INTERVIEW: The artist formerly known as QuESt discusses his personal journey since leaving Visionary Music Group and his new album “Far From Familiar."
At the end of 2014, QuESt left Visionary Music Group and changed his stage name to his government name: Sylvan LaCue. It was a decision that didn't come as any great surprise to his fans or anyone who listened to his breakout project Searching Sylvan, which he had released earlier that year. Authenticity has always been the main thrust of his artistic mission. Through intense introspection and tongue-twisting lyricism, LaCue is steadily burnishing a reputation as one of the most exciting storytellers in hip hop.
LaCue's most recent project Far From Familiar, released in April, tells the story of his journey from Los Angeles to his hometown Miami.
HNHH sat down with LaCue last month to discuss his artistic development since leaving Visionary and the new album, his most polished body of work to date.
When did you start rapping?
When I was 7. I rolled into Miami Gardens in 1997 when I was seven years old. I moved into a one-bedroom apartment with my mother. We didn’t have cable, all we had was The Box music channel. We would watch the same 25 music videos over and over. And The Roots “You Got Me” with Erykah Badu came on. And for some reason that song just influenced me to want to make music. I would write here and there, but I started really writing full-fledged records when I was 11.
Did you have homies to make music with?
Nah man, nobody wanted to rap back then! It was cool though. Rapping also came from a lack of confidence and what I could and couldn’t do. I was always trying to play ball, but I wasn’t the best baller. I wasn’t the fastest runner. I was a cool student, but I wasn’t the best student. So I started rapping and ran with it, and it became self-ventilation and it became a skill and an art form. Once I hit 16, 17, I just became fascinated with perfecting my craft.
You’ve released a ton of music. What was the first tape you released?
The first tape I officially released ever in life wasn’t even on the internet. It was called Rhyme For Thought, Vol. 1. and I was probably 16 years old. I pressed up like 500 CDs and I would sell them for a dollar at school. And I did Rhyme For Thought, Vol. 2 and I pressed up like 600 CDs. I was working at Outback Steakhouse. I would take all my tip money and I just bought like 600 copies and I would just sell them at school, sell them around barbershops. That’s how I met my barber, he’s my mentor, and he’s given me free haircuts ever since.
What other jobs have you had?
My first job ever was busboy at Outback Steakhouse. I was 16 years old. And then I started bussing tables at Roadhouse Grill. Once I got fired from that, I was a host at another restaurant for another 4-5 months. I became a waiter at Outback Steakhouse. Random, but I also used to general modification loaning on houses for six or seven months. After that I became a janitor, and I did that for about two years. I cleaned office spaces, I cleaned bathrooms, I cleaned gyms.
Being a janitor was the best job I ever had in my life. Nobody fucks with you, you put on your headphones, you just clean, and get the fuck out. I was in my zone at all times. I would write rhymes on my break. I had a go-kart that they gave me. It was amazing.
My last job before I took music 100% seriously was working for AT&T At Home as a sales rep. I learned that AT&T is the devil and you should never trust them. That was my last job.
You’ve lived in LA now for a few years. How do LA and Miami influence your music in different ways?
I mean, Miami is home. I don’t think I’m necessarily the quintessential product of my environment, where it’s like, “Yo, this is what Miami is about.” I don’t think that is my route. I don’t that ever will be my route. Because music for me, growing up and listening to music, I was influenced by so much, and that became a direct reflection of how I wanted to be. So even though I was surrounded by Miami, and you know, the culture, it never rubbed too much off of me. But Miami is home, so it’ll always be a part of me.
My first experiences really being in LA and being in the industry when I went by QuESt… it was eye-opening. And I’m really glad I was able to go through the experiences I went through. Which was, having an identity and a name that was flexed around a little bit off of some type of success. And I was glad I was able to catch myself in the midst of all that. Before I got a little bit too out of hand.
In terms of yourself, or in terms of your relationship to the music industry?
I think both, to be honest. I think QuEST in general was an idea that I couldn’t live up to. That I was trying to do that I just couldn’t personally. And I think for the music industry as well. I was well on my way to representing something that wasn’t 100% me. And I think that would have really hurt me in the long run. So I’m really glad I was able to learn and catch myself in the nick of time to get myself right up out of it.
In what ways do you think you would have not lived up to that character? Did it always feel like QuESt was just a portion of yourself?
Yeah, it just felt like this idea. I’m 25 years old. I’m a product of the best rapper alive era, which was every rapper wanted to be the best rapper alive. When I was 13, 14,15. Lil Wayne wanted to be the best rapper alive, Jay Z wanted to be the best rapper alive. T.I., Nas, Eminem. Everybody was gunning for this throne. And then, transition a little bit more circa Drake era. Kendrick, Cole. It became less about being the greatest and more about, “Well how do I do me as much as possible, and how do I be as authentic to myself as much as humanly possible?”
So QuESt at the time was, “Alright, you need to be a rapper. You need a rapper name. What’s a good rapper name? Oh, QuESt? Aight, no doubt, let’s roll with it.” I don’t even know how I got to QuESt. But all it was really about was being the best rapper. And I think as I began to evolve, and my craft began to evolve, slowly but surely, there was no definition of QuESt, because I was growing out of it rapidly to the point where, “Alright, you might want to just be yourself.”
What role did that play in your decision to leave Visionary? Was it political or was it a self-identity thing?
I think when I left Visionary Music Group, it was more of a feeling than anything. It was like, “Yo, this doesn’t feel right anymore.” And I think that was the start of it, start of me starting to strip away a lot of things. Because I had just dropped Searching Sylvan, and Logic was about to drop Under Pressure. And there was all this attention, it just wasn’t feeling right anymore. It was feeling very cluttered. Ironically, I felt like I had a vision outside of just what they were offering me.
In terms of music, or in terms of structure surrounding the music? Your WiseUp collective, for example.
I felt like I was getting to a point in my career where my ideas and the things that I wanted to do no longer involved Visionary Music Group. It was like, “If I want to be known for this, if I want to start WiseUp, If I want to build something for myself and have something that’s unbreakable, that’s not gonna happen here.” And I had to make a decision.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a few other reasons why I left. But when it comes to the actual core, it was, “I need to do something that’s going to better myself in the long run.”
There’s this quote from Pirates of the Caribbean. I think it was third one. I literally just saw it. This is like an epic-ass moment. I can’t remember the character, but he came up to Jack Sparrow. Jack Sparrow was like, “It’s about surviving, right? That’s what it’s all about. It’s about living. Being able to live.” And the guy said, “the trick isn’t just surviving and living, the trick is surviving and living with yourself.” That’s literally how I would sum up leaving Visionary Music Group.
Who and what is WiseUp?
WiseUp, more than anything, is an idea. I want it to be an idea, because ideas never die. And I’m interested in things that don’t die. Realistically, WiseUp is about the sharing of wisdom between people and allowing yourself to use what you learned to better yourself and your environment. And that’s what I try to promote through music, that’s what I try to promote to my fans, my coffee sit-downs with my fans where we both share wisdom. And I share the wisdom that they’ve given me on my platforms and give them a little bit more empowerment.
As far as the collective goes, it’s more in the process… Venus Amor definitely is someone I’ve been working with really closely. Linzi Jai is more a producer, and he has his own lane that he rocks.
Where are they from?
Linzi Jai’s from Boynton Beach. Same thing with Venus Amor, she’s from South Florida.
But the idea is before the collective. Like, I want to start WiseUp Kids like 5 years from now. I have a whole philosophy behind it that I want to promote.
What exactly is that philosophy?
I feel like it’s simple, sweet, short, and effective. We live in a time now where your value is measured by numbers. Everything. Followers, likes, how many retweets do you get, how many Snaps are you getting on a regular basis. So I’m thinking of kids and the next generation that’s growing up in this. They’re gonna need something that they’re gonna be able to use that is simple, short, and effective. And allows them to think outside of what’s being handed to them.
When I started WiseUp, it was a stem off of making decisions that were better for myself in the long run. And I feel that that’s what I want my message to promote to people. And to the people that listen to my music. Whether it’s wising up to being more of yourself, which is what my story has really been up until this point. Or if it’s wising up to making better decisions in your everyday life. Or its wising up to changing your life entirely. It’s just about bettering your life.
How many coffee sit downs have you done?
Maybe about 10 to 12, I’d say.
As you get bigger, how do you scale that grassroots focus and maintain a connection with your fans?
I don’t think it’ll be an issue. I think as you get bigger, your resources increase. As long as your resources build, there’s never an excuse for what you can and can’t do besides time.
What does a rapper do to better themselves as an artist? Like a basketball player will go to the gym and put up a thousand shots.
I think it’s just skill.
What is skill?
Skill is just repetition of your craft on a consistent basis.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
All the time. I get writer’s block when I’m trying to create an idea that has its boundaries. I think they key to not having writer’s block is to be like Neo. The world is your playground, go anywhere.
Do you have ways to deal with it?
Sometimes you just gotta wait it out. Far From Familiar, everything just came to a halt for a while. I think it took my friend to die for me to write “Give Me the World.” I went outside, find out he died, cried, like sobbed for like 30 minutes, came back inside the studio and started writing that last verse.
I read somewhere that you stopped partying. Is that true?
No, it’s not that I stopped. I still drink. I go out from time to time. But there was definitely a time where I was partying way too consistently. It was like a 3-month stint in LA of just partying and drinking.
You have a song about Lisa Bonet. Is she like the ideal woman?
We made a mood board for Far From Familiar, and Lisa Bonet was on the mood board.
Any connection to the girl you’re dating that you referenced on ‘EVANGELINE’?
She had a lot of qualities that Lisa Bonet represented, which was very comfortable with her sexuality, very forward with politics and what she believed in, very straightforward in her art, not afraid to argue with you and show her opinions. It was just a lot of a parallels, so I felt like I could us that spirit in Lisa Bonet to craft what this woman means to me in my life right now.
Far From Familiar has the feeling of a confessional. Has your songwriting always had the element? Do you think you’ll continue with that in the future?
I think it started with Searching Sylvan, which was my previous project. I wrote Searching Sylvan because I had a platform at that time. I’m gonna tell my story… vividly. To the point where everyone is gonna know about my life.
To be the artist that i want to be in the long run, everyone needs to know my story. They need to know where I’ve been at, they need to know where I’m going. And it kinda started with that. I was going through so much at that time. And it resonated with so many fans. I was able to grab that fan base. I felt like I owed it to them to continue that story. To not short them out.
I feel like for the next generation, I want to take what Cole, Drake, and Kendrick are doing to the next level in terms of storytelling. Which is like, I’m not just telling you what happened, it’s more like you’re literally right there with me. That’s why I do my skits, that’s why everything is in chronological order. That’s why there’s a theory to every album. That’s why at the end of every album, I give my speech.
And you’ll pick it up with the next project.
Exactly. I want my people to know about my life and me.
I do these speeches at the end of every record, I feel like I’m prophesying to myself. Like, “Yo, this is what about to happen.” Searching Sylvan was like, “Never forget where you came from, never forget where you started.”
And the whole arc of “Far From Familiar” is returning to where you started.
Exactly. I never knew that would would have happened. That’s what was going on. When I wrote the last poem on Far From Familiar, it was, “This is what about to happen. You know who you are. And you can get everything you want now. Because there’s no more trying to search or figure it out.” So it now it’s like, “At what cost? How much do you want it?” What are you willing to sacrifice?”
You’re posing that question to yourself?
Were you influenced by storytellers outside of music. Like poets, novelists, anything like that.
Movies. I was more of a movie guy. My favorite story of any movie I’ve ever seen is “Forrest Gump.” Just because of the amount of adversity that was placed upon him for his lack thereof of knowledge, and how much he accomplished. That movie always sets so much respect into me. It’s like, “Yo, here’s this guy with a 75 IQ who’s probably lived 20 lives. Effortlessly.” So I was always influenced by movies.
I think everybody just loves a great story. I think now for this generation, especially when it comes down to music, longevity is, “What is your story?”