[Interview] ANTHM talks “Joy & Pain,” how he got into hip-hop, and lessons he took from Wall Street

Interview by: Martin Bauman

The year 2012 has been a monumental one for ANTHM. After taking the internet by storm with his 90s-themed When We Were Kings mixtape (which led to a collaboration with Black Rob), the Manhattan-based emcee followed suit with his well-received debut EP, Joy & Pain. ANTHM’s recent success comes as the result of his strong work ethic and determination, stemming from an unconventional career-switch: before pursuing a career in hip-hop, the Duke alum traded stocks on Wall Street. The Come Up Show recently caught up with ANTHM to discuss his Joy & Pain EP, how he got into hip-hop, lessons he learned from Wall Street, and more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: I’d like to start off with a little background on you. How did you first get into writing hip-hop?

ANTHM: I feel like I’ve been writing forever, you know? I mean, I’ve had a rhyme book since I was a kid. So I feel like there are different timelines for how long I’ve been leading up to rapping verses, like, the artistry and stuff. I’ve always been involved in poetry, keeping a rhyme book, and I was really into freestyle battling in high school and college. I wasn’t really into recording and artistry until after [college].

I really wanted to start writing after getting into Tupac. I used to get my music from my uncle, because I grew up in kind of a conservative, Christian household. My mom didn’t let anything besides gospel in the house, so I used to get my supply from my uncle. And I remember when I first heard Me Against The World; to this day, that’s like my favourite album. Listening to [Tupac] and Scarface early on, I really started trying to write my own stuff. And then, getting older, Eminem got on the scene, and that was a whole different type of emceeing, that really technical approach. At that point is when I really got excited about the technical elements of emceeing.

By the time I really got into recording [and] artistry, that was when the guy who was my assigned mentor on Wall Street, DG – who I’ve been working with on [AMG] – realized that I wanted to do music, and he had asked me if I had any music [and] I didn’t have any. Even the first time I was recording, the emceeing was there – as far as like the raw ability to rhyme – but the artistry wasn’t there, the flow, the delivery, all those things I really needed to work on. So I feel like I’ve been rapping for a really long time, but I haven’t been an artist for that long.

TCUS: It’s funny that you mention Tupac, because I was going to ask you about him. You tweeted that “one thing I miss about childhood is the unlimited capacity to love an artist. Tupac and Michael Jackson were practically family.” Can you talk about this?

ANTHM: Yeah! You know, it’s interesting. We have living legends right now, like Jay[-Z] and Nas, [but] when you have such a long career, the more music you make, it’s easier for people to try to nitpick or criticize your body of work. But [Pac and Biggie] were taken from the culture so early, so young. I mean, Pac was very prolific, so he happens to have a very [large] body of work, but there’s no telling what he would have been, or what would have happened with either Biggie or Pac. I’ve loved Pac since a very young age. I remember vividly when he died, and I grew up on him.

I cited Michael Jackson and Pac, because those were two artists that I grew up on, and I’ve loved since my youth. When you’re young, you have an ability to have kind of an unconditional love for music and art. I can’t imagine coming up in music today, where you can like an artist, follow them on twitter, something happens to them [and] it’ll be on TMZ… [artists] do more interviews now, you get more access, they might be on a reality TV show, whatever – you know so much about the artist. But before, it was just about the music and how you connect to them. And all you really know is kind of left up to your imagination. I cite [Pac and Michael Jackson] as two artists that I’ve loved since [childhood] and I still love now. It’s sad that neither one of them is around, and each one of them have had, to different degrees, times where there’s run-ins with the law, or media try to change the perception of them.

TCUS: You’ve lived all over the map in your lifetime. Can you take me through the progression from one city to the next?

ANTHM: I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and lived there for a year. I moved to Berlin after that, and lived there for two years. I moved to the States when I was like three, and I lived in Dallas for five or six years. Then I lived in the [DMV] area, mostly in Virginia, for the next seven [or] eight years. I went to school at Duke, and I spent most of my summers in New York – and my family was no longer in the Virginia area, so I never went back there. [Later] I graduated and moved to New York. It’s kind of like an even amount of time spent between New York and the DC area. Manhattan is probably where I most identify with as far as home is concerned.

TCUS: Speaking of Duke, you mentioned on Twitter that you used to go to NC Central when you were at Duke to go to 9th Wonder’s class. What was that like?

ANTHM: Yeah! It was crazy, because when I got down to Duke, that’s when I first learned about Little Brother. They had a really loyal local following, and they weren’t just a local act, they were very visible in that area. So around there you’ve got Duke, UNC, NC Central, NC State… [and] when I heard about 9th Wonder teaching a class at NC Central, we used to carpool – I had a homie from LA who was a really big hip-hop head, and I had another friend from New York – we used to drive over to his class. And it was cool, because he would just let us come in and sit in the back, and listen to him talk. And over time, 9th would also come to Duke to do some different seminars. I remember he did a little showcase on the art and culture of sampling in hip-hop.

9th is a special cat in the culture, because beyond his immediate skill set of being a really talented producer… very few people can be an active participant in the culture, but also bring it into an academic setting. And I think it’s really dope. I don’t know the exact specifics, but I see now he’s been invited to be a visiting professor in some capacity at Harvard. I think that’s really dope. I have a tremendous amount of respect for 9th, and it’s funny, having known him for so long – from a distance, I don’t know him beyond following each other on twitter – I saw he followed me, so I tweeted at him. I think it was like last week or so, and that was a really big deal for me, because I’ve just been a fan for a long time, having been around him, but not really knowing him.

Duke, and a lot of these elite schools… I guess from afar, you probably don’t think that you don’t have as much opportunity there to be in touch with something like a hip-hop class, but because of [these schools’] budgets, there are so many electives and things like that. I’m not sure if it’s at Duke, but I know that now, they’re straight up teaching courses on Pac. Or they’ll do a course completely based on The Wire. I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to go to Duke, because these types of schools where they have a wide range in programs and courses, if you want to, you have a great opportunity for [pursuing your interest].

TCUS: One person that you met at Duke is a friend of yours, Luol Deng. What came first, your friendship with him, or being a Chicago Bulls fan?

ANTHM: [Laughs] Definitely my friendship with him. It was crazy, I mean, by the time I graduated, he had already done three years in the league. So it was crazy to see someone so close achieve their dreams at such a young age. And I’ve been supporting him on the Bulls for his entire career, so I feel like a longtime Bulls fan now.

TCUS: How often would you challenge him to a one on one?

ANTHM: [Laughs] A one on one, yeah right, man. No shot. I remember I used to go to court with him when we were at Duke just for fun, but… those are hoop dreams right there [laughs].

TCUS: You mentioned Wall Street a little bit already; I’m curious what lessons that you learned on Wall Street you might see translating to hip-hop.

ANTHM: I guess the most important takeaway from Wall Street is just how competitive it was. It’s cutthroat and it’s competitive. I would say that [Wall Street] was probably the most formative experience for me, because it was my first real world experience, and it influenced me to become a grown man. You know, that environment, it’ll just remind you, quickly. So I definitely think that having experienced that, and coming into music and working with DG, who was in that pedigree for much longer than I was, as far as imposing structure and having a professional approach, and just realizing that attention to detail matters so much. Just the nuances, whether it’s the music, the artwork, the release, the website, it’s just details across the board.

And I think that a lot of times, there’s perception today in music that, because there’s so much music coming out – and I’m of the opinion that there’s a lot of quality music – a lot of times, people will look at what’s going on in the mainstream and say “oh, there’s a lot of shitty stuff out,” but I think that what’s always going to be timeless is a person’s ability to appreciate quality and attention to detail.

And I think that the type of thought that we put in, whether it’s the music itself, or just the way we released it, it’s been really appreciated. When you come into the game, it’s like, “what’s your competitive edge?” And a lot of the people that I’ve seen come up since I wanted to first do this have come in different ways, whether it’s being Jay’s first artist signed to Roc Nation, whether it’s being signed to Young Money, or cosigned by Dr. Dre… whatever it is, people have different entry points, and you’ve gotta find what your competitive advantage is. And I’m not attached to some major label, I’m not attached to a specific artist, I’m not a part of any of these camps. So early on, we identified that my competitive advantage has to be an intelligent approach.

It’s crazy because in my interview with XXL, I was talking about how important their XXL Freshman List for ’09 was for me. I’m sure you’ve watched the shift as well. I remember when College Dropout first dropped, and I was like “holy shit,” here’s a rapper who looks nothing like these other rappers. And mind you, this is on the backside, like, 50 [Cent] was still hot. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was huge, Massacre was huge, I mean, 50 was probably the fastest rising rapper ever. He was worldwide.

But Kanye just looked completely different. And it was him, it was honest music – and when I say honest, it’s not that other artists weren’t being themselves – it’s that he didn’t have any of those other things. He didn’t have a street life to really report, so all he had was himself. And then Lupe came, and when Lupe came it was like “wow, this is serious, it’s more than one artist.” Kanye kinda opened that door.

And then when the XXL ’09 cover came, here’s an entire slew of artists. It just looked like a pendulum swing. And that was around the time that I first started really recording and working with DG. And I looked at my own background, and I was not necessarily concerned, but I wondered how I would be received, having gone to a school like Duke, and at the time that magazine came out, I was still on Wall Street. I wondered, “how viable is my background [and] my narrative? How important is it, or how insignificant is it?” And just since [that cover], the landscape has opened so much. I mean, Drake is big now, different artists have come… Childish Gambino, [for example]. That’s a very unconventional path, [a] different esthetic.

Going back to your question about how Wall Street has helped me in music, it’s helped as far as the approach and strategy, but that element of my narrative itself has helped. Because I’ve seen – I mean, you do various interviews, and writers gravitate to what they think will make a reader check out [their article], based on the headline – so whether it’s Wall Street, or Duke alum, or whatever. And I’ve seen the stories [get] picked up in random places that I wouldn’t expect, like Business Insider, for example. And it brings new listeners. It’s funny, one of the producers that I work with, he recently asked me, “what do you think about people saying ‘Duke rapper’ [and] ‘Wall Street rapper’? Do you think it’ll turn people off?” And from what I’ve seen so far, I feel very fortunate that people have been receptive. But the thing is that, even if someone’s like “f*** this music,” or whatever, I guess what people call ‘hating’, that’s where the confidence and the quality of music comes in. All in all, it’s been very helpful, as far as the attention.

TCUS: Let’s talk about Joy & Pain. What was the concept behind this EP?

ANTHM: Joy & Pain is a lot about duality. I mean, I guess it’s kinda obvious in the title. But it was centred around the song “God of Joy”, and a lot of the concepts came from a turbulent chapter of my life, just going through some things, and trying to use music as an outlet. [When] I started the approach, I didn’t really want to be so literal with trying to capture those emotions, [it was] more of an abstract approach. There’s really [only] one song on the EP that’s very literal, and that’s “Be Still”. And that was the last one one there, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to put it on there at first. But the concept came about, just this duality. Joy and pain, Heaven and Hell, the good and the bad, and the yin and yang.

And sonically, [Joy & Pain] was a different space than where I was on the prior release [When We Were Kings]. And yeah, I just kinda let the concept and the artistry lead the way, rather than trying to stifle it or anything, and I was really happy with the outcome. I also wanted to be very mindful about the audience [I] wanted it to reach, and having Blu and Freddie Gibbs be a part of it really helped me, because I’m still relatively new. When you have sounds that are alternative or nontraditional, it’s nice to have proven artists, and someone as dope as Blu or Freddie, to have verses on there. I really liked the way it came together; I’m definitely looking forward to putting out some more visuals for it. And to this day, that “Polaris” track is definitely one of my favourite records that I’ve made.

TCUS: It’s funny that you mention you were considering not including “Be Still”, because it seems like that’s the track that a lot of people have really connected with and responded to. Why do you think that it resonated so well with people?

ANTHM: I guess when you make something that’s abstract and conceptual, it’s thoughtful music and it can be appreciated for its vision, but I don’t think anything can really trump personal music. I mean, the feedback that I’ve gotten for that song has been overwhelming. People can connect to it. When you make personal music, it’s twofold. There’s the most obvious layer, where people are connected to what is going on in your life and the emotion that you’re putting in the music, and then the other dimension is, it becomes like a canvas for people to project what’s going on in their own life. And they can connect to you, whether they draw close to the song itself or you as an artist.

I think that song really gave me an opportunity to engage people on a more personal level, and for them to feel like they really know me. It’s like, “hey, this person’s human,” you know? [“Be Still”] is probably the song that has the most teeth, whereas “Polaris” may be more inspirational, and people may like the production more and the sample, or “God of Joy” being very upbeat, or “Joy & Pain” just being artistic.

And I’m really I did include [“Be Still”]; I’m happy I didn’t hold back [and] just allowed myself to be personal on the record. It’s funny, that element of people being able to [relate]… the things I’ve heard back from some people, just different listeners and fans, I’m like “wow!” This shit that’s going on in their lives is definitely way heavier than anything I’m writing about. I actually had a conversation with Blu about it. He talks about some of his records from Below The Heavens, and how he’s just blown away by how much some of those songs mean to people. And the things that, I guess when he first really started getting a lot of feedback on it, he was so impressed by the impression it left on people who were going through serious, dark times.

TCUS: One of my favourite songs off the EP is “Fortuna”. You’ve got a line in that song that goes “a firm believer, the grass may never turn greener/ Heaven may have seen us, but Hell’s still in between us.” Can you talk a bit further about this line?

ANTHM: Yeah, [recites line]. You know, there’s a line that I love. There’s two things that really come to mind when I think of that line. The first one is Jay [in] the original version of “Dead Presidents”, where he says, “it’s Heaven, then it’s Hell.” And I’ve always played around with concepts, like Heaven and Hell cycles, and the other thing that comes to mind is this quote from the book Confederacy of Dunces, [which] talks about cycles within cycles. And I know he references Fortuna in the book as well. But that line is really [saying] you’ve gotta go through Hell to get to Heaven. That’s what it is.

“Every man has his own Heaven/ But shit, you gotta go through Hell to be a man first.” – Blu

It’s not so much that you’ll never see Heaven, or that whatever Heaven represents hasn’t seen you and acknowledged where you are, it’s that you’ve gotta get through something to get there. And it goes back to that whole duality [aspect]. You can’t really get one without the other. And also, the line before that about “a firm believer, the grass may never turn greener,” there’s a progression of emotion through the EP, and there are times where it’s a bit more on the despair side, or the absence of light, not being able to see. When I think of [that line], I think of “Be Still” or the “Joy & Pain” title track, about “real late in the midnight hour, we look for therapy, what if that sun don’t rise?” So it’s that moment, like, especially coming in the background of growing up in a Christian environment, people are always like, “hey, the sun rises tomorrow, it’s a new day,” and people just try to sell you on [the idea that] it’s bound to get better, it has to get better. By definition of it being bad, it’s going to get better. But that’s not necessarily the case. You hear stories about people [where] shit just doesn’t get better, you know? It’s this balance between optimism, but also realism – without being so pessimistic, if that makes sense.

TCUS: We talked a little bit about Blu already, he’s featured on your song “Polaris”. How did you first get into Blu’s music?

ANTHM: I think it was like back in ’08, ’09. Below The Heavens, really. That was my first introduction to him. It’s funny, because when I saw that [XXL] cover, I checked everyone’s music out. And I got his album, and I hadn’t gotten into it too much yet. But I had met Asher [Roth] that summer, because we had a mutual friend – one of my friends that goes to Duke, he actually stayed with him for a stretch of time in Philly. So I met him and we were just talking about that whole [movement], and he kept telling me, “yo, Blu is real.” And I finally went and revisited [Below The Heavens] and just really listened to the album, and I was like, “wow.” Since then, I’ve heard Her Favorite Colo(u)r, and yeah, he’s just a different breed of talent.

TCUS: Yeah, Below The Heavens is one of my all-time favourite albums.

ANTHM: Yeah, It’s a special LP.

TCUS: I’ve heard rumours of a possible upcoming EP from the two of you, or even a project with Sene and Britain Parker. What can you say about these rumours?

ANTHM: Definitely something in the works with Blu. We’ve worked on a couple of tracks. As far as with Sene… there are a couple records, we’ve definitely talked about it, but right now I’m kinda focused on the project with Blu, and I’ve [also] started working on my next solo project. After Joy & Pain, I feel fortunate. Things have become busier, as far as different artists reaching out for feature verses. And it’s an honour to be in a position where I feel busy because hey, I have an option to collaborate with a dope artist like Blu. I just need to spend time to focus on my next solo project, and there are other artists out there who would like me to be a part of their record. My focus has really been on the EP and the solo work.

I’m really excited for the solo project, because I’m looking to really establish my sound with this one. There’s a couple of artists I’m gonna have be a part of it, people I really look up to, and I’m really excited about it – I won’t say anything specific yet, but there’s a big emcee that I already finished a record with, and I’m like, “damn!” I get really excited about [it], because I’m still in that place as an artist where I’m still a big fan. And I hope I never leave the place where I feel like I’m still an active fan of music. To be able to reach out to, and work with, certain artists that I’ve looked up to – you know, I haven’t been doing [music] that long – I’m just really excited about that.

TCUS: This is another tweet of yours: “The most liberating realization is that the majority of people trying to tell you how to do it never actually did it themselves. Do you.” Can you talk about this?

ANTHM: Everyone has opinions, man. There’s a few things. First of all, a lot of times when you have an idea – by definition, an idea’s very unique – people aren’t going to get it at first. And so it’s about not being discouraged by that. For example, something as obvious as when I was working on Wall Street, [thinking] “yo, I’d probably be a good rapper. I believe in myself.” People aren’t going to see it, because they [only] see whatever’s in front of them. The thing is, you can never be discouraged by that. I mean, I think it would be bizarre as hell if I were at work, and I was like, “I think I’d be an ill rapper,” and people were like, “for sure, man! You can be the next…” Why would they? People are trained to see what’s right in front of them. They’re not gonna get something on an impressionistic level if they haven’t seen someone else do it. Maybe if the year before, someone was at the same firm and they left and became some renowned actor, or came up in music, or whatever. Then they’d have a reason to believe.

And then, in my experience in doing the music itself… the music game has changed. Back before the internet became the main place to get new music, there weren’t as many opinions involved. As soon as a song drops, everyone has an opinion on it. And I think as an artist, it’s great to have such access to [that], whether it’s your fans or the blogging community. You have access to everything. It’s instant. But it’s also really important, as available as you make yourself, to not become too swayed or too influenced by opinion that isn’t your own, or within your circle, or opinion by someone who’s actually done it. That’s not to discredit someone else’s ability to write or give an opinion, but it’s about what you do with it. Because everyone has bias. I’m sure if I tweeted right now, “yo, who do you think I should get on a record with,” [or] “what do you think I should do with my career,” if I just handed it over to the followers, everyone has their own opinion. Chances are, the opinion is going to be based on what they’ve seen other people do, as opposed to their hands-on experience in developing a career.

And this is not specifically [for] music, this is everything. This is what you do in college, whatever you have a vision for, whatever you want to major in, the type of job you want to go to, if you want to make an industry switch, whatever your ambition is. Let’s say you yourself, you’re at The Come Up Show now, and you have an idea for a digital magazine. And there’s something unconventional that you want to do for it. And you bounce it off a couple people around you, and they don’t get the vision. But that shouldn’t be the main determinant of whether you do it, you know? You guys celebrated your five year anniversary recently, right?

TCUS: Five years, yeah!

ANTHM: So I’m sure there was a vision initially in place, and I mean, the landscape in Toronto has changed a lot in the last five years, you know? That whole mentality probably hits close to home, because people probably didn’t give as much attention to Toronto as a thriving hip-hop scene or music scene in general. But people have a vision for themselves, and what they think Toronto could be. Fast forward in time, whatever people saw is coming to fruition. It’s a great thing that no one went based off the opinion of people around [them].

TCUS: Yeah, definitely. So, after getting everyone’s attention with When We Were Kings, and then following that up with Joy & Pain, what are your goals for the next year?

ANTHM: I have [goals] more in the next six months. My main focus is putting out more product. On my next project, my head’s at really solidifying myself in the hip-hop scene. My focus is on the music itself; I really want to make great records, increase my visibility, and really create opportunities for myself to get on the road and possibly be a part of some tours that are hitting the college scene. It’s visibility, man. I keep putting it out there, I definitely want to be in consideration for this XXL Freshmen [List] coming up, as far as tangible goals.

I have expectations for myself making high quality music. And I’ve got to marry that with the strategy to expedite that process, and really gain visibility for myself. I’d like to get into print magazines. It’s been great to have all the online support, [now] I’d like to move it to print. I’d like to create some records with some bigger names, really getting out to the forefront and getting my videos on the conventional outlets like MTV, BET, and such. Yeah man, I’m aiming for the sky, as far as where I want to be. My most immediate goal is closing out 2012, I want to finish and make a strong push [and] get some more work out there, really expand the fan base.

All the focus has been on the music and writing, and connecting the dots of what I want my sound to be, but I also want to start putting more thought into creative ways to engage people. To the extent that I have that time, I want to use my time wisely, because the times that I’ve connected with different fans has been a meaningful experience. You can’t really place a price tag on someone feeling like they know you, and that you’re accessible: you can make music that they appreciate, but then also be a person and connect to people. I definitely want to put that at the forefront, because the fans matter the most. These are the people that are ambassadors of your music and your brand. As far as things I’m working on, I did something with this really dope artist. Have you heard of JMSN?

TCUS: I have not heard of JMSN, no.

ANTHM: He’s a really dope artist, man. He put out an album called Priscilla, and he produced all of it. He’s a vocalist, and I guess I would describe the sound as like a neo-R&B… I mean, I can’t really [describe] it. It’s like this whole new wave of indie R&B, once the Weeknd and Frank Ocean came out. But dude has his own sound, he’s a really dope artist. Anyway, I’ve got some work with him, and I’m hopefully getting him involved in the project that I’m doing. You should check him out.

TCUS: Yeah, I should! Well, that’s all from me, is there anything else you wanted to say to the people out there?

ANTHM: I just want to make people aware of my website, callmeANTHM.com. Be on the lookout for more visuals that I’m dropping for Joy & Pain, and you can check me out on twitter @NoCosign. Thank you to The Come Up Show, you guys have been supporting since pretty early on, so I genuinely appreciate you guys being open. Thank you guys.

TCUS: No doubt. Well, thank you very much for your time, and best of luck to you in the future!

ANTHM: Thank you, man.