Sway & King Tech

Sway & King Tech
The Wake Up Show’s Sway & King Tech Search for the Next Great MC through the 100K Battle By Luke Fox Who better to find the next Eminem than the team that first gave light to the original? Radio hosts Sway and King Tech, whose The Wake Up Show is a hip-hop program legendary for bridging lyrically endowed underground MCs to the mainstream, have taken their search for yet-to-blow rap stars online.

Hopefuls can log on to urSESSION.com and record a song over exclusive beats that Sway and Tech wrangled out of Pete Rock, 9th Wonder, Alchemist, Focus, DJ Muggs, the late J Dilla and others. Fans can also register to the site, listen and vote for the best MC, who will win $5,000, a trip to L.A. to appear on , and the chance to become urSESSION’s flagship artist this August.

"I was getting tired of hearing rappers over horrible beats,” Tech explains of the contest’s inspiration. "I got connections with all the labels, and I want to get involved with getting that kid’s demo to all the various labels.”

Exclaim! chatted at length with both Tech and Sway (who is also known for his VJ gig on MTV) about the 100K Battle and some of the greatest moments from their iconic program.

King Tech

How difficult was it to get all of these big-name producers to submit beats for the contest?
It wasn’t that hard because we’ve got history with a lot of these guys through The Wake Up Show. So when the idea came about to help these cats out, as far as producers in the game giving back to up-and-coming MCs, I was getting tired of hearing rappers over horrible beats. And I’m from the school where, man, if your beat is that horrible, I can’t even listen to you. I was up in the Bay Area, and one of our fans called in and threw it out there: "Hey, man, is there anything you can do? We’re struggling [to find good beats] out here. How many more pages are gonna be put up on MySpace? There’s 50 million rappers on MySpace and ain’t none of them doing anything.” It just hit me: A little bit better music might help find some of these dudes and give ’em a chance to shine.

How much did the producers charge to use the beats?
The beats were free.

Were you getting throwaways, then?
In my opinion, the beats are dope. I know these dudes, and I know pretty much every one of them personally. And what they might consider wack is dope to me. I’ve been around Focus when he’s played me beats that he made, and he thought they sucked, and I said, "No, dawg, this shit is incredible.” Some producers are like that — they don’t even like what they make. They just think it’s cool and move on to the next beat. But being on the DJ side, I’m like, "No, man, that’s the one!” We made sure there’s a style of beat for everyone out there.

How many submissions from rappers to you expect to get for the contest?
Right now we’re at a few thousand. The whole site, urSESSION.com, has 18,000 members in four months, so the word is out. We’re looking into hearing the artists, giving them constructive criticism and helping people get [record] deals.

Who’s sitting there and listening to these thousands of submissions? I mean, there’s gotta be a lot of wack stuff getting uploaded.
Here’s the beauty of the whole site, man. We were talking about this in the beginning. We were saying, "Dude, it’s almost impossible. I don’t want to make another MySpace because I’m not gonna sit there every day for eight hours going through 100 cats’ [tracks]. The formula we got is that when you first come on [the site], you sign up as either a fan or an artist. And the fans are the ones that vote and bring the music up to the top. So it’s a pretty simple process. So when you wake up, you can grab a coffee and go listen to the top-rated dudes of the week. Same thing with the 100K Battle — you can just go to who’s competing and listen to the top 20. You ain’t gotta sit there through every artist. And it’s pretty accurate. There’s a community going on within the battle — users saying, "Yo, you gotta check this dude out.” And a lot of these [artists] got friends online who are doing promotions on themselves, but we’re hoping the best rise to the top.

What’s the ideal outcome for the rapper who wins the 100K Battle?
In the Bay Area, a lot of cats know that the bridge between the underground and the mainstream has become The Wake Up Show. When Eminem came on The Wake Up Show years ago, nobody knew he was gonna be this big, but we said, "Get on the mic and rap.” He said, "Can I come back?” "Yeah, come back.” So if we can find some dope MCs out of this, we want to get them on The Wake Up Show, we’re giving away $5,000 to the first-place winner, but more importantly, I got connections with all the labels, and I want to get involved with getting that kid’s demo to all the various labels. At the end of the day, we’re gonna launch urSESSION Records in three to six months, so ultimately we want to put some of these artists out ourselves.

When you had Eminem on your show before he was signed, did you have any idea he’d be as big as he is?
Not that big, but I saw the talent definitely. We’re around it every day, so every MC that’s ever rap battled, I’ve heard about 90% of them. Week after week, the bar at The Wake Up Show is set extremely high. If you come up there and rap, if you don’t get down... To be honest with you, that’s why a lot of people avoid coming on the show now, because they’re like, "Man, I can’t rap as good as Crooked I, who was on last week. I don’t want to play myself. I’m not ready to be up there.” But the first round [Eminem] did, I remember he did OK. The second round, I remember he was doing little comedy skits and drops within his verses, and when the show ended, they asked, "Yo, can Em come back to The Wake Up Show? If you say yes, we won’t go back to Detroit.” I was like, "Yeah, definitely. Dude was dope.” He had the type of hunger to be the best that we couldn’t ignore. He was kickin’ ill stuff every week until Dr. Dre heard him, and the rest is history.

Has there been an instance where an MC didn’t want to spit on the show because he was intimidated by your high standards for lyricism?
That’s never really happened, man, because they won’t come up. Years and years ago, when the show took off in the Bay and we were great friends with Digital Underground, I remember Shock G saying, "Look, the reason I don’t want to come up there is because I hear cats killing it every week, and I don’t really rap like that. We make commercial records.” So if you come up there and you don’t get down, it’s going to be disappointed. So the veterans know to either show up and get busy or don’t show up. There have been dudes who got a buzz that come up to the show and fall off — they’re just wack, or they fall apart on the radio. And you’re like, "Ah, dude, that was your chance to get busy.” They’re under a lot of pressure because you got millions and millions of people listening to this show. We’ve got thousands of CDs of freestyles all over the world. Some people panic when they get up here. It’s cool, though. We don’t grill ’em. We’ll give them another round, another chance. We’re humble because we went through it as artists. We’re not the shock jocks like Star and Buckwild who constantly diss a dude to try and get props. We’ll say, "Go home, fix it, get better, come back.”

You’ve been privileged to see so many top artists come through your show when they were just starting out. Who would you put in your highlight reel? When was your jaw on the floor because of someone’s skills?
I would say Biggie, Crooked, Common, Chino XL and Pharoahe. Off the top of my head, those five dudes, when they was at their peak or when they’re in their zones, it’s like… man, what the hell?! Biggie — he wasn’t spittin’ bananas, but he just had a lot of new swag and a lot of new flavour that I’d never heard before. And the dude was a real cool cat to kick it with. Pac didn’t come on the show as much; we had kicked it with him outside the show, but he didn’t come on the show and spit every week. Biggie came on the show about four, five times. Chino’s been on 10 times, Crooked’s been on ten times, Canibus has been on five times, Pharoahe’s been on ten times. Those consider, "When I come on here, I gotta rap incredible, or it’s not gonna work.”

Anything you want to add?
I want everyone to about the 100K Battle because I’m running into a lot of MCs that are struggling right now to let the world know how dope they are, and there aren’t that many shows left to give them that kind of spotlight. We’ve been in the game a long time, and we’re in a position to put dudes on, so if anyone’s out there with any type of skills, we set up the simplest battle. You sign on, download beats from 9th Wonder, Focus, Pete Rock, whatever flavour you want. Just put it back up [with your verses on the beat]. We go through and listen to ’em. We’re looking to show you love and give you exposure.

Sway

You’re known as an MTV host now. How familiar are people with your hip-hop roots, as an artist yourself and as host of The Wake Up Show?
I had this girl come up to me yesterday. She said, "I just wanted to come and say hi to you. I met you when I was a little girl. You were extremely nice to me, and you signed my T-shirt. You were my hero back then.” I’m looking at this grown-ass girl and say, "Well, how old are you now?” She said, "I’m 20.” I was like, Damn. A lot of people say, "I grew up listening to you guys,” and they grown-ass. When Tech and I started on the radio we were so young. That’s why our show was so raw and uninhibited.

Do you miss those early days of the show?
I miss the old days because everything was different — not just radio but the industry. Everything was unpredictable. People weren’t so calculated with their art. They were just trying to make the hottest beats by any means necessary. Back then, we were experimenting and discovering things as we went along. That made it exciting. You never knew what you were gonna get when you put somebody like Eminem on the air. Who is this kid that’s flipping patterns so sick with the ill-ass metaphors? It wasn’t about who could write the hottest single or get the biggest feature[d artist] on your song. I feel like these new artists in this new era are more business-minded than they are [concerned] about their art. I stopped interviewing as much on MTV because I found that most people I interview pretty much already did the interview in their head before they came to me. I did a few interviews with Jay-Z and 50 Cent and Nas early on that became big interviews for MTV, but if you listen to The Wake Up Show, we do interviews like that all the time. It was no big deal for me to challenge someone with questions. So now the element of surprise is gone. I miss that element of surprise, that element of discovery that seems to have gotten lost in the business of rap.

What was one of the most surprising things that happened on the show?
Fatlip from Pharcyde came up on the show, and he had challenges with the group breaking up and him being out on the streets and being on drugs, all kinds of stuff. I bumped into him on Melrose or something and said, "Hey, man,” because we look at these dudes as family. We all kinds grew up together, trying to make it in the business with our own niche. So if I go past one Fatlip on the street, it’s like, "Yo, what the fuck is up?” As a person — where you been, how you been. So I invited him on the show, and that’s what he needed I guess. He started rapping and kinda fucked up on his verses once or twice. And then dude basically broke down on the air, talking about what he had been going through. So what started as an interview became a counseling session. So I start asking him questions and trying to encourage him. [Tech and I] are positive dudes, so we chose the positive route. Everybody at one point has come on our show because it’s a comfortable setting, and they know who we are and what we’re about.

With this show, me and Tech just drive the bus; we’re definitely not the bus. We drive the vehicle, but the vehicle is its own thing that’s bigger than us. The Wake Up Show became bigger than us. You gotta constantly reinvent yourself, too. I realised if we don’t reinvent ourselves, we’ll become fossils.

We have consistently been a part of great moments, whether it was Jay-Z doing "22 Twos” way before Reasonable Doubt, when he was traveling around with [producer] Ski and Original Flavor, coming up to The Wake Up Show with a headband on, grey sweatpants, one leg up, still raw. This was Jay-Z before the money and power. Whether it was Lauryn Hill coming on the show — people didn’t know how skilled she was at that point — and basically crushing Wyclef and Pras. She hadn’t stepped out and done anything to make people realise she was so phenomenal at that point. Or Biggie sitting there talking about Pac, and that being his last interview. That show just provided so much to our culture. Power 106: the latest thing we would do is have producers come into the studio and create beats on the spot, fresh, raw. Artists are no longer freestyling to someone’s instrumental; we’re creating original beats right there. Out of the blue, creating a hook, scratching something in spontaneously. The artists gotta know when the hook comes in. It’s just creating this magic where each week we’re creating an original soundtrack for The Wake Up Show. Every single week. Even when a B-level or C-level artists comes up.

How does the online 100K Battle compare to the radio show?
urSESSION.com, in a sense, is the internet version of what The Wake Up Show has been for radio: an opportunity, a platform. We’re trying to give it the same credibility as The Wake Up Show for independent artists. And although there are other social networks out there, if you know anything about us, we’re trying to create a new platform for artists to become self-contained with a little help. You don’t need the same tools we needed in the ’90s to excel. You can do it on your own for less cost. Yeah, it takes longer to get the same kind of exposure, but you can create a network through urSESSION. Those same people who you’ve been running after will be running after you, because the music industry has played into the online game.

Looking back at The Wake Up Show, what are you proud of?
I’m proud that we helped contribute to Eminem’s success.

Do most people associate you with MTV?
A lot of people approach me based on what I’ve done for MTV, but Tech and I — nothing’s changed with us. We still do The Wake Up Show, we’re still partners, 50/50 brotherhood. Some of the stuff I do on MTV, people would’ve never imagined me doing, including myself, so we laugh at it. I’m having fun with it.

Do MCs change their approach when they’re on TV as opposed to radio?
Absolutely. The Wake Up Showis a lot more comfortable, a lot more relaxed environment. It’s like being in the front room of your house versus going out back. When you in the front room, it’s a little more formal. If you go in the back room, it’s more raw — that’s The Wake Up Show. Artists who come to MTV but know me from The Wake Up Show, they tend to be a lot more relaxed and kinda treat it like The Wake Up Show. But an artist who may have heard of the show but don’t really know what it is, they’re a little different, and I’m a little different when I’m talking on TV.

Even when I’m on TV, yeah, I’m working on MTV, but I’m cognizant of where I come from, what I got outside of MTV, just that hip-hop mentality. Now a lot of artists don’t wear both hats. I think those who are most interested in expanding the art form will make the most profit in the long run anyways, whether that’s monetary or whether it’s respect. Redman, for example, can out-rap any of the MCs we listed as the top on MTV. You might have Kanye and Wayne and Jeezy, who are doing great, but I don’t know anybody on that list — maybe Andre 3000 and Jay — who can out-rap Redman. Who can out-rap Redman? Some of these guys selling millions of downloads won’t be around in two years. They’re not in it for the right reasons, and that’s why we see guys come and go. Rap was always the voice of the disenfranchised. Don’t abuse it. Don’t just sit on it and take it for granted. You gotta nurture that, you gotta cultivate it. In the most humble way, I think it’s why I’ve been around so long. As big as our show has gotten, we’re still as relevant if not more now. It’s hard not to compromise our integrity with me being on such a mainstream platform; I’ve had to balance it out. I hope you can tell that we care about the culture and aren’t trying to hoodwink you.