Describe your path to what you’re doing now. I grew up in Chicago, and rap music came into my life when I was six or seven years old. I used to ride in my mom’s car while she played Eazy-E’s first solo album, Eazy-Duz-It, on cassette. To hear him speaking like that without knowing what he looked like and, instead, painting that picture in my head was very impactful to me.
Growing up, I listened to all different kinds of music, though, from rock to industrial to metal. Once I reached high school, I got really into hip-hop culture—not just the music, but graffiti and breakdancing, too. It was around that time that I started rapping, and I was pretty okay at it.
After high school, I attended the University of Southern Illinois to study psychology.
Your lyrics are atypical of most mainstream rap and hip-hop. Does your background in psychology directly influence your style? Definitely. Once I discovered that there was a field where people studied other people and how they work, I was instantly attracted to it. That’s how my mind has always operated. Whatever I’m trying to uncover, reflect, or express definitely comes from a place of trying to understand myself and others, and trying to make note of what I’ve observed. All of that is present.
I heard that you were once part of a neurological study about rapping. Yeah, a producer friend of mine and I participated in and co-authored a study that observed the brain patterns of people while they freestyled. We worked with the National Institutes of Health, and it was pretty crazy. We freestyled in an fMRI machine for hours, and the technicians showed us pictures of our brains and told us what was happening. I didn’t understand any of it, but there was a lot of brain activity going on. Afterwards, we helped design instruments to measure the quality level of people’s freestyles for a later experiment.
Did you continue to pursue music during college? College was where I performed my first show, which I had to write a bunch of songs for because I didn’t have my own material. The songs were terrible, but the show went well. The rush and excitement I felt from seeing my name on the bill and being well-received by people sparked something in me.
Was creativity part of your childhood? Not really. Everybody in my family worked “regular” jobs, so artistic endeavors weren’t necessarily encouraged. However, I had a lot of free time, which I used to come up with big, elaborate stories while playing with my toys. I also enjoyed drawing, even though I wasn’t very good at it. Then, when I was a sophomore in high school, I got my first computer. As soon as I realized that I could make music with it, I was on it constantly. The desire to create was always in me when I was growing up, but it wasn’t necessarily because of my environment.
“Whatever I’m trying to uncover, reflect, or express definitely comes from a place of trying to understand myself and others, and trying to make note of what I’ve observed.”
Was there an “Aha!” moment when you realized that music was something you wanted focus on? I realized that I could make a living as a rapper when I moved to LA and joined a hip-hop collective called Project Blowed. I knew I wanted to be around people who were involved in the independent rap scene and making a living from it, and that’s what enabled me to figure out how all of this works. Project Blowed began as an open mic workshop, and it had been running for almost 20 years; out of that came a hip-hop collective, a record label, and an event. That was where rappers like Aceyalone, Abstract Rude, and Busdriver—guys who were putting out records worldwide, but who weren’t signed to major labels—got their start.
I originally heard about Project Blowed when I was in high school because Aceyalone, one of their most prominent rappers, mentioned it in his songs and music videos all the time. I went to LA a lot to visit my dad, and I went to Project Blowed whenever I was in town. When I decided to move to LA, it was a no-brainer to become involved. Being able to study under them and see that it didn’t take magic powers to make a career out of rapping was cool. I shadowed them, toured with them, helped them sell merch, and saw the steps they took to turn the creation of underground rap music into income. That’s also how I became part of the rap groups Thirsty Fish and Swim Team. There wasn’t necessarily an “Aha!” moment as much as there was this kind of apprenticeship.
Would you consider the people in Project Blowed as mentors? Absolutely. Project Blowed was basically like rap graduate school. I received tutelage from people who were doing what I wanted to be doing. Then I figured out how to put all of the pieces together on my own.
Were you working a day job to support yourself at that point, or where you supporting yourself by playing shows? I was absolutely working a day job. I couldn’t get paid a dime to play shows when I first came to LA. Initially, I worked as part of an AmeriCorps program where I was paired with a nonprofit organization. That job was wack: I was basically working a full-time schedule while only being given a tiny stipend. People usually do the program for two years, but I quit after eight months. I figure that if I was going to be working full-time with a college degree, I might as well have a decent job.
The next job I took was working at a huge 64-bed group home facility. I was there for a year and then I worked for another nonprofit that ran after-school programs and offered in-school tutoring. Eventually, I taught school for a year before getting laid off in 2009. Once that happened, I decided to focus on my music career full-time.
So much is said about how little money there is in music now, but there are people in independent rap who make so much money. There will never be as much money as there used to be, but there’s still enough for everybody in the industry of independent music. I don’t want people to think that I get a ton of money, but I get a cool amount. I’m supporting myself and my family, so I do alright.
“The purpose of calling my music art rap is two-fold: one, I want people to come into it knowing it’s a little different. Two, when you call something art, you give yourself the freedom to do it in whatever way that you like.”
How did you transition from a day job to doing music full-time? That’s the thing: around the time I was laid off, I knew that two of my mentors, Busdriver and Abstract Rude, were about to go on tour, so I talked them into letting me go with them. I told them that they didn’t have to pay me, and that I’d take my own car—all I wanted was to be put on the bills and given a time slot. I made low-budget CDs that I pressed up and sold for $5 a pop. That was my first tour, and it changed everything. The idea of doing music full-time became more of a reality after that. It was no longer just a theory: it was my job.
In 2010, about six months after that tour, I put out my first solo album, Unapologetic Art Rap, through Mush Records. Having done the actual work of touring and having a record label invested in putting my music forward was the beginning of it all.
Did Busdriver and Abstract Rude act as mentors on that tour? I took their advice when offered and asked for their feedback on music I had recorded, but something I learned quickly is that it does not matter what other artists think of you at all. If another artist can tell you something about the craft of performing, then that’s definitely something to heed, but it doesn’t matter if they like what you do musically or not—in fact, a lot of artists who tour together don’t even like each other’s music. The only thing that matters is how the listeners respond to it. It’s about getting in front of real humans who enjoy hip-hop and doing your thing for them, because you might be on a whole new tangent that could resonate with an audience.
Had you developed your own style and voice at that point? I came with a very developed idea of what angle I wanted to take based on what I had developed through my temperament, the things I enjoyed, and my experiences of being in groups where I didn’t feel like my particular vision was being manifested. I don’t think it’s necessarily the same angle now, but it would be a little too much to say that I had a voice already. I had the beginnings of a vision for how I wanted to stand apart.
Now I think I have a far more solid sense of the craft of writing, recording, and performing. Those tools are sharper for me. I think my vision and mission statements change from project to project. At every stage, I have experiences that will take me to another stage. All of that newness then has to be combined with what I’ve already brought to the table, and then a new vision establishes itself from there.
Do you prefer collaborating or working solo? I definitely prefer working solo. I understand the benefits of collaboration, and that has always been a part of my world, but I find that my strongest vision comes out when I’m in my own zone, apart from everything.
You’ve described your music as art rap. Would you say that’s a subset of the conscious hip-hop genre? I don’t know, because sometimes I want to say something dumb; I want to bring a level of honesty to the table. A lot of times, a conscious rapper might ignore certain impulses that they have as a real person in order to fit into the role of being a revolutionary or a militant or a sage, but I don’t think anybody is just one way all of the time. It’s more important to me to be able to express myself in many different ways. The purpose of calling my music art rap is two-fold: one, I want people to come into it knowing it’s a little different. Two, when you call something art, you give yourself the freedom to do it in whatever way that you like. It’s not a perfect phrase, but it’s a good place to start.
It’s almost like you’re sitting somewhere off in your own world as an observer, making fun of and supporting both mainstream and conscious hip-hop at the same time. I agree completely. All of that is real in my world. Another way of thinking of it is like this: you can have blockbuster films or documentary films, but my heart is more in indie films. That’s the same space I want to be in with rap, too.
Was there a point when you decided to take a big risk to move forward? Everything I do is a big risk: that’s how I define my career. Every thought, every creative impulse is a little scary. There’s no safety in how I approach things. I draw inspiration from moments, and sometimes I can dive so deep into a moment that I forget to make something good. I follow my impulses, so it’s risky.
Every show I do is a risk because none of my songs are standard fare. No matter what crowd I’m in front of, there are people who haven’t heard of me, so there’s a chance that they’ll think what I do is dumb. (laughing)
Apart from music, you also host two podcasts. How did those come about? Around 2010, I started making a podcast because I listened to podcasts and thought they were great. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any help, so I stopped pretty quickly. Later on, I worked with a show called Wits a couple times. We took a liking to each other, so they tapped me to create my own podcast on their network, Infinite Guest. I’ve been doing my podcast, Secret Skin, for a little over a year. It comes out every two weeks on Mondays, and I mostly talk to hip-hop and rap artists, and some standup comics—anybody who’s in my world and is a creator.
The other podcast I do on the Infinite Guest network is called Conversation Parade, which is all about my favorite cartoon, Adventure Time. I co-host that podcast with John Moe, and he and I interview some of the voice actors and creatives behind the show. That podcast comes out every week, but only when the show is in season.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? Yeah, I think so. My close family members all know what’s up because they’ve seen me from when I wasn’t successful all the way up to now. They’re super supportive.
Sometimes I wonder if my friends think my career is going too well. If you only see my Instagram or Facebook posts or some shit, you’re going to think that I’m doing it way big, but it’s not like that at all. I just end up in really cool situations and say, “Yeah, let’s take a picture!” (laughing)
Before you focused on music full-time, you did a lot of work with nonprofits and schools. Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself? I do, but not in that way anymore. I used to do a lot of real hands-on community work and organization, but I think I became burned out on it. Now I feel like the best way I can contribute is by helping people psychologically, by being brave in what I try to do, and setting a good example. There’s a certain element of courage or freedom that I like to touch on that comes from people seeing somebody who thinks differently and isn’t afraid to say so loudly.
Are you creatively satisfied? No, because there are always more challenges before me. As time goes forward, I’m hearing the call more and more to buckle down and try something in the visual format, but I’m intimidated by it. I want to write for TV or create a web series or make dumb little films. I want to explore everything in that medium. When I do that, then I’ll be a little bit closer to being creatively satisfied.
If you were to give advice to a young person just starting out, what would it be? Finish things. Treat the things you make as well as you think they should be treated. If you want to give it away, give it away; if you want to sell it, sell it—but you need to finish it. The things you make will never be perfect. They will never really be done, but you have to finish them. Finish something, put it out into the world, get feedback on it from real human beings, and then make another thing. That’s the great separator between the millions of talented people in the world and the people who are actually making a living with their talents: productivity. We all have ideas and inspiration, but the ability to execute our ideas is the greatest skill.
How does living in LA or going on tour influence your creativity? Being on tour is the best time for me to grab a notepad and write ideas down, but the development of those ideas happens at home. That’s how my brain factory works. I used to be able to sit down and write something—and I still can—but nowadays I’ve become familiar with the level of quality I like to maintain. I write down every little idea I have and combine them to see what big ideas can evolve from there. Since I’m doing a bunch of different things now, I don’t necessarily have time to write a bunch of bad songs, so I have to mine a little deeper and more often to get to the best song.
You’ve done a lot of collaborations over the years, but you said you prefer working solo. Is it still important to you to be part of a creative community? Yes, that’s of the utmost importance. I don’t necessarily need to make stuff with everybody, but I do need context—not just for other people’s understanding, but for my own as well. I need to be around minds that are popping. I like to be surrounded by people who have their eyes turned in the same direction, even if they’re all doing something different. That’s extremely important to me.
Who are some of your favorite rappers or musicians right now? Serengeti is one of my favorite rappers. My friends, like Busdriver, Milo, Aesop Rock, and Homeboy Sandman, are all super dope, too. I would encourage anybody to check them out. I also like a lot of rock music, especially They Might Be Giants.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave? I would like to have my work inspire people to value their own creativity and life experiences, but also to value other people’s life experiences in the same way. We should all celebrate life and gather joy from sharing our experiences. The truth of the matter is that we live in a world, especially in the context of capitalism, that gets along easier when we’re not thinking of ourselves as important individuals, but as having the same human needs as everyone else. I want to leave a legacy of shining a light on that.
“The things you make will never be perfect. They will never really be done, but you have to finish them. Finish something, put it out into the world, get feedback on it from real human beings, and then make another thing. That’s the great separator between the millions of talented people in the world and the people who are actually making a living with their talents: productivity.”