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In His Own Words: John Forté on How He Found His Creative Spark Again

John Forté headshot

John Forté just released his latest LP, Vessels, Angels, and Ancestors, on Soul Land records.

We spoke with John Forté about life lessons he’s learned, his thoughts on the Fugees reunion, and his new album, Vessels, Angels, and Ancestors.

In the mid ’90s, John Forté burst onto the rap landscape after receiving the ultimate endorsement from the biggest group in music at the time — The Fugees. Proving himself as MC, songwriter, and producer, Forté worked on classic The Score tracks “Cowboys,” “Family Business,” the “Fu-Gee-La” remix, and “No Woman, No Cry.” The stage was set for the Brownsville, Brooklyn native to chart his own course to solo success after cutting his teeth as one of the key members of the Refugee Camp All-Stars, releasing his debut album Poly Sci in 1998. However, just three years later, Forté was found guilty of possession with intent to distribute liquid cocaine in 2001. 

Since his release in 2008 — he was pardoned by President George W. Bush — Forté delved into various projects: from writing featured music for HBO’s Momentum Generation and dropping EPs to lobbying for cannabis legalization and prison reform. On Friday, October 22nd, he released his latest LP, Vessels, Angels, and Ancestors, on Soul Land records.

The album features guest appearances from Rising Appalachia, Ben Taylor, billy woods, Fielded, Everlast, Ram Dass, and more. For the lead single, “Ready on the One,” Forté enlisted Brandshop to create the visual backdrop. With Production by Preservation and featuring contributions from Spills, Five, and Miss Brittany Reese, the track features Forté’s signature baritone over a chorus of handbells, a snare drum, and some slick guitar licks.

Although his musical palette is extremely versatile, it’s the simplicity that Forté believes is the key component of music and the arch of his lived experiences. The track captures the ethos of the entire project.

“My song “Zugzwang” has only two chords and empires have been built on two chords,” he said. “It’s a reminder, for me, and hopefully anyone else who is thinking about a relationship with music or an instrument and they think, “Oh, I’m too old.” All you need to know is how to play two chords. There are millions of songs that have only two chords but they are the gateway to a deeper, more robust relationship with music.”

Right before the album dropped, we spoke with John Forté about life lessons he’s learned, his thoughts on the Fugees reunion, and his new album, Vessels, Angels, and Ancestors.

As told to Rashad Grove

On his artistic upbringing. 

My first music memory had to be being in the room, being present when there was a gathering happening amongst my mom with her family and friends. My sister and I were in the room not as active participants but being witnesses. So if I had to dial it back. I would say that probably was my earliest childhood memory would be at a party that was not at our house but we were out and about while my mom was socializing.

My mom is not a singer or an instrumentalist. She’s a nurturer. If I was keeping my end of the bargain, by being a good kid and a good student, then if I had extracurricular interests, my mom would do everything in her power to support that. 

For me, it didn’t begin with music, it began with painting. I took a summer school class at the Brooklyn Museum for oil painting. Every week I would come home with a painting that summer. My mom would do things to keep us busy. It wasn’t until I went to school the following year that I picked up the violin, and when I came home with that, my mom was like, “Well, you don’t know how to play it. Work it out in your room, work it out on your own time, and you’ll figure it out. If it’s something you want to stick with, I will be supportive.” She didn’t say that in so many words but that was the vibe. That environment really allowed me to pursue the arts.

On his time at Rawkus.

I  was the first A&R at Rawkus. 

Seven Universal was my group from Brownsville so I went back to get some of Brownsville’s finest. I also was working with the Rose Family, Peaches and Cream, and El Shabbbaz. That was a joy for me to do because I’ve been a witness my entire life and to give some of our brothers and sisters an opportunity to be heard and amplified was a dream come true. 

Rawkus didn’t just start as underground hip-hop. We started as independent and so my first project happened to be Plastique which was the first kind of rock-rap fusion group that preceded Limp Bizkit. Then there was a reggae artist named Papa Bear Cool Breeze who was also a signee of mine and we other artists in the pipeline. There was a great R&B artist that we didn’t sign who was a protege of Guru from Gangstarr.

On how he connected with Lauryn Hill and The Fugees.

Jeff Burrows was a product manager at Columbia at the time and he was roommates with my one-time manager Jessica Rosenbloom. She was managing Funkmaster Flex, Big Kap, DJ Enuff and The Flipmode Squad. I was just hanging out in the office one day just chillin and Jeff Burrows brought in a videocassette and he was like, “I got the future hip-hop in my hands.” He pops it in and it’s the first single off of The Fugees’ Blunted On Reality. I didn’t initially get it. I’m like, “Wow, this is really interesting.” I was curious enough to say that I would love to know more. Then Jeff said they were playing several clubs that night. He put me on the list of the Supper Club and I walked in and saw these instruments on stage and I thought I was at the wrong venue. I was like, “I’m here to see a hip-hop show.”

They were doing a showcase and they wrapped it. I just stayed in there to chop it up with Lauryn Hill. We had a really solid conversation and we became friends. So even while I was working as an A&R guy over at Rawkus, after my artists left the studio, I was still working on my stuff. I was still working on my beats and Lauryn was one of the few people who knew that. So when the Fuguees got their second shot, after Salaam Remi did the “Nappy Heads Remix,” that made everybody pay attention, she called me from Hawaii and said that their contract was renewed. Then she said, “I want you to play some stuff that you’ve been working on for the guys.” I was like, “Nah, now I’m doing A&R now.” It didn’t take her long for her to convince me to share what I’ve been working on because she had enough faith in it. That led me to playing joints for those guys and the beats were one thing but when I started rapping over them, Wyclef was like, “Oh you have to rap too.” That led to me anchoring “Cowboys” and “Family Business,” playing drums on “No Woman, No Cry,” I did the “Fugee La” remix, and I became a part of that Refugee Camp that supported those three Beatles.

I remember we had the listening session where the [The Score] played from beginning to end with the skits and all that. There was this pregnant pause at the end of the last skit before people started applauding. I think that the general consensus was that we knew we had something so far out of the box that it was either going to be hated or it was going to be loved. But we knew we created something that was going to have an impact either way and for the grace, it ended up being loved.

On how he feels about his 1998 debut album, Poly Sci.

I listened to something off of Poly Sci this morning because I had John Forté radio on shuffle for my daughter. After I dropped her off, “PBE” came on, and I haven’t listened to “PBE” in years. So I’m listening to the production, the lyrics, the rhyme scheme without a sense of regret, remorse, or sorrow. Because if it wasn’t for every production element and decision that was made, you know, it was a representation of my artistic growth and that was captured in that album. I know that as an 18-year-old producer/rapper, I was not anywhere near where I would wind up. But I had to go through what I had to go through in order to appreciate where I’ve been in that journey. And so Poly Sci for me represents that lived experience. It was useful because there’s a lot of arrogance and bravado there. It was everything that being young was for me at that time, so it was honest and authentic. It wasn’t a commercial success but maybe this is a crude analogy, it was like if you win the lottery too soon.

I was nominated for Best Album at 19 for being a producer on The Score. So then when it was my turn to go into my solo career and that wasn’t as well-received or didn’t meet my expectations or the label’s expectations, I was devastated because it was my first real failure. I needed that to be a part of my lived experience because you can’t just win forever. Also, my definition of success at 19 is markedly different than what my definition of success is at 46.

On his time in prison. 

I stifled and suppressed my creativity at least for the first couple of years that I was in prison because I was fighting my case. I was appealing and I was always in the law library. I didn’t want to accept a 14-year sentence as a badge of honor and then just kind of walk the yard with my heroic tales of yesteryear. When folks would ask me questions of where I’ve toured, who I knew, and what we did, I didn’t want to stand on that and that’s what it felt like. I didn’t even want to talk about it. I wasn’t in a space to create. You might say I turned my back on my creativity as an exercise of survival. It wasn’t until my guy Rabbit came to me when I was in Loretto in western Pennsylvania and he was working in the recreation department. It was 2005 so I was down for three years but actually, four years by that time and Rabbit dropped off an acoustic guitar in my cell. He said, “Take this. You’re a musician,” and he scurried off. He didn’t know that I didn’t know how to play the guitar. But it was Rabbit making that move and the impetus for me to learn how to play that guitar and therefore revisit my relationship with music but not as a rapper but as a singer-songwriter. I was able to expand upon the seeds that I planted however many years before that. It was in finding that relationship with the guitar that I was able to rekindle my relationship with music and stay wholly inspired throughout the remainder of my incarceration.

On the Fugees’ reuniting for a tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Score.

I was privy to the schematics to what was at hand and after the first show, I checked in with them, particularly L and to get her feedback. Because I knew that her opinion was going to be the fulcrum upon which the future of the tour rested. It’s something that everybody could lean into you know because time made that happen and so there’s real enthusiasm. I know I’m looking forward to moving on with these dates on the calendar to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that monumental piece of work.

On his new album Vessels, Angels, and Ancestors.

I think one of these young brothers said on a new song was “I’m richer than I’ve ever been.” This is exactly how I feel. I feel richer than I’ve ever been. I couldn’t be more excited. It was a collaborative endeavor that was made during COVID[-19] but it’s deeply collaborative nonetheless. Now we have an opportunity to celebrate 25 years of The Score as well as my fourth studio album. I am truly thankful and ecstatic to be doing what I love and this is the first release from Soul Land records.

I have Everlast, billy woods, Ben Taylor, Rising Appalachia, and Fielded contributing to the project. The album was inspired by daughter Wren Zazie and son Haile as well as the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as well as the insurrection in Washington D.C. on January 6. As the album opens and closes with words by Ram Dass, it’s a socially conscious project, and I can’t wait for everyone to check it out.

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Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.

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