You won’t find the details in the history books. Not where hip-hop is concerned. For N.O.R.E, legendary rapper and host of the self-professed “most professional unprofessional podcast” Drink Champs, those are the tales best shared among friends. Authentic interactions between people boasting shared experiences, inside jokes that might have otherwise gone undocumented. An oral history, defiant against the traditional convention of bookkeeping.
Currently one hundred and eighty-five episodes deep, Drink Champs has featured an expansive cast of characters: Fabolous, Royce Da 5’9″, DMX, The Lox, 50 Cent, T.I, Raekwon, Redman, Nas, and so many more. Artists who helped shape hip-hop into what it is today. Throughout hours upon hours of content, N.O.R.E. and his co-host EFN have laid the blueprint for generations to come, serving nonstop gems with the swiftness of a particularly saucy bartender. The value of his work should not go unsung; students of the game should consider themselves lucky to have a teacher of N.O.R.E’s caliber. Affable, jol, and by his own account “vigorous,” prone to sharing blunts, drinks, and tales like an old friend.
We had the honor of connecting with the Drink Champs host for a conversation. Check it out below.
HNHH: Hey, what’s up N.O.R.E? How are you doing?
N.O.R.E: Hey, what’s going on? I’m good.
Cool. So first of all, congrats on Drink Champs. It’s going amazingly. One of the most entertaining hip-hop shows out there.
Thank you, I appreciate it.
I’m curious as to what you think helped make the show what it is today. Going into it, did you feel like there was something missing? An appetite for more hip hop history out there?
I think it’s a combination of both. I think it’s a combination of mixing up stories and getting with friends that I’ve known for anywhere from 5 to 20 years. I think it’s just us chopping up the stories and pretty much becoming vulnerable and letting loose. I can’t tell you the one thing that makes it work, but I think it’s a combination of a bunch of little things that make it work collectively.
Definitely. I was growing up you were in the middle of the Superthug era, and hearing stories from that time is something that’s really lacking today. Your show is one of the ones that brings storytelling into the fold, so I appreciate that element. Was there any particular moment where you felt like Drink Champs was coming into form? When did you start to realize the beast you had created?
Well, it’s every moment but one of the moments that stick out to me when you ask that is the DMX moment, because we couldn’t really get him to stay still, and we got him to stay still for 40 minutes. He prayed for us, he cried for us, he gave us the real him, he was actually on the way to a show. When the people received that–I thought it was too little because it was only 45 minutes–when the people went crazy for that I knew we had something special. It was our third episode I believe, or second.
Most definitely. I mean 40 minutes of DMX time is like 2 hours of another rapper’s time. He’s pretty elusive out there. That’s a testament to your skill, your platform, and your credibility. Not everyone is able to get DMX to sit down for that long.
Word, we haven’t been successful again. We’ve been trying but hey, it is what it is.
For sure. Do you believe the truth comes out when you’re drunk?
It depends. Originally yeah. But at this point if you haven’t seen Drink Champs, you know better not to get too drunk. You know to have fun, but you know not to get too drunk where you’re gonna say the craziest shit. Obviously that worked in the beginning because people didn’t really understand, people were kind of looking at it like an artist-to-artist conversation, but now the platform is too big to where we can’t trick people. People really come sober, they really watch their alcohol content, they don’t want to get as frothy. In the beginning I’d say it worked, but now the cat is out the bag. Everyone knows that I’m definitely going to try to get you drunk. Probably get you to say something that you don’t want or whatever, but the cat is out the bag at this point.
Everyone knows, especially most of my friends that I speak to often, they’re like, “Man you ain’t gonna get me drunk”. They came with they guard up, which is cool too because I still know information that’s going to let their guard go down. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be the alcohol. I still have stories that’s just exclusive to a certain amount of people. That’s the good thing about being a good guy in this game, you pretty much got a story about everybody, especially all the people this season. So I don’t actually need the alcohol anymore to get them to tell it truthfully. As long as they’re willing to play the game, everyone will crack. Everyone will start to give up stories they never gave before.
You’ve heard so many different stories, but have you ever heard the same story told drunk and then told sober? Are there any big differences?
Absolutely, I’ve heard em’ all. Probably more aggressive, more aggressiveness when alcohol is involved. That’s pretty much it. Especially if I know the story too. You know, obviously we can’t get any new Big Pun stories. So every time I get Fat Joe on, I always say something that maybe me and him have discussed off camera, and we’ll say the story on camera. Same thing with Lil Cease. We can’t get no new Biggie stories, so what I’ll do is I’ll ask him about a story he’s told before and we’ll recreate it again.
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As someone who really cares about the history of hip-hop and loves hearing these stories, I really appreciate that you do that. You guys are one of the biggest gateways for younger talents to learn something about hip-hop history they might not be too familiar with. Is there any particular artist you feel is frequently misunderstood?
I would say Ja Rule. He’s a very funny guy. People just always give Ja Rule a hard time. That’s pretty much it. I think they think he takes himself too serious, and me knowing him personally, he doesn’t. At least on a Drink Champs platform, Ja Rule is misunderstood.
That’s totally fair. I think that people forget Ja Rule had a pretty amazing reign in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. People have come to associate him with some of the more social media-related antics, but the music kind of goes forgotten.
I don’t know Fyre Festival Ja Rule. I never met Fyre Festival Ja Rule. I know the other Ja Rule.
On that note, you came up during an amazing time in NY hip hop music and east coast hip-hop, and Ja Rule is part of that. When you and Capone were making The War Report, can you tell me a little more about how the scene was unfolding? Because there were some of the greatest artists of all time coming out. Do you remember anyone being the biggest competition around that time?
I wouldn’t say me and Capone had a bigger competition. The people we were compared to the most was Mobb Deep. Us coming from Queens, them being from Queensbridge, me being from Lefrak and Prodigy having some of his origins in Lefrak as well. So we always had comparisons. I didn’t think it was a competition because I always thought outside of the box. I was always a loud person, I was always the loud and boisterous and vigorous type of person. So as opposed to them where Havoc and Prodigy are both laid back. Capone is predominantly laid back, but Capone will get enthusiastic just like me. That’s who the people compared us to. But I can’t say that was our biggest competition. Our biggest competition was the streets and ourselves.
Fair enough. Do you remember seeing anyone in particular who was dropping some undeniably crazy shit at that time where you guys were like-
I mean everyone! You said it yourself, that was that era. When you think about that, you talking about M.O.P., you talking about Mobb Deep, you talking about Akinyele, you talking about Nas Escobar, you talking about Lost Boyz, Run DMC, LL. When you say ‘in particular,’ I can’t. I gotta think in particular, I gotta think of the era, the era period is all these people I just named and many more. From Royal Flush to Mic Geronimo, to DMX to Redman and Method Man, to Ludacris. It just goes on and on, you really had to rhyme back in the days you really had to be an entertainer. You really had to be a part of hip hop. I can’t remember a particular person, but I can remember the era. The Nas, the Jay-Z. That’s where I come from.
Something I find super cool about that era is what it transitioned into. A lot of these artists from the “golden era” as its called, kind of transitioning into this new era of production. Even producers like Timbo, Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Dre, they were all active in the ’90s, but then moving forward into the 2000’s the soundscapes changed. You were part of that too. If you look at The War Report and then you look at “Nothin,” these are two vastly different kinds of sounds.
Those are also 10 years apart too.
For sure. Was there a notable shift in the musical climate in the time that you as artists were all feeling?
I mean there was so much going on from The War Report then after that came the N.O.R.E album. This was my first album, that’s the first time people actually got to see Pharell in a video. Of course, he worked with Puff Daddy and Mase before, but no one ever seen him in a video. Nobody ever seen Chad Hugo in a video. Doing the reunion, linking up with Def Jam, and then taking the reunion, and making “Grimy” and then making “Nothin.” A whole bunch of relentless, wanting to be the man in my area. I didn’t want to go into Jay-Z’s area, or a Nas area, or even a Kanye area. I just wanted to be in my own zone and be a king of my own kingdom.
That’s really what that music stands for. That’s really what that music reflects in me. I spoke to Pharrel the other day, we talked about doing something. I’m thinking about it and we’re gonna link because he just made a move. That’s what that era means to me. A whole bunch of relentless music. Not to say that the music now isn’t, but I’m not a part of this music business now, I’m a critic of the music business. I say what it is and what it isn’t. I love that era of music, the 90’s up until that era you were just talking about. So yeah, I’m with you on that.
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I look back on that era very fondly. I was kind of younger in the ’90s, but in the early 2000’s I was a young teenager. I was watching BET trying to get all these new singles, see them through music videos because that was the only way to get them. Or buy the CD, but back then you could only get new music by watching the music videos.
Now you got YouTube, you got so many outlets to get music.
When you were first coming up, could you have ever imagined the music industry becoming what it is today?
Absolutely not. The music business was a lot different. Back then you had to have a buzz, and a record label had to come get you. You had to have great music. Right now in a lot of ways, it’s a little bit better because these kids don’t actually need record labels. These kids build their buzz on their own and by the time these record labels do come, they don’t even need them anyway. So other than the label giving them tens of millions of dollars, these kids really don’t need the labels. We needed the labels to a certain extent. I didn’t know how to get my records to Minnesota. I didn’t know how to get my records to Japan on the same day. These kids have an advantage. They could drop an album right now and it’ll be everywhere at the same time.
Do you feel that’s changed the way that albums are being made?
Yeah, I just don’t know if it’s good or bad. Of course, it’s changed the way albums are being made, I just don’t know if it’s good or bad.
What I keep worrying about in terms of the album is that, you used to have to go buy the album. Whether you only came for the single or not, you had the album, so you might as well listen to the whole thing. Whereas now, you have access to every single album at any time. You can kind of go from song to song to song on a whim. So I just wonder when artists are making albums no, are they going to be putting that same attention to detail as they once did? Maybe a select few will but I honestly don’t know.
I don’t know either man. That’s a question I don’t have the answer to. I don’t whether this streaming shit is good or bad, I don’t know whether having access to all this music is good or bad, it’s just yes or no yet. Most of these kids don’t need a record label, unless these labels are giving them tons of money they can do this on their own. We would have to go to physically from New York to Miami, Miami to New York. We would have to go physically until the records started to bubble. So it’s totally different now.
On that note, with the social climate today, how do you think some of you and Capone’s early lyrics would’ve been received today?
In the sensitive market we’d have a very tough time. I had comedians talk about that right now. Everyone just feels sensitive. In a way, there’s wild shit like that on Drink Champs, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out. But I’m probably always going to be who I am no matter what. We said what we were saying back then, and up to now, I’m just speaking my mind. Hopefully that’s why the fans stick with me. Hopefully that’s one of the reasons. I know you asked that earlier, so I hope that’s one of them. They depend on me to be honest.
Do you ever look back on your old lyrics, comb through them?
Absolutely. There’s certain thing’s where I’m like “nah, wow.” I don’t want to say any, but yeah there’s a couple I look back at.
At the end of the day I think it’s important. For a lot of people, myself included, I was not familiar with that lifestyle at all. Getting windows into it through lyrics was the only way to do it. Even some of the more hardcore stuff, at the end of the day it’s a creative outlet. I think people do appreciate that. It’s interesting now, the way the social climate has changed and shifted. You might see changes in genres like gangsta rap. Could gangsta rap even survive if it was coming out today? In the mainstream specifically.
I don’t know. You still got… I haven’t heard a commercial record from Pusha T yet, and he’s like a commercial gangster rapper. I haven’t heard super commercial records from Jeezy, I haven’t heard super commercial records from Ross, so I think there’s still a way for it to exist. I’m not sure in this climate, I agree with you to a certain extent. It’s just different.
True. Pusha is a good example. Even when he had songs that were killing it on the charts, to me “What Happened To That Boy” comes to mind because that was an amazing song. That was the farthest thing from a mainstream song but it still found mainstream success. Your boy Pharrel and Chad Hugo there on that beat.
What was the dynamic like working with them in the studio during the height of The Neptunes?
I was in the beginning, I probably wasn’t in the height. After the height went down is when I came back. But I was in the beginning in 1997 or 1998. We were just working in the studio and this guy telling me that no one listens to him, and he gave me a tape, and that was it from there. We still friends to this day. We just make amazing music together. I guess the last thing for our legacy is to do a whole EP together or something like that. That’s something that’s been talked about and maybe it’s going to happen. Maybe it’ll happen soon or maybe not, or maybe it’s going to happen later. But it seems like it’s something that’s definitely going to happen.
I would definitely check that out if you guys linked up for some new music. On the topic of collaboration, on the opposite end, you have the conflict side. People seem to really like the conflict, especially when it comes to hip hop beef, rap beef, etc. Having spoken to so many people as you have, do you feel like there’s ever been a point where the conflict has gotten too real and you feared for your safety, or someone else has?
Nah, I’ve never had rap beef that made me like that. Nah. Can’t lie to you, can’t sit here and describe some gangsta rap shit that never really happened. We lived in the moment and that was it.
How did rappers even exchange threats before Instagram?
I never had to handle that. Because if you know me, I’m the happy-go-lucky drunk guy that people see me, I smoke weed, I drink, and I like everyone to be happy. The controversy is not what I represent at this point of my life. At this point of my life I like to represent what’s happy and what’s good in hip hop. Anything that’s controversy, save that for controversy artists. But you ain’t gonna get that here because that’s all I’m about, making people laugh, and have fun, and enjoy themselves. If you watch Drink Champs, you can tell that’s where I’m at in my life, and that’s where I’ma keep it.
Definitely. You have a hard task, having to sit face to face with hundreds of hundreds of artists and getting love from all of them. So to do that is pretty incredible and unparalleled.
I definitely don’t even agree with artists even beefing. At this point, we’re all lucky because we’re here. We deserve to be here, but I feel like we should be bigging each other up. That’s what Drink Champs is all about, bigging each other up and not tearing each other down. That’s not a race thing, that’s a hip-hop thing. If you’re a hip-hop artist and you survived and been through this, then you’re a superhero. So I want to big up your superman, and I want to big up your Clark Kent. I want to big up your Spiderman and your Peter Parker. I don’t want to dwell on the bad character that a lot of people don’t even know about. I’d rather speak on the two characters that people know about. That’s most positive.
I think when people look back at hip-hop in 50 years, they’re not necessarily going to have encyclopedias to cite from, but they’ll have shows like Drink Champs. They’ll have all these stories.
Motherfucking right! I think Drink Champs is a place for that. Especially when a person gives me a good interview. At this point it’s not about what I do, it’s how they deliver. Because I’m going to be the exact same person that I am on a Cee Lo interview as I am on a Jay-Z interview. I’m going to be the same in a Nas interview and a Curren$y interview. So now it’s pretty much up to the artists. As long as the artists come and deliver, then this content will always sell. That’s what I’m into.
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Do you listen to a lot of newer artists in the current generation of rappers?
Yeah, I listen to Lil Baby, I listen to DaBaby. I listen to Kash Doll. That’s who I’m on right now. I got DaBaby and Lil Baby, I know that sounds ironic, and then I got Kash Doll. And I got Tory Lanez. He might be on his way to being legendary, but the Chixtape, that shit is classic. I’m fucking with that shit heavy.
Yeah, that’s definitely a good album. You know what’s crazy, is that Tory Lanez can switch it up so effectively between the more melodic stuff and pure bars. I feel like few can really do it like him in that regard. Is there any one artist that you’ve been trying to get on Drink Champs?
I mean everyone who we haven’t had! The Dr. Dre’s, the Kanye’s, the Drake’s. The Jay-Z’s, everyone who we haven’t had. The big dogs who we haven’t had, and some of the Kool G Raps and Mc Shan’s, we ain’t forgetting about them. Even Big Sean, even when Clipse get back together, I’d like to have them both. Everyone we haven’t had who is a hip hop legend and a hip hop purist, that’s exactly who we want. All of them. From Common Sense to– I was about to say Consequence but we had Consequence, so from Common Sense to Biz Markie! We want em’ all. If you a legend, we want to give you your flowers.
One more question for you. As one of hip hop’s premium storytellers, is there one story you never get tired of telling that you’d like to share?
To tell you the truth, I’m tired of telling all my stories [Laughs] That’s why I let the artists talk a little more now. I think it’s time for the artists to tell their stories. I think a lot of people don’t really realize that Drink Champs was about the artists only about 35%. That other part was always about me and DJ EFN, it was about us telling our stories with the artist. But now, it’s more so 50/50. We let the artists tell their stories and then we share what we relate. But at first, me and DJ EFN, we’re the Eric B and Rakim of podcasts. He has a 22-25 year career, I got a 21-22 year career in this game. We were sitting down relating to the artists and just telling them that. So 65% of the time prior to this, this was really about us. And now it’s 50/50 where we let the artists tell their stories. It might even be 75/25, now.
That’s really what it’s about. Us revamping and letting people know what we are, what we did, what we’re about. To get back to your question, I’m tired of telling my stories. I’m going to let the artists tell their stories. If it’s one story I don’t get tired of, it’s giving people their flowers while they can smell them, and their thoughts when they can think them, and their drinks when they can drink them. That’s what I want to preach. Lets keep bigging each other up. Keep telling each other how great we are. If you look at a person, if you see the greatness in a person, it’s hard to hurt a person that’s great. It’s hard to take somebody down who you know is great. It’s hard to hate on someone that’s great. That’s the reason I want to give people their flowers now. That’s my deal.
Very well said. Thank you so much for doing this. Once again, congratulations on all the success with Drink Champs. I look forward to all the future episodes. It’s been an honor to speak to you.
Thank you very much, my brother.