Like many artists before him, Daryl Stewart (aka Decay) has used hip-hop to express his deepest and most intimate experiences. Decay first began writing in 1995 while he was attending college, but didn't hit his stride as a lyricist until after school. The lack of available work frustrated him, and rhyming quickly became an outlet to express everything he was experiencing as an educated man in a world with few options.
Friendships within the hip-hop community led to his first album, In Retrospect, and since then he's been steady grinding away at his craft. Decay's last album, The Unlikely Hero (2008) was released by Molemen Records, and doesn't disappoint as he delivers swift punchlines over classic boom-baps via Memo, Panik, PNS and Scheme. Recently, though, Decay has decided to (respectfully) step away from the Molemen camp in order to pursue his own interests. This is where Centerstage stepped in to get some info on how he got interested in hip-hop and what he has planned for the future.
Growing up, what was it about hip-hop that spoke to you above any other style of music? There was a lot that spoke to me in not just the musical element but other aspects of it as well. I always had a deep appreciation for words and the complexity of language. Through my parents I learned about music like reggae, R&B and soul music. Hip-hop was like a fusion of great storytelling and the music I grew up on. It had just enough ignorance and silliness in it to keep a young mind interested but enough information to educate. I also felt a connection to the artist that I listened to that made me feel like we were similar or I knew someone like them. It's powerful when you feel like you don't have anybody to talk to about things you're going through but you can throw on a record and feel connected. Not just to the artist but to other people like you, going through the same things, listening to the same music. It's wild. I think that whole feeling of people being connected to a movement is real powerful. Who can deny that?
When did you first decide to start rhyming? I had always played around with rhyming since like '95 but I was never really serious. I was content being a listener and just supporting the artist. I always felt like I didn't have the kind of struggles that needed to be broadcasted. When I was in college, I recorded a few joints just messing around and nothing really came of it. When I finally graduated it was the summer right after 9-11, I couldn't find work and I fell into a depression. All I did was write songs all summer. When I finally was coming out of this messed-up situation I had so many songs I wanted to put it out in some form. I had a few false starts but I finally had all the pieces in place to drop something. In February 2005 I dropped In Retrospect with the help of my people Selfish and Maintenance Crew. That started this crazy ride.
Early on were there any MCs that you tried to emulate or were inspired by? Being that Iím from the GO, I was really a big fan of Common. There were a lot of others though. Rakim, Kweli, Chuck D, Cap D are a few notable ones.
You've moved around Chicago quite a bit, and as we all know Chi can be very segregated. How have the different environments contributed to your development as an artist? I've lived on the North Side the longest and there was a thriving artist community here. I think I really built my artistry from the whole city though. I was born on the South Side and I associate that part of the city with strong community and family. When I'm on the South Side I feel like I'm home. The West Side showed me in many ways the opposite. Places I lived had empty lots and abandoned buildings. It's real sad seeing that. The impact of that inspired my name. Inner City Decay.
Is there anything in particular about Chicago that inspires you? This city is musical and full of entertainers. These streets are filled with hope. Seeing a flyer with names of people who've been holding it down here for years inspires me. Seeing cats come together to create something with each show is inspiring. Every new release here is inspiring. The skyline, the frost on the air in winter, the street lights through the city, it's all inspiring.
Perspective is golden as a lyricist. What separates you from other MCs? I think trying to be honest in music is not as important today as it was a few years ago and it's a difficult thing to find in an artist. I don't just mean honesty in what you say but on all levels as an artist. You can't claim you all about the truth but deceive the listeners. Even when the audience might respond more to these fake personas these rappers present you have to keep it 100 percent. Period. That's the aim every time I spit a rhyme.
You mention that your first solo album was "a little too militant for the average listener." How do you keep in mind what the listening audience wants without letting them dictate the creative process? I keep it in mind that I have to show the many sides to Decay and not just one. When I dropped the first album there was a lot of anger and frustration I had that had to be released. I feel the album was dope but I might have focused on the negative too much. The City Slick record I did with Fluent was really light as far as subject matter and as a result more fun to do. I always have that Chuck D, Public Enemy influence wanting to tackle social issues with music coming out. I was going to do that with The Unlikely Hero but the way things flowed it didnít go in that direction. I never let others dictate what I should write as I'm giving the audience me. It wouldn't be me if I did that.
Tell me about how you linked up with the Molemen? Scheme was the homie from a while back. I knew him before he got with Molemen through the Northeastern Illinois University Hip Hop Organization. He was putting a word in for me with them. I also connected with Memo through my guy DJ Monky. Monky got my music to Memo and then I got the beat for the song "Push." I knocked that one and a couple others out with Memo and then I met with Panik. It was a meeting with Astonish too and that was a wrap.
What was it like working with them for The Unlikely Hero? It was tough. Before working with them I was shunning the whole studio production of an album. I felt with the right equipment and a good ear you don't need a studio. They worked in the studio so it was a rough transition for me. Previous albums I worked on I felt I had more control with everything and it was a challenge to put trust in another person. I don't really trust people and that has positive and negative outcomes. As far as making the music, everything was smooth. They gave me the beats, I wrote the joints, easy. Panik made beats specifically for me and it was a major honor to speak over them. Same for Memo and PNS. Great producers. Ultimately we just had different ways of doing things and I haven't dealt with Molemen since The Unlikely Hero dropped.
So if you're not busy rhyming, what do you like to do to unwind? I'm mostly working these days. I'm a technology teacher for an elementary school on the North Side. When I'm not doing that I'm writing some and playing video games.
Any favorite spots in Chicago to grub? Nellie's on Division and Campbell. Great Puerto Rican food, amazing breakfast buffet Sunday mornings. Peace to Humboldt Park.
Forthcoming projects? Green Llama has an album entirely produced by our guy Dibia$e out in Cali called Llamaville. Don't know when it will drop but I'm all over that one. Tone Liv dropped Super Hero Sandwiches on Domination Records, I'm on a joint there. The new Uncut Raw (Selfish and Fluent) album is finished and I'm on that. I did a joint with Hustle Simmons over in Philly that will be coming soon. I'm going to be on the new Primeridian mixtape. And probably a few more in the next year. As for my own projects, I'm about halfway on the next City Slick record and just now starting my next solo. Be on the lookout, it's called The Zoo Underground. Coming soon.