How were you first introduced to hip-hop?
I grew up in Manhattan & I was surrounded a lot of the more physical aspects of the culture. Break dancing & graffiti caught my attention when I was really young & I kind of absorbed the culture really strongly through those 2 mediums. And my parents also played a lot of music that was kind of funk & soul when I was a kid, so by time I started making my own choices of what to listen to, literally at 4 or 5 years old I gravitated straight to Hip-Hop.
So you were attracted to the entire culture & not just rapping?
Yeah, that’s correct. Every single aspect was fascinating to me. In the early 80’s in Manhattan, graffiti was everywhere & that was really strong for me visually, that was really stimulating to me as a kid. And break dancing, in all the parts of the city there were people break dancing all the time. And my parents were both public school teachers, so they were around a lot of kids that were into the culture as well. So it came from all angles. It came from things that I saw, it came from what my parents were into & I watch a lot of TV also & it was pretty prevalent on MTV as well.
So what inspired you to take the step at being an emcee?
Well I started writing rhymes when I was really young. I was really into poetry, like Dr. Seuss type stuff & because I was really into to hip hop there was a connection, it clicked that poetry basically was rapping. So I started writing rhymes when I was 7 or 8 years old & recorded my 1st demo on a little cassette tape. My mom bought me a Kawasaki drum machine for my 8th birthday. It had all these of preset beats & I recorded like 4 or 5 songs with friend of mine Will Ski. Two of them were parodies. That’s what I used to do, make parodies on songs. Like Run DMC had ‘Walk This Way’ & ‘It’s Tricky’ & I had my own versions of that. It was fun for me. I started writing when I was 8, and moved on to freestyling & battling or as I got older but it was the most consistent feature in my life [writing rhymes] ever since then.
What was it like coming up in Tribeca’s hip hop scene?
It was interesting because I didn’t really publically rap all that much. I wrote a lot & freestyled with my friends but I wasn’t going to. Tribeca was where I lived. I didn’t really take it like a musical hub because to honest with you, it wasn’t. It wasn’t really a hip hop scene down here when I was a kid. But there was a club called The Wetlands that had open mics a lot. The Roots actually had a residency down there for a while & the Lyricist Lounge Tour came through there so there were a few emcees coming through The Wetlands in Tribeca. But I went to high school in Brooklyn & as I started coming up, I really expanded my horizons in terms of the areas that I kicked it in, so really the entire New York hip hop scene was my playground. So obviously there was quite a bit to be taken from that. Hip hop was all around me.
Did you ever run into any of the artist that are known now, as you were coming up?
In high school, not really because before I went to college, I didn’t go to many of the underground clubs. I went to shows with big name acts. The underground scene wasn’t really something I was aware of in high school. I [used to] always imagined the underground scene was something I would never know & I would never actually gain entry to. I pictured the underground as this really dark, dungeon like world that was really inaccessible & I didn’t really have an understanding of what it really was. And it was around the mid to late 90’s when there was a ton of things going on but I didn’t really have a mindset like I can go out there & get it. I just wrote rhymes for fun & kicked it with my friends. It wasn’t really explained all that much. The whole city was alive with it but I didn’t necessarily find it at such a young age.
You did a lot at a young age though but you also had to deal with a lot of tragedy as you were growing up , how did that make you grow as a person & grow as a musician & as an artist?
The thing that I went through when I was a kid, I experienced a lot of deaths . When I was 9, 10, 11 & 12, four of the closest people in my life died all in unrelated incidents. So I quickly gained an understanding of mortally & an idea of how temporary things really are. It also gave me a real sense of priorities. A lot of things that kids cared about & complained about & cried about, I saw the [same] things as completely insignificant because I really knew what it was like to feel real pain. I knew what it was like to feel real loss. Some kid lost his truck & he was crying & I was like ‘That‘s not important, that’s not real’. Those priorities kind of stuck with me as I grew up. I didn’t really find much stress or pressure in a lot of the things that most high school kids would bug out about. I had to gain a sense of self-sufficiency & I taught myself a lot of what it’s like to be a man, growing up without a father. I had to be my own father. So I gravitated towards my own sense of self-expression. As an artist, writing helped me get through a lot of stuff when I was a kid. It was a way to get a lot of feelings out & help me understand things. Even if I’m writing about a light hearted topic the truth of it shows. Being a sincere artist comes from being a sincere person. I think that I’m strong enough to do that because of the tragedy I experienced.
It didn’t cause your music to be dark in that period?
What I was able to do, even if the topic was dark & traumatic to me, I always maintained a sense of levity. Not making jokes about it but I always opened up to everything. I was able to take certain topics & still make it enjoyable. When I was in high school I used to write a lot of poetry that would have to do with death & have to do with intense subject matter, but it was reality & the reality is when something bad happens there’s still life around you that is positive. So when I was at a funeral there’s still a lot of love & when you feel love it still contains a lot of positivity. I was like ‘I cared about that person, we had something good going for a while’ so as an artist I inject a balance of recognition that shitty things do happen but also the recognition that it matters that you cared about it & it was positive because if you didn’t care about, it wouldn’t matter.
Do you think that was because of your age & you were just at a carefree age at the time or is that just your personality?
I think, it’s kind of how I was forced to be, in order to deal with a lot of the tragedy. If I was just somebody who yelled how everything was so bleak & whined about how everything is horrible, my life is bad. I think I kind of use it as a defense mechanism to get through a lot of the pain. Recognizing that I like myself, I like my life & these deaths are a part of that. My dad died & my friends dying & all these horrible things are happening, I still like who I am. I am partially a product of those experiences. And I remember recognizing when I was eleven that there’s no such thing as completely bad & no such thing as completely good. Everything is balanced out.
Let me switch gears a little bit, what artist inspire you to be creative?
When I was a little kid, Michael Jackson was a huge influence on me. I always wanted to be a performer because of him. And The Beastie Boys were a huge influence on me. I always wanted to be a rapper because of them. But outside of music, comedy was a huge part of my life. People like Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey or Andy Kaufman tried to make people have a reaction. I always wanted to affect people from a performance stand point. That was a huge part of me as well. As I got older, learning about other cultures & other time periods of performers, classic rock, in Europe, the renaissance, lots of different styles just influenced me. And once I became a part of the underground scenes, most artist, producers, journalists & photographers that surrounded me in New York added a huge inspiration. They’re kind of in the same lane as me, making their own way & doing it independently & they rolled around with the same amount of dignity as any artist out there. So it really ranges from classical, Mozart or anybody who can be claimed as the biggest, most current artist of that time, all the way up to a friend of mine whose just running around have some fun.
You had a different transition in your life than a lot of other New York artist and you ended up at Emory University in Atlanta. Explain how that came about & what that did to your music.
When I was in high school I wanted to pursue writing, so I knew I wanted to go to a college that had a creative writing department & Emory had a good one of those. [Also] I was this huge Outkast fan & this was like the late 90’s when Dungeon Family was coming up really big & I wanted to go down there to see what the scene was really like. So I go down there for a visit & artistically it was on a different level on anything that I’ve ever seen & I wanted to surround myself with that next level. I wanted to go to the future & I felt like Atlanta was the future. Jesse adds. It was far away from everything I knew & I was interest in expanding & kind of changing the lane I was in. ‘Cause I felt like a major switch would be awesome.
So that was conscious it wasn’t from circumstance?
Correct. I wanted that next thing. I felt like getting out & expanding to something that was all the while still artistically dignified, which I really felt like Atlanta had going on. I felt it was a good move for me. I was very much so chasing Outkast. *laughs* That’s very specific. I’d never talk to my college counselor about that. *laughs* He wouldn’t necessarily approve of me making my decision based on that reason but of course it’s [Emory] a great school & has positive reputation academically. And then I went down there & that was when my rapping really got serious. It was right around the time when Eminem came out & there was this idea in my mind like, ‘it doesn’t have to be just for fun’, ‘is doesn’t have to be just enjoyable’ but, I can really get on stage & rip it. Not because I’m being funny or a novelty act, I can really spit. So when I down in Atlanta, I formed my 1st group, had my 1st shows, made my 1st records & really started taking it seriously.
Since you brought it up, what do think about the white rapper stigma? Do you think it it’s harder now post-Eminem or was it harder then, pre-Eminem.
It’s interesting as far as right now verses back then, I feel it’s almost the same because before Eminem, if you were a white emcee you had to absolutely prove yourself because no one would take you seriously right off the bat. And nowadays because Eminem is the most successful rapper emcee ever, if you’re a white emcee, you REALLY have to prove yourself because of who they put you up against automatically. So it’s just as similar pre & post. When he 1st came out & was doing it big, everybody, that was white, was trying to be rapper whether they could emcee or not. It’s kind of filtered out a little bit. If you’re a white emcee, your basically looked at as just an emcee & you better be nice. The same as it always was before.
Now you have your Yelawolfs & you have your Mac Millers & so forth they’re like, the new school [of white rappers]. Where do you think you fit in with those types artist?
When I was really starting out on the underground scene, that was before Mac Miller or Yelawolf came out, & it was still Asher Roth & other underground cats or Slug (of Atmosphere) was always the big name. Now, Yelawolf has gotten really out there. And Mac Miller has gotten really out there. Those guys have that commercial appeal & they aim for that commercial, that’s something that I don’t necessarily do. I recognize both of their talents and I think guys like Yelawolf & Mac Miller have a lot to contribute. I’m a fan of both of theirs to be honest with you but I do recognize that when Mac Miller sits down & writes records he’s very conscious of [the song content] it’s gonna be about trees, it’s gonna be about girls, it’s gonna be about partying & it’s gonna be about smiling & that’s it. And he doesn’t deviate from that. Yelawolf also, he’s kinda gotta jump into character. He’s got the tats, he’s gonna rap in a crazy voice & he’s gonna do it really fast & he’s gonna talk about drinking. And their movement is the characters because that’s kind of what the commercial world is about, to try to sell an idea. I’m still in the independent lane, where I don’t have to be pigeon holed into just one niche. I can really just be me. And I find that there’s a lot of freedom of expression in that & I aim to maintain that & long as I can hold on to it.
So you related more to Slug than to the new school?
Me personally, yes because I feel there’s more of a process that leads towards song writing in general as opposed to Mac Miller being like what does my fan base want or what would be something that would be cool to make a video for. Or you have Yelawolf is under the Jimmy Iovine umbrella & I’m sure there’s a whole lot of direction being given. Whereas, Slug is more of an independent artist & he calls his own shots. And you know Mac Miller on an indie label and I feel it’s obvious that he’s going in one direction. Also I think Slug came from the same generation as me. He was kinda raised amongst the golden era of write a 16 bar verse and really spit it about different topics. Rather than, come up with 2 verse & a catchy hook and make a video for it. And I’m not trying to knock Mac Miller by saying that but there’s definitely a difference between us as artist.
The internet wasn’t huge then but it was kinda big when Atmosphere and the whole Minnesota hip hop scene first came out. How do you think the internet helps boosts your career now?
I didn’t really have a career before I started being aware of what it meant to share your music. I’ve been writing and recording songs for about 20 years basically. It wasn’t until I started being on Bandcamp, Zshare & when Youtube got big & all the different platforms where anybody could get their music out there. And what I used to do was record songs, burn CDs one by one & hand them out to my friends. When I did a show I would give them out at the end. But really that was just like practice. Like I was just making a demo & my mindset back then was like I can make a demo & maybe get it into somebody’s hands. Nowadays you can be like, ‘I can make a career & get this career into somebody’s hands’. That’s obviously a completely different game now. I learned back in the days the whole goal was to make a hot demo and hopefully [somebody] like Jermaine Dupri would hear it or something. Whereas now, I can get a whole fan base, get a little buzz going & go to Jermaine Dupri like ‘look I just made 80 grand this year from my home, what do want to do’. That’s all because of the internet.
Do you think your internet success translates to bringing crowds to your shows?
When I go out of state, absolutely. Like when I go out to Connecticut or New Jersey or Delaware heads will come out to my shows & know my music, that’s strictly because of the internet. But in New York, the scene is really expansive enough that we’ll know each other face to face from all the different events that we go to & we know other from collaborating. When I do shows in New York there are different crowds that rock with my scene. I’m basically part of a movement here that people are fans of the movement and it’s very face to face & hands on. It’s not like I’m on the radio, on commercial radio. I’m on underground radio, which is on the internet. And it’s not like I’m on commercial print, I’m on internet print. So the idea is unless they see me on a consistent basis in my city, it’s got to be on the internet. It’s a beautiful thing to explore that. But it’s always difficult ways to utilize something like the internet…It’s all about using it correctly. You’ve gotta work hard & smart.
I think there are a lot of artists out there that are just like you. That really didn’t have a career until internet sharing, which is not a knock on artist like that but what advice would you give to someone that’s sitting in their bedroom, working on songs & they have their songs & they think they’re pretty cool & their friends like them & they want to share their music & get to the point where you got & performing at SXSW.
I always aim for the motto that you’ve got to be both outstanding and stand out. You can’t just be one of those two. Most artists, only aim for one of those two. If your outstanding, you’re a great artist, you make sick songs but you don’t stand out, you’re going to get buried and nobody’s going to notice you. There are a million rappers out there and they’ve all got Bandcamp pages, they’ve all got Youtube videos you’ve got to do something to make yourself stand out. But you can’t just be a weirdo running around eating lizards and doing stuff that makes no sense. You’ve gotta be standing out while actually being outstanding, while having some sort of craft to fall back on and ability to your art and making music people want to hear. So I really think that both sides of that coin are necessary, to stand out and be outstanding. I always aim to really make songs that I would want to listen to but then also do something that would grab people’s attention because there’s so much music out there, I don’t want to just be a part of that wave. I want to be a glimmer or a sparkle that pops out of the ocean of music that everybody is getting flooded with.
Break down what someone that hasn’t ever heard your music would get from the One Day LP.
That’s technically my 1st album. It’s the first soul circle & complete narrative album of mine. That really displays the varieties of facets of who I am as a person & as an artist. There are some light-hearted songs on there, there are some deep songs on there, songs that are meant to make you dance, songs that are meant to make you think & it’s a full collection of the varieties that I have within me as a human & as an emcee. I aim to try and be as honest as I can with my music. One Day is an attempt to be a universal artist. That’s what the whole concept of ‘One Day’ means. I speak from the truest part of myself, aiming for the truest part of any listener, & my hope it that the truth in my music can be discovered in turn.
Who are some of the artist that you listen to right now?
I listen to a lot of my friends. I listen to Homeboy Sandman, Ill Spoken, YC The Cynic & Tonya Morgan. It’s a lot of underground in my headphones. They’re the people that inspire me. I still listen to a lot of A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, [&] Dizzie Rascal out of London. I listen to The Roots a lot I’m a big fan of Bob Marley, Bob Dylan,[&] Guns N Roses. My iPod is really an adventure.
So you listen to a hodgepodge of music from the last 10-15 years [and beyond].
Yeah absolutely & even think back, I listen to The Doors & Led Zeppelin quite a bit. I listen to a lot of classical music. I listen to stuff from other countries that I don’t even know what the fuck to call. I used to produce. I used to make my own beats so I was always out looking for different samples. I would listen to the most random stuff in the worl to look for something to sample. Plus people that I hung out with would just put me on to music & it would just end up in my iPod. I walk around with like 150 gigs of music everywhere I go.
I make beats as well and sound like how I used to be. My theory was, when I went record shopping, to find the album with the weirdest looking cover & that would be the one I would by because they always had the best samples.
Exactly, you want something to like go off the wall and that how you make your best art.
Now that you’ve dropped the One Day LP, what’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a concept album that’s currently untitled. I’m going to hit the road in the middle of the Winter & be on the road for close to a year trying to hit the Midwest, the southwest & then I’m heading over to Europe next Summer. I feel that I have a catalog that stands up and I’d like to be on as many stages & in front of any lights as possible.