Hip-hop mogul Marley Marl once dubbed Cormega “the original gangsta rapper from Queensbridge” for his starkly lyrical accounts of life in Queens, NY’s Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project on Earth. A magic combination of raw street energy and poeticism made his 2001 debut album The Realness an instant classic, cementing his status as a peer to the likes of Nas, Mobb Deep and other gritty ‘90s-era street rappers. Now, more than twenty years later, he’s returned with not just a new album (his sixth), but one that is a sequel to his seminal project: The Realness II.
The lyrics on his new album weave personal narrative with wisdom learned over a lifetime that has seen movement from the streets to prison to the recording studio: they feel teachable, almost like a proverb. One line on the aptly named “Age of Wisdom” goes “Society molds us, then holds us accountable for the shape we in.” Despite the platinum-selling legend of the original—not to mention the hiatus, this being Cormega’s first album in eight years—The Realness II is surprisingly consistent with Mega’s best work.
But Cormega, 52, is no stranger shifting with the landscape, which might be why his gritty East Coast lyrics still capture fans far beyond New York. Over the course of his career he has juggled different roles with grace: rapper, boxer, teacher, father … and today, urban explorer. “I’m a hybrid,” he recently told GQ. “I rap from the heart. That’s relatable worldwide.” Below, Cormega talks to GQ about the creative process, navigating different environments, and the true meaning of “keeping it real.”
GQ: What made you decide to make a sequel to your debut all these years later?
Cormega: The fans made me want to do a sequel. The fans’ interest.
And it took you a year, versus it having only taken two weeks to make the original.
I had to measure The Realness II up to The Realness. On the intro from The Realness, my energy was up and it was assertive so my energy needed to be consistent with that. On the last one it was moods, it was emotions, it was lyrics, it was storytelling—I knew I had to recapture all of those things. So I studied the first one and I began my creative process.
The Realness sets the bar pretty high as a hip-hop classic. Did you feel any pressure? Or did you just have to put it to the side and not think about it?
There were many sleepless nights. It was a lot of pressure. It was so much pressure I never want to do a sequel again. I don’t want that kind of stress.
How did you know you could pull it off?
I started playing songs for people and I saw their reactions. But ultimately it wasn’t up to me, it was up to the public. And their reaction was telling me everything I needed to know. The big test for me was the day I had a listening session for the media only. And the words that people were saying, it was very humbling. That’s when I knew that the project was special. And I knew the album was going to be different when I started getting calls from people in the industry like, “Yo, everybody’s talking about your album. When Imma hear this?”
How do you normally get in the zone to record?
Sometimes I’ll get into the zone and [other times] the zone gets into me. You know what I’m saying? Sometimes I get a beat from Havoc and might not even be in the mood to write but I’ll hear the beat and automatically it’s like, I got to put something down to that.
You lived in a lot of different neighborhoods growing up — like Brooklyn, Coop City, the Rockaways. And of course Queensbridge. How did those places shape you as a person?
What I’ve learned from my life is that you become a part of your environment, sometimes unknowingly. I think that when I was in Far Rockaway it made me tougher. I think when I was in Brooklyn it indoctrinated me into drug dealing. It was so fluent it was normalized. Coop City [in the Bronx] was a good environment. I was just a regular good kid there. I think each place played a role in shaping who I later became. So, it’s like I’m a hybrid.
Did you feel like you found friends you could relate to when you were moving around to all of these different neighborhoods?
Some of it I couldn’t relate to. Like, I had friends that couldn’t even read. All of my friends, we had visions. We were going to art classes. We bought comic books.
What were you reading?
I went straight from comic books to GQ. It was one of the first magazines I bought as a kid. That was like my directory for flyness. If they had it, then it was fly to me. You get to this other environment, some of my friends can’t even read. Which I found to be astounding. A lot of my friends [there] dropped out. Curfews .. got to be in the house by 9 o’clock, got to be in the house when the lights come on at night. Different environments, it’s 11 o’clock at night, there’s still kids outside. So it’s like it was a different world, a culture shock.
You had to transition into different environments around different people at a young age.
Definitely. The first time I seen a crack vial, I didn’t even know what it was. I wasn’t hearing gunshots, and then in a different environment it’s like … It definitely wasn’t an easy adjustment. And sometimes, adjusting on the fly, it affects you later. And the people that surround you are going to play a role in your life. You know, when I lived the simple life, none of my friends was really out there like that in the streets. That was foreign to us. And then you [move to a different neighborhood and it’s] young kids dying, young kids in jail, young kids on drugs, parents on drugs. I got some friends with generational criminality when you got a guy in jail and his son becomes a gangster. And then he encourages his next generation to be gangsters and it just goes on and that’s normalized. I saw so much trauma … I’ve seen people die. Some of the things that I’ve seen or experienced would break a man. So the fact that I’m not broken is something I’m extremely grateful for.
One thing you’ve said before that stuck with me was that your name is Cory but Queensbridge made you Cormega. So who is Cory?
[laughs] Cory is a down to earth person. He’s a lover. He likes to laugh. He loves clothes. He’s a foodie. Cory never minded being different. Cory is cultured.
Who is Mega?
Mega is a rapper that was reborn in the streets. He’s a rapper that endured valleys and peaks and he’s a tour guide for those valley and peaks to the listener. He’s a survivor. And somewhat of an introvert. Mega doesn’t feel love like Cory does. Because when people love Cory, they love Cory for Cory. But some people that love Mega … what do they love him for?
So when you look back to where you were when you made The Realness, how would you describe that person compared to who you are now?
I had no children. I had nobody that absolutely needed me. I had nobody that loved me 100% unconditionally like my child would. I didn’t know what I wanted out of life back then.
Is not knowing what you wanted what drove you to create at that point?
One of my very close friends, Blue, pulled me to the side one day. I think we just got finished making a deal or whatever. He said, “Don’t forget you a rapper.” And when he said that he looked me in my eyes and he said, “I love you. You my brother. Don’t get obsessed in this [hustling] game. Because when I met you I was a fan. Don’t give up on that.” And … he got killed. I made The Realness as a dedication to him. I didn’t really care about what happened. I didn’t know my purpose, I didn’t know what I wanted out of life. And the man that I am now, I know what my purpose is. I know I’ve touched people’s lives through music. I might have not known that until recent years. People write to me like, “your music got me through a dark place.” They thank me for making music and it makes me know that I have a purpose. That’s why when I write now, I try to write with knowledge and spirituality in my music. Because it’s like, I’m trying to do righteous things, you know what I’m saying?
Maybe experiencing that tragedy came through in your music and helped people process their own difficult situations.
When I was writing rhymes, I never knew that people can feel the emotion when I rap. I thought I was just being me. I think I wear my emotions. Even when I was talking about my man Blue to you, I cried inside. When you speak from your soul, people feel that. So when I speak, I rap from the soul. I rap vulnerable. I rap passionately. I just give you myself. And when you give yourself to something, people can relate to it. They respect your honesty, they respect your vulnerability, they respect your passion. I rap from the heart, that’s relatable worldwide. And then there’s others who tell me about myself, because they see it from a different perspective. Like Nas told me, “You and Tupac have a lot of similarities, you guys would have loved each other.” Earlier today Billy Danze of M.O.P. said “The inspiration Cormega provides … [is] not just music. It’s guidance. It’s like a sermon over beats.” So stuff like that blows my mind. But sometimes I’m just writing it because that’s how I’m feeling, I’m in the zone and I just hope that people like it.
It sounds like some parts of your process aren’t intentional. But what are you aiming to put down? Or does it just flow?
I always try to put God in my music. I’m a spiritual person and believe that God is real. I try to lead by example with not just the words but with my actions. And people see a change in me. Somebody said “How do you find peace?” And I said “you look for it.” So, when I write music, I’m trying to paint pictures, I’m trying to give people lessons, but I’m also trying to do something righteous and give jewels at the same time.
Did you ever have a point where—like when Your friend Blue said to you, “Don’t forget you’re a rapper.” Have you ever been at point where you thought about yourself as a rapper before anything else?
At one point I was done with the industry. I was so tired of it. There’s a line in “Man vs Myth” in The Realness II that could probably say it best: “The weight I was dealing didn’t measure up to the weight of convictions.” I know a guy that’s in jail right now, he’s doing maybe 40 years. Was it worth it? 40 years of your life? For that money you made, you could have had a job and made that money in 40 years. So when you think about some of the people we glorified in the streets, [like] Rich Porter, Harlem legend. He got murdered. They talk about Fat Cat, Fat Cat has been in jail since you were a toddler. Most of the drug kingpins are dead or in jail forever. It doesn’t equal out. So I started looking at life like that. When The Realness came out and it took off, I realized I had another option that I never thought I had. If you go to any one of the worst ghettos in America and let’s just say there’s 100 kids who are bad kids, if you give 100 of those kids a job and funding and opportunity to help themselves, I guarantee you the crime rate will decrease.
What’s something you wish you could share with the next generation of rappers? Maybe an artist just starting out, maybe an artist who might still be in their hometown?
Keeping it real has to benefit you more than it benefits the person that’s telling you to do it. So if you or a kid that was in the street put in the work and now is an artist…you kept it real with your vision. That doesn’t mean that you have to take care of your whole neighborhood because you made it. You got to take care of your family and make sure your circle is tight, like your close friends. But you’re not responsible for everybody. And the sad thing is, a lot of these young guys that get killed, get killed because they’re trying to fit into a community that doesn’t view you the same. You’re not viewed the same once you’ve become an artist. Even unintentionally. You might be down to earth. You might still come around but people don’t see you like they used to see you. So I would tell young rappers, especially the ones that become real superstars, there’s no shame in getting a security guard. No matter how much you think you’re a street guy or claim it, you are a celebrity…. You have to distance and separate yourself while still trying to show love. That’s the jewel.
You mentioned putting God in your music. What was your path to finding Islam like?
I noticed that a lot of the men I look up to or aspire to be like are Muslim. I was attracted to it when I first read Malcolm X’s autobiography and learned about his transition. Same with Muhammad Ali. So I didn’t find Islam, it found me. And it wasn’t a hard transition for me because I’m not perfect but I have pretty good discipline. I think I became a more patient man. I think I learned to distance myself from people that have no spiritual value, or they have no integrity. The only thing that [really] changed for me was obviously I wouldn’t wear a Jesus piece anymore like so many rappers do.
What music do you like right now?
I like Tems. I think a lot of what I hear is better suited to night time. Even when rap first came out, there were songs that would only get played at night. I think we got to have a balance. I do like that the younger people are reaping the benefits economically rather than getting jerked more. But I wish there would be more students of the game. I think every genre is supposed to elevate. The next generation should be better. I can’t say what I want because I can’t make them do it, but I wish the new artists would study the guys that came before them and study the ones that were great and try to emulate some of that.
What’s next for you?
Me and Harry Fraud been working on an album for a while. It’s a really beautiful project. It sounds unlike anything I’ve ever done. Also working on an album with Havoc from Mobb Deep. I want to make a compilation album with a bunch of features. I dropped my new CORY collection with Privilege NYC. And I’m enjoying this moment. I want to take my time.