In the opening scene of Kil Ripkin and Jah Freedom’s new video for “Self Medicate,” the title track from the rapper/producer duo’s upcoming EP, the screen reads, “Purgatory, Laboratory, Mental Facility Case Study 538,” before Ripkin takes his seat to stake his claim as one of the most talented lyricists in Charlotte.
In front of him sit four jars of colored liquids that resemble fortified wine, which would lead one to make certain assumptions about what exactly the title of the song is referring to. However, they actually represent colors of the chakras. Green symbolizes the heart — love, peace and compassion. Red ties in with the base of the spine, symbolizing physical needs, passion and anger. Orange: joy, vitality, creativity, sexuality. Purple: peace and oneness.
It’s a range of emotions that all get covered in the new EP, the full release of which has been put on hold during the COVID-19 crisis. For the new video, released on April 3, Ripkin said he, Freedom and director Kevin Staggers wanted to give just a nod to the healing themes that they’re trying to express and advocate for in Self Medicate.
“Each bottle represents a different healing elixir for whatever ails you at the time,” Ripkin explained over the phone in the lead-up to the video premiere. “Hopefully, people will catch onto that. It’s a two-verse song, it’s not that long, so I didn’t want to put too much in such a short period of time, where you have people going all over the place trying to figure out what’s going on. Hopefully, what we was trying to get across worked. It’s really about the music and the lyrics. That was my approach.”
For Ripkin, a Brooklyn, New York, native who’s been living in Charlotte since 2006, Self Medicate is an opportunity to get back to that lyrical approach following his last album, The Force, which focused on his own personal struggles. The new follow-up is meant to turn the focus around on the fans, giving them something to vibe to while confronting their own obstacles or anxieties.
Though it wasn’t planned that way, the goal became more relevant with the arrival of COVID-19.
“With this one I just wanted to heal and without even knowing that we’d be going through this crazy time and all of that, we had no idea this was going to take place,” Ripkin said. “My whole idea was just when people hit play it just takes them away from whatever’s stressing them out, without thinking too much.”
Sounds to Self Medicate To
Ripkin’s longtime friend, Charlotte producer Jah Freedom, provided the perfect backdrop for Ripkin’s riffing flow, with a mix of boom-bap production and live instruments, which Freedom plays himself then lays over one another.
The two have worked together on every previous Ripkin project, so it was only right for them to get together for a full collaboration. It began with Freedom sending his friend a few beats, but once a theme came into play, the producer began building aural environments for Ripkin’s lyrics to live in comfortably.
“It was really freeing to just say, ‘Alright, I’m just going to experiment and play with sounds, textures and frequencies,’” said Freedom of the process. “I wanted the tracks to sound like a band playing them … and not just beats. I wanted to give him a soundscape for his vision so it has changes, bridges, instrumentation and flips of the beat at the end of songs.”
Close friends for more than 10 years, the two have built a partnership that Ripkin compares to classic rapper/producer duos like Pete Rock & CL Smooth or Guru and DJ Premier of Gang Starr.
“He’s one of my favorite producers of all time, bar none,” Ripkin said of Freedom. “I just think his style was made for me.”
His go-to comparisons are telling, as they represent an era of early ’90s New York hip-hop that Ripkin recalls in his songs. His effortless transitions from conscious content to street storytelling is a talent that’s hard to find on today’s mainstream rap radio stations.
In “Self Medicate,” Ripkin also transitions quickly between homages to his hometown and holding down Charlotte. At one point, he addresses BK gentrifiers, stating, “It’s for the ones who stole my land I think it’s time you returned it/ They say the flow’s so Brooklyn that’s enough to be concerned with,” and in the very next line pays respects to his current home: “I’m in the Q.C. with the Hornets swarm and the Panthers prowl/ We in the town where the people want the answers now.”
In the video, a clip shows protesters on the streets of Charlotte in September 2016 during the Charlotte Uprising. The quick switch is indicative of how Ripkin views his own story and the way his Brooklyn vibes play into his role as a Charlotte rapper.
“Brooklyn is always going to be who I am, that’s how I move forward and how I carry myself, but definitely on the other hand, I rep Charlotte,” he said. “I try to rep it in my music and everywhere I go, because this is where I’ve been, and I’ve developed a lot of solid relationships here.”
A Partnership Years in the Making
Perhaps the strongest of those relationships has been with Jah Freedom, as the two share interests in a wide range of topics from the chakras to sneaker culture.
“You know when you meet certain people and the more you are around each other you realize, damn we’re like the same person?” asked Freedom. “Kil is a stand-up guy, intelligent, talented, but most of all real. That’s the main thing: no airs about him at all. Will he put your lights out if need be? Yes. But he’d rather sit and build with you about the community, bettering yourself and gaining knowledge and wisdom.”
Freedom cites Funkadelic’s “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts,” as a citation for how that dynamic plays out in their personal and professional relationships.
The song is mostly instrumental, with contemplative, mantra-like lyrics sprinkled throughout, perfect for meditation, as Freedom points out. One verse states, “You can find the answer/ The solution lies within the problem/ The answer is in every question/ Dig it?/ An attitude is all you need to rise and walk away/ Inspire yourself/ Your life is yours/ It fits you like your skin.”
The theme fits with how Freedom would later describe the Self Medicate EP: as a guide in one’s search for self.
“We want people to take away that life can sometimes be hard or difficult but we can all self-medicate, self-heal with positive things: music, art, creating, loving one another,” Freedom said.
All the more relevant in a time when countrywide stay-at-home orders and economic anxieties have everyone in their own heads, with lots to be concerned for and more than enough time to spend dwelling on it.
As for Ripkin, though he says Self Medicate is his best work yet, he’s splitting his quarantine efforts between spending that all-too-rare quality time with the wife and kids and getting in the right headspace to continue his progression once he’s let loose on the world again.
“When this is over with, it’s back to business again,” he said. “So I’m just trying to listen to what the ancestors are saying as far as what needs to be done at this time. I don’t think this is play time. This is a time to really just get your body in order, get your mind in order, and the things that you’ve been neglecting for the last couple of years, this is a time to really give them some attention.”
It’s all a part of the healing process.