We talk his latest EP, Spike Lee, and the future of rap
Jack Austin (JA): When did you first begin rapping?
Mallz: Oh man, I started way back when I was 10 years old, it was just for fun and making parodies of songs and stuff. I just kept doing it throughout the years. But I got really serious about it in high school and then actually decided to pursue it as a career option towards the end of college. I started recording probably when I was in middle school. I just had a boom box, and plug in headphones, and a mic set and just rapped into that, trying to make pause tapes but just really wasn’t good at it. And then in middle school I met a friend of mine named Nim. And we became really tight, and we just met because we were both friends, we were both into comic books, and liked to draw. And we both found out we rapped. So we sort of formed a rap group in high school, and he had a recording set up so all my high school tapes were recorded at my friend Nim’s house.
JA: Growing up, who did you listen to?
Mallz: I’m a little bit older and I also have an older brother who introduced me to hip hop, so my memories of hip hop go a little bit further back than a lot of other people. My earliest memories are of listening to Run DMC, Fat Boys, LL [Cool J], Public Enemy, I started to get my own taste in music around the time when I was like 7 or 8, and it was when I heard Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, and De La Soul, and later on A Tribe Called Quest. I grew up within the culture.
JA: Who do you listen to now? Who influences your music the most?
Mallz: Who I listen to now, I still listen to all the old stuff, as far as hip hop goes, all the stuff I grew up listening to. Current artists that I listen to Kendrick, Open Mike Eagle, I listen to a lot of non-hip hop stuff like Hiatus Coyote, I’m a big jazz fan, I love Coltrane and Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, kind of all over the place.
JA: What do you think the biggest differences are between this EP and earlier albums like Hustler of Culture and Subject to Change?
The big difference is that this one wasn’t all my idea, it wasn’t all my control. The new EP Radioheads started out from this producer I know named Steve Skyline who actually worked on my previous album Subject to Change. He’s been in a bunch of beat battles in the area, and he would always come in second or he would lose to the eventual winner in some of the early rounds. And so finally he won, and part of his prize was an interview on the radio show that I co-host with DJ Samps. While we were doing the interview, and during the time we were off the air just playing songs, live songs on the air, he just came up with the idea DJ Samps will make the samples, you’ll [Skyline] chop up the records and make the beat, and then I’ll rap on it. DJ Samps kind of acted as executive producer and all I did was just rap, I didn’t have to worry about the direction of it or anything. It was a team effort. Musically, I would say there is more of what I like to say flexing on it. I have one song which is about a topic and theme of me being an introvert and a loner, and being on my own but the rest of it is just fun, boastful hip hop, you know ‘I’m good’ type stuff.
JA: In the past were you more involved in production aspects?
Mallz: Not yet…. I’ve been kind of learning it but haven’t really fully committed to sitting down and getting those 10,000 hours to become proficient. I haven’t totally immersed myself. I have my toe in it [production]. It is coming.
JA: How did you like working with DJ Samps?
Mallz: He is the homie. He is a staple and huge supporter of North Carolina hip hop going back about 20 years. Like Little Brother and Justus League,, all those guys came through his radio station. He played all of their records, any up and coming artists in the area, or the state, really. He played their records. So I met up with him, it’s been a few years since I first moved out to the Triangle Area which is Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. When I first moved out here, he invited me up to the radio station, and I just kept coming. I ended up co-host [of a rap show]. We would always talk about music, we had similar tastes and attitudes towards it. He managed a group called Third Day, so he knows what he’s talking about. He was definitely somebody I trusted and why I would be a part of this project.
JA: Earlier you mentioned a lot of Radioheads is flexing. Beyond that, what are you trying to say with the EP? Is there a unifying message?
Mallz: In all of my music I do try to put in some medicine with the flashy stuff. I do try to have some stuff, if I’m bragging on the mic, I will try to have something you can take and keep with you, where you’re like “Ah man, that’s good.” So I have references of people who I admire like James Baldwin, Huey [Newton] and Malcolm X [on “Super Saiyan”]. I kind of came up in the days of Public Enemy and X Clan, and artists and groups that had the party records and they had fun, but at the same time you were getting something from it. I don’t necessarily have one specific message that I try to get out there. I just want you to take something, learn something about a reference to a person or a book, or anything you’ve never heard of. Maybe it will inspire somebody to go look it up and check it out. They might like it, they might not, but that’s giving you more than “hey, I rap good.”
JA: I noticed that line about James Baldwin and Malcom X. Could you elaborate on why they are important to you?
Mallz: Just reading their work, reading about their lives, and being a black man who grew up in the South, knowing about your history and American history and the truth about American history, I think it is very important. For me personally, I try to give a piece of me in my music and put in things that I was influenced by whether its music, literature, art, or whatever. I reference Salvador Dali, he’s my favorite artist. It’s giving a picture of me, the things I’m into. I think it’s important to have that human element in music and especially in rap. A lot of people get caught up in the material things or just the ‘I’m better than you’, and it’s okay to be human. And these are the things that make me human.
JA: Do you think coming from North Carolina affects your music at all? If so, how?
Mallz: I think so, but North Carolina is in a funny position that it is right in the middle between New York and Florida. And a lot of people from New York have family in North Carolina. I’m from the country, like I grew up in a one traffic light town. So I’m country, but there is still that connection to New York, and with my age, all the rap I listened to at a certain point was New York rap. So I have those Southern sensibilities, taking my time, and the whole Southern hospitality thing, but the fact that we are right in the middle between the Deep South and Up North, you kind of get everything. And also, I’m from Northeastern Carolina. I’m currently in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area which is kind of central, a little closer to the east, but kind of central. So I-95 is in between where I’m from and where I am now. You get this amalgamation of all these people, not to mention with all the universities in North Carolina, Duke, UNC has branches all across the state. You get people from all over, so you have grown up, from when I was a child to high school, in a small town, I was isolated. Then going to college and meeting people from all over it gives you a more rounded sensibility. That’s why I tell people who aren’t from North Carolina, that as far as music goes North Carolina doesn’t really have a sound because we are influenced by so much around us. We are close to the DC Maryland area, so we are no strangers to Go Go music. There’s part of North Carolina that really gets down with what is now the Southern Trap family. Then there’s the traditional boom-bap sound. And West Coast and Midwest and everything. We don’t have a sound you can pinpoint like ‘Ah, that’s the North Carolina sound.’ We are the sum of all of these regions.
JA: You’ve mentioned your age a couple times. How old are you?
Mallz: I’m 38. So I’m in a weird position where a lot of the up and coming rappers look at me as an OG, but my OG’s are still active so it’s kinda weird.
JA: So your album cover uses an iconic image of Radio Raheem from Do the Right Thing who is known for blasting Public Enemy throughout the film. I know you mentioned you listen to Public Enemy earlier. Why did you choose this image? Was there something that particularly resonated with you about that character?
Mallz: Well Spike Lee is one of my favorite directors, Do the Right Thing is one of my favorite movies. My middle name is Raheem, so when I first saw Do the Right Thing I just automatically connected with Radio Raheem, cause how often do you see characters with the name Raheem. The fact that he loved his music, everywhere he went he had his box playing music, and I was the same way. So it just made sense to go with Radio Raheem, and also with the passing of Bill Nunn not too long ago I felt it would be a nice tribute.
JA: How would you describe your sound overall? Do you see that changing in the future?
Mallz: So I would describe it as traditional East Coast hip hop. I’m very, I’m not necessarily punchline oriented but I like witty rap. Things that you might not think of at first, I try to be not so complex that you just don’t get it til later, but you listen and you’re like “Ah!’. I don’t like to consider myself Old School just because there are connotations with that phrase, but traditional hip hop is how I like to consider myself…..
Well yeah, I feel growth and change is inevitable. Throughout my career I like to switch up the way I rap from song to song, but I feel it… will be an evolution rather than a change, like a quick turn. In college I rapped with a lot of punchlines and a lot of similes, and I kind of moved away from that. But if you listen to me then and listen to me now you can tell how I got there. So I definitely see myself growing into something similar, but not necessarily a stark change.
JA: What are your goals for the future?
Mallz: Honestly if I could just maintain my creativity, continue to reach people, to reach more people, obviously to reach a wider audience. I’m good with that, I never wanted to be a superstar rapper that can’t go to the store, like I’m in Walgreen’s right now, and nobody is bothering me, and I like that. Even when I was a kid, I never wanted to be that guy that had to have security to go to the store. Just to be the blue collar, who has his lunch pail and his hard hat, hits the road, hits the studio, does his work, and chills. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, and on some level I’ve achieved that. That’s something I tell younger guys coming, and first off, know what you want, and if you are shows at bars and pubs that’s okay. If you want to continue to do that that’s okay too. If you want to be doing stadium shows and everything, alright, you’ve got a goal. What are you going to do to progress to that? I would like to have myself touring a little bit more, overseas, across country, right now I”m pretty much up and down the East Coast and a little in the Midwest. I would like to expand my reach. The music is out there but my physical self hasn’t gone to the West Coast yet or to Europe or Asia or anything like that. I definitely would love to have that happen.
JA: What’s the toughest part about making a living as a musician?
Mallz: It’s fighting through the noise and the clutter. Because everyone is doing it. And I have to remind myself. There are a lot of good rappers out there, why should someone listen to me? The hardest part is just making your way among all the other people doing the same thing. Cause when I started there wasn’t that many people rapping, and now every third person you bump into raps. To distinguish yourself from all the other people doing it, and now you have this thing with everyone being on the internet and things going viral. Things go viral, things that people don’t like go viral. I tell people if you want to be famous you have to be really really good or really really bad, because people will share the bad stuff. And they may not be around for a while. To rise above all that stuff is probably the hardest thing.
JA: What’s the most rewarding part about making music for you?
Mallz: Just creating something. At the base, the core of it, is just the joy of creating. I still write pen and paper, I start with a blank page. And how ever long it takes me to make a song. I record myself, I open up my program, and then boom there’s a song there. Just creating is very rewarding. Also when I perform to see the response of the people in the crowd, whether they like it or not, it’s rewarding cause it let’s me see alright, that’s one to keep, that’s a good one.
JA: How do you see rap evolving in the next 30 years? How long do you think it will remain the most popular genre?
Mallz: It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But all things do change. So I do feel like in the next 30 years it will go back to how it was where you have to be actually good. Because people move on from stuff. And I don’t know what will cause it. But it will happen. I don’t think rap will just stay the Number One genre, but I think what replaces it will be influenced by it.
JA: Anything you would like to add?
Mallz: Buy the album. That’s about it.