Stephen Hero thinks John Prine is dope. Such affinity for the Americana legend may come as a surprise to new listeners of the steadily rising New Brunswick alt-rapper, whose love of MF DOOM is far more apparent. But the uninitiated would understand if they’d seen Hero in his boyhood, solitarily freestyling off the literal beaten path of his Evandale hometown, near Saint John.
“It’d be funny to happen upon it now: this scrawny white kid, rapping his ass off on the ferry landing,” Hero (born David Elliot) tells Complex. He wanted to give everyone a glimpse by returning to Evandale to shoot “Forever Now,” the latest in a string of new loosie music videos he’s releasing all spring and summer (to be followed by a separate EP). Though that dock is now submerged, the video nevertheless finds Hero back on his backwoods stomping grounds, where he once loitered and daydreamed of rap stardom. His younger self would be shocked by his current nostalgia. “Even though I was an anxious boy, my God I fuckin’ loved rap,” Hero recalls of his ravenousness for a genre that rang truer than the country music favored by his jeering peers.
He also has a new appreciation for those twangy tunes, saying: “After I moved out of the country, I started to connect to country music. I rejected it as a kid, because I was so obsessed with getting away from people that didn’t think what I loved and was trying to make was ‘real music.’”
Hence Hero’s muse for an earlier song in his ongoing music video series: “Please Don’t Bury Me.” It treads similar terrain to the 1973 classic of the same name by John Prine. Unlike the country craze that Lil Nas X corralled to superstardom, Hero’s song only shares lyrical parallels with the Singing Mailman’s song. Nevertheless, country has more in common with rap than most listeners realize. A rurally raised rapper can also defy audience expectations. And there are advantages to pursuing hip-hop on the East Coast rather than trying to “make it” in Toronto. Below, Stephen Hero tells us about that and more.
Country and rap’s songwriting styles and concepts actually overlap. Like “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” by Porter Wagoner, a narrative about an untrue wife and her vengeful husband. That’s the same premise as Eminem’s “Guilty Conscious.” Country can just get away with it more easily.
When John Prine passed, I went into a deep dive. Same with DOOM. When that happens, you want to take stock of their contributions. “Please Don’t Bury Me” stuck out as funny and dark. Prine jokes in it about giving his stomach to Milwaukee when he’s dead, so they won’t run out of beer. It was fun to apply that concept to rap flexing. DOOM’s influence shows in my intricate rhyme patterns on my “Please Don’t Bury Me.” And I love [producer Brydon Crain’s] beat. I love mostly drums and just one weird sample. Simple and boom bap-y. It really lets you flex.
Some rappers sound one way in conversation, then like a completely different person on the mic. I rap about Saint John unapologetically, in the same way Cadence Weapon isn’t attempting to sound like anyone else.
It’s hard to break out into a bigger scene if you don’t have support at home. I’m almost venturing into a Drake lyric! But it’s true.
We shot in a lot of cool abandoned places up in Evandale. There used to be a roadside canteen called Ponderosa where my grandma worked. The structure is still there, and it still has this old school counter. There’s also a windmill shaped house nearby. We got some great footage.
The East Coast hip-hop scene is getting better every day. DAM Entertainment brought D12 to the Maritimes when I was in high school. But the scene wasn’t as cohesive then. There’s a really active Indigenous community here now, and a bunch of young artists making all different types of music, and being supportive.
Saint John is a weird patchwork of visual aesthetics. It’s a good place to write about. And you can actually afford to live here.