By Alex P80 Parks
New York Emcee and producer extraordinaire Fortes invited me out to his suburban crib just outside NYC to talk music, vulnerabilities, his place in the game and his story about coming up.
A Young Museician
DRHH: Tell me how it all started for you in terms of music.
Fortes: I wrote my first song when I was 8 years old. Full song with melody and all. That was 3rd grade. When I first really fell in love with music, it was soul music, Motown music. When I first heard Stevie Wonder “Living Just Enough for the City.” I was in 6th grade. That shit changed my life. Then I heard the Delfonics “La La La means I love you.” Later, when I was 13 years old I was 89 lbs, 5 ft 3, with braces at my school talent show, and I rapped. I always rapped, starting around that time. I just started writing poetry and then at 13 would freestyle and I bought a MPC 2000. I used Fruity Loops, and recorded songs on an 8-track. That was back in ’02 when I was like 13 or 14. I was influenced by Rock music as well, cuz my Dad listened to it a lot, classic rock. Once we were at a concert, him and I, and I told him that I thought Rock was a sad genre. He said ” just like life.” I don’t know about rap, I don’t what emotion (to call it). I summed up Rock to sad. I can’t sum up another genre to an emotion though. Rock makes me sad, I don’t know.
DRHH: I know you’re dying to discuss the best decade in music, which you say is from ’68 to ’78.
Fortes: The most significant and influential albums came out between that span of time. Whether we’re talkin about Tapestry, Inner Visions, albums from Baby Huey, The Stylistics, The Sylvers. All kinds of Soul, Funk, Jazz, shit even Rock too. Joni Mitchell was killing it, Donnie Hathaway too. But I still like old music. Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Miles Davis, Coltrane.
DRHH: Now you’ve mentioned Nina Simone, quite a bit. Is she your all-time?
Fortes: I think maybe it was after watching her documentary, because I related to her so much somehow. She was suffering. I listen to it every day. She’s the best. Joni Mitchell is one of the best writers ever for sure. Her voice was crazy and her lyrics were like weird poems. The artists used to do one-takes back then. You know what I love about Nina? She changed the cadence of her song as she evolved as an artist. The same songs sound completely different. I’ve been listening to Nina Simone’s live shit for awhile.
Fortes’ love of true music was on display during our conversation. He was quite animated and excited to show me clips of Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell. He conveyed his love for Motown music beginning as a young man. Not as sources for samples necessarily, but to appreciate their sheer talent and be in awe of their musical contributions. These artists, to name only a few, continue to inspire Fortes. They are motivation for him to continue creating. He could have spent the entire interview discussing their genius and overall importance in all of music.
DRHH: Tell me about your first couple albums and figuring out your way in the game.
Fortes: I went from Dealer/MC in 2014, when I never really knew how to make a mixtape. I made it, and then after I made Money Sour, Respect in 2015. Funniest thing is, half the beats that I made for that album, I made for Curren$y Spitta. Actually, I introduced Curren$y’s music to Styles. Later on, outta love, Styles ended up introducing me in-person to Spitta. So I’ve fucked with Spitta now for awhile. About 3 years after I known him, We’re chillin and he walks up to me and says “Yo I was in Miami and I heard the Money Sour Respect. and they kept tellin me it was the Sour. The Sour! When they said it was you, I couldn’t believe it.” I said to him “Half of those beats were for you, man.” He thought it was wild that he heard it in Miami and then someone pointed out how it’s Fortes from New York. It wasn’t intentionally played for him like “oh it’s Fortes, let me put him on for you.” Kinda crazy moment for me. I produced for his dude Young Roddy after that as well. But funny thing, I remember rapping for Spitta at BB King’s and ten minutes later running down to somewhere else and rapping for Dza at another spot. Me and Smoke go back to when I was younger. I put Styles onto Dza. I liked to keep him up on what I thought was fresh. I put him onto Ka as well. I always felt like I wanted to introduce Styles to new music as much as he’s mentored me. I also produced for Cassanova on his debut album last year. That was another important look for me too.
DRHH: You keep your ear to the streets and support the dope underground cats.
Fortes: That’s the shit right there. Those are the cats doing it. That’s where I wanna be! I don’t wanna be one of the big time rappers. The underground artists are the people making the real shit.
DRHH: If there’s one thing that sets you apart from some others, in my opinion, is that you’re not just a producer, you’re a musician.
Fortes: I appreciate that. Well first off, I recognize real music and real talent. Though, I try to make music as simply as possible. I’m learning my scales and trying to get better at piano too. As far as other producers go, some people just aren’t digging right, or chopping right. And I still have so much pressure I put on myself to do better.
The Ghost, Styles-P
Styles is an important guy in your life, not just in music, but as family.
Fortes: I was a LOX fan as a kid. I was 11 when We Are The Streets dropped. Styles was one of my biggest influences and my favorite rapper by the time I was 13. I knew Styles lived in my area, and I rapped and produced, so I kinda wondered to myself why I’d never met him. When I was 17 I got into this car accident on my way to school, so I couldn’t go to school anymore and I started working at a liquor store as a stock-boy. One day Styles comes in and I’m starstruck. I mean, he’s my favorite rapper. I literally take an index card and ask for his autograph. He signs it and I’m like wow. Not thinking about any rap shit, I’m just like whoa this is crazy. So 3 days later I’m at a gas station. I’m pumping gas, and Styles pulls up. Still starstruck as a fan, he looks at me and I’m looking at him and it seemed kinda weird but it was cool. I just told him I was gonna cop his new album which was dropping soon. He says “No doubt.” He drives away and I’m like play-racing him onto the highway. I was still just such a fan. So about a week later, he comes into the liquor store and asks me to help him pick out a bottle of wine. I didn’t know anything about fuckin wine. So I fake-helped him. He pays for the bottle and leaves. I sprint out to my car and grab a couple grams of fire weed that I had; like some Cali weed or whatever I had at the time and run over and hand it to him. He’s like “Is this from you?” I’m like “yeah.” He says “aight, I’ll hit you.” Fast forward 8 or 9 months later I hadn’t seen him once. So I’m talking with my boys outside and we see Styles fly past us riding a bike! At this point it’s god’s good grasp of humor. So I sign up for twitter that day and hit him with “It’s the white kid from the liquor store, I don’t know if you remember me but hit me if you do.” He replies with “DM me your math fam.” We became really good friends from then on. And friends become family sometimes. If I didn’t get into that car accident I probably wouldn’t have ever met Ghost. If I wasn’t a rapper, we probably wouldn’t be so close. Me meeting him definitely influenced me being a rapper, and of course, to be a better rapper. It was written in the stars. Even if we never rap or ever did anything else in music, we’d still be family. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. He’s a gangster, a gentleman, he’s genuine and he’s a good guy. A real G, Capital G! The first track I ever did with Styles was in 2014 on NORE’s “On Dawgs” from his Militainment album. Styles and I split a 16 bar verse on that track. I never asked for a feature. I never asked for anything from him when we were friends. Still we are like brothers. Styles is always trying to get me to come out and do more. He’s always telling me “Get out of your crib, and let’s do something!” I’m stuck in my world just making music. I used to dream of going to D-block. And then it happened. It’s crazy. I also produced a song off Style’s latest physical album G-Host, dropping August 17th. It’s still all surreal to me.
Shadow Of A Ghost
A landmark album. Fortes is the first artist to release an album with the full instrumentals included. A distinction Fortes is certainly proud of.
Fortes: Nobody has done that before. As an artist/producer to release an album complete with the instrumentals. I could’ve put the instrumentals on vinyl separately and just charged whatever. Lemme tell you though, before it dropped, I gave Shadow of A Ghost to hundreds of supporters and fans and those I wanted to share with. I’ve given away music my whole life. Out of 5,000 beats I chose 10 for the album. Inspiration hit and I did it. On Shadow “In a Hurry” is about me fake quitting rap… But I end with the line “you know that I’ll be right back.”
Fortes: If you notice the algorithm of Shadow of a ghost, Everything is supposed to flow until it reaches “pray.”
When played in succession, the beginning melodies of each track help to create a flow for the whole album. He played each quickly and I could heard it. A unique interpretation of melodies in a sequence.
Fortes: I ended the album with “pray” cuz you just don’t expect that. When I wrote this.. I actually still feel this way. All these things.. this is how I feel. People thought I should’ve let it go longer. I had an Interscope A&R tell me they wanted to extend it, they said this was big. I didn’t want to do that. It’s sweeter, shorter, it’s unexpected, and it’s honest.
With All Disrespect
Fortes: As a rapper, I wasn’t really listening to other rappers. It’s a competitive thing, where it’s like: “I’m the best, and fuck everyone and all that.” I had to change that mindset when I became a better producer. With producing you can’t be like “fuck rappers.” So that changed. It used to be only about rap. But when I heard Eto I was like this is the only cat I want to rap with. This was before I heard Roze(wood). I heard Eto, and told VDon I need to rap with this muthafucka. Period. I’ve known VDon for awhile. I met VDon like 9 years ago at a fuckin Chipotle. It was right after he did his first placement ever with the Vado shit. We chopped it up and I said I knew Styles and he told me he did that Vado shit. And we’ve been just friends ever since. VDon is getting his respect, which I love. I got him on the LOX album instead of me. Cuz it ain’t all about me. Why not put VDon on that? And guess what, that’s the best song on that fuckin album.
Fortes mentioned ghostwriting for rappers and also working with artists outside of hip hop. He said there’s something to some people just having an ear for it, and also a formula for finding that sound and getting the most out of an artist.
Fortes: I’ve been writing for rappers, but also pop singers too. I produced, composed and arranged some stuff for this 19 yer old pop singer- she’s dope. For the past 6 months I’ve been singing a lot too. I’ll just catch myself singing.
DRHH: You mentioned Eto as guest on With All Disrespect, but SmooVth is another guest, an emcee I love. Tell me about that.
Fortes: Yo, SmooVth is my dog. We’re supposed to do a tape together. He’s like “anything you ever need, I got you.” I’ve given him access to over 200 beats. I got a track with Hus (Kingpin) too. I’m on his next project.
DRHH: Those guys are the elite level of the underground.
Fortes: I think that’s where I kinda am. I think that’s where people would categorize me, with those guys. Maybe they wouldn’t look at me as much underground cuz of Styles, but if it wasn’t for Styles it would be easier for me to fit in the underground grouping.
His body of work and fan following surely elevate him into at least, the upper level of underground artists due to his ability to emcee well and also craft some extremely ill beats.
DRHH: Rozewood is definitely in that same category too. What’s that project like?:
Fortes: I’ve been waiting on him. (Laughs). Me and Roze, we must have at least like 20 tracks done for this project we got. It’s a full collab. Any beat he wanted, I was like, please, please take it. You know Chris Crack?
DRHH: Chris Crack, absolutely! big fan. You got something with him?
Fortes: Me and Chris Crack have a project. It’s so funny cuz I don’t even know how we linked, but I’ve given him more beats than anyone (laughs). We have a whole tape- Classy Crack. I keep asking him, when do you wanna release it? He’s like no, not yet.. but we’re close.
DRHH: What’s your thought on the new wave of production styles, specifically the drumless loops dominating production-wise?
Fortes: I usually don’t fuck with the drumless beats, unless it’s for Ka or an intro or something. I did some before I even knew Roc Marci was doing it. Now everybody is doing it. It’s like a post-Roc era sound. That’s where a lotta people think the forefront is coming back, but you don’t really have an identity. I can’t listen to that after awhile. On the other end you got the trap beats. That trap shit gonna die, this golden shit gonna last forever.
Fortes: I’ll try to download 50 samples and I’ll just constantly listen to music. I have so many samples that I’ve forgotten about. (Plays a random sample from a file on his computer and starts messing around with it) Studying music is so vast that I just keep searching.
During my time with Fortes, he blessed me with witnessing him make several beats on the spot with samples he had on file. Check some of them out
A funky 80’s style beat:
DRHH: Do you labor over your beats or churn them out?
Fortes: I have so many samples of stuff that I haven’t used on files already, it really only takes me like 6 minutes to make a beat So I can make like 20 beats in a couple hours. Once I chop I can cook it up quick.
A banger made in about 5 min:
DRHH: Your shit always sounds so fucking crisp. Is it your mixing or how you chop or what?
Fortes: People are trying to do distorted to make it sound dirty, or lo-fi or compressed or whatever. They’re just trying too hard in my opinion. I’m not trying to butcher the samples. I try and leave the sample how it is if I can.
DRHH: Some dope artists have projects that just don’t sound as good as it could. Is it mixing?
Fortes: Could be mixing. Get it preset, make a pre-set. It doesn’t matter what I use. Voice is important. How you control your voice. I can control my voice and make it sound however I need. That’s why I like doing instrumentals though, cuz I don’t even have to speak.
More than just Music
DRHH: What is this underlying paranoia inside you? You’ve mentioned it and it’s in your lyrics.
Fortes: When you deal for a living, and this is before the music thing, there’s always that element in your life. At a basic level, everyone deals with something at some point in their lives. It’s traumatic being a human. Life is traumatic. Mental illness is something I’ve talked about in my songs and it’s documented. The line between crazy and genius is real. I can’t describe myself. I wouldn’t change anything about myself, mental illness and all. It’s a gift and a curse. Bliss comes in waves. I felt richer when I was poor. I’ve made great music in the dark. And doing everything alone does make me feel happy. I can be a team player, but I’m just used to doing it alone.
DRHH: Why do some feel the need to rationalize these things about their own personalities? If this is who you are, isn’t it ok for these elements to exist in order to create?
Fortes: Exactly. I mean, I won’t make a PSA about it. I’m good. My loved ones are there for me as I am for them. Social media is poison. People only give a fuck when someone commits suicide. They aren’t gonna check in on their loved ones, they’re not gonna. I always delete those posts, cuz it doesn’t sink in. If you saw them, you saw em.
DRHH: These thoughts about mental illness and your paranoia, are they things you’re highly aware of?
Fortes: I think so. I don’t know how long I’m gonna live, that’s why I make so many beats, I have to create every day. Lord knows, I have my music, over 10,000 instrumentals uploaded, with instructions to my loved ones about how to release them.
DRHH: Tell me about success and overall happiness for you:
Fortes: I’ll tell you why I make music.. Seratonin and dopamine. I’ve gotten messages from people which is love. I’ve lived a life and can die happy. When fame and success are happening to you, it’s surreal. When I was on WorldStar, it was a weird thing. When I got Shadow of a Ghost on Sirius, it was weird. I didn’t rely on anybody else, I made all my music by myself. Thing is, I always get happier watching other people’s dreams come true. You can feel it more. When it’s happening to you it’s weird, it’s surreal. I like to enjoy other people’s success. You can see it, out of your own self.
DRHH: Perhaps it’s that generous attitude that ends up creating the paranoia.
Fortes: People made me the recluse that I am. I can’t be waiting around to share studio time. There’s a lot of people trying to record. So I had to build my own fuckin studio. Do it myself. I like doing this by myself. I like that it’s been all me.
DRHH: So you don’t want that kind of fame or attention or social awareness?
Fortes: I don’t wanna be like those bigger rappers. I don’t want my name pressed on flyers, next to liars. If I’m not headlining, I’m not going. I love to perform, don’t get me wrong. I love the rush I get. I’m an indigo, so I’m not doing anything I don’t wanna do. I just wanna listen to Nina Simone. I wanna do whatever the fuck I wanna do. Dreams change. The passion don’t.
DRHH: Is that part of the reason you want to focus more on producing?
Fortes: Production was always second. There’s just longevity in making beats. Even after I’m done rapping, I can still make beats. I can’t ever stop rapping though, I can’t. I think in rhyme.
DRHH: Any newer stuff you’ve been feeling from artists?
Fortes: That Phonte album might be the best album this year. I liked some of the Gibbs album I heard the other day. I think he’s hittin us with the gangsta shit before he drops with Madlib. But for artists, overall it’s a statistic thing with me. If Nas drops an album with 7 songs and 2 are good, what is that? That’s not a good statistic, I know that.
Fortes says he’s currently working on producing multiple projects, including working with legendary Queensbridge emcee Cormega. He has produced for another Queensbridge OG Capone, of Capone-N-Noreaga. He’s also produced tracks for several other emcees as well, with a few tracks floating around, some coming out sooner than others. Fortes just recently released a track with emcee Lord Juco. Check it out here:
Fortes shared with me some exciting stuff he has in store, which fans will just have to catch when he drops them.
DRHH: What’s the Future hold?:
Fortes: If I wanted to sell out, I could’ve done it 5 years ago, I could sell out tomorrow. Am I not the perfect mold to sell out? I mean, I’ve thought about it. Take major meetings, you know. But I don’t want that. I think I want to be a husband and a father. I don’t think I’ll ever have normalcy but that’s what I want in life. I know that I do want to help people.
DRHH: I think you do help people, with your music
Fortes: I hope that I do.
I think it’s clear that his music does. In more ways than he will probably ever know..