Do Your History on History, the Future’s Last Visionary
I met with History at the Brooklyn Bridge on a waning summer day in mid September. He was wearing a black Brooklyn Nets cap, a plain black t-shirt, black Adidas track pants, black sneakers with the words “Mogul” on one foot and “Club” on the other and vintage black and gold oval-lens Versace sunglasses – a fashionably quiet style that is loud enough to make you pay attention.
His music has the same appeal. History’s tunes have a bounce to them. This is the best I can do to describe the feeling of his music – that bounce. You have felt it before. When you were seven years old and heard a Juvenile record for the first time. Or maybe it was when you were five, dancing to Puffy and Ma$e, with a guileless admiration for those colorful shiny suits and leather goggles. Whenever you felt it, you remembered it and cherished it any time it came back to you. That bounce came back to me when I listened to History.
Raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the 22-year old artist–also known by his producer name H.illa – is the fourth horseman of the hip-hop collective Mogul Club. As an orchestrative force in some of the group’s best-known and most-loved projects, History has championed the last few years being the executive musical mastermind, but this past year he has taken steady steps to reposition himself from the background to the foreground.
When History speaks, his countenance bears a distanced daze, as if he were trapped in a purgatory state between the past and the future that somehow is not the present. More serious than starry-eyed as he spoke of artists that came before him, and forewarned of the art that would come next.
He is the girl-crazy bachelor whose fashions and focus seduce the attention of women and men alike. They look to see what he’s wearing and what he’s making – because everyone knows that whatever it is, it’s worth watching.
But it’s deeper than rap and clothes and the women he likes, who, in turn, like him for both. For as long as I have known History, he has been a creative force with a consistency and drive strong enough to be matched by his predecessors and rivaled by his successors.
From the time that this interview was conducted, History has released two full-length projects – the autobiographical Brooklyn anthem, IAMSTUY, and The Sun of Roc-A-Fella, released on Jay-Z’s birthday as an homage to the mogul’s timeless inspiration. Today is the last day of 2015, and if you knew History the way I know History, you would know not to look for him at the clubs downtown or any house parties on the block, because you would know that he is probably spending these final moments of 2015 crafting a new album or two… or three.
When History and I spoke that day in September, I got a clearer glimpse of who Brooklyn has been watching and who the rest of the world needs to see. The following is a conversation with the man behind the music.
The name “History”- Where did that come from?
Alright well… My name is Howard Kennedy Jr.
That sounds like a presidential name.
Exactly. So when I would tell people my full name in the hood, the OG’s, instead of calling me Howard – you don’t wanna keep calling nobody Howard- they just was like ‘History.’
But how did they come up with “History”?
From the name just sounding historic… Jokes. At first… I kind of didn’t like it, but I still accepted the name. And then one day I had dream the crowd was saying the name History to me when I was about 11 years old. Then it was just one day I needed a name, and I see the dream of the crowd saying History, the OG’s in the hood call me it, connected to where I came from, and it still represented who I was as a person. So, I was just like, ‘my music name is officially gonna be History.’
I started making music at nine.
That’s early. What were you doing? Were you rapping? Playing piano?
I was doing all of that…My step father – he was like a known rapper around the neighborhood… But he never really got his chance due to certain street things… So, when I started loving music he really was the one that was pushing me… He had me in studios with Dana Dane and just a bunch of people from the neighborhood… For Christmas he bought me a keyboard, a guitar, and I would just make my first beats.
The reason I started writing raps was because I ain’t have nothing else to do during the weekends because my father had left. He went to Iraq… He was serving for the military while I was nine and I would usually hang out with him during the weekend. I didn’t have anything else to do during the weekend other than be outside and stuff. I just started writing raps… I would draw. I couldn’t draw – I knew I wanted to write something on books but, it just wasn’t clicking. Then as soon as he left, it was like I found that one thing. I found something to talk about. My first rap was actually about big women – like big-boned women. I made a song to make my moms happy… I was like, my moms is a plus-sized woman and I want her to hear my rap, so Ima make a rap for plus-sized women to tell ‘em how much I love ‘em [laughs]. And that was my first rap, about plus-sized women. I had an objective from the beginning.
That is a strong objective for a young child.
So, you made that song, you started playing keyboard – so are you classically trained in piano?
No. I tried to do the classical thing, but it started messing with my creativity. If I want it done, I can call somebody up to do it for me. You know, I always wanted to create sounds and bring them together and create emotion… If I’m not feeling like this is gonna touch somebody’s heart other than mine, then it’s not worth it.
And you’ll just find someone who can do it better than you if you can’t?
Yeah. If I actually need a piano player, I got a few. I got a producer team – a team of producers that help me out whenever I need the help.
That reminds me of Diddy… I remember watching an early interview of him and he was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m a producer but I don’t know how to use any of the equipment, but I know how I want it to sound. And I’ll just tell someone to do it the way I want it.’ So now, ‘98 Diddy… Talk about ‘98 Diddy.
‘98 Diddy… I’ve always been a fan of Puffy. My father and my uncle… would play Puffy, Biggie and Jay. That was the main three people – and DMX… Before I started rapping, my form of entertainment and being creative was dancing. So I would always look at the Usher videos, the Sisqo videos and Diddy videos and be like, ‘damn, I wish I could make people go crazy by doing a dance move.’ So basically, the real thing that got me attracted to wanting to be like Puffy was I think The Source Awards – probably ‘98 – when he was on the Escalade and he was dancing around…. Right then and there, I was like, ‘alright, this guy is cool.’
When I met Critical and everybody started comparing him to Biggie, it was only natural that I was compared to Diddy… I’m the guy that’s always next to Critical. I’m the guy that’s producing every track that they like. I was the guy that recorded Critical’s shit, engineering it, helping him create the ideas, motivating him and it was like I played the same role Diddy did with Biggie. It was natural. Everybody called me Diddy. Everybody said I looked like Diddy. When I put the Versace shades on, I become him… ‘98 Diddy.
Have you ever met him, or seen him perform live?
I met him once…It’s a funny story… I was an intern for AM Studio… and he came through – this was when he was working on Last Train to Paris… He tried to get me to get him some food! I was an intern and I told him, ‘No.’
I ain’t work for him. I worked for my studio. So I told him, ‘No.’ I didn’t want to do it, honestly. It was cold. I didn’t wanna go outside and get him nothing… And that was my first time meeting him… I told my father and it made him the happiest parent in the world that I was able to tell Diddy ‘No,’ [laughs].
So how did he react when you said no?
He didn’t say nothing back to me after that. He was just in shock and kind of in awe. The people who was looking after me as an intern, they kind of saved my life. They was like, ‘Don’t worry, we’re gonna order!’ They just hopped in, then they looked at me like I was crazy. Afterwards, they were like, ‘You told Diddy no?!’
Anyone else in that situation, if their idol is telling them to do something… they would do it in order to be on good terms with them or to get their attention or, you know, try to impress them. But the first time you met Diddy you told him no. So when you meet him again, you can tell him that story and I feel like he’ll remember you more or respect you more.
Would you get him food now?
I still don’t think I would get him food… I’ve seen Making the Band.
In your music, there’s a lot of samples… you can tell there’s sort of a holistic perspective to music being integrated into your own music. I’ll hear a song and say, ‘Oh, that’s Otis Redding,’ but I’d forget the name of the song. It makes you want to go back… Is that deliberate? Do you want people to listen to your music and then go back to other music? Or to remind people of what came before?
I was born with some type of ear… I got ears like I play every instrument in the world, but I don’t. I want to put every instrument in the world on my song, feel me?… I listened to everything. From 1920s and up, everything…The main reason I sample music is because that’s what I feel the most… Every time I’m chopping up a sample… that’s like my heart really leaving my body and just going into the computer… I don’t sample unless it’s in my heart.
Another reason why I sample is because Roc-A-Fella is one of my biggest influences. It just takes me back to being in my father’s car when I was seven years old driving around Brooklyn, doing our daily Saturday routines before he left for the war.
Diddy caught a lot of flack for sampling. People would reduce it to, ‘you’re not a real producer if all you do is sample. You can’t make a beat without sampling.’ Did he also inspire you to give sampling a better name?
Definitely. Everybody talks shit about sampling until they meet me… I sample from my heart and create it into a new sound. That’s creating something.
Would you put a label on yourself? Would you call yourself a rapper/producer?
I call myself a creator now… From when I was 12 years old up until when I was in college, I would say I took producing more seriously… I knew I had what it takes to rap…Once I knew that I could make a hot beat any time I wanted, that’s when I started coming into rap… 2013 is when I really put my foot down as an emcee. I was like, ‘alright, it’s my turn now.’ I made the beats for Critical, I made the beats for Radamiz, I made the beats for Madwiz. I’m the fourth member of Mogul Club. Nobody really knows about me. I’m not in none of the cyphers…Everyone knows my producer name…Everybody’s fans of H.illa, but who is History?
So what are you trying to do next, now that you’ve solidified yourself as a producer, you’re in the process of solidifying yourself as a rapper? What’s the next level of creation for History?
Honestly, I don’t know. I just know whatever I do, I want to make the world better… As long as I can contribute instead of taking away… I just want to be a creator. I don’t want no boundaries… Hip-hop is the main influence in the world. We influence more people than the president! If that can happen with hip-hop, then I can do anything.
What would you say is the most pivotal moment in your career?… You opened up for Rakim. Right before that, we had you at the festival headlining with Talib Kweli. So what has been your biggest moment thus far?
When I made ‘EVIL!’… that’s when I knew I had what it takes. I made that 4th of July, 2013… I just knew everybody was gonna bug out to this… Once I got that feeling… That’s the only way to make music. I gotta get that feeling every time I make a song. That was the biggest moment in my music career, when I realized how to make music for myself and the people at the same time.
IAMSTUY is obviously a reference to Bed-Stuy?… Bed-Stuy is being gentrified, right?
When you were growing up, what’s the difference between Bed-Stuy then and now? How do you feel when you go to Bed-Stuy?
I done been robbed there, I done ran from cops there, I done seen people get shot there… I had my first encounters with women there. All of that… I rep Bed-Stuy to the death…Even though I wasn’t one of them hood niggas out there on some shit like, ‘yo I’m a murder, I’m a killer, I’m a drug dealer,’ I was out there every day… I’ve seen the change… I remember the first time I saw somebody getting robbed… My two homies, they was robbing two kids, and they were like, ‘yo, Howard! Wanna come through, help us rob these dudes?’ and I said, ‘No.’ That’s when I realized that wasn’t what I’m about… I’ve seen the change from us playing with sports to us playing with guns.
It’s calm over there now… It’s changing a lot of people’s mentalities to want to own – wanna get what they deserve. Seeing people come and take what they have. Now, my brothers are getting smarter – ‘I need to own shit. I need to invest in myself.’
What are you trying to claim right now? What do you think you deserve? What are you trying to take back… claim or reclaim?
The reason I wanted to do the interview on this bridge was to claim it.
I feel stuck… I’m still here. I still pass these projects, I’m still hearing these sirens… It’s still fucking with my head… If it was up to anybody else, they would have me stuck here. They would leave me here. If it wasn’t for music, there would’ve probably been no hope for me.
I want to claim hip-hop back… I’m saying some of the most gangsta stuff, but I’m not telling you ‘be a gangsta,’ I’m telling you, ‘this is what can happen if you’re not a gangsta.’… I’m not a gangsta, and I had a chance to be a gangsta… I’m not one of those regular hipster rappers – weirdo rappers – that’s like, ‘oh, I’m different! I don’t talk about gangsta stuff!’ No. I’m from the hood. Ima talk about the hood.
But I’m still different. I was the first person in my hood wearing BBC and BAPE and all this stuff… That was me… There’s not a lot of people that could walk around the hood in their fur coats and be different and not shoot guns, you know?… Only a certain person that could wear their Versace shades and chain and a whole bunch of jewelry and not sell drugs and not be a killer, but still all the killers and drug dealers love you.