Denmark Vessey On ‘Martin Lucid Dream’, Blaxploitation, & Rap’s Generational Divide

Denmark Vessey

If Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive today as Aaron McGruder once envisioned, it’s not hard to imagine his reaction to theories that we live in a “post-racial” society. Detroit MC/producer Denmark Vessey’s latest project Martin Lucid Dream exists as a funhouse mirrored reflection of Dr. King’s dream, where Black lives not mattering is as banal as picking up your Sudafed from Walgreens. Production cohorts Exile, Azarius, and T-White join Vessey in chopping the beats across the project’s eight tracks, blurring the lines between twisted dream and demented reality. About what you’d expect from an artist named after an all but unknown Black abolitionist.

Vessey’s projects have always managed to find new cheek holes to dart their tongue through. If the Scud One-produced Cult Classic from 2013 was a flippant trip through the mind of the most deluded rapper-turned-cult figure this side of Captain Murphy, then Martin Lucid Dream is the moment where the weight of being a middle-class Black man in post-9/11 America flattens that ego. “That’s class in the middle like Malcolm/Not X, not Little, not Jamal Warner/Ain’t Theo, it’s Nat Geo,” he quips on the anti-Big Pharma joint “Don’t Smoke K2,” an apt display of a playful sense of humor balanced on a decidedly vintage cutting edge. Martin Lucid Dream may depict Denmark dealing with the limits of control, but there’s a fiercely informed yet laid-back advocate of hip-hop as art behind the facade. But he’ll be back out in the streets yelling Buy Muy Drugs before you know it.

WatchLOUD sat down with Denmark to talk the project, lucid dreaming, meeting Your Old Droog through writer Timmhotep Aku, and why The Spook Who Sat By The Door is his favorite movie.

WatchLOUD: Where did the title Martin Lucid Dream come from?

Denmark Vessey: Shout out to Sharkula. He’s a really eccentric super dope rap artist from Chicago, and he had this joint called [Martin Luther King Jr. Whopper With Cheese] (laughs); he killed it. I also like to mess around with words, and one day I was writing the title down and I said it on some tongue twister shit. I thought it sounded dope, so I made it the title of the project. I also like run-on stuff too, like how Jay Electronica or how Sean P does it. It was also inspired by the idea of a post-racial society, which is not true, obviously. We don’t live in the world that MLK envisioned; it’s like a parallel universe version of it.

WL: Your last project Cult Classic seemed to be built around the concepts of religion and power, while Martin Lucid Dream had more of a sociopolitical bent to it. Was that intentional?

DV: That was just the wave of thought I was on. A lot of that stuff was done two or three years ago, around the same time that Cult Classic was released. I just dropped MLD much later; I didn’t plan it or nothing like that. Also, it’s been the same shit going on for the past 2-3 years anyway. [House] Shoes was telling me ‘you’d better drop that soon,’ and I was like dawg, it’s not like this is goin’ anywhere. I can drop this anytime and it’ll still be relevant: ‘niggas do be gettin’ murdered. It’s still horrible around here.’ I’m just glad that people messed with it.

WL: Is Martin Lucid Dream a dream or a nightmare?

DV: It’s both, man. Good stuff can happen and bad stuff can happen. It’s me waking up in the dream and realizing that it’s just as fucked up, but I can make it however I wanna make it. At least that’s how it is with lucid dreaming, right?

WL: It definitely adds to the dream atmosphere with all the skits intercut throughout. Where’d the idea of people knocking on the door to wake you from the dream come from?

DV: Shout out to Doug [Saltzman]. We did those skits in a day. All that stuff kinda came on the fly. I like to make a whole bunch of songs, then I’ll pick this, this, and this. It’s the same way I did Cult Classic. Super day-of type stuff. It came to the point where I didn’t think we needed any more songs. We’ve got this big clot of songs, and we take it from there. Usually, lining everything up and even doing the skits is a last-minute and not even the whole day; maybe about 40 minutes. It was fun piecing it all together because it didn’t make sense to me at first, either (laughs). I had those songs in a lot of different arrangements and I even had different songs on there at first. But I’m glad people are fuckin’ with it.

WL: What inspired you to have Guilty Simpson open the record?

DV: Guilty reminds me of Detroit. When I think of the Detroit inner city, I think of Guilty. His voice is so commanding and that’s one of my favorite dudes. I wanted people to get smacked in the face by hearing daunting Guilty Simpson. Originally I was gonna get on there, but I let him do his thing. The first time I heard him was the Jaylib song [“Strapped”]. “I sit on the end at the movies and let my feet stick out; Any nigga with a problem get his teeth chipped out” (laughs). That shit was crazy. Same thing with the Black Milk verse. I heard his verse and just decided to hop off. I made the beats for both of them, so I said fuck it; this is how I shine. It’s already my project, so I don’t have to be so thirsty to jump on their songs.

WL: I feel that. Tell me about opening for Your Old Droog at SOB’s. Was that your first time playing the venue?

DV: [Your Old Droog show] was my first time playing SOB’s. Shout out to Droog, because he let me rock, but also shout out to Timmhotep. He’s really how I got introduced. My initial relationship was with Timm because Timm wrote about me. We met when I first moved here and he told me we’d work some things out. Right before playing SOB’s was the first time I met Droog. He’s a cool dude, man.

WL: There’s a lot of skill in being your own DJ. Did you have the whole set running on one continuous track?

DV: I just fucked around and didn’t get a DJ for the night (laughs). But I did just put all the songs on one track. I already know the songs, so I don’t have to add anything to that.

WL: It’d be even more hectic if you’d used vinyl. How do you like vinyl compared to MP3s?

DV: It sounds better. I don’t care what it is, it just has that vinyl feel to it with the crackle and everything. You want that dusty dirty feel; that’s the ill shit. I’m a big fan of vinyl.

WL: That makes sense, because I’ve always gotten a vintage blaxploitation vibe from all your work in the past. Off top, what’s your favorite blaxploitation film of all time?

DV: The Spook Who Sat By The Door. That and [Emma Mae: Black Sister’s Revenge]. I was obsessed with them for a hot second. I can’t think of many Black directors from back then and I wanted to see what Black film of the 70s was about. I’m probably on a government list for liking those two (laughs). 

WL: You might be on a government list if you openly like Sweet Sweetback’s Badaaaass Song

DV: Why? I’d figure they’d want you to watch Sweetback (laughs).

 WL: Detroit hip-hop always seems to be the subject of debates as to the overall “sound.” What does Detroit hip-hop mean to you? 

DV: Just the fly shit. Soulful dirty shit. The stuff I grew up listening to was Blake Icewood. That’s what I thought Detroit was at first. Then I’d go outside and I’d hear about Slum Village. That’s what it is to me now, but initially, it was the street shit. I’m not even a street dude; that’s just what they was playin on the radio. To me, it’s a part of that, too. Everybody knows who Dilla is and he’s a lot of what people think when they think of Detroit, but that’s the same spot that’s got Esham. It’s a really fly cool part and then there’s the scary dark party. Detroit is all fly. Kinda aggressive; even Slum had the hard drums in there every once in a while.

WL: It’s all so eclectic to me. Around here, people like to pigeonhole a particular Detroit sound. Obviously regions are different, but we’re not so rigidly defined by state boundaries anymore.

DV: Hip-hop is global. It’s the voice of the youth for real. It’s the future. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. California has its own style of hip-hop that makes it California. Like this is some Battle Cat shit. Or Pete Rock is some New York shit, or Organized Noize is some south shit. To me, that just shows the validity of hip-hop as an art form. People be hearing different shit, but it’s all beautiful. 9th Wonder hears something different from what I hear, or whoever. As long as you can hold reverence and respect for architects, then it’s all good. You don’t wanna be lookin’ like a snake or a vulture. Make sure that it goes back to the start, otherwise we’ll have Time magazine calling Madonna and the nigga from Coldplay two of the 50 greatest MCs of all time in 50 years (laughs). And have Rakim at #49.

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