by Sam Robinson
Rapper and producer Derek Minor is at the top of his game at the moment. While heading up the RMG music label, he’s just released his fifth album Empire, a record loaded with ancient soundscapes, challenging words, and transparency. I recently caught up with Derek to discover how the album was made, talk about suffering and sin, and also his new love for grilled salmon.
SAM: Where in the world are you, Derek?
DEREK: I’m at home. Nashville. Got a day off today!
Nice. What are you going to do with your day off? Just hang out?
Yeah man. I’mma kick it with my family. I’ve been gone – it was Grammy weekend. So I was at that, and had to do a show before that. So I’ve been gone almost a week. I’mma just hang out with the babies and hang out with my wife and take some time off.
Now I spoke to you a few years ago when Minorville came out. You had just ripped your pants on stage and we discussed that.
Has that happened since?
No. Thank God!
I was wondering if you might have a seamstress on tour with you, just to be safe?
No I just wear better pants. [Laughs]
Better made, better quality pants. I like it. Now we talked a lot about Minorville, and now this new album Empire is here. On Minorville you talked about what a world without God would be like; and here you talk about the danger of building our own empires, rather than God’s. Did you see any progression from one album to the next, thematically?
No, actually that wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t until we were working on the album title that the team was like, ‘Yo, this is almost like Minorville Part II. But I said, to be honest, it was just where I was at at the time. It was post-Reach [Records] and trying to figure out how to put the pieces in place that I needed to be put in place; and my own internal struggles with being an artist and doing everything on my own. I had to start thinking – what is all of this for? If I was to sell ten million copies or whatever, is that beneficial for the kingdom of God? Then I started being convicted: Let’s redefine what success is on this album. Is success killing it? Or is success somebody hearing a record and it changing their life forever? And I think at that moment, it was clear. Which is crazy – because I beat my album numbers [sales] with Reach and also, the response to the records have been amazing. So, both happened at the same time. And I think that’s the main focus of the album: if you’re focus is on God, all the other stuff is just icing on the cake.
This is your first album since leaving Reach. Was the process different in making it?
No, not really. Reach really gave me a lot of creative control there. So I kind of got to put out the album I really wanted to put out both times. I guess the only difference is that I’m the final say when everything ends. That’s a little different now, as I don’t have to take my album in and say, ‘What do you guys think?’ It’s really just, if I like it, I put it out. If I don’t like it, I don’t put it out. That’s probably the only difference, but besides that, I used all the guys that I love and I’ve been using for years. Pretty much the same.
Was it fun being the final say?
Oh yeah, absolutely. There’s nothing like owning your own business. It’s a lot harder work and it’s a little more stressful because if it doesn’t work out you can’t point to someone else and say, ‘It’s their fault!’ But it’s very rewarding that I get to do what I love, and I get to own it. It’s very rewarding.
Can you tell me a little about how the album was recorded and how long it took?
It’s a funny story. When I got off the Winter Jam tour I had my buddy who builds studios for a living come to my house and check the house out. Because I thought that this basement I have would be really cool to turn into a studio. So he’s like, ‘Yeah, probably take about two to three weeks and it would be done.’ Well, two or three months later… [laughs] we built the studio! It took all of two months, man, because we kept running into setback after setback after setback. That was very interesting as far as the recording process, but I recorded Empire in a really nice home studio. So we built it up, soundproofed everything. It’s not finished how I want it to be. But we put hardwood floors in there, and we took it to the next level. It was cool to record it in the comforts of my home. And if you look at it, it’s like teleporting to a different place, because I have my house and then when you come to this room it looks nothing like the rest of the house. It literally looks like you went to a huge studio. See, another thing I did compared to the other albums, especially Dying to Live, was I took more of the production load myself. I was more co-producing. Everything was pretty much co-produced with me and Dirty Rice. And then also myself and all the others I used. That was cool too.
At a home studio, was it easy to go and nap?
Yeah. It was a lot more freeing. But the challenge with a home studio is that I want to be in the studio all day. Because it’s comfortable. So sometimes you’ve gotta go get a breath of fresh air, or a cup of coffee from somewhere that’s not home. That’s probably why the music felt so good, because it was recorded in a very comfortable environment.
And of course, it’s easy to have some homemade food. Perhaps some southern fried chicken?
[Laughs] Yeah, man. Nah, I’ve actually been staying away from the fried food as of late. My thing lately has been salmon. So I went over to Propaganda – we were in LA and I grilled some salmon and some kebabs. Chicken and different stuff like that. What else did we grill? Some cool stuff. I think when this is over with I’m going to open a restaurant. I really enjoy cooking, man.
Have you got a second basement at your house to put a restaurant in?
[Laughs] I don’t think I want people coming to my house to eat like that!
The Empire Restaurant.
There you go!
Or Minorville Restaurant? Whatever you want to call it.
That would be sweet.
I think you’ll need to workshop names a bit more.
Now I’d like to talk through a couple of songs on the album. The lead single, Who You Know – banging beat and then that crazy slow-down thing at the end. I always think of it like a warm-down when you’re exercising!
A slow jog. How did that song come together?
We were in the middle of recording the project and me and Dirty, we work really well together. We had a soundscape that we really wanted the record to have. It really was one day out of the blue, Dirty had this beat and he’s like, ‘This beat’s not finished. But here, check it out and tell me what you think.’ I was like, ‘No, this beat is finished and here’s a song!’ And I sent it back to him. He thought it was next level. So we kept working through it. The slow-down thing came out of the blue. I tried slowing it down and everyone in the studio went nuts.
I should ask about the soundscape. I don’t really know what ancient Egypt sounds like, but there’s so many empirical sounds running throughout. It’s very, very clever across a range of producers. Why go for that kind of sound?
Yeah, well when I first pictured the album, I thought of ancient Egypt or the Roman empire. What would the soundscape of that day sound like? So at the beginning you’ve got the clapping and the ‘ha! ha!’ chants. What I did, we took a lot of different records and I would just need to make it sound like empire. So we might strip the drums away, and add those timpanis. Doom doom! Doom doom! We would add that stuff and put chants here and all of that. That’s the reason why I co-produced a lot because I had a sound that I wanted the whole album to have. Guys would send beats and I’d say, ‘That’s good, but let me make it more how the album should sound.’
One song that stands out to me is Kingdom Come and just the sounds on that… It’s got a real 60s psychedelic sound to it. How did that track come together musically?
Yeah, I have a guy whose name is Ant Man. I’ve really been following him for the longest time. I wanted to work with him on Minorville but we just never connected. I told him what the concept of the album was, and he said he had some stuff for me. He sent it, and ironically the funny thing was that he makes rap beats but then he also just makes compositions. So that beat was actually meant to be a musical composition for you to just listen to. I tweaked it and made it more of a rap song. The palette of it just put me in the mind of telling a story. So I wanted to tell a story that would help to drive home the whole idea of the empire.
Yes, I do want to ask about the storytelling on that song. Because you do storytelling so well. On that song, it’s quite striking because you’re getting into the beat and suddenly there’s that news report. You highlight that we can’t take our earthly empires when we die. Is that the story you were aiming to tell?
Yeah. I mean, the whole concept of the album – period – is that you have two choices. You can take and use your blueprint and build whatever you want to build, but when you die it dies with you. That song hammers that point home more that any other song on the album. But there’s pieces of that throughout. That’s the lynchpin for the album – the Romans 1:16 of the album. I wanted to hammer that home. I feel that often, especially in America, everywhere really, we stereotype people. It’s easy to look at the drug dealer and say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s trying to build his own empire,’ but it gets a little blurry when you look at a person you think is making an honest living. Often we don’t point the finger as much at that person. God is looking at the heart, at our motives. And many times it’s easy to see what we think the drug dealer’s motives are. But it’s a lot harder to see the businessman that just fired his worker so he could give himself a bonus. Not because he needed to fire them. That’s the point I wanted to drive home on that song.
There’s interludes on the album called Babel. You’re obviously pointing to the story in scripture about building a tower to reach God. Did you reflect on this story as you designed the record?
Every day, man. Every time I went into the studio that was really something that I wrestled with. I look at myself and I see myself as that person building that tower at times. I have to ask myself, am I building God’s work or am I building my own tower to be like God? And that’s the wrestle. I wanted to put that wrestle into musical form.
Why is it do you think that we love just building our own empires rather than God’s?
Because we want to be God. Just like Adam and Eve when God created the heavens and the earth – they had everything! God gave them dominion but Satan tells them that they’re missing out on something. As though God’s not trustworthy. He just wants to hold you back, and then what we do is rather than say, ‘Oh, that’s a lie!’, we just buy into the lie and think that there is something better out there and God doesn’t know what’s best. So we build things according to our own standards, and it always fails. Since the beginning of time, it’s always failed.
There’s a lot of intensity and emotion on the track Save Me. What’s the story behind that song?
Well, in 2014 a lot of crazy stuff happened. There was good stuff that happened, but crazy stuff too. I had a baby, which was good. I was on a forty-city tour, which was good. I got out of my contract with Reach, which was great. I’m able to own my own masters, that contract was fulfilled, and my relationship with Reach was good. But then, my dad passed, my sister passed, and my aunt passed, all last year. My wife got in a car accident and fractured her spine and had to go through a lot of rehab. And a business partner of mine stole several thousand dollars from me. On top of that, having to deal with my own inadequacies in feeling that I’m on my own.
With that song, the album was pretty much almost done, but I still feel like I needed to express myself in a way. I think that’s common for all of us. It may not be as intense on the stuff that’s happened to me, but I think we all go through those times when we feel utter despair and I wanted to make a record that would encourage people to press into God in that despair. Because often despair either pushes us closer to God or pushes us away from God. We often feel that if we run away from God that we’re too dirty to be close to him, or that he doesn’t love us. But what I found the closer I pushed into God, the more peace I had. And that’s the idea of the song, the only person who can save you is God, so rest in that.
Did making this song, and the album, help you to work through all that hardship?
Well, I went through those things with my pastor, which was great. We met every two weeks. We had been meeting in 2013 just because I felt the Lord was calling me into leading people, and I was looking at my record label and I wanted to be a better leader at RMG. We had started meeting but it turned into a regular meeting to walk through some of this craziness and being able to put that in the record is me standing on the shoulders of a lot of the advice that he was giving me. But it was funny because when I wrote the song I ran it by him and let him hear it, and he was excited about it too. And so, for anyone who is struggling, I would say keep pushing to the body of Christ, if you’re a Christian. If you’re not a Christian, I would say try Jesus, and the church.
What’s your plan for the rest of 2015? What’s in store?
Well, we have the tour. I’m going out with KJ-52 and Propaganda. That’s going to be sweet. And every artist on RMG is dropping something. Tony Tillman, Chad Jones, Deraj, B. Cooper, Canon is dropping stuff. We’re all dropping stuff this year. And for me, I’ll be working on another project. As soon as the tour’s over, I plan on getting back into the studio, full force.
You’re hard at work, aren’t you?
It’s not even work though! It’s fun!
Will you be using your home studio to record all this RMG stuff?
Well, I leave it open for my artists to have control and comfort, because the best music is made when you’re comfortable. So if they want to come and record here, they’re welcome to, but I don’t make that a requirement.
Derek, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a joy to speak again with you!