Two years ago in December, Top Dawg Entertainment CEO and namesake Anthony Tiffith tweeted a bold promise: “WE RAN 2013 WITH OUT DROPPING 1 ALBUM. I WONDER WUTS GONE HAPPEN IN 2014 WHEN I DROP 6..THEY NOT READY 4 THIS #TDE #HiiPoWeR TAKE OVER.”
2013 was a time for the Los Angeles-based label to quietly add to its impressive roster of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, signing promising talents Isaiah Rashad in March and SZA in August. For Rashad, the initial buzz from his behind-the-scenes signing to its formal announcement in September was built upon rumors that TDE had added a new rapper to the Black Hippy crew. The reveal came that fall with a Kendrick co-sign of him as a “raw talent,” and the release of “Shot You Down,” his debut TDE song that showcased his razor-sharp rhymes about conquering competition over a blissful, jazz guitar and flute-led sample. By the time Cilvia Demo hit in January 2014, the project further confirmed that Rashad was going to blow.
Since then, the 23-year-old Chattanooga, Tenn., MC has stuck to making guest appearances on records by SZA (“Warm Winds”), G.O.O.D. Music’s Benny Cassette (“Virgo Season”), and Chicago upstart Kembe X (“Caged Bird (Jager)”). While a release from a certain TDE labelmate of his might be the more anticipated one for 2015, Rashad’s also working on the Cilvia Demo follow-up. During his drive to the studio in Nashville, we caught up with him over the phone about the response to Cilvia Demo, the possibility of Q winning a Grammy for Best Rap Album this year, and why he chooses to remain unfiltered about his life in his music.
Eric Diep is a writer living in New York. Follow him @E_Diep.
Cilvia Demo just turned one in January. How did that project change things for you over the last year?
It’s cool to see kids and people younger than me—people my age and shit—expressing me bringing something different to whatever table that they are sitting at. That’s all I really wanted. It’s cool to see people relating to me or find something in my words that I didn’t even know, that they can find and inspire themselves. That’s a big thing to me.
It’s cool to see people’s responses. It’s cool to see my little brother look up to me. It’s cool to see my cousin doing this [rap] shit himself. It’s cool to see my homies go beyond what they thought they could do. That’s the coolest response to my project, where people are looking to me for advice. I see a little bit of change in the people that be around, so that’s cool to me.
Even today, people are still listening to the project and tweeting about it.
Yeah, I gotta get 'em off that shit. That’s why I’m home right now. I’m trying to get 'em on the shit I’m on now. We’ll go back to that shit in a couple years. We’ll revisit that. [Laughs.] I’m kinda on some other shit right now.
Cilvia Demo was a very personal album, where on songs like “Hereditary,” “Heavenly Father,” and “Soliloquy,” you touch on your father’s absence when you were a kid and how you didn’t like him influencing your bad habits. Have you two reconnected since the release of the EP?
I be writing on whole different periods of my life type of shit. I don’t talk to my dad sometimes. I’m 23, so I’ve been going through different changes. I’ll think certain things some days, and I’ll think of the same things the next day. So, it ain’t all the way there yet. I’m still trying to get there. I try to have a better relationship with my dad because I got a kid. But other than that, it’s like whatever. Any bad my dad did to me it got me through. You are talking to me now—that’s part of the reason.
You mentioned having a son now. How have you adjusted to raising him and chasing rap fame?
They know I am a rapper. Luckily enough for me, his moms don’t go about me as a rapper so much. My family life, too, is just to consider what I gotta do. I just try to consider what they gotta take for me doing what I gotta do. I’m like two years deep into it with TDE. This is my job. This is my hobby. This is what I like to do. And they know it. They know the life I was in before. All of this shit is to take care of my kid.
Aside from your relationship with your father, you also broached other serious topics on Cilvia Demo, like on “West Savannah,” where you talked about suicidal thoughts. Why did you want to reveal that on your first project?
It wasn’t really about suicidal thoughts though. I don’t know. I’m like a regular [guy]. Most people I talked to have thought about suicide once. So, it’s like special when you do it, like, it’s some fucked up and serious shit. But it was just something that I touched on. It wasn’t something that was like dynamic to my music. There’s way more to my music. It was more about we found something better than being helpless. Like suicide is the ultimate word to me for being done with everything. When you kill yourself, you are pretty done with everything. At least, you found a reason. That’s what “West Savannah” is about. That’s what all my music is about. It’s about fuck it and finding the reason to not say fuck it to everything.
Race wasn't a prevailing theme on Cilvia Demo, though “Ronnie Drake” had some lines about race that stood out to me: “So don’t call me a nigga, unless you call me 'my nigga'” and “Hope they don’t kill you ’cause you black today.” In the wake of Eric Garner and Mike Brown's deaths, do you find yourself writing more about race lately?
I never thought about writing about race, really. I didn’t write “Ronnie Drake” to be politically correct at that time. That’s what I saw before Trayvon Martin, before Mike Brown, before Eric Garner. The movements and the coalitions and all that stuff, you see people coming up with and start taking a more of an outward standing. That’s awesome. I love that shit. I love to see people from all generations giving a fuck about people. But where I’m from, kids die every day. That’s why I rapped about it. I don’t sell drugs. I’m the homie that sees my homies with crack that get killed or somebody getting popped. I’m not a gangsta type of shit. It’s just normal. It sucks that it is normal, but it is a normal part of my music. I wish it wasn’t—but it is. It’s not me taking a political stance or it’s not me being conscious or makes people aware of anything. It was just real to me. If I went and rapped about something else, it wouldn’t be realistic.
If I went and rapped about something else, it wouldn’t be realistic.
I bring it up because you once said you disliked the way black people are covered in the media. Do you still feel that way?
Yeah, I hate the way black people cover black people. I hate the way black people talk about black people. I hate the way white people talk about white people. I hate the way corporations talk about everybody. I really don’t give a fuck though because everybody is just a number, and you are born to be a dollar sign. Your value is just raised a little bit your whole life. In actuality, you live in a business. You live in a big ass factory, and nobody gives a fuck about you, so care about your kids and care about your family. Like, who cares about this shit? I’m gonna keep telling niggas about shit that’s going on around me. Just like fuckin’ the Beatles and all them other niggas was on LSD and all this other shit. They wrote about this shit. They write about what they’re around. When I’m not around that shit, I write about something else. You know what I’m saying? When I’m on some other shit, I write about something else. Don’t draw importance on this one subject. Take from it and learn something from it. Don’t look to me as your savior. At all.
Are you going to keep that same mentality? Being open on your next project?
I can’t be more open than I have already been. If you go to the stuff prior to Cilvia, it’s only a couple tracks, but shit, I touch on everything from abortion to living in the projects to wanting to be rich to everything. I’m more comfortable rapping, but talking about shit, I talk about anything. I talk about everything from STDs to winning the lotto.
After Cilvia Demo dropped, you went on tour with ScHoolboy Q. What did you learn from him?
Q goes on no matter what. No matter how tired he is. No matter how sick he is. I remember everybody was sick on the bus for like a week and a half. Q taught me how to turn up ’cause my music is chill. I don’t even care, but he taught me how to make some chill music be live. I feel like he showed me that it is more about the showman than the sounds behind it. He showed me how to be an entertainer. Just watching how he gets on stage and how much attention they give to talking. How much attention [the audience] gives to how he moving on stage and shit. Everybody is different. It kind of helps you find your niche a little bit.
Q’s Oxymoron is nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Album. What would that mean for hip-hop if he won? Especially after Macklemore’s win last year that caused a lot of controversy.
I don’t get into that. I don’t get into like the racial divisions that people try to have. That ain’t none of my business. I can tell people what I think about my shit. If I got snubbed up with some shit, but I don’t even know if you can say that nigga got snubbed. He had the biggest songs outta the year. Like, who cares? It’s just music. It’s an award. It’s one gold thing that a community of people you don’t give no fucks about telling you about what they give a fuck about, and they giving you an award for ’em. Like, who cares? [Laughs.] Let whoever wins win. These are people who are gonna inspire somebody.
But even if the committee giving out the Grammys knows nothing about rap, people still want to win Grammys, so it’s dope to see Q’s name on the list, right?
It’d be tight as fuck for Q to get the award. My grandma knows his songs, and that’s weird. To me, that’s weird. My mom, and my grandmas, and older women—that’s what threw me off. I don’t see no old women singing nobody’s else songs except Q’s songs and August Alsina. They be knowing his shit. The older [women] be knowing [Alsina’s] shit, they be knowing Q’s shit, they be knowing Dot’s shit. He’s bigger than just the youth. If he won, then that’d be super tight ’cause he represent a whole different side of the culture that people ain’t even touched in a couple of years.
Do you think people are going to feel a certain type of way if Q wins this year and Kendrick doesn’t?
I don’t know, man! To keep it trill? To keep it all the way trill with you, I think my nigga worried about his next project. I think he wants to make a tight project and shit. If Q don’t feel no type of way about it, why should I feel some type of way about it?