I think it’s because it sounds like a lot of people talk about the past in a raspy, nasal way. If we really want to understand how bad the U.S. really is, we need to hear about the way we were made. For too long, rap has been about who is the best rapper in the game. That’s why you have a rapper named Chris Brown or Nas or Waka Flocka who says, “You got a hot ass motherfucker, I was born to rap!” But we don’t need artists telling us how bad we were meant to be. This sounds like the type of music that you’d make if you’re living in a cave.
The U.S. is a culture that’s been shaped by rap. The country doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As a result, every time rap comes up on my mind, I immediately think about a particular rap song. This is something that I would never be able to say if I were in the U.K. I would likely just say my first love was a country called Kentucky — or a movie called Death Race. But as much as we want to claim that rap in the U.S. doesn’t exist in any sense, I think we should remember that there’s more than one way to tell a story, and there’s a reason we’re here.
It was originally called A Tract (1982). Can you talk a bit about how that came about and how you felt about the title?
I always loved the title because in the ’80s music was in some ways a bit schizophrenic. We had some great hip-hop songs — like “Suspicious Minds” and “The Great Pretender,” which was like a precursor to “What’s New Pussycat?” — but there was a ton of great country albums, too, especially the stuff that started with Robert Johnson and then went with Stevie Wonder. But those were a bit too much for our sensibilities, so we changed the title to A Tract. This song was a very deliberate attempt to make music that felt like it was being made for a mass audience that was unfamiliar with hip-hop, which was a huge mistake—and now we’re all hip-hop experts.
So how did you get those songs to sound so modern?
“A Tract” went through a lot of revisions before it got into the public domain. The initial version was very rough, very raw. It really