Interviewed by Madeleine Byrne
Loe Louis, MC with Detroit’s legendary Laswunzout talks about how the group scored two major label deals, after he travelled to California with 57 cents in his pocket in 1995 and how his group and Slum Village bridged the divides in Motown, while also introducing the world to the Detroit sound.
This interview originally appeared on madeleinebyrne.com
MB: Your group, Laswanzout was and is really important in terms of the Detroit hip-hop scene, I see you were offered two record deals with major labels in 1995, was that right?
Loe Louis: Yes, it was 1995, we moved to California from Detroit, we stayed there for about a year, and in that time we accumulated two record deals one with Sony Records and one with Cypress Hill’s record label, Immortal records (There was also a demo deal with Loud Records for Laswunzout member GRM Reefa R.I.P)
MB: And it seems that your big hit from that time is ‘Just to be famous’ talk to me about that track and the record it came from.
Loe Louis: We put the record together as we were recording the demo in Michigan, then recorded the song ‘Just to be famous’ for the compilation and that’s how it came about with all the MCs from Laswunzout. It was our first major record release.
MB: I’ve been looking around a bit in terms of research on Laswunzout and seen the comment that ‘this group is essential if you want to understand the hip-hop history of Detroit … (and) essential for understanding the vibe of hip-hop in the city’ what do you think about comments like this?
Lou Louis: (pauses) Accurate, they’re very accurate. When we started out kids were scared to be hip-hop, you know, Detroit was more harder-edged. Some of the kids were scared to be hip-hop, or act a bit different or rap a little different. Other people as well, but we were like at the forefront, if you will, the mascot of it: we shed blood for it, you know.
MB: Talk to me then about the scene in 1995, that’s an amazing year for hip-hop across the US, can you try and recreate what was going on in Detroit then?
Loe Louis: I was out in California in 1995, I left in January and came back in December of 95. We put out ‘Just to be famous’ there were so many things coming out – it was just booming. We still had St Andrews, we had four or five different clubs, it was at its height – at its peak. We were getting a lot of notice from the underground cats, not just the mainstream cats; a lot of groups in Detroit were doing really well in 95, we were starting to get heard.
I just moved to California to chase things, we obtained a record deal. If you look back on it now, we sort of created a bridge between the Detroit underground and California. People would ask (about us) and we’d say we’re from Detroit so it was always Detroit. You know, we’d say we’re like the Last Ones Out, we’d always been talking about the scene, saying we’ve got Slum Village, J Dilla. We was always pushing it – we kind of created a little camaraderie between the LA scene and this scene – one of the members and I moved, he remained out there. I was the first one to go to Cali, caught the bus to Cali with 57 cents in my pocket.
MB: How were the two scenes different?
Loe Louis: To me they wasn’t that different at all. I mean the underground Cali scene and the Detroit scene were so similar: they had crews of MCs like we had, they were into the rap battles … The underground scene was actually similar, not musically but rapwise in terms of what we do – our rap battles were more aggressive in Detroit, compared to Cali, I can say that was one way it was different. There’s was more friendly, ours was for blood.
Loe Louis: That way it was a little different.
MB: That’s how also people often talk about the California production sound, don’t they? It’s a bit sweeter there maybe.
Loe Louis: Yeah, cause you’re in the sunshine. Sunshine all day, feeling good: we’re out here, getting cold, five feet of snow: it’s just a different vibe.
MB: And a different musical history too, I mean we’ll get on to Detroit as a subject in itself a bit later, as that’s what interests me too the way the musical history of Detroit informs the hip-hop as well.
Loe Louis: Right, right. And then a lot of Detroit cats went to Cali too.
MB: Motown did in the end …
Loe Louis: Yeah, they did.
MB: Can you talk to me about when you started out and also the early days in Detroit, say back in the 80s.
Loe Louis: I started rapping when I was six years old, I used to read Dr. Seuss books and tried to make my own rhymes like that. We had a show here called ‘The Scene’ in the 80s and maybe for half or one of the seasons, we did the theme song of the show. We had a little group and did the theme song to ‘The Scene’ so I met a lot of older hip-hop cats from a young age, I was always part of it.
I been there, I witnessed, I was part of it (the early scene) I was born in 1975, and this is 82, or 83 and I was on TV and rapping and doing stuff like that, so I’ve been doing it since I was six years old. I experienced every decade of hip-hop in Detroit.
MB: Did you come from a musical family, did your parents encourage you from that early age?
Loe Louis: My uncle, he sang and my other uncle was a DJ, but it was all around me. My mom and dad got divorced when I was six or seven and my mom took a job in California and I stayed down in California for maybe half a year. That was my first experience of break dancing, so first it was just break dancing, it was in the Hollywood Hills.
I started listening to Run-DMC, listen to the tape/cassette and stop it and try and write down all the lyrics, know all the words before everybody, twisted the words around and everything (laughs). In the early 80s I was in it in it and now when I think back it was Cali too that early influence of the break dancing, you know.
MB: Everyone knows about Dilla and that era of Detroit hip-hop that came later, but we don’t talk or hear much about what happening before that.
Loe Louis: Right, right.
MB: Do you think there are any acts from then that we should be thinking about as well, remembering?
Loe Louis: Cause it was so hard here, you understand? All our music was gangster rap, you wouldn’t hear all the hip-hop: on the radio, gangster, on the streets, gangster. Cats would laugh at you if you were hip-hop, you know what you doing with your hair all twisted up, or you smell like frankincense, you wearing these big-ass pants. You actually get laughed at, it wasn’t cool, it wasn’t cool at all.
Our group was one of the first groups to walk that line, hard people liked us and hip-hop people liked us, but we were hip-hop. Our hip-hop was so cutting edge, we’d do anything. Most hip-hop cats would be like, I’m not rapping to that … We’d make our own beats. We’d do a song acapella, we’d rap with a band, when cats wasn’t even doing that. We was always different like that and that’s where the name Laswunzout came from, because we thought we’d be the ‘Laswunzout’ of everybody (…) We wouldn’t sell ourselves for anything, we would be in our own little section. People would have to adapt to us, we don’t adapt to people.
MB: When talking about the early 80s hip-hop or rap being gangster rap, was it a basic boombap sound,or?
Loe Louis: Yes. It was very basic, it wasn’t lyrical at all. And you had 50 kids do it better, who could do it better, making stuff in their mama’s attic than some of the guys who were making it in their studio, you understand what I’m saying. We had like gangster cats who call themselves gangster rappers, you know, who you would consider hip-hop – like we had Detroit’s Most Wanted who was dope, KAOS & Maestro who was dope. We had 5th Chapter, we had Merciless Amir. We had Smiley, and Awesome Dre, and Dope A Delic, so our hip-hop was a little harder, but some of the harder rappers were lyrical and did have skills on the mic but a lot of them didn’t and that was a battle for a long time on the rap scene, the hard guys and the hip-hop cats.
I think our group, Laswunzout and Slum Village kind of put an end to that, where it was pretty much music after that. We put out a tape called Emixo and then Slum Village put out their Fantastic tape and it was dope, they had hard songs, hip-hop songs, you know it was similar and it made a mess (of what had happened) and every started making music after that. The hard cats and the hip-hop cats started to come together.
MB: Is that true, really it changed after those releases?
Loe Louis: It’s true. It was like a fight, it was like a war; the hip-hop club, St Andrews was right next door to the gangster club, Legend’s. Sometimes we would fight even before we went into the hip-hop club, we’d be fighting we fighting the gangster cats at Legend’s Club, cause they’re talking about us – look at these funny-looking cats, just cause we dressed different, like that didn’t mean we were any less, any less Detroit than they were (laughs).
Couple of nights we got into fights and a lot of these younger cats they don’t even know about it, or they might know about this, that we had to physically fight cats just to be there.
MB: It just surprises me. I can’t imagine these ‘hard cats’ or gangster rappers listening to Slum Village, did they really …
Loe Louis: (interrupts) Everybody, everybody did. It was the music. The music and the vibe, it was something like the Motown sound, there was just something about Dilla’s sound, that everybody … I can remember one night at St Andrews one night when Dilla he played the whole Fantastic album. Everybody was in unison bobbing, music that cuts through everything. It was just the music, everybody: the hard cats, the hip-hop cats, grandmama, grandad
Loe Louis: Everybody was moving their ass to Slum Village. Yes, it was really like that.
MB: So how many records have you released as part of Laswunzout?
Loe Louis: We did hundreds of records, we were a group from 92 to today. It’s like a collection of MCs and groups inside Laswunzout and over the years and we’ve grown but the original seven or eight member group we’ve released over 100 songs, this year I’ll release sessions from my first record in 95 and sessions from my solo record in 97.
MB: You’ve talked about Laswunzout as being a kind of bridge between Detroit and California and one of the key groups bridging the different groups within Detroit itself, what was the key quality of the group that enabled this?
Loe Louis: I can say we standout in the way we battle, we started that. We started the aggressive hip-hop, if you can understand that. When we used to battle we used to battle for your name. If you lost you couldn’t use that name anymore. It was that aggressive battle-rap style dates back to Laswunzout – aggressive, in your face rap style.
MB: What do people mean when they’re talking about the Detroit sound, do you think?
Loe Louis (pauses) The aggressive sound from the lyrics, it’s the aggressiveness. From the music side, it’s getting all the sounds in one pot and making it work, making it work with what you’ve got, that’s what the Detroit sound is – making it work with what you got.
MB: Maybe that represents life in the city as well … The desire to create seems unstoppable.
Loe Louis: It’s in our blood. It’s in our blood. Motown’s grandkids. It’s not the rap, it’s not the hip-hop, it’s the soul. It’s the soul, the hard-working people, how hard it is here, if you make it here and impress the people, everybody’s impressed. It’s in our soul.
MB: Can you talk about your next release, I especially liked the track, ‘Going in’ …
Loe Louis: ‘Going in’ that was one of the first song when we started back up, it was like the second song we recorded, it was just letting cats know we’re back, you should think twice about saying anything about us, or counting us out as irrelevant or whatever cause we’re still around, still doing it.
MB: Is there anything else you’d like to add at the end?
Loe Louis: No, just Detroit stand up. Detroit stand up.
MB: Thanks, I appreciate your time today.
Loe Louis: No problem.
Loe Louis’ next release with Laswunzout will be released through their label Laswunzout Entertainment the end of August, beginning of September.