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That One Song

Black Liquid, "Richmond"

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Metaphorically speaking, hip-hop artist Black Liquid is a killer. He regularly warns audience members that they are going to die on that particular evening, murdered by words and beats alone.

The man has plenty of ammunition in his arsenal, too, with 15 albums already under his belt and skills for disposing with large crowds. Even if you missed Black Liquid's eight appearances at the National, including two opening for Snoop Dogg, and one at Hat Factory with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, you may have witnessed one of his monthly showcases at smaller venues.

He also supports local talent by inviting them onto his two radio shows, "Hip Hop for the Rest of Us" on WRIR and "Hip Hop 101" on WDCE. Although Black Liquid -- real name Rob Fields -- was born in California, he grew up in Richmond and he explained to Style Weekly why he finally gave in and wrote a song about it.

Style: Tell us about that one song...

Black Liquid: I dropped an album every month last year, from March on. "Richmond" was off the September release "This is Hip Hop." It's the album I pass out the most. In my opinion, it's one of my strongest bodies of work. It has so many different songs on it that really resonate when I perform.

If you follow hip hop or rappers, you have these guys who always do a song for their city, for their place. And that's their big thing. I was like, I'm not going to be one of those guys, that's so corny. Then I heard this beat and I was like, holy shit, this beat is Richmond. The beat was called something like "the streets with dark gutters" and I was like, this is Richmond. My producer Mr. Myspace couldn't believe I did a song about Richmond. At the time when I wrote it, I was focusing on the dualities of our city life here. You have a system that nine times out of ten predestines you for failure or at least idealistically contains you through some sort of job. [A job] that underpays you, you have a lower standard of living, and your head is just an inch above water.

On top of that, [you might] sell drugs and all kinds of crazy shit to get by, but you go to jail for something like a driver's license or sticker [violation]. The duality of Richmond is a defined line. You can get away with a lot of stuff, but a lot of stuff will have its way with you. I wanted to combine this desperation we're all faced with and turn it into a record that represents not just me, but me as part of this greater picture that is Richmond. There's no place like Richmond, even though every place is just like Richmond.

Will you remain loyal to Richmond, or eventually move to a larger market?

I went through this whole phase where everyone was pushing to get out of Richmond, like 'You gotta get out of Richmond, because Richmond sucks, blah zay blah.' At first, Richmond to me was limited to that stereotypical culture. But as I stayed around, people left and came back and they'd say, "I realize that no matter where I go, really my heart is here." I didn't become comfortable and be really into Richmond until just a few years ago. Going to places and being around people from other places, I see that ultimately it doesn't matter where you go, you're gonna be stuck dealing with the same kinda of stuff. I'd rather work here and push here, where things have not been built yet, than go and play within somebody else's infrastructure. Try to get in where I fit in and be, in a sense, subordinate the whole time. Plus, Richmond is very much a transitive state of all the cultures. You have the West, the North trickling down, the Southern music coming up. Richmond has given me the drive to do everything that I do.

When did you know that you wanted to be a full-time rapper?

I tell cats all the time that I rhyme, I don't rap. I'm not a rapper. This is just a clear outlet of expression for me. When you're in school, you're surrounded by institutionalized frameworks, but we'd go out to parties and everybody's freestyling. I'd be playing the wall super-quiet, but as time passed, I eventually ended up locking down with freestyle parties and that was my first real experience MC-ing. I'd crush that joint. I had that, then everything fell apart in '04 and '05. My father got life for first-degree murder, I lost my friend to a car accident, and then another friend died of a heroin overdose. Throughout all this, I realized I had to decide what it is I wanted to do. I worked in retail for eleven years and I didn't want to do that. If I go to school, I'm simply going somewhere where I'll sit around to the point that when I actually get the chance to do what I want to do, it's already going to be redundant to me. There was no feeling of inspiration to tread that path. Why sit around and try to be what they are, when I can be what I am? Why be contained in a box when there's so many things available to a person? In this day and age, with the internet you can bring a lot of it to fruition independently. I didn't need anyone else, my producers sent me beats and I just went in and started recording. I was like, I'm going to stack up a whole bunch of [tracks] and I'm gonna really find this and then I'm gonna go kill everybody.

I did Nanci Raygun way back in the day, but that was ten minutes of MC-ing for me and I was always thinking, trying to remember this, memorize that. I think it was June 20th at The Triple two years ago, that was my first performance where I just let go. There was such a strong response, the headliner got up and started dancing. But why look back? Instead I just look ahead and learn from experience and that's how you can maintain your retrospect without having to change your face. You can only look one way and you can only think one way and follow the path.

Why do you give away your music for free?

The one thing that I want and the most important and priceless thing we all have to give is time and attention. I want somebody to spend their time and to pay attention. I just wanted people to see that there's somebody out here that's representing real hip hop and saying there's a bigger picture of things going on right now. I could give a shit about big money, I'm gonna be good one way or another. Life will take care of you if you follow the path of the universe. That's how people live in the jungle and we're in an urban jungle. You're going to be all right as long as you don't set your standard of living above your [means]. I live a very cheap life, forties and frozen pizza.

Besides, I would never have the audacity to try and sell something to somebody unless I believed all the way that I had earned the right to sell them something. For that, you need to be true to yourself, otherwise you're just going to end up like one of them and face the greatest form of failure, which is quitting. If you quit, that is the pure form of failure. I wanted to show people that the impossible can be done. When I told cats I'd drop an album every month, they didn't believe me.

In August, you will sell a song for the first time. Why now?

Me making a song and trying to sell it versus me putting out all these albums for free just to get people to listen is a step. I put out the 'Steven Segall' song just recently and it has about 3,000 downloads. People keep hittin' me up and I'm at a strange point right now that everybody wants me to start selling them stuff. So why not on my birthday in August, as a birthday present to myself, put out a song and split the money with my producer and see what happens? It's like testing the waters. If I can get 3,000 free downloads, I should at least get 100 sales or something.

I'm going to continue my best to put out free stuff, though. We're going to put out the Lord Slug tape, all produced by Slug with different artists and me. We'll put that out for free. I'm going to drop a full project eventually that will be marketed, but I'm just waiting for the right moment. I believe in time and patience. If you're not patient, at the end of the day you're going to come up short. If you choose to do something right now then you have to do something next and if you don't have next lined up for three ways, you're going to be stuck standing on top of that one thing waiting for someone to pay attention. I'm not going to become a slave to my work.

How do you compose your rhymes?

I consider my style as translating beats. I translate beats. The structure and the lyrics all come from the sound of the beat. I hear a beat and then I hear the words for it. That's how I do it. I can't sit around and [try to write a song], like I can't set out to write a "party" song. I do have party songs, but I hear the beat and I see the symmetry of it. My technique was derived from when I was doing the timid MC-ing. My thinking was very linear, designed, and structured, and written horizontally for a long time. I write vertically now. It's like a wave form, you can see the symmetry of the words. The thing that led to this [process] was something I did with Booker T's "Green Onions," [a song] called "730." Even though it was rooted in the essence and spirit of hip hop, it was not something that was expected.

I taught hip hop and creative writing at Sabot at Stony Point. I came down to speak and they hit me back and said, "we really want you to come back and teach, your speech was so inspiring and the kids loved it." When I did that speech, the first thing I [talked about] was "730." I had two classes of middle schoolers. It was an incredible experience. I had some of my other MCs come with me and we would split the class up into groups. I would observe how they interact and show them how to structure their writing. It was just like "730" all over again, because it proved that the art of hip hop is universal. The art of expression is universal. We started out with these kids not knowing jack about hip hop and being scared to death to speak and by the end of the class, they did a show for the school.

Which hip hop artists have had the greatest impact on your style?

Ice-T and the Wu-Tang Clan. When I was really young, I grew up [listening] to Ice-T. My pops used to listen to Ice-T a lot. I always liked how Ice-T did not fucking play. "Original Gangsta" was revolutionary to me because the lyrics did not candy coat anything. He gave it to you straight. There was no fancy way of saying things, it was smack smack smack. That's actually what led to his career going down because he started having a preconceived notion [attached to] his music, an image he had to portray.

My brother listened to Wu-Tang Clan all the time. I even mention that in the "Richmond" song. MC Hammer was probably my favorite rapper before that, the first commercially marketed music product within urban or black culture that struck a note with me. Then I saw how much Wu-Tang changed my brother, how this music had opened his eyes to a totally different perspective, all the way down to how he lived. Hip hop took over my brother's life. His name is Jimmy, but when he hit Wu-Tang and high school at the same time, he became James. And Jimmy and James were two totally different people. At the time I didn't understand the message behind the music, the power of it, but I got hit with it later on. It helped me see the bullshit versus the realness. I applied the real ethics behind that music to my reality. It's work. I can be surrounded by all kinds of crazy shit, but my work is always about integrity. People respect what I do and they know that I do not play. As Ice-T said, my mind is a lethal weapon.

How do you choose which artists to book for your radio shows?

The work has to have integrity behind it. Online, you check out their body of work, their presence, their numbers. I look for proportionate numbers. You could have a video that has a shitload of plays, but the rest of your videos don't have many views, then I know all you've been doing is spamming your link. If your numbers are all consistent, you have people actually paying attention to what you're doing.

I'm very much into auras, so if I meet a person I read their aura. Are you really talking about your life, are you really presenting who you are? When I meet you, is that what I'm gonna hear on the record? If I don't hear you on the record, I'm going to tell you that this is bullshit, you need to give me something that's real. I'll tell them because nobody else is going to. I look to people for professionalism and I've been checked on my professionalism before. Mikemetic [of Photosynthesizers] was one of the people who led me to take shit seriously. I was subbing [on the radio] back in the day and I'd just pull out random songs and play that shit. Mikemetic said, 'You can't come in here without a plan, you don't disrespect this.' Next time I came in, I had a whole plan drawn for the entire radio show, to the minute. I decided I have to give people the lessons I've learned, to treat people how I've been treated. If I can give that to somebody else when I put them on the radio, to me the job is already done. Give them the same experience and the same professional mindset to carry it forward and see how serious this is.

You recently played a show in front of some industry professionals. How did that go?

You have different kinds of shows. You have shows where you're expected, then you have shows like "what's he doing here?" then you have shows where people...have no idea. It was a mix of what are you doing here and these people have no idea.

So I went up there and was like, 'you are all going to die,' and I went nuts. I did "730," I did "Can I Get a Deal," then I did "Straight Up," and I did "Richmond." During "Straight Up," a girl punched another girl in the face. So they were hype, you know what I'm saying. Then during "Richmond" I ran into the crowd and people were like oh my god, this shit's crazy, and I was rocking in the crowd. It was murder. There were label heads, some A&Rs, artists who had done tracks with 50 Cent and Eminem. They were all in the building and they saw it, they knew. They definitely know how I get down.

Have you worked with any artists outside of hip hop?

I rhyme with punk band T-Division sometimes. I'll get on stage and just freestyle over their set. I love punk rock. Punk rock has a deep history within Richmond and it's very much rooted in the same aspects of struggle and individuality.

Black Liquid presents Face Melt Friday 3 on July 29 at Strange Matter, 929 W. Grace St., featuring live performances from Chris Haskins, Official Freeze, Tatum and Black Reign. Doors open at 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $3 in advance, $5 at the door.

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