If New York is the mecca of hip-hop and the Bronx is the birthplace, then Queensbridge is the Hall of Fame. Home to Nas, Mobb Deep, Tragedy Khadafi and other rap legends, QB has always bred a special strain of rappers, often tripling up their syllabic rhyme patterns within one bar. Their writing seems impeccable, born from years of studying mic technicians like MC Shan and Craig G, but despite being a beacon of rap talent, infighting kept that region from exerting power over time.
Cormega was a victim of that infighting. In 1989, he made his first appearance on wax before getting locked up in 1991, and coming home in 1995. Soon after, his neighborhood friend Nas put him on a track called “Affirmative Action,” which turned heads in the industry. Mega quickly secured a deal with Def Jam and set to releasing singles like “Dead Man Walking” and “Angel Dust.” He even joined Nas, Foxy Brown and AZ to form The Firm and do an album produced by Dr. Dre. His second life after prison seemed promising.
But then it came to a screeching halt. He separated from The Firm, had his original debut album, The Testament, get shelved at Def Jam and found himself in limbo, signed to a label that didn’t want to release his music. One of the most anticipated rappers of the 1990s was a prisoner to a contract, and he stayed that way for years.
Until 2000, when he was able to leave Def Jam with his masters and set upon crafting his first official album release, The Realness, after two stalled careers. He released the LP independently in 2001, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart for two weeks in a row. The critically acclaimed LP helped Mega start on a path of top-notch album releases, from True Meaning to Legal Hustle to his original debut. To this day, Mega is revered as one of the greatest lyricists the game has ever seen.
So to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the classic album, The Realness, XXL speaks with Mega and producers like Alchemist, J-Love, Havoc and more about how they put together this insane LP.
Sha Money XL
Cormega: “TVT Records was gonna do The Realness album and I wanted to do a label situation, a partnership, but they were offering me a deal. They told me if The Realness did well, they’d give me a label deal for the follow-up project. So Landspeed Records had the capability of making the album come out within a few months. July was the set date for The Realness and we signed the deal in like April or late March, so my back was against the wall and I wanted to have an album out for the summer.
“On TVT, there was no guarantee my album would come out because when you deal with labels, they have schedules for how they market and put out an album. Landspeed was guaranteeing my album would come out in July and with TVT, I’d have to do the schedule thing, plus TVT was offering me a deal as opposed to a partnership venture, so I went with the Landspeed thing and I did The Realness in like two weeks. If you got a copy of each session sheet, it would add up to about two weeks.
“They gave me $15,000 for the album and that shyt sat in my bag for months, I didn’t even put it in the bank. I showed it to the guy from Landspeed when we were on the road, like, ‘See? I ain’t thirsty for money. I ain’t even spend that money you gave me.’ And he was like, ‘Oh my God. You better put that in the bank before it bounces.’ And he started laughing.”
DJ Kay Slay: “Cormega would come to 118th Street and 1st Ave., that’s when I was still in the hood, tenement building third floor by himself, sit there and vibe for a while and the track going on and he’d spit. There’s times where I might have linked him up, with a Black Rob came through, McGruff, Sporty B or whoever it was, when I throw that beat on and he’d get that vibe, he’d get up and spit and he wouldn’t bow down to nothing. He was always the greatest to me, when it came to being a true lyricist to the game, I kind of felt like he was overlooked, because the glamour and glitz starts kicking in, the big diamond chains and the jewelries, and the Bentleys, but he wasn’t really into all of that. He was always down to earth with the hip-hop culture. He definitely came uptown all the time and to my crib and laid his freestyles, open up intros, the mixtapes, everything.”
J-Love, producer: “He was pretty much walking away from [rap]. I definitely was one of the driving forces behind him. A lot of people in the industry had turned their back towards him at that time, due to his vibe with Nas and Nas being the more popular artist. I mixed most of that album, I sequenced that album. The only one he chose was ‘The Saga,’ I wanted to put that later on the album.”
Cormega: “Hydra Studios was the main place where I recorded, that was the hub. Ninety percent of The Realness was done in Hydra. ‘R U My nikka?’ was done in Queensbridge, in Jae Supreme’s apartment, and ‘The Saga’ was recorded down South, unless we re-recorded it in New York, but I believe I did it down South. Everything else was done at Hydra, except for the songs that were done before that, ‘Killaz Theme’ and ‘They Forced My Hand.’”
1. “Dramatic Entrance”
Cormega: “The feel of it, the melody and the energy just felt perfect for an intro. I just wanted to vent, but I also wanted to express my story. I wanted to come from a street perspective. This is my first album, so the intro had to be flawless, it had to grab people’s attention. I remember taking it real serious and I remember being real happy with the lyrics after it was done.
“I had a chip on my shoulder from the Def Jam situation and for the industry, from people that were in power and trying to shut doors on me. It was like fukk that, I’m coming. Everything y’all ever did to try and stop me… fukk it, I’m here. I didn’t know what was going to happen with the album. I just knew I had to get some shyt off my chest.”
J-Love: “I was working on my compilation album and I was always a fan of Cormega since I heard him on records like ‘On the Real.’ I was getting a lot of exclusive Cormega records and I got one that was unfinished with Mega and Pun. And I had played it and I remember him telling people he was looking for me, like, ‘This guy’s always playing my shyt,’ and so on. And then when I met him at N.O.R.E.’s record label Penalty, we just built and I told him I wanted him on my album. So we just clicked.
2. “American Beauty”
Cormega: “That was inspired by Common Sense. I was freestyling with him on Future Flavas one day and I told him I loved that song ‘I Used to Love H.E.R.’ and I was gonna do a tribute song like that. I don’t know if he remembers or if he thought I was joking but I was dead serious because I really respected what he did with that song.
“It was also in a Mega way, an edgier way. I wanted to be a little more descriptive and that was also the first song I ever produced that came out. I knew where I was going with it because I knew the sound and I knew everything about the song because I came up with the idea and the concept and everything, so I wanted it to be magical. That’s one of my favorite songs. I perform that at every single Mega show.”
3. “Thun & Kicko” Featuring Prodigy
Cormega: “Havoc is one of the most talented producers I’ve ever met in my life because Havoc is such a perfectionist. There’s times where he does tracks and he’ll be like, ‘I don’t like the beat’ and he’ll totally erase it. We call it throwing it in the garbage, meaning it’s outta here, you’ll never hear that song ever. The shyt he’s thrown away is better than some producer’s catalogs.
“So when I found out he was about to trash ‘Thun & Kicko’ I pleaded with him to get that, please, please, please. The Prodigy verse was already on it and that was prior to The Realness coming out so any speculation about Prodigy [going at anybody] is false. I had that over a year before The Realness came out.
“I had some beats from Havoc [recently] and one of the beats he played for me that I should have picked ended up on Kanye’s [The Life of Pablo]. It’s definitely not ‘Real Friends.’ It’s the other one [‘Famous’]. I felt kind of stupid, but at the end of the day I don’t feel that stupid because everything ain’t for everybody.”
Havoc: “I was just playing him some joints and when I played him that joint he felt it immediately and I just be happy for nikkas to be liking anything that I make. So when he was feeling I was like bet and I gave it to him.
“Me and P used to do a bunch of songs. It probably was something that we just did because we always work even when we not working on an album. So it was probably a song we just did, just had it on the side, just laying there. Probably nobody would’ve never heard it if nobody would’ve used it.”
4. “The Saga”
Cormega: “A very powerful song, very cinematic. It just takes you there. You can feel the ghetto in that song. That’s another song I’m proud of. I wrote that in my sister’s apartment [in South Carolina] and there was no heat on that day at all. I just put my blood, sweat and tears into it. The fact that there was no heat on and it was the middle of winter and I’m freezing, it just made that struggle come to mind. So that song was made from creativity and struggle.
“I put on a mink, fukk it, because a mink is warm as fukk. So I’m sitting there in a mink coat writing ‘The Saga’ with K.L. from Screwball writing his own rhymes. Sometimes we’d just get together and have vibe sessions, get right and inspire each other. He’s writing his shyt, I’m writing my shyt, it’s quiet in the room and we’re not bothering each other. I don’t know what the fukk he’s writing, he don’t know what the fukk I’m writing. Even though it was freezing, it always feels beautiful that K.L. was there. He even talked at the beginning of ‘The Saga.’ We were very close.
“I met [producer] Big Ty through my man 40, God bless the dead. 40 was one of my close friends and he introduced me to Ty and then I went to Ty’s house and we started vibing. I just wanted some different shyt, I didn’t want the typical shyt you hear from a New York artist. I wanted something that resonated with different states, so that beat just had a certain feel to it that I knew people from other states as well as New York would like it.”
5. “R U My nikka?”
Cormega: “That’s just a real song. Every street person in the world likes that record. I think there are people that hate my guts but like that record, that’s how real it is. Even people that aren’t from the street love it because they relate.
“I just wrote that because I had a lot of questions about myself, my life, circumstances and situations and the circle I was in. So I was asking these questions to myself about my friends, like would these dudes do this? I was just reading people’s body language and the way I was feeling just spilled into that song. That was a real honest song.”