From Hip-Hop Heights to Philosophical Troubadour
A Conversation with John Forté
I feel like an outsider in terms of what’s popular right now in the wonderful world of hip-hop, but I’m OK with that.
- He grew up in the hard streets of Brownsville Brooklyn
- Received an unlikely opportunity to attend high school at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire
- Quickly experienced fame as part of the Fugees Refugee Camp—Performing and programming on two tracks of The Score, as well as work on Wyclef’s Carnival
- Released his own solo album Poly Sci
- Was arrested for cocaine trafficking and received the mandatory 14 year sentence of which he served nearly 8 years
- President George W. Bush commuted his sentence at the behest of Senator Orrin Hatch who was lobbied by his friend Carly Simon who John was close to through a friendship with her son Ben Taylor
Well, that doesn’t quite get us to where he is now since he was released in 2008, nor does that reveal the many important and interesting threads of his journey. His experiences and ever-growing music influences have heavily impacted his sound going from the purely hip-hop that he did with the Fugees and on his first solo album Poly Sci to welcoming in a wide variety of genres and forgoing the hot sound of the day in 2002’s I, John. In 2009 John released StyleFREE EP which contains some conventional hip-hop tracks but moves more toward the singer-songwriter, guitar based songs that he has now fully embraced.
We caught up with John the day before he left for the “From Brooklyn to Russia with Love” tour that has taken him all over the former Soviet Union and will culminate with a big concert in Moscow on April 24th.
Synco: You started working in so many other influences and even blending genres on I, John, but all the melding really came to fruition on StyleFree EP. What was the impetus of that?
JF: I think that because we were children of the radio growing up in the early 80s in Brooklyn, that we listened to everything. I think that my earliest memories of music, were just being exposed to a lot of different music. Especially as I tried to avoid commercials, so I listened to everything from Madonna to U2 to classical music. Something just always resonated harmonically, sonically, vibrationally with me and music irrespective of the genre. And I’m just really blessed that I can be a part of.
Synco: Has the move towards guitar based music opened you to a new fan base?
JF: I hope so. My mother came to see me at the ‘Farewell for Now’ performance at the Highline Ballroom and she and my cousins marveled when they looked around the room because there were so many different types of people. There were people from Brownsville, there were community activists from Brownsville, there were educators, students, business professionals. It was just an incredibly diverse audience. Once somebody asked me what my fan base looks like and I said they ‘Look like everything and everyone.’ If I had to put a label on my fan base, I’d say they are critically thinking. The people who show up to my shows don’t just nod their heads because they like the groove, they’re tuning into something deeper. I feel it, the band feels and we get stronger from our audiences.
Synco: Do you identify with the current hip-hop scene?
JF: Probably not. I feel like an outsider in terms of what’s popular right now in the wonderful world of hip-hop, but I’m OK with that. Ask me a decade ago and I probably still felt like I was an outsider. I think that’s probably a self-imposed alienation that comes from people who think too much. We kind of think ourselves outside of the realm of normalcy. But I think the biggest difference is back in the day, I actually strove to be more a part of the mix. Now, I don’t care. I like what I’m doing, I like what I’m producing and writing. I like having something to say. Not to be self righteous, or self important, but I have something to say. When I stop having something to say, I’m going to shut up. I’m not just going to make music for the hell of it.
Synco: What were three of your favorite albums from 2010?
JF: I love the Ghostface Killah album Apollo Kids. I’m not sure when it came out, but I’m a huge fan of Lisa Hannigan but I’m not sure if this album came out in 2010. [John checked] no, See Sew came out in 2008, she is so brilliant. Well I don’t, care that it came out in 2008, I’ve been listening to it continuously. Let me check my iTunes to see what was most played. This Kanye album, I love that album. I sent ‘Ye a message after seeing his 35 minute mini-movie that he did, congratulating him. I think he’s on the path to making some high art. So there’s a group named Why? and they have an album called Alopetia, I think they’re from the Bay area, and I think this dude on here is a lyrical genius. It keeps calling me back for more.
Synco: In 2011__________is going to blow your mind.
JF: High cholesterol.
Synco: Are you eating something high cholesterol right now?
JF: (Laughing) Yes I am, I’m eating onion rings right now. I’m busted, I just projected my deepest concern. Out of guilt I’m going to have to go run across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Hear John’s story in his own words on State of the Re:Union’s podcast about him: