“Everything is your self in disguise.” ~ MC Yogi
CG: You describe your new album Pilgrimage as the soundtrack to your journey to India, circling the sacred mountain Arunachala, one time residence to Sri Raman Maharshi, and your discovering the intricate root system of yoga. Can you elaborate on that for me?
MCY: Well yoga has been around as long as we’ve been around. As human beings, we’ve always had this sort of intuitive knowing that there’s more than meets the eye. There’s more going on than what we can perceive and experience with our senses. So for me, it was really my mission to be able to peel back the initial layers of the mind and be able to look and see the workings of the machine and how everything operates. Not just my own personal mind but seeing the back end of the universe. Seeing how everything is connected and being orchestrated and understanding the natural laws that govern everything.
The yogis have gone to really great lengths to map this out for us. They’ve created symbols and languages to help us understand the cycles, and not just nature and the universe, but on a more microcosmic personal level too. The different types of moods, different ways diet affects us, meditation, our surroundings, who we hang out with, it’s a holistic science.
So I was really interested in going to India and discovering for myself what it felt like to be completely immersed and submerged in a culture where every aspect of that culture pointed back into the self, and being at Arunachala definitely was powerful. It’s like there’s an invisible power there, a spiritual momentum from people going there for many years on a similar quest.
It’s like what Joseph Campbell calls “The Heroes Quest.” Leaving the comfort of your home and going to a place that demands you to rise to the occasion, and that really was my experience. Climbing to the top of the mountain, going around the base and talking to the priests in the temples, connecting with people on the ground as well as the mystics and the sadhus who are at the top of the mountain and talking to them.
I was really acting more like a journalist and asking the right questions. That’s a great first question you ask because it really gets to the heart of what is the driving purpose behind this record, behind this pilgrimage, and that was to sort of to break ground and discover for myself how all these roots lead back to the same seed, back to the single points where everything stems and shines from. That’s why on the album cover, we have the all seeing eye on the mountain, being able to get to the eye of the projector and see the one who sees everything was really the mission and continues to be.
CG: That’s amazing man. Look forward to visiting to Arunachula one day myself. So prior to Pilgrimage, you released Elephant Power in 2008, which was a strong debut for sure. What can fans expect on Pilgrimage now that you’ve had more time honing your craft that wasn’t on Elephant Power?
MCY: I’m traveling right now with my co-producer Robin Livingston and my wife Amanda and we’re headed up to Boston from Philly. We call ourselves “The Sacred Sound Society” because the purpose behind making this music and art and traveling around the world is that we want to help facilitate a sacred sound society. It’s the opposite of a secret society because for all of these years ancient teachings have been sort of hidden and kept in closed rooms and now what we’re seeing is that we’re at a time when these teachings are pivotal for humanity to remember, our great lineage. Not just in Indian culture but in all of these great traditions.
We have this history of knowing and direct spiritual experience and it’s not limited to secret societies. Now is the time we need to remember.
I’m driving through Pennsylvania and we’re going by strip mall after strip mall and it’s spiritually dead, it’s dull. There’s not a lot of energy and creativity and I feel like now is the time when we need to spark that remembrance of who we are and why we’re here.
So, Sacred Sound Society is sort of throwing the doors open and giving access to those who are interested in this knowledge and wisdom that is our birthright. I don’t feel like it should be secluded or kept from us, so we’re really working towards creating an open society, especially living in the internet age which allows us to access that wisdom.
If you search YouTube, you’ll see that so many people feel the whole world is a conspiracy, that everyone is disempowered and victimized and there’s illuminati involved in all this stuff, but you know, the yogis teach us that everyone is illuminati.
If you tap into yourself, everything is illuminated, but you have to feel it shining inside yourself in order to feel it shining inside of everything. So if we don’t feel it shining in ourselves, we’ll feel like somebody else out there has all the power and the key and is keeping it from us, but in reality, that’s a myth and we want to destroy that myth.
We all have equal access to this storehouse of wisdom that’s inside of us. We just need to go inside and do the work. Take our pilgrimage that will lead us back to that place where we can access it directly. No priests, no books, it’s what we’re made of so we can remember it. We’re made of gold.
So to answer your question about the record, basically it’s all experimental. It’s definitely a fusion of different influences and sounds, reggae, dub, electronica, hip hop, but I feel like the music is always the byproduct of our personal practice. It’s like I mentioned earlier about being a journalist, I think that music is a great way to condense a lot of information and be able to transmit the things that I’ve discovered along the way.
It’s one thing to become awakened but then if we don’t share that with the world it will fall into obscurity again.
So I’m hoping with the songs about Gandhi and Hanuman that it can trigger even just a few young people to go on that journey and pilgrimage of self and find out what their truth is. If that happens, then I feel like I’ve served as a yogi. To be a yogi means to pay it forward, to be a link in the chain and to think about the next generation.
So what I think fans can expect is that we’ll continue to grow artistically. We’re going to continue to experiment with different styles and genres, but it will always be coming from the same place of deep driving purpose, of knowing and expressing truth, being authentic and ultimately being able to express love.
I think that’s the pinnacle of yoga, to embody and express love and not in a cliché way. It’s radical, to really go inward and deal with all of your shadows, demons and illusions. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not a spandex culture, the real spandex is the mind. Being able to stretch the mind into new places where you can see yourself from different perspectives and points of view.
So, short answer is fans can expect that we’re going to push the boundaries, push the envelope and experiment with new and different ways to convey this single message which is love.
CG: Amen to that for sure. So it’s cool to see spirituality becoming more emergent in alternative/indie culture however, especially in the West, it’s tricky to keep things sacred without adding an element of materialism to them, or “spiritual materialism” in this case as Chogyam Trungpa would call it. What’s some advice you’d offer to those on the path to keep their practice authentic and humble?
MCY: Yeah, I feel like those are the initial stages.
When you are first initiated into your practice you’re going to put on your robe of spirituality and wear that costume and I think that’s an important part of it. I think for us, since we’ve been practicing for a while, it’s important to remember how we felt and where we were when we first started and not be too hard on people who are just starting. Be compassionate and remember we were there too.
In terms of materialism, I really feel like all material is saturated with spirit. So it’s not the materialism but more the way we cling to concepts and the way we think it should look. We think it should be peaceful and quiet with crystal bowls and incense but those are still the early stages. You need to unhook and pull back from the surface layer and find that sanctuary inside of yourself and that will be reflected.
Once you’ve discovered who you are and what this all is, it doesn’t matter where you are.
There are saints in India who meditate on huge piles of trash. It doesn’t matter what it looks like on the outside. It’s all about being able to feel that which is beyond the senses, that point where the senses emanate and shine from within our self, the center of the wheel, clock, compass, mind, heart, whatever you want to call it. Our innermost point is there, the center of our universe.
It’s so important to be able to find that blazing sun that is in the center of our self and return to it quickly, so that when the mind kicks up all of its ideas, which it does because it’s designed like a machine to do so, we can detach from our ideas of how it should be and continue to return to the center.
In yoga there’s a beautiful saying that it shines through you as you. It takes the form of everything, but if we’re slightly off-center, then we’re going to think it needs to look a certain way. I really struggle with that as an artist because I always feel like my art should look and sound a certain way. I always strive for perfection. It’s very humbling and a constant reminder to return to center.
When you align yourself, everything on the outside starts to fall into place. It’s that shift, like when you go sailing, you make a tiny, little course correction, a subtle little shift but it alters your course extremely. It’s a tiny, little internal shift, just like turning a key in a lock, sinking the mind back into the center, dropping in, you can’t even see it from the outside.
That tiny, little shift however, radically changes your perception so you can actually see that everything is above it in disguise. Everything is your self in disguise and the personality is just the costume the self wears. It’s like the mind is a mask, a facade.
What is behind the mind, below the breath, what is shining through the senses, what is seeing itself through you? The universe sees itself through our eyes.
The universe is shining through our nervous system and to have this perspective takes work, it takes effort. You have to train your mind diligently in order to have that sort of breakthrough where you can shine through your own thoughts and see the intimate, which is in, and all around us.
I love what (Noah) Levine is doing because he’s shattering the idea that this has to look a certain way and I feel like that’s the spiritual maturity, when you can see it in everything, even in the fucked up situations too. If you can see that a great power is orchestrating that as well, in order for us to have that remembrance, it’s strong medicine. It can be very bitter at times but if you’re into the experience of being illuminated, then you just kind of relish and savor every square inch of it.
CG: I really love the way you broke that down. I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of Ram Dass’ quotes that has stuck with me through the years in which he says, “Treat everyone you meet like God in drag.”
MCY: I love that; that’s awesome. And I’m really into these questions. That’s one thing I learned from Ramana Maharshi—asking the right questions. That’s been my practice, in my internal dialogue. Learning to ask myself the right question and staying with it so it takes me down the rabbit hole so I can start to feel what’s shining in and around us.
CG: Yeah, that’s so important. I’m working on my first book right now and it’s centered around 10 specific questions I asked spiritual teachers, physicists, musicians, etc., and it’s been awesome to see the similarities in many of their answers though they’re spoken in a different vernacular.
MCY: What a great idea man. What’s so cool about that is it’s sort a cross-section where science, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism meet and you’ve got your finger on the pulse.
You’re really getting to the heart of it. To see how all these different perspectives are seeing the same thing from different sides, that’s what I absolutely love about India and the yoga culture, it allows for that. It’s one of the rare places that really give space for all these different views and opinions and really celebrates all the different voices. From the perspective of Vedanta, it’s all one voice moving through different pipes, different vocal chords and if we listen, we can hear the teachings in everything and that’s such a beautiful practice of awareness.
CG: Oh absolutely. How amazing is it to hear quantum physicists saying today basically the same thing the ancient yogis and sages of India were saying 2,500 years ago just in a different language?
MCY: It’s so great for sure.
CG: So completely changing gears here, old school and indie hip hop is very dear to my heart so I’m curious as to who some of the more influential hip hop artists in your life have been, both past and present and why? What was it about them, their records etc that attracted you to it?
MCY: Well there’s really specific people who influenced me in really specific ways.
Slick Rick really inspired me in the way of The Art of Storytelling. People like Doug E. Fresh. The Fat Boys because I love to beat box. Run DMC just for their swagger. The Beastie Boys—the first time I ever heard the word “Namaste” was from the Beastie Boys. I caught hold of License to III when I was seven or eight years old and that became the soundtrack to my youth.
So as they started to lean in the direction of Eastern mysticism and philosophy, that definitely awoke something in me, a real sort of hunger and desire to know more about that. Even hearing people like Chuck D, who really inspired me to be politically active. It’s a really long list.
CG: Any love for the Native Tongues, Family De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, etc.?
MYC: Oh yeah, for sure. All those guys. Low End Theory was a huge album for me. Three Feet High and Rising, all those records were on heavy rotation during my youth. Digable Planets I also loved. Eric B & Rakim. The list literally goes on and on. I was born in ’79 and grew up in the 80s and then in the 90s it was the golden era of hip hop for me. There was Souls of Mischief and Pharcyde.
CG: Oh man, so much love for Hieroglyphics and Pharcyde as well.
MYC: Oh, you have to love Hiero. There were all these incredible voices, styles and flavors.
Growing up as a graffiti artist, you couldn’t help but listen to Jeru Tha Damaja, Gang Starr, The Artifacts. There was just a flurry of records and albums. Pete Rock & CL Smooth.
So around ‘98/99, I discovered yoga and at that point, I was still digging the old school hip hop, but it was also around the time when Puff Daddy and Biggie and all those people had come in.
Hip hop started to get really grim and materialistic. There are parts of that culture I do enjoy, like some of the production, but when I started practicing yoga, I started almost feeling like I was having an allergic reaction. I couldn’t listen to it because I started to understand how powerful words were and how influential they could be.
As a graffiti artist, you know how powerful advertising is. You know how powerful the words you put up in the street are and how they have a subtle, subliminal effect on people.
So as I started to close my eyes more and go inside more, I started to find I couldn’t listen to a lot of the egotistic rants and chatter which hip hop had become at that time. There were still good artists like Common and Mos Def, but I found myself really moving towards instrumental music. It was around the time trip hop was coming out and I got into DJ Shadow & Thievery Corporation, and that definitely seeped into my consciousness. I was living in San Francisco and it was the dot com boom. I was listening to a lot of DJ music and found myself moving away from the lyrics. I just wanted to hear tracks, beats and vibes so I got into listening to more ambient music. I started getting more into Krishna Das and Jai Uttal because it wasn’t in English and I found I just wanted some mental space.
So then gradually, I found that I was really missing the stories I heard in the old hip hop. I missed Emcees and that’s when I started to write those songs. There was a missing piece that I wanted to fill. It was like the classic Gandhi quote, if there’s something that you want in the world, you have to actually be it. So I decided to put my energy into writing and crafting these songs.
I’ve been performing hip hop for a long time, since I was about 13 or 14. I used to freestyle and battle at house parties but never really thought I was going to be an emcee as a career. It was just something I really loved to do as a creative outlet. All my friends were getting super high and getting into fights and I was never into that. I just wanted to be creative. I wanted to vibe and have fun and that was my outlet.
So all those things collided and became MC Yogi and it’s still ongoing. I feel like there’s so much more that I want to experiment with and explore musically and artistically and I feel like I’m just getting started.
CG: So you’ve mentioned Gandhi a couple of times and I know you follow his practice of not speaking on Mondays and was curious as to what insights that commitment has brought you?
MCY: It’s so funny because I set out like okay, I’m not going to talk on Mondays and I’ve been really successful at it, but then I’ll wake up Monday morning and I’ll have an interview I forgot about and I’m just like, “Oh man.”
So I’ve learned to become flexible with it.
It continues to be my practice on Mondays, but I have to say it’s much easier when I’m at home. It’s a little harder when you’re going through the airport at customs and they’re like, “What’s up with this dude?”
It’s become really nice though, especially as a vocalist and performer to have a day of not talking. Not just physically not talking, but creating space to be quiet as well. It’s so replenishing. I find that I’m more silent in general because of it and that I can listen better. It’s like everything I do is just like an experiment. I can’t really say that I’m hard or strict or doing things in a dogmatic way. I really am just doing things as a science experiment to see how I feel afterwards and how they affect me.
I’m not just doing things to do them, but doing them to understand myself more and to learn how I tick so I can refine and operate more efficiently and be more successful, and not just externally but internally.
I think being victorious and being successful are a feeling. It’s like building confidence from the inside and not superficially. Confidence comes from knowing reliable results. In India there’s a thing called Atma Vishnaya which means “Divine Confidence.” It’s like having confidence in spirit and confidence in yourself.
I really pull a lot of my confidence from that from my spiritual practice because growing up I was a lot like Gandhi in the sense that I was really shy, skinny and weak. I was always the last picked at sports and was a funny looking little kid that didn’t have a lot of confidence, energy or strength.
I was very nervous, but through my yoga practice, through meditation, it’s given me the ability to stand in front of 5,000 or 10,000 people and be able to speak my truth whereas before, I would have never had the courage and strength to stand in front of any crowd and talk. I didn’t grow up naturally confident or naturally strong and charismatic, it’s all been developed through yoga.
CG: Awesome. That’s a powerful endorsement for those practices for sure. So in close, what’s in store for the rest of 2012 into 2013? Are there any other endeavors you’ll be undertaking besides pushing the Pilgrimage record?
MCY: Oh there’s definitely more. I have many arms. I’m constantly endeavoring to broaden my abilities. I’m constantly teaching myself new skills whether it’s graphic design or sound production.
Like right now, I’m really interested in becoming a filmmaker and producing a movie. Actually, the way Robin and I made Pilgrimage was as a soundtrack to the film of our journey to the mountain. While we were there, we worked with a film crew and shot a bunch of footage and took some incredible photos, so the whole thing was sort of produced as a movie. So I’m really interested in putting that together so I can share it with others and they can go deeper than just hearing the album and see and feel what it’s like to be a pilgrim in this modern age.
I’m also currently writing a Broadway musical that I’m working with another writer on.
I have a video game I’m interested in developing.
I have a novel that I want to write.
There’s so much that I want to do man. I’m generally, incredibly enthused and pumped up and stoked about life and I just love creating content that I can share with the world and that hopefully helps to inspire and brighten their lives, turning people on so they can catch a fire and really go out do their thing. I’d love to perform with an orchestra. I’d love to maybe be in a Bollywood movie, even if just as a stunt double. I definitely just want to spread my wings as far and as wide as possible and see where it will take us.
CG: Well that’s certainly commendable man. You’re definitely already out their touching lives, many of which I know personally so that’s amazing!
MCY: Yeah, this is just the beginning brother. Our generation is inheriting the earth, so it’s really up to us to pave the way and we’re definitely on the front edge.
Another thing that I have a real deep sort of driving desire to do is to continue to break out of this cage, break out of this shell and have a top 10, radio song, not in terms of selling out, but in terms of reaching the earth. I really feel like this message of yoga can be transcended in so many different ways. I feel that it’s such a powerful, poignant message and I feel like I’m totally wide open to using every platform that is possible. Especially any platform that is going to help broadcast it to the greatest amount of people, so I’m shooting for the moon. My intention is to go as far, as wide and as big as possible while maintaining my integrity and staying connected to the center. I’ll keep experimenting and seeing what’s possible.
CG: Well I don’t think there could be a better intention to have.
MCY: Well likewise, I love what you’re doing. I love the brand of The Indie Spiritualist and how you’re taping into this network of DIY culture and people. We are a creating culture. We are taking all these different strains, different confluences and absorbing them into our own bloodstream and transmitting them in our own way that makes sense to us and I feel like that’s exactly it and that you’re doing an amazing job of bringing all these communities together. I think it’s brilliant.
CG: Well to say that’s a huge compliment is an understatement. I was born in ’78 so we’re definitely of the same generation. I mean how cool it is to see people like us, who grew up in hip hop, graffiti, or in my case, more punk/hardcore, but who have come sort of full circle to where we are now, doing our best to spread the message of timeless wisdom that’s available to all.
MCY: Yes, totally. What I’m excited about is the cycles and the seasons. When I initially came out with Elephant Power, I wrote those songs at a period in my life where I shunned everything that was negative and went as positive as I possibly could, and those songs were the result. I think those songs were the necessary process of those initial phases in my writing but now, I feel like it’s about integrating more of my past too. Those past experiences that were more turbulent and traumatic, they’re chock full of wisdom.
So now I’m going back in myself and mining all that gold and seeing in hindsight that all those experiences happened so that I could have this incredible reservoir of information so I can connect and relate to people where they are at. I can connect with what people are going through because it’s what I went through.
Many of them are just getting to this now so I want to be able to speak in a language that relates to those who are sort of in the thick of it. I want to give them a soundtrack or some information or content that’s going to help them move through it quicker so they can get to the other side and see that wow, even though that was f*cking difficult and hard, they got through it, and hopefully learned a lot in the process.
CG: Sure man. Similar to Noah (Levine), and many others on this path, I’m in recovery. While that led me to the most dark and desperate places in my life, it was also the catalyst that set me on this path. So I know those experiences will allow me to relate, similarly to how you said, to people just coming out of it, or who are still in the thick of it but looking to come out. I can’t hide from that, nor do I care to so maybe it will help someone else out. It does get better, I’m living it.
MCY: Definitely. I have a good friend who used to be a Hell’s Angel and a heroin addict and he shot some bad heroin and ended up in the emergency room. All the other people who got that bad dose died. He was on his deathbed, he’d flatlined and went to the other side, and when he was there, he encountered a radiant Buddha. She was like Tara, a female Buddha and she was hovering over pools of nectar. There was a cascading waterfall and ethereal clouds and he had this incredible vision and heard her say, “Turn your pain into your strength. Go back and teach. Go back and share this wisdom. Turn your suffering and struggle into your strength.”
So he shared that with me and it gives me chills just thinking about it. His leg is still rotting from where he shot it in his thigh, but he’s made it through. He continues to struggle with some physical issues but he’s such a beautiful, bright human being who’s been through so much sh*t and had an incredible transformation. He’s a master builder, a craftsman who builds these beautiful stupas and temples. Actually, my wife is working with him now to build some custom prayer wheels.
My wife Amanda is an amazing artist. So that’s the message, we can’t change all the things that happened, but we can extract wisdom from those experiences and take that gold and share it with our communities so others can benefit. It’s like you said, it does get better.
CG: For sure. Thanks so much for your time man.
MCY: Definitely, and my thanks to you.
Editor: Brianna Bemel