Interview: Tef Poe on War Machine, His Fantastic New Album


  • courtesy of Tef Poe

Tef Poe's War Machine is a nineteen-track tour de force. The Force member's musical versatility has always been his calling card, and so it's not surprise that Machine embraces diversity and defies pigeonholing. Genre-wise, it touches on warm R&B, ominous hip-hop, celebratory club bangers and futuristic synth-rap. Emotionally, it's a roller-coaster -- songs are menacing, lighthearted, vulnerable, tough, serious and even fun.

Machine's nineteen tracks feature plenty of familiar names in terms of performance (Theresa Payne, Rockwell Knuckles, Tereasjenee, Vandalyzm, Erick Richardson, Family Affair) and production (Tech Supreme, Basement Beats). That Tef successfully fuses these diffuse genres and collaborators is a testament to his talents. War Machine is available for free right here; below, Tef took the time to answer some questions about his latest endeavor.

Annie Zaleski: You're known as an artist who dabbles in varied styles and genres, but War Machine brings this to new levels, I think. (Ha.) What was your aim with the album? Tef Poe: I come from the battle-rap circuit so the metaphors, punchlines and the battle-rap-driven records are my forte, but I like girls and I got sick of performing for crowds of mostly male only audiences. When I made my second solo album, The Redeemer, I determined I wasn't going to have that problem again, so I started making records in that vein and being more honest with myself about my influences. I love the backpack, true-school hip-hop scene, but I tend to have a more enjoyable time at the clubs you typically wouldn't expect to see people like Tef Poe to appear.

I have a pet peeve with people that are artists but refuse to make music that reflects their own musical taste. A good example would be a person that says, "Yeah my favorite rappers are T.I. and Rick Ross, that's all I listen to," but when you play their music, you would assume they only listened to Mos Def or Wu Tang. We live in a generation were the art form of dance has returned, so we as musicians must make music for the dancers to enjoy. I've learned to dabble in both worlds and stay true to myself at the same time with this album. It was truly a gamble, but the overwhelming amounts of positive response War Machine received has influenced me to take even greater creative risks.

What's the meaning/story behind the album's title, War Machine? What does it mean to you? Well, the exact meaning behind this title has changed so much over the process of creating this body of music that it's often difficult for me to answer this question. It seems to be the most-asked question about the album whenever I do an interview. There are probably three different versions of this album floating around in Tech [Supreme]'s computer. I originally wanted to make a album that would counterattack a few of the naysayers that we attracted due to last year's success.

Tef Poe, "Showstealers"

I felt like I was getting attacked from so many different angles due to the runaway success of my single "Showstealers." I was dealing with a lot of personal issues concerning my self-esteem as an artist after we released Money Never Sleeps. I had finally reached a few goals I previously thought were impossible to reach. I had no idea how easily greater achievements can bring more problems and the stress levels it can create. I felt like a victim, and War Machine was my way of fighting back. The album itself is basically about taking all challenges and flipping them to your own advantage. I wanted War Machine to be more aggressive than my previous albums but I didn't want the dominating theme to be fueled by my anger and insecurities.

The producers you worked with on the album are impressive - especially Basement Beats, Urban Legendz, InHouse Prod. What did you like about the style/music that each of these teams brought to the album? First off shout out to Black Spade and Nodzilla a.k.a. DJ Needles -- I broke one of my pet peeve rules and put this project out without production from either one of them being featured on it. Tech Supreme comes to the table as not only a producer but also co-writer on a few records. He plays Quincy Jones to my attempt to be Will Smith or Michael Jackson. [Laughs] It was his idea to dumb down the hook on last year's smash record "Showstealers." He also wrote and arranged the chorus and vocals for "Crazy" alongside with producing the actual instrumental. He's my go-to guy for bouncing ideas and brainstorming new things I desire to do.

I've been cordial with Koko from Basement Beats for a very long time. I have a huge amount of respect for the body of work he has produced and the names attached to his resume are legendary. He's worked with people I consider to be some of most genius pop/hip hop artists of our time. I remember sitting at home watching the video with "Shake Ya Tail Feather" -- seeing Nelly, P.Diddy and Murphy Lee on screen together made me feel proud of my city. I found out the guy that produced the record was from here also, and I thought was even more amazing. I'm unsigned and he's a Grammy-nominated producer. Tef Poe & Rockwell Knuckles, "Bad Guy" (live)

InHouse Productions is basically my guy Indiana Rome. I go to him strictly for that classic 808, hard-body, ghetto-bass-heavy sound. I was contact by Byron B. of the Urban Legendz after we released "Crazy". We eventually became really good friends and the rest is history. The Urbz are a two man producer team and they've done alot of work with the likes of Teresajenee and a few other artists outside of St.Louis. Unfortunately people began to pigeonhole them into the R&B category. They punched a lot of people in the mouth with War Machine. We wouldn't have been able to complete this album without Byron and his partner Perry.

Tech Supreme's production especially stood out to me, just because it was so varied and cinematic. A song like "Money Machine" is dark and ominous; it sounds like a video game soundtrack, like to Myst or something. But "Mind Games" sounds like a seedy '80s movie crossed with a '90s R&B song, and "Crazy" sounds like a futuristic electronic/new-wave jam that Timbaland might make. As someone who's watched Tech grow and evolve as a producer/artist, what stood out to you about his work on Machine? What impressed you the most when he was working on this music? I grew up studying hip-hop as an art form and all of the greats have their very own go-to producer. I watched Snoop do it with Dr. Dre and always wanted to have that kind of relationship with my producer. I saw Dre do the same exact thing again with Eminem, and I was determined in my own mind to mimic that formula. So we sat down and said we were going to take a page from the Notorious B.I.G.and Puff Daddy. I'm all about the lyrics, and Tech is all about the over all capacity of the record.

I basically learned from him how to keep my true school hip-hop roots yet make music that will hold its own up against any mainstream or commercial artist. I naturally want to compete with the likes of Lupe Fiasco and Jay Electronica, but working with Tech has taught me to do my best to compete with people like Trey Songz and Waka Flocka. We have very similar musical taste so its easy for us to mesh creatively. I see the genius behind Gucci Mane but my favorite rappers are Nas and Royce da 5'9. We both wanted to give hip-hop a rapper that could serve as a hybrid backpacker-battle rapper, yet inspired by the contemporary music of underground hip hop and the stuff you see on MTV as well. Tech will make a dope boom-bap beat that sounds like something inspired by Just Blaze then turn right around and make something that sounds like it was motivated by Mannie Fresh.

I know if I'm feeling defeated by a record I can depend on him to give me creative input and maybe even write a bridge or a hook that will make it all make sense. We bounce ideas off each other on a constant basis. If I'm working on another producer's beat he'll even cue in on that track and suggest the direction I should take things.The nature of this relationship puts a lot of pressure on both of us, but in the same vein working with me has forced him to grow as a producer. Tef Poe is actually an idea that was created by my life's circumstances and experiences yet matured by Derrick "Tech Supreme" Kilgore and Kareem "Tef Poe" Jackson.

Tef Poe with a drumline at the Pageant, 2010

Both because of its lyrics and its music, "Mel Gibson" stood out to me. I kept going back to the song, because it was so hypnotic and mesmerizing. What's the genesis of this song? The actual beat for this song was created for Money Never Sleeps by Indiana Rome. I ended up with a surplus of music left over from that time period and this beat sort of lingered in the wind until I could actually determine how to approach it. The song "Mel Gibson" is actually textbook Tef Poe music. My fans know to expect a certain level of shock value and lyricism from my music. I've learned to control it a tad bit more than I did in the past, but that's the core of who I am so I can never truly abandon that. I oddly enough wanted to write a song about Saddam Hussein to that track but Mel Gibson kept popping up in the news so he seemed like the guy I should call on for the job. [Laughs]

I wanted to make something that says, I know you hate me but it's okay because I hate you too. The music says to me, make something about being the most hated bastard alive and tell the world how flipping crazy you are. I wanted it to be disturbingly hardcore yet arrogant at the same time. In our society people are attracted by the modern day supervillains, and unfortunately George Bush isn't quite relevant enough in the eyes of pop culture for me to make him the influence for this record. [Laughs]

Tef Poe is what happens when you take a TMZ tabloid and a lunchroom cipher, put them both in a pot and then add a little bit of influence from Biggie Smalls, Big Pun, Pimp C, Eminem, Tupac, Kanye West, Malcom X, Stephen King, George Carlin, David Letterman, Michael Jordan, Chuck Norris and Richard Pryor. I put this record out and it was blitzed on the internet -- the blogger community loved this one.


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