Interview by Alex Bracetti
If you’re still unfamiliar with John “Witness” Parr, then you’ve obviously been caught under a rock somewhere or haven’t been glued to the NBA Playoffs. Sharing the screen and every commercial break with “the girl in the pink dress” as part of T-Mobile’s nationwide Sidekick 4G campaign, the Philadelphia MC has not only helped push the iconic messaging phone of which he’s a huge fan back into the spotlight, he’s also made himself one of the most memorable commercial characters since that kid told you that you were getting Dell.
As bloggers and online forums continue to label him everything from the white Twista to that "annoying rapper who does those Sidekick commercials", one thing’s for certain—whether you think he’s dope or wack—the PA native has caught our attention. Curious to know about the man behind the infamous commercials, we reached out to the rapper to politic with him about his newfound fame, his Sidekick 4G impressions, battling with asthma, and his one true passion: Hip Hop. Get familiar.
Complex: So for those that don’t know, you’re not just a T-Mobile character, you’re a real rapper. How long you’ve been doing it?
Witness: It’s been about 11 years now. I started out when I was about 15 years old.
Complex: How did you come up with the rap name Witness?
Witness: I was in a freestyle cipher around that time. Some other kids were in it and just gave it to me and I stuck with it. It’s kind of weird how it all happened, carrying the name into adulthood. I’m 26 years old. I don’t know what I would change if I had the opportunity to change it now, but it definitely has some nostalgic value for me.
Complex: Would you prefer people call you John?
Witness: You know, I don’t. My name is actually John Parr, which is the name of a '80s musician who did (the lead single for) St. Elmo’s Fire [laughs]. So I'm kind of done on that. Some people go with both, but I don’t have any specific requirements.
Complex: How did you end up scoring the Sidekick 4G commercial gig?
Witness: How it started was these cats saw a video I did on YouTube, where this whole fast rapping thing was taking off, and I just jumped in it for the sole purpose of like “oh, you know I can do that?”It was just kind of an idea, a joke, between me and my friends. And then it blew up into this thing and [T-Mobile] contacted me and asked to do a commercial.
Complex: The video you speak of is the one where you’re rapping over Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity”. Would you say this is the video that sold everyone on your rap skills?
Witness: That’s right. For a lot of my existing fan base, it’s not like a surprise. It’s something I’ve been able to do, but never really tackled it on my records. I think the concepts that I have on my actual records is quite different, but I don’t really have a problem with that. [The commercials] exposed other people to my music.
Complex: Even though the video was meant to be a joke, it also mentions you're rapping with asthma. Was that also a joke, or is there any truth to that?
Witness: The asthma thing is real. I was on a considerable amount of medication up until, maybe, three years ago. Being a musician doesn’t come with a health care package, so I just kind of dropped off of it by taking care of myself: exercising and stuff to keep it in check. I’m leaving now to go play some shows and even before a set I have to take medication because it effects breath control when you’re running around on stage. There’s a good deal of MCs [that have it]. Pharoahe Monch has pretty bad asthma and that dude can definitely throw down.
Complex: Besides medication, how else are you fighting the inflammatory disease before you rock a show?
Witness: You know it’s been something where I’ve been doing it for so long, that it’s natural. I think it’s all based around my writing process right now. The way I write is sort of based on how I can get extra breaths in between. It was way harder when I was younger, but as you get older, you get used to it and [I] worked it into my whole creative process.
Complex: The original Sidekick is regarded as the best messaging phone of all-time. Were you rocking one back in the day?
Witness: I did, man, for sure! It’s kind of crazy how big that phone was at the time. And since I’ve done the commercial, I’ve heard a great response from people about it coming back.
Witness: Some people got, like, slimmed-downed piano fingers and they can get down on the touchscreen, but I’m still that kind of dude that needs the analog keyboard. And it has both, so that’s definitely a positive.
Complex: Can you text as fast as you can rap?
Witness: Definitely not. I’m an old man when it comes to phones, man. I have slow response time.
Complex: When you got the gig, did you ever expect to be working with a hot Canadian model like Carly Foulkes?
Witness: They told me pretty early on, and it’s actually pretty funny because it seems like everyone there feels the need to attach the words “the girl in the pink dress” to her name. Even when I was on set they were telling me “Ok, you’re gonna stand right next to Carly, the girl in the pink dress,” and I was like, “I know who it is.” Again, it’s just one of those things where it got so surreal, like Jay-Z and Mike Tyson could have been slap boxing in the room, and I probably wouldn’t have even blinked an eye. And here I am sitting next to the girl in the T-Mobile commercials that I was watching a week before this whole think even happened.
Complex: Is she hotter in person than in the commercials?
Witness: I get asked that question a lot. We hang out and stuff, but its just work. She’s a real cool chick. I’m into sociology and just watching people, and meeting these kinds of people, she sometimes seemed uncomfortable at times during filming and she’s had more experience than I did, so it was definitely crazy. And it made my girlfriend kind of jealous [laughs].
Complex: Were you given any freedom or creative control for the commercials?
Witness: I had a pretty good amount of creative control. The creative process for the most part was my writing, which is interesting because I think a lot of people that are part of commercials don’t have anything to do with the writing process. It was strange in the regard that I was kind of responsible for the script, as well as being in it. I think we’re looking at an interesting future in terms of advertising, where, I think, 20 years ago, a bunch of suits would never let that happen to begin with. It was one of the more challenging things I had to write.
Complex: Did T-Mobile cut you two checks for writing and starring in both commercials?
Witness: I’m not even sure how much I’m allowed to even talk about it, but there’s still a lot more on the way. I would imagine that if it was just the two commercials, it would have probably just been a huge lump sum. But it’s been kind of spread out and it has to do mostly with all the content that we’re working on still.
Complex: We read in a forum there was a “very prominent edit” in the first commercial. Put us on to what it was.
Witness: There’s some truth to that, but I’m not entirely sure what happened. I’ve seen the edits, but there was also some edits in the recording process, too. It wasn’t like there was any explicit content. I think it might have just been a time issue and it wasn’t anything that I was really sore about. But it doesn’t bother me, to be honest with you. It’s the kind of thing for me like it’s a cool opportunity, that isn’t exactly my magnum opus in terms of my artistic work.
Complex: Being that you suffer from asthma, how many takes were necessary to film each verse?
Witness: The weirdest thing tends to happen with even tempo-verses, you can do it about 30 to 50 times, and each take will have its own little positives. But with these fast ones, for instance the YouTube one we put out, that was actually the first take. The other takes seem to degrade as we went on. So I believe one of the commercials was actually a first take. I do know on one of them, they spliced one verse with one take from another. If you listen real close you can actual hear the edit.
Complex: Speaking of tempo. You’re rapping pretty fast on some slow tempo beats in both commercials. Did you experience any difficulties adjusting to either?
Witness: The tempo we used was a tempo I set. When they originally asked me to do it, they just kind of said can you make a verse for us and when I fired it off they liked it right away. And I just built the beat up, so it was simple to work of the drum framework. They actually use a production company I think to create the actual beats, but the tempo and the drums patters are ones that I actually built.
Complex: So you produce as well?
Witness: I do, I do. I produced most of the beats on my last record and on all the previous ones.
Complex: Dope. Lets take it back for a second and discuss your hip-hop upbringing. For starters, you’re a Philly native. With such a huge hip-hop scene there, what were some of your favorite artists and producers that you were brought up on?
Witness: I feel like if you grew up in the Philly region, you grow up with The Roots no matter what. Those dudes were a huge influence. Up until recently, I’ve been trying to stray from it. Jazz is being fused into my own production and it’s directly influenced from that Philly sound, too. As I got older I started to reach into the back catalog of older school kind of shit like Schoolly D.
Complex: How would you describe the Philly music scene for an up-and-comer like yourself?
Witness: Philly is a strange spot that has a rich musical history and goes through phases. Like sometimes it’s like the best city in the world for music, other times its not. I’ve played in 45 states and Philly is still the one I can’t put my finger on in terms of its scene. I can go to one city and I know exactly what to deliver, but Philly is a mixed bag. It’s just whatever they're feeling at the moment. It’s definitely one of the toughest cities to come up on in.
Complex: With your newfound popularity, think you have any shot of working with artists that you’ve wanted to get into the studio with, like Lil B the Based God or Pete Rock?
Witness: I would work with Lil’ B because he’s hilarious. I think it would be less of a musical ambition and more just for me and my friends. But working with Pete Rock, I could probably stop making music for the rest of my life at that point. I grew up on him. Getting Questlove to lay down some drums on a song would be a childhood dreams fulfillment right there.
But when I think about it, I think about the cats that I grew up with and where music is today. I feel like it would be refreshing to hear a newer dude out there working with some of these cats. I would love to hear Pete Rock put something out, even if I hate the crew. The same with [DJ] Premier and all those cats. I wouldn’t mind being the dude that brings it back and revisits those days.
Complex: It’s interesting you say that it would be great to see some of the new generation of rappers do an entire album with a legendary producer. But judging by the past couple years, most rappers who either do a joint or an entire album with legends like Large Professor or DJ Premier are quickly labeled underground.
Witness: I agree with you. But I think 9th Wonder recently said something on Twitter that I thought was pretty on-point, saying that the box that used to be where people were called underground or mainstream is starting to dissolve. And it has a lot to do with technology. Now I feel like I speak to someone new everyday who listens to an artist I never heard of. I don’t even know what the extreme is anymore. Some of the biggest underground cats are selling more than the dudes at the majors. And I think what’s realistically gonna happen in the next few years is that everything is gonna balance out.
Complex: Supposedly one time you rapped with Andy Milonakis, and nearly sent Heroes hottie Hayden Panettiere down a flight of stairs at the same party? How did that happen?
Witness: It was a weird situation in general. At the launch event for the new Sidekick, my first time at one of these type of events and it looks like something you only see in entertainment magazines, and I’m actually there. At the moment, I’m like “what am I doing here?” But it got so ridiculous so quick. So I’m just there with a couple of friends, and they wanted to shoot a segment for Jimmy Kimmel, which was shot in 10 minutes. So they had a thing where me and Andy were rapping together and I was dying the whole time, asking myself “What am I doing here?”
But as for the girl from Heroes, I was going up the staircase and I had a friend behind me. I turned around and kind of moved my arm, and guess I kind of hit her, probably around the collarbone. And she took a step back where there were mad people by the staircase and she fell back onto them before catching her balance. I guess that could have been REALLY bad [laughs].
Complex: Well, considering her boyfriend is Heavyweight Champ Wladimir Klitschko, yeah, that could have been a disaster.
Witness: Oh God, I know. Someone told me that later and I was like, I’m gonna hide. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to play with that dude.
Complex: Being that the commercials are on heavy rotation during the NBA playoffs, and Dwaye Wade also reps T-Mobile, are you rooting for the Miami Heat right now?
Witness: I am. I try to keep it low, so I just gave you a gem. What’s really crazy about having a commercial on TV is that I don’t even have cable, dude. I don’t even have regular TV. So a lot of games I catch are over my friends’ house. But I am, for sure.