Eclectic Emcee Centri Talks Indie Success, Military Discharge
Centri, Renaissance Rapper:
An Interview with AWKWORD
Praverb would be proud: it was through Twitter that I 'met' and connected with New York Hip Hop artist (and Praverb fan) Centri (@Centri), having caught wind of his unique backstory. We then linked in person and, together, created the critically acclaimed song that tells the story behind my 2014 for-charity global Hip Hop album, World View. Later, he would co-star in the video for my song "Throw Away The Key", playing a victim of racial profiling and police brutality at the hands of the NYPD. It'd been a while since Centri and I talked, and his musical output in 2015 has been somewhat slight, so I checked back in to make sure he was still on his grind. He not only agreed to be interviewed, he sent me an unreleased verse he created in honor of Praverb after hearing of his passing. After listening, and getting chills, I talked to Centri about his upbringing, his style of music, his advice for other independent artists, and what it means to be dishonorably discharged from the military.
THE PRAVERB TRIBUTE VERSE
Central Islip, New York
2. Current Residence:
3. First Release:
Article 15: The Rebel Knowledge Story (11/11/11)
4. Crew Affiliation:
5. Favorite Song Featuring Centri:
6. Favorite Album Not Featuring Centri:
Atliens by Outkast
7. Favorite Artist:
8. Favorite Book:
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins
9. Favorite Film:
10. Future Plans:
To continue to balance music with life as efficiently as possible
A Dozen Questions
1. I got chills. Thank you for that. A great tribute, and one of my favorite verses I've heard from you, actually. So, before we get into your music and your background, tell me about your relationship with Praverb. Were you ever able to meet in person? How did you first connect?
Word, I appreciate that. I first met Praverb when I dropped my Rise of a Veteran mixtape. He complimented me on a few tracks and pointed me to his music. The first thing I checked from him was Professional Hobbyist, which to me was the most honest piece of Hip Hop I had heard in a long time -- and it fit well with his brand as an artist. From there we exchanged numbers, and we spoke a couple of times on the phone and through text. I was actually going to meet him when I was in DC doing some music, since he was in Virginia at the time, but it just never happened.
2. Do you have any stories, anecdotes or examples you can share to further illustrate what he did on your behalf?
Praverb motivated me. He shared so much reading content for independent artists, which I would check out regularly. A lot of it reinforced what my instincts would say and would just validate and confirm my way of thinking as an indie artist; some of it added structure to the things I wanted to do but didn’t know how. In particular, he referred me to one book that was highly valuable: Small Is the New Big.
3. What will it mean to be featured on his site, now, after his passing?
The site meant a great deal to me before his passing and means just as much now. Praverb.net, in and of itself, has been monumental as a brand. The pivotal post was his list of the Hip Hop blogs that accept music submissions. Just to do the research, and then to actually share your findings with the world: that is the complete opposite of what the typical, selfish independent artist would do. Praverb put the culture before his own music, which in turn made great music more visible.
4. What do you think Praverb would say to you today, if her were still alive?
I honestly don’t know. I may have flipped my entire approach for future projects based off what he shared on social media. I know I supported him whenever I had the opportunity and it was the first time I deeply felt the passing of someone I met over social media. Whether Praverb connected with you on Twitter or in person, the relationship was equally organic.
5. Well said. Yeah, it's crazy what social media can do now. How else has social media, the Internet, etc., played a role in your development as an artist, or in your ability to further your career through online connections?
The Internet has impacted my role as an artist tremendously. As artists get older, it becomes more and more difficult to run around and be everywhere like we did back in the day, when we had fewer responsibilities. It's even been a bit more difficult to write, due to limited time. Many days, I've recorded verses on the way to my 9-to-5. Social networking has allowed me to reach out to people globally, not just for extending my fan base but to network with other artists and producers. It's kept me looped in to current trends; and helped me to accentuate my sounds with those of artists from other regions. It's like the world of music is at your fingertips.
On the flip side, though, Internet access and the ease of recording and releasing music today has drowned out a lot of talented artists who have not kept up with the digital trends -- and the quality in Hip Hop has suffered because the market is so over saturated. Plus, artists are still struggling with what to release for free and what not to release for free, and what the concrete business model is with free releases so you can get that investment back. Only a few artists are successfully pursuing that business model, and we're all competing with them.
6. How important are content and message, rhyme SKILL versus flow? Beat and chorus? How do you determine if a song is worth an actual download and re-listen? And do you take any of these things into account when creating your own music?
I think the beat is probably the most important thing. Picking a beat that's different, unique, but also ahead of its time and captures the emotion of what you are trying to say is not easy to do. It's hindered some of the best rappers’ careers.
The message is very important, but it’s not as important as the other elements, in my opinion. As we have all seen in recent times, the wrong message can still sound good to the masses and can easily influence those who don’t know how to filter out the negativity. It should be important, but the most important thing to me is to get the people to want to listen to the record, and then convey the message once you have their attention. I think flow is more important than lyrical skill, only because you can reach a larger audience with the flow than with skill. There are tons of artists who are super sick, lyrically, but can’t keep the average or even above-average listener’s attention for more than half a song. Once you've gotten someone to push play when they see your name, your next objective is to get them to keep listening, and your final objective for that song is it get them to want to listen to it again.
As far as what I consider worth downloading, I actually download any and everything. Most rappers I know would shame me if they heard what’s in my mp3 player. But as a true artist you should listen to everything. How can you call yourself an MC if you’ve only listened to a select set of rappers and never listen to the artist that you say sucks but is blowing up? There is a reason they have 100,000 spins and you don't. Producers do it. They dig through records all weekend, and I’m sure they are not fans of all those genres. What makes a rapper so special that he doesn't have to do the leg work? For me, it’s part of the job description. There is actually a thrill in listening to 100 songs and liking even 30% of the records.
And yes, I incorporate all the above in my music. I am extremely honest with myself. If I like a song that is, say, a Trap Rap type of song, I ask myself 100 times a day, "Why do I like this song?" Eventually I figure it out and I add that particular piece to my arsenal. It could be the hook, or even as granular as the tone on the hook. It keeps me inspired, and it also allows me to stay flexible.
7. That makes sense, given how eclectic your sound is. How would you describe the style of music you create? To which other artists might fans relate you?
As difficult as it is to describe my sound, I would say my sound is like the guilty pleasure of a listener's personal music catalog. It's like the show on television no one else knows that you watch religiously and, for the life of you, you can’t figure out why. My style has no range and no limits. It's gutter, real and fearless, but at the same time highly digestible.
When real Hip Hop was dope, but the genre ventured off somewhere into the current sounds, that real Hip Hop was harvested in my lab and cultivated. I keep the core very pure in my sound, and my style is extremely bitter -- very disrespectful, in order to break you down and build you back up for not acknowledging it all this time: the voice and the attitude of what Hip Hop should be.
Lastly, I am skill-less when it comes to sounding the same on more than one track. I listen to a beat and the beat guides the sound my flow adds. I cannot get into a mind frame to put consistency of style to more than one song for the sake of consistency itself. It would be at the cost of losing a song that could be optimized to sound 10 times better if I let the rhythm of the track lead. I mentioned to a highly regarded rap friend of mine that he keeps the same flow on every record while I have no consistency in my style, and he said, "That is your style: not having a style." I thought that was profound and it's always stuck with me.
8. What about your personal life? Growing up in NY, your experience in the military -- how do these elements play into your creative expression?
Growing up in New York definitely played a huge part in my foundation as a rap artist. I grew up in Central Islip, NY, and in my high school you got more respect the better, wittier, and more lyrical you were at rhyming. It honestly didn’t matter if you were a class clown, or a hood, or a quit nerd kid. if word got around that you could spit, people wanted to hear it. We were thirsty for music growing up. Keith Murray was our standard, and he set the tone for a lot of up-and-coming artists from our neighborhood. At least 15 to 20 of us would stay up late listening to WKCR and bring in tapes of what they recorded during the radio show. Aside from dressing fly, getting girls, and just being a knucklehead, music was the one thing that made us relevant. I learned so much from that era in Hip Hop, and the things I learned technically built the core that makes me who I am today as an MC.
My military life also absolutely played a huge role in how I express myself creatively. I was kicked out of the military three days before I was supposed to naturally leave, due to some higher influential authorities who executed whatever military justice they could apply to kick me out early. At the time, I had done three years and 361 days, and being kicked out allowed them to revoke my college money -- and, from the list of things the recruiter promised me, that was the only thing that was actually real.
Eventually, with the help of other factions of the government, I got everything overturned six months after I left the military. In those six months I learned some vital lessons about myself that I honestly can’t express in words. I was young and I had never known people could go through such lengths to ruin your life. I also found a lot of other soldiers who were kicked out of the military for minor infractions, and the stigma is affecting their ability to find employment. And, when I say a minor infraction, it is often something that at a civilian job wouldn't even get you a warning. For example, if you take a sudden leave of absence from your job because your family member is sick, you may get fired, but I am sure potential new employers would understand your situation. If the same thing happens in the service, you could be deemed AWOL and registered as a deserter of the military. Most people find this out when it’s already too late.
My first album, Article 15: The Rebel Knowledge Story, was spawned from my and others' experiences in the military. I didn’t want to be selfish and talk about myself the entire album, especially when I wanted to convey such an important message. My goal was to give a voice to those soldiers who I met in those six months who may not have had their discharge overturned like I did. I believe only five to 10 percent of people who get discharged this way are able to get it overturned. I could go on,but my album captures that angst.
9. Damn. You gave me so much, but I guess I asked for it... You hinted at making music helping you deal with your "angst" -- is that why you do this? Does rapping justify itself from a financial perspective, or are there other reasons for what you do?
Honestly, it's not because of angst, but I have to admit that music does help channel your anger. I'm really not that angry of a person, because being angry and worried doesn't help me physically. I actually had health issues as a youngster because I was extremely angry and was also pretty anxious.
That being said, a lot of my music is anger, or angst. I find that it's the best way to connect with the listeners and let them know that you've been in their shoes. To me, that's the most important part of writing: to connect with the listener.
As far as why I do this... I think the main reason is because I always hear a sound that I feel needs to be heard in Hip Hop. I listen to tons of music and I always feel that there's a lane that needs to be tackled. And I'm the only person that can create that sound that I want to hear. It's like I do it for the fan in me. I need dope Hip Hop to get me through my day. It's the only constant, and I cant have it let me down.
When I was young, and I'm talking 11 to 12 years old, I was an extremely good writer. All the heads would always want me to rhyme, battle, or just want to put me on. The problem is, everybody was broke and nobody knew how to help anybody else. A large part of me feels that I be had to become successful outside of rap in order to fund my music career. The game's changed so drastically that doing it for money may not even be worth the stress. So, now that I'm much more financially set, I rhyme to take advantage of the missed opportunities I had when I was a kid.
10. Thats cool. Living a dream. So how do you pay the bills? And how do you find time for music amidst work and family?
However I can, my friend. Writing verses for features, song writing, hook writing, etc. If I write a verse for a feature or entire song, I can guarantee you it's going to be well worth your money. I also have some tech skills that I barter, but other than it's a 9-to-5 or whatever way I can to make a dollar.
As for finding time, it's definitely much more difficult to create music as you get older. One thing I do is record my verses on a tape recorder throughout my day, week or month. Some of my illest verses were written with that method.
|Centri with Hot 97 and ESPN Radio's Peter Rosenberg (L) and Peter's assistant Hip Hop Mike (R) at SXSW|
11. So what would be your advice to a rapper just starting out and wanting to remain independent?
First, define your version of success. I feel like the definition of success in rap is skewed for a lot of independent artists. We all know it’s the dollar bill at the end of the day, but how long is that dollar going to be around and how long will you be able to sustain the lifestyle? For example, I met a doctor who was making well into the six figures. But when he broke it down, when you add in student loans and the amount of time he was in school, we kind of evened out. It’s not about the present value of your dollar, it’s about the future value. At the end of the day, success is setting a realistic goal, reaching it, and setting another one. If you can do that at will, then it doesn't matter whether you’re on MTV or in a coffee shop doing shows for 10 years straight. As long as you set goals and met them, you've been successful. You don't have to own a Ferrari or Margielas to be a successful.
Second, be open minded. I know rappers my age who have stopped listening to current Hip Hop and are so lost they don’t know where to start. I’m not saying to be influenced by everything that comes out, but keep your ear to the life cycle of the music you claim as a profession.
Third, never stop developing your song-writing skills. You have to still write killer verses, but still make it digestible for new fans to understand it and pass the message. It's not as easy as it sounds. If you think it's easy, it's probably going to come off as fake and it'll sound like you're trying to write a song when you're not about that life.
12. Slim Jesus? About that life... Anyway, If you weren't rapping, what would you be doing?
I would probably be a military lawyer.