One look at Apathy, and you wouldn’t think he’s an artist signed to the hip-hop heavyweight Atlantic Records (which also houses Little Brother, T.I., Fabolous, and others): rather than wear excessive ice on his neck and wrists, he keeps things simple in blue jeans, a black hoodie and a black skullcap while lounging after his performance on tour with Little Brother and Fort Minor. But then again, being out of touch with current times has helped allow him to turn in “Eastern Philosophy”—which, with its lyrical ferocity and 90s nostalgic production, is an early candidate for the best indie hip-hop album of 2006.

But as different as Apathy is from your favorite rapper, he’s just as similar to your friend from around the way. He talks about albums like Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage and Ghostface’s Ironman like they’re still on record store shelves, points out dimes walking by (“The one bitch was fine, but the other one looked like a man,” he chides as two ladies walk into the bathroom), and reveres to his sneaker collection with the same admiration as others do of his raps. In this definitive interview, Apathy talks about his album, “bonus” tracks, label troubles, and kicks.

RapReviews: First off, tell me about the new album.

Apathy: “Eastern Philosophy” is basically two things. It’s an album that really dictates my life and how I felt growing up, being in the East Coast and coming up with hip-hop, and it reflects that type of sound I grew up loving. The second thing it is, it’s kind of connected with the first one, it gets kids acquainted with that era of hip-hop. A lot of kids nowadays aren’t really familiar with that early 90s shit. A lot of people try to replicate that shit, but it ends up falling short, so I wanted to really submerse myself in that time period as far as listening to albums, and I really wanted to make something that had that feeling go into it.

RR: Which albums were you listening to?

A: Only Built 4 Cuban Links, Illmatic, Organized Konfusion, Stress, Reasonable Doubt, Gangstarr’s Hard To Earn, the first Wu-Tang album, Liquid Swords. That’s all I would allow myself to listen to. I didn’t listen to any new shit, I wasn’t really checking for any new albums, no newer songs. I was just really in that zone, and stayed in that zone.

RR: How long was that time period you were listening to those albums?

A: Probably a good three or four months that went by while I was in that zone, and I just stayed in that zone. I really wanted to feel like that time was still around.

RR: How did those albums affect your album?

A: When we started recording the album, I wanted a certain feel for it, so the intro track that starts off, I wanted it to be real heavy breakbeat-sounding, with those old horns type feel joints. Then as the album progressed, I really picked beats, and I selected and worked on shit that kind of came from an amalgamation of all those albums. I said, “I want to get a Black Moon ‘Enta Da Stage’ type song,” so we recorded “I Remember,” and that’s what’s reflected to me. I even sampled Buckshot in that, for the hook. That’s the type of feel that I wanted to go for on that.

RR: You also sampled Jay-Z on “9 To 5,” that was crazy.

A: Word, good looks. That’s one of my favorite songs on the album.

RR: “Winter,” featuring Blue Raspberry was a standout too. How did that happen?

A: Blue Raspberry, her work on Tical and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, she was amazing. When I started the song, I had her in mind, but I had no idea about what she was doing, or where she was, who she still talked to, or who she knew. It took me a good four months to find her. I had interviewed other singers in between; I was trying to find somebody to do the cut, because I didn’t think I was going to find Blue Raspberry, honestly. I wrote the hook and the lyrics, and I heard in my head how I wanted it to sound like. And when she did it, she did it flawlessly, exactly how it was in my head. it was really crazy.

RR: You also have scratches from Evil Dee of Da Beatminerz. How did that happen?

A: Evil Dee and Mr. Walt and I are friends. I go over and hang out at their crib. I met them at a Beat Society last year, and we hit it off automatically. So I went to their crib to play them the album, and I was surprised, because they were fans of mine. I’m like, “What?! This doesn’t make any sense, I’ve been fans of yours since I was a kid.” Are you kidding me? They’re Da Beatminerz, man. And they’re the most humble, cool, down-to-earth cats, and I consider them friends. Dee was like, “I’m down to do whatever.” And that’s the homie, him and Mr. Walt are just the coolest cats, we love those dudes.

RR: The album is well-balanced, but it’s also really heavy on conceptual songs. Did you intentionally make it that way, or is that just the direction that your writing took?

A: That was the direction all along. The mics we went into when we first started making records, Celph Titled and I were always like, we want to put out these little battle records that everyone knew us for as singles. When everyone was always like, “Apathy and Celph are dope, but they’re one-dimensional, they can’t do topics”.. To me, that kinda hurt. In a way, I’m sitting there reading that behind the scenes while these kids are talking about that, but these kids have no idea. I kill myself to be a well-rounded MC; I can write stories like a muthafucka, I can write concepts like a muthafucka. But I didn’t put it out there like that, because our mentality was that we were always saving the concepts for the album. That’s what we were saving it for.

Over the years I got sick of waiting, so I’m like, “Fuck this, I’ma show kids what I do.” So we released songs like “School,” just little concept songs here and there. And when I dropped “Where’s Your Album?” I tried to hit them over the head with some more concepts. I had some song about a kid and the kidnapper, this song about chess, so when it came album time, that was always my plan, to have a lot of concepts and talk a lot of things. People automatically slept, but it was only natural, because we were only putting out certain types of records, and we were making certain types of guest appearances. But I’ve always been more than capable of doing concepts, and that’s always been something that I really love to do. I find that concepts are more timeless and more interesting, they have more replay value.

RR: You said that you had taken out a beat from J-Zone on the album..

A: I didn’t take it off.. well I kind of did. We’re going to use it like a bonus remix. Back in the day, Black Moon had the album, and they had the remixes, and I thought that was a real hot thing. That’s missing from hip-hop nowadays: real good remixes, not just remixes for the sake of remixes. I started listening to the album together with the J-Zone mix on it, and the song he did, “Chemical,” I think the final version on the album is the sixth beat. I just couldn’t find a beat that made me happy with that. We did one version, I didn’t like it, no one else really liked it, so we switched it. Then I had my man Q-Tones, who actually produced the “9 To 5” beat, try to do one, it was all right. My man Slop Funk Dust did one, I wasn’t in love with it. Mr. Walt from Da Beatminerz did one: it was cool, but I didn’t want it. J-Zone did one that was hot, really dope, J-Zone came through. But when I listened to it altogether with the album it didn’t make sense, it stood out too much. I wanted the album to be cohesive and have a certain type of feel, so I decided to make the J-Zone one a remix, and I had Chum the Skrilla Gorilla make another beat, and his final beat (which is) on the album is my favorite version. I love the J-Zone one a lot too, but the one that’s on the album reminds me of that Black Moon feel.

RR: Is that going to be a bonus track on the album, or a track that comes out separately?

A: It’s going to come out seperately; (making it a bonus track) is one thing that that I wanted to avoid doing, too. I kind of wanted to break a lot of rules, and a lot of people have tons of bonus tracks, and one thing that never made sense to me.. Take Kanye’s album for example. The bonus tracks are everywhere, like that song, “Late.” I love that song. But when I listen to it, it just feels like part of the album. So it’s like, why bother calling it a bonus track? It’s right there. It would make more sense if a bonus track was only on the cassette, and the CD had the different song. Ghostface’s Ironman had a song “Soul Controller,” and then the CD had a different song called “Marble,” but didn’t have “Soul Controller.” That’s ill, that’s real bonus shit. For someone to sit there and say, “Oh that’s a bonus song,” but it’s on the CD, and the vinyl, and you can get it everywhere else, why call it a bonus song? Why not just call it track 21?

The point is, I just wanted to have the album be what it is. And the remixes can be a separate entity. I wanted the album to be, ya know, it is what it is. It stops after “The Winter,” so it has that feeling, it gives you the feeling of “The Winter.” When that CD’s done, that’s what I want it to stop and do. If I added something after that, it would change the dynamic. Maybe I’m being crazy and overthinking it, but honestly, I’d rather have it end with “The Winter,” where you have the wind blowing out at the end, over anything else.

RR: What’s your situation with Atlantic?

A: It’s up the air, man. They want me to stay, my A&R is like, “Yo, listen. I want you to stay. You are not shelved by any means. We’re still trying to get on the same page,” whatever that means. “But if you want to go, I’m not trying to be the big, bad label, and hold back your career. So if you really want to go, I’ll give you that. Otherwise, I’d like you to stay and grind it out with us.”

The thing is, we can’t seem to be on the same page. I can’t just sit around and waste my time, time is precious. I’m almost 27. How am I going to be being 30 dropping an album? I know other people have done it, but still. I really want to do what I want to do now, and I think it’s time, I think I deserve it. I put in so much work, and kill myself, and sacrificed so much of my life for this. If I knew nothing would ever become of this, and I could tell myself that when I was 15 or 16, I would’ve lived a whole different life. I would’ve stayed on as a fan, but done other things. The point of that is that I sacrificed a lot of my life, I’ve sacrificed a lot of personal things, and I deserve it now. For the sacrifice that I’ve put into it, I deserve something.

RR: Has it been frustrating to see other Atlantic artists like T.I. get a buzz?

A: I can’t really be mad at T.I. and them, because T.I. worked really hard doing his mixtape thing, he grinds out down there in the south, and he built a huge buzz down there. So it’s not like he’s some asshole who got snatched up out of nowhere and they decided to blow him up. He put in that work though. So for T.I., he deserves it too. I can’t really be mad at anybody, because that doesn’t pertain to my situation. We were just on a tour with Little Brother, and I told them, “I’m so envious of you.” They have a dope situation. They have a different A&R than me, but they can make the album that they want to do, make it sound how they want to sound, and they put it out. That’s hot. That’s what I wish I could do, ya know? I’m envious to a certain degree of people like Little Brother, but then you’ve got dudes like Saigon. I don’t know Saigon’s situation, but he’s one of my favorite rappers on the planet, so I’m like, why isn’t his shit out? What’s going on with Saigon’s shit?

RR: So if you could choose to be with any label right now, who would you be with?

A: A couple things. I would love to be with Mike Shinoda and Linkin Park’s label, Fort Minor, just because they’ve showed me so much love, and they’re already like family. They’re good, and they do a good job and pay a lot of attention. They’re working on Style of Beyond’s album right now, Styles of Beyond is in my crew. That’s a label I would love to be with. Not that it’d be better than my situation, and I know that, but I’d love to be somewhere like at Def Jam, something big like that. But there are other things too, like Just Blaze’s label; even though he’s under Atlantic, it’s still a different chain of command there. Or maybe under somebody like Jim Jones, or even something crazy like Murder Inc. There’s a whole bunch of opportunities, and a whole bunch of things that could pop off at different scenarios. It’s all about who’s willing to put in energy, and who has that belief in my project.

RR: One song I think you should have had on the album was “Fuck You.” What inspired that song?

A: My A&R at Atlantic inspired that song, and he knows it. He loves that song. He loooves that song. He’s like, “This is one of the best songs you’ve ever did. It’s straight from the heart, you’re frustrated.” I’m not fake with him, I don’t try to front like I don’t pop shit. He knows I’m pissed, he knows I’m heated. He knows what’s up. .. I went up to Atlantic and started playing it for people before I played it for him, and they’re like, “Yo, either he’s going to love this, or he’s going to want to drop you and be heated.” And I’m like, “You know what? At this point, I don’t give a flying fuck!” So I sent it to him, and I’m just waiting for the fucking axe to drop, and he e-mailed me back like, “That’s the best song you’ve done so far. The way you wrote it is smart, it’s catchy, it’s grimey, it’s raw. It’s from the heart, you can tell.”

RR: Over your career, you’ve covered a lot of rock songs. Where does that influence come from?

A: When I was growing up, my parents listened to all kinds of music. My aunts and uncles listened to classic rock, and I’ve always listened to that shit, and I’ve always loved it. So it was only natural that as soon as I started making tracks, I started sampling shit. I sampled Queen on this indie song I had called “Immortal” back in the day. I’ve been sampling rock for a minute, and I always will continue to do that. That shit influences me a lot. I listen to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, and get inspired the same way as if I listen to Illmatic.

RR: You also have a serious sneaker collection. If you had to guesstimate, how much would you say that you’ve dropped on sneakers?

A: [exhales] Let me think.. I’ll do an average and say $100 a pair, considering that some are $60 and some are anywhere from two to three (hundred). I want to say close to—this is going to sound so bad, and so irresponsible—but probably.. You’ve got to put a time limit on it. We’ve got to say in the last five years, probably like ten or twelve (thousand) [laughs]. Hold on, it can’t be that much. Definitely not ten or twelve in the last five years, like seven or eight G’s in the last five years.

RR: What’s your most prized pair?

A: They’re customized ones, they’re (painted in the image) of (Jay-Z’s song) “Dead Presidents.” Those are my favorites. I haven’t worn them yet. I’m looking at the box right now; the box isn’t even with the other boxes, it’s sitting up on a shelf on top of one of my boomboxes. I’m waiting till.. A: I’m not going to rock them until summer, because you have to rock em with shorts so people can see them, because jeans will cover Jay-Z’s face. B: I’m waiting until a photo shoot or a show or something, and I’ll wear them on stage, and when I step to the side of the stage, I’ll take them off, put them in the box, put on some other sneakers, and not wear them at all. If somebody stepped on them, I would fucking lose it. I would not be able to deal.

I get a lot of compliments on my sneaker game. When I just did the Fort Minor shit, it was funny because about 25% of the compliments, people are coming up to me like, “Yo Apathy, those Air Max Limiteds you got are crazy!” I’m like, “All right, good looks!”