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Raising the Bar on Indie Hip Hop

Photography by CR Spectrum: Stacey Lovett

The first time I heard “Something in my Heart” by Michel’le, I knew making music was what I would be doing. I remember riding in the passenger seat of my aunt’s Mazda Protegé, barely able to see over the dashboard, when the song came on the radio. I was nowhere near old enough to understand what the song was about, but her voice did something to my soul; it sparked my love for rhythm. I think my aunt was amused to see me so quiet, drinking in the sounds of that song. Because when we got home, she introduced me to MTV. Together, we would watch the newest music videos from Whitney Houston, Kriss Kross and Michael Jackson, and many others. We did a lot of bonding over that TV station, until my mom came back from her deployment overseas and I moved back in with her. From there I moved all over the place, being a military brat. I was born in Coco Solo, Panama, before moving to Washington, then to Louisiana and finally to Texas. Being a military child meant always being on the move, but I was surprised to find that all of the friends I’d made along the way liked the same music I did. Popular music gave us a sense of commonality; shared experiences and emotions. I wanted to be a part of something that would move people just as I had been moved that day in my aunt’s car, so I sought out music in the only place I knew where to find it — the church choir.

I remember my very first performance. I stood on the stage of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Killeen, Texas, tugging on my overgrown choir robe and trying not to think about how dry my mouth was. Eighty faces stared at me from the congregation and I wondered if those cocked grins were more of sympathy or encouragement. None of that mattered when the piano started up and I opened my mouth. Something woke up inside me when my eight-year-old body belted out the lyrics of that old hymn.

By middle school I was old enough to appreciate the rise of the Neo-Soul era, when artists such as Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Musiq Soulchild brought the genre into the mainstream. In high school I spent a lot of time wooing my girlfriend with love songs. I also joined the school band and met my boys Derek and Tony, who introduced me to Hip Hop in its purest form. T. I., Ludacris and Busta Rhymes were hot back then. We were all on the drum line together, so we naturally gravitated toward the bassheavy, aggressively lyrical beats they were putting out. We used to make our own music in the band hall during lunch, banging beats on the desks while taking turns freestyling over them, each of us trying to out-rap the others. I developed more of a DMX type of delivery — fast, highly present and just a little gruff.

After high school, I joined the US Air Force. My first duty station was in Okinawa, Japan, where I worked with people from all over the world — some of whom are still my best friends. Being young, paid and away from home was exciting. We partied a lot, so popular music was a natural part of our lifestyle. Texas was, and still is, known for its Chopped and Screwed style of Hip Hop, made famous by Swisher House. The rhymes were simple, with a predictable cadence. Because of this, my friends often joked that you didn’t need real talent in order to be a rapper from Texas. But, since I spent a large part of my teenage years in Texas, I felt like I had to be the representative. I had to expand their perceptions of Texas rap and make them see that we have so many different styles that all contribute to the Hip Hop culture. So when we hung out in the dorms on our days off, having drinks and listening to instrumentals, I made it a point to dominate the freestyle. I think that’s mainly why my style is as versatile as it is today.

I didn’t stay in the military long. In my years of service, I wrote poetry and lyrics, while I made instrumentals in my free time. It was a form of therapy for me. A way to express my frustrations, fears, realizations and hopes as I matured into a man, especially after having gone through several deployments. I got more joy from recording my amateur songs with low budget audio equipment than going into war. I struggled with the quandary of being financially secure or being genuinely fulfilled. I didn’t want to waste my life doing something I didn’t love. So, after serving my contract, I decided to pursue a career as an audio engineer. I graduated from the Recording Conservatory of Austin in 2014 and went into a two-year internship at Matchbox Studios, where I worked with platinum-selling producer Dwight Baker, Daniel Mendez and David Butler of Missio.

I started building my own rap career at the time, but it wasn’t as easy as just recording myself and putting my music out there. Making music professionally forced me to evaluate who I was and how I wanted to portray that to the masses. I think that was particularly hard because I wanted to make rap music in a time where the genre was seemingly dominated by themes of misogyny and self-limiting ideology. Basically, all the popular songs perpetuated the idea that it was cool, even inevitable, to be a thug. But that isn’t me, and if it isn’t me, then who am I? It’s in my nature to rebel, to challenge and dismantle anything that I see as a personal attack. The prescribed identity in popular music seemed to be just that. I’m more complex than what I’m wearing, how many women I have or what kind of car I’m driving. Instead, I want to press the idea that my value is determined by my ability to love and protect those in my community, stand firm in creating my own destiny, and produce impeccable work. I probably wouldn’t have come to that conclusion so easily had it not been for old Hip Hop heads like Tupac, Nas and Lauryn Hill ringing in my ears. Those artists aren’t as glorified as they should be, in my opinion. I hope to be like them one day. I hope to bring genuine depth back to the genre.

My favorite song I’ve ever made is “Colder.” It was the first track I seriously poured myself into; it clearly expresses my innermost thoughts and emotions, and captures the vulnerability of my experience as a black man living in the wake of my country’s racially violent history. The song is also my biggest regret, having produced it at a time where I was barely stepping into my professional career. The lyrics and composition were perfect, but my skills as an audio engineer weren’t quite as developed as they are now. Though the quality of the mix is nowhere near the level of my latest album, it remains my favorite because of its raw beauty and pointed lyricism. Creating this song was a much needed therapeutic experience in a time where I felt so disempowered. I may remaster it in the near future.

“Colder” is definitely a Conscious Rap song, but honestly it’s hard to place my style of Hip Hop into one subgenre. My album, King Vibez Only, is a different thing. I guess I would categorize it as Contemporary Rap – I curse, I talk about my own personal vices and I brag about my lyrical skills – but I’d like to think I have a message behind it. I wrote those songs to convey that I’m going to make a way for myself, and I’m not letting anyone slow that down for me. There’s a definite switch in the way I expressed myself between my earliest works and King Vibez Only, but it all comes from the same place of vulnerability. First and foremost, I make music for myself, as a way to combat the insecurities that come from living in today’s society – to challenge the limitations on my identity. I have to remind myself that I can either succumb to being a thug in the hood, or I can conduct myself like a king. I choose the latter, making no excuses and aiming to be one of the best in my field. That’s the message and feeling I hope listeners take away from my music – that they can be one of the best, too. They will be the best, despite whatever challenges they face. I want to take my listeners on this journey with me – to be confident, to evolve, to know that nobody can stop them from becoming the best versions of themselves.

In 2015 I moved to Austin, Texas permanently and dove into the Hip Hop scene. On the surface, it seemed like there really was no Hip Hop being represented. You don’t really see any huge Hip Hop shows in Austin, unless it’s a major artist coming through the city on tour. But I soon realized that Hip Hop was very much alive in the city — it was just underground. Hip Hop conglomerates such as the ATX Rap Scene and College of Hip Hop Knowledge pooled their talents to record, mix, master and distribute their own music. These labels provided everything their constituents needed, including organizing showcases at the few venues that supported the genre. College of Hip Hop Knowledge provided me with the opportunity to perform at the city’s first RhymeTime! Music Festival in 2016 with Hip Hop’s legendary super group, Haiku d’etat.

My biggest supporter in my music career, beside my wife, is my drummer and co-producer, Wisüchee. We first met at The Recording Conservatory of Austin when we were both going through the Audio Engineering program. In 2017, when I had an opportunity to play Red Gorilla Music Fest, I remembered he was a percussionist. So, I asked him to play with me for the festival. In the weeks after that he kept casually mentioning that he was working on a few beats that I could use. But he was always real nonchalant about it, so I was like, “Oh, good for you. I’ll hear them sometime.” One day, after he mentioned it again for maybe the tenth time, I made it a point to listen to them. So, we met at the studio and he pulled up his files. As soon as he played the first instrumental my face hit the floor. Then he pulled up the next one, and the next one. They were all amazing — professional quality, unique and just my style. “Why didn’t you tell me you had these?” I yelled, offended that he would keep this kind of thing a secret. But then he reminded me that he had been telling me about them. I laughed at my own stupidity for a while. Later on, our live sound engineer and DJ, Derek Moorhead joined, taking our live performance to another level. Honestly, I wouldn’t be where I am without the team.

The opportunity to collaborate with OnePlus is as meaningful as it is exciting. Having a prestigious company stand behind me and my music is a public validation of the value of my art. I feel it is no coincidence that OnePlus’ slogan is “Never Settle,” which is synonymous with my own personal motto. The two of us — a smartphone company and a Hip Hop artist, seeming to operate in two completely different industries — intersect at the crossroad of authenticity and progression. I was surprised to find myself working with a smartphone company in the beginning, honestly. Through my interactions with the brand, particularly after the commercial was released, I realized that we made a good fit. After all, smartphones are just as much a unifying element in society as music is. And it’s evident that OnePlus recognizes the cultural relevance of music, having hosted an amazing festival in Mumbai. My experience at the OnePlus Music Festival was surreal, to say the least. The trip happened so quickly that I almost didn’t have enough time to get my passport renewed. On top of that, my drummer was unable to make the trip. Anyone who was at the festival that night will remember the brief technical difficulty at the beginning of my performance. That was definitely the last thing I wanted to happen. But as soon as I started my set, all of the stress of getting up to that point melted away.

I was a little surprised to see that my music was as appreciated as it was. I thought of India as a more conservative country. I even chose my long-sleeved shirt and pants, even though it was about 85 degrees outside, because I didn’t want to offend anyone. For the first few minutes I wasn’t sure of how I was doing, especially since my songs had curse words in them. When I looked into the crowd all I could see was people with their cell phones raised high in the air, recording me. It wasn’t until after I got off stage and people greeted and took pictures with me that I realized how well received I was. Later on that night I returned to my hotel. When I got out of the cab, a woman immediately recognized me from the festival. She and her children rushed up to me to ask for my autograph. I was stunned. I’d never been asked for my autograph before. Then, two days later when I was heading to the airport, my cab driver also recognized me. I opted to just take a picture with him, being as I wasn’t too confident in my autographing skills yet. The excitement in their reactions to meeting me reassured me that the music I’m making can and will connect with people all over the world. I’m glad I was able to put on a memorable performance. I believe that if I didn’t have the work ethic that I do — the consistent amount of rehearsing, planning, and execution in my performances, I wouldn’t have persevered through the trials that led to that point.

My collaboration with OnePlus provided me with a huge opportunity to gain exposure, as well as encouragement to keep making music. But most importantly, it allowed me to tell my story. My music has transformed many times since the early days in the church choir, but I’ve carried that same passion and spirit, and put it into everything that I do. I don’t know what the future holds for me and my music, but I plan on continuing to grow and evolve, both as a musician and as a person.

Our collaboration with Reggie continues in an all-new music video. In a show of unity and perseverance, we worked with Reggie to produce “Heart with Mine”, an ode to the human ability to persist through any challenge, no matter how great. It perfectly captures the spirit of Never Settle, and we hope it’ll inspire you just as much as it inspired us. We talked to Reggie about our latest collaboration.

When OnePlus pitched the idea to produce a song, I was excited to be a part of it. Brands don’t often release songs, so it was an unorthodox situation. But I knew the project would be a successful one, because the intention and message that OnePlus envisioned was so powerful. There were so many ideas that came to mind as to how we would execute the project, and the team at OnePlus was super helpful in providing feedback and input at every step of the process. I initially thought the song would be written for June to sing. When I heard her sample vocals from another song she performed, I decided to go with a more Pop-inspired sound and lyrics. The project quickly evolved to incorporate my rap and a nostalgic, heartfelt sound.

With the lyrics, I wanted to express that, as humans, we all go through our ups and downs. That’s just a part of life. But there’s power in unity. I wanted to express the idea that one person can help lift up another, and in turn, that person can help someone else. I wanted to express that if we all borrowed strength from one another, we’d be stronger together. I also wanted to acknowledge the feelings that we’re collectively having in these unprecedented times. The reality is, we’re going through a difficult time in human history. In the lyrics, “I’ve been through the struggle, that’s what made me. Came from the bottom, that’s what saved me,” I wanted to honor the fact that we’re all struggling in some way or another due to the pandemic, but embracing these trying times will lead us to become more resilient than ever. I wanted to create lyrics that were smooth, powerful and an appropriate balance of hope and realism to inspire the community to keep pushing through it together. It’s literally a “Never Settle” song.

Collaborating with a singer halfway across the world was an interesting experience. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was the time difference. When I was awake and working, it was the middle of the night for the team in China and vice versa. We had to wait for one another’s emails a lot. We also had to evolve our music-making process. Nothing is better than an old-fashioned studio session. Half the fun of producing music is the time you get to spend in the studio; brainstorming, creating, and getting to know the client and hear their stories. Being in the studio is also helpful when making corrections and refining the music. We couldn’t do that, for obvious reasons, but June made it easy, because she’s so talented. She’s definitely an experienced singer, so the parts she recorded and sent to me were well done. It was exciting to see how far technology has come in order to be able to create a song from two different hemispheres of the planet.

The challenges of 2020 have shifted my work in general. But in a lot of ways, it’s been positive. My clients have had more time to write and create, so I’ve gotten an influx of production projects which I’m able to complete at my home studio. Client sessions are easily done through Zoom and other online platforms. My family and I have also had some serious time to bond and connect in ways we hadn’t in a while, so that’s been amazing. I’ve also had plenty of time to work on my own personal project. I’m in the process of finishing up my next album, titled “Full-Time.” It’ll be released early this fall on all streaming platforms.

Of course, there are some challenges as well. All of my live performances were cancelled. I was especially looking forward to playing SXSW – one of the largest music festivals in the world – and another band I’m in, Dub Equis, was booked for a performance at the University of Texas. It was disappointing to not be able to perform. But, thinking about how many lives were saved due to the cancellations quickly quells my frustrations. Life is more important than entertainment, so I don’t mind my performances taking the backseat for a bit.

There’s been so much positive feedback since the song’s release. Frankly, I’m still amazed. I can’t believe that it actually happened. It’s a great song, and the visual is so powerful. Working on the project definitely changed me, and the video helped me understand how. We started the project off as citizens of our individual countries, but that fell away when we worked together as a community toward the same goal. At the bottom line, we’re all having this shared experience, and in that way, we’re connected. That bond, and the ability to lift one another up, is what makes us human.

This music video was co-created with our Community of users, and we want to thank all of you for standing by us. Never Settle. Watch the full video here: [LINK]

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