Lovers Lane
In The Flesh

Prime interview

| January 30, 2008

Backbone Of The Middle Ground

Dre Vasquez, the MC better known as Prime, is arguably one of the most recognized independent hip-hop artists in Chicago. For a decade, this North Side resident’s craft and liveliness have earned him a spot on a live HBO MC battle, a track with Slug from Atmosphere (“Lambslaughter”), and countless gigs hosting shows.

But Prime is the first to admit he hasn’t always been renowned for his positive qualities. To be sure, on a recent introspective track called “Snapshot,” Prime even calls himself the “city’s most hated.” And the repercussions of his once hotheaded persona and overtly critical nature witnessed by many Chicago hip-hoppers in the late ’90s/early 2000s are still catching up to him.

“I was very vocal when I thought people weren’t shit,” Prime says of his disapproving ways. “I was very vocal. And I think it served as a detriment. Even when I was doing stuff, people were ready to hate, like, ‘Well, he’s been telling us we suck — now’s our chance, son!’ It got a little bit destructive so I took a little time off and at the same time, I needed to grow as a writer.”


Prime appears less angry than he once was, but he still doesn’t bite his tongue. As his longtime friend and fellow Chicago hip-hop stalwart Pugz Atoms says of the MC, “He’s not apologetic and I like that about him.”

Following a few years of lying relatively low, the oft-controversial Prime resurfaced circa 2006 with a more balanced temperament and a greater focus. In an attempt to help bring more unity among Chicago artists, Prime launched Middle Ground. What began as more of a crew — consisting of Cali-bred MC Curse, producer Manos, and others — has grown into a movement in which artists who aren’t trying to fit into mainstream- and underground-type niches can find solace.

“I represent the kids that grew up on the middle ground,” says Prime. “When I grew up it was Buckshot, Smif-n-Wessun, Wu-Tang — these guys were inner-city broke kids who just wanted to make music. They weren’t being flashy about it. They just put out music ’cause they wanted to be heard. And I feel like that voice isn’t there sometimes. No one’s speaking for them — for your regular dude that works.”

As a nine-to-fiver, Prime isn’t ashamed to represent the blue-collar rapper faction of the city. Moreover with Middle Ground, and its Web site/blog (, the determined MC is vested in giving an outlet and promotion to any artist on a similar wavelength, whether MC or b-boy. “Middle Ground, the way I see it, is more of a network of people,” explains Prime.

Despite insisting Middle Ground isn’t really about him, the reality is, in the past two years, Prime has carried the bulk of the movement’s weight. And with only limited aid, some of his accomplishments, like the popular “Back To Basics” hip-hop night at Cosmo’s, had to come to a close.

“After awhile, it’s the same thing: I start feeling like I’m spread thin doing all these different things,” he says. “Like I do the Web site myself, I was doing the parties, and then still trying to be an artist does get a little overwhelming. So now it’s more about finding people that really are like, ‘I wanna do this.’ And I’m like, ‘Let’s do it all under the same banner, so instead of little ripples, it’s one big wave.'”

Much like fellow unifier Longshot, Prime is taking on a mammoth task by attempting to bring Chicago’s often segregated hip-hop scene together. But regardless of the support level, the MC will continue to uphold the Middle Ground mentality.

On his 2007 mixtape, Class Is In Session Vol. 1, and especially on his forthcoming LP, Pray For Karma, Prime does a commendable job of representing the everyman hip-hopper. On the latter record, he addresses his love/hate relationship with Chicago (“Chitown USA”), reaches out to all the hard-working people (“Grind Or Die”), and reminisces about hip-hop’s early-’90s salad days (“Never Forget”). But the title track is by far his most accomplished work here. With a mighty, string-laced boom-bap beat knocking, Prime examines the “what goes around” theory of life, essentially talking about growing wiser from his mistakes and past experiences.

Toward the middle of the song Prime hits a particularly revelatory moment: “Nothing’s iller than mother’s pride/That’s why I pick up the pen and work on another rhyme/That’s why I’m calm now/ain’t no reason to run and hide/living in paranoia in the dark with a gun inside/The pendulum swings from the left to the right/and what’s in the dark can come to the light — pray for karma.”

“I think anyone that will listen even to stuff on the mixtape or Pray For Karma, can tell the difference between songs like that and the stuff I was doing [before] on CD-Rs and tapes,” he says, reflecting on his growth as an MC.

Looking back to the testosterone-heavy, forced-sounding verses on his first appearances, like 1998’s “Rush Hour,” Prime feels a lot of pride for how far he has come in 10 years. “At that point I was so battle-rap-oriented and now the stuff I do is more narrative-oriented and even [when] there’s punch lines, it takes you somewhere,” he says. “I think it’s just part of the growth thing. And I think the songs I do now are way more relevant and are easier for people to relate to.”

While the Class Is In Session mixtape is available now, unfortunately Pray For Karma won’t be released until Prime can finalize proper distribution. Last year the MC was one of 50 unsigned acts chosen by Rawkus Records for an online distribution/promotion deal for Middle Ground’s old From The Ground Up album. But Prime doesn’t feel like the popular NYC indie label can properly stand behind him or many of the “Rawkus 50,” leaving him to not want to pursue a further deal with them. “When these dudes [at Rawkus] learn to do shit properly, we can talk,” he says. “But they’re starting to mention my name in the magazines and my name’s up so it’s good enough. To me, it’s something to add to the resume and go to the next spot.”

Given the music industry’s instability, Prime doesn’t want to jump the gun releasing his solo album. But as he says in his always persuasive tone, “It’s gonna come out regardless. Right now I’m trying to see who has the same kind of mentality as I do as far as the music thing.”

For the sake of himself, his album, and Chicago, let’s hope it happens sooner than later.

— Max Herman

Category: Features, Monthly

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