Ab-Liva: Big Brother’s Watching

The monk. Big brother Abdul. The man that would be king.

North Philly son Ab-Liva is different things to different people. To Pharrell Williams and the Re-Up Gang, he’s a reserved philosopher, pen in hand, waiting for inspiration.

To his younger brothers Hassan and Anwar, who are both incarcerated, he’s a tower of hope, a glimpse at the good life that comes with timing, smart choices, and a little luck. To himself, Liva is a rapper with untapped potential, a street corner sage ready to claim his throne with a smirk and say, “Told you so.”

Since his guest turn on Clipse’s “Cot Damn” in 2002, Ab-Liva (his moniker combines his birth name, Abdul, with a boastful superlative) has rhymed with shocking comfort, adopting a husky swagger that falls somewhere between confident and cautionary. His lines on last year’s “We Got It 4 Cheap” mixtapes were highlighted by thrilling metaphors and pop culture gems that showed a working knowledge of more than just rap music.

With his tone alternating between deadly serious and surprisingly friendly, Ab-Liva broke down his game, from choosing music over sports and writing for Dr. Dre to comparisons to Jay-Z and dealing with the mainstream’s embrace.

AllHipHop.com: How did you first get up with Malice and Pusha?

Ab-Liva: It was in ’99. I was in a group called Major Figgas, from Philly. One of my homies was signed to Suave House, and they were tryin’ to sign me as a solo artist. They sent my man down to [Virgina] to work with Pharrell, and they sent me along with him to structure some songs. We were at Chad [Hugo’s] house, and Pharrell put a beat on. We was in there rappin’, and they looked at me, like, “Damn, you hot. [laughs] Who you signed to?” I told them Suave House was hollerin’ at me, but it wasn’t definite. Pharrell didn’t have a label at the time, but he was like, “Whatever you do, we wanna work with you.” So me and Pharrell and Clipse hit it off right then and there. I ran into them [again] at a video shoot with Philly’s Most Wanted. That’s where they met Roscoe P. Coldchain.

I hadn’t seen them in maybe a year and a half, and then Pharrell and Pusha came to Philly for a New Year’s Eve party, and I just happened to be there. Pusha was like, “We workin’ on [Lord Willin’], and we was just talkin’ about who we can get on this song, and your name came up.” I hadn’t seen them in a year and a half, so I was kinda skeptical. But they called me the next day and booked me on a flight to Virginia, and that’s when we did “Cot Damn.”

AllHipHop.com: What first drew you to Hip-Hop?

Ab-Liva: I just remember being a fan of Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap. Kool G Rap, for the most part, was my biggest influence. His wordplay was so crazy. I used to be intrigued by how he could put all them words together and make them flow. I remember my first summer job, having a Walkman and this Kool G Rap tape. [laughs] No other tapes, just Kool G Rap, goin’ to my summer job. That’s when I really thought about writin’. Up to that point, I was just a fan of the music.

I came into the game with a group called Major Figgas. We got together in ’97, in Philly. We started makin’ our own little mixtapes in our neighborhood. We was cool with Beanie Sigel, and right around the time he got on, Cosmic Kev at Power 99 had us come up to the radio station and bust some freestyles. So we just created a buzz in Philly and it went from there. We almost signed with Roc-A-Fella, but the money wasn’t right. I was runnin’ with Dr. Dre and them for a couple of years, too.

AllHipHop.com: Did Dre wanna bring you to Aftermath?

Ab-Liva: Yeah. I was in the camp for about a year and a half, two years. I did some writin’ for Dre. I wrote his verse on “The Watcher 2” [from Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse].

AllHipHop.com: You mentioned Beans — is everyone really tight in Philly or are there pockets?

Ab-Liva: It’s somewhat territorial. [laughs] I’m [originally] from North Philly, and North Philly kinda sticks with North Philly. Beans is from South Philly, so in South Philly, they hold him down. They rep for him. Me and my group, we rep for North Philly hard. It’s like any hood, though. You gotta learn fast, be on your toes. Try to stay away from the dumb s**t, try to make your way.

AllHipHop.com: Now, I’ve seen you in person, and I’ve seen your MySpace page. You’re a pretty tall dude, right?

Ab-Liva: Yeah. I’m 6’9”.

AllHipHop.com: So you had to get pulled into sports at some point, right?

Ab-Liva: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] I played basketball in high school. What’s funny is, I played sports but I didn’t look at it like a career. To me, that wasn’t my calling. It was for fun. After I graduated from high school, I knew music was it for me.

AllHipHop.com: You mention a younger brother who’s in prison on “Nothing Like It” [from “We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 1”]. Can you comment on that?

Ab-Liva: I actually got two brothers that’s in prison, both of my younger brothers. My youngest brother, who I talked about on Vol. 2, on the “Hate It or Love It” beat, he has life. We’re appealing it. He’s locked up for a murder he didn’t commit. He got caught in a stolen car with his homie. The police came, and they got out and ran. Cops catch him, come back to the car, find a gun. His prints weren’t on the gun or anything, but they charged him with the crime [it was used in]. Just to see him railroaded by the judicial system…cops lyin’ on the stand and it’s obvious…It was crazy when the verdict was handed down. To see such a miscarriage of justice…I just looked at the whole system as f**ked up. It can’t work. If you can get charged with something you didn’t do, and a muthaf**ka can hand down a sentence of life on somebody — to me, that just f**ked up everything.

AllHipHop.com: What’s that brother’s name?

Ab-Liva: Anwar. He’s been in jail since he was 15. He’s about to turn 25.

AllHipHop.com: So he’s already put in ten years. And you have another brother who’s in jail, too?

Ab-Liva: Yeah, Hassan.

AllHipHop.com: With two brothers in jail, did you ever worry about getting caught up like that?

Ab-Liva: Yeah, man. Me and Hassan are close in age, and we was runnin’ in the streets at the same time. I’m lucky to say I didn’t get incarcerated while I was hustlin’. There came a point in time where I started doing this music thing, and I put all that other stuff to the backburner. I’m glad I did, because I’ve been able to make my way with it. We got a lot of things poppin’ off right now, and it’s f**ked up that they couldn’t be here with me [to celebrate].

AllHipHop.com: In between “Cot Damn” and when you re-emerged last year, what was your career like?

Ab-Liva: I was still out in L.A., doing some work with Dre. He produced some songs for me. Then I went on tour with Clipse. We were on the road for about two and a half years straight. We did Europe with Jay-Z; we were on every tour through 2003 and 2004. In 2004 was when the Re-Up Gang took shape. That’s when Clipse was workin’ on Hell Hath No Fury and goin’ through all the label drama.

AllHipHop.com: What did you think when the mixtapes came out last year and publications like Pitchfork Media and Village Voice embraced them?

Ab-Liva: It caught me so off-guard. I got a call from Pusha one day. He was like, “Yo, we in the new Blender magazine.” They put our mixtape as one of the top 50 albums of 2005. I’m like, “What?” It was just a mixtape and they put it as one of the top 50 albums [of the year].

To me, it let us know we were going in the right direction. We couldn’t say on the mixtapes, “Yo, we doin’ this like an album,” [just] so people would get it. [laughs] We said, “Let’s just do the music right”; make sure the ad-libs are tight; the verses are tight; the hooks are tight. We wanted it to show.

AllHipHop.com: So what’s next for you? I know there are some big projects coming up.

Ab-Liva: The Clipse album is coming. The song that features the Re-Up Gang is crazy, absolutely crazy. It’s called “Ain’t Cha”. It’s so goddamn hard. We workin’ on the Re-Up Gang album right now. For the listeners, we got some s**t lined up. [laughs] It’s gonna be some great ridin’ around, volume turned all the way up, just zonin’ music. I’m workin’ on my solo album, too. That should be out after the Re-Up Gang album, hopefully next summer. And I still got that window open with Dr. Dre. I’m supposed to do some writin’ on the Detox album. I went out there end of 2004, beginning of 2005, and was workin’ on it then. I wrote on a couple joints, but he [ended up] scrapping the album. About six or seven months ago, he had me come out there [again] and listen to some of the beats he was pickin’ out.

AllHipHop.com: You’ve worked with Pharrell and Dre, two of the most innovative producers ever. What can you say about the way they work?

Ab-Liva: Man, listen. I’ve worked with a lot of producers. Those two guys, they have different approaches to making music, but they fine-tune what they do so well. Pharrell, his inspiration is just crazy. He’ll start hummin’ and then flesh out a whole song — chorus and everything. And Dre, his ear is crazy. He’ll be workin’ on a beat, and you’ll be there listenin’ to it. He’ll give you the look, and you’ll give him the look back, like, “Yeah, this s**t is crazy.” And then he’ll be like, “Hold up.” And he’ll change something around, and when he plays it back it’ll be twice as good as it was before. It’s been a pleasure workin’ with both of those guys.

AllHipHop.com: In some of your lines, you talk about being a king. That’s a word that catches everyone’s ear when they hear it. What do you mean by that?

Ab-Liva: I’ve always said that. If you look at the “Hot Damn” video, which was 2003, it says “the man that would be king” on the screen, right before I rap.

I was working in a studio in Philly with these engineers: Mark, a real cool guy, and another guy, Otto. These guys were Rock engineers [laughs], not your usual rap engineers. But they would always tell me that they really felt my flow and how I put words together. I ain’t know how good their rap ear was, but they knew music, so I told them I appreciated it. One day we was sittin’ around, smokin’. Otto looked at me and he goes, “I got a title for you. The man that would be king. That’s how I look at you.” And when he said that to me, I was like, “S**t, that’s hard.” [laughs]

Lyrically, I don’t think a lot of cats can f**k with me. Not sayin’ that to be cocky; I just know I’m good at what I do. That’s why it’s “the man that would be king” — as soon as I get my shot to really show ’em, they’ll see the light.