Tragedy Khadafi Talks Illmatic, His New Album, And Why Queensbridge Is Like Rome

If you don’t know who exactly Tragedy Khadafi is, then you definitely know his style. When Nas dropped Illmatic in 1994, people thought it sounded like Tragedy, who had just came out of jail  after being incarcerated at 16 and started rapping about arresting the president as Intelligent Hoodlum. Yet Trag never got the same magnitude of mainstream exposure that fellow Queensbridge rappers like Nas and Mobb Deep got, even after helming the classic CNN album The War Report. Ask anyone who’s worth their weight in the rap game, though, and they’ll cite Tragedy Khadafi as one of the illest rappers walking this planet right now.

In 2014, Tragedy is still in top form. He just dropped a brand new album, Pre-Magnum Opus, and he revealed to us that it’s actually a prelude to another, much bigger project. We spoke to Trag at the WatchLOUD HQ about his feelings on Illmatic, why Queensbridge is like Rome, and what else he’s got up his sleeve.

WatchLOUD:Tell me about your new album.

Tragedy: The album is a set up titled Pre-Magnum Opus. People see it and think “pre” but it’s actually [pronounced] “prey,” the Latin terminology meaning “before.” So it’s Pre-Magnum Opus, meaning the project before the magnum opus. I wanted to give people something to chew on and digest before I drop that magnum on ‘em.

Why is the next album after this your magnum opus?

It’s a process of my life. Again, if you’re familiar with the definition, it’s a “great work.” It’s not the “greatest work.” It’s a “great work.” So I see my life itself as a great work, a great design. So this is before the great design, part of the great design, and the great design.

What are you talking about on Pre-Magnum Opus? 

Well, I’m scratching the surface of the actual magnum opus project. I’m giving you a taste of what direction the album is going in. If you’re familiar with my history, at least in my opinion and the opinion I’ve got from others, I have a beautiful way of narrating my own personal pain. So you’re gonna get a glimpse into that with tracks like “Running,” tracks like “If I Could.”

At the same time, there’s a polarity in the music. There’s a shift in emotion in the music because you’ll have tracks like “Wolf Pack” and “Love” that are slightly curveballs in terms of the deeply passionate, emotional records. I think in this day and time when I look at it, there’s a lot of pressure on a lot of artists who emerged around the times I emerged in regards to the ‘90s era. So what’s interesting to me is I watch a lot of strong, credible artists change their style up. I don’t know if it’s out of fear, desperation, and/or both, but I just want to give my supporters, and hopefully gain some new supporters, when some of my original supporters say, “Well you know what? You need to listen to this guy” or “You need to hear this” or “If you think this dude is ill or you think this dude is nice, [Tragedy] is actually still striving to make hip-hop.” So that’s what I want to convey on the Pre. And then on the Magnum, it’ll be similar things, but there’ll also be much deeper records in terms of the production and the actual quality of song.

Who are some of the producers you’re working with?

Scram Jones, Nick Studio, Nick Speed. Definitely Audible Doctor, definitely Large Professor. I work with a lot of different producers because I didn’t want to make the same type of record. I got tracks by Havoc. I got some joints on there that are pretty much my vein, but actually stretchin’ it a little bit. Not changin’ it up, just stretchin’ it a little bit.

Talk about getting Meyhem Lauren and some of the new cats on Pre-Magnum Opus.

Oh, Meyhem is a great dude. That’s beloved right there. I love Meyhem’s passion, I love Meyhem’s spirit and his energy for hip-hop. Meyhem got an impeccable energy for rap and you can see that, it just comes off him. And he’s a Queens native too, so I always wanted to rock with him and get his energy in the studio with me. We had the perfect medium, which is Goblin Studios, Goblin Music, my brother. Gob is always being a good liaison, a good buffer between different artists and if you want to get in touch with somebody, people usually go to Gob because Gob is always like, for lack of a better term, the connect, the middleman, in terms of music. So I was kind of talking about [Meyhem] and Gob was like, “Oh yo, he comes through here all the time.” So Gob connected that, the chemistry was right. Son just came through and we got a tight joint.

You first went away to prison when you were 16 and you talk a lot about learning knowledge of self at the time. What were some of the things you were learning at the time?

Yes, when I first got incarcerated I was 16 – well, when I first went away as an adult I was 16, and yes a lot of things in me changed when I got knowledge of self, but life in itself is an interesting paradigm, man, because we’re taught a lot of different things at a lot of different levels for a lot of reasons. When I first embraced knowledge of self, of course I was angry, because I felt like I had been lied to and I had been smothered, covered, isolated mentally. It caused me to ask a lot of questions, which, when I was coming up, I was taught not to ask any questions.

I think this era right now is very important, they call it the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Information. This is a real important age because information cannot be consolidated or confined as much as it could in the past via technology, which we didn’t necessarily have before, so we depended on elders and people who we respected to pass on information, but if their information was tainted, perverted, and/or both, then we only received and got what they felt was the best.

I say all that to say when I first got knowledge of self, it was knowledge of self and an awareness to me, and it was a culture shock because I grew up in Queensbridge, that’s no surprise, 96 building, six blocks, six floors, but that was it’s own microcosm within the world of a bigger world. So when you go from believing that money will solve your problems if you make it because you’re poor and you don’t have food in the refrigerator, you think money is the answer. Then you realize when you make money that you have to know what to do with money to keep it flowing or it could become a bigger problem, or put you in a bigger hole. Same thing with knowledge of self.

I got knowledge of self and learned all blacks are not niggas, hoes, prostitues, drug dealers, shooters, murderers and bums. Good, great, but then it’s like, what do you do with this, and who do you blame? Who’s the culprit? So you go through levels of this shit. I went through different degrees and schools of thought. Initially I went through the religion of Islam, which I totally respect. Anything that can build a person up and take them from a lower class or a lower self, and put them in a place where they need to be to advance in life, is a good thing. If you’re a Christian and it does that for you, I salute it. If you’re a Muslim, and all respect to the prophet Muhammad, Alay Salaam. If you’re a Jew, a Hebrew Israelite – if that’s something that lifts you up from a bottom, low state of life and it advances you, then I salute you and I have nothing against it. I know what’s working for me.

So when I got knowledge of self, the world also opened me up to a lot of things. Initially, I came home and started reading books and stuff. Mind you, I was never a dummy in school, but school didn’t interest me because I couldn’t pay attention in class. I couldn’t pay attention in class if I knew I didn’t have any food in the crib. So I was kind of forced out in a certain kind of way where most kids shouldn’t have to be. I wish I wasn’t pushed out like that. Maybe if my life circumstances would have a little different, I know I would have pursued academics a lot more. School is fun, learning is beautiful, I love to learn, but when you got pressing issues like surviving on your back and you’re a 12, 13-year-old kid, your mentality is different. You’re not thinking about playing sports. For instance, a lot of my friends be like, “Yo you watching the game?” And they be like, “Yo Trag don’t even play ball, he don’t like ball.” There’s a reason for shit like that. I don’t even like basketball. I don’t like football. I don’t like any sport except boxing, and there’s a reason for all that, because my rearing was different. My rearing was the equivalent of getting pushed out of a helicopter over a jungle like, “Yo, make it. Here’s a stick and a rock. Make it.”

So when I began to get knowledge of self and travel and get experiences, I started to become more consciously aware. For instance, I was taught blacks are all nothing or whatever and we existed in this small piece of history called Black History Month of February, which is bullshit. But that’s where I believe blacks were contained to and the apex of their achievements was within that Civil Rights Movement, which is absurd. So when I began to realize there were people who were fighting, not just for the equality and recognition of blacks who played an integral, important and devastating part of building this entire nation, but for civil rights and rights abroad, these are levels that are kept out and strategically taken out so there is no equality. Then you may come across people like H. Rap Brown and Assata Shakur and Huey [Newton] and George Jackson and people like that, poster children for the struggle or “the movement.”

There were levels and stages to Malcolm X’s transition. The only thing the media will focus on is Malcolm Little and Malcolm X. They don’t really focus on El Hajj Shabazz because El Hajj Shabazz was more of the pinnacle of that process. So they’ll focus on the militancy which they deem as hate.

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