In 2010, the hardest-working man in St. Louis just might be hip-hop mainstay Murphy Lee. In December, the affable member of the St. Lunatics self-released the solo album/DVD You See Me — his first official album since parting ways with Universal Records last year. (At least as a solo artist: He's still signed to the label as part of the St. Lunatics.) In just two weeks, See sold enough to be Vintage Vinyl's top-selling album of 2009.
On the long-awaited release, See succeeds where countless other hip-hop albums fail — mainly because it avoids boring, monotonous beats. See's styles encompass Bootsy Collins funk ("Talkin'"), '70s soul ("Be Strong"), Timbaland-reminiscent hip-hop ("Wanna Be My Baby Momma"), gospel ("Age of 21") and, of course, drawling, dark, St. Louis-style club jams ("St. Louis," "Ass Bounce Like Dat").
When he's not making music or going out of town to promote See, Murph has been doing plenty of charity work: His December Vintage Vinyl appearance to celebrate the album's release also functioned as a (very successful) toy drive, and just last week, HipHopDX launched the "Hip Hop Helps Haiti" online mixtape, which features appearances from Murph, Nelly and Ali.
On a recent early afternoon at Nelly's office-park headquarters, Murph — bundled up in a Cardinals scarf and jersey, his long dreadlocks tucked into a baseball cap — sat down for a half-hour chat about his new music, the St. Lunatics and everything else he's been up to. For outtakes from the interview — including his thoughts on the music industry, the importance of education and information on new albums from Nelly and his crew — head to www.rftmusic.com.
Annie Zaleski: I went to the event you did four years ago at Union Station, where you premiered a bunch of music that was meant for your next record on Universal. I can't tell if any of that stuff made it on the new record...
Murphy Lee: None of that did.
[While] being on Universal, I recorded four or five albums within the past five years. And nothing touched the streets at all. I'm not the leak type of guy, I don't like leaking songs, I don't know when release date is or nothing like this, so I fell back. I was just waiting. Eventually, once I decided I wanted off the label, as soon as I got my papers [snaps fingers] I started recording. At first I recorded a mixtape, which was a free mixtape [called I'm Free]. Some of those songs [on Free] might [have been played at Union Station], maybe, cause I grabbed a few. But I let Universal have everything prior. I made everything fresh, all the You See Me album.
Was that tough to let that music go?
Actually, it was a breath of fresh air, because it was what I was thinking about right then. If you listen to my album, it's in the now, instead of the past.
When did you start working on the record; when did you get off Universal?
I started in June. I was just doing songs. I did maybe two mixtapes — like I said, I did the I'm Free mixtape, we were recording the St. Lunatic albums, [we're] still recording the [new] Nelly album. In the midst of that, I ended up somehow getting these fourteen songs.
Listening to it, it sounds like a summer album to me.
I wrote it in the summer, you can tell. The beats that I picked are real summer, real just driving, relaxing — where you don't mind being in traffic, you don't mind cleaning the house, you know what I'm saying? One of those type of albums. I just want it to feel good.
I know there's a lot of...[there's] the war, the recession and everything. There's a recession in some places, but it's depression in others. I just wanted you to get away from all that and just have fun and smile. That was the type of beats I picked, real live instruments. I'm also about to do a live album, so I wanted my production done so where I could really transfer it to [a] live [setting].
How did you pick the beats?
If the hooks come fast or if the verses come fast, then I know that's the one. But if it takes a long time, where I'm just thinking of something to come up with, I don't like that. Because I like feel-good music — and when I say feel-good music, I mean when the beat comes on, I should already know what I want. [Grins] I should know what I want to talk about, I should know everything: "This is a story," or, "This is about girls." I should know that from the beginning. I go for that first six seconds of a beat, however it makes me feel.
If it's not forced, it's good. That makes for better songs.
I don't want nothing forced, because I feel like we could make music forever, we can never run out of words. I feel like making some shit happen for us. Now, if I'm looking for something — like [if] I want a St. Louis song, let me find me a St. Louis beat. That's something different — that was a different strategy to go into the song. But usually I just pick the beat, like whatever feels good — because I know I want people to feel good when they hear it.
Do you think the St. Louis beat has changed over the years?
I don't think we really have a beat. We get a little bit of everything. We didn't grow up on our own stuff — we grew up on West Coast rapping, we grew up on East Coast rap, we grew up on South rap. We grew up on everybody else's music — unless we go back to the Chuck Berrys, go back to the people that are actually from here, the Tinas and Ikes and stuff like that. We have to create our own sound. Us on the beats, together with the beats, makes St. Louis.