Not one of my better traits, but it keeps me on point, especially in this business. I’m really a Kool guy in person, not just on record. You can ask about me! *More laughs*
Do you have any other outside / additional future aspirations, maybe even completely away from music?
KTGR8: I do, I like to write. I like to create. I enjoy exploring life’s mysteries, as well as developing inspirational content. I’m slowly piecing together a movie script, and I will be enlisting my videographer, Rasheed Jones of BBJ Films, to help co-write and shoot the film. I also have some real dope merch I will be bringing to the forefront this spring and summer that will push the hip-hop culture forward. I have some social-political ideas, too, to help stimulate independent thinking and awareness of the social vices that plague our spirits and communities abroad. I’m currently taking (a) real estate course, and plan to obtain my real estate license in the near future.
To date, what has been your biggest career moment, at least thus far anyway?
KTGR8: Two years ago in 2018, I scored a role as “Sean” in a film entitled Hunger Pangs, which can now be viewed on Amazon. The film was written and directed by a friend of mine, Deuce King, in association with AK Reed Films. Deuce is also a Buffalo native who has defied the oppositions of an independent film writer and director. Salute to my man Deuce and Amir Reed! I also had the honor of having the Legendary Grandmaster Caz speak on my LP, ‘Down the Block & Around the Corner.’ Caz gave his official approval of one of my records entitled “Talkin’ Hip-Hop.” Most of all, and dearer to me, is being blessed to have my all-time hip-hop / rap hero, DJ Premier of Gang Starr, spin my records on his show Live from Headqcourterz [Shade 45] on a consistent basis. Don’t get it twisted though, Preemo is only gonna spin your record if he likes it. So far, I’ve been batting 100!
Looking ahead, say five or maybe even ten years from now, where do you see yourself?
KTGR8: I see myself helping other artists. I’m into the business of giving. Giving my talents, gifts, abilities, sharing knowledge and good energy drives me. So, passing my wisdom, life lessons and experiences to those who may be travelling down the same road I did, is what I’m about. I also see myself, and my wife, successfully operating our individual and collective businesses. My wife is brilliant, so we will definitely be providing a service or a product that will be beneficial for nearly everyone. Real estate is on the horizons as well. I have an older cousin in Georgia, who probably owns a good percentage of Atlanta. Once I obtain my real estate license, I’m going to go to Georgia and nestle up under my cousin’s wing for a little while so I can see and learn first-hand about this lucrative business. My wife is currently learning how to trade stocks so, one way or another, if the Good Lord allows me to still be present on this side of the grave, we about to get it poppin’ on all four corners of the chess board!
As for the immediate, what’s next for Kool Taj The Gr8?
KTGR8: More music, more content and more opportunities to build my legacy and firmly establish my family business. The “Rat Race” is not something I’m into. I’m no rat and I ain’t racing everybody to clock in to a job I’m not that passionate about. Life is precious and short, don’t waste your time killing your joy in order to be somewhat financially stable. As for the music, the legendary hip-hop producer and beat maker, Stan Da’ Man, and I will be releasing our debut LP entitled ‘When Iron Sharpens Iron’ sometime in the month of March 2020. Following that will be a project that is already completed with another legendary hip-hop producer, DJ and beat-maker, Tone Spliff. The name of that project will be announced soon. It’s a dope EP with special guest appearances from MC Craig G, King Magnetic, and my cousin Mally Mall. I also have some other dope projects in the shadows right now with UK based hip-hop producer and beat-maker, Brutal Caesar, New Zealand’s very own hip-hop producer / beat-maker, JB the WAR Villain and another project with the almighty Def Squad’s newest production team-member, DJ Kanzer. Finally, a project with another New Zealand / Macedonian hip-hop producer / beat-maker, Brenx Beats. So yes, 2020 is quite busy for me.
Is there anything I left out or just plain forgot to mention?
Any “closing” thought(s) for our readers?
KTGR8: Keep it moving on a path that’s straight, love & loyalty, ya’ll, Kool Taj The GR8!
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