News broke yesterday that Chicago rapper YP signed to Universal Republic; in light of these developments, I’m publishing an interview I did with him YP back in the fall in preparation for my piece on hip-hop for the Chicago Tribune.
Where are you from in Chicago, and did you grow up there?
I came from the East Side of Chicago. South East side. South Shore area. I grew up on Ridgeland, shit like that.
Do you remember what the first tape you ever bought was?
I had to be in like fourth grade, I bought Reasonable Doubt. That was the first CD I ever bought.
What year was this?
Had to be ’96.
Right after it came out then.
It was that year.
When was it you knew you wanted to start rapping? How old were you, when did it happen?
The first time I picked up a pen? In 2007. It kind of just was like … it was something I just tried, and people told me I was really good at. So I took that, took what they were saying and just ran with it. I felt like it was like—the more repetition you put into something, the better you’ll get at it. So I feel like the more and more I was able to get into the lab and get songs done, the more people were attracted to what I was doing.
How many releases have you had? I’ve heard two of them – Still Awake and No Sleep. Do you have other releases?
Yeah I had two releases prior to that. One was a mixtape called Next Up. I had partnered with Sean Mac and DJ Head Debiase of the Affiliates. And then one right before that, an album called Classified. I used both of those to build myself a foundation, an organic following. Wanted people to be able to follow along. Like, you just heard No Sleep and Still Awake, I hope you heard the growth between the two records?
Just trying to upgrade myself as much as possible.
Do you see yourself in competition at all with other rappers in Chicago?
As far as competition goes, I feel as though we all are competing. At the same time, I feel there’s enough to go around for each and every artist to be able to thrive. I don’t feel as though each Chicago artist rides [in] the same lane. I don’t think that we all have the same following. So we all have different organic followings that we all can attack on our own. At the same time, of course, this is a sport, we’re all competing, right?
When you first started rapping, which particular rappers– which styles did you find yourself attracted to? What artists did you find yourself drawn to?
The influence that I had wasn’t direct, it wasn’t like I experienced any one specific style and mimicked what I was doing, what happened was when I was just starting to rap, I was unconsciously just sounding like people I’ve been listening to, because I’ve been saying for so long. SO I didn’t necessarily have a certain formula to go along with, so I just kind of came into my own sound by listening to everyone who influenced me.
What were some of the names that influenced you?
I had the greats. The quote-unquote greats, that everyone else listens to, the Jay-Z’s, Nas and Biggie’s, Big Pun, the Big L’s. See my brother is like twelve years older than me, so I grew up listening to all forms of hip-hop, from the MC Ren’s all the way to the Q-Tips. So it was kind of cool to me when Q-Tip kind of cosigned me, like, “we straight,” you know? He was one of the dudes that influenced my style. Then I had people from Chicago of course, people used to always say I sounded like Bump – free my big homie – but they would say I sounded like Bump J, or…I always listened to Twista with “Adrenaline Rush,” all the Chicago players. ‘Ye. I kind of use everything that I listened to and learned, and influenced my stuff.
I didn’t hear the story about the Q-Tip cosign – how did that happen?
I actually got cosigned by Q-Tip and Raekwon. But Q-Tip heard some music of mine back in 2010, and I went out to New York to meet him. Someone had told me he was a fan of my music. So I went out to New York, that was like my first time going out there. He just told me that he rocked with my movement, and anything I really needed from him– just to make sure that I stay in touch with him. Which I still do. I use my cosign, as opposed to me just using them for a song or two, I use them as like, guidance, you know? What can I do to better my situation. They’re very helpful, in that aspect. Raekwon and Q-Tip both.
Have you talked with them about performing?
I actually just performed with Raekwon on three dates. For the Rock the Bells tour, I believe it was. I opened up Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Detroit. Every time Raekwon comes to Chicago I usually know, we make it up and we speak and I give him a CD of all my latest material and say “let me know what you think.”
Do you think that there’s a Chicago element to the way that you rap?
I think there is a Chicago element within my music. You can hear it in my language at times, like, I might say little things like “cholly” or “mellow” or “jack,” in my conversation so it’s not just strictly like a punchline, or this and that. I have people who come up to me all the time like “What down, Jack,” I had a song that was called that. So I implement my own slang into it, or whatever slang I come up from within the city, and I implement that in the city. Words like bustdown, you feel me. It’s stuff like that. It’s little stuff that I throw in as much as possible to make people know where I come from. Always listening to the Lake. Always. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life, Lake Michigan.
I was going to ask too, now that you and King Louie are getting a fair amount of attention– I was wondering if, you guys are both from the East Side, but you do have pretty distinct sounds. What would you say is the difference between you two, would you have different audiences, would you say?
Louie is the homie. I’m glad that people are giving Louie the attention that he deserves, because he’s really been grinding for a very long time. I remember when I had shorties coming up to me talking about “What that Mouth Do,” which is one of his songs that he came out with a couple years ago. I’m real glad people are catching on and following his movement. As far as our audiences, I think we’ve got some of a similar audiences, but like… I don’t think my fanbase is blocked by his fanbase at all, because I don’t think we sound the same. I think– I’ve NEVER heard anybody that sounds like Louie. Louie has his own style. I don’t think it’ll ever come a time where my fans will expect me to sound like Louie and Louie’s fans will expect him to sound like YP. I think our fans expect us to sound exactly how we’re sounding and keep growing. I think momentum for both of us is real big right now. Momentum is real huge right now for both of us.
Why do you think it is that two of the rising rappers in Chicago are from the East side?
I don’t know man! East is crazy, man. We got a lotta hitters over there, a lot of people that can rap. It’s a lot of talent throughout the entire city. It just may be the particular timing right now. And what we might be saying right now, it may just be gravitating a little more, at the time [to the east side]. I can vouch for it being a HUGE amount of talent throughout the entire city, though. South, East, North, out West, it’s crazy. I think we all will get our just-due shine real soon.
What other rappers – obviously you and Louie are big right now, LEP – are there any other rappers you think in Chicago are really killing it right now, have the potential to move up to that next level.
Yeah, definitely. I don’t know if you’re familiar with my little bro Rockie Fresh, he’s been going crazy. He just got cool with Patrick Stump from Fallout Boy. And my homie Big Homie Doe. He’s actually on the same label as King Louie, FLY Ent. I know he’s got some projects scheduled coming out. I know Bo Deal is doing real big with Chicago. He’s affiliated with Brick Squad right now, he’s moving. You got GLC, Marvo. There’s a couple, there’s a lot that’s doing what they do. And I heard Mikkey Halsted has some real big news to announce to us real soon. And the list can go on and on and on.
For a long time it seems like street rap in particular didn’t have – it seemed like Bump J was about to cross over, and then he got into the situation he’s in right now – but it seems like Chicago’s street rap hasn’t had the profile it has since the Do or Die or Twista days. What do you think it is that it seems like street rap, there’s a lot of guys coming from that perspective that are rising now. Do you think there’s a reason it wasn’t happening five years ago?
I think it’s a combination of everything, but it really all just boils down to timing. As much as everyone has grinded. Everyone that I’ve named, we’ve all taking the grass roots base to really getting out there. There hasn’t been any overnight success. There have been times, where it hasn’t been the peachiest moments, where it hasn’t been the best of moments, as far as the underground scene is concerned. I feel like it’s getting its just-due because everyone just got on their own, grinding, and starting to make people see, starting to get out into the light. And once you start to do that, you start to open up the light for others. And as long as others are doing their job, which is what they want to do as far as music is concerned, once the light gets shown on them, you have no choice but to be taken up. It’s just always about being prepared. A lot of us were very prepared for the situations that we’re in right now. I don’t know what it could have been, as far as not giving us the attention – I’ve heard stories that it’s “Chicago cats are so grimy,” “you can get your chain taken,” so the quote-unquote industry kind of shunned away from a lot of us from what I heard, due to those kinds of activities. But I mean, it all boils down to somebody’s manhood. As long as no one is disrespected then those kinds of things don’t happen. You know what I’m saying? No one comes into a situation just looking to disrespect you. If that’s the case then the person don’t belong in that situation! But I think…this music is a lot of people’s lives, there’s a lot of stuff at stake here, a lot of lives. If you get in tune to the artists, you can see they’re just trying to feed their families, just trying to get out of the situation that we’ve been in. I don’t think it’s necessarily about just disrespecting a person. Being on your [unclear] and just getting your stuff done. Being prepared if you ever get that call. I know we all trying to get them calls [laughs].
One last question. I think everybody’s kind of wrestling with this right now, no matter what level they’re at. A lot of rap music isn’t selling like it used to. My impression is that it’s not that it’s any less popular. Online, a lot of rap sites still get tons of hits, tons of listeners. People just aren’t paying for it like they used to. The exception of course was Lil Wayne… Do you see a path to success for yourself outside of sales? What do you see as a path for you?
I feel like a couple of main avenues of success for me would be live shows and merchandising. I feel like long gone are the days where talent is heard. Nowadays talent is seen and heard. Every five seconds, when someone says they seen YP, I see someone pull up their phone, and go and youtube and try to see my video, trying to see what YP is really about. We’re out of the tape era, where people walk into a place where we’re like, ooh, listen to this guy I just heard on this tape! Without pulling his other stuff up. So I think the best thing to do is get your visual game up, the way for success is, like I said earlier, those organic followings. They build. Once they build across the country and stuff like that, you’re able to tour, get your money, brand yourself, sell your t-shirts, anything of that nature. That way you’re able to succeed in it, have longevity. So many artists these days worry about the pop formula, the microwave success. It’s a way to get their song on the radio. But I feel like when you just get your song on the radio, as opposed to when you do other songs, people don’t buy into you, they buy into the song. So when the moment is over for that song, you’ve got to come up with another one. As opposed to just being yourself and just coming out with the music that you come out with, and making the people buy into you. That’s really what I’m focused on, I think that when you make them buy into you, that’s when you get the longevity. I want to tour like Hov, man. I heard Jay-Z was overseas, in the same concert with U2, with like 500, 600 thousand people out there! I want that. That’s over ten years after he dropped his first album. I want that, man.
What do you have coming up, any videos, another record?
I just dropped a video yesterday called “Rewind Time.” I’ve got another video for a song I have that’s getting a little bit of rotation right now on a couple of the stations in Chicago called “Who I Be.” It’s basically an introduction to who I am. I actually have a crazy amount of videos coming up, like five or six more. Then—as far as projects are concerned, I’ve got some things I really can’t speak to prematurely on, but I can assure my fans that it’s real dope. Really pumping Still Awake right now. I got [unclear] copies, just got back from Atlanta, think we dished out 2000 copies down there. And just making sure I get the groundwork up, it’s like Jenga. If your foundation ain’t solid, it can fall real quick.