As a member of the New Jersey-based hip-hop group Scienz of Life, Sci (who was later to be known as John Robinson, his birth name), quickly established a reputation as a top-quality emcee, with an instantly recognisable voice and an ability to make dense, philosophical concepts digestible for the average listener.
In this interview, Robinson speaks at length about observing and working with DOOM in New Yor and later in Atlanta, establishing a bond that developed into something of a brotherhood. Their collaborative album, Who Is This Man?, was released on Project Mooncircle in 2008.
We pick up the conversation on the recording of Yikes, off Scienz of Life’s second album Project Overground
Tell me about the song Yikes. How did DOOM come to be on that one?
It almost didn’t happen. We went to DOOM’s studio. We were about to go on tour. We were headed up the East Coast and we were gonna mix and master the album [Project Overground] in New York. We’re at the studio, we’re vibing. DOOM spit one verse. I don’t remember what the verse was. We loved it and he didn’t like it. He was like, “Nah, that ain’t the one. That ain’t the one. You know what, I’m gonna spit it when y’all come back.” And something told me like, “Nah man. If we don’t get this now… [we’re never gonna get it], because we’re trying to mix and master while we’re there.” So I was like, “Yo, let’s take 30 minutes. We’re gonna go to the store. Do you need anything?” He was like, “Nah I’m good.” By the time we got back, I can’t tell everything, but DOOM has this formula where it’s like in the studio he has all these sticky notes where he has these one-liners. He’s writing little things down and the next thing he’s taking these notes off. “They must still got wool over their eyes like Mush Mouth,” he already had that written down. He had these one-liners that he pieced together and made into that verse. He probably wrote down four to eight bars of that verse, maybe, and the rest was just two-liners and one-liners that he had written that he pieced together. He did tell me that that was his thing. He was a collector of interesting words.
“Everytime I hear an interesting word I just write that down,” [he’d say.]
He would ask you, if you were collabing, like, “Yo, did you use this word?”
“Nah, what do you mean?”
“Did you say this word anywhere on the album?”
He’d be like, “Aight dope. Dope.”
He would tell us, like, “There’s special words you shouldn’t repeat on your album. You cheapen the blow. Cuz it’s like ‘Yo, this is a dope word.’ And then you use it three other times and now it doesn’t pop as much.”
These are the type of things he would share. Word up. Yikes, that was a super dope session for us just because we knew that this was the type of song that he needed to rock with us on. We just heard him on it. Me and ID 4 Windz made the beat. ID did pretty much most of it and I came up with the “yikes” and plugged the mic into the back of the ASR keyboard and put the effects on and made this crazy cartoon-sounding voice. And then I started sampling cartoon pieces and chopping them up and it came together. Right away we said, “Yo, we gotta get DOOM on that to put some icing on this joint.” And he heard it and liked it. He was like, “Shit, this beat sound like I made it.” I was like, “Yo, let’s get it.”
That’s a good question man. Easy answer: Flowers man. You gotta give them their flowers when they can still smell them. I think at the time, DOOM needed to know the reciprocation of how we appreciated him. He would always tell me and my brother 4 Windz that he loved being around us because he felt like we reminded him of him and his brother, and that connection. He was like, “We were so cool. People who didn’t know us like that would think we were just homeboys in a hip-hop group.” And it’s the same thing with me and ID 4 Windz. We were brothers, blood. But we’ve been tight our whole lives and make music together like we’re homeboys. I feel like that was a part of it. So it was just like, give him his flowers. We just wanted to reciprocate the love. We didn’t even tell him, “Yo, we made a record about you.” No. He heard it organically. And he was like, “Yo, it’s about me?” And we were just like, “Yeah, it is.” And round about that time too, I gotta say we were in talks about creating a new KMD situation, so that was a part of it too, like Scienz of Life and DOOM. Me and my brother playing a certain role, Willabee playing another role and then DOOM being the main character, basically resurrecting Zev. It didn’t happen.
Could you speak about why, maybe?
I think time, man. Things took a turn with Scienz of Life. Willabee moved back to Jersey from Atlanta. And my brother shortly moved back, too. I was down there and I think, yeah, we were just in different places. And then shortly after that I moved to LA. DOOM started working with Stone’s Throw and Madlib, Madvillain and all of that. Once that fire hit. It was like, “Aight we’ll get to it. We’ll do it later.” And you know, you hear Madvillain, Dangerdoom, Mm… Food. It wasn’t like we were sitting around wasting time, like, “We’ll try tomorrow.” There was so much happening and so much building I think the momentum kind of took us off that course.
I wanna ask you about Who is this Man?, yours and DOOM’s collaborative album. There are some beats I can recognise from DOOM’s Special Herbs instrumental series and others that I was hearing for the first time.
Oh yes, there’s beats from everywhere. Early in the conversation when I said it’s DOOM’s fault that I use my given name as my emcee name, I say that because while living in Atlanta, everytime I would call DOOM’s house — this is back in the day when everybody had caller ID — so John Robinson would pop up on the caller ID. Then one day DOOM comes out and gets in the car and says, “Damn bro, your name is John Robinson? That’s crazy. You don’t even look like a John Robinson.” You know, he’s just going in about my name. But he says, “You what the ill shit is, though. I keep seeing that on the caller ID and I didn’t tell you, but I found some samples about a dude named John Robinson. We should just do a whole project with that shit.” I was like, “Dope. That sounds ill.” And he played me the joint. I was like, “Oh shit. This is interesting.” What he didn’t tell me until the project was done was … this is straight villainy, man. Those samples that he found were about a serial killer named John Robinson.
He flipped it and gave it an edge where it was like John Robinson kinda more on the DOOM mystique, like dramatic mystique. He was able to give it that feel, but he did laugh and tell me in the very last session. When we was done, he was like, “Bro, if I told you in the beginning when these samples were found would you have done this shit?” I was like, “Hell no. No way bro.” ’Cause I googled the guy and just seeing the images alone I was like, “Aah, nah.” But that was his genius on some, “Nah, fuck him. We taking this and flipping it on something else and creating our narrative with it.” And that’s what he did.
In hip-hop, often people mistake the role of producer as just being the guy who makes the beats. They don’t get props as they do in other styles of music. Putting together that project, what was the dynamic between you and DOOM, just from him being the producer and you being the emcee?
Amazing man. We took time. It wasn’t like this boom-bam-boom thing. I had these beats way before Special Herbs happened, and I admit I wasn’t happy that Special Herbs came out first. But you know, again, we had the music for so long and Madvillain hit and we finished mastering. DOOM brought me the master of Who is this Man? probably shortly after the Madvillain album came out. I can’t remember but I know by then we were finished with it because we started working on it before I moved out of Atlanta, and that was in 2003. So it took three years, slowly but surely, working on it. And it’s the first time I had started to not write in notebooks, and type my rhymes on a laptop.
The reason I did that was because, moving to LA, I started to get into sync licensing and placing music in movies and television and things like that, just to sustain my life and career and be able to still create and make money.
I’ll never forget, I managed to place a group of songs and a music supervisor emailed me and was like, “I need all these lyrics by tomorrow.” And it was like six songs. I was like, “I gotta type up all these lyrics by tomorrow?” It was so crazy because I’m not typing like 100 words a minute or anything like that and I’m copying it from a notebook and it was such a task. It hit me and I was like you know what, from now on, I’m just typing my rhymes man. I got so much into it. Typing my words made it feel like I wanted to be more perfect. I wanted to say the perfect thing. So that was a very heavy writer’s experience for me. It allowed me to be more granular with my writing than I ever did before. Before that point, there was a lot of working in a group capacity, only being responsible for part of the song and direction, for the most part. But then a big part of the blessing was that 90% of the record, DOOM and I recorded together in person, at a studio in Atlanta (shout out to Morgan Garcia). There was a lot of direction involved.
I had my vision, I’d bring it to the table. He told me what he thought about it and he’d give his sense, and we’d land on something we felt good about and execute. Even when it came to titles and things like that, I was observing and learning way more than I was speaking in those sessions just because DOOM was sharing a lot.
I remember asking him: “What is the thing you think I should do to make it different?”
And he was like, “What do you mean?”
I said, “How do I make it John Robinson and not Sci on these songs?”
He said, “What I like about Sci is you rap on the Scienz of Life records like you are live on stage in the studio. You are very animated and live. John Robinson should tone down on the ad libs. One track, real personable like you are rhyming to the whole world but sitting in a room across the chair in front of them, a person at a time. That tone will touch people. They’ll vibe with you more. It’s more personable.”
From a distance it looks like DOOM wanted to be less reachable, perhaps spend more time with his family. I wanna ask this as a science: What were his thoughts on being visible and being invisible? What did you pick up as his approach on being a public figure and having a private life?
Simple. Everyone who knows DOOM, for real for real, knows the phrase “Need to know basis”. Those who need to know, will definitely know. T’hose who don’t need to know, will never fucking know. Ever. Even how he operated, it was more about, “I’m the Villain. I’m not the guy you’re gonna see at the merch table smiling and kissing babies after every show. I might have did it once or twice but I don’t do that. I’m not the guy who is going to do an encore every show. Fuck that. I don’t do that. I go to the back, get in the car and I leave.”
“I plot shows like robberies, in and out, one, two, three, no bodies please.”
He says it in the songs. The Supervillain mystique was something that he did live by. And I don’t think it was about hurting people more than it was about the industry. “Fuck the industry.”
“Came to destroy rap. It’s a intricate plot of a b-boy strapped.”
The industry is wack. They dropped them from the label because they felt the Black Bastards cover was controversial . “I lost my brother. My favourite person in the world is gone and I gotta live life and keep a straight face and smile everyday like everything is cool but it’s not.” And it’s like, “Nah, I’m the Villain. Fuck all this shit. I’m a get mine, fuck all this shit. But I’m a villain who loves children so I do have a soft spot. I do care. I have empathy, especially for the upcoming. I invest in the future, I empower young people or people who are less experienced, I share with them. I learn from them too.”
I felt like he was always seen by those he wanted to be seen by. DOOM, super private person. You learnt not to ask all the questions that were unnecessary. The shit that didn’t matter, didn’t matter. I think that’s why we were able to vibe pretty well, because I never really went into his private business. We connected because of this music and the vibe that brought us together and the similarities.
Thank you for all your time. I really appreciate you speaking so openly …
I’ll say this openly, brother. I’m glad you sent your other email [explaining that you wanted to separate this story from the one you were writing]. I was a little conflicted about doing the interview and was going to suggest that the interview be about my relationship with DOOM, my connection with DOOM, just to keep it respectful to the family, etcetera; to not really go out of pocket, to be speaking about things I know nothing about, or things I wasn’t there for. I don’t like doing that. When artists are private, I’d like to respect how they lived in real life. The “need to know basis” thing is very real.
I’ll say this too, on the Clubhouse app, a few days ago I stumbled across a room that I didn’t even know was happening, like a three-day DOOM appreciation room. Shout outs to Big Ben, DOOM’s manager, Just Blaze, Bobbito, Dante Ross, Lord Sear, Kurious — a bunch of folks, foundation folks — who was in the room just sharing all these stories … Cognito. It was a very healing process for me. It’s the reason I’m able to share and sound the way I do right now because that helped me heal a bit more and feel a bit better hearing all these amazing stories of how DOOM has touched so many people’s lives.
In a sense, he is the Miles Davis of this rap shit, where he connects the dots to so many people. He is the glue. It goes from a span of like late ’80s to now, from Gas Face to today. There’s so many chapters and layers in between. We’re gonna be unfolding this forever. It’s a blessing and an honour to have connected in the way we have. And to be connected through song forever is priceless. So thank you. That helped me come to the table to do this. I reached out to folks and asked their opinion. This is touchy, I had to be respectful. Because when the Villain was alive, I wasn’t doing a bunch of interviews talking about DOOM. That’s not what we did. It used to be like, “Ask him. If you don’t get the interview, I don’t know what to tell you.”
What was the feedback?
The feedback was like, “Yo, J. You know if it’s coming from a place of love.” I’ll share this with you, too. South Africa is one of the most incredible trips I have had so far, in my life. For a lot of reasons. When it’s coming from there, it feels a certain way. I talked to DOOM about his trip there. I know how he feels about South Africa. That helped. If you were saying, “Yo, I’m calling from … (Name another place) … it might not have been that easy. I’ll be honest. That’s a part of it. My experience, my connection there, feels spiritual. I’ll be honest, I need to connect more and know more about your work; I didn’t do my homework and due diligence because there was so much going on in the last couple of days. From the way you hit me up, I caught a sense of, “Yo, this cat does this and he is coming from a place of wanting to rep the legacy. And he’s wanting to do a piece that is moving towards sharing the love and the vibe and the legacy and the story and allowing the fanbase and the people who adored DOOM to get some sort of insider look, coming from the perspective of people like myself who had experiences working with him, learning and sharing, et cetera.”
And I can’t grant this interview to everyone. Real talk. I can’t. There’s been a lot of people who reached out. No disrespect to anyone, but if it’s just like Joe Schmall in a podcast who just started doing this and they want to do this because they think it’s something that’s gonna help get their thing going, I don’t really jump on that. I’d rather do it with someone who does this and is about this life. That’s the energy I felt, and that’s what led us here.
I think, more so, too, it’s the sentiment of your country: how I feel about my trip there and what it was like, and what I know DOOM shared about it when he went there. I got to go before him and I knew it was gonna be love through the roof.
I remember the show in Newtown …
That show, I cried on stage, bruh. It was too much love. But I didn’t let y’all see. I turned around and did the, “Yo Raiko, bring it back! Make some noise! Y’all not loud enough!” with my back turned, wiping my tears and shit. Then I got back on the flex, you know. I can’t front, a very powerful trip. Got to meet and build with Ben Sharpa. (Rest in power). We got to do work in the studio. That’s the first time I met Tumi and got to build with him in the lab. One thing, that was the wack part. I gotta mention this. It was supposed to be a bigger connect, man. I was in the lab all day before the show with Tumi and Ben Sharpa. Went out, I can’t remember who I was with, driving around. We went out to check the city. I get back to the show, I hear Tumi left because the girl at the door — they had some young girl at the door and she didn’t know who he was and he wasn’t on the list. She didn’t let him in and he left. I was like, “What? Come on!” Because in my head we had already talked. “I’m bringing you up. We gonna do this and do that.” So yeah, I was looking very forward to that. Because even before meeting him I was listening to his music and knew his work.
I wished I got to spend more time in Joburg. Most of my trip I was in Cape Town. I was there for a collective of two weeks, and I spent 10 to 12 days in Cape Town, and two days in Joburg. It was a flash.
You can read part one of the interview here.
For the complete interview, please check out this audio recording of the conversation between John Robinson and Kwanele Sosibo.