The Agit Reader

Blueprint

June 4th, 2018  |  by Brian O'Neill

Blueprint, a.k.a. Printmatic, a.k.a. Albert Shepard, wears more hats than he has names. He emerged from Columbus, Ohio in the late ‘90s to create some of the most enduring underground hip-hop albums of the first decade of the new millennium as a producer with Greenhouse Effect, as a rapper with Soul Position (a partnership with RJD2), and also as a solo artist with 10 albums to his credit. His talents are not limited to musical pursuits. He has written three books, directed and edited the King No Crown documentary showing the trials and tribulations of promoting his album of the same name—including the aftermath of a horrific van accident while on tour—and has released most of it through Weightless Recordings, the label he started nearly 20 years ago.

His latest album, Two-Headed Monster, is possibly his quintessential release, no mean feat in a genre where artists have limited shelf lives. Blueprint handled all of the production, emphasizing classic soul and R&B. His lyrics tell personal stories: the title track speaks of being both a rapper and producer; “Good Guys Get Ignored” relays how some girls do not appreciate his teetotaling ways (he has been sober since May 15, 2010); “Don’t Look Back” features a jazzy piano sample and Blueprint embracing the future.

Blueprint took time away from taking preorders for Two-Headed Monster and preparing for a national headlining tour that will keep him on the road through August to call from his home base of Columbus.

You start the new album off with the little intro, “Cleansing Process.” Does that set the table for an album that you kind of consider to be a cleansing process?

Blueprint: Yes, definitely. That was kind of fitting because after I did the King No Crown movie and the album, some of the content on it was pretty heavy, and I kind of wanted to start fresh with something that wasn’t as dense or as dark. So when I heard the guy say that—and it’s just like a recording from a guy who was on the street corner at some weird open mic thing in Harlem—I was like, wow, that’s amazing. “You can’t get on his mic if you ain’t got no righteousness in you.” It made me think about how as you get older and older, you get more comfortable, just trying to be a better person, you know. And having your goals is good, but you know what, I want to be a better person every time now and maybe my music should be a reflection of that. So that intro kind of hit home that message for me.

You’ve always rapped about personal stuff. Did that make it easier to resist the urge to go off on Donald Trump, because many people in rap and rock music, even where you wouldn’t expect it, are weighing in on what’s going on politically.

B: I had decided a couple years back, even before he was elected, I started getting the sense that everybody was kind of getting super political in their art. What I see from a lot of artists is that we’re in this reactionary state where we’re just chasing whatever the hot story is of today. I didn’t want that to be something that I look back on 10 years from now, after the tenor of the conversation has changed, and here I am talking about whatever the hot button issue was that day.

Art is a long-term thing. You make an album, people revisit these albums 10, 20 years later, sometimes more. While you do want to be relevant for now, you don’t want to be the guy who’s chasing whatever the hot topic is that day. The Trump thing to me, it becomes easy. For some people, it’s easier for them to do that than it is to make art that doesn’t have that content in it. So for me it was definitely a decision where I said, you know what, regardless of how I feel, I don’t necessarily want to jump out there with these opinions because I don’t necessarily want my music to sound dated.

At the same time, people grow as individuals too. Do you find yourself listening to your older material or even performing it and thinking I’m not that guy anymore?

B: I only really feel that when it comes to the drinking. When it comes to songs that are blatantly about getting drunk, I’m like, wow, I really was about that! I was not shy about writing songs about getting drunk and partying! And you know, that’s where I was at a time. I mean, it doesn’t really freak me out, but we do grow, you know, we do kind of go through different phases and I’m okay with that.

I don’t necessarily regret that time. I do think it’s something that I’m more conscious of now as I’ve gotten older. When I was younger, I don’t think I really tripped about like, hey man, this is what art is. You know, you write what you feel at the moment. You make that. If it’s good, you release it. But as I get older I started thinking about more like, okay, do you want to maybe be counterculture. Maybe counterculture is not talking about Trump. Maybe being on some fun shit in the midst of all this chaos and turmoil, maybe that’s the countercultural thing to do if everybody’s doing the opposite.

You actually bring up the drinking thing on “Good Guys Get Ignored,” where you talk about how being sober is kind of sobering, no pun intended. There are people that that you wouldn’t have necessarily expected to, who treat you differently and not in a positive way because you quit drinking.

B: Yeah, that song came from a conversation I had with this incredibly beautiful girl. Everything was going great until she found out I didn’t drink. It’s funny because it took until I was sober three or four years before that happened. The first three years it was fine. I felt no one had any bad reactions to it. Everything was positive. But then I got to that girl and she said it was an issue. “If you can’t drink wine with me, I don’t know if I can really date you.”

It was weird, like damn, this is the first time I ever really got judged harshly for this. Most people would say that’s awesome because I don’t have to worry about you getting drunk and saying something stupid or doing something stupid. With this chick it was like, if you don’t get drunk with me then I start feeling self-conscious and I don’t want to be around you.

Has being sober had any effect on your art?

B: I don’t know. Sometimes you just have to have fun. When I used to play basketball—I played varsity basketball and could have played in college—but there was a minute where when I was in 9th and 10th grade, I was just having fun. We were just playing, we weren’t any good, and the game was great. There’s nothing I would have rather done. Then there comes a point where you get really good and then you get more pressure to go along with that. And then sometimes the game loses its fun.

To me having a period in my catalog, it’s similar to that where it’s like if I make two records that are very serious and good, the expectation might be that I continue on that path and sometimes you can forget about having fun with the art, right? So to me the Two-Headed Monster record is me saying, you know what? I can have fun. It’s okay to chuck up bricks again and make boom-bap songs and make something that’s lighthearted and self-deprecating. It’s okay to do that. It was my way of having fun again, almost like a reset.

That sounds like the song “Masterpiece,” where circumstances in life change goals but that doesn’t mean that you failed.

B: Exactly! At the end of the day, what you’re shaping is just as important.

You have two talents. The title Two-Headed Monster comes from your dual ability to rap and produce. Back in the day you seemed to separate the two, have others produce your material while you would not rap on projects where you provided the beats. You seemed to reconcile this more recently, but especially on the new album.

B: Yeah, that’s true. I went through a weird phase with it. I think it’s all because when I first started making music, I was known primarily as a producer. I was the guy who produces Illogic. That gave way as soon as I did the project with RJ, Soul Position. Then all of a sudden, I was known as a rapper and I was more popular than all of the stuff I was doing with production. But I always was a fan of production.

It has always been weird because there are people who were fans of different parts of my catalog; they know certain records of mine and don’t even know I produced them! You know, I’ve talked to some people on tour who are like, “Oh yeah, 1988 is a great record, who produced that?” I’m like, yo, I produced it! How could you not know that? Even Illogic’s Celestial Clockwork record, people come to me all the time and say the production is great. I’m like, you know I did that, right? They’re like, “No, I had no idea.”

 Now I’m more comfortable saying, hey look, this is who I am. I care about both equally and I want people to see that thing altogether as opposed to these two separate things that don’t exist at the same time.

On Two-Headed Monster, you have a myriad of guest appearances from people such as Slug, Mr. Lif, and Aceyalone, but you handled all the production on the record. Is there any reason you were so open to collaborating with other MCs, but you did all the production yourself?

B: I think that’s more a reflection of my process than anything else. I typically start out a song with a beat so whenever I hear a beat that I really like or want to write to, the first thing I do is kind of conceptualize it and figure out what it should be about. I do that long before I step to anybody about being on a song. It might be different if my process involves someone else making beats, but because it starts with me making a beat, in most instances, I’ll start there. Once I have the beat I’ll bring somebody else into that collaboration.

It wasn’t like, oh yeah, I have to produce everything, but then I thought that might be kind of important. If I am a two-headed monster, let me produce the whole thing and I’ll just bring in some friends to make it more interesting.

Speaking of those friends, I get a feeling you have an existing relationship with everybody on the record.

B: Yeah, that’s very true. Everybody on the record is someone I have a personal relationship with, like a friendship or something like that. They are people who over the years I’ve talked about collaborating with, but for whatever reason something happened.

I’ve done many songs with Slug, but I’ve never been on an Atmosphere record because they would do maybe 100 songs for a record and then the last week before they were getting ready to decide on the record, they would switch out a track or two and then the song that I was on wouldn’t be on it. So I wanted to do a song with him since he’s never been on any of my records before.

It’s the same thing with Mr. Lif; I’ve been on his records before, but he’s never been on one of mine. Wordsworth, I met maybe four or five years ago when I started touring Florida. Real good dude. We just always keep in touch and talked about it. Supastition, I’ve known him forever and we’ve toured together.

The only one that was kind of random was the Aceyalone one, but it was only random in a sense that he actually kind reached out to me, which kind of blew my mind. I was talking about making beats on Twitter because at that time I was trying to make four or five beats a day.

One day I get a tweet from Aceyalone saying, “Hey, send me one of those.” So I went through all the stuff I had and I sent it to him. Like a day or two later he sends me the track back and it’s got a verse on it and a chorus on it. It’s really dope! Then he’s like, “Hey, I want you to rhyme this too,” so I rhymed on it. I was going to send everything over to him to use on his record, and he said, “I don’t have anything I’m working on right now so put it on your record.” Oh shit, that’s amazing! Well thanks!

That’s how that one came out, but I’ve been a big fan of his forever; he’s one of my favorite independent artists. So that’s the only one that kind of came out of nowhere. I knew he knew who I was because I’ve toured with a lot of his friends and he did the (Magnificent City) record with RJ. Also, me and Abstract Rude are real tight. But I had never really worked with him before, so that was the only collaboration where it was wasn’t with somebody I had a long personal relationship with.

The last thing you did before this was the King No Crown documentary and the screening tour to promote it. The screening in Philly was in a small room upstairs from the venue you’ll be performing at in July and you set it up on your laptop yourself and ran the Q&A. It was very DIY even by your standards.

B: The documentary was something that I’ve had on an artistic bucket list. Making a movie has been on my mind since maybe 2011. I got my first camera in 2011. When you get a camera, you’re like, oh man, one day if I get good, I’ll try to make a movie.

When that record was about to come out, I was like, yeah, it would be cool to do something about this time that this record is coming out and what’s going on right now. And that was kind of the idea. So I started having a guy shoot certain things and I started bringing the camera around more documenting what was going on. Once I got back from that tour, that’s when I was like, okay, let me just really lock in and see if I can turn this into a movie. As far as the tour, it went great! It was one of those things where you don’t really see yourself as a filmmaker primarily. So when you go somewhere and there’s people there that are ready to watch a film that you made and it’s your first film and then you get positive feedback from that, it really opens up your mind to the possibilities of music and visual things. I’m thinking about art in a different way, not just as music anymore. The visual part has to be thought about as well.

It wasn’t as successful of a tour as when I’m performing, but I deliberately didn’t perform on the film tour because I didn’t want to take the focus off of it. I could’ve performed, but I chose not to because I wanted it to be about that.

And I’m happy with how it turned out, man. I drove around the country. I drove from Columbus to Fargo for the first screening, like basically a two-day drive. I went from Fargo to Sioux Falls to Minneapolis and then drove to Florida, hitting the south and the Midwest. It was kind of like a rap tour, but it was such a different experience. The theater experience is much different than a live show experience.

You’ve toured a lot much more than many of your peers and you’re still doing it even as you get older. Is there a reason you’re still so focused on touring?

B: The short answer is because I love it! One thing that I realized after we got in that van accident, it made me take a step back. I haven’t really toward since 2015 when we had that accident. So the last three years I’ve done less than 15 shows. It made me appreciate it, it made me realize how much I love it.

The reason I’m physically able to do it is because I’ve kind of changed myself. I eat much better now, I don’t drink now, I take care of myself. I stay out of the situations that make touring really difficult and I really make it something where I feel like it’s a blessing now as opposed to something I have to do. I love going out. I love talking to people. To be able to go out and do Q&As on the film tour was the most rewarding part of all of it, being in a room talking to people about art and creativity every night.

I look at it now like I’m fortunate to be able to go out there and still tour because a lot of people either can’t or won’t or they just can’t get things in order to allow themselves to go out there like I do. Life is short, I feel like when you get to a certain age you can’t do it anymore. I haven’t reached that point where I can’t. People are still interested in hearing what I have to say maybe because I present it a little bit differently every time out. And I think that has kept people tuned in for a long time and I value that. And touring is a lot easier when you don’t get drunk every night, you know?

You’re in the unique position of running Weightless Records for many years. The industry model you deal with has changed from selling wax out of the trunk of your car to streaming and downloads. How have these changes affected you as a label owner?

B: It’s definitely affected me and I think it’s affected every artist. I think what is the main thing that it’s forced us to do is to take more of a boutique approach. Whereas before you could just say, yeah, I’m just going to make a CD and I’m just going to put out the CD and I’m not going to pay much attention to detail or pay much attention to the fan experience. To be successful now you have to really understand how to give the fans an experience that’s different than just walking in and buying a CD, especially if they’re buying it directly from you.

So for me, we try to really cultivate the direct-to-fan experience. That’s why I’m so heavy into doing preorders for the albums, doing packages that have things that they can’t get anywhere else. I know that if it’s just a CD to somebody I’m not really doing anything different. How do I justify someone buying something if I’m not really offering a more unique experience with that?

We’ve had to adapt over the years. We’re still going to sell music, but we have to be more creative in what we do and maybe music is just one part of it. So for me, like we talked about before, the film is a part of that adaptation. It’s not just about making an album every couple of years. Whatever you do or are good at, that’s a part of what you present to the people. So maybe it’s a film in 2017; in 2013, you know, it’s a book. So you have books, you have films, you have a podcast, you have other things that keep people engaged that don’t always involve us telling them to buy our album because the album is just the result of the connection.

Once you have the connection with the people, then you can still buy the album on vinyl, CD, download, whatever. That’s after you have the trust. So now we have to maintain a trust and have a deeper connection with people. You just can’t think you’re going to drop a CD and sit at home and you’re going to have this huge fan base anymore. That reality is gone.

I guess it was inevitable. That’s because the industry as a whole was kind of getting over the period where they were charging $20 for a damn CD at FYE in the mall and shit. That wasn’t going to last forever. But I do think people are just guessing now, trying to figure it out. Streaming and downloading is different, but I think for us, artists who came from an era where we still have fans who are old enough to buy physical products, we have to cultivate that. We can’t forget about that experience.

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