INTERVIEW: Rapsody discusses the state of North Carolina rap.
Hip hop was first forged in the crucible of the South Bronx, and it remains a predominantly urban art form today. Does a rapper from a rural setting conceive of hip hop in a fundamentally different way?
Rapsody grew up in Snow Hill, North Carolina a tiny town 75 miles east of Raleigh. Under the guiding hand of 9th Wonder, she has burnished her reputation as one of the most respected emcees in the South, earned a feature on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, and signed a joint deal with Roc Nation and 9th Wonder's Jamla Records. We recently sat down with Rapsody to talk about hip hop in North Carolina, a state of 10 million, and the progress of her second studio album, tentatively planned to come out later this year.
What’s Snow Hill like?
It’s the boondocks. (Laughs) The sticks. Really small country town. The population now is maybe around 2,000 people. So there are some high schools in America that are bigger than my hometown. You remember the sitcom Cheers? Everybody knows everybody, everybody knows your name. That’s how it was. Everyone knows everyone, it’s small, slow. There wasn’t a lot of different culture and art. Everything I got from musically was from TV. I didn’t go to my first hip hop show until I was in middle school and that wasn’t really a hip hop show, it was Boyz II Men and Montell Jordan.
I think it was college before I went to my first hip hop show. That’s what it was. Running outside bare-footed, man. Just a country kid.
What was your introduction into hip hop?
My introduction was probably my older cousins, riding around then and they’re listening to Illmatic or Tribe or whatever. Or we’re having like a family barbecue and all the older kids got the cars parked up, windows and doors open, doing all the dances. So that was probably my first introduction. And other than that, it was probably like Yo! MTV Raps, videos on MTV all day long. I remember when I first saw the “C.R.E.A.M.” video for the first time and “All I Need” by Mary and Method Man. So that’s what I was doing. I was either in my room, listening to CDs, or in front of a TV watching videos.
Where’d you go to college?
NC State in Raleigh.
I’m a Duke fan. But I root for our football team. (Laughs)
North Carolina has several mid-sized cities. Are there any differences between the music scene of places like Raleigh and Charlotte?
I don’t think it’s too different at all. It’s the same across the board as far as rap scenes go, whether you’re in Raleigh or Charlotte. Charlotte’s a bigger market. But I think energy-wise, it’s all the same.
One thing I wish we did more of that other cities – like what I like about Chicago is how much the artists support each other. It seems like, “yo, we’re all Chicago.” North Carolina doesn’t have that. Whether you’re in Charlotte or Raleigh. I don’t feel that. That’s one thing I’d like to see get better. It used to be some of that.
What about your connections with Phonte and 9th Wonder?
Yeah, but for the overall scene though. People don’t know, but North Carolina has so much talent. Like, crazy talent. So I’d like to see more of it come together and really be a real movement.
Other than that, what do you think is preventing North Carolina’s hip hop talent from being appropriately recognized? Is that the media not giving it enough attention?
We’re not a big metropolitan city like New York, LA, or Chicago, so we can’t go up to HotNewHipHop office. We don’t always have the platform. So a lot of time, artists feel like they have to move to get that.
Have you been in Raleigh since college?
Yeah. That’s home.
A basketball player gets better by putting up thousand of shots. How does a rapper improve their craft?
Same thing. Writing and recording everyday. Studying your craft. There are some people that don’t understand the mechanics of rapping. Inflection, breath control, cadences. So it’s not always about what you say, the most important thing is how you say it. So studying that, and practicing writing and recording it everyday, all day.
There have been many times on many songs when I’ll write a different verse five times. Like, it’s never good enough for me. But it’s the practice. Like, here’s something wrong. I might not know exactly how to fix it when I was going through the process, but as I kept not giving up, not letting myself be frustrated, you eventually learn it. That’s it. Get in there and shoot your free throws.
In sports and other areas of study, there are coaches, instructors, mentors. Has there been anybody in your life who has helped you become a better artist?
Oh, definitely. 9th Wonder. That’s the coach. That’s my Coach K. My Elohim. He’s taught me so much because he’s worked with so many people. He’s worked with Phonte, He’s worked with Phonte, He’s worked with Murs, Jean Grae, everybody, man! Who hasn’t he worked with. Everything he learns from them, he would come back and apply it and teach me. He’s very patient, so out of everybody, he’s been my biggest coach, without a doubt.
How have your goals shifted over the course of the past couple years? Do you approach your career the same way you did five years ago?
In theory, for the most part it’s the same. Every year, I’ll write down goals. Every project, I still approach it the same way. I think, though, knowing more on the music end and knowing more on the business end and still learning. And also having two great teams, I’m on Jamla and Roc Nation, it’s a partnership. Learning from those two worlds, and just seeing especially when it comes to marketing — like my focus now is upping my visibility. So just learning how that works.
If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. But how can we add to it and make it better? So that’s just been it. We’re wrapping up this sophomore album now and preparing to roll that out. What other creative ways can we present a project that’s different? How can we up the ante?
You’ve put out four EPs and mixtapes since your last album. Do you make a meaningful distinction between albums and mixtapes? Are the stakes higher on this album?
Yeah, for me. Crown was an EP, it wasn’t an album. And what makes it not an album for me is because, I didn’t try to go in and have this conceptual thing for it. We went in, and it was like, here’s the beats, make these songs, record 25 songs real quick, this is what we’re gonna keep. 9th put it in order, this is the story, bam! Versus the album, we’ve been working on two and a half years and it’s like, this is the title, how can we conceptualize it? Here are the songs, let’s play on it and make it bigger and make it into a really big story.
So that’s what differentiates it for me. It’s like a movie. The EPs are like short films. This is Paramount.