Get to know Honors English, the New Jersey-bred MC who recently released his debut mixtape, State of the Art. With the release of the project, Honors hopes to make a legitimate impact in hip-hop by his use of constant, effective wordplay and purposefully-crafted, message-driven content. English, whose project was produced by the Grammy Award-winning producer Needlz, took time out to discuss his creative process, mixtape’s reception, as well as what he intends to contribute to our beloved hip-hop culture.
How did the name Honors English come about?
My last name’s English. The “Honors” aspect of it is more about my brand and what I stand for as a person. I’ve got two degrees, I’ve been through the education process and I’m also pushing the envelope in terms of wordplay and content in my music. So we were like ‘let’s make a brand that makes sense and strive for excellence and do the best we can with whatever approach.’ And with mine, it’s music.
How would you say you differ from what’s readily available for consumers?
I differ, for one, because I’m willing to say the things that I actually think, the things I’ve been through and the things that I feel. And I think a lot of music is not on that page, particularly rap music. It’s probably the least realistic at this point. Two – we pay extreme attention to detail. Every syllable on my album is a reviewed. Every snare is a reviewed. Everything that we try to do is something that should be able to stand on its own and represent us – every beat by itself, every verse by itself. And then we’ll try to put all those things together to create an experience that’s unique and memorable. We want to make music that people won’t forget.
Who would you say is your main inspiration in MCing?
I’m not really inspired by a lot of people honestly because I feel like people aren’t trying to think or push themselves how they used to. I’m inspired in a lot of ways beats people do. I’m inspired by the way they compose their records. [But] verses and shit like that? It’s just hard for me to get inspired. There are a few that I look up to, period, just because of what they accomplished. I’m inspired by Nas, I’m inspired by Lupe, Jay-Z, 3 Stacks. I wanna be able to do something like that in my own way and accomplish the level of things that these people have accomplished. And there are people that are great in the field, but that everything-inspiration is hard for me. It’s harder for me to get now than when I was younger. It just is. I’m more inspired by poetry.
In a recent interview, I saw that you mention that your uncle was a producer for Poor Righteous Teachers. How has that influenced your music, if at all?
The first times I went to the studio were with him. He kinda coached me along as to understanding the raw hip-hop aspect and why people enjoy and what is it about hip-hop – its raw grittiness, what is it about the raw delivery… and how to be an MC. That type if thing. He kinda instilled that in me and an appreciation for the music in and of itself. [He was] Wishing that I would go on battling and I would go out and battle. That was just a really, really influential period for me, as to the way I think about music. I definitely credit him with being the person who introduced me to the sport.
If you could pinpoint your target audience, how would you define them?
I’ll start off by saying I don’t know. I just made this album based on shit I liked. And if I like it, I take it that there’s are other people that would like it. For instance, I look mostly for sampled records. When I dig for samples and I got the headphones going and I’m listening to music, usually it’s pretty obscure [music] that no one else has heard. So it’s only me and I don’t have anybody else to tell me ‘this is hot’ or ‘I like this.’ It’s just me and I’m the only one I know that’s heard this. And I like it. And then we go from there. In that way it’s very personal. I don’t necessarily know who will feel what I feel, but the people who do resonate with it are people who I think will resonate with me on some level. And I’m not writing or thinking, “the club is gonna love this.” And that’s on a sonic level. When we do hooks and stuff, to some extent it’s a little different. On a sonic level and even on a writing level, I don’t really think about who’s gonna like this and who’s not.
I think a lot of people who are disenchanted with hip-hop listen to [my album] and said ‘I fucks with this.’ I think a lot of people who listen to hip-hop a lot and put up with stuff that they don’t necessarily enjoy – heard my music and said ‘this is a breath of fresh air.’ I’ve seen that. I’ve seen people who listen to a ton of hip-hop and say ‘this is one of the more polished projects I’ve heard in a while.’ I’ve heard all types of things. So I’m still trying to understand what my target audience is.
How has the reception been for your album so far?
It’s been amazing. I could not have prayed for a better reception than what I got so far. The only thing I could ask is for more people to hear it. [Feedback has been] 96% positive, overwhelmingly positive stuff. I just wish other people hear it. If people feel about it the way that I’ve heard so far, from people in person and online, it’s going to be amazing. It’s like you’re doing this science experiment, and you think “it might come out this way and I think if you do this it’ll turn out this way, and then you line everything up,” then it’s like “Oh shit! It’s alive, it’s a machine. It’s moving!” So it’s a wonderful moment for me, personally, in terms of the work I put into it and the intuition that we had about we thought people would feel. I appreciate everybody.
Do you think there’s a political rhetoric missing from hip-hop? With your track “Palin & Bachmann” and throughout the album you mention Troy Davis and Casey Anthony. And those were two high-profiled, political cases. Do you think hip-hop still has that place and/or platform to discuss that?
What hip-hop does and doesn’t discuss – I think about that too. And in my mind, hip-hop does make punch-lines out of pop culture, but it’s something that we don’t discuss. You can easily make a punch-line about something and most people will know what you’re talking about. The average adult “gets” Sarah Palin. But it’s something that we don’t do. So it’s like ‘let me take advantage of that light.‘ It’s not that we can’t talk about it, it’s just that nobody has made it popular yet. And I feel like that’s one of those reasons that people take a liking to you. I’m watching the presidential elections just like you are! I definitely like to touch on subjects like that. And in this album, I sprinkled it throughout. I definitely could’ve went heavier in, but I wanted to keep it at a level where it’s more about the art this time, and less about a particular message.
Do you find it difficult to balance that? If you say you could’ve gone deeper in, I instantly think of Immortal Technique-type raw which is mostly driven by content. However, his reception is such a small group of people who follow him…Is it struggle to balance it?
It’s art. You can do anything. It’s like “just a certain [stroke of] brush, just a little bit of that.” It’s not difficult because I know certain songs at certain points are needed for the culture. It’s less like Immortal Technique’s approach and more like Pac. When he did songs like “Changes” and addressed these causes and issues. And that’s what I’m talking about when I say a message-driven song. If you make a record that’s big and addresses issues, to me – it makes it more than music. And that’s what I will pitch in the door. Not necessarily just making songs for the sake of talking about politics, but making something bring a certain issue to the forefront of political consciousness, of the public’s consciousness, of hip-hop consciousness. And, I know there’s a time to do that and I just haven’t found the particular record where I wanted to do that. That’s something that’s going to be on the way at some point. I just gotta figure out how to deliver it right. I definitely don’t wanna do a record that feels “too anything.”
One thing that I noticed about your music is that you use a lot of puns. And it’s not always sporadic, as I feel most music is. Bar after bar will be pun after pun. It’s great as a listener to feel that continuous shock and having to rewind the track. Even your titles “Highlight Real” and “Cymbals On The Sidewalk,” which are very clever – how do you come up with your titles?
I just write sometimes without aim. And that’s how a lot of this stuff starts. I wrote maybe like 5 bars and I spit it to my girlfriend one time and she said ‘you should do this as a real song.’ I decided to do it and ended up coming up with “Cymbals On The Sidewalk” for [its title]. I’m not exactly sure why I chose that title initially, but it’s obviously a dual meaning. It’s more so about giving it layers. I always like to write in layers, so I’m saying one thing, but I’m saying another thing and if you look at it this way, then I might be saying this. Even the album’s title, State Of The Art, is kinda like that. I like to create in layers. “Highlight Real,” in that bridge “now you got me back bored/I’ve been above the rims and the cars/I’m taking back the souls and the skills/I’m an all-star, all I do is highlight real” – that was actually a lyric from another song. I imported it into that song, because we did that song toward the end and the other song didn’t make the album – so I really wanted to use that section. Highlight Real is just a cool concept because it’s something like ‘I’m showing off, dunking on you,’ and it’s like I’m actually saying ‘I’m doing some real shit.’ That’s what I’m all about, but it’s a dual meaning and it works for my brand because it is something to show off. It is some of that bravado, but there’s a more sincere message there too.
What is your creative process like? How would you describe that?
Chaos (laughs). It’s random, but organized. I’m always writing. I may take something out of this conversation. I’m 24 hours a day, clocking in. I may take something from what I see on Twitter I may take something from what I see on a bus. I make the foundation of a certain conversation and make someone laugh. I’m always looking to record it. The writing process itself? I rarely ever write a song all the way through. I write in patches. I’ll write the first half of the first verse and I might leave it alone and once I finish it, I might send it to Needlz and he might be like “change this part” and I’ll end up rewriting it about three times and then that’s what you finally get. So it’s very rare, if ever, do I just write a song and it just comes out.
On the track “Highlight Real,” you have an ad-lib that goes “How the fuck am I doing this?” And I wanted to know if that was taken from Chappelle’s Show’s Tupac skit, by any chance?
Absolutely! I love that skit! I also had some Boondocks references in there too. I love that skit, it’s so funny. I actually wanted to do more than that, but I only had the chance to do it there. “Dave Chappelle – that ain’t your wife!” I just wanted to take an element of that and put it in the record and see if people fuck with it. People fucked with it, I ain’t never have anybody pick that up. I see people on Twitter saying “How the fuck am I doing this? *In Honors voice*” and I’m like “Word? That’s my voice now?” But that’s definitely imported from the show.
What would you say is the next step for Honors English?
I’m gonna do some more videos. And we’re going to send some records to radio. And we’re going to do a remix album coming up. And we’re about to do a few EPs, then around this time next year we’re going to have another album. And then after that we’re going to make the decision whether or not we’re going to be indie or something else.
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