BRUZA: No more nine-to-five, make it come alive, make it come alive,
No more nine-to-five, yeah, no more wastin’ time
When your back to the wall they gon’ front on you,
So I’ma come alive right in front of you n——s
The world record holder for the most record deals turned down,
I’m turnt up on them n——s…
They tried to kill my dreams I had to resurrect ’em
So I’m less invested so I’m less affected…
I heard your number, yeah I was gon’ text it,
But success the only way I send a message…
I’m from Chicago, see women and children get trunked right in front of me dog
A couple looked up to me dog, low-key they fucked with me dog,
Maybe I’m hurtin’ cause low-key I’m still not the person I feel I deserve to be, dog.
A basement recording studio in Lawndale, across the street from Douglas Park: today Bruza the General, a rapper from the Southeast Side, has recorded four tracks with Kosine, one half of the production duo Tha Internz. The two are now replaying the songs to review their work. Bruza, 27, has recently released a mixtape called Backpack Trap; he has close friendships with Raven-Symoné and Busta Rhymes, and he appears to be on the edge of major success. Kosine, 32, has just returned to Chicago after living in Los Angeles, where he netted multiple Grammy nominations and produced international hits such as Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” When I arrive, they have been recording for seven hours.
BRUZA: Busta’s a friend of the crew, and I just need him to hear this and go, “ooh.” I need it to impress him. ’Cause, you know, he’s one of the old-time guys that’s still around, still thriving. He’s already heard my stuff, though, and he liked it, and that was crazy, but I need him to say, “Ooh, he snapped.”
KOSINE: On the hook [for “Ain’t No Conversation,” the song they are currently at work on], you gotta say, “Call Janelle Monáe now.”
BRUZA (says the line to himself): Yeah, I’ll definitely say that. You guys’ve seen the stuff that she does? She’s going crazy, going around chanting shit for Michael Brown, at the Bean with Sandra Bland’s mom, it’s getting a lot of coverage. I mean she was out there, that’s crazy.
KOSINE: Go snap on the hook then.
Bruza gets up and re-enters the recording booth. Kosine starts the beat.
BRUZA: We gon’ run the nation
Ain’t no conversation,
Only confrontation, no more conversation
Wait, where should we put the Janelle Monáe line? I wanted to slip it in at the end, like, “Damn, did he just say that? Wow, he snapped.”
KOSINE: Yeah, replace the second “We gon’ run the nation.”
The beat starts again.
BRUZA: We gon’ run the nation
Ain’t no conversation,
Only confrontation, no more conversation
No more conversation,
Call Janelle Monáe now
Ain’t no conversation, no more conversation, no!
KOSINE (to me): You hear that? He snapped.… This is how Tha Internz got out, you know, we don’t just accept things from our artists, we challenge them. You have to bring something out of the artist that they’ve never had brought out of them before.
Bruza comes back into the room. They replay the track several more times. Bruza suggests adding a ringtone sound effect during the “Janelle Monáe” line. Kosine tests a number of ringtone sound effects, picks one, and inserts it.
BRUZA: Yikes, man, that slams. See, Kos, he takes some perfect shit, and makes it…
BRUZA: Right, right, we gotta be perfecter. Man, it helps to have you, I mean, you made all these successful records. It’s like you know how to take what I’m doing, what I’m trying to say, and make it, like, digestible. I mean, he just pushed me to come up with a better hook…and now I don’t even remember what the old hook was!
KOSINE: That’s the producer’s job, man, gotta push. Gotta turn it up. (To me) See he came in, and he had an idea, and I was like, “That’s cool, but give me, like, the twelfth idea you would come up with, and we’ll start from there.” And he gave me his twelfth idea, and it was great.
BRUZA: He pushed me, he pushed me.
KOSINE: Yeah, we’re a pretty good team. (To Bruza) All right, now you gotta kill this verse.
Bruza re-enters the recording booth and Kosine starts the backing track again. The beat transitions from the percussion-led hook (“Ain’t no conversation” etc.) into a section more driven by horns.
BRUZA: Hands up, hands up, we gon’ run the nation!
My life was amazing, why they wanna take it?
Pull me over every day, I must be they favorite
God damn man, they can’t even face us
Spit right in our faces, awww y’all ain’t racist?
Kill ’em right dead in the street, three words, “I can’t breathe!”
Hold on let me get a minute, I’m gon’ be brief
Rest in peace Eric Garner, man that’s somebody’s father
We came up from the bottom, ain’t had no running water!
Aw, man, they don’t know!
They banter back and forth for a while about the flow of the verse, rewriting and reordering lines until they’re both satisfied. Kosine, working on a laptop positioned above a massive soundboard with hundreds of dials, works with sound levels while offering Bruza feedback.
Eventually they settle on a final structure for the verse, review another song they’ve been working on, and decide to take a break by playing a match of NBA 2K15 on Kosine’s Xbox. Bruza plays as the Cavs, Kosine as the Spurs; at the half they are tied exactly, but in the fourth quarter Bruza (or, to be more precise, LeBron James) cements a ten-point lead.
You’ve both said that success, or the pursuit of success, can change you. Do you think it’s possible to become successful without changing as a person?
BRUZA: Staying true to oneself is what’s most important. It’s all about what a particular person gave for their success, what kind of success they wanted, whether it’s money, getting accolades from others. For me personally, I think the right kind of success is attainable, for one thing, but also not based too much on other people. Staying out of the way of all the pitfalls: you’ve got to create your own idea of success. Other than that, you can wander, you know, spiral out of control.
KOSINE: Of course I felt changed, you know, being in LA. Sometimes when you’re your own worst critic, you’re never satisfied. You don’t stop to smell the roses, you’re always on the next, the next, the next. Out there I feel like I definitely forgot to stop sometimes and just appreciate, you know, how far God had brought me. You have moments when you get humbled, but you have another season, and you just enter that season with thanksgiving, it allows you to pursue more.
BRUZA: That’s what I’m trying to say with my music, message-wise, is that I’m just human at the end of the day, you know? I wake up, I feel different things, just like anybody else, and I guess the magic in it is just capturing the authenticity, just the true feeling. Lately I haven’t been writing stuff down as much, I just sort of come in here, like we did with Kos, just with the vibe. I felt like the writing was just standing in the way of, you know, the most authentic thing I could put on a record.
As far as if you write something, you had a chance to think about it, like, “Wait, I don’t want to say that,” or, “Wait, I don’t want it to come off like that.” But whereas lately, I’ve just been coming in here and going in off raw emotion, and I feel like I’m making the best music I have. Most important to my message, though, is just that, just be human, you can’t try to live up to other’s expectations. You just have to be realistic. That’s the trap that people get into, too, is they’re not realistic.
KOSINE: Own worst critic. I mean, we have to hold ourselves to that standard, we have to get the best we can expect from ourselves. Out there a lot of people are driven—some less, some more, though, it’s a case-by-case basis. I feel like some people, they’re just born with it, they’ve got that extra light, and they’re superstar artists, superstar people too behind the scenes. Sometimes, too, you can work all day all night, but some people are just born with a gift, and those are the ones I gravitate to.
Do you feel like you have that gift?
KOSINE: Oh, absolutely. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t my responsibility, but, to whom much is given, much is required. And I prayed for this. So sometimes you need to be careful what you pray for. My mom died when I was twenty, and I knew I had to make her proud, so I just started going crazy. And even though I still haven’t won a Grammy, all the nominations, you know, I feel like I made my point.
BRUZA: Yeah, for me, too, I hate to be all cliché, but there was that moment, like, “I gotta stick with this.” I mean, I was in college, and I got in this cipher with Kanye and he told me I was raw, and so I knew I had to keep with it.… Not like I wasn’t already rapping, but that was a moment when I was like, this is God doing this. I was listening to his album on the way to the concert and then wound up backstage with him freestyling. I just had one of those moments where I was freestyling, but it felt written, you know what I mean? Like, every bar, I just knew the next bar that was coming, and then he just stopped rapping and kinda let me go.
Then I met Ibn Jasper, who’s a close friend, a big homie of mine, friend of Kanye’s, and he said, “You need to stick with this, fam, you got bars.” That was a turning point when I knew, you know, Ye just told me. I was young, too, in college, and I made the decision to go in fully. I’m rapping this shit no different than if I’m working a job. I’ve had to give up the comfort of having a more normal type of lifestyle, but only in order to get a more comfortable lifestyle later for my family.
KOSINE: You do question it, though, I mean, you ask yourself, “Is it worth it? Was it worth it?” And absolutely, it was worth it. At the end of the day, you can build your own dream or someone else’s. It’s not like one is right or one is wrong, I just chose to make the world dance, you know, “throw that ass in a circle!” It’s just about positive energy, and making somebody smile, you know? If the song “Anaconda” got a girl to get up and dance, feel good about herself, then I feel like I did something, you know? I mean, behind the scenes, I’m just an ant, but I’m still doing something. I think about getting to work with Nas, with the late Heavy D, it’s like, “Man!” Seizing these moments of opportunity, getting to build these relationships with these incredible people. You can’t put a price on that.