Picture via the last emperor/Discogs
David Ma’s The TV is not HD, it’s too real.
In the mid-1990s, the sky opened up. We were given a tale of Iliad proportions, an exuberant performance of soaring fiction, where rap gods were paired with comic book heroes in a vale-tudo match for the galaxy. If it all sounds heavy, maybe even overworked, imagine writing it down, a tricky exercise that could have been a travesty – a good concept turned corny at best.
“To this day, people ask me to play it. And I do. It’s my classic and I’m grateful for that,” says Jamal Gray, whose stage name is derived from Bernardo Bertolucci’s award-winning 1987 film. wouldn’t let me go without doing it.” A Philadelphia fixture for ages, at one point he was a protege of Dr. Dre and signed with Aftermath before things unraveled. Prior to that, he was a memorable part of the Lyricist Lounge era, signed to Rawkus during his tremendous years where rave collaborations with RZA, KRS, even the elusive Zach De La Rocha took place. It even landed a coveted spot in Source’s revered Unsigned Hype section. It was an active time to behold, but like so many, his career was marred by industry issues that proved detrimental towards the end of the backpack era. Now Gray laments, “I went through a lot of label stuff, just a lot of turmoil during the song recording interval. A lot of the tracks I’ve done haven’t been released as quickly as I would have liked. They just sat there for a while until people remixed them. I was like, now what?
This period, ephemeral as it is, is a glowing reference, in some respects a legend, perhaps even more so with two decades of hindsight. To this day, Gray remains active; there was even a “Secret Wars Part 2” and independent LPs that followed. But the days when his songs had hundreds of thousands of queues on Soulseek and other file sharing programs are over.
“Secret Wars” remains a captivating time capsule of a bygone era, a universe spun without overshoot, filled with vocal impressions, sound effects and concise writing. Says Gray: “It’s escapism and I was very careful when I did it.” Here, we talk with Last Emperor about his writing process and how it led to “Secret Wars,” a concept that would have easily gone off the rails in lesser hands.