August 1, 2012

Interview: Cise Star

Clyde Graham, a.k.a Cise Star is no stranger to hip hop. As one of the two primary MC's of longtime Florida underground hip-hop collective CYNE, he's been putting out original, insightful music for over a decade now, always in his distinct style. It's hard not to feel a Cise Star track the first time you hear it, the man has such a enveloping flow that feels so confident and assured, like the rhetoric of a general, leading you, his troops, into battle. But resting on his technical abilities has never really been Cise's game: instead of using cheap tricks and distractions, he makes you feel his verses, using survivalist, often metaphysical imagery and a well-honed knack for painting verbal pictures with words. He's previously rapped about the philosophy of Jean Rousseau on a release ("Rousseau") and created a dystopian science fiction scenario from scratch on another (Enter Killmore, the 2011 conceptual mixtape from CYNE). You might be uplifted and inspired by his rhymes on some albums, and be saddened by their gritty realism on others. As Cise himself puts it: "...nothing in life is always sunshine [but] on the other hand, rain doesn’t last forever." The man can write bars for every season.

Over the years, Cise has slowly managed to build a dedicated underground fanbase for his work, which has led to many high-profile features with other producers and artists. Perhaps most notable among these is his work with legendary Japanese hip-hop producer Jun Seba, a.k.a Nujabes. The initial collaboration session between them (which also included Akin, Cise's fellow MC in CYNE) led to such classic tracks as "Highs 2 Lows" and "Lady Brown." The duo would continue to work together until Seba's untimely death in 2010. Cise was recently featured on "Sky is Tumbling," the second track off Nujabes' recent posthumous album Spiritual State which came out late last year. The record was assembled and recorded from unreleased material left after Seba's death.

With an upcoming album from CYNE set for release later in the year, I was lucky enough to recently chat with Cise about his history, the current state of the hip-hop scene, his thoughts about the legacy of Nujabes, and other topics. Read on!

First of all, and most importantly to heads waiting to know, because there seems to be a lot of misinformation on this point, is it Cise STARR or Cise STAR?

Ha! On record it is Cise Star. The extra “R” comes from while initially working with Nujabes he felt my name needed added flair to set it apart, but at that time I was never really a fan of it. Now I sometimes use the Cise Starr moniker as a tribute to him since his passing.

How did you initially get involved doing hip-hop?

I was born and raised in Gainesville, FL. It is there that I with Akin (Akin Yai, the other MC from CYNE) and some of our close friends formed a crew called Phalanx. It started out as us just going to our boy’s house writing and recording mix tapes that we passed around to our friends. Then shortly later we started doing local shows tying to establish a hip hop scene in Gainesville, which was more known for its indie bands. Like all crews at some point we all started going our separate ways and it was sometime later that Akin and I came back together and formed the foundation for CYNE. Through a mutual friend we were introduced to Mike Gersten and Dave Newell (Speck and Enoch) who came on board as the in house producers for the group and CYNE was formed.

Who were some of the important MC's and groups of your early hip-hop listening years?

First and foremost, one of the groups that had a major influence on me was Wu-Tang. They were the pinnacle of hip hop in my formative years, and I still feel they were the creative force that inspired me to even want to rap. The blending of street culture, kung fu movies and their collective camaraderie was amazing to me. I must admit while being young the mystic of the Five Percent Nation had me for a while and I was running around claiming 5% and not knowing any real mathematics or what the hell I was talking about (hence one of my earlier monikers huALLAH Star). The more I actually learned about the Five Percenters the more I realized it wasn’t for me and just appreciated the art of what the Wu were bringing to the table and how an idea can change the game.

Another group that really influenced me was Camp Lo. Man the first time I heard "Luchini" it changed my life. They had their own speak, their own style, their own… them. I loved it. They had impeccable flow and artistic wordplay. To me, they are one of the most slept on groups in hip hop, hands down. A lot of cats these days are either really creative but no flow, like being different, but disjointed and jarring, relying heavily on production, or they're all flow and no creativity, like being smooth as hell but not really saying anything interesting or fresh, or the worst case scenario, none of the above. They were both creativity and flow.

Nas was another huge inspiration musically. I know its cliché, but even now I still listen to Illmatic for inspiration. He has been doing his thing for over 20 years and is still on point lyrically. I’m not much of a storyteller and the way he can have you vividly envision what he is lyrically portraying is amazing. The only other artist that can remotely move me that way is Ghostface Killah.

Something many people vibe to about your lyrical style is your consistent grappling with political and philosophical themes; CYNE of course did the song "Rousseau," themed off the famous French philosopher’s ideas, and your lyrics elsewhere are peppered with such ideas. The Cise Star track "Adrift," for instance, states that "the strong will survive/not the strong in the arm but the strong of the mind." What was it as a young adult that initially affected you to think in these terms and write rhymes in such a thoughtful style?

I have always been fascinated with religion/philosophy and the dichotomy of the human experience. By no means am I a theologian, but I am a firm believer that there are forces within ourselves and outside of ourselves that shape who we are and where we are going. Every day we grapple with the greater good of the collective and the personal aspirations of our own ego, and it is in that balance that we can attain a greater understanding of the world around us. If a person cannot understand himself how can he attempt to explain what is wrong with somebody else? You can live your whole life and not even understand the decisions you made for yourself. I consider myself Christian in belief and was raised in the Southern Baptist church where they can sometimes preach that hellfire and brimstone is going to reign on the “unbelievers”. If you really read the New Testament though, Jesus reached out to the “undesirable” tenants of society and accepted them as fellow human beings. It seems to me (again I stress I am no biblical scholar) the only time he really acted out of anger was against fellow “believers” who were using the church as a way to make money (Matthew 21:12-13).

I feel that we have lost the art of agreeing to disagree and adopted the attitude of that if you don’t agree with me then I have the right to treat you less than a human being, which is a bullshit way of seeing things and hinders progress. Only in death do we learn whose belief system was right or wrong anyway, but then no one ever comes back to let us know what the real deal is, so in the meantime let’s treat everyone as fellow humans and let God sort it out. In the end of the day it is thoughts and ideas, not force that really changes things. Live by example as much as possible.

These are the ideas I try to express in my rhymes.

Do you think rappers who only rhyme about wealth and materialism are doing a disservice to their listeners? Or is it just another mode of expression?

I feel there is a time and place for all types of hip hop. Also I think there are Rappers, MC’s and Artists. A Rapper to me is the type that can rap about the usual superficial shit, make it their shtick and appeal to just a certain type of audience; an MC is one that can regardless of their shtick can move any type of crowd and say something worthwhile once and a while; and an Artist is one who can just be themselves all the time and have the world feel them for who they are because it is authentic expression. It’s all subjective in the end, but one must be mindful of what they are using their energies for. You have to remember, nobody forces people to buy/support music, so all the responsibility cannot solely rest on those type of rappers who rap about the materialistic side of things, the listeners themselves have to demand more from the music they listen to and take initiative to find good stuff.

Where did the acronym "Cultivating Your New Experience" come from? And what's the significance behind it as far as the music?

Originally when Akin and I linked back up after our initial group Phalanx, I came up with the name The Sign. The meaning behind it was a reference to the fact that people will never listen to well meaning advice but will for the most part follow an inanimate traffic sign and obey due to the immediate negative result that may happen if they didn’t. “The Sign” morphed into Cyne. From there a mutual friend of ours named Al Love came up with the acronym Cultivating Your New Experience and then Cyne became CYNE and the rest is history. It was one of those serendipitous moments because our whole aim was to bring something different to the table and the acronym fit perfectly.

CYNE's records are notably known for alternating between really dark moods and places over to brighter, more upbeat ones. Do you think it's important to have both sides of this emotional spectrum visible in your music?

I think it is important, because nothing in life is always sunshine and on the other hand rain doesn’t last forever. It is good to show the highs and lows because it’s then you can appreciate the whole picture.

People who don't know you from your work with CYNE will undoubtedly know you from your several collaborations with legendary Japanese producer Jun Seba, a.k.a. Nujabes. Can you tell the story about how you got involved with Seba and about how your tracks for his first two records were recorded?
It was through CYNE and the label we were first dealing with (Rice and Beans) that I was introduced to this (at that time) mysterious Japanese producer named Nujabes who was interested in working on some tracks with me after hearing CYNE’s first release “African Elephants”. Steve Castro, the head of that label at that time, had some dealings with Nujabes via an acquaintance of his that operated a promotional company called RL66 based in Japan. Jun flew me over to Japan later that year and it is there with him I recorded “Highs to Lows”, “DTFN” and “Lady Brown”.

You were featured on "Sky is Tumbling" off his recent (posthumous) record Spiritual State, released late last year. When was that particular track recorded?

“Sky is Tumbling” was written after Nujabes died in early 2011. Hyde Out approached me about writing the track to appear on the posthumous Spiritual State release and I was honored to do it.

What do you think Jun's legacy will be?

Just look at the artists’ lives he touched and all the devoted fans he still has today. He was not the first to pioneer the jazz/hip-hop sound, but he definitely took the genre to new levels and brought it to different types of people all over the world. A lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise even listen to hip hop will now become new fans due to Nujabes’s music.

Who are some of your favorite musicians, rappers, producers, and otherwise, working at the moment? 

To name a few: Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., and Action Bronson

Anyone in the scene you currently have or wish to have beef with?

Nah. Too much fabricated drama out there as it is.

You've have been featured on many compilations and such things but the last CYNE release proper was 2011's excellent, if quietly released, concept mix tape "Wasteland Vol 1: Enter Killmore." Is there new CYNE and/or Cise material on the horizon for 2012?

We are currently working on the new CYNE full length album. I have a track with a Hyde Out artist by the name of Nakamura that should be on his new album coming out soon, and Wasteland Vol. 1 is still available through our current label Hometapes.

Shout out to my CYNE fam, Hometapes, Hyde Out, GoonTrax, Substantial, Marcus D, and to all the friends and fans who are out there supporting me in what I love to do. Can’t thank you all enough.

As a luminary of the hip-hop underground for more than a decade now, what advice would you give to young artists starting out?

People love it best when you just do you. Focus on the music and the rest will fall in line.

Stream: Nujabes - Feather (Featuring Cise Starr and Akin)

The currently untitled new CYNE record is currently scheduled for release in Fall-Winter 2012.


  1. Fantastic interview! I've always found Cise Starr to be one of the most talented and thoughtful rappers around, and hearing him talk about the late Nujabes ( R.I.P.) was also rewarding to read. Thanks to Decoder and Cise Starr for this interview. Now it's time to interview Enoch, Speck and Akin!

  2. Replies
    1. you're everywhere, dude

  3. Great interview! Cise Star will always be one of my favorite MCs. His music has helped me out tremendously throughout my highs and low. Can't wait for the new album!