So when a friend suggested that Alan Daniel Maman forgo his former moniker and christened him the Alchemist, it was pretty much a no-brainer. “I said, ‘I like the name Alchemist more than Mudfoot,’” says Alchemist. “It made more sense.”
That it does. It matters not that the name was given to him. And it matters less that it was years before he came across Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s life-affirming, worldwide best-selling novel, The Alchemist. The name made more sense. And it still does.
In many ways, Alchemist is an anomaly. He was raised amidst affluence experienced by a select few–a far cry from what one would think as the breeding ground for someone who would be come a card-carrying member of a skull smashing, bone tingling production troupe like the Soul Assassins; or a honorary member of a breathtakingly dismal rap clique like Mobb Deep.
“I grew up in an area of Beverly HIlls where it was like the richest of the richest,” Al admits. “My family wasn’t down, but I would say even the poorest people in Beverly Hills, even in relation to America, are still doing great.”
As a kid, Al hung out at the home of movie producer and Interscope Records founder Ted Fields. At fourteen, he formed a rap group, the Whooliganz, with his friend Scotty. As in Scott Caan–you know, the guy who’s gone on to considerable fame as an actor in such fare as the Ocean’s 11 franchise; whose dad is the legendary actor James Caan. (While other rap stars rhyme about Sonny Corleone, Alchemist is one of the few who can claim to have been hanging with The Godfather’s oldest son before he was old enough to have a learner’s permit.)
As the Whooliganz, Scott and Al went by Mad Skillz and Mudfoot. They rapped well enough to get a record deal and tour the US, but not well enough to release an album before they were dropped by Tommy Boy Records. (Which doesn’t mean much. Tommy Boy is also known for having dropped another rapper turned producer turned rapper/producer, the RZA, who went on to be the guiding force behind the Wu-Tang Clan.) But there was one significant development from the Whooliganz stint with Tommy Boy.
When Al, who was only rapping at the time, got his advance money he decided to purchase some production equipment. His then-label mate, DJ Lethal of House of Pain, who produced the Whooliganz’ first single, suggested that he pick up Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling keyboard. Al, at the time 15 and still in high school, didn’t understand. He wanted a beat machine, like Akai’s MPC3000, which was the tool he saw most other producers using. The ASR looked like nothing more than a keyboard. “Can you make beats with it?” Al asked Lethal. The older producer assured him he could.
From there, Al slowly got pulled into the Soul Assassins family, which included Cypress Hill, House of Pain and Funkdoobiest. At the head was DJ Muggs, the looming and brooding producer for Cypress Hill who mentored both Lethal and Funkdoobiest’s Ralph M. “Muggs was really intimidating,” recalls Al. “Being around that camp when Cypress was really big, he was really the big guy in that perspective.” Even a friendly greeting from the producer was monumental encouragement.
As Cypress Hill prepared their third album, III: Temples of Boom, Alchemist found himself being pulled deeper into the close-knit crew’s inner circle. He wound up spending time at front man B-Real’s Venice Beach Studio, making beats on the same couch he slept on, spending less and less time rapping. Muggs noticed the budding producer and took him under wing, with the two collaborating heavy on III’s production.
“That’s how it all started,” says Al. “But when the album came out, my name was nowhere on it. It was tough–not for me, because I knew what time it was. I was just coming up. But for all my homies, like my homies that I grew up with, they were all like ‘What’s up with this man? How come you ain’t get no credit or nothing?’ I just had to tell the homies, ‘It’s all good. I’m just paying my dues right now. When the time is right, I’ll get my shine.’ I wasn’t tripping because Muggs was a still is a big brother to me. And I love him for that. He just gave me room and made me want to grind even harder.”
The next year, when it was time to go to college, Alchemist decided to leave the sun and surf of California for grit and grime of New York City. “I put all my eggs in NYU,” he says. He wrote an essay chronicling his life and times as an aspiring music star and prepared to immerse himself in the college experience. Well, kinda. “I was moving to New York to do school, but I was really scheming on making beats and making music,” he admits. He presented the idea to Muggs as an expansion of the Soul Assassins brand. Muggs, who grew up in Flushing, Queens, NY, supported the venture.
While Alchemist maintained a 3.something GPA, he was also enjoying the girls, making beats in his dorm room and capitalizing on networking opportunities. He became friends with the infinitely revered DJ Premier, whose name has become synonymous with quality East Coast hip-hop, and the highly influential Stretch Armstrong, whose Columbia University radio show with Bobbito Garcia was a rite of passage for hip-hop acts and required listening for hip-hop fans.
After two years of General Studies, Al realized he was not willing to commit to a major and approached his student advisor who suggested he take a semester off to pursue his music career. His roommates thought he was crazy. Not that it mattered. “I just felt like i was pushing off,” he says, “like a boat pushing off into the water.” And, no disrespect to Muggs, but it was time for him to focus on the Alchemist brand.
With Premier’s help, Al spent time at legendary D&D studios, mingling with elite producers like Da Beatminerz and Tony Touch. He produced 12” inch singles for local acts, worked with Freddie Foxxx, met with a pre-superstar Jay-Z. “All of that would get me charged,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘I’m around the illest motherfuckers on the planet. I can’t go home and turn that into something, I’m nobody. I don’t deserve to be with these guys.’”
But Al did deserve to be with them. And with his, underground tracks, he began to make a name for himself. So much so that as Muggs began to work on his second compilation, Soul Assassins 2, he gave the young gun a chance to produce with Mobb Deep cohorts Infamous Mobb’s offering for the album. Infamous Mobb liked the track so much that they brought it to Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and Havoc, who immediately jumped on the track and requested that it be placed on their album, Murda Muzik, as opposed to Soul Assassins 2. Muggs, who had financed for the studio time and recording of the track obliged, knowing what it meant for Al’s career. “That was a big deal,” says Al. “He didn’t have to do that.”
Alchemist quickly became viewed as the third member of Mobb Deep, regularly contributing to their future projects and supporting them on tour. In 2007, he released the highly praised, critically lauded Return of the Mac with Prodigy, which was seen as a return to form not only for the Mobb Deep rapper, but East Coast hip-hop as a whole. Dark, soul chilling and sample heavy, Return is less an album than it is a captured moment.
“Sometimes I look at old jazz records it’s like Bob James hooked up with Earl Clue and they did a record in 19-whatever,” says Al. “You look on the back and it’s like ‘recorded in Stockholm from this month to that month.’ So these dudes that respected each other just went to some country and made a product. I don’t think some A&R hooked them up. Maybe they did, but in my mind, I like to think that they reached out because they respected each other.”
It’s an ethic that Al–who spends days recording, even serving as a rapper, producer and engineer for his own solo sessions–wants to bring forth to more of hip-hop. “If I see Mos Def, I’ma be like, ‘Let’s get in and just work. Let’s just work and figure out if it’s for your album or my album later,’” he shares. “‘I don’t care if you got a budget. I got a studio, you got rhymes, I got beats, let’s just work.’ I feel that with that type of energy, that when some good shit will come back. At least if it doesn’t come back, at least I did my part to do some dope shit.”