Tef Poe's musical versatility has always been his calling card, and so it's no surprise that his new album, War 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. The album's nineteen tracks feature plenty of familiar names in terms of performance (Theresa Payne, Rockwell Knuckles, Teresajenee, Vandalyzm, Erick Richardson, Family Affair) and production (Tech Supreme, Basement Beats). That the Force member successfully fuses these diffuse genres and collaborators is a testament to his talents. War Machine is available for free online. Below, Tef Poe took the time to answer some of B-Sides' questions about his latest endeavor.
B-Sides: You're known as an artist who dabbles in varied styles and genres, but War Machine brings this to new levels, I think. What was your aim with the album?
Tef Poe: I come from the battle-rap circuit, so the metaphors, punch lines 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 where 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 or story behind the album's title? 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 an album that would counterattack a few of the naysayers that we attracted due to last year's success.
I felt like I was getting attacked from so many different angles due to the runaway success of my single "Show Stealers." I was dealing with a lot of personal issues concerning my self-esteem as an artist after we released [the EP] 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.
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 overall 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 it's 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.