Photo by Bill X
Imagine if one of the Beatles, in their debut recording stint outside of the band, had linked with two beloved underground legends from Boston for the first-ever collaboration beyond the mothership. That’s essentially the case here, at least in hip-hop terms, with Czarface, the supreme Boston-meets-New York trio of 7L, Esoteric, and Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan. For anyone who has been waiting for the Hub to have its next remarkable rap moment, your time has come, but only after more than 15 years of backbreaking groundwork.
The saga started back in 1998, when 7L and Esoteric, then a young and eager rap duo emerging from their college years at Salem State, reached out to Deck, who was already a certifiable rhyme icon, through a friend in the record business. This wasn’t the typical routine of aspiring young rappers batting out of their league to which the game has become so accustomed. There was some favoritism involved, but 7L and Eso, boom bap junkies to the core, went to the edge of the earth—or at least Brooklyn—to assemble the Deck-assisted “Speaking Real Words,” which simultaneously helped them to arrive and inspired jealousy among their budding hardcore rap peers.
“It pissed a lot of kids off,” Esoteric told me in an interview a few years ago. “[They] were scratching their heads asking, ‘How the fuck did they put this together?’”
With the second coming of Czarface, haters and appreciators alike are again wondering how 7L and Esoteric pulled the damn thing off. How did one of Hub rap’s most enduring subterranean outfits, now seven albums deep with more side and tangential projects than Rap Genius can tally, manage to reboot their careers yet again, and this time with the help of an MC who, one algorithmic study shows (mathematically confirming what Wu fans already knew), has the tightest flow in the entire game? There’s no easy answer to those questions; but as the breadth and magnitude of its return effort, Every Hero Needs A Villain, begins to register, it is increasingly clear that Czarface soars on the strength of a collective vision as opposed to individual aptitudes.
“Last time there was a little bit of nerves involved, because you don’t know what you’re getting into,” says Deck, who’s in a camouflage hoodie and Timberlands. He’s in Somerville today, but an “RIP ODB” patch on his Wu-Wear bomber confirms his native allegiance. The Clan stalwart continues: “Untested waters, and coming from the hardest group in hip-hop to doing stuff with different themes—and even the fact that they weren’t black, you get looked at like, ‘Why are you doing that over there?’ But you know what—I’m not afraid to try my hand.”
Esoteric reflects on the Czarface incubation period, highlighting occasional awkward moments. “There was music made before the Czarface thing, but just a tiny bit, our history of doing a couple of records together,” he says. “7L wanted to just do something as a white label, and to put it out there, and that’s it. That’s his whole life, driving to New York for records, and it meant a lot to have these records that are on a white label and you can’t track them down. But we kind of felt like it wasn’t the right atmosphere for that, so I started thinking of ways to put the group together.”
After they finally convinced Deck to venture further outside of his comfort zone, the next step was to establish some common identity. “Deck came up with a dope name—Bomb Techs,” Eso says. 7L nods in agreement. Eso adds: “We were sitting on that for a while.” Deck stabs: “Bomb Techs was dope, but it was kind of cliche at the time.”
With a rarer-than-rare opportunity to tap the infinitely creative depths that fuel one of the genre’s premier poets, 7L and Eso raised the bar for their brainstorm. “We needed a figurehead, something people could see,” Eso says. “When I finally thought of Czarface, I waited like two weeks before I even presented it to [Deck] because I didn’t know how he was going to like it. I thought he might say it was too similar to ‘Ghostface,’ but no one has said anything about that—ever. I just think about things too much. Then we came up with the character, and we took it from there.”
Now roughly four years into their crusade as Czarface, sitting together for lunch, it seems like they’re old chums. Certainly Deck has an extra-special rapport with his Wu brothers, all of whom he grew up with and continues to tour alongside today; but for dudes who have for the most part collaborated from afar, Eso, Deck, and 7L are as comfortable as batters in a dugout as they joke and finish one another’s lines.
“There’s only one album I compare any of the Czarface stuff to,” Deck says.
Esoteric interrupts: “This oughtta be good.”
Deck continues, “A Prince Among Thieves by Prince Paul.”
Surprised, 7L and Eso nod in approval.
Deck goes on: “It didn’t really get a lot of notoriety, because it was so different from what was going on at the time, but if [Prince Paul] put that album out now it would be a gem … It’s like, if everybody’s walking down the street with white Pumas, and then somebody comes down the street with some lime green whatever on, you notice that instantly, like ‘What’s that?’ Just by having those on, you separate yourself and you stand out. With the people with the white shoes, I don’t know who’s who, but the lime green dude, I see him over there before he even gets over here.”
As it turned out, they all needed some fresh green kicks. Says 7L, “We needed a vacation—in a good way. After we did the record 1212 … I sent [Deck] a text [about potentially doing a whole project], and from that point on I was excited to do something that didn’t fit into the mold of being underground rap. Our early stuff had a certain sound—stabs, and very dark, and this is something different.”
“They actually helped me snap out of that Wu-Tang one-track line phase I was on,” Deck adds. “Before Wu-Tang, I rhymed on all kinds of things. I would rhyme on P.M. Dawn if you played that, but when we came to doing Wu-Tang Clan, it was this serious and focused street-educated group, and everything we said was about self-awareness and education, even in the negative. So to be now like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m having fun,’ it’s like I get to say the shit that I can’t say with Wu-Tang.”
A lot of that expressed liberation emerges from behind the mask and armor of Czarface, a rather odd kind of rocket-equipped superhero whose powers include the ability to disintegrate bullies while keeping their vintage Polo garments intact. Deck compares the experience to entering the Danger Room training camp in X-Men, since with his Boston crew he can so openly deploy his arsenal. “He can just go in there and go berserk,” Eso says. “The thing about the album is there’s no real concept, and that’s kind of the concept.”
“Czarface is the face of a czar,” Deck says. “It’s not like some real, real, real superhero though; it’s more like an anti-hero. It depends who’s rapping. We were supposed to be this villain, but when the artwork came, it was a perfect fit to everything else too. There’s even wrestling references, and the cover and everything fit the lyrics and the production. It was right there in front of me, I could see it. This is all retro. It’s a flashback.”
7L jumps in: “Czarface is just a regular guy.” They begin to laugh like teenagers; Deck and Esoteric explain further, “He’s Irish … and Greek … and Black”—the combined punch of their ethnic and racial identities.
“That’s a shock to the world right there,” Deck says.
To complement the melting pot and throwback comic concept, Czarface merchandising is unparalleled—limited CD editions feature a hardcover graphic novella illustrated by acclaimed multifaceted artist Lamour Supreme. On his end, Esoteric wrote the story, sketched ideas for panels, physically cut and pasted them into sequence, and even tapped other designers to create the fake ads that are a staple of such Marvel-esque spreads. “Sometimes you need a little more than the music,” says Eso, “and this presentation brings in casual fans along with the hardcore fans.”
On the music side, Deck learned from RZA, the eternal ringleader and chief producer of Wu-Tang, that the beatmaker should be left alone. If you’re working with somebody in the first place, says Deck, then you have to trust them. To that end, 7L sent over instrumental after skeletal instrumental, allowing Deck to hang his vocals on the bones before the team in Boston added bells and whistles. Unlike with initial Czarface sessions two years ago, in which Esoteric didn’t want to show his hand, this time 7L included Eso verses on a lot of tracks up front. In turn, Deck says his job on this go-around was less to “come like, ‘I’m Inspectah Deck’ and try to beast it, and more for the mixture.”
Deck relishes the newfangled process: “We jump in, we overlap each other, we go four-for-four, eight-for-eight. I just feel like hip-hop is missing that now—the friendly camaraderie. As much as it’s like competition, it’s competition to make everything mesh … [With Wu-Tang], you’re dealing with nine personalities, so it’s always six-on-two, or four dudes aren’t there to make a judgement. With [7L] just coming in like, ‘Deck, I got these new beats,’ the shit is dope.”
On that foundation, a czar’s palace was built. Now intrigued by the eclectic if not utterly bizarre ideas that his Boston connection is renowned for pushing forward, for this latest outing, Deck not only used his clout to lure both Method Man and GZA in for memorable appearances, but ushered those and other guests including MF Doom and Large Professor through the Czarface chamber rather than the other way around.
“Knowing what [7L and Esoteric] stand for allowed me to say, ‘You know what, I’m just going to keep it hip-hop, keep it beats and rhymes,” Deck says. “I’m used to rhyming with guys like Ghostface and Method Man, but for this one I didn’t talk about murders in the projects … I’ve never been a real punchline dude, but I know how to do it. Pull out some punchlines, some metaphors, some aggression, mix it up.”
Esoteric jokes: “Are you saying I’m not a Ghostface, or a Method Man?”
Kidding aside, Deck returns, “I’ll have you know, bro, you had me step my game up big time.”
In the pyramidal scheme of hip-hop, they aren’t peers. The inspiration and appreciation, however, is mutual.
“He gives us the confidence to stay on that rough and rugged format that Czarface is,” Esoteric says of Deck. “The first album and this album are the albums that we always wanted to make. The two of us have put out a shitload of 7L & Esoteric albums, but we haven’t been as excited about a project as we have been about Czarface. Having [Deck] involved is obviously a big help, but I feel like we just got that confidence, and with each new album it goes up.”
Eso brings it home: “This whole phase of my life has been like a second childhood for me. To be able to make the records that you’re most proud of, and with your best friend and with one of the people who you’ve always looked up to, as someone who grew up just always wanting to make hip-hop, you couldn’t ask for more. It’s all on this album. It’s not sentimental. I’m doing it.”
See Czarface perform at the Middle East in Cambridge on Saturday July 25.