Interview by: Martin Bauman
Detroit’s Clear Soul Forces (from left: L.A.Z., Ilajide, Noveliss and E-Fav) are one of the most exciting groups in hip-hop right now, capturing the same essence that made groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Slum Village special, while at the same time creating their own unique sound. Following a late-night chance studio encounter with Royce Da 5’9″ back in 2009 – a meeting during which he suggested the four become a group – the Clear Soul Forces emerged and have steadily improved, progressing from their initial Clear Soul Radio mixtape to the Departure EP, and finally their debut LP Detroit Revolution(s). The Come Up Show caught up with the group last week as they prepared for the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, and we had the chance to speak on a range of topics, from Detroit Revolution(s), to coming together as a group, to drawing comparisons with Slum Village and other groups. Throughout, the members were genuine, insightful, and oftentimes funny. Read the full interview below.
TCUS: First and foremost, I’d like to welcome you guys to The Come Up Show, I’m excited to have you. You guys are set to perform at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival this Saturday, what can you tell me about that?
L.A.Z.: I can tell you that we’re excited.
Ilajide: It’s a motherf***er. It’s such a great show, dawg. C’mon, tell him, n***a.
L.A.Z.: It’s such a great show, we’re gonna have great fun. We’re gonna rap… I dunno. [Laughs]. It’s gonna be cool, man. I’m looking forward to it, we’ve got a dope set.
— Noveliss of CSF (@Dougy41) July 15, 2012
TCUS: I want to go back to your origin. What’s the story behind meeting Royce [Da 5'9”] for the first time and coming together as a group?
Ilajide: We were all in the studio, trying to cut back on costs. We were just a collective, we weren’t even really a group. We just saw an opportunity to play our songs for [Royce], because we were in the same studio [as him] that night. And I walked up to him [and] asked him to check some shit out. After we played a couple tracks that we laid down, I just whipped out my Maschine [and] started playing the beats live on there, and we just started rapping all night. And he suggested we should be a group [and] have the elements come together onstage, so we just took it from there.
TCUS: How much contact have you had with Royce since that first meeting?
Ilajide: [Laughs] Outside of seeing him in the city at random events, and maybe the mall, not a lot. You know, we didn’t exchange numbers. He told us to keep him posted, and keep sending him the shit that we were working on. We would send it to him… we would spam his inbox, actually [laughs]. He said what he thought about it, and he was like, “keep going, keep working,” but this was wayyyy before REVO, this was like 2009 or 2008.
TCUS: Were the four of you collaborating with each other before that first meeting at all? I know you said you weren’t a group yet, but were you doing any features with each other?
Noveliss: Nah. Well, I don’t know about y’all, but…
L.A.Z.: Yeah we were, we went to the studio! We recorded like two songs together! [Noveliss and I] did “Searching” together….
Noveliss: I didn’t do “Searching” with y’all.
L.A.Z.: Oh yeahh, yeahh, you weren’t on that.
Noveliss: Nah, I didn’t work with them at all before.
L.A.Z.: Yes, you did.
Noveliss: The night we met Royce was the first time that I did anything with any of y’all.
E-Fav: Y’all did “Lion’s Den”.
Noveliss: That was after we met Royce. All of that was after, trust me. That was the first time that I ever even kicked it with y’all at all.
E-Fav: It was, actually.
TCUS: So, a mixed consensus on that one.
TCUS: What can you guys tell me about your home studio, The Complex?
Noveliss: Before, we had our own little spot. And it was like home, but you know, n***as got put out, got evicted. Now, it’s more of a mobile studio. We’re kinda struggling for locations right now, man. So we’re just kinda out here, setting shit up wherever we can. Sometimes we record at my crib, sometimes we record at [Ilajide's] crib in the basement. So right now, it’s more of a mobile thing than a permanent location, but wherever we record, man, that’s The Complex.
TCUS: How did the movement “Free Kings” start?
E-Fav: “Free Kings” was kind of like an idea, a branch-out, that I had [as] a name for the thing that we represent. A lot of people, they start doing music and they start changing and adapting to what the industry is telling them to do. We’re not really about that, we do what we want to do. We’re free from all of that shit. That’s kind of the idea.
TCUS: How would you describe the progression from Clear Soul Radio to the Departure EP, and from the Departure EP to Detroit Revolution(s)?
L.A.Z.: I would definitely say our chemistry as a group [has progressed], and on top of that… from Clear Soul Radio, we recorded that in six hours.
E-Fav: We recorded that shit in one studio session.
L.A.Z.: Yeah, it was like one studio session, and we recorded it at Rated R, the dude that directed our videos “Get No Better”, “Strangers In The Night”, and “Stick ‘Em”.
We recorded Clear Soul Radio in one day, you know? So that was pretty much [just] cut and dry, it was raw rap. Hurry up, get in, get out, let’s do it. A lot of it is improv, and it was just real raw. And [with] Depature, the difference between that [and Clear Soul Radio] is that we focused more on our songwriting, and we had to overcome more. There were more obstacles with [Departure], because I was in Colorado – that’s where I’m from. I was out there dealing with the legal system for a couple months, so I wasn’t even really able to be part of the recording process like that. So that was really a building process for the group, to bring us closer together. And I feel like Detroit Revolution(s), REVO… the growth right there, all the work that we put in, I feel like it was a culmination of everything we had been working for, pretty much ever since that night at the studio session with Royce. Everybody was on point lyrically, and I feel like that’s us in our purest form, doing what we do best – hip-hop.
TCUS: I read that your Detroit Revolution(s) album was inspired by a painting on the side of an apartment building. What’s the story there?
Ilajide: Shit man, E-Fav and L.A.Z. [and I] were just outside talking about our project, which was originally supposed to be called The Forces With You, but we had trouble placing tracks with it, because we weren’t sure what type of feeling it was giving people, or what type of feeling it gave us. And as we were talking about what the title should be, we were just outside, and we looked up and saw this painting on the side of the building that said “Detroit Revolution! Coming this summer.” And it had a painting of two dudes with gas masks on, and like, dollar sign chains. It was a sweet ass painting, but the name… when it said “Detroit Revolution! Coming this summer,” it just hit us, and we were like “that’s it right there!” And everything that came after that and before that, it was just [fitting], because we felt like we were revolutionizing hip-hop, and revolutionizing music. So everything really just fit.
TCUS: What are each of your favourite songs from the album?
Noveliss: Mine would be “Get No Better”, “15 Minutes”, and “Catch Me If You Can”.
E-Fav: Mine would probably have to be “Stack [Yo Paypuh!¡!¡!]”, “Runnin’”, and “Get No Better.”
L.A.Z.: Mine used to be “Stack”, but I was listening to the album recently, and as of right now, it’s “Runnin’”.
Ilajide: I can’t pick, I don’t have a favourite song off that joint, man. I really ask myself everyday, too, but I don’t have one. I love all that shit.
TCUS: Did you guys have any idea that “Get No Better” would be as popular as it is?
Noveliss: Hell naw. We knew it was a dope ass song, but I don’t think we knew that it was gonna blow up like it did. We all knew that it would be the song that would probably get us a lot of attention, but we didn’t think that it would be as big as it is. When we first shot the video for that, n***as was talking about our goal being like 5,000 views for that shit [laughs].
TCUS: What was the inspiration behind the name Clear Soul Forces?
Ilajide: That’s actually kinda my part. The Clear Soul Forces that came up, there were two other members, but we never ended up making songs or anything. And I just kinda took the name and placed it with us, ’cause we’re a better Clear Soul Forces. It kinda happened just like Detroit Revolution(s). And once it hit, it stuck, because it makes sense from the music that we make. It’s Clear Soul, [and] it’s Forceful, meaning we’ve got some soulful beats and forceful ass rappers, and all of us are clear-minded [and] conscious… almost. Like, we do conscious, but n***as ain’t too hip-hop to get their d*** sucked [laughs].
E-Fav: [Laughs] That shit is always the perfect analogy for that.
Ilajide: It is! I’m sorry, I have to put it out there, because that’s what L.A.Z. tells us [laughs]. That’s what L.A.Z. told me, man, he’s like “n***a, never be too hip-hop to get your d*** sucked.”
TCUS: Within the group, you guys have also had a few name changes. L.A.Z., you’ve gone by Wimpy, and Noveliss, you’ve gone by J.RoC. How did you decide to make those changes?
L.A.Z.: For me, as far as the name change, I just felt like it was for growth. Wimpy – that’s my nickname, ever since I was a little kid. My mother, she used to go to work [and] I’d hold on to her leg, and I’d be crying, like “get the burger, wimpy, get the burger, wimpy!” I was like two or three, I don’t know why I used to say it, but that kind of became my nickname. And when I really started taking rap seriously, I didn’t have [an] idea for a rap name or nothing like that, so I just went by my nickname. After a little while, I’d been doing this for a little bit, you kind of want to find your own identity as an artist, so I had to switch it up. And L.A.Z. stands for Live Among Zealots.
Noveliss: Mine was the same thing as L.A.Z.; like J.Roc, it’s not a rap name. That’s been my nickname my whole life, from hooping and playing ball, and stuff – that’s just how I got that nickname. I never really had an artist name until recently. I just kind of thought of [Noveliss]; it don’t really mean shit, I just think it sounds awesome [laughs].
TCUS: You guys have been compared to Tribe and Pharcyde before, and obviously, coming from Detroit, there have been comparisons to Slum Village. What are your thoughts on these comparisons?
Noveliss: First of all, it’s a huge honour just to be mentioned in the same sentences as those legendary groups. But at the same time, we just want to be the first Clear Soul Forces. You know, we just want to be ourselves and keep it original. We’re trying to put our stamp on hip-hop, not copy from somebody else. We want to be our own selves, we’re not trying to be nobody else.
I Love tribe, slum, de la and all those groups but I’m here to compete and carve out my own lane..not just be a rip off of 90s hip hop grps
— L.A.Z of CSF (@wimp87) June 3, 2012
Ilajide: I actually love that people do that, because that just lets me know that we’re doing something right. I never really dig into it, ’cause I know that no matter what, we’re always gonna be compared to groups, ’cause there’s not a lot of groups out there – when you think about a four-man group, you think about Tribe, Pharcyde, and sometimes people say Slum, even though [they were] three members. There’s really nowhere else to place us when you talk about comparisons, because that’s all that it really is at the end of the day: who do they sound like? “Oh, they sound like this,” or “they sound like that.” So just like Noveliss said, we’re not trying to be like them, we’re trying to make our own lane and do our own shit, but it’s definitely dope that we’re mentioned in the same sentences with the legendary cats. I listen to those n***as every day.
E-Fav: I agree with both of them, but I think that there can only be one Dilla.
Dilla had joints that within the 1st 10 seconds you wanted uninstall FL or sell your MPC. Ya’ll make cats suggest other career paths to you
— SLOT-A(@IAMSLOTA) May 16, 2012
TCUS: Moving on, how much competition is there between the four of you in terms of having the best verse on a song?
Noveliss: That’s actually a great question. I think [that] when we first started out, [with] every single song, n***as was trying to kick everybody’s ass and have the best verse on every song. But now, the songs might sound like that because everybody’s verse is cold as f***, but now… everyone in our crew tries to have the best rap, but I don’t think we try to have the best….
Ilajide: I feel like what happened was we stopped trying to [compete] versus each other, and [we] put ourselves together versus other n***as – I think that’s what happened. Instead of competition for us, [our verses] became competition for everybody else, and us really worrying about the outcome of the song. For “Strangers In The Night”, for instance, [E-Fav and I] were originally supposed to jump on that, but shit, Noveliss and L.A.Z. wrecked shit out of it! And there was no point for us to even stick our verses on there, the same goes for “We Got You Open”. And I think it’s just the outcome of the song that we worry about, and make sure that other n***as can’t f*** with it.
TCUS: Who’s the go-to guy for hooks in your group?
Ilajide: All of us, now.
Noveliss: I am.
Ilajide, L.A.Z. & E-Fav: [Laughs].
E-Fav: Shit, everybody.
L.A.Z.: E-Fav was on fire with the hooks when we were recording the album. Now it’s looking like Ilajide is on fire with the hooks, so it’s like… ride the wave.
Ilajide: Actually, you know what, I have to stop you and give props to that n***a Brogainz – that’s our boy. He’ll just be around, and he’ll come up with one word, and then it ends up turning into a whole hook. Shit, it’s that feeling, man. Like, if the hook gives you that feeling, then we’ve got the song. And I think all of us [are] just trying to get that feeling. I remember when Noveliss hated hooks, and [now] that n***a be coming up with them motherf***ers [laughs].
TCUS: L.A.Z., you and E-Fav ran into DJ Premier last year. What was that like?
L.A.Z.: Wow, you’ve really been looking at stuff! I’ve got that picture in my phone! [Laughs].
E-Fav: Where were we at when that shit happened?
L.A.Z.: We were at SXSW, walking around the streets of Austin, Texas. We were eating lunch at a Thai restaurant in Austin, Texas at SXSW, and I forget who, I think it was Doug who came in and was like, “aw man, that n***a DJ Premier is walking around in the streets like a regular n***a.” So me and E-Fav got up, and we were like, “man, we should go find this n***a!” And then we found him, and we took a picture with him – and that was that. It was just cool, you know, we didn’t really chop it up with him like that or nothing, but he was a cool, humble dude. We came up to him, and he wasn’t like “oh, no, I’m not gonna take pictures with you, f*** outta my way, I’m DJ Premier,” you know, he was real cool. It was just nice to be able to meet him. Coming from where we’re from, that shit don’t happen.
TCUS: You guys were featured by Red Bull Soundstage not too long ago, what kind of an impact have you seen from that exposure?
E-Fav: That shit got us a lot of attention from a lot of different internet outlets, and stuff like that. People from [Detroit] Metro Times did a smaller documentary, it’s like a city-wide magazine. I think they saw the documentary, and that got us in there. We got a lot of attention from people around the area that had never heard about us, because Red Bull put their tag on it, so certain people came to look at it because of that.
TCUS: Looking forward, what’s your focus as a group for the coming year?
L.A.Z.: We’re trying to make some money, get on the road, have fun. Quit the jobs that we work act, [and] actually start doing what we want to do with our lives.
E-Fav: We’re actually planning a REVO re-release, and we’re also planning an EP with Nameless. We’re gonna shoot a bunch more videos for the album, so there’s a lot of content coming.
TCUS: That’s all from me, is there anything else you wanted to say to the people out there?
L.A.Z.: Yeah, we just launched the merch section on our website. CDs, stickers, buttons, on www.forceswithyou.com. More stuff is gonna be coming soon. Support us! Follow us on twitter @clearsoulforces, and like our band on facebook.
E-Fav: For all the people out there, thank you for your support, we love y’all from the bottom of our heart.
L.A.Z.: Thanks, guys.