I’ve always been a firm believer that it’s better to be great at being myself than to be average at trying to be something that I’m not…
This, is Al “Blueprint” Shepard boiled down his essence; and it’s what we get with the release of the rapper-producer turned filmmaker’s documentary King No Crown.
For the man who’s been repping Columbus for nearly two decades—from his early days in the influential Rhymesayers roster and later riding shotgun for the breaking of fellow hometown hero, RJD2—’Print has always been true to himself.
A trait that, at times, places him in the margins of hip-hop classification—never one to trend-hop, yet always evolving, he’s a legend in some circles and the background of others. He counts Aesop Rock and Brother Ali as friends and collaborators yet isn’t necessarily on his own city’s big picture radar.
This month, his first film project graces the Wexner Center screen; a personal snapshot of the recording of his self-titled album that eventually evolves into a documentary of Columbus hip-hop history.
Shepard may still have his crown, but as the city’s artistic scene, he’s one of our crown jewels.
We sat down to chop it up with ’Print about what it’s like to add a new skill to his set.
Columbus has always been a low-key film town, but with a new push to bring more of the city to the big screen. Is there a fun coincidence in that you have always been repping the city and now you get to put your version of it on film?
Film is a really technical field, so I don’t take it lightly. My goal early on was to not release anything that I felt couldn’t stand up with my peers in this city. I didn’t want to get over on just being Blueprint; I wanted to make something dope, so that maybe when people think about Columbus film I’m one of the people they eventually think of. What’s wild is that I always had that same goal for hip-hop: I just wanted to be one of those guys who reps Columbus with style and grace, so people can have pride in this city. Now, that energy just transfers over to the film-side of things.
I love watching someone look through those old scrapbooks of Scribble Jam and other gig posters. Do you feel like this document doubles as you opening your personal scrapbook? So much of Columbus hip-hop history at this point is tied to you in some way or another.
At the beginning of the process, I thought it was just a film about a year of my life. But by the time I finished it, I definitely see it as a piece of Columbus hip-hop history. To this point, we’ve never had anybody in our scene really make anything full-length about any of us guys from that era. There was a screening for the Groove Shack movie, but the guy who made it and the film have kind of disappeared without ever being formally released—which is a shame. This film may be one of the first things that somebody sees about me. And even though it just covers one year of my life, it will mostly likely inspire people to go back and revisit some of our scenes’ history. I want to continue to do my part to document it as much as I can.
Along those lines, do you feel like a lot of people in Columbus still don’t know how heavy that classic period of Columbus hip-hop was? I still feel like there are 10 times more people that know you or RJ, than people that know you’re local.
Nationally, I think people know about that era of Columbus, but sometimes I don’t know how much people from here truly know how special that period was, and how impactful it was locally and nationally. Columbus hip-hop artists were basically feeding their talent into two of the biggest independent hip-hop labels of that time—Def Jux and Rhymesayers—and the whole world was watching. When I look at how people are feeling about Soul Position now, I feel like people are really starting to finally get it. Sometimes you have to stick around long enough and be relevant long enough to make people see it. So the longer we’re successful and the more longevity we have, the more people will start to understand the era we came from and how special the time we came up in really was.
One of the things I observe about you is a confident duality of humility and hard work. You’re always appreciative of people giving you dap, and not afraid to say, “yeah, I’m dope.” With giving it this title, what feelings did that give you, as far as putting it out there and expressing that? You might be the most beloved rapper I’ve heard of that isn’t a “household name,” as you say in the film.
Thanks. Giving the film that title, to me, was a way of formalizing what you’re describing. King No Crown just embraces the fact that you can be successful and respected but not a household name—and that you don’t have to be a bitter artist about it. This is my 15th year being a full-time artist where my job and primary source of income is music. Every year I love it more and more, but I never take it for granted because I view it as something the people gave me. And because their support is what allows me to do what I love every day, I am always genuinely appreciative of the love and support they show me in public. It reminds me of how blessed I’ve been and reminds me to keep pushing harder.
I think this film also does a good job of displaying your evolution as an artist. (In addition to becoming a filmmaker in and of itself.) What did the film inspire in your writing and producing?
Since finishing the film, the way I look at production and writing has expanded a lot. I find myself thinking a lot more about the visual side of music much more than I ever did. It makes me think about how to combine these things to make something more powerful every time out. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to use all these things together, but it’s definitely at the front of my mind.
One final fun one: What bar from what song on the album do you think best associates with the film King No Crown?
“If you love what you do, then it ain’t really a grind.” — “Persevere”
To see Blueprint’s King No Crown November 1 at the Wexner Center of the Arts, visit wexarts.org.