It just didn’t feel right to call this one an interview after rapper Wafeek and I wrapped up our nearly 2 hour talk. Hailing from St. Louis and residing in California, Wafeek is a thoughtful, energetic rapper who’s as comfortable with being a wordsmith as an auto-tune aided crooner. As long as it’s organic and represents who he is, Wafeek is down with it. His first official release Monster dropped this month. It’s certainly worth the $4 on iTunes. Wafeek also has a number of dope, free mixtapes readily available for download. All highly recommended. Keep an eye on this guy.
You Must Learn: Yo Wafeek.
Wafeek: What’s good homie?
YML: A lot of things to discuss, but I guess to get it started a little bit of biographical info–you currently reside in Cali but you’re originally from St. Louis. How’d the move come about?
Wafeek: It was always either LA or New York for me. When things in the local scene (St. Louis) got a little heated…a friend/fellow artist was shot and killed by the police…I was getting death threats and what have you… like some rated R Fresh Prince of Bel Air shit. So I have an uncle that lives in south central…I moved here, crashed on his couch for a few. Went to school in Hollywood (Musician’s Institute).
YML: How long ago was that?
Wafeek: ‘Bout 5 years ago.
YML: Was your early material heavily influenced by your surroundings in St. Louis?
Wafeek: Not really. I was always drawn to New York artists. They used to hate on that type of shit in St. Louis when I was coming up. It’s all revisionist history now, with the Timberland boots and dread locks, but when I was coming up you’d get picked on for even mentioning Jay-Z. I was a Biggie, Jay, and Nas stan something serious. I even talked in a horrible NY accent throughout high school. Weirdo.
YML: We used to hate on Nelly hard in NY.
Wafeek: Nelly? Man I’ve come to respect Nelly for his originality and what he did for St. Louis artists simply by way of his individual success. But back in the day I hated that guy. Wow. Something serious.
YML: Yeah, I’ve definitely mellowed out on my opinion of Nelly, but back when he dropped we thought he was so corny. I think, in retrospect his sound was definitely interesting. At least compared to what’s big now.
Wafeek: Touche…comparing anything to Ke$ha and her counterparts will make just about anything look good.
YML: Pretty much.
Wafeek: Although I’d still do a song with her. “For the right price…I can even make your shit tighter.”
YML: Hearing that [“Ghostwriter” by Skillz] live is the best. I’ve still yet to find an unedited version online…of “Ghostwriter,” that is, not Ke$ha.
Wafeek: I was about to ask…like…you saw Ke$ha live? Is she as dreamy in person as she seems in her video?
YML: Haven’t had the pleasure.
Wafeek: What’s funny is the “hater” mentality has all but crippled artists’ ability to be objective. Everything boils down to being “supportive” of someone else’s “dream” and not being a “hater.”
YML: Well that’s actually something I was interested in asking you about, particularly because you blog a bit yourself.
YML: I know that I have a difficult time between trying to be an artist and simultaneously trying to push things forward with thoughtful criticism. Do you try to express yourself solely through your music or are you willing to step beyond and share opinions via other forums? And why do you think people have become so damn sensitive about criticism, to take it out to a larger level?
Wafeek: I’m definitely more than willing and dare I say ambitiously anticipating expressing my view points in multiple forums.
[There was a brief break in the conversation, resulting in this exchange]
Wafeek: Just formulating my thoughts and scheduling tomorrow’s meetings/studio sessions simultaneously, sorry.
YML: Nah, no worries man. If you weren’t multitasking I’d be amazed. This is 2010.
Wafeek: Seriously. That’s actually an accurate point towards your question. Multitasking. You have to be capable of expression in many a medium to reach the market these days. Song, video, live show, interview, blog, video blog, the list goes on. And you better be damned good at a few of them, if not all. Song is probably dead last. It’s important that the song fit the rest of the image/brand, more so than the song be something seriously dope. Not to get super long winded about your question, but I’m also a bit frustrated by people’s listening comprehension. It makes the artform feel limited in terms of what it can truly communicate to a given audience. Example: this new shit? Our EP called Monster? On the surface it sounds like your stereotypical dance-pop-rap record, but it’s so satirical. I think it gives Stephen Colbert a run for his money. Do you know there are republicans who think Stephen is truly serious about his angle? They really believe those are his views. The project is called Monster. I’m killing a pretty white girl on the back cover and the damn songs are literally social commentary on the “monster” created by cross genre, money obsessed, sex crazed folks that we all have to appeal to in order to make any headway in this industry. Unless you’re lucky enough to garner some “independent” fame, but the reality is that underground is far more bullshit driven than the mainstream. I name as many shit “indie” artists as I can mainstream counterparts.
YML: Well, a bit of a tangent, but that seems to be the thing people forget. As much as we’d like to imagine a golden age of indie in the 90s, there was plenty of shit to go around on both scenes. There always is.
YML: It’s always a game of some sort.
Wafeek: I mean the sound quality of much of the music in the 80s? The pop music? We’re lucky things are produced the way they are now.
Wafeek: The average shitty song on the radio has far more quality than 20 years ago, but that’s not what people want to believe, not what they need to believe. How did George Carlin say it: their stuff is shit, but your shit is stuff?
YML: Sounds about right.
Wafeek: I think that’s why I’m moving more towards pop music. There’s a certain kind of honesty to it. Most of these “thoughtful” rappers are just hustlers. It’s really dishonest, just another angle. That and I started making music because of Michael Jackson, not Rakim.
YML: But at the same time, you manage to pull out something like “Cocain’s So Overrated,” which touches on a lot of the subjects and images seen in pop rap but with your own biting style.
Wafeek: Gracias, can’t help but be yourself. The point isn’t to alter my personality to fit a mold, rather to allow my personality to shine through, regardless of how much I want to be seen as a “serious” artist, emcee, etc. I’ve seen how that fan base we developed online responded to our releases post The Aristocrats, the moment I moved away from just rap rappity rap rap—which wasn’t all that was on The Aristocrats, but it was definitely more “Hip Hop” driven than, say, Feekee and the Flux Capacitor or Letters from Coachella, the mixtape with “Cocaine” on it.
YML: I think Flux Capacitor and Coachella also were nice takes on the direction that Hip Hop-influenced music seems to be going in, with more melodic elements. The question that I’ve heard debated since Kanye dropped 808’s: is this stuff still Hip Hop? To which I add: does it even really matter?
Wafeek: That’s what I mean. Can I ask you a bit of a personal question? It’s somewhat related in my opinion, let’s say it’s attached to a theory of mine.
Wafeek: What race are you?
Wafeek: I’ve noticed—although not exclusively—a divide between what white folks will be open to as opposed to black folks. The fact that you listened to Flux and Letters gave me the immediate indication that you were white. Is that fair to the black folks I know who loved both projects? Probably not. But I got a way better response from my black fanbase when I was talking shit and sticking to it. When we entered the idea of expressing my emotions about love, or dealing with addiction, sampling Crystal Castles, experimenting with sounds, vocals, etc. When I was a kid, if you told a white kid something was wack (in relation to Hip Hop) it was almost golden. Now I truly believe this generation of white kids could care less what the hood is listening to, while the hood is still convinced that it’s the tastemaker when it’s not.
YML: See I think a lot of white kids like to believe what they love is what’s hot in the hood. Either that or they just think liking Gucci Mane is ironic.
Wafeek: A bit of both, perhaps?
YML: Perhaps. But of course we then get to the internet, which continues to change the nature of tastemaking from week to week. Raises the question: can any actual community still influence listening habits? And when I say actual community I’m not talking the Okayplayer message boards.
Wafeek: I believe so, but again it takes a bit of both. Look at the Obama campaign. If I could emulate anyone or anything, it would be their ability to make mirror images of grassroots and netroots promotion. If the community is both an actual area, city, small town etc. and an Okayplayer message board then yeah, but mutually exclusive either one doesn’t hold much water. Then you get folks getting together in real life, in real time, talking about the same artist and spreading that artist’s name online. I think that’s why I’ve struggled so…because I don’t have a community. Not on the ground at least. I’ve never been fully embraced as a “St. Louis” artist. And I’m sho’ not a Cali native. So there isn’t really a specific backbone of support…I’m kinda in limbo.
YML: Do you think the live show is as important from the standpoint of gaining fans as it was 10 years ago? Do you think the internet has damaged the impact of the live experience at all? And in your experience, how has your live act been received?
Wafeek: I think the live show is more important than ever, however, its successful execution has changed. Again. You can’t just get up there with a mic and a DJ and expect the same response as a new artist, unless that’s your gimmick or you’re already established. It’s the age of GaGa and if you wanna get noticed you better do something worth noting. But I love to perform. I was born on stage. My style was developed to maximize recording and live performance. So it’s definitely a key component to becoming a fan of mine. Even folks who are familiar with my records but haven’t seen a show always come away in awe. Real talk. One of those rappers you say: “damn I could understand every word he said.” Where punchlines in the song illicit real response. Songs you may have thought were aight on wax become your favorites. Sorry to toot my own horn, but I’ve realized I can’t down play something that’s truly a strength and expect people to figure it out for themselves. Humility is best served in small, yet consistent, doses.
YML: No apologies, self-promotion is a must.
YML: On the idea of live performance and differentiating yourself, you have one line that I really loved from “Lost”: “If I get to live forever that’s fair–fuck it, I’d rather be a legend instead.” Calls a lot of things to mind, but my main question: do you think it’s possible to become a legend in this age when communities and tastes are so fragmented?
Wafeek: That’s what makes it so appealing. Even more so. The difficulty of the thing. I think that line is perfect because in order to do it you probably have to be dead. We may be entering the phase where artists are like painters before them. You’ll record lots of material as a relative unknown. Only to die broke and be discovered by some later generation looking for something different. In all seriousness, you’re probably right. Things are so split, but I think that could be an asset. Eventually, people want to be brought together, not so much like Obama brought them together, more like get drunk, get fucked, have fun brought together. But in the end we’re social creatures. With the right opportunity I believe I can be that guy, it just takes the right blend of influences, musical style, and money.
YML: Do you think Monster is the most unifying work in your catalogue? What’s the response been like so far? And given that it is so heavily satirical, do you think that it could be that break through work that pushes you over the top?
Wafeek: I believe it depends on me. If I’m willing to do the things necessary to get the project on the radio, in the club, to the masses, then it definitely has the potential to be the record that delivers that big break. It needs success for the black folks to fully buy into it. So far, it’s been more successful amongst the white college crowd than it has in the black community. It’s just unapologetically me and unapologetically pop rap, that combination has yet to be seen. I think that scares folks into pushing it away. There isn’t of a killer, I’mma fuck yo bitch, self-destructing attitude to carry it as your average mainstream rap record. At the risk of sounding like an ass, it’s honestly the record I think Eminem should be making right now. He’s so technically gifted it gets in the way of making music that would really blow him up all the fuck over again. Because you have this huge audience of mainly white folks who dominate the buying public, looking for a rapper to root for, but either the image doesn’t stand well enough to deliver on a lousy album—Gucci Mane—or the artist is just so busy doing them they can’t see or hear what the people want. I think the last one fits a lot of mo’fuckers. But then again I’m kind of crazy.
YML: If you could have white college kids buy your records and be guaranteed success, would it matter whether or not you got love in the hood? Would you prefer hood love accompanied by lesser monetary success? Is this a stupid question?
Wafeek: Not at all. I think this record is that answer to that question. It wouldn’t matter one bit. I wouldn’t prefer hood love accompanied by lesser success. I’m just analytical to a fault, which is why I said this record’s success depends on my attitude. If I maintain my current momentum, nothing will stop me. But if I allow myself to be bogged down by this record’s shortcoming—because besides Illmatic most records have shortcomings—or even my own shortcomings as an artist then I’m dead in the water. What I wonder is will white America allow themselves to be truly enamored by a black artist? One that doesn’t necessarily reinforce the stigmas almost deemed necessary in order to be successful.
YML: I want to wrap things up with a big of a tangential question.
YML: On “The Hollows,” you not only reference Chris Benoit, but also the Rock Bottom. So I gotta ask: Favorite wrestler of the 90s/early 2000s?
Wafeek: Stone Cold Steve Austin. Without a doubt.
YML: You made my day.
Wafeek: Probably the only person I would be completely and totally star struck if I met him.
YML: I think I had 10 Ston Cold shirts when I was younger. Maybe we can get Stone Cold to do an interlude on a Wafeek record?
Wafeek: Yes! That would be classic. When he came back as a heel? And he would do that “what” shit? So fucking amazing.
YML: Oh man, that was the best. I don’t know if any moment can top the time he drove the beer truck to the ring.
Wafeek: Miss that guy. I would actually consider watching wrestling again if he was back on.
YML: They don’t write characters like they used to. If someone told me they were putting Undertaker, Stone Cold, Manking, and the Rock in a Hell in a Cell match, I’d pay the $49.99.
Wafeek: Serious. Dude it has been a real pleasure. I’ve got to get back to organizing the coming week.
YML: It’s been a pleasure for sure. Thanks for sitting down with me for such a long time, it’s been great.
Wafeek: Gave me plenty to think about. Take it easy!