Join the city of Norfolk’s finest for a day full of music, art, food, good people, and most importantly…good beer.
It’s safe to say that after the past year, people are yearning to get back together and celebrate life and all of the beautiful things that come along with it. Luckily, the good folks at Smartmouth Brewery have got us covered with this Saturday’s Juneteenth Solstice Festival.
In honor and celebration of Juneteenth, Smartmouth has teamed up with local NFK brands and organizations to throw a good-ole fashioned block party. The day’s festivities will consist of a black-owned art & vendor market, food market featuring black and POC-owned restaurants, chefs, and food trucks, and a diverse range of musical acts throughout the 757. The festival will be held at the Smartmouth NFK HQ from 12 PM – 10 PM, is free, and welcome to all ages.
Listen to our specially curated Popscure playlist while you get familiar with the stacked lineup below:
Well seasoned producer Gabe Niles is a household name in the city of Norfolk. When he’s not producing earworm tracks like Shelley FKA DRAM’s “Cha Cha”–or working with his partner-in-crime for experimental outfit, Sunny & Gabe–the producer is delivering larger-than-life mixes that are bound to whisk you away.
Hot off her latest EP release, “All My Friends,” Koren Grace is more than ready to take on the masses and introduce them to her world. There’s no plane of emotion and existence the singer/songwriter can’t take you with a discography rich in colorful sounds.
Dariel Clark has a powerful, magnetic presence about him that amplifies when he cranks the amp up. Sparing no niceties, the Virginia Beach musician delivers a one-two combo through his weapons of choice—his guitar and voice.
Headed by the musical virtuoso Big Torrin himself, Big Torrin’s Fusion Groove is the sonic definition of the phrase “good vibes.” With tasteful flecks of jazz, r&b, house, hip-hop, and soul, Big Torrin’s Fusion Groove is sure to satisfy every groove nerve in your body.
Rapper/lyricist Cam Murdoch is known for his pensive, neo-soul inspired raps that focus on the ‘self’ as much as they do fictional characters. His latest single, “The Wave,” carries on this wave of introspection through an unlikely combo of soothing ukelele riffs and strong trap beats.
While fairly new, Kyere Laflare is not to be underestimated. Debut single, “How Does It Feel,” brings in a throwback r&b vibe that’s sure to remind you of simpler times.
If you go by 1pump and wear Scott Summers-esque visors, you better come with the heat and charisma. 1pump certainly doesn’t disappoint with a strong, bombastic release in Scott Summers II: The Light Within.
Known for her hypnotic but real delivery, Lex Lucent is ready to put you under a spell with a laidback flow and unique instrumentals. Her debut project, “Incase You Forgot,” solidifies the rapper as one to look out for.
Popscure’s Jasmine phoned inVirginia Beach rapper tyler donavan on a rainy, Sunday afternoon to talk about his predestined beginnings as a musician, his thoughts on Virginia’s future in music, and redefining who he is as a person and musician through his latest release, “inhale.”
“What you see is getting framed.” Tyler Wright—better known as tyler donavan—prides himself on his “open book” level of transparency. Our first conversation was scheduled for a late Friday afternoon/evening, a few hours into the start of the weekend. But a couple hours before the agreed time, tyler had asked to reschedule, citing a bad mental health day. This level of transparency shouldn’t come as a surprise to those that know, or are familiar with, tyler donavan’s work and personal testimony. Following major spinal surgery in 2018, tyler donavan has done nothing but stay true to his word. From documenting his first steps without a walker to expressing the ebb and flow of doubts that surround his psyche of who he is as an artist and a human being, tyler donavan continues to maintain that what you see is what you get—“what you see is getting framed.”
Although Georgia-born, the Virginia Beach, Virginia artist has always held that special, particular energy that is so unique to VA. Coming from a family of music, tyler donavan’s place in music always seemed like a given. His mom, an Airforce veteran, was a member of The Airmen of Note, a jazz band that would travel to different bases worldwide to perform as well as being a member of the touring group, Tops In Blue. It was there that tyler’s parents would eventually meet. But tyler didn’t delve fully into music until middle school. “In middle school, I was bullied a lot. It was like 02-03, so 8 Mile had just come out, and everybody thought they could battle, you know…typical like lunchroom, locker room stuff…” he says. “So to get into creating music, it was just out of curiosity, but it was more so like…well, I wouldn’t say curiosity…[it] [was] more of a defense thing . . . I was just kinda there, you know? I wasn’t really participating.” Despite his introverted nature, tyler got sucked in—the dormant energy was ready to erupt at the slightest hint of a trigger, and that trigger so happened to be Linkin Park.
“Linkin Park had a song called “H! Vltg3 [“High Voltage”]. It was a demo on Hybrid Theory? Or I think it was like a bonus track on Hybrid Theory, like in an international CD or something like that. But when they did Reanimations, there was a remix, and Mike’s [Shinoda] first verse…I can still quote that verse to this day. So I did that, and they were like, ‘Oooooooh!’ cause they were like…he [Mike Shinoda] was rapping like big words talking about double helixes and stuff [laughs]. I was like 11; I don’t know what a double helix is?? Like?? [laughs]” From that point on, tyler began rap battling and eventually the bullying stopped, and in its wake came the shaping of his identity.
With this newfound discovery of rap [tyler wasn’t introduced to rap until around 10 or 11 years old], he would begin crafting his art…sharpening the pen…refining the mind. Over time, the young artist would release works like debut album, Nimbus, in 2016, along with singles “ovation” and “talk” in 2017. tyler donavan [at the time tyler wrighteous] was beginning to find his identity as not only an artist but as a person. Then came 2018. As many can attest, life has a funny way of working out, and in the midst of figuring out who he was, that process was cut short…tyler donavan had to start over. Who was he? Who was the person known as tyler wrighteous? As .donavan.? As tyler donavan? As Tyler Wright?
How did you take that first step into writing and rapping?
As far as writing my own stuff, I just started with random freestyles over beats that I liked. And I was just rapping and talking shit. It was just rapper talk…just trying to sound cool in a way no one heard before. I think the first beat I ever wrote over was “Dumb It Down” by Lupe Fiasco, if I remember right…cause Lupe is my favorite rapper—ever. And so, I remember I had it on like this little MP3 player [laughs]. I went around to everybody that I knew with headphones, and I was like, ‘Listen to this! Listen to this! What do you think???’ Mix was horrible…I sounded super monotone…I wish I still had the verse, I’d send it to you. It was [big sigh]…but you know, for the people that actually listened to it and weren’t annoyed by me, um…they were like, ‘Okay, you have something…like the talent is there, but you’re not talking about anything.’
. . . The rest of high-school, I was just trying to get my pen right. I was just trying to sharpen the sword, studying, listening to a lot of Lupe…a lot of Jay-Z…a lot of [A] Tribe Called Quest…a lot of, just you know…stuff that I gravitated to. Then I got the Internet and you know, fairshare[music] and Limewire…so, you can get everything under the sun. So I just…I just kinda dove in and when I started realizing that I can actually write about myself, write about like…what I’m feeling and not just how cool I am, or how much of a better rapper I am than you . . . it was Kanye’s second album, Late Registration. That album is a masterpiece to me. It covered so many topics, and he produced damn near everything. It’s just…it’s super influential. I wouldn’t be…I don’t think I would be the writer, or the producer, or the performer that I am if not for that particular album more than any other album. And it came out right before my birthday, so it was like, ‘Okay cool. This is cool. I’m supposed to listen to this.’
For those that don’t know, you are from Stafford, VA, but moved to the 757 after college. What is so different about the 757 compared to the rest of Virginia?
I love the 757 so much…just the energy here that like…from when I first came down here for school, I just…I don’t know. Where I was from, especially on the creative side, there weren’t venues that hosted local artists. Like there was nothing. We had coffee shops…that was it. So, to be able to see venues like 37th and Zen or the Iguana (or whatever the hell they’re calling themselves now) small venues like that, to the Norva and the amphitheater [Veterans United Home Loans Ampitheater] where local artists are performing…um, I don’t know. Like Work Release and Toast…just all these different places, these in-the-wall type places where some of the best music can be heard…I love live music, that’s my thing. That’s my thing. That’s what gets me every time.
So, there was just more opportunity for that down here, not just as a performer but as a fan…to someone who just loved listening to music…some of my favorite concerts were here. I saw Mac Miller, Pac Div, and Casey Veggies at the Norva…that was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. I saw Portugal. The Man at the Norva and that was one of the best nights of my freakin’ life. Like, that night was incredible. I have a love for the Norva. I’ve put it in a song where I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever do the Norva,’ but that’s…I was supposed to do the Norva, but things happened, and I couldn’t do the show. But I don’t know…there’s just something down here. I personally don’t know if I can tailor it to a certain person that chartered that energy, but I will give credit to RBLE [Rebel-E]. [From] the RBLE team to like Gabe Niles to Artel Carter…they were a part of it in some way, shape, or form. Whether they were on the bill or Gabe’s DJ’ing…somehow, someway RBLE was a part of it. Just seeing those different opportunities . . . seeing the different genres…like, you can really be yourself here. There’s a platform for it. There’s a place for it. There’s an audience for it. People accept you for it.
To go off that, the 757…there’s so much diversity beyond people, music, all of the niches that you can think of…why do you think Virginia is not included in the conversation of other music hubs like New York, LA, Nashville? Do you have a theory behind that?
I was just talking to somebody about this. [Long pause] I have…I don’t know if it would necessarily be a theory because it’s based [on] observation…and I don’t wanna…I wanna make sure that this doesn’t sound like I’m complaining, or from a space of entitlement because that’s not it at all. But the first that make it out of here, 9 times out of 10, don’t mention us. They don’t mention what’s going on back home, or if they do, it’s in passing. Or, up until recently with you know, Pharrell doing Something In The Water—which is incredible—and now, with Pusha T starting Heir Wave Music Group—which is also incredible—but, we’ve recently had big artists come out of here. And again, they don’t owe that to us. You know? There are certain artists from here that, I guess, hold a grudge or something because the spotlight isn’t being shown on us based off of what someone else has already done. And you can see that desperation, for lack of a better word, in their work. Artists are trying really, really hard to put on for Virginia and make it like an Atlanta, or a Chicago, or…I truly believe that Virginia can be one of those mid-tier scenes. The top three scenes right now will always be LA, New York, and Atlanta. And Nashville. Those are the top four; I could be missing one. But like, a lot of regions are having incredible runs. Chicago had an incredible run from like 2010 to I’d say…well even to now! Philadelphia had a good run with artists…Florida…even like Louisville, Kentucky…Portland…Seattle…Austin. So, Virginia can be in that conversation.
And I think…[sigh] I’m trying to find the right way to word it, but I think there’s just a sense of entitlement that we expect these bigger artists to come back when they never may have said they were going to come back. When Pusha announced the record label, the first thing I saw was them hating on the first person that he signed. And it’s like, ‘Yo, what do we want?? Like is it just cause it’s not us??’ Like Pusha T may never hear my music ever in life. I’m not gonna be mad that he doesn’t pick me for his label just because I feel like I make the best music in the world and I’m from here? People don’t want to put on for Virginia like they say they do, they just want to be the face of it. And when they’re not the face of it, whoever is the face of it is a hater, or they don’t put on for home . . . And I just never subscribed to that sort of—again, for lack of a better word—victim mentality.
It’s almost like a double-edged sword, right? Like the Virginia pride of…like you said, putting on for Virginia, but then at the same time are you really putting on for Virginia?
Right. And I have that pride, and I wasn’t even born here…I was born in Georgia. I moved here when I was five, so I pretty much grew up here. And I love it here. And there’s so much history here. We always go to the Pharrell conversation—let me say The Neptunes conversation, I’m not gonna forget Chad Hugo—so, we had The Neptunes conversation and the whole Star Trak empire. We had Clipse who was rapping about nothing but drugs…and making it work! Then you have Pharrell rapping, then you have N.E.R.D., you have freakin’ Kenna, all in that…Kelis—she isn’t from here—but all in that same camp…and it was based out of Virginia. Like that was incredible. And then you have Timb [Timbaland], and you have Missy [Elliott] who were genre-bending since they kinda started. “Get Your Freak On” could come out today, and it still sounds like, ‘Oh, this sounds like this was made 10 years in the future!’ So, the history is there.
And we’ve had our second wave—for lack of better words—of you know, some of the biggest records that have come out of here. DRAM owned two summers with two records like “Cha Cha” and “Broccoli.” He owned the summer. And you know, Masego…he’s like part of this new wave where like jazz is coming back to the forefront, and I think that he played a major part in that. So it’s like…we’re here, but I think that the reason we’re not in the conversation is because we either aren’t getting the look, or we are getting the look and dropping the ball. And so, I’m grateful that artists are focusing more on being the best artist that [they] can be instead of trying to put on for something. Because if you focus on just making the best art, and multiple people are doing that at the same time—at a high level—the conversations will come.
But right now, it’s just been kinda like one after the other. One person pops from here, or six months later, somebody else pops from here…instead of creating like a real hub and working with venue owners and working with local brands and really creating the network here as opposed to everyone kinda doing their own thing. I think that’s where we can start getting into the conversation. But who knows? Unfortunately, I can’t just get everybody on the same page, at the same time…and it’s not my job to. I just wanna make the music I wanna make. I wanna connect with as many people as I can because there is a lot of fucking talent here, and it deserves the light.
So basically, we are missing that unity, collective aspect?
Yes, and that’s what makes Richmond so dope. Because Richmond has that. The Richmond hip-hop scene…there is a unity there. And that’s why you have legends like Nickelus F…Michael Millions…the Radio B. And then you have people like the Mutant Academy…Fly Anakin, who I’ve known since around 2012. We did shows together…I think we did songs together. And now he’s working with fucking Madlib, and it’s like, ‘Yoooo!’ Like there’s definitely more of a unity there. You can see it in events, and you can see it when people drop projects, they’re actually supporting and pushing it and local radio playing the records and like…there’s definitely a sense of unity. And I’d love to see that more in other regions of the state.
Since we are speaking about Virginia, I noticed you were included in the Commonwealth Sounds, “Welcome to Virginia,” playlist. How does it feel to be included amongst obviously some very big names in Virginia music?
So remember when I said that I like…when I first moved down here my first introduction was RBLE? It was RBLE and Commonwealth. Those were the first two things that I saw where I was like, ‘Okay. This is what’s cool. This is culture (even though that word is played out). This is the…these are the top dogs that are creating and making dope stuff.’ I wasn’t expecting it at all. I think…who sent it to me? Fake Uzumi…Shaded Zu! He sent that to me. He just sent me the playlist and was like, ‘YO! You’re on this!’ and I was like, ‘Bruh, stop playing with me!’ I didn’t think that anyone at Commonwealth knew who I was. I love them. I love how they present themselves. Their branding is incredible. I think the history they have is incredible. I will always love Commonwealth. So, to be included in that playlist, and to see so many people that I knew included…it was really dope cause it gave me that hope that, ‘Oh! Okay…maybe the seeds are being planted for that unity that we were talking about.’ And to have that platform…freakin’ Commonwealth! To have that platform shine a light…it’s incredible. There are different tiers where it’s like the top tier right now, for me, as far as recognition is playing Something In The Water. And then Heir Wave Music Group is right under that, and then I think Commonwealth is probably on the same level just because of their longevity. I don’t know much about streetwear brands and stuff like that, but I view Commonwealth as having almost that same respect as like a Supreme. Commonwealth is like Supreme, where it’s like high-level quality, totally respected…they just make dope shit. So the fact that they included that song [“The Lamb”] is incredible…a big honor.
I know we touched on this a little bit. Do you think there is a new movement stirring in Virginia music?
Yeah, I do, because I think people’s mentalities are starting to change. I think that people are just focusing on the art. Some of the best music in Virginia right now is coming out of Suffolk. And no one ever talks about Suffolk! There’s a group, IllDaze, that’s incre—like from music to how they present their music to visuals…they’re unbelievable. BreezePark is another great collective. And then what’s dope is that all of the members in those collectives do their own individual stuff, and they’re top-notch in that. Not just music but production…photography…like oh my God! And it’s just incredible, and they never get brought up. But they’re doing numbers! They’re doing better numbers than us by far. So it just goes back to if you just focus on the quality of the work, then that movement will come. Yeah, I think…give it about five years. If we can have just five solid years of work and connecting and building something, I think that we can be in that conversation for sure. And not just like a “flash in the pan” either. I want us to have a run. And I think that we will…I think that we will. Whether I’m a part of it or not, I think we will.
Take us back to the early days of your career. You had a couple of name changes – tyler wrighteous and .donavan. What inspired your artist name to what it is now?
I got tired of changing it, and I just wanted to use my regular name. I was originally wrighteous…just wrighteous. I got that from…honestly, from Finding Nemo. I was sitting with my friends in Stafford, and we were happily watching Finding Nemo. I think one of my friends’ nephews was actually watching, and the scene with Crush, ‘Righteous! Righteous!’ [laughs] came up, and we were laughing, and I think it was my best friend Jeff, who was jokingly like, ‘Hey, that should be your rap name.’ And then like a week later, I like sent him a song and the artist title was “wrighteous.” And then I added “tyler” to it because “wrighteous” sounded too general, and I wanted it to be a little more personal with me. And then the name “wrighteous” itself got kinda corny because I kept getting the assumption that I was like a gospel rapper…and I’m not. And that is interesting all in of itself because I have definitely gotten closer in my faith and it’s grown back…and it feels awesome now, but back then it wasn’t there, and I didn’t want to give out that assumption that it was.
So then I switched to “.donavan.” cause that was my middle name, and I share that with my father. And I wanted to honor him because he’s been fighting brain cancer for the past few years, and…I don’t know. We didn’t have the best relationship growing up just because he was always working, and he was strict…and I’m very sensitive so that usually doesn’t mix [laughs]. But the older that I got, a lot of the things that he was trying to tell me and get into my head…it made more sense the older that I got. It was kinda a two-way thing where it’s like, ‘Okay…I feel more connected to my dad now more than anything,’ and when I write I’m…I try to…I’m usually very inspirational and try to be motivational and uplifting and positive. I kinda got that from him in a way cause it was like, ‘Hey, life is gonna suck sometimes, but we gotta keep pushing. And we gotta keep moving. And we gotta keep going,’ and that energy I got from him. So, I changed my name to “.donavan.” And then I added the dots just cause I was having an identity crisis…and then people kept spelling my dag-on name wrong throughout the whole time! Like “wrighteous” they would spell wrong. “tyler wrighteous” they would spell wrong. My biggest show to date—I opened for IDK in D.C., and the guy who did the poster knows me…he did my first freakin’ album cover, and he still spelled my name wrong! And I’m just like, ‘Ughhhh! Like how can you like?’ Even now, with it being “tyler donavan,” they still spell it wrong. They spell it “dono-,” that’s how my dad spells his name…mine is “dona-.” And there is a Tyler Donovan that’s spelled “dono-,’ and he’s like a kid from Hawaii that plays like acoustic stuff—he’s not bad!
Yeah, I’ve come across him! [laughs]
Yeah, you know what I mean!? He’s not bad [laughs]. We should do a song together! Yeah, to get to “tyler donavan” and to kinda stick with it…I’m not gonna lie and say that Kendrick [Lamar] wasn’t a major inspiration in that. Where it’s like your first and middle name. It’s more of a personal thing, it’s more, ‘You’re gonna feel what I’m saying. I want you to really feel and relate to what I’m saying.’ That definitely played a factor in it, and I don’t know…I like it. I like it better. I think it’s a good representation of where I’m at. I’m not changing it again, I’m kind of stuck with it [laughs].
I like it too.
Yeah, it’s definitely my favorite out of the four different things that I’ve had.
Yeah, it’s kinda like “what you see is what you get.”
What you see is getting framed. Yeah, that’s a line that I have off of the “breathe” EP I put out last year. What you see is getting framed. I’m never gonna be here selling this image to you. I am not selling a gimmick. I am a typical…like I am your “everyday rapper.” I’m not trying to be a superstar. I’m not trying to act like a superstar. That’s just not me, and it’s never really been me. I’m just a regular guy that has feelings just like you; this is how I get them out. I’m blessed that even one person connects with it in any way…the fact that there are more than that is just a blessing on top of it. I figured why have a fancy name? I can have the name my mama gave me, and it’ll be good enough. If it’s good enough for my mama, it’s good enough for me.
You had a, and correct me if I’m wrong, debut album in 2016 titled gasping for air. Is that correct?
Um, Nimbus. gasping for air is the album I’m working on now. But yes, I had an album in 2016. It was pretty…mixing aside, it was a pretty solid album. I produced every song. It had Sunny Moonshine on it, and Masego played sax on it. Yeah, that came out four years ago.
In what ways do you think your music has evolved?
That’s a good question. I think that the biggest difference is…I would say the level of transparency. I’ve always been an “open book,” especially when it comes to writing, but if I listen to Nimbus front to back, and if I listen to the songs I have for gasping for air front to back…I think there is a level of maturity I didn’t have before. Nimbus was like high school to me, if I had to put it in a maturity standpoint…which is kinda weird since I made it when I was like 25. But it felt like high school to me, and I think that with the songs I’m working on now . . . more life has been lived. You know? There’s just been more experienced, and I’ve grown up and…I think it’s displayed—not in just the music, but in the writing and production. I’m a little more seasoned now.
When it comes to writing music, are you more of a “thinker” relying on music theory more, or are you more of a “feeler,” what feels right?
Definitely more of what feels right. I have a basic understanding of music theory, and in certain instances, it does make sense, [so] I do utilize it. But for me, it’s just what feels right. One of the biggest challenges I had initially [pause] I didn’t have a…like a sound. I didn’t have a signature sound. We talked earlier about how Kanye had the sped-up sample…Pharrell had the almost like video game [sound] like if he’s just producing by himself, it’s almost like a video game type of sound, and Chad is more super chord heavy, almost jazz-based. Everybody has a sound, and I didn’t have that. I still don’t think I do. On the flip side, it’s so freeing because now, more than ever, genres are kinda out the window. And you can do whatever you wanna make, and I’m influenced by sooo many different sounds that like [pause] I was told that I was hindering myself by not allowing it [the process of creating without a genre in mind] to happen.
I know we are focusing on the EP right now, but the main focus that I hope you hear from the album [gasping for air] and the two EPs [“inhale” and “exhale”], production wise, is like the energy of a mixtape. One of my favorite things about rap mixtapes was…people were just getting on whatever beat they liked. They didn’t care. There was no cohesion behind it; there was no structure behind it. Like, ‘I like that beat. I’m gonna rap on it. This is what I’m gonna say. Alright, let’s go.’ I love the range of that. One of my favorite mixtapes ever is [laughs] by this guy out of Canada named Colin Munroe. He had a mixtape in 2009, called “Colin Munroe – Unsung Hero.” And he had like indie-pop songs, indie rock songs on there…like cloud rap type beats on there, he [even] had a song with Drake on there. And then he had a whole song where he was just singing over a Dilla beat. I’d never heard singing like that over a Dilla beat. Like the only singing I’d ever heard over J Dilla was Erykah Badu. This may not be the best comparison, but it was like if you took the singer from Death Cab for Cutie and put them over a Dilla beat. It’s the dopest thing in the world! I love the experiment of, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to sound…people would expect you to be over this.’ At first, I was like, ‘Aw, I don’t have a signature sound,’ but now it’s like I don’t care! I wanna have songs where I’m just singing. I wanna have songs where I just rap my ass off. Because I know that I can do both at least somewhat well, enough that I enjoy. So, it’s just what feels right, and it’s always been that way. I’m really grateful for that cause when I start thinking, it feels too processed. Music is like time capsules to me. I’m not gonna force something if I don’t feel it.
You have a very unique way of vocal delivery that keeps the listener hanging on to every word you say…even what hasn’t been said. Was that always something that came naturally to you, or did you deliberately hone that skill? Or were you even aware?
That is definitely something that has always been stated. I don’t know where it came from, to be honest with you. I think it was just natural. But I do have to give credit to being in choir and doing theatre in high school, where voice inflection is really important. You can say the same sentence three different ways, and each way can have a completely different meaning depending on how you present it. I always try to keep that in mind. I listen to a lot of Outkast, where they flip their voices in different ways. That Colin Munroe mixtape I mentioned before, he used pitch bending and manipulation…Kendrick does the same thing, and Mac [Miller] did it a little bit as well. I like the idea of trying to make something that you’ve never heard before.
You’ve been very transparent about your major spinal surgery in 2018. Since then, you’ve released your mini-mixtape, “.Respiration.” and EP, “breathe.” How much of that transparency and writing has been therapeutic for you?
I mean [pause] I’ll put it this way. I went to therapy, and I wrote music…I got more out of writing music than going to therapy. I’m not saying not go to therapy. I need to go back! There are certain things that I have to talk about that I can’t do in a song. So, I need to go back to therapy, but at that particular time, I was getting more out of writing than talking to somebody for an hour. I felt more relieved, especially with..and I’m glad you brought up “.Respiration.” cause no one has talked to me about it. Those were the first things that I wrote after getting out of the surgery. Honestly, there wasn’t a lot besides the “I Got Up” remix over the Nickelus F beat. The other two songs on that project were really just me checking to make sure if like, ‘Okay, does the pen still work?’ When I saw that it did, I was like, ‘Okay. We can get back to work.’ That gave me the energy to make “breathe,” and then the whole idea of gasping for air came up, and it all lined up from there. Those remixes were really important because it allowed me to kinda shake off the rust and get back in and see where I’m at. It let me know that I didn’t fall off, and that was my biggest fear. I thought that I was going to fall off as a writer and, if anything, I got better. I’m really grateful for that project.
It’s interesting that you say that because when I listened to “.Respiration.” I noticed that there was a darker, almost rougher sound compared to “breathe.” How much of that juxtaposition reflected your feelings about 2018 and your surgery?
Hmm…dark is a good word. To be honest with you, I haven’t been the biggest fan of myself for the past five to seven years. Music was the only thing that I kinda had that I was like, ‘Okay. I’m good at this. This is something that doesn’t define me, but like…you know, it’s something that I’m good at, and it’s something that I love to do.’ And [pause] a major part of that was performing and being in front of people and being honest with myself and being honest with people. I got a lot out of that. When the surgery happened, I honestly didn’t know if I would be able to perform again. I was always going to make music. If my voice worked, I was always going to make music. But to be able to perform that music…I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do that again. So, I kinda had a chip on my shoulder…and I always rapped with a chip on my shoulder cause I always felt like the odd one out. And I still do…and that’s okay.
Writing for “.Respiration.,” compared to “breathe,” “inhale,” the next EP “exhale,” and gasping for air…all of those projects are to inspire, to encourage, to motivate, and it’s just a testimony, right? With “.Respiration.” I just wanted to rap. I just wanted to get my shit off and get rid of that chip on my shoulder to prove that, ‘Yeah…I broke my back, but don’t get it twisted for one second. I’m still nice with this. And I’ve been nice with this for a minute.’ Do I feel I get that recognition? I don’t…at least not vocally.
With the exception of Pusha T, the best rapper in Virginia, to me, is Nickelus F. Pusha T and Nickelus F are the two…and Fly Anakin. Those are the top three best rappers in Virginia, in my opinion. Pusha doesn’t know who I am, that’s cool. I’ve known Anakin for years, that’s cool. Nickelus F is my hero…like he’s one of my heroes when it comes to rap. Bar for bar, I’d put him up against anybody. After I did “.Respiration.,” I did a show in Richmond…and Anakin was actually on the bill now that I remember! And Nick was there! I didn’t expect him to be there, but he was there. And I was doing that remix to open the set. He had already heard it, and he had shown love to me before, which was crazy in itself. He walked up to me and was like, ‘Yo, I heard the remix. You killed that.’ I was like, ‘Oh. My. God.’ I was still on a walker…I was still using the walker. And I was like, ‘Yo, thank you!’ After the set and show, following when “.Respiration.” came out, [he] came up to me again and said, and I quote, ‘Yo. You can rap your ass off.’ That is all the validation that I needed. I stopped caring about trying to be the best rapper. Do I still have that ego? Of course I do! Do I still think that I’m top 10 in the state? Yes! And I’m NOT 10. And I’m NOT 9. I truly believe that when I have a pen in my hand, and I’m focused, I am one of the best rappers that this state has to offer. I truly believe that. And I will continue to believe that until the day that I die.
So, “.Respiration.,” I just had that chip on my shoulder like, ‘Don’t forget for one second…I’m gonna focus on songwriting, and I’m gonna focus on trying to evoke emotion…but don’t get it twisted for one second. I’m still really good at this.’ And the fuel I had for that was to get people to leave me alone and respect me. I wanted that respect, and I still want that respect…but it’s not as much the fuel anymore. I’m not worried about respect from rappers that I may never meet anymore. Again, one of my favorite rappers gave me props…more than once. I’m good. So, I guess the perspective changed from that. And who knows? I may do another one day. I’ll probably do another “.Respiration.” that may become a mixtape series where I’m like, ‘I wanna rap for 15 minutes. Alright, cool.
The first installment of your upcoming series, “inhale,” is coming out soon. What, if any, of the songs do you feel tested your songwriting ability, or became a song you were surprised to write?
Oh the last song for sure, “take the lead.” That was a completely different song. Like production wise, it was a completely different song before the version that you heard. You actually heard the original one cause you were at the Charlie’s show!
Yeah, you were at the Charlie’s show, and during the set there was a song where I just didn’t perform, and I just played it. That was the original version of “take the lead.” That was definitely the most challenging one because…I mean if there’s gonna be any song that I have so far, that’s been released, or that’s gonna be released, that I think could be like on radio or be mainstream…it’s that one for sure! From the structure and from the outside looking in, it kinda reminds me of “3005.” It reminds me of that sort of energy where the production feels really good, but if you really look at the lyrics, it’s talking about this heavy stuff. That whole song is about a toxic relationship that I was in. That was definitely the most challenging structure wise, and then writing because it was about something really personal.
Where does 2020’s “inhale” find you mentally compared to 2019’s “breathe?”
With “breathe,” I was living in it while I was writing and recording it. It was very in the moment like, ‘This is just where I’m at right now…a lot of shit has happened…this is where I’m at.’ But the series that I’m doing now, it’s…before it was gasping for air, I called it a testimony. And I’m just viewing the smaller EPs as chapters of that. So, it’s more of a reflection now with these projects as opposed to “breathe” where I was actually still in it. The focus behind the first chapter, “inhale,” is living in the good. That’s why the songs are kinda more chill, more laidback…except for “take the lead.” It’s more relaxed and more of a good vibe, right? And that’s kinda where the story starts. The next project will probably get a little deeper…a little darker. Then the full album will be like the full piece…the final piece of it. I like trilogies. I’m weird. My favorite number is nine…threes and nines. I rock with trilogies, they’re dope.
I feel that! I love a good concept.
Me too! And I’ll be honest with you, I was worried about doing it this way, and I was worried about this release strategy because I haven’t seen a rapper do it. But when I saw…it was originally inspired by John Mayer because he did it with…not his last album, but the album before. But more directly, what Hayley did…what Hayley Williams did!
Exactly! I think, from a business standpoint, it was freakin’ smart. Cause it’s like…Hayley Williams is probably…I would say one of the best live voices I’ve ever…one of the best voices period, that I’ve ever heard. And I think she’s…like I’m not the biggest into rock cause I’m just not there and there’s so much, but from…I’ll put it this way…before he passed, Chester Bennington was the greatest living frontman in my opinion. Obviously, we had Freddie Mercury, but like…that was living at that point, Chester was the guy. That was the voice for me. When he passed, there was this time where I just started to listening to Paramore more, and I was like, ‘Goodness gracious…this girl is like…it’s insane!’ To see her do that…I love Petals For Armor, I love that album.
Oh yeah, that album has been on repeat.
It’s so good. It’s so good, and I’m so happy for her because like…whenever an artist goes solo, it’s like, ‘Okay. It’s either gonna be really good or eh…’ and she killed it. I was really inspired by that and with how she broke it down. Like I said, I wanted it to be like a mixtape, production wise, and like an album, lyrically. I wanted to break it up because I’m still trying to reach a new audience and get new ears. If I see somebody that I haven’t heard of before or in a long time, I’m more inclined to listen to a four-track EP than a nine or twelve-track album. I focus more on making small, cohesive pieces so that if you rock with those pieces, and you come along with the story, then I know you’re gonna love the album. That would be the approach. So where “inhale” finds me now is…I’m at a point where I can look back instead of being in it. It’s a different energy, but it’s still me…I’m still in the energy of some of those songs. You know what I mean? On a spiritual level, the EP is the chapter that is focused on the flesh. The whole album, in general, is a tug of war between faith and fear. When you get tired of fighting that, and when you get tired of being in that tug of war, you just wanna live in the moment. You just wanna do whatever it is you wanna do…you wanna hangout…you wanna get fucked up…you wanna…you know what I mean? “inhale” is like a soundtrack for that basically. It starts off really chill like you’re talking with your friends or whatever. “forecast” is kinda the same way. “options,” which is more commercial sounding, is more like the pregame, turn up song, or whatever.
When I think of “options,” I picture myself in like a really nice car, windows down, got a blunt, shades on, bad chick is in shotgun, and I just feel like the coolest dude in the world driving down the oceanfront at three o’clock in the morning. And, I’m not that person. So, it’s fun to kinda step into that world and live in that for like two…two and a half minutes [laughs] before I come back to reality, and that’s what makes the transition from “options” to “take the lead” so cool. There’s a sample at the end from 500 Days of Summer cause it’s literally like that breakdown of expectations and reality. That’s really what those two songs are. I wanted to just make it an enjoyable listen for 10 minutes. I didn’t want to make anything forgettable; I wanted to set the tone of, ‘Okay, this is the first part of the story. If you like it, we’ll keep going.’
Yeah, I was gonna say…I like to listen to new music in a quiet space where no one is going to bother me. When I listened to “inhale,” I felt that story…I went through that journey. And that last song…man…
Yes! That’s what I wanted! I’m so happy that I didn’t scrap that song because I was going to. I liked the original version, but it wasn’t there yet, production wise. Compared to the other songs, it sounded bland. I had like a super, awesome guitar solo at the end that isn’t on the actual version, which I’m a little bummed about…but it’s okay. It was a last minute thing where I sent it to my friend, Nu$e [Musik], out in LA. He added some keys to it, and when he sent it back, it was like the battery was recharged. I went back, and I just changed everything with the beat. The way it transitioned from the bachata drums and stuff like…it’s my favorite part…it’s my favorite part of the whole EP.
I was gonna say, that song…that song is the one.
I appreciate that. To date, that is probably the most complete song I have. And I’m really proud of it, and I’m really grateful. I gotta thank Nu$e again because he’s one of the most talented musicians that I’ve ever met. I call it the Hey Arnold keys. He put the Hey Arnold keys on there and gave it a different energy.
I’m really excited for this to come out. It will be out next month on the ninth, correct?
That is the plan. We are shooting a lot of dope visual stuff at the end of the month, so more stuff will come out after the EP comes out. The idea with “inhale” and “exhale” is to treat them like mixtapes. I’ve always viewed mixtapes as trying to get as much local attention as you can while trying to build up that local fanbase. That’s why I’m upset with COVID, one because it’s a super health thing, but two…I was planning on hitting every open mic that I could just to try and get into other people’s faces. You know…I haven’t really been out there like that with my surgery and just with mental stuff. I’ve gone out once in a while, but I’m not really out here.
I’m just grateful that certain people in the music scene here know me and remember me and have been really supportive. There are so many ears out here that haven’t heard me, and I can’t expect people that already know I’m great, or know that I make music, to always [spread the word] about me. I have two legs. I have a voice. I can go out. The exciting part about it is that I do think this is my best project to date, so I think that it’s going to get the fans that I already have back because I know that I’ve been really inconsistent with releases. But I also believe this will be the first project that I can stand on, and I think people will actually want to share—not just because they’re my friends, or saw me at a show—but because the music is actually really good from start to finish. I think this is the first time word of mouth will really…the product will back it up. I may have fallen short of that in the past, or I didn’t fall through more than I needed to. I don’t know if I’m gonna make another full album again. I want to. I absolutely want to, but I can’t do it if I don’t live anything. This may be the only one that I do, and if it is, then I just wanna invest into it, and I want to do it however the hell I wanna do it, so I have no regrets. I’m excited. I’m nervous as hell. I really think this is gonna…it may not get me in the door, but it will definitely be a solid knock at the door…you’ll hear…and you’ll pay attention.
Popscure writer Jerome Spencer sat down with Fake Uzumi to hear how it all came to be.
The Fake Uzumi Story, like any good success story, starts with Lil Bow Wow.
“That was the coolest shit ever,” Uzumi tells me about Bow Wow, “Just seeing a kid who was rapping about kid stuff that blew up. I was like ‘man, I wish i had a Mickey Mouse chain’. So my first motivation was… yeah, probably Lil Bow Wow.”
Alright, that’s less weird when you know that Uzumi started rapping at the age of 11. Which is what got him into production. As a matter of fact, it seems like Uzumi does a lot of what he does out of necessity.
“I do a multitude of things,” he says, “I DJ, I’m an artist, I produce, I curate. Basically, I only started making beats because i wanted to rap at like 11 or 12 and I couldn’t afford beats at the time so i was like ‘hey, I’m gonna do it myself’. I started making beats and all of them were really garbage so I gave it up for a couple of years then I tried it again. I started getting really good at it so I stuck with it. I started graphic designing because I couldn’t find anyone who could make cover art for me. I kinda became like a DIY type of person. I started going to parties around here and I didnt like a lot of the DJs. There were a certain few that i liked and one of them was Gabe Niles. And he introduced me to DJing and put me on my first stage. That’s how I got started with DJing and everything. That’s the gist of it.”
So that’s the gist of it. And my job as a journalist would be so much easier if there weren’t any more to it than that. Fake Uzumi, however, didn’t come out of nowhere. Sure, we’re so used to him DJing almost every party worth attending and producing some of the most adventurous projects in Virginia that it seems like he’s always been around, but he had to start somewhere, right? And that’s where Lil Bow Wow comes in.
Now, honesty, I didn’t know about Fake Uzumi’s alter-ego, Shaded Zu, until pretty recently (“Fake Uzumi doesn’t do any talking so Shaded Zu in the mouthpiece,” he explains, “But they work simultaneously.”) and that’s because rapping took a backseat to production and DJing for a while.
“I stopped rapping because I wanted to focus more on the production side of things,” Uzumi admits, “I produced a lot for Opal. At first, I was just trying to stay in Opal’s creative energy and feed her what I could offer and then I just decided that I wanted to work with EVERYBODY. I can’t limit myself to staying with one person so I started working with as many people as I could.
“I’m just really trying to take the Neptunes strategy,” he continues, “I can make my own stuff but I really want to reach out and work with the people in the area and give them a piece of my sound. I get a lot of people out of their comfort zone and a lot of the time it works. They’re kind of timid at first, but once it drops they get that good reaction.”
When pressed about his “sound”, Uzumi is reluctant to put himself into a box or declare himself a torch-bearer of the Virginia style, though.
“I think our sound isn’t like a genre; it’s just dope shit,” he offers, “As far as me carrying on that torch, i just make what I like and what I like is influenced by what these people made 10 or 15 years ago. I’m just making stuff that feels good. It feels good to me and a lot of times it feels good to other people from Virginia because they can feel that influence, too.”
“It’s really what comes out of me and what I’m feeling at that moment. A lot of the soundscapes or choices that I’m influenced by come from my parents’ choice in music; hearing a lot of neo-soul, 80s and 70s soul and even 60s music.. When i was living with my grandma she would listen to Al Green and Marvin Gaye and I started learning more about chords. Or at least things that could make me feel a certain way; what chords could transport me to a certain place. That’s really where my inspiration comes from with that chill bounce.”
“Chill Bounce” really is an apt way to describe Fake Uzumi’s sound. He brings the Saturday night vibes without too much expectation and just kinda lets the party come to him. This is why DJing seemed like a natural progression for the producer.
“I told Gabe (Niles) I wanted to start DJing and asked him to help me,” Uzumi explains, “He was like ‘bro, bring your laptop, get on stage and do it’ and I said ‘ok, bet’. So I went up there (The Parlor on Granby) and I didn’t know how to DJ from shit. I would just play one song, abruptly stop it and go to the next song and the people really didn’t care, they just loved what I was playing.”
(I love this story because it posits that passion and drive are all you really need and fancy equipment and/or proper training are just icing on the cake. And it gets even better, but I’ll let him tell it…)
“Then I went to an afterparty at Alchemy and the guy who owned Work Release, Charles Rasputin, was playing from his Pandora. I asked if I could plug my phone in and play some stuff from Soundcloud. Everybody started having a good time and he was like “I’m opening a spot in a month and I want you to be a resident DJ”. I was like i don’t really know how to DJ and he was like ‘it doesn’t matter, you know how to get people moving’. I learned how to DJ on stage. I was using other people’s equipment and I would learn on the fly. Then I got my own equipment and kinda got a lot better.”
Isn’t that some beautiful shit? My man just wanted to DJ parties so he did and he became a resident DJ at Norfolk’s dopest spot (RIP, Work Release) on his first night. And we all know how that worked out for him; Fake Uzumi is a busy man and he’s guaranteed to rock a party every time. And when things are going well, naturally, you keep the creativity flowing. And, if you’re Uzumi, that means rapping.
“Somewhere along the way, probably around 2017 or 2018,” he says,”I got really inspired again and started recording like a madman and i’ve just been on it ever since. I stopped rapping because I wasn’t inspired, or moreso, out of fear; I didn’t know how it would translate or how I should start my songs or what my songs should even be about. Should I stick to having fun or should my songs be more conscious? Then I just thought forget all that, I’m just going to make things that I like.” The cumulative result of things that Uzumi liked came in the form of 2019’s Xtra-Large, Shaded Zu’s most ambitious offering to date.
“It was a year in the making,” Uzumi explains (or maybe Shaded Zu is talking now; I never asked), “There’s two sides to the story. One side is that I just felt like people weren’t being as collaborative as I think we could be. In Virginia we have so many talented people but I felt like everybody was out for self. I just wanted to create something really dope but include all the people that I’m really fans of that might not normally do something on this type of beat or might not perform this way. I wanted to get everybody out of their comfort zone, but we’d still meet in the middle. And the second half is that, as a kid, I always thought I would be in The 27 Club, like narcissistically. I was 27 during the making of the project so I needed to make something that, if I were to die within that year – I believe in reincarnation so wanted to make something powerful enough that my next life or next being would love it. I focused really hard on making something really great just to feed that, I guess it’s ego.”
Xtra-Large really is a collaborative effort. With at least one feature on eight of it’s ten songs, it showcases much more talent than just Uzumi’s distinct production style (that Chill Bounce, in case you forgot).
“A lot of those collaborations kinda happened by accident,” Uzumi says, “The one with Sunny (Moonshine) – I sampled her voice from a song we did back in 2013 that we never released. But I didn’t wanna put it out without her consent. So I sent it to her to get her feedback and she literally sent it back the next day with her verse on the end of it. It was perfect. I didn’t wanna ask for a verse and put her on the spot, but she just did it off top and made it perfect.”
And Xtra-Large feels as spontaneously perfect as Sunny’s bars. No offense to Fake Uzumi, though; I’m sure he had to grind meticulously on the production end to make this project feel so free and uninhibited. It’s the kind of record you can listen to over and over again and still peep something new. (“Fuck it, we about to sell-out Toast” snuck up on me.) And Uzumi’s passionate work ethic will definitely keep you checking for what’s next.
“I’m not dropping another full length album until 2021, but I got a couple of tricks up my sleeve for the rest of this year,” Uzumi tells me, “I got a couple of songs coming out, I got some videos in the works, I got a compilation coming out soon. It’s gonna be me and two of my buddies, SplashOfGold and Whogotdadutch. We’ve been working together for a long time. They were on my last project and we’re doing a project that’s coming out really soon with all three of us. I produced all the songs on that too. I got a lot of stuff coming out, it’s just the rollout that I’m focusing on.”
Well, if you can’t wait, I’ve got good news for you; Fake Uzumi’s collaboration with SplashOfGold and Whogotdadutch, PhoneCalls, drops on all streaming platforms on February 18th and there’s a listening party at Utopia Feni on February 16th. If you haven’t already been put onto Fake Uzumi by now, this is as good a time as any.
Oh yeah, about that name:
“Fake wasn’t necessarily supposed to be a part of it,” he explains, “It was a joke on Twitter; like how people put “real” in their name. I’m thinking it would be funny because nobody’s trying to have a fake page of you. So I just put Fake Uzumi.”
So when my man gets that blue checkmark, he’s gonna be The Real Fake Uzumi.
We’re honored Gabe Niles took some time out of his busy schedule to grace us with this funk house mix. He’s always between VA and LA, either working with Sunny and Gabe or some of your favorite artists. He helped hometown hero D.R.A.M. hit it big and now perfecting beats for Eryka Badu and others alongside legendary hip-hop producer Rick Rubin. Enjoy this nice, long, danceable hour and a half narrated by DJ Sup Ladies himself.