Growing up in the South in the early to mid 2000s, mainstream rap had a certain sound and look to it. In elementary school it was Chingy, Ludacris, T.I. and Nelly among others. In middle school, it was the illustrious Soulja Boy, T Pain, Rich Boy, Hurricane Chris, and Boosie. The fashion was 3XL T-shirts, Bathing Apes, and New Era fitted caps. The subject matter was very street-driven. Because of the stereotype that this mainstream rap had created, my parents did not allow me to listen to this type of music in the house. However, of course I snuck and watched them on 106 & Park and YouTube whenever I could, and have always had an appreciation for the art of the energy, the beats, the danceability, and flair of Southern hip-hop. However, when it came to relating, looking the part, and fitting in at school I could never really connect. I grew up in a good household, my dad is a Pastor and a former jazz/funk musician. I was classically trained in piano, sang in the school choir, dressed very preppy (originally not by choice), and was somewhat of a nerd throughout school; and my group of friends were the exact same. There was very little rap that I could actually personally identify with. However, starting at age 13, I started coming across artists that I could really identify with as a black kid who didn’t really fit the mold of the previously mentioned stereotype. These are those artists that inspired both my art and my outlook on life.
I was on vacation with my family the summer before I began 7th grade when my parents stepped out of the hotel room to go get food. My older brother immediately turned on MTV, and the first video playing was a 1940s magazine styled music video with a rapper dressed in a full suit rapping over a Ray Charles sample. The song was “Gold Digger,” and from that moment on, I was hooked on Kanye West’s style, production, and the subject matter of his music. This showed me that I didn’t have to look a certain way to fit in to hip-hop. Before Kanye, I was always made fun of for wearing Polo in school. Polo and other brands like it were the only clothes my mom would buy because they were good quality, would last long, and would never go out of style. So when Kanye (and his signature Polo shirts) blew up around this time, Polo became huge in hip-hop and pop culture, instantly making me “fresh” at school. This is when my confidence began to rise, and I started to feel comfortable with myself. From a music standpoint, Kanye made me realize that rap could still be very musically inclined and high class, but raw at the same time.
Around the same time, I heard Pharrell’s “That Girl” and was instantly pulled in by the strings, the drums, the 808s, the hook, and of course Lauren London in the video (duh). I started to study all of Pharrell’s music and noticed that the chords in his music sounded a lot like the jazz that my Dad had played in my house since I was a baby. I also noticed Pharrell’s interest in skateboarding, and since I was (and still am) the illest at Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and also skated in real life, I really identified with “Skateboard P.” At that time it was very rare to see black kids skating, so it made me proud of another part of myself and made another “weird” thing that I was into cooler than it was before.
In middle school, I used to watch this Canadian show Degrassi on Noggin (which is now Teen Nick). Aside from the show keeping you on the edge of your seat at all times and depicting every day struggles we all go through in school, I noticed the character Jimmy Brooks, who was one of the only black kids on the show in the beginning. Jimmy was a smooth basketball star, but I related to him in so many ways throughout the show. His group of friends was very diverse, he was well spoken, had an awkward side, but was also very interested in music, particularly rap. Fast forward two years later, I saw “Jimmy” on 106 & Park debuting his new song “Replacement Girl” featuring Trey Songz, but now he was going by the name Drake. I was so blown away and instantly did my research on all of his music. I was really impacted by Drake’s subject matter—mainly about his struggles with women, romance, and finding the way to his dreams. The discovery of his vulnerable music hit me at a time when I needed it most, and it led me to a decision that would change the course of my life. Drake inspired to me to start writing music of my own, and expressing those same issues going on in my life.
Around the time I left for college, I came across Childish Gambino’s song “Freaks and Geeks” and was drawn in immediately. His delivery was so different and he was unapologetically himself. He had a very nerdy, art/band kid type swagger, which I totally related to. As I dug more into his music, I discovered that Gambino is also a seriously talented singer, and that he embraced genres such as retro electronic, funk, and even jazz music. In 2013 Gambino released Because The Internet which changed the way I looked at hip-hop albums. It told a story about today’s society, triggered different moods, and communicated the message about being yourself in a generation where everyone is so influenced by the media on the Internet. In college, I was really starting to find myself as a person as well as an artist, and Gambino’s music really pushed me to be more confident with being myself in both aspects.
“The music someone puts out can really attract and inspire people that think alike, look alike, or go through the same things.”
Logic & Kyle:
I had to group these two together because I discovered them around the same time, and they inspired me for the same reasons. I was at Radford University doing a project with a friend when a song played on her laptop and I instantly thought “flame emoji.” She said it was by her cousin’s friend from high school and that I should check him out, so I did. I looked up Logic and found some of his mixtapes along with his newly released video for “All I Do.” As I dove deeper into Logic I realized that his music was very real, honest, positive, and lit all at the same time. I could relate to every word he said, and as the years went on, it was clear many people felt the same way. Logic really made the art of storytelling stick out to me, and it’s something that I have taken more seriously in my music ever since.
The way I discovered KYLE is actually pretty funny looking back on it. I was in my dorm room looking at all my favorite music blogs and came across his song “Keep It Real” on a website called “College of Music,” which coincidentally ended up being the first blog that ever wrote about my music. When I found KYLE, I looked him up and he already had his Beautiful Loser project out. He stuck out to me because he literally sounded like he was talking to you in all of his music. In fact, KYLE would use certain vocabulary while rapping that I never really considered to be possible before then. I realized that there were really no rules as to how you could express yourself in music, because music is art. I no longer felt that I had to change the way I actually spoke for a rap verse. Aside from this, KYLE was still a kid, and I felt I could really relate to him and saw him as a person I would be friends with if we ever met. Four years later, this proved to be true as I actually linked up with KYLE and his friend Brick in real life. Within seconds I noticed that they were exactly what their music and image projected them to be. The vibe in the room literally felt like we had known each other for years, but it had only been 30 minutes. This experience taught me that the music someone puts out can really attract and inspire people that think alike, look alike, or go through the same things.
All of these artists made me realize how powerful being true, transparent, and relatable in your art and your life in general can really be. Being an artist that is different is very hard in the beginning, and all of these acts above were marginalized and slept on because they were breaking new ground and people didn’t understand. However, staying true to yourself, your personality, and your values can reach and inspire a whole community to find themselves just as these artists helped me. Knowing this, I’ve made it my mission in my art and my life in general to stay true to myself and inspire people to do the same.
Header Photo Credit: Cory Hammons