“It was the liquor that brought us together,” admits Greg “Olskool Ice-Gre” Lewis, half of Abstract Mindstate, the duo of 40-something rappers resurrected by Kanye West nearly a decade after they last recorded. He’s telling an old story about how he met his rhyme partner. It’s the type of thing you’ve heard before, probably lived, but definitely know: You meet the person at the place, and they’re chill and you’re chill—plus young—so you do what chill (young) people do when they have some time to kill, and end up sharing malted libations in an unbridled celebration of life. Or just a regular Friday. Or a night when it is simply warm outside. The impetus for the drinking is less important than the fact that there are drinks being drunk and like-minded folks are linking up. That’s how Gre and Daphne “E.P Da Hellcat” Mitchell, the other half of Abstract Mindstate, met each other in ’90.
They were freshmen at Jackson State, a dab of Black college life nestled in the middle of Mississippi. They were both waiting at Union Station for a train to their shared hometown of Chicago. Gre and his crew posted up near the tracks, bags filled with liquor, minds at ease. The platform swarmed with off-the-clock students. Amid the bustle a voice protruded. It was E.P. No one in her group had packed any booze and she was pissed. Gre’s cousin looked at him, then looked at her, and then, before anyone even knew what was happening, said out loud, “You don’t even got to worry about that. You can drink with us.” So the strangers rode and drank together.
“Y’all had bat juice,” E.P remembers between fits of laughter, “and a gallon of Bacardi.”
“It was all bad,” Gre says, sheepishly. “We was drinking bumpy face gin. It was just the worst. The worst liquor that you would never catch us drinking now.”
The two squads picked a car all their own and hooked up a thumping boom box to set the mood. In between squawking card games and swigs of rum, Gre began to freestyle. Anybody who knew anything about MCing on campus knew that Gre was as ill as could be. E.P was throwing back drinks with everyone else when the impromptu performance started. Gre doesn’t remember exactly what he said but he remembers the momentary silence that cropped up afterward and the sound that came to break it.
“Out of the quietness, [E.P] just kicks a rhyme, a whole verse, and the whole car goes absolutely crazy,” he says. “It was like kindred spirits right off the top.
“We just had this vibe and connection as soon as we met.”
Six presidents, 12 iPhone generations, a Cubs World Series title, a burst of limited success, a line of heartbreak, and a fresh start birthed in the light of the country’s most infamous musical star: A lot has happened since those Mississippi train tracks. But Gre and E.P, both now 49, have a platform to show out for the first time in their careers. Theirs is not an easy story. The group’s first album, We Paid Let Us In!, released 11 years after they initially met, was an underground hit in Chicago. But it didn’t sell enough to cross over and they were soon back to square one. Still Paying, their second album, featured the likes of John Legend, Common, and David Banner. It bombed for reasons out of their control. Then they dropped a series of mixtapes in hopes of resuscitating their career, but each one passed with decreasing fanfare. So Abstract Mindstate moved on and that was that. They stayed close but didn’t make music for 10 years; E.P went back to school and eventually got her master’s degree. Gre picked up a gig as an A&R man. Then, in 2018, Kanye called and everything changed.
On Friday the group’s third album, Dreams Still Inspire, was released via West’s YZY SND imprint. (Amid all the speculation and spectacle surrounding Ye’s upcoming Donda, this album did come out on time.) Dreams Still Inspire is an outlier in form—all the beats, molded by the notorious super-producer, are sample-based and the rhymes have more in common with the meter of rap’s golden age than today’s surplus of pseudo-scats. Aesthetically, Gre and E.P are a rarity in the rigid gender and age confines of hip-hop: a mixed duo, first introduced to the genre at a time when there was no public internet. None of which, by the way, cuts to the heart of what makes them them. What most explains Abstract Mindstate and their rebirth isn’t what they’ve been through or who pulled them out of the muck—it’s how they chose to live it all and why they chose to come back.
It was early and she had no time for games. On a still-dark February morning, in the heart of Chicago’s brutal winter, E.P picked up the phone. Gre called and wanted to know what she was doing at the moment. “Man, I’m getting ready to go to work,” she answered, still groggy. She had responsibilities to tend to, a workday as a behavioral analyst that would start in a few hours; E.P Da Hellcat was a professional now. Just a few days earlier she’d stared into the reflection of her mirror, eyeing down the smooth expanse of deep brown skin that spread across her face. “OK,” she said to the glass, “[music] is out of my spirit. I got this new career. This is what I’m doing.” It took years but she had finally found what she was meant to be. She thought it had been an artist; now she knew otherwise. E.P still had love for her boy, it’s just that time is money and she wasn’t made of either one. Gre could tell as much and opted to spit it out: He’d just got off the phone with his boss, Kanye West.
“[He] wants to put Abstract Mindstate back out,” said Gre.
“Get the fuck off my phone,” jabbed E.P. “Boy, don’t be playing with me.”
Gre had been working for West’s GOOD Music for the past few years. He talked to his employer on the regular and knew when the man was playing and when he wasn’t. I’m serious, Gre promised. Ye wanted to produce their entire album, wanted them to be the signature artist for his new YZY SND label, and—wanted them in the studio, in Los Angeles. She was skeptical but willing to give it a shot. They agreed to talk again soon, once Gre could set everything up. E.P didn’t mention the mirror, though. She didn’t tell him what she’d seen. She didn’t say that when she looked at herself in the glass she spotted many things—but a rapper wasn’t one of them.
Back at Jackson State the plan had been for E.P to be a solo artist. At the time, Gre was part of a collective known as the Peace Posse and had convinced her to join, but he didn’t have any intentions of directly teaming up. He was already committed to a rap partner—a friend who went by the stage name of Ant-Chill—and they’d even managed to secure a record deal on a debut album. Gre wanted to use his platform to give E.P some shine so he had her jump on a track with him and Chill. But Chill had pledged a fraternity since the last time they’d recorded. It didn’t take long for Gre to realize his friend had clocked out in favor of a normal college life.
“The session went so bad that Chill ended up asking me to step out of the room for a minute and we left everybody in the studio,” says Gre. “He told me, ‘Hey man, I’ve got to be honest with you. I’m just not into it as much as you. But man, you and E.P … y’all should really be a group.’”
For a while Gre thought his partner was either out of his mind or just trying to soften the blow. But the more he listened to how he and E.P unlocked each other on the track—how each one made the other into something different, something better—the more he started to think that Chill might be right. He broached the topic with E.P, and she agreed. Rapping was the thing she loved. “It was cathartic for me,” she remembers. With Gre, she found someone who cared just as much and was down to partake whenever. They began performing on campus and at venues back home. They were doing what they wanted, when they wanted, and were getting paid to boot.
Both she and Gre recall these early days as times devoted to “putting a staple on a sound,” finding their artistry. They spent about a year and half just making music, testing styles, and practicing into all hours of the night. In the beginning, E.P had a habit of writing long, epic, verses that didn’t always fit within the confines of a normal track length. Gre was starting to understand the ins and outs of the business, but still had space to grow as an artist.
Each day they spent molding their craft felt like a deposit in some distant, idyllic future. E.P blossomed as a writer, Gre as a performer. They recorded demos and sent their work to DJs around the country. An offer arrived from an independent label backed by a larger distributor. There were other options on the table, but this one felt right.
“We got plenty of offers,” says E.P. “We just went with the wrong one.”
In case Q-Tip’s reminder didn’t reach you back in ’91, out of the 4,000-plus industry rules that all musicians ought to memorize, none has been quite as evergreen as the following: “Record company people are shady.” Abstract Mindstate say they found that out when the first label they signed with received the marketing funds for their debut album from their distributor and promptly fled the scene with all the group’s cash in tow. The distributor didn’t blame E.P and Gre for the ordeal, but they weren’t going to pay twice for the same product. So they offered Abstract Mindstate a deal with no marketing. That essentially meant that the group’s debut album would have no stage to debut on because the funds for said stage seems to have, well, um, disappeared.
The album was, if not an impressive work, then a promising one. E.P began to dip into the tricks of the trade more often, leaning increasingly on alliteration, double entendres, and linguistic flairs. (See the wielding of s sounds over the ritualistic funk of the track “Crowd Control”: “I spits lyrics that’s colossal / leave bitches looking like they was painted by Picasso.”) Gre was on his way to mastering cadence and tone, enough to make a line as simple as “at Jackson State they still remember me” seem paranormally ominous. They could still sometimes veer a bit needlessly into the moralism and respectability politics of the era, but preachiness was generally replaced by precision. And yet none of that made it sell, and the bills started to add up, and this was no longer college.
Gre got offered a chance to work with a young rapper and producer named Kanye West. They’d connected for the first time a few years before and now Ye wanted help building his career by parlaying the connections Gre had honed while shopping Abstract Mindstate’s work. The group didn’t necessarily break up during this period, but they weren’t really together either. They stopped making music on the regular, burrowing deeper into their own lives. After E.P’s brother died, one of her closest friends reached out to Gre out of concern for her well-being.
“I was just trying to look for something to boost my spirits,” E.P remembers, “something to save my life.” Gre told Kanye why he had to quit and West offered to help however he could. He arranged for Common, John Legend, and Consequence to all appear on their next album, produced two tracks, and even rapped on another. To finance the album, E.P found a friend willing to chip in. They were going to call it Still Paying.
“We had everything. Advance press copies of the album were mailed to all of the magazines. We had all of the merchandise made,” says Gre.
But remember: This is not an easy story. Just as they were preparing to market the album, E.P’s friend reached out. He couldn’t pay to support them anymore—he’d run out of cash. So for the second time, Abstract Mindstate ended up releasing an album with virtually no marketing behind it. It never really sold and they never really recovered.
“It was just like our hearts dropped to our stomach at that point,” Gre laments. “That one broke us.”
“The writer’s block is over,” was how Kanye had put it two years before, but by 2018 the great listlessness returned. They tried everything. Nothing was working.
“He just could not get the words to come out,” says Gre, who was working for West’s GOOD Music at the time. “My job was trying to be an inspiration and push him. ‘Push him and get him sparked,’ that’s what we would say.”
Olskool Ice-Gre had made a career out of rap, just not in the driver’s seat. After Still Paying bombed he bounced around the industry, eventually landing back in a role with Ye. He was still close with E.P but they’d both moved on. With West verbally incapasitated, Gre was on the hunt for any source of inspiration that might stimulate something in the rapper. After receiving a phone call from one of E.P’s cousins, Gre decided to revisit some of Abstract Mindstate’s old work. He swears he was never the type to do this sort of thing on the regular, but on this day, in that place, for some reason he gave it a try. It felt like stumbling upon a piece of himself, a part that he didn’t know was lost.
“It was like a spirit came over me after hearing [our music], that made me want to write a rhyme or something,” he says, the excitement welling in his voice like steam. “The first thing I thought to myself was, ‘Man, if just hearing this mixtape made me want to write, I know if Kanye hears it, it’ll make him want to write.’”
At three in the afternoon, he sent West a link to Abstract Mindstate’s second mixtape. Later the next morning he got a call from Kanye, saying he’d figured out who he wanted to represent his new YZY SND imprint. (The company—which differed from GOOD Music, his longtime record label—was originally proposed as a hub that would include a streaming service, a record label, and a Beats-esque audio brand.) The first was longtime GOOD Music signee Teyana Taylor. The second: Abstract Mindstate.
“Ye has a sense of humor so I’m like, ‘He’s doing the Kanye, little jokey thing.’ So I started laughing but he didn’t laugh with me. That was what was weird. I laughed out loud like, ‘Boy, you crazy!’ And he didn’t even … like it was like he wasn’t paying attention to me. He just kept talking.”
Once Kanye convinced Gre that he was serious, he told him to get E.P out to L.A. as soon as possible. They were going to make an album and he was going to produce it. It was an arduous process, equal bits unnerving and unpredictable. E.P’s father got sick right as the group started recording the album, and his condition worsened rapidly. “I was going back and forth, recording between L.A., recording between Wyoming and then going to sit at my dad’s back bedside as he was dying. It was so much,” she says. “I couldn’t change the outcome. All I could do is be there as much as I could with him. My goal was for him not to leave this earth without me being there with him, and I was holding my father’s hand when he left.”
The fact that her sense of artistry had calcified, added another layer of difficulty to the entire endeavor. Even as an A&R, Gre was still involved in the making of music. He would often give a songwriting boost to weary artists. E.P didn’t have that rapport to fall back on. “It took a very long time for it to get even close to what it used to be,” she says, of starting over from scratch.
They would be lying if they said that age didn’t have something to do with their worries. It’s not like Gre and E.P don’t know—like they haven’t felt the ravine between their youths and their presents, the genre they love and the context of their involvement in it. “I was a little afraid to say, ‘Man, can I come out as a rapper at 40-something years old?’” says Gre. Kanye’s meticulousness was an unlikely balm. He never treated Gre or E.P as anything other than a couple of artists trying to reach their own peaks. He was not shy in telling them where they needed to improve. He had a habit of coaching them through exactly how to deliver a line. In the hands of another conductor it wouldn’t have landed, but Ye had the clout to make them buy in and put out. They got back into a groove. E.P slowly rediscovered her flow, the verbal mechanics she’d once felt she was born to brandish. Gre started to feel more comfortable in his own skin; he couldn’t rap like a 20-year-old anymore, but he could be himself.
The production on Dreams Still Inspire recalls the Old Kanye, with soul loops and boom-bap drums, and Abstract Mindstate brings their own classic sound to the proceedings. On tracks like “I Feel Good,” a rattling piece of layered Afro-funk, the group moves at their own pace, riding each sonic surge like the certified veterans they are. Over an infectious guitar loop on the song “My Reality,” Gre and E.P unveil the burdens and joys of middle-aged life. Up and down Dreams Still Inspire they may be less sharp than they once were, but they’re also a whole lot freer.
Gre says that the group has enough songs left over to release another album if they choose to. They’re not sure yet. They want to see how folks live with the record. It’s not that they don’t care about money, or the chance to make more—they’ll never take that for granted. What Abstract Mindstate is most concerned with, though, is doing the things that they always felt like they were meant to do, making the art that they would’ve never stepped away from if life hadn’t come up and scuttled their plans. Because the art is what was there at the beginning; it’s what makes a couple of chill kids with a taste for bumpy face partners for life—in death, joy, despair, and rebirth.
And what’s the point, anyway, in looking forward when it’s no longer required; when you’ve seen the road disappear under your feet, wandered through the wilderness, and, by either random luck or the grace of some magnificently cruel and unequally sweet thing, ended up right back—in fact, beyond—where you started? There might still be some roadblocks on the other side, but pressure sure ain’t one of them. If this is it, this is it. Abstract Mindstate are old enough to know when a bottle is empty and a night is over. “Back then we needed to MC, we needed it,” says E.P, bathed in subtle joy. “This project, we didn’t need it.
“We did it because we wanted to.”