Growing Into His Own Sound: Meet Teenage Houston Rapper Aaron May

Aaron May is a young rapper with undeniable talent and a mature outlook. His debut mixtape 'Chase' is out now.

aaron may

Photo by Louis Browne

aaron may

Aaron May is a product of an environment that cultivates talent. Nestled miles beyond skyscrapers that feel as if they were slingshotted into the Houston atmosphere lies Alief, Texas. Like any piece of middle to lower class suburbia, there are a million stories and ideas of what Alief represents. Residents call it “The West,” letting the “West” stretch with an additional hum. 

For Aaron May, it is home, the place where he grew up wanting to hoop but found his calling rapping. Now, at 17 years old and with millions of plays on his songs and his debut mixtape out, he is building beyond local recognition. Not bad for a teenager who went from making rap videos just to win homecoming king to getting comparisons to J. Cole for his sharp lyricism and versatile flows.

While we're talking at a Starbucks near his childhood home, a random fan drives by and hollers out of his window, “Yo, Aaron May I fuck with your shit!” It’s becoming common for the “Let Go” rapper. “It went from people who used to walk past me in the hallways wanting to take pictures and get my autograph now,” he says.

Read an interview with the rising rapper below, and listen to Aaron May's debut mixtape Chase, out now.

What is the biggest misconception of  your hometown Alief ?
That it’s hood. [Laughs] It’s certain parts in Alief that are a little worse than others but there’s a diversity of cultures. You know people form different financial statuses. You hear from people who live in [nicer suburbs like] The Woodlands or Katy and they’ll ask, “How do you live in Alief?” But it’s definitely not like that. 

Maxo Kream’s from here. Tobe Nwigwe is from here. What’s your Alief experience then?
Mine? As far as musically, I listen to a lot of Maxo. He went to my school [Alief Hastings] for a little bit. But I’ve always lived in a house. There’s a lot of stuff you get introduced at a young age, weapons, drugs and that stuff. But if you got your head on straight, there’s nothing that pulls you in like that. 

You’re about to graduate, right? When did you notice that things were moving?
Once I dropped my first video for “Ride.” I did 12K views on my own just promoting it. I was like, “Damn, what the hell?” I always dreamed of 12K views. My friends who were rappers or whatever, they were like, “Damn, you got that many views bro.” They only had like 200 or so. I feel like then is when I started seeing that I got something different. That it’s not going to go unnoticed.

we all grow up taking some inspiration from somebody, or influence from somebody. My biggest influences were Nas and J. Cole but by the time I’m 20? I’ll have my own sound figured out.

Was the reception different at school?
Over time it’s grown. I started putting stuff out my seventh grade year, recording little SoundCloud freestyles on my phone and just dropping that. So people know me from back then but other people know me from my sophomore year when I started taking it serious. Ever since “Ride” did numbers and then I dropped “Let Go” people been asking to take pictures at school and get autographs. It's weird! I used to walk by these same people every day and now they’re asking to take pictures with me.

Going viral with “Ride" there were a lot of comparisons to J. Cole. Did that annoy you?
This is the answer I’ll always give. When you look at what Cole dropped when he was my age, the first person you’ll hear is, “Damn, this nigga sound like Eminem.” So my thing is, J. Cole didn’t start popping until he was in his 20s, when he was a grown man. He had all this time to establish his sound and grow into who he wanted to be as an artist.  I mean, we all grow up taking some inspiration from somebody, or influence from somebody. My biggest influences were Nas and J. Cole but by the time I’m 20? I’ll have my own sound figured out. People will get to see me develop from 16, 17 to 20, 21, 25.

But it can be annoying?
Yeah! But at the end of the day, I gotta remind myself, I’m 17 and I’m still growing. I make music every day and there are so many things I see in myself that are still developing. Down the road when it’s all said and done? J. Cole wouldn’t have been able to do that 'cause that’s me. That’s Aaron May, and I want people to stay for the ride and see that.

No pun intended?
No pun intended. [Laughs]

“The Ride” video and much of Chase has a cohesive community feel. Was that planned?
I like to say “homemade” cause these are real relationships. These aren’t business relationships; I’ve known these people for a minute. All of us having mutual interests makes it a plus because people can see that you take it serious as much as they do. So linking with DAM and MIA, those two collectives was crucial. Everybody there do anything from film, to production, to rap to sing. It’s always good to have that home base because me, I know I’m going to work with directors and producers across the world but it’s great to have that home feeling. 

It feels necessary. In your case, why do you think it’s best for a rapper to write about what they truly experience?
Cause there’s nothing better than the truth. A lie can only take you so far. Especially with the stuff people be pushing out nowadays, with the street shit. I vibe with a lot of the new music that’s coming out, I got nothing against it but whatever you’re claiming, you’re going to get tested for it. You see it with hella artists and when they get exposed, their whole career is over.  If you come out saying what you are from the start and that’s what you are, there’s no way your career can ever fail. 

There’s this “unpopular opinion” game…
I heard of it. [Laughs]

Do you believe in the “unpopular opinion” that Alief has more talent than any other spot in Houston?
Definitely!  It’s crazy. Not even in music, sports too. There are kids who I grew up with when I was still hooping that got D-1 scholarships. Even I thought I was going to get a D-1 scholarship. I feel like Alief is really, and I mean REALLY slept-on and Houston is too, for the most part. I want to get to that position where I can put people on and they can get what they deserve.  I done grew up with so many people who could do so many things and they’d stray away into the wrong shit. Overall, there’s too much talent that goes overlooked in Alief and Houston in general. 

You feel like there’s a loyalty to certain people in that respect?
I feel like whatever you get, it should always be because of you. But if you had the talent, I feel I’d be hating if I didn’t say nothing, or if I didn’t offer you any advice. But that’s all I can do. Give you my knowledge and whatever you’re willing to accept from me. The rest is up to them. I didn’t have a lot of people. My family wasn’t in the industry and I grew up mostly with my mom. So I did what I had to do and I learned it for myself.

Speaking of mom, did she always know you’d rap?
No! She always knew I was going to do something with music though. I used to play the piano and I couldn’t read but I would play whatever I heard off of YouTube…

Play by ear?
Right. Play by sound. For a while, ever since I hit middle school until sophomore year, I was hooping. I was on varsity my sophomore year and that was my thing.  Wake up, go to the gym early, in the afternoon, at night. Just hoop. When I finally told her I was going to rap, she’d see I’d do it but she thought it was just a hobby. When she found out, she said, "Oh no, why?" Cause she saw all the work I put in with basketball. At first, she wasn’t really accepting of it like that. But down the road, she and my pops realized, “You can’t change somebody from doing what they want to do.” Once I started dropping stuff and people started telling her I was nice, she bought on. She actually listened to my album, she don’t ever listen to my music.

She’s super religious. Like real, heavy Christian, right? She takes Jesus real serious. But she knows its something positive; she knows I’m not out here talking no bullshit. She liked a couple songs… she wishes I didn’t cuss or anything but it is what it is. My mom’s Salvadorian and my pops is black.

On Chase, what stands out the most beyond your lyricism is the ending poem on “Chase”.
The whole album, I felt if I had more time it would come out different. I was trying to have more fun on the album. Something that’s not so conscious and deep but still maintains that feeling and it’s on the end of the album. Even if people don’t go back and listen to it, leaving them with that thought leaves them with the feeling of the whole tape. It was either that poem or something with no drums. Either way, it was something to leave people thinking at the end, their actual decisions. Like, how would this apply to real life?aaron-may

So why didn’t “Ride” make the final cut?
Because I don’t really like “Ride.” It didn’t fit for one. The whole tape was a whole different thing. It was a thought I had when I was in my junior year, I wanted a fresh start to move on from that. It dropped like two years ago and I wrote it when I was 16. The video came out another six months after the song, so the song is old. Even though it’s gaining traction, I wanted to come out with a new feel and show different things. I don’t want to waste songs on things that have already been out, I wanted to come with something fresh. 

I already knew that wasn’t my best. I really feel like the whole tape is better than “Ride.” I felt like I didn’t need to have it on there because I knew I had stuff that would do way better. It’s a song that people enjoy, that people will still jam but it doesn’t have to be on the album. Chase is its own thing.

It exists in its own time period.
And that’s how it’s going to be. I’m already working on new stuff right now.

You just dropped the album!
I know but I don’t just sit with stuff. Every day I’m experimenting, producing, and listening to beats. I have to do something with music and if not, I’ll feel like I didn’t do something that day. Cause this is my life. But nowadays I see artists drop stuff a lot. I put a lot of thought into my work and I’m always working but I don’t really dwell on what I already got.

Were you thinking college straight after high school?
Nah, college is off. When I was thinking about college when I was younger it was audio engineering and studio engineering. And back when it was all about hooping? Duke. Around my sophomore year when I put it down that I was going to make music full-time, people said “What’s your plan B if this doesn’t work?” I told them, “It’s going to work.” And even if I’m not a big artist, I always want to be around music, producing, writing, behind the scenes.

I feel like that has to do with my generation. With technology advancing, we get introduced to things far quicker than the ones that have come before us. Back then, you had to be in the know. Now? We get to decide. Even though people go through hella phases where they want to be rappers but now they’re photographers, you’re going through life figuring out what direction is for you. The passion’s been there since I was a kid. I was probably the only fourth, fifth grader listening to Nas’ Illmatic or It Was Written all day. Nobody else was listening to that.

That was around 2009 or 2010?
Yeah, around that same time I was listening to old Eminem. Every rapper, every actual rapper is a fan of Eminem.  He’ll always be a great lyricist. Everybody will have a misconception about me that I listen to Cole and Kendrick all the time but really I’m listening to Key Glock and Chief Keef, having whole ass shows to “Faneto.” To me as a human, music is music. Music when it was first discovered? It was about vibrations, it made you feel something.