Cunning linguist. It’s a James Bond movie pun about what ‘dat mouf’ do that somehow became the name of a dope rap group. A little more than ten years ago Kentucky MCs Deacon the Villain and Natti, along with producer Kno released their third album as CunninLynguists, the equally libidinous sounding A Piece Of Strange. After recording two albums, Will Rap For Food (2001) and Southern Underground(2003) one of the early members Mr SOS departed the group and Natti joined the party. The change in personnel, along with learnings from the first two releases, prompted the group to go in a new direction, and it resulted in creating a groundbreaking album that is still considered one of their best.
“It don’t make me feel as old as I thought it would,” Deacon says of the 10-year anniversary, which was in January. “I just feel that it aged pretty well and I’m proud that people still want to listen to it and buy it like it’s new.”
“I’m just happy to have an album that people still give a damn about,” Natti deadpans.
After an informative chat on the phone (how 2006 is that?) we found out quite a bit about A Piece Of Strange and have collected 12 things you probably didn’t know.
1.The name A Piece of Strange:
Deacon: The one thing people might not know about the album title is when we did APOS we were really, really considering changing our name. When we came up with the name for the group we weren’t taking it seriously. At the time I was in a rap group and Kno was in a rap group and CunninLynguists was this experimental thing we were going to press up 50 copies of and give away to friends and that’s it. But it became bigger than that. And by the time we got to the third album, with APOS we had a stronger sense of direction with our music and our legacy. At the time we were like CunninLynguists is kind of a wack name. Nobody can sell it, people don’t get the joke. Half the time people asked me how to spell it I f*cked it up. So when we came up with APOS we were gonna change our name to that. Kind of like ATCQ, APOS, that’s how we were looking at it, but we chickened out. But I wish sometimes we had changed our name back then to APOS.
NATTI: It’s just really sad that we live in a country where you can have a cocaine based name and be cool, but if you mention going down on a woman’s lady parts all of a sudden it’s taboo. What is this world we live in where it’s cooler to snort coke than love p*ssy? I don’t understand. “Oh your name is Heroine packs for sale? Put it on the front page!”
DEACON: We got denied performing at schools because of our name.
NATTI: They wouldn’t even put our name on the marquee in Utah in Salt Lake City. Yeah
DEACON: ‘A piece of strange’ was more regional [slang] at the time. Over ten years it spread but it doesn’t have to be interpreted as something sexual. It could be strange music, strange chords, strange guys…but we was definitely talking about some strange booty. We love double entendres and APOS wasn’t as pronounced as CL.
2.ALBUM COVER ART by Becky Cloonan
DEACON: If I remember correctly Becky Cloonan already had her own cult following. A fan let KNO know that she was a fan and he hit her up and she did it for free. That’s the only cover we had that we didn’t pay for. She did it totally for free and it’s our most iconic cover. We knew that we were gonna be playing with religion and different things prevalent in the south. I’m the only Christian in the group. and at first we were gonna do a live version with a model taking a photo but Becky drew it. It was gonna be like the Shakira cover, she pretty much jacked us (laughs). Her album (Oral Fixations) came out like a year later. It was just like ours but just the live version. She had the creepy baby up in the corner.
Natti: I was like damn Shakira you coulda posed for ours. We’ve got pictures of the fans with the cover tattooed on themselves. We have pictures in the insert of the anniversary version of the CD.
3. The mindset and focus of the album
DEACON: Our first two albums we were just experimenting. We were just making songs. We weren’t thinking about concepts or what we wanted our legacy to be. But for the third album but we were beginning to see that nobody knew where we were from. They thought anywhere but the South. And it pissed us off because 90% of the rap we like is from The South. There would be no CunninLynguists without Bun B, 8 Ball, etc. So we knew we wanted to start making music that was a reflection of where we came from. That was one pivotal turn. The second was that we wanted to use our platform for good. We wanted to say something and have a message. So going into APOS that’s what we were attempting. And we slowly decided that the best way for us to tackle it was in a third person point of view and tell somebody else’s story. That’s where the racism and religion and all that came in. All that was a nod to the South. The Bible belt and the things we lived growing up in the south.
NATTI: During that time period with me joining the group there was a new kind of focus on doing music that was timeless, hence we didn’t do a song about two-way pagers, because who the hell remembers what a two-way pager is anymore.
4. THE PRODUCTION:
DEACON: APOS was like the beginnings of Kno working with live musicians on a regular basis. Early in our career Kno would come with a completed beat and we’d rap to it. But for a lot of APOS Kno would come with skeletons, just a drum beat and some chords. We’d rap on it, but when we got it back it was a whole other animal with guitars and flutes and singers. It was the beginnings of that for him.
NATTI: Kno’s true talent is he can build a beat around a verse. If you give him your a capellas he’s gonna come up with something awesome. Like he did with the Jay Z album, The White Album.
DEACON: And it was the first time Kno showed how much soul he had because the first two records were so Boom-Bap. But we saw we could carve out our own niche and he took off taking greater risks as a producer.
5. Keep It In The Closet
DEACON: Every CunninLynguist album was recorded in my closet. And the time me and Kno were roommates and Natti lived a half a mile away. We were in a house with like 8 people in it. It was so crowded. At the time I supplemented my income by recording people running studio time out of our crib. At the time I had about 60 clients that came through our house on a regular basis. That included Club Dub, the band you hear on APOS. I recorded all the stuff that was on Kno’s beats. They might come and work on a project and I’d ask if they could throw a bass line on the end of this Kno beat and I’d send it to him. People were always coming in and out of our house. This was in Lexington, KY.
Immortal Technique recorded his verses (for “Never Know Why” ) in NY. A lot of people don’t know that Immortal technique rapped to an entirely different track than what’s on the album. Kno remade a completely different beat around his verse.
Cee-Lo recorded his stuff (for “Caved In”) on his own, too but we did get to be with him and explain the concept because we did a show with him in L.A. and we got to fly out on the same plane as him. We stayed in the same hotel so we got to explain exactly what we wanted. It was a Cee-Lo, Little brother and CL show at Pomona College outside of LA. There were some students there, one of em being Cunji (sp) who has rapped on a whole bunch of our stuff over the years, but at the time he was just a fan of ours that was a student at PCC and him and two other students put together that show. They treated us all like A-listers but we were like C-listers. But we capitalized on that moment by getting a Cee-LO hook out of it.
NATTI: It’s funny because he still remembers, too. We did Hip-Hop Kemp in the Czech Republic and we saw him in the back and he said: Man, I seen your name on the flyers and I told Gipp I think I did a song with these boys.
DEACON: Right after we got Cee-Lo is [when] Gnarles Barkely took off. “Crazy” took off right after he did the song. And when we saw him in the Czech Republic a year and a half ago I told him I bet we were the last people to get you for a ‘love’ price and he busted out laughing. Because it was true. We were the last people to get Cee-Lo for an affordable price.
NATTI: He’s probably like “5 or 10 bands? I won’t even listen to a song for that much now!”
7.THE LABEL: LA Underground
DEACON: Yeah, f*ck that guy.
NATTI: Yeah, f*ck them motherf*ckers.
DEACON: We never got paid a dime and are still fighting to this day. Ten years later. We can’t talk too much about it but we can say f*ck that guy.
8. NO VIDEOS:
DEACON: We shot a video for “Nothing To Give” that never came out.
NATTI: It was a black and white themed video that we shot in Lexington and used my apartment as homeless. It was supposed to be seen through the eyes of a child. The whole video is intentionally low to the ground because it’s A POV video. [It had] Lots of things going on that children see that makes them not be children for long. You don’t realize it’s a child til the end. You see people shooting dice, prostitutes, somebody about to kill themselves. Then at the end he walks by a mirror and you see his reflection and it’s a child the entire time seeing all this ill sh*t.
DEACON: I think it helped us to chop it up with people we grew up listening to. Got really cool with Billy Danz from MOP or Devin The Dude and that lead to him being on the Dirty Acres track. That’s what “Strange Journey 1, 2 3” was about. All the people we met like Macklemore and Masta Ace, people we met on the road. If you had a large fanbase or small, if we got along back stage we were gonna do a song together.
NATTI: We’re not really the type to work with anybody that’s a general prick. If you’re an asshat we don’t get down with ‘ya. Maybe if we did we might be richer [laughs].
10. The inspiration for “Since When”
DEACON: It was an answer to that sentiment that “the south sucks but we love you guys” we were kind of venting on that. People in the south do have lyrics. You ain’t heard Andre 3000 or Bun B or Mr. Mike. If you listened to these spitters they got bars. He might not use metaphors in the same way Redman does but that doesn’t make him any less of a lyricist.
NATTI: I was like ‘You never heard of Scarface’?
11. Recording live version of APOS back in ’09.
NATTI: I think a lot of that was the amount of influence live instruments had on that album it was kind of screaming for it.
DEACON: And the Club Dub they the homies so they were proud to be part of that project. So it was a no brainer. We had done the QN5 Megashows and wanted to bring a different experience to the stage. Plus Southern Underground and Will Rap for Food wouldn’t have worked for two reasons 1) They didn’t have any live instruments and 2 Natti wasn’t on any of them. It would have been weird for us to get out there and do Will Rap For Food and Natti has to be a hype man.
DEACON: We dropped an unreleased song for the the 10th anniversary called “Vitriol” and that was originally going to be the intro to APOS. We were copying the format that we followed for Southern Undeground. Because on the first track of Southern Underground it was just me, Kno and SOS spitting sh*t going bar-for-bar but then we decided we didn’t want any similarities to our our first two albums. So we scrapped it. We liked the song.
NATTI: And once the album came together it didn’t really fit.