Raz Fresco is Toronto’s most studious rapper. He brings a wealth of substance to a genre that is often cited as lacking just that. With sonics hearkening back to the golden age of hip-hop, Fresco brings the same lyricism and ideals that bolstered the era’s aesthetic.
Sitting down with the 20-year-old for a few hours is just as entertaining as it is an intellectual refresher. In preparation for his latest project, Pablo Frescobar, we chatted with the rapper about working with his idols, starting a community center and what it means to be from Toronto.
How does the album differ from previous mixtapes?
Well, I always try to put out a body of music. I try to release songs as a collective. I don't just release songs for the sake of it. This album, people haven’t heard me rap with this much self-awareness. I can consciously tap into a bigger frame of reference now. I’m able to get messages across more easily.
Is there a specific message you want to get out there?
Honestly, to raise awareness. Of themselves and the world around them.
You show a lot of love for Toronto. Do you feel that’s a responsibility as a local artist?
Yes, because at the end of the day, people will hit me up and say thank you for representing the city in a different light. What makes other cities great for hip-hop, is that a plethora of artists came out with different sounds. If people express themselves genuinely, they'll be appreciated. Toronto is a new staple in hip-hop. It’s like, you know when you’re playing video games, and there is a certain portion of the map that’s locked? That’s what we’ve done now. We’ve opened up a bit of the map for people.
I feel like that’s a recent development. Toronto is finally getting recognition. What do you think it means to be a Toronto rapper today versus previously?
There’s a different energy in the city now. When I first started, I was getting more love in the states then I was up here. There isn’t a cloud of stigma anymore. They have this saying: “A prophet is never accepted in his hometown.” I feel like Toronto had that for a while. People in the city have more confidence now, because we have eyes on us.
As far as sound goes, do you feel like you have your own lane?
Of course. Everybody is unique. If everyone is doing the same thing, something's not right. I use hip-hop as my platform, to express myself. I’m molded by my own experiences, and my music is the method of getting it across.
Who’s inspired you, musically speaking?
All the OG hip-hop guys. Raekwon, Jay-Z. Curren$y taught me that I can be an independent artist and eat off of that.
Do you feel that your sound fits into the wave of 90s hip-hop?
I mean it is what it is. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by some really great shit. It’s way more inspiring to me than some of the newer stuff I hear.
I’ve spoken to artists that share a similar sound, and they’re a little more hesitant to be lumped into that category.
Everyone in school is told to cite their sources. What’s wrong with that in music? People have to give credit where credit is due. A lot of artists are influenced by 90s hip-hop. It’s not called the golden era of hip-hop for nothing. There was more knowledge in music back then. Level of consciousness and community in hip-hop was more prevalent. What’s wrong with making that same level of prevalence happen today?
Do you think we need that as a culture today?
Of course. People on this planet need it. Right now, a lot of people are living self-destructively because a lot of self-destructive shit is being pushed. People need more awareness. The foundation of hip-hop was sending a message, it was rooted in social empowerment. As a culture, hip-hop goes through phases. It’s a global culture now. I’ve heard stories about how before, if you wanted to hear hip-hop, you’d have to go to a park where people are playing it. That’s crazy to me. There’s more to this than the surface level. There’s things in this culture that are beneficial, like knowledge of self.
“ I want people to see what I’m seeing. That’s a sign of good artistry.” – raz fresco
It started with a foundation of substance.
Yes, exactly. So me, through my journey as an artist, I understand that I have a platform to reach people. I need to be conscious with what I’m saying. I study. I want to get some impactful shit across, but in a dope way. I want people to see what I’m seeing. That’s a sign of good artistry.
I feel like that’s what you did at the Drake Hotel. When I saw you hop on the stage, you immediately established a connection with the audience, and held your energy the entire set.
Yeah, that got better with practice. You have to learn how to connect with your audience. People can tell if you're not feeling yourself. If you go up to the stage and you’re not confident, especially if you’re the opener, people will check out. But if you go up there with energy, people will start feeling you. You have to transmit that you’re feeling yourself.
What’s your writing process? Do you produce first and then write down lyrics?
It depends. Sometimes I hear a sample and I know what I’m going to say. Sometimes I’ll work on a beat and tweak it two or three times before I even start writing to it. It’s like raising a child. [laughs] You have to prepare them before you let them out into the world. You have to comb their hair and make sure it’s not crispy. [laughs] It’s the same thing with my tracks.
Who are you vibing with right now? Anyone in particular that you’d like to work with?
Styles P, Curren$y...hmmm. You know who’s really dope who I just discovered a couple days ago? Tink. I saw some online freestyles she did, and she’s really ill. I was impressed. If I was a bigger artist, on the billboards, and you had asked me this question, I feel like I would say I want to collaborate with an artist and do something different, like build a community centre.
A community centre?
That’s just an idea. There are so many problems in the world. People would like to say that we’re so past some of them, turn a blind eye, but shit is still going on. You know, there’s people that don’t want us to come together. There’s people with a lot of power that want to keep everyone divided, while they are the ones eating. The change we want to see is going to come through teaching. That’s why hip-hop is such an ill culture. The children manifested this whole future, influenced the world we live in right now. I want to do that, something that will affect people. Not to knock anyone’s hustle, but I don’t want to release a liquor or some shit. I want to teach knowledge of self. We know how powerful rappers can be, but people overlook their own power to change things
That’s true, man. I feel like people overlook the changes the youth culture have made for us.
Even this here. Would we be sitting across from each other a hundred years ago? It’s proving how the youth can change things. Knowledge of self and community upliftment was the foundation of hip-hop. After a certain point in time, music got steered into a different lane. We really have the power to change things. Not everyone wakes up and wants to hate or be greedy.
“I don’t want to release a liquor or some shit. I want to teach knowledge of self. We know how powerful rappers can be, but people overlook their own power to change things” – Raz fresco
What do you think sparked this way of thinking for you? A lot of people realize down the road that they should have focused on spending their energy on positive changes. What sent you on this path so early?
In the beginning of “New Pablo,” my mom says my name. She says she got my name in a dream. My name is Rasquiz. Ras is Ethiopian for head, and is quiz is like a question. The head of questions! You know I’ve always been very inquisitive, even as a kid. I’ve always questioned certain things. When certain beliefs were pushed on me, I thought a different way. You know when I was young and people started to tell me that I could go to find this paradise, while other people had to burn, I was like, “What about the people that have to burn? That’s fucked up!” [laughs]
Did your parents have an immediate affect on you?
My uncle Earl Zero is a reggae artist from Jamaica, and the whole Rastafarian movement inspired me. My dad is also one of the wisest people I know. I feel like with those particular people, I’m very lucky. You know, not to put my dad on blast, but not too many people can smoke a blunt with your pops and talk about history and science.
If you weren’t a rapper, do you think you would be a teacher?
I feel like I can be both if I really want to. The people I want to reach, I can’t reach them in a classroom. I don’t want to be the type of person that runs around with a flashlight showing people what I want them to see. It’s like the sun. The sun doesn’t need to chase the Earth, because all it needs to do is just shine it’s own light. If I can get myself to shine, then I can reach someone in a dark room and help them out even just a little bit. All of the greatest emcees have intelligent content. They shine.
All of those artists had style and substance.
Yeah, man. All I try to do is perfect my formula and make sure I’m shining like that.
Raekwon was one of those guys and you just got to work with him. How was that experience.
You know, it’s crazy. To get recognition from someone that you admire, that’s incredible. When I met him, I made it very clear that I wanted to collaborate. He did a show when he performed Cuban Linx at the Sound Academy. I remember when I was walking around backstage, he kept calling me “88” because I reminded him of that old school vibe. We exchanged contact info and then one day he was like, “Hit me up with that beat!”.So I did, and then he sent it a few days later with a verse. When I heard it, I got so amped. I originally wanted to get Ghostface on it too, but when I kept listening to it with Raekwon, I just wanted to keep writing.
Do you still want to connect with Ghostface, then? He’s still pushing out quality projects, too.
Oh man, of course. That joint with BADBADNOTGOOD, was really dope. They’re ill too, I’d love to work with them. But potential collaborations are more motivation to keep working on my craft.
Do you get excited about making new music, or is it always just the idea of pushing it out there?
I mean it’s a bit of both. I want to see how people react to it. I want to see if people are getting the same vibe as me. There are so many cool things to do with music, I’m already thinking of new ideas to get it all out there.
With that in mind, do you retreat into your own zone to write?
Knowledge is infinite. I can get inspired from anything, anywhere. I’ll put the beats on my phone so I can listen and write wherever I am.
You’ve been ramping up to this release (Pablo Frescobar) for a while now, what’s the plan now that you’ve finally got it out?
All of my moves are to be proactive, to put the music on a bigger platform. I want to reach the biggest audience as I possibly can. You know, you have this project, you want to make sure it’s ready for the world. I feel that my music is in a position to be received positively.
Pablo Frescobar is available now on iTunes.