Unlike just about any other region, Bay Area hip hop is better known for its signature sound — melodic big booty bass and minimalist drums — than for the artists it produces. Kamaiyah is an exception; the exuberant 21-year-old Oakland native has emerged as one of hip hop’s most exciting breakout stars of 2016. The exuberant 21-year-old Oakland native has parlayed her acclaimed debut mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto into a deal with Interscope and an appearance on YG’s single “Why You Always Hatin” as well as Travis Scott’s upcoming album.
Kamaiyah recently spoke to HNHH on the phone from her new place in Los Angeles (she splits time between Oakland and LA) to discuss her heavy ‘90s influence, love of Mario Kart, and rapid rise to prominence.
What was your household like growing up? Who were your early inspirations musically?
I grew up in Oakland, staying with my mom. Most of my music is inspired by old female hip hop pioneers like Missy, Aaliyah, TLC, stuff like that. Anyone who’s on top when it comes to talking about their sexuality, they own it. Those were the people I looked up to.
What were you like as a kid?
I was full of energy just everywhere. Tryna find myself. Having fun, doing my own thing. An episode of Rugrats would describe me to a T as a child.
What was the first song you ever recorded?
The first song I ever recorded was called “Shine.” I was probably 11.
Do you still bang it in the whip?
Not really, I don’t have a copy of it. I know my grandmother does because one day I was over there and I found a copy. I was like, “Why do you still have this?” (Laughs)
You recorded it at your house?
I recorded it in a real studio.
What was your studio connection?
What happened was, I was rapping at the Boys & Girls Club by my house, and this guy who worked at the Boys & Girls Club had a studio. He liked what he saw, and he was like “Yo, I think you should come by, blah, blah, blah” – with my grandmother’s blessing, he eventually let me come through, and I recorded it.
You were a part of an organization called Youth Uprising.
Y.U. was a center that had studios. I utilized it until I felt like I outgrew it essentially. And then I started recording at other places. But it was a cool place at the time when I first started.
Your music has a distinctive ‘90s DJ Quik-type retro vibe. Why does the ‘90s appeal to you?
Because it’s when I grew up. It’s a major influence on my craft simply because the colors, the aesthetic, the fun during that time, just everything. Maybe it’s gotta do with things I had in a past life. I dunno. (Laughs) Why am I so drawn to this? I don’t know. It’s not forced, it’s organic.
Bay Area rap is very provincial. It’s a strong scene, but Bay artists don’t often get much recognition outside of that region. Why do you think that is? How have you been able to buck that trend?
Because people from the Bay only make music for other people from the Bay. The way I’ve done it, it’s a mix for everybody, not just one individual crowd. That’s why I’m getting national attention versus immediate attention from a local area. I speak to thousands of different situations. If you take that [Bay Area] sound, and put a different message on it to where it correlates to everyone in every region, you can become an impacter. And I think that I’ve been able to do that. God willing.
Female rappers are a minority in hip hop. Has been a woman in the hip hop industry been a challenge?
I don’t feel like it’s a challenge. I feel like the biggest thing about it is the criticism because I’m not overly sexualized. That’s the biggest problem with me in hip hop, because people will scold me for being a lesbian or whatever the thing may be just because of my look – it isn’t the typical sexualized look that they’ve pegged on female hip hop now. I’m one individual who doesn’t fit the norm of female hip hop standards. It’s not like it’s the ‘90s when you had Queen Latifah and so forth. You’ve now only got this one thing, so anything opposite of that is weird. That’s the only thing that kind of gets on my nerves. Why do I gotta be that just ‘cause I’m like this?
I’m confident in myself, so it doesn’t affect me too much. Remember, Nicki’s been here for almost ten something years. People who are young and listening – at this point, they’re like, “This is what female hip hop is supposed to look like. This what female hip hop is supposed to sound like.” So they see this new individual, and it rubs people the wrong way. I don’t give a fuck. I’m raw, I’m tight. I’m not gonna stop being me just because you feel like I should be something else. Nah, I feel comfortable so I’m gonna stay like this.
You’re sipping champagne and playing N64 in the “How Does It Feel” video. Is that an accurate representation of your lifestyle?
Yeah, I actually own an N64. That’s mine that I’m playing. We still play it to this day. Friends come over, we sit in the living room and play Mario Kart or whatever game it might be. And saddle it out until somebody feel like they don’t wanna play no more, or somebody mad that they keep losing. That’s a pretty accurate depiction of my life. That’s what we do over here. We have fun.
Who’s your favorite Mario Kart character?
Peach! She’s fast.
Peach or Yoshi.
YG is the biggest feature on your tape and you appeared on his single. How did you guys connect?
We got the same management. When he first heard about me, he liked me, believed in me, rocked with me, and he ended up being on the tape.
You’re probably meeting a lot of people these days. Who’s been the most exciting person you’ve been able to meet so far?
I haven’t had that experience yet because most of the people are just my co-workers. I just look at them like, “This my guy”, so I don’t tend to get star struck. Most times I just walk right by people like they regular individuals because people expect you to fan out. People expect you to be a certain kind of way because of their stature. They let their egos make them who they are. I don’t do that. I’m gonna treat you like you a regular person. If you speak to me, I speak to you. You never wanna come off as thirsty. That’s my whole thing.
Word on the street is that you had to check the HotNewHipHop comments to know you were truly poppin’.
Oh yeah. You guys have one of the toughest crowds to appeal to.
They can be brutal.
I don’t really read comments, people tell you not to. One of my friends was like “Kamaiyah on HNHH, oh my god, just look.” I’m like, “Yo if they do not fucks, then I suck.” (Laughs) So when I saw that it was positive and it was cool, I was like “Yo, I’m on to something.” I feel like I made it. Normally that shit like the worst crowd.
You know, it’s crazy, because I wasn’t really into social media, magazines, and things of that nature before I was poppin’. I didn’t know about Pigeons and Planes and what all these things were before I was getting posted on there. I remember the first time I was on Pitchfork, my manager was like “Yo, you know you’re on Pitchfork?” And I was like “What the fuck is that?” This stuff is all new to me. Everything is a new experience. Everyday I learn something new.
I feel like that’s an advantage for you. You’re just about the music, and that’s a good way to be. You’re a purist.
Out here living life.
What are your goals for the rest of the year?