By Daniel Hill
By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
By Julie Seabaugh
By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
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.