Evolution of a ‘Drink Champ’: Conversating With N.O.R.E.
“I’m chasing legacy”
Twenty years after delivering New York’s strongest defense in the infamous East/West wars—along with Mobb Deep, Tragedy Khadafi and partner-in-rhyme Capone—Noreaga a.k.a. N.O.R.E. is as combative as he’s ever been. But much in the life of the host of the wildly successful Drink Champs podcast and Revolt TV show has changed since those days.
“I just celebrated my 40th birthday and I’m having fun,” says the man born Victor Santiago, Jr. “I’m telling these young boys you gon’ pray to have a twenty-year career. You should pray to be out here for twenty years strong, and have these people tell you that you’re still ‘relevant’.”
On Drink Champs, the Lefrak, Queens native sits down with DJ EFN for what the duo describes as “the most professional, unprofessional podcast.” A fitting description, as the show is as much fueled by the knowledge of rap history and genuine interest in its often legendary guests, as it is by the copious amounts of alcohol they consume. It creates the friendly, informal and revealing atmosphere the show is famous for. N.O.R.E.’s career started with a lot less room for booze though. “I probably didn’t drink at all on The War Report, very few instances”, he reveals about the recording of his classic debut album with Capone. “I definitely didn’t get saucy.”
“You can’t be drinking and selling crack at the same time. I used to laugh at people, who would come outside and drink. ’Cause selling crack is a business.”
That attitude was even immortalized on ‘Bloody Money,’ a standout track on The War Report. “I lay back, cognac / And I don’t even drink like that / I sell crack!,” he rapped with a flair for dramatized surprise. “You can’t be drinking and selling crack at the same time. I used to laugh at people who would come outside and drink. ’Cause selling crack is a business. You gotta go downstairs and be sharp, especially if you competing in New York City —you’d be competing with what? 800 guys? On one corner! So if you’re the guy out there who’s drunk and sloppy, you can’t sell it! So I would always be like ‘I will not mix the two’.” Besides, his taste for imbibing was already significantly lessened by the life he led back then: “Why drink? I sell crack. It was a high as well, just selling it. Punching the law and getting away with it.”
“Then on the N.O.R.E. album, you could see I started to mess around with it a little bit, I started to drink Champagne.” That album also introduced the world to The Neptunes, an unproven duo who produced one of its singles; the surprising ‘Superthug.’ A by-then still relatively unknown Pharell Williams can be heard delivering additional vocals to the song, which became a breakout hit for the team. “I was always working with the same producers that I worked with on The War Report, and I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing. I was looking for a different sound.”
“I think it’s just about being real, not about being gangsta.”
Capone-n-Noreaga’s debut album had grown into a stalwart of the era in which Queens was the world’s focal point for a distinct style of hardcore street rap. The Neptunes’ synth riffs and propulsive percussion was indeed something entirely different, but the musical chemistry was unmistakably there, and N.O.R.E. decided to roll with it.
“It was a very dangerous thing for me to do, as a hardcore, War Report artist, and turn in and work with some kids from Virginia. They’re hip hop but they dressed rock and roll, and I was the type of person to take that chance.” It paid off, as ‘Superthug’ went down remarkably well with both his established street audience and the new, more mainstream public that joined them. “I think it’s just about being real, not about being gangsta. Everything that I do comes from my heart. I like to create my own lane sometimes.”
It certainly wouldn’t be the last time he surprised his audience with a shift in his sound. Back in 2006, N.O.R.E., whose father was Puerto Rican, released an album filled with both Spanish and English raps, over beats that were unfamiliar to many of his fans. “I saw this music that was so worldwide, so global, called reggaeton, that I said ‘you know what? I gotta introduce it to America.’ America just wasn’t catching on. But I was going to Europe, and places that aren’t even Spanish-speaking places, and they were playing reggaeton. I was just a person that wasn’t scared.”
“Every episode always has a special moment. Because I’m giving back to hip hop.”
N.O.R.E. attributes the evolution of his drinking habit to one man: Melvyn Flynt. “That was the guy who birthed Drink Champs—Melvyn Flint,” he says. His third solo album, Melvyn Flint Da Hustler, was released in 1999.
The bottle-poppin’ podcast has magnified the spotlight on him, but that’s not what N.O.R.E. enjoys most about its popularity. “They’re all special moments, but to see KRS respect us as media, and sit down with us, that was a special moment for me. To sit down with Pete Rock, Premier, have them sit down and drink with me, smoke with me, on my cameras… And of course, to see Puff Daddy wild out, drink all this shit and open up. Or to see 50 Cent even drink, besides giving us one of his best interviews. For him to drink with us, because he’s known for not drinking. Every episode always has a special moment. Because I’m giving back to hip hop.”
“It’s crazy, look at the businessman that JAY-Z is, the entrepreneurship that Puff Daddy has displayed, 50 Cent and Nas, the beautiful things we did, we all have to give back. So that’s how I look at Drink Champs.” When he tells these tales, N.O.R.E. speaks quickly and in an increasingly loud voice, with the same sort of declarative statements heard in many of his raps. But there’s also an amicable warmth shining through, showing his love for the subject matter. “Everybody that’s old school, they always chastise. They always criticize the young generation. I didn’t want to do that,” he says. “I wanted to show this is how beautiful hiphop is. You should embrace becoming older.”
“Everybody that’s old school, they always chastise. They always criticize the young generation. I didn’t want to do that.”
“It’s always the most blessed compliment, to have a young person come up to me, and say ‘Yo, you put me on to Boot Camp Clik.’ Even though it’s offensive, like ‘how you don’t know Boot Camp Clik?’ But these kids are 18. They’ll go listen to a podcast and go back. That to me is the biggest part of it. They don’t even know who I am, they just think I’m funny on camera. They don’t know that I’m a quote-unquote legend. They see me give love to these legends, and they go out and buy their albums, and go back and look at their history. And that to me is one of the biggest blessings. That’s what I’m giving to hip hop—that right there.”
And then the phone rings, and his old buddy Pharrell, who recorded his breakthrough hit with N.O.R.E. twenty years earlier, is on the line. “He called me one day, just to check in with me, and he commented on Drink Champs and said he was proud of me.” Pharrell also invited N.O.R.E. to drop by and visit him in L.A., which he soon did. “We stayed in the studio for two days. We just recorded, rekindled old flames and had fun.” The result was ‘Uno Mas,.’ a single that finds both men in a celebratory mode, the polar opposite of the days when N.O.R.E. could never sit down to sip a drink. “‘Uno Mas’ is just full circle, ‘cause this is the time I’m living in, I’m having a great time, I’m having success with Drink Champs. Why not go to that person that I first took that risk with, the risk of jumping outta that fly, traditional hip hop, that Queens sound?”
“This almost Will Smith type a’ shit!”
The new single, possibly the precursor to an EP, isn’t the only iron he has in the fire right now. “I wanted to not only give Drink Champs my full-time energy, but I was also working on a food show that’s coming out in December or January. And I wanted to give that time, ‘cause I like to be serious in everything. What was happening was, I got in the studio with Pharrell and had this record in the stash since the summertime. So I had a couple shows in New York, and then San Francisco, and then I went to perform with Onyx in Las Vegas. And I was like ‘Damn, you know what? I miss this too.’ And I think I can do them all at once.”
“I want people to say ‘Nobody has done what he did, and nobody has done it like he did.’”
“I don’t think there’s a person that’s done that. If I can have a successful show like Drink Champs, that’s standing on its own, and then have a hit record at the same time, and a hit food show at the same time? This almost Will Smith type a’ shit!” His excitement mounts as he’s describing his plans. “And I’m doing this with my pants sagging! I’m doing this still wearing my jeans! I’m not even putting on a suit! This is the first time, what I’m chasing now. I’m chasing history. I’m chasing legacy. I want people to say ‘Nobody has done what he did, and nobody has done it like he did.’”
It’s the same spirited attitude that he’s always been known for. N.O.R.E. will always be N.O.R.E., no matter what type of beat he’s rapping over. “As a person who made The War Report twenty years later I can’t be talking about the same concepts, ’cause I’m not living the same lifestyle. And if I was, I’d be lying to the people. If I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m outside, guns and all that…’ And if you have been a fan of me, you understand the growth anyway. I don’t have to explain that.”
“When you listen to The War Report, although it’s a classic, it belongs in hip hop history, but you gotta remember, you’re listening to young men. You’re listening to boys, basically. Teenagers. From the projects. That’s who you’re listening to. So now, as you’re listening to a grown man, I should sound like a grown man. Nahmean? That’s what I gave my audience from the beginning, the real me. So for twenty years later to come back, it’s still gotta be the real me. It’s still the same guy from The War Report, but who he is now. That’s the best thing I can give to my fans; to not be phony at all.”