I learned the difference between being a deal-broker and being an artist way back in the 1990s. I always got to the bag. I was getting to the bag at 16.
I rapped like I was in the street slinging — it was the same premise, except I was running up into record label buildings. For me, it was such an accomplishment. I didn’t get the XXL Freshmen cover; it wasn’t around then. I didn’t get The Source’s Unsigned Hype. You know what I got? I was the “fourth” member of A Tribe Called Quest. And I turned that into a legendary songwriting and rap career.
Then I got sick. And when I look back on it, nothing could have prepared me for that better than it just happening. I still wasn’t prepared, though.
When you get to a certain age, your life becomes a story. It’s no longer just a life of sporadic moments because you’ve had enough of those to write chapters. When I look at my life, Type 2 diabetes was a benchmark in my world. It was the beginning of one of those famous chapters.
In 2018, I was on the phone arguing with a major label [over A Tribe Called Quest]. It was Ali [Shaheed Muhammad] and me on the phone. The way they were treating us made me completely offended. I had just finished doing ComplexCon. I sat with the graphic designers and designed the entire display. I oversaw our booth’s design, the whole line, and the marketing — when I was only supposed to come in as a consultant. Because there were so many holes in the situation, the only way it would work is if someone came in and plugged them up. When I saw the original booth, I said, “This ain’t good enough for Tribe.”
One of the first great brands that I associated with was A Tribe Called Quest. I’ll never take that away from the situation. I’ll always celebrate that, no matter what my status is with the group — whether I’m solo, whether I’m doing the last album, whatever. I always want to see these positions in the best possible light. When we had that discussion on the phone, I was so passionate about it. But the more we talked, the more resistance I got and it stressed me. When I was done with that conversation, my mouth felt like I had spiderwebs in it. And I was like, yo, something’s wrong here.
It was a different kind of aggravation, or something was REALLY wrong with me. After I got off the call, the symptoms continued to intensify. I realized then that my internal condition was as important as how I felt mentally. I’m not saying that Tribe wasn’t worth it. But for my body, I overcommitted.
It’s never easy when you fall ill. But there’s a difference between illness and being sick. I thought I would get better over time. But my Type 2 diabetes was downgraded to Type 1 — which requires me to take insulin. I was also diagnosed with lupus.
When I was confronted with illness, it showed me that there would be ramifications to my life if I didn’t treat it. And a lot of the reason why, even this summer, I shut people out was that I couldn’t deal with their panic. The one thing that saved my life was that I didn’t panic. I can’t operate on that energy. If somebody’s panicking, they got to get the fuck away from me.
I haven’t been sick many times in life. I sprained my wrist and had stitches a couple of times, but I’ve never had pneumonia, cancer, or anything. I smoked cigarettes in the early part of my life, but I quit, so I never really suffered emphysema or anything you could get along the way.
Maybe at this age, I have a story. But if the story ends now, will I die not in peace?
I don’t know whether I crashed from doing the [Tribe] tour. We did festivals, so it wasn’t like night-after-night shows; it didn’t make 100% sense. When I went to ComplexCon, I did feel like I might’ve interacted with too many people — you’re around 2,500 people in one confined space. The reality was I probably was already in a state of deterioration from an auto-immune trigger for a minute before I got hit with it.
The balance of life is give and take; the scales tip in your favor sometimes and out of your favor at others. Maybe at this age, I have a story. But if the story ends now, will I not die in peace? I don’t think that’s fair to my soul, either. It made me ask myself, if I want to live, am I willing to fight? Yes, absolutely. The feedback I was getting was like, “Man, you’re too young to be this tired.” It’s still happening, whether I’m young or I’m not.
As my condition became clear and the doctors explained more to me, I did everything they told me to do. I didn’t have that psychological hangup like, yo, I give up. I ain’t doing this shit.
No, I’m doing this shit. Because it won’t be on me. If it’s my time to go, then that’s beyond my control. But if it was a matter of me deciding to take medicine and stay on top of what I’m supposed to, then I was going to do that.
It’s been a challenge for anybody close to me. Nobody’s going to handle a situation perfectly. And when I speak of anything, I try to speak of it in a positive light. I don’t know if words could ever properly describe what my inner circle felt and where they were at mentally. But I turned the corner.
I think for a lot of people, that shit scares them. Because it’s a little scary to believe you may not outlive a chronic illness diagnosis. To say that none of this is scary is downplaying it. I’m the one doing the talking, but I’m sure that there were people in my life who were legitimately terrified, my son Caiden being number one. And he was not just scared. He was terrified.
When I was able to prostrate in prayer after not fully being able to bend down for a while, Caiden reacted. His face lit up, and he was ready to cry tears of joy. He’s just a boy, and I’m his dad, his hero. We ride for each other. At that moment, he finally was able to let it out.
I don’t know every conversation he has with his mother. I can only assume that they huddled. She likely told him, “Yo, Daddy is ill. And this is happening. And we got to see what comes about from it.” And that’s nothing a little boy should have to deal with. But he did.
He was one of the reasons I had to get up. I was like, I’ve got to get up. I have to. I can’t die. My son is in the midst of going from eight to nine and he’s already dealing with social ramifications of being in the spotlight; I won’t leave him behind. We’ve been working on a lot of things together but it felt like I was watching the Titanic sink. And I could have sunk, but I needed to be selfless.
I leaned on faith and prayed earnestly about a situation that’s completely out of my hands. There was nothing ever to question again.
So when I saw people making negative statements on social media about me, I thought about how I’ve been living on Scrutiny Boulevard for a long time. I set up a trap house on Scrutiny Boulevard. There have been times I got a clean win, and times I’ve been the subject of derogatory comments. I’ve learned to appreciate the positive and understand that people say shit.
And some of these commenters, that’s their thing; that’s what they do. It’s just the rap life, really. I can’t expect to have normal conversations anymore. Somebody said to me, “You know, you voted for Kanye because you’re rich, and you don’t give a fuck about nobody else.” And it’s like, huh? What does my income have to do with anything?
After going through what I went through, yeah, I give a fuck about me. Sorry, spoiler alert. But at the same time, I’m not the smug, bougie motherfucker at all. I’m a hood n***a when the cameras are off who happens to know how to conduct high-level business. I’m the n***a who still goes back to Linden Boulevard. I’m not the guy who lives in a suburb but hasn’t touched a block in years and only goes back there when I need to resource-rape the hood like a lot of your favorite rappers. I just took my son to Jamaica Avenue to get beef patties because I will always love Queens, New York.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been cautious. I have a supply of masks and gloves in my crib. I never took that shit as a joke, not once. Kanye said that he contracted Covid, and I knew the risks involved for me, so I was vigilant.
I know a couple of people — about 10 people from Queens, some I went to high school with — who died from Covid. They were mostly Black men, too. It was a fucking sad time. So, yeah, that shit was rough; 2020 was some real shit.
My thing is always to protect my son, no matter what. That’s my business partner, my son, my friend. If you’re not a father, you have no idea what it feels like to participate in your kid’s life.
—As told to Andrew Ricketts