By Leroy Dee
Jackson Advocate Entertainment Writer
On Sunday, I interviewed Jackson State University alumni and rap duo Abstract Mindstate, who are also the first artists to release a project from Kanye West’s newly formed label YZY SND.
Greg Lewis and Daphne Mitchell are both Chicago natives and graduates of Jackson State University. Lewis is the industry vet of the duo, having worked behind the scenes at several labels. His most recent stint was as A&R for Kanye West’s GOOD Music label. Mitchell took a different path. She immersed herself into the world of academia, obtaining a master’s degree in counseling. But with the planets aligning, a phone call from Kanye West would put the group back together.
Leroy Dee (LD): Can you introduce yourselves as individuals?
EP Da Hellcat (EP): I’m EP Da Hellcat, the female half of Abstract Mindstate.
Olskool Ice-Gre (OIG): I’m Olskool Ice-Gre, the male half.
LD: How did the group start?
EP: We met at Jackson State in 1990 on the train station during the holiday break. I noticed Olskool was with his cousin Lee Majors, and I didn’t have any liquor. Lee offered to share theirs. That sparked off 30 years of friendship.
OIG: I was in a group called the Peace Posse. You know how Daz and Kurupt were in the Dogg Pound? It was like that. I was trying to recruit EP to the Peace Posse.
LD: So, what shifted between the formation of Peace Posse and the creation of Abstract Mindstate?
EP: Life happened. It was never a plan for him and I to be just two people in the group. I was actually being groomed by him to be a solo artist under his umbrella. His rap partner then, Ant Chill, went to a different school. He started straying further away from music but noticed Olskool and I were doing songs together. The chemistry in the music was noticeable to other people before we even noticed it.
LD: What effect did you have on Jackson’s music scene?
OIG: We actually became a part of the foundation for Jackson’s Hip Hop scene. I formed another collective called the Stewpot Stowaways. We started getting write-ups in major publications. They compared us to the Wu-Tang Clan because there were so many of us. We had a 17-member crew. The Stewpot was a combination of Midwest and Southern flavor, and we connected with the people down South who had the same vibe. Everybody was either attending Jackson State or was from Jackson. So we made our mark throughout the entire South, from Georgia to Arkansas. We can definitely see the outcome of what all of us as a collective did, looking at guys like Big K.R.I.T. And Dear Silas. Even Phingaprint and his DJ crew were offspring of the Stewpot.
LD: Who influenced you to start making music?
EP: I started writing after I heard Rakim for the first time. It wasn’t even about trying to be a rapper, I just thought the way Rakim sounded to me was the coolest thing I ever heard in my life. I just started doing, not knowing it would be something I’d look at as my saving grace for so long.
OIG: my mother was a record collector, so the house was always filled with music. It helped that my family was also a music family, and we all play instruments. I started off playing the drums and singing background. What got me into Hip Hop is that I had a cousin from Dayton, OH who brought a record from Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. When he played it for me I fell in love immediately and wanted to find more music like it. In terms of my name being Ice-Gre, everybody was Ice, Cold Kid back then. I was a huge fan of Ice-T. It was something about his rawness that attracted me when I was trying to figure out my name. I added the Ice to my Gre-Gre and became Ice-Gre.
LD: How is your creative process? Do you write your verses together or separate?
EP and OIG: Both.
EP: 90% of the time Gre comes up with the concept of the song. His ear is different than mine and he can see the story happening upon hearing the beat. It’s like the beat is pushing us to say something, and when you veer off that pattern then it’s not a good song.
OIG: I jokingly call myself the Left Eye of the group. A lot of people didn’t realize how much Left Eye brought to TLC. She was the one that gave all the album titles, directions, hooks, etc. She wasn’t the least important, but she wasn’t T-Boz. We all play our roles. I’m just as big a fan of EP as you guys are. When you hear a female spitting like EP and you go “Oh My God”, that’s the same way I feel. That’s why I’m okay when people be like, “Man…ol boy tight but who is that girl snapping?” To hear a female MC spit at that level is impressive, and it draws you in.
LD: What makes “Dreams Still Inspire” different from your other projects?
EP: Absolutely nothing. The difference is social media. The world has changed how we communicate.
OIG: The biggest difference is we’re not rapping for food. Everything we did before was rap or die. This time, for the first time, we were doing it for the love. We were both comfortable in our lives.
EP: A lot of people will listen to that same question and say they didn’t have Kanye tracks. Oh yeah…we did! From the very first album we had Kanye tracks.
Speaking of Yeezy, how involved was Kanye with this album?
EP: Very. He not only let us choose from 300 beats, [but] he also hands-on produced the album. When I say produced, I mean produce us. He made us change verses, take words out, etc. He wanted to get the best Abstract Mindstate that he could get. He knew how he wanted to hear us. When we first got back together, the chemistry of us sitting down and writing was still there. It’s Ye. At the level that he’s at, he’s going to put his moniker on it. He wanted it to be on a certain level. That’s the Ye that we love, and that’s the Ye that he loves.
OIG: We were moving around LA in his Lambo truck with him, and we had no hook for our next single “Move Yo Body”. It was Ye that said, “Yo! We gotta put the Heavy D hook on here!” I’m normally the one thinking of the hooks, but this is Kanye’s world. We have to humble ourselves and let the master go to work. We don’t have a certified RIAA track record that the Grammy’s recognize, but he does.
LD: What is YZY SND?
OIG: It’s a platform for anything sound-related to Kanye. It was supposed to be speakers, streaming service, etc. We just happened to be the first artists off YZY SND. He tweeted a year ago of a roster of all the artists that were supposed to be a part of YZY SND. I can’t speak on the other people, but it was us, Tony Williams, CyHi The Prynce, Clipse reunion, and even his daughter North. So far, only we have come out. I don’t know the future of YZY SND, but I’m looking forward to these other projects.
LD: How do you feel the music industry has changed?
EP: No variety. People are having success with mimicking others than risk the chance of being original and losing. Our project is an homage to real Hip Hop; what we loved as individuals.
OIG: I didn’t realize how different we were until everything kind of became the same. EP and I are the one red door in a city of a bunch of blue ones. Biting has become the norm. We stick close to the aesthetics of the rules of Hip Hop. Right now, they only seem to care if their beat is dope. They don’t even care if you understand what they’re saying. It’s about three beats and all the rest are variations. We’re in the Bizzaro universe. Everybody is biting, everybody is snitching.
LD: Has rap matured enough to allow Abstract Mindstate to make another album?
OIG: 100%! One of the things I was most worried about was our age, and that has been the least of the worries. I look around and some of the best albums are by 40-somethings to mid late fifty-year-olds. Jay-Z can put out an album tomorrow, and it will be the most talked about album. Hip Hop has accepted it’s not a kid anymore and has accepted it’s maturity.
EP: “Dreams Still Inspire” is going to bring Rap fans to Hip Hop. They’re going to go back and listen to De La Soul, Tribe, all the stuff we listen to that inspired us. It’s going to be a rebirth of true Hip Hop. It’s already happening; nothing we meant to do. It’s organic.
LD: Who would you want to collaborate with?
OIG: We just recorded a record with Slum Village. I can check that off the bucket list.
EP: I would love to do a song with Nas, which almost happened twice. I would cry if I could do a song with Lauryn [Hill]. I would literally weep, thank God, and then I would win because I would beat her (laughing).
OIG: I would love to work with De La Soul. We both love their lyricism. That’s my favorite group.
LD: Any upcoming events?
We’re during a documentary screening at Hilton Garden Inn (formerly King Edward Hotel) in the Crown Room. Since it’s Jackson State’s Homecoming, it’s first come, first serve. We’re also going to perform at Freelon’s the same day. We’ll also be on Hot 97 around 1 p.m.