[Interview] John River talks paying dues, what he learned from JD Era, and how “The Calm” will change his life

Interview by: Martin Bauman

It’s not often you find young rappers that are wise beyond their years, but 18 year-old John River fits the description precisely. Having soaked up knowledge from the likes of JD Era and ANTHM, the Mississauga up-and-comer is well-learned, well-grounded, and has a clear vision for himself. Aside from being a student of hip-hop and possessing raw talent as an emcee, John River possesses a distinct sense of responsibility within his community – not only did he tackle the issue of gun violence in Toronto with “I Don’t Want To Be”, but he originally left behind a potential future in soccer in Europe, realizing that there were people back home that he could help out by kick-starting his rap career. Now, John River looks to make his mixtape debut with The Calm, a project he acknowledges will change his life “for better or for worse.” The Come Up Show caught up with John River to talk about The Calm, as well as paying dues and what he learned from JD Era and ANTHM, among other things. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: Before we get to talking about your upcoming project, The Calm, I’d like to get some background information. How did you first get into hip-hop?

John River: I kind of always grew up around it. Growing up, I used to listen to OTA Live! with my brother. They played late on Flow [93.5FM], Ty Harper with Rez Digital. Michael Jackson was playing in my house 24/7… and then I don’t really know, Flow 93.5 I guess was really instrumental, just because it was really what we listened to 24/7, [along with watching] 106 & Park. It was a cultural thing, you know what I mean? I used to beatbox, too, but that was when I was like eight [laughs].

TCUS: When did you start rapping?

John River: I used to do public speaking. I was in French Immersion, so I did French public speaking, and English public speaking. I wasn’t really a good student… [laughs], I was a bad student, but I think beatboxing, mixed with the public speaking, came into one. I remember I always used to rap – freestyle, of course, always freestyling. But I was like eight, nine years old. There’s actually a video of me rapping when I was eight, like, “for all my n****s dying in the streets,” it’s hilarious. As time went on, it kind of just developed. I went to Clarkson Secondary School, when freestyling really started coming to the forefront, and I remember I was out one time and some guy had just gotten out of jail. And everybody was rapping, and I was like “yo, I rap! Blah, blah,” but I was in grade nine, and I was like four feet tall. And that’s when I really started to get my shine, rapping-wise, freestyling-wise. Everything was freestyling. I got into a studio for the first time [just] last summer. But we used to have freestyle Fridays at our school; we’d have like two hundred kids come out, and we’d freestyle for money. Proud to say [I went] undefeated [laughs]. But yeah, it was hella dope. It’s just part of the culture, you know?

TCUS: Where did your name John River come from?

John River: It’s interesting… That’s a dope question, a lot of people have asked me that. My name is Matthew Jonathan Derrick-Huie, and my parents decided they were going to name myself and my brother [after] disciples in the Bible. So, Matt, Mark, Luke, and John: my brother’s name is Marcus, and John is my middle name. In the Bible, John baptized Jesus in the river, and that’s really where John River came from. When [people] listen to [my] music, it’s like a baptism through religion – but not a specific religion, just the religion of real hip-hop and good music. And if you heard it already, then you’re born again.

TCUS: That’s dope, thats a good explanation. One of the challenges that I see in rapping as a teenager is that it can be difficult to strike a balance between having confidence in your music and being perceived as another cocky teenager. Have you noticed that at all?

John River: Yeah. What I’ve realized is that as a teenager, you have to understand that you don’t understand anything. I realize that three years from now, I’m gonna say “yo, when I was 17, I didn’t know shit,” and three years from then, I’m gonna be like “yo, when I was 20, I thought I knew shit, [but I didn’t].” I take that into account, but I find myself being able to rap honestly when I’m being self-critical. When you rap about how you feel, that’s a more genuine and consistent point that you’ll be able to maintain throughout your life. When you rap about events that take place due to your certain age, now you’ve closed off your audience, because people are now saying “if I’m not 17, then I don’t f*** with that.” Very quickly, at a young age, I [realized that] if I’m going to come out as a 17 year old and rap, then I can’t rap about anything materialistic or anything that is relevant to my age, [instead I rap] more about what each and every single person has to deal with – and that kinda [determined] my style of rap. I could rap about big cars and diamonds, and a whole bunch of shit, but my shoes have holes in them, and I take a skateboard everywhere I go. You know what I’m saying? I find people really connect more on an emotional standpoint.

TCUS: There’s also a lot of focus being placed on the importance of paying your dues and paying respect to the older generation. What are your thoughts on this?

John River: I’ve seen a couple interviews from The Breakfast Club on Power 106FM – I watch all their interviews – and right now, I feel like there’s a lot of tension between the older generation of hip-hop and the young generation. You have the old generation, who are these legends and gods, who can’t book shows now because they’re not relevant on the internet. If you’d see Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, you’d never say they’re cold. But in rap, it’s different. Rap is like… not only do you have to be young to be successful, but people say “Rakim isn’t popping,” or “Missy Elliot isn’t popping.” To them, it’s crazy, because they see themselves as legends, [like] “what do you mean I’m not popping?? I’m a legend.” I think that if you look at the whole Mac Miller sampling issue [with Lord Finesse], that is a testament to old hip-hop and new hip-hop having an issue. Yes, I think that you do need to pay your dues, and you do need to pay respect to those who have paved the way for you. Coming out of Toronto, people always say “I don’t want to be the next Drake,” or “I don’t want to be the next JD Era.” I take that into consideration, and I do want to be my own artist, but I understand fully, without Choclair, without Maestro, without Kardinal, without JD Era, without Drake… there would be no lane for me to operate in. Right now, I share the same manager as JD Era, and whenever I spend time around him… rather than necessarily trying to compete with JD Era, or Kardinal, or Rich Kidd, I’m really just trying to learn as much as I can, because you have to respect them. They will show you how things should be done when [it’s your turn].

TCUS: What kinds of things have you learned from JD Era?

John River: It’s the way he treats people, [which] is extremely important. We had gone to a video shoot that he had done, and I brought a couple friends along who had no idea who he was – and I didn’t even know him that well – and I was like “yo Era, do you think you could…” And [I respect] how genuine and down to earth he is, considering he’s one of the biggest rappers in Canada right now. That’s something that I realized, [that in] this day and age, with downloadable music and everything, people will not just buy your album anymore because of the music. The only reason why they buy your stuff is because they respect you as a person, and they like you as a person. If you’re not a good person, then nobody’s gonna buy your stuff, and nobody’s gonna want to have anything to do with you. They’ll download it [and] listen to it, but they won’t have any vested interest in you. [What I learned] from him, mostly, is just being extremely level-headed and never forgetting where you come from, and that we’re all people, regardless of our success. And I think a lot of people who know Era really resonate with the fact that he’s a down to earth, genuine guy, when he doesn’t need to be.

TCUS: You’ve also mentioned that ANTHM is another artist that has served a mentoring role to you. How did you and ANTHM connect?

John River: My videographer dealt with him. I was editing with my videographer, and this [Blu] song came on. And Blu is one of my favourite rappers of all time.

TCUS: Me too, me too.

John River: If I saw Blu, I would probably cry [laughs]. Below The Heavens is my Bible. [Anyway], I heard Blu come on, and I was like “ahh this is Blu!” And then this guy came on with this, like, Kendrick Lamar/J. Cole/Blu/Nas flow, and I was like “yo, who is this guy?” [My videographer said], “his name’s ANTHM.” I was like “yo, f*** this guy, I’m not trying to listen to him,” and he was like “nah, you gotta listen to him.” I went home and downloaded When We Were Kings, and I was like “this is the best rapper in the world, this guy is phenomenal!” Anyways, we had a song that needed a feature called “They Say”, and [so] I sent out a couple emails. It was maybe 3 [or] 4 AM, and I was just like “you know what? Why don’t I just send them an email?” I don’t even know what I was thinking, it was pretty audacious. And they hit me up, like “yo, we heard the song, it’s dope.” I figured they were gonna be like “$3000 and we’re good,” but they loved the song so much that he just did his verse out of gratitude.

And while we were talking back and forth about the details of him sending the record and acapella and everything, I just started asking a couple questions, and he was beyond open. He said “look, you’re 17, and you can really be one of the best people who have ever done this.” And I said “okay, help me. How do you go through your writing process? Some of the shit you say is ridiculous.” He said “honestly, the most important thing that you should always do is say more with less.” Out of everything he told me – he spoke to me for awhile, about rap and the industry – that’s really what stuck with me. He said “if you can say a paragraph in one word, or in one phrase, it doesn’t have to rhyme, but make sure that every single line can be taken out and used to start a riot, or change somebody’s whole opinion on life.” He’s a deep n****, you know? He says some deep shit. I think the way I approached The Calm changed, in a sense, because we are in the era where four bars, and metaphors, and puns, and everything is really valued. But yo, “say more with less.” That was definitely the big thing that I took from him.

TCUS: Just to backtrack a little bit, you have a song with ANTHM now?

John River: Yes! It will be on The Calm, it’s called “They Say”. This is the exclusive, I didn’t tell nobody except for you guys, because I love you guys. Actually, funny story, my grandma was visiting and I saw Chedo tweet “yo, we’re on The Come Up Show now, come live request a song,” and I called my friend Skinny, [saying] “I just dropped “Every Evening”, we should get on The Come Up Show!” He was like “yo, I can’t call in right now.” So I actually went onto Ustream, I called in, and I requested my own song.

TCUS: [Laughs]

John River: [Chedo] was like “yo, are you requesting your own song?” I was like “yeah, it’s dope, yo. Play it,” and they ended up playing it, which is crazy. But yeah, I have a song with ANTHM coming out on The Calm. It’s called “They Say”, [and] it should be hella dope. The guy is phenomenal. A million thank you’s to him and DG, and AMG. I’m so grateful.

TCUS: Well, I’m looking forward to that! You’ve also got something called Hope City, how did that begin, and what’s it about?

John River: I realized, getting into rap, that you need a brand behind what you do. The rapper is the spokesperson, but the brand is the movement. I saw Taylor Gang with Wiz Khalifa, Dreamville with J. Cole, OVO with Drake, and I said “alright, I don’t wanna rush to create something, I want something to come naturally.” For me, Hope City is perfect. Hope City is a brand behind John River, and it’s behind The Calm. Hope City is the city filled with hope, and if you look at the logo, which is also currently under reconstruction, the skyline is built from historical buildings from cities all around the world. I did not just want to have a Toronto skyline or a Mississauga skyline. I want you to look at this logo and be like “yo, that’s my building here in Chicago, or that’s my building here in New York.” And it’s about hope in the city, and that’s really what I want to try to inspire: hope within each and every single city. So when you listen to this music, or when you go and do something, if you’re contributing to the hope in the city that you live in, then you’re a part of Hope City – regardless of whether it’s rap or hip-hop related or not.

TCUS: Now, you’ve got a new project coming out called The Calm. What’s the concept behind this project?

John River: The Calm is a couple things. Number one, if you’ve ever felt like there’s people [in your field] who you know you can do a better job than, or there are people that are out there that are doing such bullshit and [you] should be there, like “why am I not there?” In my opinion, you’re in ‘the calm’, because in a sense, you are the storm. When people say “the calm before the storm,” you need to understand that the calm is the storm – it’s just the earliest part. So if the storm was to be what we all revel at, then the calm would just be the same thing, except [it’s] the earliest stage. If I were to blow up tomorrow, that would be the storm. I’d be blowing up, I’d be everywhere, I’d be on TVs, and people would be talking about me, but I would say “I was the storm yesterday, but you just looked at me as the calm,” because nobody gave two shits. And that’s the whole thing. Yes, I’m 17, and yes, I have a lot to say, but at the same time, I’m in the calm. It’s very much a state of being. My manager had an issue with somebody saying he felt like he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved, and I said, “you’re not getting the credit you deserve because you’re in the calm; your talents have not been recognized for what they can be at this moment.” But you can complain about it, or you can do something to show people that you’re the storm. The Calm is really for the masses that see this as the calm. I’m very realistic, and right now, I am everything that The Calm defines: I’m another 17 year old kid who’s rapping to prove that I am the storm.

TCUS: You’ve tweeted that “The Calm will change my life, for better or worse.” Can you talk about that?

John River: The Calm, to me, is very personal. If I could describe it in one word, it would be emotional. It’s very personal, and I don’t hold anything back. I feel as if your first mixtape is the most important mixtape that you do, because that’s going to depict the longest period of your life. If you drop a mixtape a year later, you’ve only had a year in between the last project to experience. Right now, this mixtape has 18 years [of experiences]. So unless after this mixtape, I take a long hiatus for 19 years – which I probably won’t – this is going to involve the most amount of my life in any one project. And within that, the more years that you have, the more experiences you have, the more people you meet, the more things you have to talk about. This will be, most likely, one of the most personal mixtapes that I have, solely because I’ve experienced such an amount of things in the time that it took me to make this. I say a lot of things that are extremely honest, and I wonder sometimes how people will perceive that – people who are close to me, people who aren’t close to me, people who will be close to me, and vice versa.

Sometimes, when you do projects like this, the people who you were the closest with will [distance] themselves from you, and the people who you don’t know will try and be in your inner circle. I feel like [with] The Calm, either Kanye West could hear it and say “oh my God, John River is amazing!” or I could spend all my money, and sell everything that I own to promote it – which I’m going to do anyways – and it could flop. People could say, “hey, it was alright.” But either way, it’s going to change my life. I feel right now, everything is a survival already, but if I put everything into this and it doesn’t work, then [I’ll have to ask], “okay, do I have to change my artistic judgment on things? Like, I thought this was going to be the best thing in the world. What if they don’t think it’s the best thing in the world? Is it still the best, or do I need to change? Is it them, or is it me?” Either way, [my life] is gonna change. I think that the date when it’s released is a monumental day, because it’s a big leap into wherever it takes me.

TCUS: You’ve got a song on The Calm called “Every Evening”, and it was in memory of Khadeem Antoine. What was your relationship with him like, and how did he impact you?

John River: Khadeem was my cousin. He was family. A lot of people call him Jazze, he goes by the name Jazz also. For me, that was like my brother. He lived with us through periods of time. I have one older brother, [and] Khadeem was a year younger than my older brother, so it was really the three of us – we were family. And he was murdered, his life was taken from him. For me, it put everything in perspective. I was away playing soccer in Europe, and I always had the option of rap, but I had made a decision prior to his death that due to the positions of certain people that I affiliated myself with, due to the positions that they were in, I needed to come back into the city. I needed John River to blow up; I needed to provide different outlets for them to succeed in, because I didn’t feel like the system was set up for these young black kids to succeed. That’s really what John River is. I think he is like the pinpoint of everything that I want to do. In a perfect world, this situation would have arose a year later, and I would have been in a position where [Khadeem] wouldn’t have to be in a position [where he’s] still running around in the streets, and so on and so forth. He could be on tour, [or] he could be doing my clothing line. I was just a little late, that’s the way I see things. Rest in peace, we think about him every day, but in the very same light, I still have my eye on other people that I see going in that same direction, [whose lives] I hope I’m able to have an effect on prior to them reaching the same conclusion of their lives.

TCUS: That ties into another song of yours, “I Don’t Want To Be”, which is meant to raise awareness about gun violence in the GTA. How did you decide that this was something you wanted to talk about?

John River: Originally, I wasn’t going to put out “I Don’t Want To Be”, because it was not what I had planned for the promotion [of] The Calm. The way I saw things, I was going to put out four videos, each would have showcased a different side of John River, and it really would have brought the masses into The Calm – and you can see with “Every Evening”, that’s the direction I was heading, as far as the flow and the chorus. That was really just a little showcase of John River: “let’s not getting into anything too serious that will scare people off before they get in.” But I felt as if sometimes, you don’t really have a choice. I live out of the city, I had a friend who was murdered in the city, and I’d be doing him, Khadeem, and another friend who had also been shot a disservice if I didn’t speak about it. Tomorrow, people can say, “hey, John River was totally yesterday.” When you have a voice that can impact people, it’s not guaranteed how long you’re going to have it – look at Ja Rule. If I’m in a [position] where I can impact a hundred to a thousand kids, I feel like I don’t really have a choice. It was something I had to speak about.

I remember Skinny telling me, “listen, if you put out this song, understand that whenever there’s an issue in the city, people are going to expect you to talk about it, because you took it upon yourself to speak about this.” And I said, “I think that’s a responsibility that I’m willing to have.” I think that’s a responsibility we all should have. It’s one thing to say something, but let’s go out and do something. The video [for “I Don’t Want To Be”] was taken down for corporate reasons, and we had to put it back up, but I’m kinda glad it was taken down, because the point of this video wasn’t to have 100,000 views, the point of this video was to make a change. So [for] somebody to say “the video’s getting too big, we have a corporate issue with it,” for me, that means that within two days, it had hit such a height that a corporation said “yo, you gotta take this down.” I didn’t look at it like “oh my gosh, this is ruined,” [instead] I said “good, that means they saw it.” That means they know we’re there, they know the problem exists, and they know we’re doing something about it.

TCUS: Aside from the singles that you’ve released so far, what else can people expect from The Calm?

John River: The Calm is very artistic. I want you to think of the city, and I want you to think of the various areas of the city. If you go to Malvern, or the depths of Scarborough, you expect to see one thing. If you go by Ridgeway or Acorn in Mississauga, you expect to see one thing. But then if you go downtown, and you go to the Royal Art Gala, you expect to see one thing. If you go to The Opera House, you expect to see one thing. I feel like if you took a tour around your city – the same ghettoes, and wealthier neighbourhoods, and street art, and art that you would see in a museum – if you put all of those experiences together and translated them to a musical fashion, that’s what you’re going to find on The Calm. I describe it sometimes as something to take people away from real life, and take [them on] a trip somewhere else. But throughout this trip, there’s painful reminders of what’s actually going on around you. It’s very difficult to let people escape from the life they’re living through your music, but throughout this ride, constantly remind them about the horrible things that are going on around them. When you mix the highs of being away from real life [with] the reality of real life, and you try and fuse it into one project, I think you get The Calm.

TCUS: This is another tweet of yours: “Just told my mom in four years this house is going to be paid off.” How did she respond to that?

John River: She said “yesterday, you said it was three!” [Laughs] Yeah, “yesterday you said it was three, and the day before you said it was two! Why is it getting longer?” [Laughs] You know what? It’s a promise that I made, and a promise I’m going to keep. Sometimes you just need to set deadlines on things. [For instance,] if a teacher gives you an assignment and she doesn’t put a deadline on it, then you won’t do it! If you know it has to be done by a certain day, somehow we always manage to get things done by that time. So I figured, four years is a good time frame. Until then, you can keep doing the laundry, and going to work…

TCUS: [Laughs]

John River: She said, “can you go to the store and pick this up?” I [told her], “mom, mom, mom…. four years! We’ll get the chauffeur to do it.” [Laughs] So we hope.

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

John River: I want to say a couple things. First of all, thank you to The Come Up Show, of course, for having me. Much appreciated.

TCUS: Glad to have you.

John River: Thank you. Also, I’d like to thank ANTHM. And you know what? I’ll give you another exclusive for The Calm. I don’t know if you know the Bad Boy artist Los (Shooter), he’s a Baltimore rapper, he’ll also be featured on The Calm. And shout out to SAVEMONEY, Chance The Rapper, Kembe X and the Chicago crew, who I’m going to keep my lips sealed about. Go download The Calm, and support good music! Real recognize real.

TCUS: [Laughs] Any projected release date for The Calm yet?

John River: I can’t say yet, but I would say late November, early December.

TCUS: Alright, that’s good enough for me [laughs]. Thank you very much for your time tonight, and good luck to you in the future!

John River: No problem, brother. Take care.

Photos of John River courtesy of Brendan McFater photography and Dream’NinetyOne