Abstract Mindstate: The Cabbages Interview

The Chicago rap duo of Olskool Ice-Gre and E.P. Da Hellcat discuss working on their reunion album with Kanye West.

Abstract Mindstate: The Cabbages Interview
Photo Credit: Mike Quain

Formed in the late 1990s, Abstract Mindstate are a duo who emerged at the tail end of hip-hop's Golden Age. Retaining that ethos while pushing forward into the new millennium, rappers Olskool Ice-Gre and E.P. Da Hellcat proudly repped Chicago on their 2001 full length debut We Paid Let Us In!, which featured production from Gensu Dean, The Twilite Tone, and a pre-fame Kanye West. The duo split in 2005, only to reemerge some 16 years later with a brand new album Dreams Still Inspire entirely produced by West for his YZY SND imprint.

How long have you been out in Los Angeles?

Olskool Ice-Gre: Probably about 12 years I've been out here. I actually moved out here with Kanye, after the accident. And then we started going back and forth between here and New York. Around the time, I guess I can say, after The College Dropout [or] somewhere around there, I moved back out here. I wasn't dedicated–my first few years I would be here six months, Chicago six months. Then I said, forget the cold as a whole and just left. I was really into the weather, and the industry, the business, was here. It was really popping, especially in that era...

LA, it's the desert. So at night we get cool enough to wear a sweater or sweatshirt and some jackets. If you look at our pictures or been on our website, as you can see we're like what we call 'Lo Heads. We both wear a lot of Polo, a lot of Ralph Lauren. So it's the sweaters and the sweatshirt. Matter of fact, I got one on now, as you can see. We've been rocking 'Lo since high school, but I really got into it in college, in like '91, really started going hard with it. We recently got back into it a couple of years ago, felt the vibe of it. Me and a crew of mine, we call ourselves 'Lo Season, like a spinoff of the 'Lo Lifes. We just went hard, got back into it and started feeling the vibe of the '90s again with the 'Lo, you know?

It's wild to see just how much of that continues. I follow these Instagram accounts that have all these pieces–

Olskool Ice-Gre: –I follow them too! I know what you're talking about, all the layouts. I'll never show my layouts though. I always talk to E.P. about that. I take my pictures of my layouts, 'cause that's the thing that 'Lo Heads do. When you get a bunch of new stuff, we lay it all out on the bed and then take a picture of it.

When I first heard this album, Dreams Still Inspire, I was really excited about it, and the mythos of Chicago hip-hop. Now, I'm a New York native, but like, your name comes up. So it was exciting because this is not a reissue campaign; it's new material. It almost feels like a reward for paying attention.

Olskool Ice-Gre: That was the one thing we were pretty proud of. As you know, being a Golden Era guy yourself, back then you had to earn that knowability. They knew us in New York and LA 'cause we actually penetrated that area. We put in enough work. We performed in New York; we performed in LA. We got the write-ups back then, when magazines was the end-all be-all. So it's a lot of pride in being from that era, because it took a lot of work back then. It wasn't about popularity; it was actually about hard work.

E.P. Da Hellcat: I think that's what really sets us apart, because of old school acumen with street promotion and all of that stuff back then, that he was already able to do when it was supposed to be done. When it had to be done to even have your name whispered in certain rooms, he did that. Even if the impact wasn't felt then, those people that were those people back then are still those people.

Olskool Ice-Gre: DJ Clark Kent.

E.P. Da Hellcat: When he pulled out our music from back then, he was like, man, I'm listening to this now on the way. And this was three years ago. Just being mentioned in those circles back then was honorable. It's what you strive for, because we were coming up under those heads. And it was so dope to be mentioned. But now, to be mentioned by those same people again, and have our name resonate and to be remembered for what we did back then, people honor it now and just like, oh God, they sound exactly the same. They still putting it in. They haven't missed a step. It's so much gratitude and appreciation for that right now for us. That's the high we're riding, that right there. That's the water right now.

I think what people underestimate is the power of that memory. If you were involved, if you were dope back then, your name will come up in conversation today. There's a nostalgia industry in hip-hop. And it sounds to me that, in this process, you're benefiting now from the fact that you were there, you were real, you were dope, and what you did mattered.

Olskool Ice-Gre: Yep. We did. What's interesting for us is, we're a Golden Era group that never really got our fair or honest shot, that made a strong name for ourselves. In 2021, we're still able to be a new group. And that's the coolest part because we're not one of the artists that had to have a catalog of material released by a major label. So you can say, this is some kind of comeback. No, this is our shot that a lot of people feel we always deserved. So it's allowing something with a Golden Era vibe to be brand new in 2021. And that's the cool part, you know, to be the old, but the brand new, at the same time. 'Cause we didn't, we didn't impact like–although we're on the tongue of Common, we're on the tongue of Kanye, we're on the tongue of Crucial Conflict. All of the great Chicago artists that made their mark will talk about us. But we never occupied their space. Now, we're getting that shot. So you get this kind of cheer, this quiet cheer that's getting louder.

A lot of artists of your generation could not do what you two have done in this particular capacity. Lots of people can come back and put out a record, but is that album any good? Most would not improve or enhance their craft or their subject matter, whereas what you both have done on Dreams Still Inspire accomplishes exactly that. But during these intervening years where you weren't together, were you still writing separately? Were you able to scratch that artistic itch within you?

E.P. Da Hellcat: My itch was not being scratched at all, for that particular thing. I wasn't writing; I wasn't involved with music at all. I had gone back to school to complete my undergraduate degree and to get my masters. Music was a farfetched thing. In fact, right before the inception of this project, right before Olskool contacted me about the pitch he just had received from Ye, I literally–three days, 72 hours–had just woke up in the morning, Gary, and I looked in the mirror. And I don't know why I said it–I'm talking to God, He knows why I said it–like, hip-hop is out of my system. Those words I said to myself, looking in the mirror. Then we fast forward three days, three mornings. I get a call from Gre saying, you won't believe this. Ye wanna put us back out. And I went right back to my conversation in my head, like, are you kidding me, Jesus?

That's when it started back for me, Gary, to get to your question. I started when I knew I had to go to LA to meet with Ye–Gre and I–to sit down and talk about this opportunity, and to even decide if I that was something that I wanted to pursue. We both had to be convinced that this was a thing, and this is not a thing that would take away from who we are now. Because we were cool, and we are still cool, with our individual lives. So he had to be convinced that this was worth the journey, and he convinced me after Ye convinced him. When I went to LA, when I decided that night that, okay, Ye's on board. This is something that he's committed to. I'll do it. That's when the process of creating started back for me. I'll let Olskool answer his portion of the question, but I will say music is his thing. He never left that atmosphere.

Olskool Ice-Gre: I'm actually the first A&R of G.O.O.D. Music, before the A&Rs even existed around Kanye's brands or labels. And I say I lived three lives, 'cause I I've been an A&R with him three times. Before we got into this Abstract Mindstate project, he brought me back on board to A&R the album Ye. That turned into us doing those five albums with Pusha and Kids See Ghosts and that whole thing, which had me all out in Japan and China with him and Kid Cudi. That's why the whole Murakami influence was on that record, because we did that all in like Japan and China.

The point is, I've always been creatively involved in music. The whole time that Abstract was dormant. I was working on Honest Management, which is my full service entertainment and production company. Jonquia Rose, the girl that's singing on "Salutations," is actually my artist, signed to G2 Productions, which is a production company formed with me and our DJ Self Born at the time. He lives in Miami and he's like a top DJ in Miami... So even with Kanye, G.O.O.D. Music, and all the various entities I stayed involved with him, I always stayed creative. But as funny as it sounds, it was an interesting transition for me to start back, concentrating on my group again, and writing for myself. I had got comfortable just writing for R&B artists and creatively contributing to the projects around the G.O.O.D. Music situation. That's what made me a good A&R, 'cause I was a lyricist, so I had ideas I could share, concepts or maybe a word or two, even a line that I can contribute.

The whole thing that got us into this situation, one of the things I was trying to do was just get Kanye out of a writer's block by just getting him sparked, by bringing stuff to him that I knew would get him in the mood to write. The story goes that it ended up being a mixtape of ours that E.P.'s cousin pressed me to listen to. When I finally listened to our own mixtape again, it reminded me of that era and I felt the interest to write after I heard it. I thought to myself, well if it made me want to write, maybe if I let Kanye hear it, it would make him want to write to. And it turned into him seeing it a whole different way. It turned into a situation for us, and that wasn't the goal or plan.

So what did that mean for you both in terms of writing? Did it come back to you naturally?

E.P. Da Hellcat: Let me say this: it didn't take me a long time to write; it took me a long time to like what I was writing. I was throwing shit away. I wasn't happy with what I was writing. I think I was comparing it to the 20-something version of me, because I liked the way the 20-something version of me was writing. It took me a long time to realize, hey, you're 40-something. You're not going to talk about that same shit. You're not that same person. I got to that point and got through some stuff that was going on with me personally in my life. My dad was making his transition and I was going back and forth to be with my dad at his side, taking care of him. After he passed, it became easier for me to write. People can take that how they want to take it, but for me, it just simply means that writing a rhyme was still not my priority. My father was.

After my father transitioned, it was easier for me to be in the company of Gre and write, because that was our formula. I wrote my rhymes and I still write my rhymes, but I feed off of him 80%. He's the creative arm. We chose the beats together, but the concepts of the song, he usually leads by saying what he wants to talk about. Even in this process, I needed to hear it. So he would be done with four rhymes and I'm still trying to write two. My process was feeding off of him. That hasn't changed from back then. That's one thing that's the same. And I hadn't been around Ye. Their kismet, their connection is what birthed this project, so I didn't want to be the person that's the outlier. Whatever concept Gre was on, it's the same thing Ye was was on. They'd been together so long. And in the birth of this project, there was so much chemistry involved with those two. I didn't want to be the one to break that.

So, whatever, um, whatever Gre was saying, like, this is what we need to talk about on this song, I would either just jot down little notes from what he was saying, or I would literally listen to his verses over and over again, and then develop my concept of what I wanted to say on the same topic, how I wanted to say it. My process was basically mimicking what he was doing. And I will say, on these particular songs, I follow his cadence. I tried to follow his cadence to the letter as much as I could. His writing style, it's hard to do. If you look at the paper of an emcee compared to you as an emcee, it'll look like he has 45 pages, or a half a page but he's saying just as many words. So that was my process, basically following suit.

That description of the process, it comes through as a listener. Those songs sound conversational.

Olskool Ice-Gre: Like she said, I'm like the Left Eye of our TLC. I would come up with this title and this concept, and then we'd run with it. But me and E.P.'s style has always been to bounce the ideas and really talk about it. And she'll even ask me, well, I got these couple of words, tell me how you feel this direction is going. So we really be having this camaraderie that allows the songs to actually sound like it sounds. What E.P. likes about it, and I think what you're touching on, is we sound like a group. It don't sound like two people that just spit a couple of rhymes. We actually sound like a unit. You can hear the cohesiveness and it's pretty cool. Like, if I'm doing this little funny pattern, she'd do that same little funny pattern. Like EPMD, you know what I'm saying?

You're talking about a Golden Era quality in a rap group. That's in sync with each other.

Olskool Ice-Gre: Man they are, right? They are one of the more in-sync groups–period. Me and E.P., fortunately enough, just being such a fan of hip hop, but then an active player in it, I can say it without sounding narcissistic. That's what I like about Abstract Mindstate, our EPMD-ish back-and-forth. It really made for a good project, and I think that's why, in 2021, guys like yourself were able to say, damn, y'all killed it, y'all sound good.

E.P. Da Hellcat: 16 years later, without being in a room with each other for years, now trying to write a rhyme.

Olskool Ice-Gre: We were in a room for weeks at a time, with pens and paper, and with a level of patience that we probably wouldn't have had 16 years ago. E.P. was in that same writer's block that Kanye was in. I would just sit there and we would talk, we'd start talking. It's funny. All of the aesthetics that makes the traditional old school A&R, I encompass all that. I bring that to the table, even just in conversations. Good A&R's even know how to hold a conversation with you that's going to still turn out a song, you get what I'm saying? So I would know how to talk with Ye. Same with E.P., we're like brother and sister. We got so much time together that I can talk with her and we will vibe. And after we talked 30 minutes, she'll go back to it. Now she got the rhyme...

It was a really interesting process. Not only was it just she and I having the process, [but] the process of Kanye producing us. It was different; it wasn't about a bunch of beats. Kanye was ripping my rhymes apart. He was ripping our rhymes apart. He was really involved, like, E.P., you're not on the topic right here, reel it back in

E.P. Da Hellcat: –like, or you're not going to be on this song. That was on "Social Media."

Olskool Ice-Gre: You should have heard the other verse she had before.  

E.P. Da Hellcat: It was fire!

Olskool Ice-Gre: Yeah, it was a dope verse, but he was like, she all over the place, she not on the topic. If E.P. don't get this story right, this is going to be your solo song. And I go back to E.P., 'cause this is our moment. There will not be a solo song. Abstract has to represent through this whole album. And E.P. jumped on that pen and got that story, and it became what you hear. But, even with me, and she'll tell you, man...

We're emcees regardless of how long we stepped away. We know dope rhymes when we hear them, because of the level we always were when we were at our best. And we was like, man, that verse was dope. But Kanye would be like, nah. I'm talking about to me, you know? He would make me rewrite rhymes. It wasn't throw-you-some-beats-and-go-for-it. Sometime he would reference out the cadence of how he would like to hear me, you know what I'm saying? Ye, he does his own thing that I never really caught on to his exact cadence, but I would give him what he was looking for. For example, my first verse on "The Brenda Song" was very aggressive. Wasn't it, E.P.?

E.P. Da Hellcat: His verse was done for about two weeks before mine. And Ye loved it.

Olskool Ice-Gre: But the delivery of it was very aggressive. He was like, I liked how E.P. approached her verse. I need you to pull back. You rapping too aggressive. And literally this is, he told me, Gary: I need you to sound and come off more like Ma$e. He was like [does impression of Kanye doing a Ma$e impression]. And what you hear is my best rendition of a calmed down Ma$e kinda chill. It's fucking you up right now, right?!

Yeah, that's messing with me.

Olskool Ice-Gre: Now I'm approaching it like, spirit got my diction open, pit of fire, sea of smoke. Before, I was like, SPIRIT GOT MY DICTION OPEN, PIT OF FIRE–I was trying to, you know what I'm saying? So E.P. and I threw our hands up like, yo, this guy is producing us and we gonna just let it happen. The funny thing is I didn't challenge it, I just did it. I'll never forget, I was playing the record for Don C, he family. And Don was like, oh man, I love how you sound on your verse! And the first thing in my head, I said, God damn, Kanye. He wins again.

That's a great story, but what I think I enjoy most about what you've just said was that your instinct earlier was to be protective of your partner in the unit, and vice versa. You are dealing with potentially two visions, three really, that don't necessarily align but somewhere in the vicinity have to come together. But you're going to make sure that this is for the benefit of the unit.

Olskool Ice-Gre: I'm very protective of Abstract Mindstate. It's not The Ice-Gre Show. I know what makes us special. When I heard him say that solo thing, she'll tell you, I was like, you got to get this right. I'll help with direction and topic. She knows I'll do it for her. This is our real shot, so they're going to get Abstract Mindstate. Appreciate what we are, because we are a very unique combination. Gary, this hasn't happened in hip-hop. A male-female duo does not exist. We had The Fugees, we had Digable Planets, and we had a couple other combinations of three or four people. But it has yet to be a duo. So I know what this is, and I've got to protect that. We went through the–you used the right word–process. Even Kanye, somebody told me that he said, it was a process. He told Don C that. He said to me, I told Kanye the album was dope. And the first thing he said was, it was a process.

So I have to ask the greedy question. Will there be more? Do you anticipate further Abstract Mindstate records from here?

E.P. Da Hellcat: Yes.

Olskool Ice-Gre: We can answer that now. At one time, both of our answers was, it depends on how this record is received. And now that it's been received the way it needed to be received, E.P.'s answer is our answer.

E.P. Da Hellcat: We have other opportunities now.

Olskool Ice-Gre: Shout out to our guy Xtreme. That'll all make sense later. We have 16 songs recorded with Kanye that we haven't used yet.

E.P. Da Hellcat: It's a whole other album. We recorded, what, 26 songs?

Olskool Ice-Gre: 27. She said 26, because we got this last minute curveball from him right when we was about to put the album out. That was the "Visionary Thinker" joint. And we actually recorded these songs, Gary, so when we say we got 16 left–

E.P. Da Hellcat: –they're done.

Olskool Ice-Gre: They're recorded. All we gotta do is go back and maybe listen to them and say, oh, I could've said that better. You know how you go back and critique. But they're recorded, so yes, you will get more...

We're definitely humble and grateful, man, 'cause you know this doesn't happen.  We're aware this is a very unique situation and we respect it and we're not entitled or anything. For who it is with and who did it, we know we're blessed.

E.P. Da Hellcat: Beyond measure.

You've used this opportunity well. You've created an album and, for a lot of people, that remains the meaningful document that justifies hip-hop as the art form. If you can move the park, that's amazing. You move the club, that's amazing. But an album is this different art experience that's just so much more intimate.

E.P. Da Hellcat: It's still the quintessential element of hip-hop. It's like, if we ain't turning this boy out, and his boy just gone and look up and it's the end of the album and he starts it over, well, we got something.

Photo Credit: Mike Quain

Dreams Still Inspire is out now and available wherever music is streamed or sold.

Check out the latest episode with rap duo Tanya Morgan talking 'Inherent Vice.'