Big Piph

Jury’s still out on 2021, but add “new Big Piph album” to the plus column. Piph, a self-described “hip hop adventurer” who’s known to some as Epiphany Morrow, dropped “Far From Finished” last month. His 2020 travel calendar — stacked pre-pandemic with education-based work as a hip hop workshop facilitator, full band performances with his outfit Tomorrow Maybe and stagings of his one-man show “The Glow” — was upended in 2020 along with everything else. Even now, as travel restrictions ease and more countries open their borders to visitors, travel-based education — the work Piph does in Myanmar and Australia for a program called Next Level, for example —  remains logistically tenuous.

The six tracks on the new album are the fruits of that upheaval, mixed and mastered in Little Rock at Ferocious Productions. As ever, the riffs are crisp and the wordplay is dense, the kind of stuff that yields more and more with every repeat listen. I can’t shake the feeling, though, after talking with Piph, that there’s something different about this project’s pulse than the Pine Bluff native’s past body of work. Something more dogged and unyielding and defiantly playful, as if he’d dared himself to create a compelling album, to support it with freestyles and companion content and chapter-sized videos, and to do so during what was quite possibly the worst time ever to be employed as a jetsetting creative professional, just to prove to himself he could. I talked with Piph earlier this year about the new project, and he graciously indulged us in a set of extemporaneous “lightning round” questions. 

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I’m going to go ahead and assume your calendar was pretty full when the pandemic hit, and that there were probably things you’d been working up to for a while that got canceled.

Pretty much. I was coming back from Australia, and I was in conversation with people and maybe thinking about it a little bit earlier than maybe the masses were. About a month, three weeks before everything shut down, I was like, “Man, I’m pretty sure everything I have going is about to get wiped off the board.” Eighty-plus percent of what I did was small groups and large groups, whether talk, workshop or performance. Or it was third-party contractor stuff, the entertainer stuff, that was probably gonna get stopped. … It’s interesting: normally in times of economic downturn or turmoil, entertainment actually gets an uptick, because people want to spend time together, have some escapism. But this time around, I was on the front lines of getting chopped. I had a tour planned. The original idea for this music was planned. The PBS show, “The Glow,” was going to come out much earlier. I had a residency planned. I was supposed to be in Ghana. And I lost everything that was locked within 48 hours, and everything that was pending on what to pursue disappeared.

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How optimistic are you that we, in the artist world, have learned something? That we’ll be able to take skills we’ve learned from the pandemic into a new world, or is the power of going back to normal so strong that it’ll be hard for us to do that? 

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The word that jumped out to me there is “normal.” I don’t think, for most of the people that I converse with, about normal being like it was before. I mean, I’ve read it: “Can’t wait for this venue to be open,” can’t wait for such-and-such. But for most people I’m around, it’s always been, like, scrappy anyway, and making scrappy sustainable. But actually, I don’t know. The word optimism is not the word that comes to mind so much as “acquiring other survival skills.” Like, in the roughest of rough times, I’m still going to create and do what I do. I was who I thought I was. I thought I was this creative before, and now it’s tested to the Nth degree, and I’m still creative. So of course I’ll be this forevermore. And it’s kinda been a day at a time past that. 

I caught on the video for “No Filter” that you sort of have a “made-up career.” I think I know why you might say that, but can you unpack a little why your career is made up? 

It just doesn’t fit into the simple box of what we’re told careers are. And honestly, I have a very good encapsulation of what my career intersects: community, hip-hop and self-betterment. I’ve been asked, like, “Are you a rapper/entertainer? Do you do community work? Do you do content creation? So it’s these things that normally fall together pretty simply in the creative world, like an amalgamation of all of them. I have a very firm grip and can write down outline and purpose and make sure I’m within that, and it’s very intentional. But say I’m dating somebody. It’s like, “Now what do you do again?” And the next question is: “And that’s how you, like, buy groceries?” 

I remember in school thinking it was so cool when other students created their own majors. It’s kinda like you did that, but for your life. 

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Yeah. And honestly, it was a transition where, after a while of always trying to define it, I realized I was always doing that more for other people’s comfort than my own. Nowadays, it’s more like, in certain circles — cultural ambassadorship, or the content creation, which is emceeing, my name will pop up. So I have no qualms with that. It’s kind of like the phrase “hip-hop adventurer.” It’s just a bite-sized phrase. 

Yeah. But it also points to your ability to tell your own story, on your own terms, which is something a lot of artists struggle with, myself included. 

Yeah. It’s always under constant development. It feels good now, and the stuff that I’m creating under it feels good, so it’s kind of like, I gotta run with it. Back in the day, I used to rap, and it was like, “This has to be right, this has to be right.” And now, it’s all done to me when it feels right. There could be a, quote/unquote, mistake, in there, something off beat, but it feels to me how it’s supposed to feel. And that’s how it is with my job title. It feels correct, and therefore it is.

So when I heard the record, I latched onto this line, “We built the pyramids/Culture is our mirror images,” because it does feel to me like this has come up in recent years in discussion around Black History Month, and sort of how short-sighted and narrow it is to dedicate a chapter of the history books to “OK, here are these major contributions to society made by Black people,” all sort of compartmentalized. Is that the idea behind the lyric?

Very much so. In my society, from what I’ve observed and read and learned, we’re kind of told that Black culture and the people within it are kind of like, lesser than. Not articulated verbatim or said out loud, but in everything from education to marketing to the media, it’s this thing of being, like, a lesser version of what an American could be. Or especially in dealing with past pain and trauma, which definitely has a place and a need, but I don’t see enough speaking to the current and past greatness that influences the world. The thing that I think America exports the highest amount of, and the best of, is culture. And at the root of that American culture is, like, Black people. Black culture. Right? Black culture infuses this American culture, which is then exported to the rest of the world. So you go to the root of it and you understand, “Nah, it’s not a ‘lesser than’ thing.” For me, the root of this project was kind of what I called “Black excellence with an edge,” where it’s like, “Nah, that’s actually backwards. Like, let us not forget how dope we are amidst anything. Success or trial, this is who we always are.”

OK if I just throw some rapid-fire/lightning round questions at you? 

Yeah. I’m with it. 

What are you reading or what’s the last thing you read? 

New biography of Malcolm X. 

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What’s one thing you’re always likely to have in the refrigerator?

[Laughs.] Alright. I always got salad nowadays.  

If you could change one thing about a major social media platform like Facebook or Instagram, what would it be?

Erase the counts of likes. Erase the number. So I couldn’t see how many likes you got on a picture and vice versa. 

You can put together a full band from anybody living or dead. Who has to be in the band?

Oh, man. OK, so I would have Prince on guitar. I would have Jon Batiste on keys. I feel like I’m supposed to say Questlove on drums. But there’s a dude, the Mint Condition drummer [Stokley Williams]. But we’ll go with Questlove. On the side vocals I would have Aretha, and Whitney to balance it out. On bass, I’ll go with Thundercat. And actually, backup guitar, if I could, ‘cause I like this dude and I think he could play hella dope guitar, is John Mayer. He just couldn’t do any interviews. 

Can you describe Pine Bluff as you knew it growing up, but you can only use sensory memories — sounds and smells or what it felt like. 

So, while I was there? Or the way it is now?

While you were there! 

It always felt different. Alive. Friendly, but could also turn quickly. Cozy. 

True or false: If all the people who knew you got together and comedically roasted you, like really brutally roasted you, you would enjoy it. 

Oh, true. Definitely true. 

True or false: You consider yourself a political person. 

True. Yep. 

Your top three lyricists? 

Oh, wow. Um, Stevie Wonder. I’m trying to figure out whether to say Nas or Scarface. I guess Nas wins out a little bit. And Lauryn Hill. 

Fill in the blank: If I hadn’t pursued a career as a successful emcee, musician, workshop facilitator and speaker, I would have been _____.

A designer of amusement park rides.

You’re into amusement park rides? 

Yeah. There’s a few things, events or media experiences in my life — first time seeing “Hamilton,” first time seeing “Seven” or first time I saw “Malcolm X” — there was a ride at Disney called “Alien,” and it changed my life.

Find “Far From Finished” and follow Big Piph here.