Daily Dose Contest + Interview with Finale, Rising Detroit Hip-Hop Star

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Welcome to our first Daily Dose contest! Wanna skip all the good stuff? Fine. Just jump down to the comments and let us know:

What’s your favorite thing about Detroit?

[UPDATE: The contest is now closed — many thanks to all who participated! The winner will be announced in tomorrow’s Daily Dose.]

The winner will score a D-town prize pack: a signed copy of Finale‘s yet-to-be-released debut album, A Pipe Dream and a Promise; Black Milk‘s latest LP, TRONIC, on vinyl; eLZhi‘s acclaimed 2008 album, The Preface; and a signed, limited-edition copy of artist Jamar Nicholas’ Interdependent Media coloring book.

Make sure you enter a working email address when you post a comment — it’ll remain invisible, and we’ll only use it to contact the winner, who’ll be selected at random and announced in next Tuesday’s Daily Dose.

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Detroit has a chip on its shoulder. Consistently among the most economically depressed and crime-plagued cities in the US, the D has suffered from decades of institutionalized poverty and systematic neglect. However, the city’s unparalleled musical heritage continues to inspire young, homegrown talent, who emerge with critical acclaim only to find nationwide popular indifference. Toughened by the struggle, Detroit’s native artists and musicians continue to excel, while waiting for the rest of the world to wake up and give the next generation its due. It’s a testament to the failures of politicians and policies that the Motor City — home of Motown, and once the country’s fourth-largest metropolis — could have fallen so low, and the current economic downturn isn’t helping. But through it all, the resilient residents of the 3-1-3 continue to have each others’ backs.

Finale is a rising star in Detroit’s close-knit hip-hop scene, who’s spent eight years grinding his way to the upper echelon of his city’s deep talent pool. A former automotive engineer turned full-time rapper, he is uniquely positioned to represent his hometown on the national stage. However, the self-proclaimed “studio rat” is happiest holed up with a mic, honing his introspective and quick-witted lyricism over beats by many of Detroit’s most gifted producers, including Black Milk and the late, great J. Dilla. Finale’s hard work will pay off next month when his first full-length album, A Pipe Dream and a Promise, finally sees the light on April 7.

We caught up with Finale right before a round of shows at South by Southwest to discuss the Motor City’s fate, learning from the legends, the art of collaboration, and the man behind the mic.

Flavorwire: The media has largely slept on your city. What’s different about Detroit?

Finale: I grew up on the east side, where the landscape is very different from other cities. It sounds crazy, but when I travel to other places and see whole blocks of houses, that’s like the weirdest shit to me. In Detroit, you either have about two houses per block, or it just looks like a war zone. But nobody believes me until they visit and I show them.

We’ve got a lot of growing up to do in Detroit, but I’m proud to show off the struggle. I think it’s what sets us apart. The fact that we speak about ourselves with no glitz and no glamour — this is us, either love it or leave it.

FW: The current recession may have hit Detroit the hardest of anywhere in the US. How is the economic downturn impacting the city?

F: Well, I left my job as an automotive engineer to give myself six months to do hip-hop 100%. And those six months turned into eight years — I’ve been steadily working on music ever since. But when I left my job, the [automotive] industry was already on a downward slope, and that’s nothing compared to the situation now. Of course, it’s hard to see friends get laid off, week after week.

That said, the industry is reviving a little bit. If I were to get back into engineering, now might be the perfect time. The companies need fresh ideas to revitalize themselves and the city. If they go under, Detroit’s in serious trouble. We’ve seen it happen before. After Ford shut its plant in Highland Park, the area quickly fell apart — it became, like, transvestite projects [laughs]. Same story in Flint, Michigan. It’s like a ghost town. Without the auto industry, the whole city of Detroit would be headed in that direction.

FW: Do you feel connected to Detroit’s iconic musical legacy?

F: We’re all connected to the tradition of growth and innovation in Detroit’s music scene. Many Detroit hip-hop artists clearly interpreted the influence of Motown and, like Dilla, they’re influencing the scene all over the world. We carry along what we learn from the past, but we also show growth on top of that. But I definitely see us continuing to extend the reach of what Motown created. I might be biased, but I think we were at that point years ago.

FW: Speaking of Detroit’s own J. Dilla, his death in 2006 [due to complications from a rare blood disease] has only increased his stature, resulting in an unending flow of tributes to him as both a producer and a person. Why has his legacy continued to grow?

F: Dilla was Detroit. We weren’t close friends, but we connected because he always looked out for the city. Dilla was all about the city, no matter where he went. Even living in LA, he was always shouting “Detroit!”

If had an opportunity to work with [Detroit MC] Guily or, I dunno, Jay-Z, he would pick Guilty, because he was one of us. That’s how he gains immortality. And his legacy will be kept alive, because his influence is contained within a lot of our styles — maybe 80% of the game right now owes something to Dilla.

FW: Your album is filled with drops from old-school and golden-age hip-hop legends. Do you see yourself as possessing that mentality?

F: I don’t see myself as having an old-school mentality. But, like Wordsworth told me when we did a show together, you’re not going to make it in hop-hop until you learn from those who came before you, the old-school veterans. They’re the people who’ll tell you, “Make sure you save your money!” “When you rock the show, this is how you do it.” They know — they were there in the beginning. I’m just learning from the past in order to get ahead.

It always just flips me out every time someone like Prince Whipper Whip [hip-hop pioneer and original Furious Five member] pops up on my cell phone. Whatever I’m doing, I’m there, because there’s just so much to learn. They’ve been through it all, and they’ve got mad stories.

I’m not necessarily a backpack rapper or a commercial rapper. Honestly, I want to hit both sides of the fence. I’m not trying to tell anyone, you know, “You’re too stupid for my shit! Go listen to Lil Wayne.” And I’m not gonna front like if I’m in a club, and there’s a big-booty girl in front of me, and the DJ plays [Lil Wayne hit] “Lollipop,” that I’m not gonna hop on that. There’s a drop from [Detroit rap legend] Awesome Dre on my album that says it best: “All this backpack versus commercial shit is really irrelevant.”

FW: Your writing is very introspective, and the album features a dense and structured lyricism. What is your process like as an MC?

F: I don’t write without a beat. I’m not the kind of rapper that just scribbles random a capella verses and has them ready on command. I need to hear the beat — that helps to determine the topic and the vocal sound. Once I start, I usually write down a couple lines and then the rest just spills out. The key is that I’m real picky about beats. Once I find the right beat, then my writing can reflect its vibe. I’m not gonna write about, you know, saving the world if I’m on a Mannie Fresh beat. The production and the lyrics have to work together. I’m a big believer in working closely with a producer to make a great song, to meet that person half way. It’s the lyricist’s job to take up where the producer left off.

FW: How involved are you with the beat-making process?

F: I don’t like to make music by arrangement, meaning I would never just hit up a random producer and say, “Hey, I want to work with you. Let me cut you a really big check right now.” And then you just send off the a capellas by email. It might just be me, but I can always tell when songs are created like that. Everybody on my project is a friend, someone I actually know. I need to demonstrate that connection between a producer and an MC, you know, the way it used to be.

FW: In your song “Issues,” you state: “It ain’t real ‘cos I rap it / it’s real ‘cos this shit really happened.” Given that the album is full of emotional honesty and personal details, is “Finale” a character, or is “Finale” really you?

F: I’ve always been told that I’m two different people. If you catch me offstage, I’m usually at the back in the corner, or at the bar just quietly chillin’ with a drink. I’m not going to go out of my way to either talk shit or just spill what’s on my mind. But on the record, the reason it is so personal is because it’s really me — I’m making up for the fact that in some ways I don’t really talk to people. The only thing I’m worried about right now is what goes on in the booth. I’m a studio rat; the only time I leave is if there’s money outside. I don’t hit every club around the city and act out. This record is my outlet.

To answer your question, Finale’s not a character — Finale’s an extension of me. It’s the person I don’t let a lot of people see unless I’m onstage. And when I’m offstage, I tend to be reserved, because I just gave you all of me during the performance. So when I come off, I just go back to being quiet… Derrick.