Cesar Comanche operates on vision. What other explanation is there? In 1998, Comanche--then a student at N.C. State just up from his hometown in Jacksonville, N.C. --befriended a fellow hip-hop enthusiast named Pat Douthit.
They empathized over music, and one year later, they found out through a mutual friend that they both made hip hop. From there, a group of local emcees and producers coalesced around dorm room 308 in North Hall. Douhit became 9th Wonder, and Comanche became one of his first emcees. The rest is the history of The Justus League, the Triangle hip-hop crew that has already spawned Comanche, Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange, L.E.G.A.C.Y. and several others.
Comanche's third album, Squirrel and the Aces, has been stuck in his head for four years. It finally saw release earlier this month through Oakland-based hip-hop label ABB Records.
INDEPENDENT: You said you've known this album would be your third album since sometime in 2001 and your fourth album is already in your head. How does that work?
CESAR COMANCHE: They just came to me as I was working on Paper Gods. I was thinking about the difference and progression between my first album, Wooden Nickels, and my second one. I knew this would be the album I did after Paper Gods. I already had that title, Squirrel and the Aces, and I said then this would be my third. The concept was me orchestrating all the musicians I was cool with into doing a solid project. Those last two albums were me, but this album was going to be showing a different versatility with different people. Ideas like that just come, randomly. It's the same as my next album, and I was like that is a natural progression from this one. The next album will not be with these people. It's gonna be a really big sound, but me.
Was this the only time you could possibly ever make this album?
Yeah, this might be the last time an album like this will be possible with these people. This was the most difficult album for me to do because I had to coordinate with so many of them. Seventy percent of the time these people are on and off the road.
This is a concept record about the life of an entertainer, with all of his pals supporting him. How did you choose who went on each track?
I got beats from Nicolay, 9th Wonder, Khrysis, Dho, L in Japanese and DJ Resident. I had to think of what each beat was telling me to rap about and still follow the whole Squirrel and the Aces theme of a life of an entertainer. Then I would get that step down and think "Now, who out of people I work with did we have some type of situation about this subject or where we talked about an issue like this?" There was a reason for it, why all of these people were on a song. Like on "The Life" with Phonte [of Little Brother], me and Little Brother used to be on the road together and that was my first experience with that the whole thing where people from places want to push demos on you and tell you about this that and the third. They feel like you're their way in.
People weren't always looking to the Justus League as their way in. When the crew first hit Triangle stages, Comanche remembers that everyone was clamoring for that Ruff Ryders, keyboard-based Swizz Beats sound. People told them that no one wanted to hear their samples.
What was the reaction back then?
We were the kids on the short bus, and cats didn't mess with us. We kept getting more and more attention and went from us being cats doing "that other type of rap" to all the artists turning their back on us. We started doing shows where people were coming to see us, not a showcase where your cousins would come see you and leave. The whole show would be JL. The whole artist community resented that because they thought no one could make a mark by themselves and everyone had to stay on the same level. That was a hard blow.
How do people here treat you differently now?
There are three categories of people: Those who just didn't know and they're just learning now because of publicity. That's not their fault. Then there were people who were always down and liked you regardless. Then there were the other cats that wanna be down now that something is to be gained if you're down. As far as people who all of a sudden are down now, it's pretty much I treat it as strictly business, no favors.
Comanche hasn't been asking for favors. For half a decade, he's managed a distribution company responsible for keeping Justus League material and selections from a handful of other local hip-hop imprints in stores. He was the one point behind distribution for his records prior to Squirrel and the Aces. But that doesn't mean he hasn't been studying others.
How did the deal with ABB Records happen? Did Little Brother's success with The Listening on ABB help?
Well, ABB put out the first single, "Up and Down," and we were just going to put that out. But something happened that we didn't see happening. I knew it was going to be a good single, but I didn't know it was going to be so well received. Me and Beni B [ABB Records CEO] started talking about seeing what the album would do. I mean, they had "Squirrel and the Aces coming soon" printed on the cover, and me and Beni had talked before because Little Brother was on ABB. We had a relationship and, instead of trying to introduce myself to a whole new group of people, I said, "Well, a label is a label." I saw what went right and wrong with The Listening for Little Brother, so I knew what to stay away from.
What did you learn from Little Brother's first-album experience with ABB?
The biggest thing I saw was distribution. The way I saw it, The Listening was an album that everyone wanted but no one could get. So I did research and Big Dho [the Hall of Justus Music Group head and a producer] told me they had all these distributors now and then they didn't. And Little Brother has a three-album thing with ABB, and, as far as the way they did things with me, my deal is album-by-album. I could make an album with label X tomorrow, and it wouldn't matter.
Is Little Brother--and their experience with labels--an experiment for you?
I don't know if it is for them, but it is for me. I look at it like they're guinea pigs to me. I look at what they're doing and I'm learning what kind of things I do and don't want to happen to me. That won't be the total answer, of course. Every day is a new day. But they are completely in the dark about what may happen tomorrow. That's why I'm watching.
Do they know they're your guinea pigs?
I don't know. They'll read this and know it. That's just how I think about what they're doing--they're there first.
Cesar Comanche hosts a free in-store show and meet-and-greet at The Record Exchange at 2302 Hillsborough St. in Raleigh on Saturday, Oct. 29 at 6 p.m.