Mach-Hommy and Westside Gunn Discuss ‘Pray for Haiti’
There have been great hip-hop albums since the Nineties, and that will continue on into infinity. But rarely do you find an album that makes you want to go back and decode every lyric. Especially in the past few decades, those sorts of releases have become increasingly rare. It isn’t that rap isn’t still great — it is — but genres evolve. Singalong tracks about feeling jilted by an ex-lover are what’s big. These days, songs that celebrate your soul in relation to your community and heritage don’t necessarily sell.
Enter last month’s Mach-Hommy album, Pray for Haiti. Simply put, it is the best rap album to drop since Young Thug’s Barter 6. Executive produced by Griselda Records captain Westside Gunn, it turns heads the way albums used to turn heads. There are lines that stay glued to your subconscious, and Mach’s cryptic cadence is reminiscent of Ghostface. But where Ghost was Richard Pryor, laughing at his own experiences in an attempt to bring some levity to darkness, Mach is a Haitian soldier. He is insular, biting, and more cagey. Pray for Haiti is audacious, not because it’s trying to push the genre into different places, but because every bar is rap chemistry. We’re hearing a man who wants to hit us with details fit for a larger story arc in every stanza. On “Kriminel,” he recollects painful memories in the way that Nas would, but with less of an intention of teaching you. Mach has a way of painting a vivid picture of what he had to do in order to be who he is now. The production on the album features bass lines that buzz in your ears with drums that make you want to create beats yourself.
In fairness to Mach: this is not his first classic. That honorific belongs to Haitian Body Odor, released in 2017. That album is so good that the rapper sold it for $1,000 on his website, and plenty of people bought it. Pray for Haiti is more the wine that Jesus made from water; the holy text that will get the mainstream buzzing in awe. Twenty percent of the proceeds of the album go to a fund for computer science programs in Port-Au-Prince schools. Meanwhile, Drake has been sharing the album on his Instagram, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Mach exists for the Drakes of the world to study. The scary part, for other MCs at least, is that Mach and West aren’t done. The two are plotting the next classic they want to make together. They spoke to Rolling Stone about the meaning behind Pray for Haiti, why it was essential for them to come back together, and why they aren’t finished yet.
What’s the difference in mindset between Pray for Haiti and Haitian Body Odor?
Mach:Two entirely different spaces creatively. There is a recurring theme in my work — the DNA is going to be my experience as a Haitian-American. Pray for Haiti is the most mature project. Not for the project itself, but the momentum. HBO is a seminal work, not saying that this isn’t either, but we know HBO is. This is the fruit that grew from the seed of HBO. There were so many mutations that had to happen to get us to this point. A tree has to mature before it can bear fruit. As far as approach, HBO was just me. Nobody else was involved. This time, not only do I have more features, it is still insular, but West was on this one. That’s some stuff that you didn’t see before. I didn’t have anyone sharing executive producers on HBO. The core is always going to be the same though. That’s the fundamental difference. But in the studio, it’s always what I been doing. Even me and West, it didn’t feel different from our past work together.
West, why was this the right time to do something with Mach again?
West: Everything happened organically. Not even about perfect timing, it was meant to me. We got up, just to build with one another. It had been so long since we had seen each other. We picked up where we left off. And from there, then we said ‘’let’s just kill this.’’ Let’s just take over this shit.
Mach, in Newark, did you grow up with a lot of Haitians in your neighborhood?
Mach: Yeah, I have a lot of family in the tri-state area. In the West District, there are mad Haitians in Essex County. And just in New Jersey in general. New York. And even Connecticut. It’s heavy. It’s one of the most densely populated places where the Haitian diaspora thrives.
As a Haitian, did you ever get dissed for your heritage?
Mach: Nah, I can’t speak to that. It’s nothing but love over here son. But, I definitely do recall, and this is a matter of misunderstanding and all the matter of education, and this is why I raise awareness. I think a lot of the cultural information that was being passed around was repetitive and looped up in a trauma loop, of this one-sided story. I want to diversify the narrative. And I think people, depending on their access to what Haitian people have to offer, can run into the worst representations of our stories. So it isn’t like they have a problem with Haitians, they just don’t know. I want to be an educator when it comes to Haitian representation. But for me, I have people all over. There’s mad love everywhere. I get love from all the different islands. There’s a lot of Haitians living everywhere, all over the Caribbean.
West, you curate the album based on who the artist is. When you do Tana Talk 3, you are doing it for Benny. Now, with this one, you are with Mach. What type of preparation comes with that?
West: I’m a fan first. I’m a curator but a fan first. So, it doesn’t take preparation, I know what is going to sound good because I am a fan. I know what is going to bring the best out of them. I know what Benny is going to sound crazy on. And I know what Mach is going to sound crazy on. That’s why my projects sound the way they do. It starts with the production. And once I put that in front of them, Mach is going to do what he does, which is be one of the greats.
Mach, on this album, there are moments where you are mysterious with your stanza and moments where you rap earnestly. What’s the balance of achieving the insular flow mixed with letting the listener know what is going on in your life?
Mach: It’s all about design. It’s actual facts. Real things that really happened. Where I am coming from, what’s coded for you, might be plain as day for the people that I am coming from. Most of what I say is what it is, but if you don’t have that experience, you might not be able to vibe with that. That’s just how he is. Sometimes it is a vibe. People relate to the humanity of what is going on. I’m not sitting there trying to code — there are so many people who get what I am saying. As far as casting a wider net, I pulled the slang back. I wanted things to reach. It’s like if you are cooking a meal for yourself versus cooking a meal for other people. That’s the only difference: Me cooking for others versus myself. If you make your own sandwich, you might have some crazy combinations.
You both have music that has to do with your experiences. Sometimes the listener might not understand what the music is talking about because they haven’t been there. How do you balance being yourselves and trying to reach others at the same time?
West: I don’t think about it. I bring you into my world. If you listen to my rhymes, it’s the same concept. Nothing ever changes because I don’t change. I bring you to my world. That’s what’s special about it. It’s like a movie. We paint pictures of our lives. Some people get it, some people don’t.
Mach: I’ll add to that. And just because a person has never walked in my shoes, that doesn’t mean they can’t gravitate to the art.
While y’all were making the album, did you have the feeling that this was going to be one of those event records that fans talk about for a long time?
West: One thing about it is every time me and Mach link up, it’s going to be magic. This is just the beginning of an onslaught of what is going to happen. We might do it again this year. Get used to that. I’m going to bring the soundtrack and he’s going to bring his presence with rhymes. It’s going to be a regular occurrence. It’ll be Paul Heyman and Brock Lesnar.
Mach, what is something about Haiti that you want people to know about?
Mach: First off, this album is a vehicle for change, for help for Haiti on the ground. 20 percent of the masters is dedicated in perpetuity goes to the trust fund. Every time you play the album, every time you buy merch, you are investing in the future of the children of Haiti. And it is one of the most important nations in the modern world. If you know your history, and I recommend people read more, even if you don’t want to read. I’d talk to people who do know about our history. Check out CLR James, the Black Jacobins. Look into that.