Hip hop's next national champion? As the Terps' March run to their first national title demonstrated, when Maryland's best get hot, they're unstoppable. Baltimore emcee Labtekwon has been heating up for a decade, getting busy in the most old school sense of the term, dropping eight full-length solo releases on Ankh Ba Records since 1993 and leaving his mark on many more as a producer and MC. Lab's history spans the country, and so does his style. His new career retrospective Song of the Sovereign (Mush) compiles jazz-based, dubbed-out highlights from a prolific career whose better moments qualify him to join raps elite alongside the likes of Mos Def, continuing in the golden tradition of positive-minded wordsmiths and mixologists like Gang Starr, Tribe Called Quest and KRS-ONE. Flowing over producer Professor Max Minelbo's catalog of textured grooves, Labtekwon's raspy voice broadcasts the workings of a big brain. "I look at my career as an experience that has enriched my life," Lab told Inside's D.X. Ferris. "I never was pressed for fame. I just want to be the best at what I do."

To you, what's the relationship between writing and freestyling? Separate or related?

In simple terms, freestyling is improvisation and written rhymes are compositions. They are equally important and they work together. If you read and write a lot of creative stuff, it gives you a greater mental resource to freestyle from. On the other hand, freestyling serves as a brainstorming tool to enhance your written compositions. They are interchangeable as tools for an emcee, and to be a true master emcee you must be proficient in both areas.

A lot of your material reflects your intellectual and spiritual sides. Do you think that kind of material will ever come back as a main current in hip-hop?

I think that everything has its own cycle, and hip-hop is approaching a time where the emphasis will be placed on substance and content rather than aesthetic. What this means is, more people will want to be stirred mentally and spiritually by music and other arts, rather than just having a soundtrack for a party. I believe the events of 9/11 have had a subtle effect on what artists want to express and what audiences want to hear. It is only natural that people look for something that will enlighten them in a dark time. I believe that hip-hop culture will play a role in uplifting humanity in the near future.

How do you look at your own growth from the first disc to Songs of the Sovereign?

The way I see it is, it has all been a process of growth and exploration. I have grown in all areas mentally, spiritually, and physically by the virtue and essence of hip-hop culture. I have learned that the art of the emcee is more than just wordplay and timing. I have learned that to be a true emcee you must master tone, sensitivity, imagination and purpose. I have also learned that to perfect my art I have to strive for perfection in my day to day life. Song of the Sovereign is a milestone to help me see the journey I have made and help me chart to course for the rest of my journey.

What's you gear of choice?

Gear? Well, that depends on if I'm going up or down hill - bike joke, I ride mountain bikes. No, seriously I'm a sneaker freak. I dig all fresh kicks from Chuck Taylors to Air Jordans and every obscure classic pair of kicks in between. I play a lot of sports, so I love athletic gear. My day-to-day threads are usually Dickies and a white T-shirt or raw denim and a work shirt, I am definitely a fly guy, but at the same time I am really ordinary. I have been rocking baggy clothes since I was in 5th grade, so my style is timeless. Oh yeah, every now and then I will rock some trousers and a button-down shirt. I love to keep people guessing.

Tell me about Baltimore.

Baltimore? Babylon Z, The Wasteland, The Middle East, Harm City, B-More Careful, Mobtown -- this is the land of Oz! I live in one of the illest places in America. Baltimore is the Northern most city of the South and the Southern most city of the North. We are a few minutes from the Mason-Dixon line, and it shows in the culture here. People here are very slick, and hustling is learned in elementary school, so just about everybody has game. Oh yeah, super shout out to Juan Dixon from east Baltimore. The Terps are the 2002NCAA champs. I love it here for lots of reasons. There are madd fly women here, and folks just got a lot of soul. Baltimore is a dance city. People here dance from midnight to six in the nightclubs, and folks don't mind sweating to a good jam. There is a never quit, fuck y'all mentality here, and it works for me. My dad is from here, but I was born in LA, in South Central -- Baldwin Hills to be exact -- but I call Baltimore my home, and I love it here. If you come to visit, holla at me and I will turn you onto one of the freakiest cities on earth. Madd thongs.

After a dozen albums, are you as big as you want to be? Where do you want this disc to take you?

Well, I look at my career as an experience that has enriched my life, and it will continue to do so, I never was pressed for fame, I just wanted to be the best at what I do. The Song of the Sovereign album is a nice intro to those that are not familiar with my work. I would not say it is my absolute best work, but it is a nice introduction. My next album will thrust me into the mainstream, which is cool. I have some good stuff for the world to peep. stay tuned for The Hustlaz Guide to the Universe. That is the next chapter in my saga.

You also produce. Who are some of the groups you've worked with?

I am working with the R&B groups Prophet Jones and some other artists on our label such as the Maker Profaze, Supreme, Grand Orient, Blackhead Assassins, CSD, The Blaque Faxshun, and Euphoria. Right now I am going to be doing some production for Prophet Jones and some other projects as well as my own solo stuff. I am starting to gain some real lil' momentum. It will be more obvious in the coming months.


Mush Records