Set the Smith Q&A
Set the Smith, whom I wrote about in City Pages this week, performs a CD-release show on Saturday at the Dinkytowner for his excellent new The Smithsonian Album, on Chill Records. Both the show and CD feature local legends, and shouldn't be missed.
The rapper (a.k.a. Upset the Locksmith, a.k.a. Charles C. Lockhart III) sat down with me over coffee and a cigar last month at Dunn Brothers in Uptown to talk about his early days as a child-MC in the 1980s, back when his father managed the I.R.M. Crew, one of the first popular local rap groups. We also talked about his career since then, and a more recent controversy--this is his first time going on the record about his role in the case of an erroneously sent government check for $2.6 million, which he says the media has distorted.
You mentioned that you speak to your father every day. What do you talk about?
Sometimes he calls me just to say what's up and philosophize about life and what the future holds, and my life and what I really want. And sometimes it's all about music and what the next mission is. Me and him, we've always been real close. We're kind of cut the same. He's like my best friend. My father is my best friend.
What are your earliest memories of your father and local rap?
My father's raised me with my mother, so he's always been around. But one thing that sticks out in my head was when I was three or four years old. I was walking around the edge of the sandbox, and I lost my balance and fell on my chin. I busted my chin open, and my dad came and picked me up and brought me to the hospital, and I got stitches and all that. Afterwords he was real proud of me for not crying through getting the stitches, so he took me to McDonald's. That was my first time knowing my body could even bleed like that, and I think a big reason why I didn't bug out was he was there. He kept me calm through that situation.
I have a whole lot of memories of my father as far as hip hop goes. Before hip hop, he was involved in rock and roll with my uncle. He had a band called Banther, and my dad was managing his band for a moment. And then my brother [Gage] came to him and said, "Yo, you need to get into hip hop," in about '85. So that's when he started getting involved in hip hop. My father used to bring me to studio spots and everything.
My biggest memory was a show that he did at the Capri. The show was sold-out, and that's when gang-banging was pretty big over north, and it'd just hit the city, so it was like Vice Lords and GDs around. There was a whole lot of people outside who wanted to get in, and there wasn't a lot of hip-hop shows back then, so if you couldn't get in to a Charlie Chill show then you weren't going to get to see no live hip hop. So people got upset, and they ended up shooting up the show. It was the I.R.M. Crew [a.k.a. Immortal Rap Masters, a.k.a. IRM Crew] performing. It was on the news and all of that. My dad kept us all safe.
MCs were always at the crib. They ended up staying with us at one point in time. Hip hop and my father go hand in hand with the memories that I have of my life. A very small part of my life was not involved in hip hop, and that was probably around the time when I broke my chin open.
(I.R.M. Crew in the studio, 1987, clockwise from top: Devastatin' D, TLC, Kel C, Michael Mack, B Fresh [now Truthmaze], and manager Charles C. Lockhart II, Set the Smith's father. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Lockhart II.)
Do you remember the first time you beatboxed?
The first time I beatboxed I was around Truthmaze. He was just phenomenal. I remember listening to him on the radio battling another beatboxer on KMOJ, just eating cats up all over the city. Nobody could touch him. So I began beatboxing around 5 or 6, strictly because of him, looking up to the people he looked up to, like Doug E. Fresh. But B Fresh was so dope, and that was his [Truthmaze's] name back then, he was so dope that he was in the same league as Doug E. Fresh and all of them because he could do all the combinations.
Do you remember your first rap?
I remember the first rap that I wrote, I rapped it in front of TLC. TLC was Tender Loving Care in the I.R.M. Crew. He was more so the battle rapper, and Kel C [also of IRM] was more of a freestyling thinker, the type of cat that would save a show spontaneous. TLC would write some shit to rip your head off. He lived with us for a second. So I started rhyming when I was 6, 7. And my first name was Baby Beat. I was the baby who would beatbox.
Do you remember anything about that rap?
I remember the first line. "Baby Beat is a name you will never forget/Baby Beat is rocking/Baby Beat is it."
And you were recording by 7-years-old, with producer Kelley Kelley.
Kelley Kelley was working with a cat named Sweet Success, and that's who my father was working with after the I.R.M. Crew. I would come to the studio sessions just to check out what they were doing. I always wanted to be a rapper, and I thought I had skills, so I would spit flows and think I could battle Sweet Success at that young age. I would come there and just listen to Sweet Success and admire what he was doing, and try to get Kelley Kelley to stop their session and hear what I was about. I was just getting in the way back then.
Was there anybody else that young doing it back then?
Not that I knew of. I was just around all the older cats. I think I was really fortunate about the circle of people that were around me. It was like a hip-hop family spread all the way across the city. My father was like the father of hip hop in Minnesota, and they were his children, and he took care of them like his children too. Any time they needed something, my dad was there for them. They were all like my older brothers.
By 14, you'd released your first album. Was there any point where you decided this was something you wanted to do, not just for fun?
Actually, at 12 I was on my first CD. My dad was dealing with some cats out of Chicago and they were putting together a compilation CD on Bridge City Records. I had written a song called "Warning," and LST produced the song. I sounded like a little girl because my voice hadn't changed yet. I was working with LST back then, and then I was working with my man Headake tha Chosen, who's on my album now. So I pulled him into the fold, and we had a song called "Black on Black Crime." Even back then when we were kids, we were rapping about stuff that was tangible and had meaning to what was going on. And plus my dad was always about the message, bro. He instilled that in me early on, that when you rhyme, just not to rhyme to rhyme, but rhyme about something.
When I interviewed your dad for the local hip-hop oral history in City Pages, he was pretty open about transferring a lot of his dreams from the IRM Crew to you. Is that a lot of weight on your shoulders?
Actually, I thrive in that field. Because I used to spit rhymes to my dad. He would be working with other people, and he would come home, and I would be like, "Yo, Dad, check this out," and I would rhyme some shit over an instrumental. And finally my mom was like, "You should work with your son." And he wanted to work with me. So we began working together, and I think It was a mutual thing. I loved it.
What was that early-'90s scene like here when you were getting in the mix?
That's when messages started coming through in songs, when the Micranots was more so not just rhyming about being dope, but rhyming about things that were going on. I think it was pretty much a gang of urban kids trying to really convey a message to a larger audience about what they were going through and what they were seeing coming up. That's what the scene was around my way, cats like the Micranots and Phull Surkle.
Who were your favorite rappers then?
Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Special Ed, Redhead Kingpin. OC was dope. L.L. Cool J definitely influenced me a whole lot.
Where'd you go to high school?
I went to South High. Zach from Kanser, New MC, he was around there back then. We still talk, he's still my dude. I would battle MCs all day at South, that's what it was all about. Cats like Omar, he was like a master freestyler back in the early '90s. Even though he was older, I would always go at the head honcho, because I was young and I was hungry. The only way to get attention was to go at the person who was getting all the attention.
You worked with Rek the Heavyweight, a.k.a. Spawn from Atmosphere. Was that in the mid-'90s?
Yeah, '97-'98 was when me and Rek got together. It was my first album, Final Notice, that I recorded under the name Upset the Locksmith. Rek was working with Atmosphere at that time. I really needed a producer, and my brother Gage knew Rek, and he was like, "Yo, you two need to work together," because Rek at the time was making beats that he wanted everybody to hear, and he wasn't really getting the opportunity for people to hear his beats. So me and him, you know. Steel sharpens steel. I'm really happy he stepped outside of himself to work with me at that time. Before then, I didn't know anything about writing a full album, we were just about making good songs.
The reason I called it Final Notice is because when you get a final notice bill, shit's about to cut off. [laughs] That was my final notice to MCs that I was coming.
And there were two other albums before The Example Part One, right?
My second album was 3179: The Legend of Upset, which came out in 2001, and that's when I pulled Cue Dangerous into the fold. I saw him live at a show, and I thought his lyrics was real dope. From that point on we started working together. That album was produced by Rek the Heavyweight and Cue Dangerous, and it did pretty well in town.
After that album, I released another one in 2003 called No Pain. Cue Dangerous produced about 70 percent of that record, and Rek produced about 30 percent. And then you got hold of The Example album that came out in 2005, and once again Rek and Cue Dangerous produced that record. And now the newest album, The Smithsonian Album in 2008, that album I produced like 80 percent of, and Cue Dangerous produced a couple tracks on there, his production company produced, as well as 84 Caprice, he produced one song, and a new young cat, Kel C's nephew, his name is J-Hard, he's about 20 years old and his beats are ridiculous, so I took a beat from him, and that's the song "Fresh for Sure."
He's a workaholic with the beats, and when I see him, it reminds me of what I used to be. Those are the people that I really take interest in, the young lions coming up, because they will be the voice for Minneapolis tomorrow.
That's funny you say that, beacuse you're not even 30 yet, right?
I'm not, and I'm not ready to be. [laughs] So let's not push the envelope.
You seem to have a multi-generational operation.
I'm spinning off as many people as I possibly can, and I want to give opportunities to younger individuals who are coming up who take this music seriously. Because there's so many different things you can do with you're life when you're young and you're coming up in Minneapolis, you can veer off in so many different directions. I think music really kept me grounded through everything that I was involved with in life. I have a lot of different friends form a lot of different walks of life, and I think that without music I would probably be dead or in jail.
I saw the stories in the papers about the charges against you, dropped in exchange for your cooperation. What's your side of the story?
There was nothing to cooperate about. Whatever the paper wrote, they talked to the prosecutor. And the prosecutor was pretty upset that they couldn't tag me with anything and my lawyer stood by me.
So what happened exactly?
The state erroneously sent a check to an individual and put their name on it and their social security on it, and made a huge mistake--and then got mad and wanted to blame anybody who was near the situation, and wanted to charge anybody with anything that they could possibly charge them with, to cover up the mistake that they had made.
The young lady that I supposedly cooperated against, me and her still deal with each other today. Her side of the story will come out sooner or later as well, and people will understand a clearer picture of the situation.
But the paper never interviewed me. All they give a damn about is what's the most interesting thing to read. And being that I'm known so well in town, and everybody knows how I'm cut, I wasn't worried about that. I haven't had an individual yet come up to me and think that I'm cut like that. Because before this, I've had other situations with the law that would be able to judge my character. And I've always taken my own weight, and I always will. In this situation there was no weight to take, and they had to swallow that.
You've watched local hip hop grow for nearly 25 years. Do you ever come across an artist today starting out as young as you did in the '80s?
My son, Romel. He's more of a singer than an MC, and I'm producing a lot of his music right now. He's ten years old.
So it really is a multi-generational operation.
Yeah, definitely. And my thing is to pass on whatever I build to him, to let him carry it, and help people out the way I would like to help people out.
When you've experienced the things that I've experienced, you end up looking at life in a different way. I know damn well that money doesn't make you happy. I know that the greatest joy in life is helping other people. You get a feeling within you that is unlike any other feeling. And that just makes me believe in God even more, because he created humans like that. And, I mean, you could buy the flyest whip, buy the flyest clothes and jewelry, but it'll never give you the satisfaction as it would if you would help somebody do something that they'd never thought was possible without your help.
Any more news you want to share from the artists in your circle?
Headake tha Chosen is coming out with a record pretty soon, and you can check him out on hurryupandbuy.biz. He's a totally different MC than me, street-orientated to the fullest, but that's what I love about him. We're all so different. Also check out Cue Dangerous, a.k.a. Oldboy. Rek the Heavyweight's got an album on Chill Records, Timeless. Kel C's on my record, he's working on a new album right now, and his stuff is coming out ridiculous. B-Down produced the song we did on the record, and he's got a new album with Young Pluky [a.k.a. Young Plukey], and Young Pluky's in my video.
I got some hard-hitters on that October 18 show. What I want to convey through doing that show is how far Minneapolis has come, and what Minneapolis hip hop is about to me, what it is about to the older b-boys in town who remember where it came from.