If you haven’t checked in with Blueprint (a.k.a. Al Shepard) since his 2005 true school classic, 1988, you’re in for a bit of a surprise. His new Rhymesayers release, Adventures in Counter-Culture, is about a lot more than beats and rhymes. Instead of resting on his considerable laurels, Print’s been putting in serious work and has emerged on the other side of these six years as an even more accomplished hip-hop composer and producer, as well as a truly forward-thinking artist. Those interested in mapping his path to rebirth should keep an eye on his revealing blog (Printmatic.net) and track down the numerous EPs and collaborations he’s dropped there. His penmanship remains strong, but he’s also been writing songs full of atmosphere and soulful release. Fear not, though, the album is packed floor to ceiling with his usual defiant attitude and old-school work ethic.
I’ve only seen Blueprint offstage twice. The previous sighting was a few years ago in line at the DMV. The more recent occasion was for this interview, when Al and I met on a cold and rainy afternoon at Skully’s Music Diner in Columbus, or as he frequently calls it, Bustown, Ohio. The staff greeted him like an old friend and we had a great conversation in the hour or so he had to kill before dealing with some landlord business. Landlords? DMV? I know what you’re thinking: “What’s more hip-hop than that?”
In talking about the album, you’ve said a few times something like, “This is me telling the story of my life and this is what’s been going on the past few years.” So is this a story of woes or of triumph and joy?
Blueprint: I think it’s a triumph, but there were a lot of points where I wasn’t sure. When I started the process, I thought it was going to be really easy and that I understood the scope of what I was trying to do. I thought if I just sat down and knocked it out, the record would just take me a year or two. But as I got into it, I saw it was going to be a lot more difficult. There were points where I lost direction and things around me were changing and it was hard to stay focused since I was doubting myself.
Were these difficulties with the music or with life in general?
B: It was everything. When I started the process, it was 2006 and everything was going really well, so I thought “no problem, I’ll just work on this super-ambitious thing.” I had dropped 1988 in 2005 and the Soul Position record in 2006, so my confidence was at an all-time high. And you never think things are going to change. But then I had a falling out with my partner, who I ran Weightless Records with. He stole a bunch of money and that changed everything. That was my best friend. He stole $20,000 in a year, and I had no idea. I was about to start up another imprint dedicated to instrumental music, but I took my eye away from that thing just long enough, and that really discouraged me.
And then not being able to have control over the Soul Position shit—that was kind of a frustration to me ’cause that was a record that was due to be really big and we only did three weeks of shows. We haven’t done a single show since. I’ve wanted to do shows and at least support the fanbase that we had, but we couldn’t—or at least RJ didn’t want to. And then I wasn’t happy with “underground hip-hop.” I thought it was getting stale and boring. I was noticing people were like, “All I do is sit around and listen to Atmosphere and Blueprint and MF Doom, so I’m just going to be just like you guys.” Well, we don’t sit around listening to each other. If you think we’re unique, it’s because we listen to a wide array of shit. And that really pissed me off, hearing kids just being really insular. That started to annoy me to where I decided to just go the other direction and just go where the music takes me.
All those things started changing to where I realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. So it forced me to make myself the focus, even though my natural instinct was to be in groups and do projects and a lot of little side things. It made me be more internal and re-invent what I was doing.
You talk on the record about being in Ohio and still being dedicated to Ohio, but not being inspired by Ohio.
B: Columbus is one of those places where you can be just good or just above average and still have some success. I was never really happy with that. And once I started seeing that, I would say to myself, “What if I’m the most popular hip-hop guy in Columbus? What does that mean on a national scale?” I go to Minneapolis, and I see all those guys on Rhymesayers and they’re all like 10 times larger than me. And so it made me put things into perspective and think maybe I need to be not so caught up in what people hear and define as success, and not just being the man in Columbus. All of us have moments where we get caught up in that.
I’ve heard it said before that people in Columbus lack urgency. Because it’s easy to get to the top of the pile in Columbus, and then you can just stay there.
B: Yeah, I agree. And I think it’s just because guys internalize these things going on, and some of them look at it and think they can just do it at any point. They’re thinking, “People love me,” but they don’t understand that the climate of music is much bigger than your level of talent. You have talent, and you may be a good rapper, but tastes change, times change. So the best thing we can do is stay active and be as ambitious as possible. I felt like we weren’t necessarily doing that, and we were bickering amongst each other. We couldn’t get on the same page as a movement and just inspire one another. When 1988 came out, guys were taking shots at me, guys I was friends with. I’m like, “How did that happen?” And it sucks, because we’re capable of so much more.
You do seem really driven. On the new record, you’re frequently talking about putting in work. Is it part of your purpose to inspire other people?
B: Honestly, some of it was not deliberate. A lot of the writing on the record would be me trying to work through these things on my own, and as I was working through these scenarios, I was trying to motivate myself. Like “On the Clouds,” there’s a line that says, “My man told me that my talent level’s very rare, but just having talent ain’t enough to get you there.” Sometimes people say things and you don’t want to put it in rhymes because maybe it’s not flattering, but that’s some real shit that someone said to you. It wasn’t to say, “I’m out here doing this and you’re not.” It was a self-realization. I’ve been out here four days a week from 8pm to 2am, passing out fliers to promote this event or promote my career and all the other guys who claim they’re dedicated aren’t here. And I might be passing out fliers for their shows too, and they still don’t show up because it’s cold or whatever reason they got for calling in sick to hip-hop like it’s a job. I guess it depends on what people can live with. If you look in the mirror and know that you didn’t really try and you didn’t get what you wanted, I guess that’s your punishment.
There seems to be a lot of discrepancy in people’s perceptions. Like you said there are guys in Minneapolis who sell more records and play bigger shows, but a lot of people in Columbus think Blueprint’s on the same level.
B: It’s not true. There was a moment where Soul Position was at the level we should have been and we sold out every show on our last tour, but I think there is a different perception. I am a successful artist, but there’s so many more levels to where I could be. I ain’t going to say like I’m unsuccessful, but personally I’m not satisfied at all.
So you’re trying to get to the next plateau?
B: Yeah. I had specific talks with Rhymesayers while I was working on this record about my plan and their plan, about where I wanted to be. I had some shit where I was like, “In two records, I’ll be where I want to be.” And they were like, “You can be there in one record. If you take your time with this record, this will be the record that will get you there.” So I went back and continued to work on the record.
Can you give an example of who is at that level now?
B: Brother Ali. He’s nationally at that level. He came out two or three years in a row and every time he put out something it got a little bigger, a little more anticipated, with a more loyal following. That’s somewhere where I’d like to be. He’s at that level and he’s not going anywhere. His next level is like Atmosphere level. Either he’s going to get to that level or he’s going to stay right where he’s at. That will just depend on his next record. He’s got the foundation of what Atmosphere had before they made that huge leap. So I’d like to be where he’s at. But I’m not anywhere near there yet, ’cause I’m starting all over again, six years after releasing my last record. Now I just want to continue to be disciplined and do it. Like if I have two months off this summer, I just want to wake up everyday and make music.
You must have a lot to say about the new record.
B: I don’t know. It’s one of those things that when I first finished it, part of me was like, “Don’t say anything. Just let people deal with it and see what people say.” Some people, because of the 1988 record, had declared me the poster boy for conventional hip-hop and redoing the classic style. So it’s hard to completely say this is what I want to do and then just put that out.
Have you been nervous about the possible reactions?
B: The closer I got, the more confident I got. The guy who runs Rhymesayers, Sadiq, he was a really important part of me going down that path. There was a point where I was working on another conventional record and then I was doing what would be Counter-Culture. I would let certain people hear certain things and then him and Slug from Atmosphere were like, “This shit over here—if you can do this shit at the level we think you can, there’s much more reward in doing that than putting out the same record. If you put out another conventional rap record, you may never be able to change directions and do the shit that you seem to be doing naturally.” I must have turned in the record three times, and as I got through it, I stopped being emotionally attached to the music.
So what are you listening to these days?
B: Since I’m always collecting vinyl, I also have a wide range that I’m listening to, from weird jazz like Gabor Szabo to weird-ass shit like Robin Trower, or weird electronic records with two dudes playing Chopin on a Moog. I wake up and listen to shit like that sometimes, just to get my day started. I have maybe 5,000 records on vinyl. Most of it’s just from when I was sampling because you had to have a pretty significant collection, but now I just listen to it to get inspired because I can’t really sample like I could before. Which is another reason the record took longer, because I realized I couldn’t make another 1988 because I would just get sued right and left.
Is it that much a different atmosphere for sampling than it used to be?
B: Oh yeah. It started changing around 2005 so that even independent labels are afraid to sample. I had two beats on Mr. Lif’s record, and at the time they asked me to turn in a sample list and they didn’t use either of those songs. That changed things. I was starting to get a lot of work requests in, but with the sampling thing you can only go so far. So it actually just made me compose music differently, which probably worked out better, because now I have more control over it.
It’s probably been a big growth experience for you.
B: Just listening to records for samples is different than being a music lover who just puts on a 12-inch in the morning and listens to it while you clean up your room. Now it’s like, “Wow, this is amazing! I can’t sample it at all, but I’m inspired.” So I still listen to a lot of current indie rock stuff like that. I’m a huge Radiohead fan. I’m a fan of how they manage to always stay different. Even though maybe not every track on every album is a classic, they still try to evolve. Them and Outkast are some of the only guys who’ve managed to stay unpredictable. That element is something that I really would like to have, where people don’t really know what I’m going to do next, but they’re excited about it. I hope that that starts with the next record.