[RH Premiere] Defcee: A Mixtape As God Intended

The mixtape has always held a special place in music. While it means different things to different music cultures, the mixtape has always held importance. In Hip Hop, the mixtape was a stark break from the “album” – rawer, rougher, constructed without the rules, formality, or polish of a proper studio release. Mixtapes contained the b-sides, freestyles, posse cuts and sampled tracks that would never be cleared for a commercial release. They were hard to find and limited in print, mixed by a DJ and full boasts, brags, sound effects, and drops. The digital era changed that quite a bit, and for some artists, the mixtape has become synonymous with the album, all original music and available for sale where ever music is sold (or streamed).

For Chicago emcee and teacher, Defcee, the mixtape is still a connection to a bygone era of Hip Hop – a style, sound, and vibe. Three years since the release of Grown Ass Kid, Defcee has returned with A Mixtape As God Intendeda concise project full of bars, beats, and drops that lives up to its name.

We’re happy to premiere this project, as well as offer a convo with Defcee about putting this mixtape together, sticking true to the format, his career as a teacher, and why Moses was well-prepared for a career as a battle emcee. Read on and grab the new project, available digitally and on limited-edition cassette via Machine Wash Music.

rubyhornet: I feel like Moses might be able to make an ill mixtape – do go through what he went through might give him an “I don’t give a fuck” mentality in any battle.

Defcee: Definitely. Moses’ whole story would give him hella credibility in a battle, too. The man brought ten plagues through Egypt. He split a rock for water. He took the commandments down to the people, and then when he saw them worshipping a golden calf, he had it crushed into dust and made people drink it. Moses would drop a nice 30 piece on any battle rapper alive—except Hollow da Don. Hollow might take a round off him.

rubyhornet: Speaking of which, did you come up through any battle scene? Do you remember your first battle or freestyle?

Defcee: At the time in my life when I most wanted to pursue battling, I was too young to get into any of the venues where the battles were held, so I was never officially a part of the organized battle scene in Chicago. Most of my experience battling came from going up against a few people around my high school. I’m actually, unsurprisingly, a battle nerd—I first got into it watching Iron Solomon, The Saurus, and Illmaculate my junior year of high school. So I’d seek out smaller, informal, a capella battles with other kids in school, and even though my freestyles were trash, I won all of em. There was only one battle I saw in person that was kinda like the SMACK DVD battles that were around back then. It was in Scoville Park—which is the park right outside of Oak Park Public Library—between this kid I was friends with whose name I’m gonna withhold, and this other guy named 2-5, who was well-known around the school for battling. He used to rock a New Era fitted hat with a bunch of R.I.P. tags on it next to the names of the people he beat. He washed my friend. It was bad. I’m grateful I didn’t get involved in the battle scene back then. Chicago had a lot of killers around. I could’ve gotten my career ended.

rubyhornet: The title of your mixtape, kind of alludes to a feeling that mixtapes coming out nowadays are not necessarily how they started and possibly the purpose has changed – what is your thought on that? How is this a statement towards what you feel a mixtape should be?

Defcee: Believe it or not, I’m not opposed to people calling a project full of original production a mixtape. I know we have a lot of long-term memory loss when it comes to the generation gap in hip-hop, so people very quickly forget that there were a lot of mixtapes that came out in the early- and mid-2000s that were made by rappers who were rhyming over nothing but original beats. But my favorite mixtapes from that era had rappers just kicking incredibly good verses over whatever beat they could find. There were some guys, like Phonte from Little Brother, who’d even subvert that concept and make something like “Last Day,” where he flipped the Onyx “Last Dayz” beat that everyone’s rapped on, and made it about his last day at a job he hated. So the format of taking someone else’s beats and making them your own was always appealing to me, and I never really had the opportunity to do it until this project, and the title of it is an homage to all the tapes I loved.

rubyhornet: You have quite a lot of drops here, another custom, and my favorite part, of mixtapes – was that part of it from the beginning? How important was it to stick to things like getting drops, rapping over industry beats etc?

Defcee: Getting the drops was an idea that was germinating about how to make the tape more epic, and then I finally took a day at work and wrote down the names of everyone who I wanted to record a drop for it. They all came out better than I’d anticipated. It made the process of creating and listening to the tape that much more enjoyable—especially since everything on it (except for “Forty, Jr.”) was recorded over a year ago. It meant I could keep coming and hearing it as if it were a brand-new experience every time. The thought process behind everything I did with the tape was to maintain the vintage feel without sacrificing the sonic and creative qualities of it, so I also made sure to grab beats I knew I could add something original to, and drops from people who I knew would add a nice little personal touch to the tape.

rubyhornet: Do you feel holding to this format, and tropes of this underground style of hip hop comes at an expense to you in terms of growing a fanbase? Does that matter?

Defcee: That’s a fair question. I’m trying to grow a fanbase that will grow with me. If doing something that caters to a time and style that I’m passionate about loses some people, that’s okay. I’m fortunate enough to already have a career I enjoy that doesn’t require me to make artistic compromises in order to grow my fanbase. I’ve been telling people this a lot in the lead-up to the release of the tape—I’m only really out to gain five new, diehard fans. That’s the only metric I care about. Listens. Likes, retweets, shares, and downloads are very low on my list of priorities. I was really concerned with that when I dropped Damn Near Grown in 2015, and I set myself up for a lot of disappointment when it didn’t gain the traction I expected. There may be dozens more people who are interested in more traditionally structured music that caters to what’s happening in the moment in music at large. Those people may care in passing for a second, then could listen to the album for a week, maybe less, and put it away for a long time, if not forever. If I can get five diehard fans, who are really into what I’m doing with the new project and are willing to tell other people about it, and those people get hooked in and are willing to come along with me on the career trajectory I’m developing, then that can help grow the fanbase I’m trying to reach. If I obsess over the listeners I’m losing at the expense of the listeners who are already down, then I’m hustling backwards.

rubyhornet: You have a line in which you call other lyrical rappers in Chicago your son(s) – is that because you literally teach at YCA and have mentored these kids or simply because you are nice with it?

Defcee: Yes to both questions. Next.

rubyhornet: You are also a high school teacher, and teach at YCA. Does that side of you make into the music or your choices?

Defcee: Being a teacher is slowly sneaking into my music, bit by bit. I try not to harp on it too much, mainly because it’s difficult to address my job in a way that doesn’t sound corny in the music. Ultimately, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what this generation of high schoolers has to contend with—social media, harassment, school shootings and reckoning with a government that isn’t doing anything productive to protect them, unprecedented levels of school-related anxiety, easy access to drugs—and how I wouldn’t have been able to remain resilient in the face of those issues when I was in school. There is, essentially, a never-ending battle between businesses for the rewards centers of kids’ brains, in a way that didn’t exist to this extent when I was in school. Somehow, students are still able to thrive despite this. I’m always in awe of that, and that’s starting to be addressed in the raps that I write.

rubyhornet: Do your students enter your mind as you are writing or making songs, or do you see Defcee as a completely different person than “Mr. Levin”?

Defcee: I avoid glorifying alcohol and drug use in my raps, and I avoid using demeaning language, as well. That’s for a couple of reasons—one, more obviously, is that I’d like to one day be able to teach full-time for a living; and the other is because I want to make sure I’m setting a good example for my students. I don’t advertise my music at my job, though. There are a handful of students who’ve found my music, and have asked me about it. But the majority aren’t aware that I’m Defcee, although I have a gut feeling that my music career is the worst-kept secret in the school.

rubyhornet:  Your Jewish identity is also something that’s at the forefront, and present on this tape as well. How does that fit here? Do you think about the legacy of other Jewish rappers and the relationship with Jews and Hip Hop often? It’s a complex thing for sure.

Defcee: Being Jewish has always been a big part of who I am. I’m not observant, and I’m not someone who upholds their Jewish identity to avoid being an average white guy, but it’s deeply embedded in me, especially the culturally-specific connections Jews have to humor, folklore, and oral history. My three favorite Jewish rappers of all time (in no particular order) are Drake, Ill Bill, and Rich Jones. I’m not a fan of culture vultures, though, and I feel less kinship with Jewish music executives than I do with Jewish hip-hop heads and practitioners who have a genuine relationship with hip-hop, instead of seeing it as a stepping stone to something they deem more important.

rubyhornet: You are putting this out on limited cassette, is that also to stick to the theme and the actual mixtape? Was that something you were making as a kid and part of your experience within Hip Hop?

Defcee: Great question. When I was a kid, my brothers and I were always a step behind when it came to new technology—when everyone was getting the N64, we got Super Nintendo. Everyone got Playstation, we got N64. So, of course, when everyone else had a portable CD player, I had a Walkman. This did a couple of things for me: a.) it forced me to learn how to make mixes of my favorite songs from the CDs in my collection, so that I could carry them with me everywhere; and b.) when I started really getting into DJ Pharris’ mix shows on Power 92 every weeknight after the top 9 at 9, I started to tape that, and study all of the new music that I didn’t have yet. It was an immersive, organic way of learning to study things like sequencing, and it introduced me to so many new artists who I hadn’t really heard up until that point (including Scarface and MC Juice). So being able to have this very nostalgic project released in a very nostalgic format is something I’m happy about.

On a related note, shoutout to Decay, Alex, and Sean at Machine Wash Music for putting together the cassette and the preorder. I’m incredibly appreciative for their input and willingness to release this at a time when physical copies are always a risk for a label.

rubyhornet: Sticking to the traditional role of mixtapes, often times they setup an emcee’s next project – is that the case here? What’s the next thing for Defcee?

Defcee: This is going to set up what I consider to be phase two of my rap career. It’s the first of a lot of projects I’m trying to release between now and the end of 2020, including a lot of collaborative work with rappers and producers who I admire. It’s my first release through Machine Wash, who’ll be dropping my Unlegendary project—entirely produced by goldenbeets, who did the first beat on this tape—at the end of 2019. The label really feels like family, and like my home team. They’ve been open-minded, thoughtful, and supportive of me, and I hope I can do the same for them in return. With that being said, the next project will be the first defprez release with CRASHprez and knowsthetime. It’ll be dropping sooner than you think.

Shoutout to rubyhornet for the premiere! I’ve been watching the site for a long time, and I’m pumped I was able to release the tape through y’all.

Alexander Fruchter

Original co-founder of RubyHornet. President of Closed Sessions