[Interview] Rapsody talks “The Idea of Beautiful,” working with 9th Wonder, and being labeled a “femcee”

Interview by: Martin Bauman

North Carolina has long been a quiet hotbed for talent in hip-hop. What started with Lords of the Underground (well, sort of) and Little Brother led to talented artists like the Justus League collective, J. Cole, and Kooley High. Most recently, it’s been the birthplace of an emcee whose proficiency on the mic has shattered all pre-existing notions of what it means to be a woman who raps, presenting a strong argument as to why gender should play no part in discussing an emcee’s level of skill. If you haven’t heard of 9th Wonder’s protege Rapsody, now is the time to get familiar. The Snow Hill emcee has been making a huge name for herself in the past year, having released her fantastic album The Idea of Beautiful and having earned recognition as one of the emcees eligible for the 10 Spot on the 2013 XXL Freshmen List. She also happens to be a member of the aforementioned Kooley High. The Come Up Show caught up with Rapsody to discuss her album, working with 9th Wonder, being labelled a “femcee”, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: Before we get into your album The Idea of Beautiful, I’d like to learn a little about your background. Aside from your solo work, you’re also in Kooley High. How did Kooley High start?

Rapsody: Kooley High started through an organization that we had formed on campus. We all went to NC State, and we all didn’t know each other at the time, but everybody knew Charlie Smarts. He came up with the idea of starting a hip-hop organization on campus – you know, just to have fun and bring some life to the campus, hip-hop wise – so we started hanging out, and [the six of us] hung out more than everybody else in the club.

There were probably like 30 members in the club, but every night, it was us six together making music, or just hanging out – me watching [Sinopsis] make beats, or going to Foolery and watching him make beats. We would just hang, and we started making music together, and 9th [Wonder] heard a few songs that we did and was like “why don’t y’all just become a group?” That was the spring of 2006, and we’ve been going strong ever since.

TCUS: Moving from one High to another, what can you tell me about Greene Central High?

Rapsody: Ohh wow! You did your research! [Laughs] Greene Central is the high school that I graduated from, and those are like the wonder years for me. I was a smart kid, I took a lot of honours classes; I was athletic, I played basketball; I was a popular kid, but I liked to hang out with everybody, whether you were a jock, a nerd… it didn’t matter, I hung out with everybody – I was like the cool kid. That was high school, a lot of good memories [laughs].

TCUS: How did you first get into rapping?

Rapsody: I started writing poetry first. I used to watch Def Poetry Jam, and I started doing spoken word. I kinda transitioned into [rapping] that way. Since I was a child, it was always something I wanted to do, but I had nerves – I was scared, I didn’t think I could do it. I started hanging with Charlie Smarts, and he just made me comfortable. He made me comfortable, Tab-One made me comfortable, just being at H2O [the campus Hip Hop Organization] with all these other artists.

And it wasn’t like “you better rap,” or “you better burn the mic down,” it was just like “let’s have fun, just get in the booth and do it.” We did a compilation and I got in the booth, and I spit my first two songs, which were [also] the first two that 9th had heard. And that’s how I started, man. I haven’t looked back since.

TCUS: What was the first rap album you ever got?

Rapsody: The first one I ever got was Warren G’s Regulate. My aunt bought it for me; I begged her to buy it for me, because I was too young because of the Parental Advisory sticker [laughs]. That’s like when you really had to go in a CD store, and they’d be like “how old are you?” [But] that was the first one I had.

TCUS: You said you met with 9th Wonder in 2006, did you connect with him before then or was that the first time you connected?

Rapsody: We became Kooley High in 2006. I met 9th for the first time in the fall of ’05, meaning I [actually] got to sit down and have a conversation with him. Before that, I was working at Footaction – me and Charlie worked at Footaction in the mall – and [9th Wonder] came in to buy some sneakers. I remember exactly what they were, they were some green and white shell-toe Adidas. And that was the first time I got to see him and meet him.

I had never met him in person before, so I was like “that looks like 9th Wonder, but I don’t know…” But he came and paid for [the shoes], and I talked to him on some customer stuff, but I never brought up music or that I was a fan. [When he left], I went up to Charlie and I was like “that was 9th, wasn’t it?” He was just like “yeah.”

But the crazy thing is, 9th went to school with my brother-in-law – they were real good friends. Before I started rapping, I tried to make beats for like a week, and my brother-in-law was like “if you want, I can call 9th and he can show you how to make beats,” and I was like “heck naw, I’m not good, I don’t wanna go nowhere near that,” [laughs]. So that’s the story of [how I met 9th].

TCUS: Tell me about the first time that you sat down with him and talked about music.

Rapsody: That was in the fall of 2005. We did that compilation for H2O, and Foolery was interning with 9th at the time, so he had him come and sit down and just talk to us. That was probably like a month before The Minstrel Show came out, so he had these pilot CDs of The Minstrel Show that he was handing out. He sat down and he talked to us about the business, and just gave us advice, and then we played the compilation for him.

He listened to every song, and when it [came] time for my song to come around, it was a song called “The Life” – which was the first one – and the other one was a song called “Come Close”. And I go back and listen to them, and I don’t know what [he] heard, those songs are so wack, but he kept saying “take it back, take it back, start it over.” And I’m sitting in the back, like “man, he’s gonna pick this shit apart!” I [was] so embarrassed. But he was like “that’s your star right there, you just gotta work on A, B, and C.” He talked to me, and he gave me some homework to do, just to sharpen my flow and delivery. And that was it, you know? He’s been giving me advice ever since.

TCUS: Now, I have a quote of 9th Wonder’s that I want to ask you about. He said, “you’re learning to control the matrix. Don’t be afraid of that power.”

Rapsody: Wow [laughs]. That’s one of my favourite ones. We were in the studio one night, and I want to say this was right around Return of the B-Girl, or after Return of the B-Girl, before Thank H.E.R Now. I don’t know, I just went somewhere else. I had been working on trying to get the flow and cadence down, and I did like three songs and it was like “BAM!” It was like I had turned the corner, and he said, “what’s happening is it’s like you’re Neo in The Matrix. Everything is slowing down for you, so you’re able to see it. You’ve hit this stride.”

And that’s what it was, and he just kinda broke it down like that. As I’ve grown, I’ve gotten better and better, and I [now] see what he’s talking about. I can watch football and Russell Wilson, and I’ll be like “man, he’s in the matrix!” I can see [by] how he’s moving that the game is slowed down to him. I know what [9th] means now. When a beat comes on, it’s slowed down, and I can hear those drums, and I know how to follow them now. Before, I was still having trouble keeping on that cadence, [and] on that drum track. But that’s one of my favourite [quotes].

TCUS: A personal motto of yours is “Culture over everything.” Can you explain?

Rapsody: In a nutshell, it [means that] the people are the most important thing – it starts and ends with the people. And [it’s about] preserving the culture of hip-hop, and knowing the history of it, and making music for the people: music people can relate to, and dope music. [It’s about] just trying to keep those blinders on and focus on that, [rather than] money, materialism, fame, and everything else. If you make that foundation, [then] everything else will fall into place.

TCUS: Let’s talk about your latest album, The Idea of Beautiful. What was the concept behind the album?

Rapsody: Basically, I titled it that because I [told myself] with this album, I’m not gonna worry about what’s hot, what’s trending, what’s popping… I’m not gonna focus on that. I’m just gonna tell my story, and make the music that I want to make, and just have fun with it and not over think it. That was just the idea of beautiful thing, and the most beautiful thing is when you can be yourself and tell your story, and own that. Just be comfortable in your own skin. So that was the whole idea.

I just wanted to tell my story, and I wanted people to get to know me as an artist, and really create my lane as far as the sound of it. We wanted something that was warm, that sounded like if Lauryn [Hill] had made an album where she rapped the whole thing, but it was warm – somewhere between The Score and The Miseducation. Not that I was trying to be Lauryn or anything, but that was just a sound that fit me, and that’s the sound that I love and grew up loving, so I wanted an album that sounded like that. So that was the idea of The Idea of Beautiful [laughs].

“Beauty is so much more than just skin/ The feast of the eyes supplies mere fractions of what lies within.” – Big Rube in “Motivation”

TCUS: In your song “Believe Me”, you talk about wanting to “be someone that these little girls look up to.” Why is this important to you?

Rapsody: I don’t think we have enough positive role models, especially in hip-hop. We have Nicki Minaj, but she’s the only one. When I was growing up, I had MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Bahamadia, Missy Elliot, Rah Digga, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown… the list goes on and on. I had a wide range of women to look up to in hip-hop, and they were all different, which gave me a choice of what kind of woman I wanted to be, and how I wanted to carry myself. I was a fan of all of them. I really think that’s what’s missing. Aside from me doing this because I love it and it’s my passion, I also want to be a role model and just be something different for little girls to look up to.

TCUS: Speaking of Lauryn Hill, growing up, she was one of your major influences. How did she influence you?

Rapsody: She was just dope, and to be a woman, that was it. MC Lyte was the first woman I saw do it that made me as a child [think] “ahh, that’s what I wanna be!” But when I got into Lauryn, just the music she made and the things she talked about… In The Miseducation, she put it all out on the line. She gave you everything she had. You didn’t see her as a woman, you just saw her as an emcee. She just did her thing. But it was just something about the music, and everything she represented, and how she carried herself. She could be [a] tomboy at one point, and then she could turn around and be more ladylike, but it wasn’t fake. It was just real and innocent, and that’s what I drawn to.

TCUS: There’s another line in “Believe Me” that stuck out to me. You say “Lauryn ain’t crazy, just don’t know what she’s been through.” Can you elaborate on this?

Rapsody: Artists have a hard way to go, their life is under a microscope. I hear a lot of people [saying], “what is she doing now? She’s crazy, she’s on drugs, da da da da da.” You can’t judge someone if you don’t know them. You don’t know what she goes through day to day, you don’t know why she’s doing [what she does]. I feel like the only thing we should worry about is Lauryn doing whatever she needs to do to make [herself] happy. That’s what it is.

You never know the reason why someone is doing this [and that]. I just think she has a hard way to go, and I think it’s unwarranted. It’s a crazy business. The music business is a jungle, man, and regular people don’t know two percent of how much of a monster the business can be. So you never judge somebody. Listen to the music, [if] you like it, you like it; [if] you don’t, you don’t. Anything outside of that doesn’t concern you.

TCUS: You said something earlier about Lauryn that caught my attention. You said you didn’t see her as a woman, you saw her as an emcee, period. When I hear your music, I think the same thing. That being said, I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘femcee’ many times in your career. What are your thoughts on the term?

Rapsody: I’ve come to really not like the term. In the beginning, it wasn’t a big deal to me, because I just looked at it as people showing love. There aren’t a lot of females that are represented in hip-hop, so it was just like “ohh, you’re just somebody that represents me as a female rapper.” That’s how I looked at it. But as I’ve grown, and I’ve really gotten into the business, I’m on Twitter all the time and I see how people use [femcee]. They use it to box you in; it’s no different from being called a backpack rapper or being labelled a white rapper.

It really puts you in this box, so [it’s like] “you’re good for a girl,” or “you’re one of the best female rappers I’ve heard,” well, where am I in your list of emcees, period? There’s no separation in men and women. It’s not like basketball; with basketball, men are just made differently to dunk and play this game at another level. But if we’re talking about rapping, the playing field is even. Skill-wise, I have the same opportunity as any guys, I just gotta work at it. That’s why I hate [the term], because it’s used to separate you so much.

TCUS: On the flip side of things, I should mention that you have a chance to be included in the 2013 Freshmen Class of XXL. What are your thoughts on that?

Rapsody: Man, I woke up and saw somebody tweet it, and I was like “wow!” It’s an honour. That’s a big [recognition]. It’s something people wait for every year, “who’s gonna be the Top 10 this year?” It’s just like The Source‘s How Many Mics? It’s a big thing, and it’s an honour to be named in that pool of artists to be chosen from. I’m really excited, I’m humbled, I’m honoured, and whether I make it or [not], just to be named and recognized [is] enough for me. It’s a big accomplishment.

TCUS: Moving on, in your song “The Drums”, you say “now the power’s with the people, wonder if they can tell.” Can you talk about this?

Rapsody: That’s something that I’ve learned, just talking to 9th about the state of things and why some artists make it farther than other artists. I don’t think the people really realize how much power they do have. A lot of times, people will listen to the radio and wait for TV or videos to tell them what’s hot. And whether they like it or not, they’ll be like “well, it’s on TV, it’s on the radio, so it must be hot. I have to make myself like it.” Now, we’re in a time where if you don’t like it, you can turn off the radio and go to YouTube, or go to Sirius Satellite, or whatever, and find artists that make music that you like.

If you support those artists by buying their music and coming to their shows, and just spreading the word about them, that’s a big movement. It’s really about numbers and the buzz you have that really pushes an artist to the forefront. If you find an artist [that] you like, support them to the fullest. That’s how they make it to TV and the radio. Or if not that, then that’s how they become a Mac Miller, because they have a movement of people behind them, supporting them. That’s what I mean by [saying] people have a lot of power: they dictate what’s hot and what’s not, based on their support of it.

TCUS: You mentioned Mac Miller there, I know you and him go a little ways back. What’s it like to see him on the stage that he’s reached right now?

Rapsody: I’m excited, man! I’m excited. I know that’s what he’s always wanted, and he works so hard, and he really, really loves what he does. He loves to make music, and he loves hip-hop. Even with [his success], he still hasn’t changed. He’s still the same Mac Miller, so I’m happy; I’m very, very excited for him. He’s living his dream. Anytime you can see someone – whether you know them or not – live their dream, and wake up and do something that they love to do everyday and make a living off of it, that’s great. I’m happy for him.

TCUS: You were in South Africa for the video for “Kind of Love”. What brought you out there?

Rapsody: 9th and I – and Actual Proof – were touring. We went to Johannesburg and Cape Town to do some shows. I wanted to shoot the video, and I always wanted to shoot it in Africa, so [the timing] was just crazy, and how it happened. 9th had went to Africa with Phonte in April, and that was around the time [that] we were searching for a sound of the album – we were just starting to get into it.

I’d record a song, and it’d be like “the song’s dope, but that’s not really it. That’s not the feeling that we’re looking for.” So he went to Africa in April and a video came on, and it was an artist by the name of Nomsa Mazwai – she’s on the album three times – and he was like “that’s it, that’s the sound!” So he got the album, he brought it back and he played it for me, and it was like “dang, that’s it!” So we sampled three records. We sampled “In the Town”, “Kind of Love”, and “When I Have You”.

I did “Kind of Love”, and right after that, while [9th Wonder] was there, a lot of the fans in Africa were like “when are you gonna bring Jamla [and] Rapsody?” They decided to bring me, so while we were down there, we got to shoot the video. I haven’t met Nomsa yet because she was in New York, but I got to meet the two little girls that are on the cover of the album. Africa had a lot to do with the sound of the album, and of course, the album cover, so it was only right that I’d shoot a video there.

TCUS: Speaking of Nomsa and “When I Have You”, that was one of my favourite songs of the past year. In the song, you repeat the same line: “We’re all dreamers at the end of the day.” Can you talk about this?

Rapsody: All of us have a dream, or a passion, or something that we want to do in life. A lot of people don’t really get to live their dream or their passion, because of fear, or they may not feel like they have the money, or the support, or what have you. At the end of the day, we’re all dreamers. We all have a dream, or something that we want to do in life, and I think it’s important that everybody at least tries to follow their heart and their passion, and tries to pursue their dream, and do what makes them happy. We all have a dream, and the beautiful thing is [to] just be yourself and follow your heart. Do what makes you happy, don’t care about what anybody else thinks, and follow your heart.

“I caught a story of a graduate at eighty-two years old/ I guess we all dreamers at the end of the day, though.” – Rapsody in “When I Have You”

TCUS: You talk in the song about your mom telling you “the ones winning got ones beside ’em.” What was that conversation like?

Rapsody: [Laughs] Man, my mom… We were just talking about the music thing, and she knows how hard I work at it, and things I had to go through – whether it be sleeping at the studio, or me having a car break down on me at least once or two times a week – and just the struggle of it. But she always kept telling me “keep going, keep working hard. I see you, I’m proud of you. If you work hard, it’ll pay off, and no matter what, I’m always here for you.”

And she’d want to do things like buy me a townhouse, and buy me a car to help me out, and I would always be like “nahh ma, you’re working, you need a car too,” and she’d be like “you gotta let people help you. If you wanna win, you have to let go of your pride and let people help you, because that’s the only way you’re gonna make it.” And 9th would have to tell me the same thing. I never wanted to feel like I’m troubling anybody. If I didn’t think it was a necessity, I’d be like “nah, I’m good. I don’t have to eat this today, I can get a little Kids’ Meal or whatever.” I just had to humble myself, and like she said, “let somebody help you, because that’s how you win. You’ll be able to pay me back one day.”

“She helped me bought a house, and a brand new four-door/ Before that, all my friends let me sleep on they sofo’s/ Bought me kids’ meals, ’cause pride wouldn’t let me ask fo’ mo’/ And 9th had to tell me, “we all need help, let it go”/ ‘Cause pride was eatin’ me and I ain’t know how to take from/ Used to givin’ all the time, and I ain’t feel right getting some/ She bought a new car, and I wouldn’t drive it/ I felt guilty, ’cause her own car she had was barely ridin’/ Looked me in the face and said “the ones winnin’ got ones beside ’em/ Baby girl we got your back, just promise you’ll keep trying.” – Rapsody in “When I Have You”

TCUS: Looking ahead, you’ve got a new EP coming called She Got Game. What can you tell me about the project?

Rapsody: It’s nothing that we really overthought, we just wanted to put out some more music. And 9th said, “people, they just wanna hear you rap.” I’m doing another album that’s coming out in the fall, so this is just something like me getting in the booth and having fun, getting all different kinds of beats and rapping on them, and working with some artists that I’ve wanted to work with. So I just wanted to put out something else and contribute to the new [laughs].

TCUS: Can you share what kinds of artists are you working with, or a release date for She Got Game?

Rapsody: It’s gonna be released this summer. We’re gonna do it in conjunction with 9th’s Dream Merchant Vol. 3, so The Dream Merchant Vol. 3 and She Got Game will come out together, in a sense. Big K.R.I.T was just here, so we talked about doing something for the EP. As long as his schedule permits, he should be on it. I have a joint with Raekwon called “Coconut Oil”; it was supposed to be on The Idea of Beautiful, but due to scheduling conflicts, we never got around to it. So we’re gonna put that on it. I really wanna work with Joey Bada$$; I can’t say that’s a definite, but that’s just somebody that I’d like to have on it. Those are three for now, but who knows who else?

TCUS: That’s all from me, is there anything else you’d like to say to the people out there?

Rapsody: I’d like to thank them for the support and for listening, and thank y’all for having me. The Idea of Beautiful is out now, it’s on iTunes and Amazon. You can follow me on Twitter @rapsodymusic. And before I go, I have to shout out my Jamla brother GQ. He’s the next one up to drop something off the label, and he’s a phenomenal artist. He just released a single called “The Town”, he has an album coming out called Death Threats & Love Notes, so I definitely want people to look out for him. He’s really gonna surprise a lot of people.