“We’re using video games and religion to tell a love story,” says rapper SciryL, bouncing around the Harlem living room-turned-studio that belongs to his partner in rhyme, !LLumiN@TE. Together, SciryL and !LLumiN@TE record as the group Mankind. Their latest release, 8-Bit Genesis, is a concept album about the duo’s imagined search for the Black Lara Croft who, in this story, reveals herself to be God. This spiritual flight of fancy is set against beats provided by the eccentric hip-hop character Charles Hamilton, whose soulful, chiptune-style production boasts the oblique bloops of a ’90s video game.
!LLumiN@TE, relaxing in a corner by a mic stand, recalls how he first bonded with SciryL after their path’s crossed in New York City’s battle rap scene. “At first we weren’t even recording,” he says. “We’d get up, watch some battles, and talk shit about music that was out. We both cook, so we’d do dinner parties that were like chill sessions, and we’d invite people over. The Mankind recording sessions came out of that and we’ve been writing and recording for a year straight since then.”
In that short time, Mankind has racked up a sizable discography—proof of which is displayed on a wall opposite their recording nook, where six giant pieces of paper are taped. On each of them, the track listing for various projects is scrawled out in chunky green and orange marker. As the two rappers discuss their music, they often motion towards the display to illustrate key points, with SciryL frequently reaching over to touch specific song titles.
Having wrapped up the release of 8-Bit Genesis, Mankind spoke with us about the group’s collaborative song writing process, how they met Charles Hamilton, and the throwback wrestling references seeded throughout their music.
Who came up with the video games and religion concept for 8-Bit Genesis?
!LLumiN@TE: I’m pretty sure it was SciryL’s concept…
SciryL: Nah, I feel like it was a mix of both of us. We already had the video game concept in our head, because Charles Hamilton uses 8-bit sounds. We were listening through those beats and wanted to come up with a dope juxtaposition—like it has to be video games and something else. I’m pretty sure it was !LLumiN@TE that said religion.
!LLumiN@TE: You think it was me?
SciryL: Yeah, what was the first joint we did on 8-Bit Genesis?
!LLumiN@TE: I think it was “Tomb Raider [The Ledge],” and I’m 100 percent sure you wrote the first verse and you wrote the hook. I think at first I wasn’t really sure how it would pan out.
SciryL: In my mind this whole time, it was me and you coming up with the concept. But maybe it was me. Who came up with the name? Did we name the project first? I think we were talking about that and then that’s why I wrote that hook. I think you did come up with some religion idea, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that would be dope.’
!LLumiN@TE: I did come up with the title. I thought about 8-Bit and then Genesis.
SciryL: And there it goes! Genesis relates to religion and video games—it’s Sega Genesis and Genesis the first book in the Bible.
!LLumiN@TE: And it’s a Charles Hamilton-produced project.
SciryL: Charles is all about Sega, so it kinda just clicked. I knew it wasn’t just me who said, ‘Let’s mix religion and video games!’ We always try to do things like that, like writing real love songs about losing love and finding love over gritty boom-bap early-‘90s beats for Tough Love and Steel Cage Trap. We wanted to juxtapose trap beats with thoughts on the prison-industrial complex. But 8-Bit Genesis is all video game names.
What’s the conceptfor the album?
SciryL: Basically, we decided that we wanted to tell a love story through the lens of religion and video games. You don’t really hear any real back-story about us and Black Lara. It starts off with her going missing for three days, and we’ve got to find her. The three days ties in with religion—Jesus being gone for three days thing.
Basically, Black Lara is God. We’re trying to find God, and we meet her, and it’s like, ‘You’ve got to find yourself. You’ve found me, but you’ve got to find yourself. You’re trying to save me, but you can’t even save yourself.’ So we’re using video game references and religious references and making them flawlessly come together. Everybody who hears it is like, ‘How did you make video games and religion go so well together?’ Because it’s more than that: There’s love stories in religion, there’s love stories in video games, there’s religion in video games, but there’s no video games in the Bible! That’s pretty much what we’re trying to do—make it like this is the scripture of Mankind, the Church of Mankind. This is our scripture, this is our Bible, and in it this is Black Lara. It’s not a male God.
Why did you pick the character of Lara Croft as the main focus of the album?
!LLumiN@TE: She’s so strong. She doesn’t need to be saved. Lara Croft is the hero of that video game. She’s doing things up until that point that you’ve never seen anyone do in video games. She’s jumping off cliffs and she has no fear going into tombs, so forget the idea of Mario saving the princess, because that’s an antiquated idea. Lara Croft doesn’t need to be saved. It was about finding a powerful woman to name God, and that came from a video game.
Before recording 8-Bit Genesis, did you have many conversations between yourselves about the narrative of the album?
!LLumiN@TE: We definitely sat down and talked it through.
SciryL: Yeah, and it’s crazy. Pretty much since Steel Cage Trap, we started to name the songs before we wrote them. We’ll listen to a beat and be like, ‘Yo, this beat sounds like [WWE wrestler] Randy Savage to me.’ It can be the most abstract way of hearing it—like, just thinking the fact that a beat sounds like Mega Man or Tomb Raider. We’ll try to come up with the track list and we’ll map them out. We’ll listen to the flow of the beats and work out how the beats flow into each other, and, ‘What concept can we put here that will go with this one?’ We map it out all before we even write verses for it. And we’ll come up with hooks and little ideas so we know what it’s called, and now we have to alley-oop to ourselves.
Does naming the songs beforehand help when it comes to writing the actual lyrics for each track?
!LLumiN@TE: Absolutely, just to have that structure there.
SciryL: I try to tell people to do that all the time. We’re naming the projects first and then we’re like, ‘Oh, now what are we gonna call these tracks now?’ Then once we’ve named the tracks, that’s when the writing starts. It flows from there.
What was the trickiest part about writing songs based around so many video game references?
SciryL: Making sure it was not cliched. Also, trying not to make it about the video games. It’s more the energy that you want people to feel. It’s the same with the religious commentary—we don’t want it to be about video games or religion.
!LLumiN@TE: We want to use them to tell the story.
SciryL: Exactly! Both of those shits meld and are exactly what people think it wouldn’t be. When we said we were doing a video game project, people were sending us links to video games we should sample. But that’s not what we do. When we did the wrestling tracks, they’ll see a track named “Goldust” and they’re like, ‘Why didn’t you sample the Goldust song?’ But, nah, we heard this beat and we heard Goldust through this beat, but it had nothing to do with Goldust—it’s the texture we want you to hear.
The entire album is produced by Charles Hamilton. How did you hook up with him?
SciryL: I’ve known Charles since 2005. I did the Urban Word team, which is a not-for-profit that does poetry workshops and slams for 13- to 19-year-olds. I made the team and went out to San Francisco and we did the nationals. When I got back, I was doing a bunch of shows and was at a place called Harlem Live, and that’s when I met Charles. I was just standing by myself, spitting to myself, and he just walks over and is like, ‘Yo, you wanna rap?’ That’s just so Charles, you know? Since then, he’s been the homie. I’ve seen his ups, I’ve seen his downs, and it’s good to see him coming back.
Did you give him much direction about how you wanted the beats to sound?
SciryL: No, we gave him zero amount of briefing. He literally sent me a folder of beats and we picked the ones we wanted. He definitely went in his bag to find them.
Did he sample any actual video games on the beats?
SciryL: You know what’s the funny thing? There might be like one or two samples, but his thing was using 8-bit sounds that were not necessarily songs from the video games. He’s taking songs that remind him of Sega, and then he’s playing the sample onto it. He plays keys, so he’s using 8-bit sounds to recreate certain parts of these songs that he’s sampling. He’s a spectacular all over producer, and he plays bass, guitar, piano and all of that—most people don’t know that about him. [He’s] very eccentric, but that’s to be expected from people who have a certain amount of genius in them.
You mentioned the Church of Mankind earlier. What would be your Ten Commandments?
SciryL: I feel like the Church of Mankind would have more like three commandments. Because shit is simple, man. Do to others what you want done to you. Two is… What would two be? Number three would be have a nice day. Number two, what would it be?
!LLumiN@TE: Live, love, learn.
SciryL: That’s three commandments. [Wrestler] Cactus Jack’s is ‘Do unto others,’ Dude Love’s is, ‘Live, love, learn,’ and Mankind’s is ‘Have a nice day,’ and that’s the trilogy. We can break it down with wrestling references: Mankind is one dude who plays different wrestling characters, so there’s Dude Love who’s like the hippy one, there’s Cactus Jack who’s like the hardcore one, and then Mankind is like the psychotic one.
What inspires the wrestling references in your music?
!LLumiN@TE: A nostalgic feeling for that time of wrestling. I probably stopped watching it maybe 16 years ago, but the history is making a comeback, ’cause they want to sell it back to all the millennial kids. It’s something people connect with. It’s nostalgic, and rap has always used it.
SciryL: We’re always mixing ’90s wrestling references into all of the projects. With the first three joints especially, there’s a lot of underlying wrestling themes in them.
What would happen if you two faced off in a wrestling match?
!LLumiN@TE: We’d be on the same team, one of the greatest tag-teams ever, undefeated.
SciryL: But if I had to be against him in the ring, I’d just be running around trying to slide away. Or maybe I’d just get deliberately counted out of the ring. [Laughs] I’d let him have the victory.