[Interview + Podcast] Promise talks his upcoming album, pursuing goals, and coming up alongside Drake

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Toronto’s Promise is a rare breed. Not only is he one of the few Canadian hip-hop artists who can claim to make a living exclusively off of music — no small task — he’s also managed to do so while shedding the label of a prototypical “Christian rapper,” along with the baggage that comes with it. As Promise acknowledges, “it’s very hard to find music that has a good message that is also dope.”

One can often get a sense of an artist based on the company they keep, and a look at Promise’s list of frequent collaborators puts him in good surroundings: along with Drake — who he met when Drake had yet to even record a verse — he’s worked with the likes of Jhene Aiko, Shad, Slakah The Beatchild, LordQuest, and Dan-e-o (with whom he formed the group Perfeck Strangers).

It’s been awhile since the Toronto emcee released a full-length album — 2011’s Awakening was his last — but now he’s back and gearing up for his latest offering. We caught up with Promise to talk about his upcoming album, pursuing goals, coming up alongside Drake, and lots more. Read the interview below and listen to the extended version of the podcast above.

TCUS: What was your first introduction to hip-hop?

Promise: Wow, taking me back! I mean, I didn’t even grow up on hip-hop; I grew up on soul and funk and stuff like that, so I can’t even remember the very first time, but the first time I kinda grabbed onto it – as in [thinking], I want to be involved in hip-hop – was probably the Wu-Tang era: early Method Man, “Release Yo Delf,” “Bring The Pain,” the 36 Chambers times.

TCUS: What was it about Wu-Tang that grabbed a hold of you?

Promise: I have no idea, you know? Just the whole vibe, the energy and passion behind the vocals. [Method Man] made me believe that he believed what he was saying. I think that’s what pulled me into listening to him and vibing with him. It was Tical that grabbed me, but then I started appreciating the rest of them through my passion for hip-hop that started growing out of that.

TCUS: Aside from Wu-Tang, what was the most influential album for you growing up?

Promise: There were two: Kanye’s College Dropout and Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation. I think those two are like the best hip-hop albums, because they have an amazing sound, they express strong, positive messages, and they’re dope. It’s very hard to find music that has a good message that is also dope. Usually, you hear something with a clean message, and you associate it with, “oh, that artist is corny,” or “the music quality’s not up to par,” you know what I’m saying? It’s like when people hear my music; they’re confused. They’re like, “how does it sound so good? And you don’t even swear. You’re not talking about hoes and [everything else].” They’re not used to hearing good music, at a good quality level, from an artist that can actually rap, or sing, or do whatever they’re doing, and I think Lauryn Hill’s album and Kanye’s [album] are at the top [for that reason].

TCUS: You mentioned earlier that you grew up listening to soul music. What other music was playing in the house as you were growing up?

Promise: A lot of soul. My dad is a ballroom dancer, so I’d hear everything from James Brown, to Paul Anka, to old tunes like [starts singing] “sixteeeen candles,” and Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye. Old stuff. That’s what I grew up on. That’s probably also what looped me into loving Kanye, for sampling all of the records that I already knew and was in love with because of my dad. I’m like, man, this is a perfect mixture of everything I love. It’s got that soul, but it’s hip-hop, and it’s bangin’.

TCUS: At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue music as a career?

Promise: I was in the caf at A.Y. Jackson, which is the high school I attended – I was in creative writing, and all of that stuff, so I would write a lot, and freestyle, and battle my boys in the caf – and one of the caf staff members heard us one day, and he pulled me aside. He had a hip-hop group – I think it was called Shadow Law Empire or something like that; it was kind of like a 12-member, Wu-Tang type group, and he later recruited me and my boy into the group.

But he pulled me aside, and he told me that he’d been listening to us, and he was like, “all your boys are cool, but you’ve really got something. I think if you take it more seriously, you could really make an impact. What you’re saying is really inspiring, and I know you kinda change what you’re saying when you’re with your boys to get kicks and laughs and whatever, but I hear something more in you. You should take it more seriously.” Since then, I would work on stuff with the crew and whatever, but I would also hone my craft on my [own] time.

TCUS: It’s pretty rare for someone in a school setting to tell you to pursue music. Normally, you think a staff member would say, “go to school, get your degree,” and all that.

Promise: Yeah, but he wasn’t a teacher, right? He worked in the caf, serving food. His heart was in hip-hop, and he would educate us whenever we’d get together. He’d kind of use us like pit bulls in a dogfight; he would sic us on other battle rappers [laughs]. We would write all the time, so we were good, and we’d be beating a lot of older emcees. It was fun, but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t really see the sense in tearing people down; I’d rather build people up.

TCUS: From your music, and from saying things like that, you sound like someone who’s very grounded. Where do you think you got that from?

Promise: Well, I grew up a Christian, so just the values and principles come from that, knowing God and seeking certain things. And positivity’s always played a huge role in my upbringing.

TCUS: I read an interview of yours – and this was from 2009, mind you – where you mentioned having easily over 20,000 songs in your catalog. How did you come by that work ethic?

Promise: I don’t know. This is just what I do, and I love doing it, so I don’t really understand people – and I know a lot of people like this – who say they want to be a rapper, or they want to be an artist, and I call them to see what they’re doing, and they’re not doing anything: they’re not recording; they’re not writing; they’re not in the studio; they’re not trying to find a studio. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve been doing this full-time for a long time, and it boggles my mind, the amount of calls that I don’t get. I’d expect people to be harassing me to get in [and record].

Some people are, mind you. Some of the younger, hungrier people are on me, and I have to kinda section them off and be like, “listen, I need some time for myself and my family, relax” [laughs]. But I’d expect people who say they’re serious, or want to be in the position that I’m in, to [put in the work]. People are like, “I don’t get how you do this full-time.” It’s because I put in work! When you guys are sleeping, when you guys are clubbing, when you guys are drinking and doing all this other nonsense that’s not gonna better your life, I’m working. I’m making the music you go and pay Guvernment $20 to dance to, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs] This is what I do, all day, every day. Every single day, I write songs, so for me to build a catalogue is nothing.

When I signed with Duck Down a few years back, they loved the album that I presented to them, and they were like, “we’re thinking maybe in a year or two, you could put out another album. How long do you think it would take you?” And I was like, “well, I have albums [already done]. You can just go and pick.” I really don’t have to record again. I do, because I love making music, so I record constantly – which sometimes is a problem, because I’m like, “that song’s old,” and meanwhile, the world hasn’t heard it yet. A lot of the stuff that I release that was 4.5/5 star reviewed, a lot of that stuff was six, seven years old!

Promise - Awakening

The odd time, I’ll re-record the vocals, or I’ll re-produce something, but most of the time, it’s just like that, because the style of music I like and produce is timeless music. It’s not the triple-speed hi-hats and stuttering snares that’s gonna be stale four months later. It’s not the syncopated electronic [music] from Soulja Boy that’s hot on one single, so everybody’s trying to jump on it to be hot in Atlanta, and everybody has it, so it’s stale. [My music is] real music, with musicians, and arrangements. Not a beat loop, but a beat that changes when the pre-chorus comes in, and then the chorus, and then maybe a bridge breakdown, because I’m a songwriter, and so I think like that. Most emcees don’t think like that; they just want a dope beat with hard drums, and they just let the loop play, and it gets boring – especially if you have more than two verses.

TCUS: What is timeless music to you?

Promise: To me, timeless music is music that will be played after this moment. As amazing as some of the music is that comes out – and not to knock any artist that I may reference or whatever – [a lot of it doesn’t last]. I love Drake, not just his talent, but as a person – we came up doing a lot of work together – but a lot of the hits that people loved then, nobody’s playing now. And it’s not that it’s not good [music] – it’s great – but it’s not timeless. It’s something about the song, and the production, that allows it to be carried on into other eras and other generations.

And I’m not claiming to know the formula to that [laughs]. But that seems to be a common denominator in what I do. My last album was released in 2011, and there are people who are hearing it now for the first time and loving it. The album still [sounds] brand new. The label I’m with wants to re-release that album, and I’m okay with that, because it still sounds amazing. It’s not like, “oh, that’s dated, that’s from ’96 [or whenever.” It sounds like I did it yesterday. And I don’t know why, but that seems to be what I do [laughs].

TCUS: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier, when you were talking about doing music as a full-time job. I read an interview that LordQuest did recently, and he was talking about how you’re one of the few people he knows that does music exclusively as a career. He’s never seen you working another job to make ends meet. In hip-hop, and especially in Canada, that’s no small task. Why do you think you’ve succeeded where others have failed?

Promise: My mindset is different. A lot of people – like you said, especially in Canada – the mindset is “go to school, or get a job, just in case.” I don’t believe in that. That’s why you see people popping off in the States at like 8, 12, 13 years old, because their mindset in the States is different. You see your son at three years old kicking a soccer ball, boom, you throw him in soccer leagues, you put everything behind him. We don’t do that up here; we’re too conservative; we’re too scared; we worry about security, when nothing is secure, because you could lose any job, and just because you go to school does not mean you’re gonna get a job. That’s already been proven time after time. You know how many friends I have that have been to [college] for music and are not working in music right now? [They get a piece of paper] and think, I’m gonna work in a studio, or I’m gonna be a rap star, or I’m gonna be a manager, and they’re not.

I didn’t go to school for music; I learned everything hands-on. I went to school, and then I did co-op at a studio, and I learned hands-on. I learned how to engineer; I learned how to produce; I learned how to network and [everything else] just by being in it, and that’s the best way. I’m not trying to tell anybody to quit school [laughs]. I always have to watch my words, because people tell me all the time, “I feel like you’re telling me to drop out.” I’m not saying that. In a way, I am, but I’m not [laughs]. I’m saying be smart about what you want to do. If you really want to do this, find out how to really do it and [then] do it.

Don’t just do what you think; do what you know. It’s easy – especially if you’re one of the people who revered me as “man, I see Promise doing it, [I want to do what he’s doing,]” ask me questions! Come and talk to me! Don’t go to school and talk to somebody who’s not doing it – not to knock any teachers – but [if you] go and talk to somebody who gets paid to teach, they’re going to say, “come, let me teach you.” Go and see if you can intern at a studio; go and see if you can intern at a label, you know what I’m saying? People are so afraid to take chances up here, and that’s not how I am. That’s not how I was raised, and that’s not how I raise my children.

TCUS: So you think having a Plan B is limiting, and that’s what holds people back.

Promise: It is, 100%. If you want to be a rapper, but your Plan B is going to med school, just in case the rap thing doesn’t pop off, you’re not giving 100% to your vision – you can’t, because you’re doing two things. So it’s either 50/50 or 75/25 – whatever it is, you’re not giving 100%, so why should you get 100%?

TCUS: You mentioned earlier that you came up alongside Drake. How did you and Drake first meet?

Promise: We met on Degrassi. Everybody knows he had a lead role, but I was a student at Degrassi for maybe like seven years; it was a long time. We met through a mutual friend, Jermaine Brown, who’s a singer-songwriter. He heard my stuff, and he was like, “man, this is dope. I think [my friend] would love it. He’s been writing.” He introduced us, and Drake showed me his lyrics, and it would have been in the stairwell at Degrassi, and I was like, “spit something for me, let me hear.” He read off his lyrics, and I was like, “man, you’re dope! We should do something!” And he was like, “yeah, I’d love to! I haven’t really recorded anything; I’ve just been writing.”

I brought him to my studio, and we just started working from then. A lot of the tracks from his early mixtapes – Room for Improvement and Comeback Season, and all those ones – I recorded and engineered in my studio. We did a whole mixtape together [which] I haven’t released yet; it’s just there, chilling in the archives. It was dope! And our friendship just [grew] from doing music together and being on set together.

TCUS: So before the world heard Drake the way he is today, you first heard him and recorded him.

Promise: Oh yeah! And he didn’t sound like he does now. He sounds not completely different, but a lot different. In our early days, he sounded more like Loon from Bad Boy, and he rapped mainly about ladies. [Laughs] He was a ladies man rapper: smooth, always talking about girls.

TCUS: Going back to work ethic, what’s Drake’s work ethic like?

Promise: I don’t know what [it’s like] now. Back then, it was the beginnings, right? So everybody in the beginning is hungry. He was just like any other person who was excited, and passionate, and wanting to make something happen. He did a lot of stuff that nobody else has done – some of which, because he could [afford to]. He paid for his own videos; he paid for the features – you know, the Trey Songz [collaboration] that popped everything off. Some people weren’t in a position, financially, to do that. I’m not saying that he did what others didn’t, but he was in a better position to do certain things. Even with his already-made fan base, he was poised to be bigger; I just didn’t know that he would be the biggest thing, and I didn’t know that it would happen so fast.

But I knew it would happen. Everybody I tried to put onto him, I told them, “he has all these star qualities: he has media training, he’s light skinned – as bad as it may sound – plus he can actually rap, and he already has a fan base of over a million.” These are things that are like, yeah [laughs]. I wasn’t in a position to back him [financially] or invest in him, but as a friend, I wanted to help however I could, so I tried to introduce people to him. And at that time, people were brushing him off and not taking him seriously, because of Degrassi. It wasn’t even until Wayne cosigned him that everybody was like “ahhhhh!” But that’s Canada’s nature. Labels aren’t trying to [sign you] until the States [are behind you]. We just follow.

TCUS: Do you feel like the same thing happened to you, where Canada didn’t embrace you until you signed with Duck Down?

Promise: Oh yeah! And it’s still not even at the point where I think it should be. But definitely, no-one was really trying to mess with me or book me until the States [gave me love]. I think it’s ridiculous that we always wait for somebody else’s approval to acknowledge our own [artists]. We’ve got a lot of great talent here – that’s why everybody’s coming and scooping our talent. Almost all of our producers are gone and signed, and the songwriters are starting to get picked up now. It’s sad that all these other labels up here are missing out, and nobody in Canada wants to sign with a Canadian company, because they weren’t showing love in the first place. Promoters [are afraid to] book local acts, because they’re like, “we need to bring in so-and-so.” We’ve got people out here who are just as good, you know? But that’s the nature of Toronto and the urban music industry here.

TCUS: Do you think things are improving? Or have things changed at all?

Promise: I haven’t seen a change. I’m sure things are improving at some level, because we’re getting more looks, but I don’t know if anything will really pop off in our city just for us, instead of people coming here to scoop our artists and take us worldwide. [That’s] great, but why is there nothing here, where all the music’s being made, and where all the artists are? I don’t understand it, but I haven’t really tried to understand the infrastructure of the industry here. It’s not my job; it’s not my passion. I’m here to help wherever I can with whoever wants to do that, but like everybody else, I’ve gotta look out for me, because nobody else is trying to look out for me.

TCUS: Tell me about this Tweet: “How come it ain’t a trend to rap flawless? How come the dope emcees mimic the wack artists?”

Promise: Yeah! I think that was Locksmith. I just thought that was a dope, dope quote. Why is the trend to [mimics “Versace” flow] rap how everybody else can do? I don’t get why that’s hot. I’m not taking shots at any artists, I just don’t understand it. When I hear people like, “give me a 2 Chainz type joint,” I’m like, why would anybody want to rap like that on purpose? I don’t get it. I do understand why it’s catchy, because it’s simple, and I understand how people can sing along with it, but I don’t understand why anybody would want that, or what benefit that has to your life.

Some people just don’t care about that, [and say], “I just wanna turn up!” [Laughs] Where did that even come from? You know, “these tracks are crazy, but you gotta give us at least three turn up tracks!” I’m not even that old, I’m just not in that mind space. I always want to do better. It’s hard for me to not rap about something. In my life, I want to listen to something and have something to take from it. I don’t just want to be like, “oh, that’s a great song.” Well, why is it great? Did it sound great? Did it make you feel better? Did it change your life? I’m about changing lives; I’m not just about having fun.

TCUS: Here’s a quote of yours from another interview: “The power of life and death is in the tongue and anyone who doesn’t respect/understand that shouldn’t be behind a mic.” Tell me about that.

Promise: Well I mean, some people just look at [artistry] as a job, and they don’t really consider the listener. That’s something I heard once: consider your listener. There’s a lot of people in high positions that always make sure to say that to me: “do what you’re doing, just make sure you consider your listener.” Some people don’t think like that. A lot of people think, “it’s my music, and it’s my expression, so if they don’t want it, they don’t have to listen to it.”

But some people are going to hear it forcefully, just by chance, because somebody else turns it on, and you’re affecting that person’s life. You’ve gotta consider your listener; do you want to tear somebody down or build them up? That’s the choice. There’s only two choices, life or death. It’s not halfway. You’re either doing good or bad, and I think we’re in a world that kinda creates a grey, like, certain things are okay and certain things are not. You know, some people [condemn rape, but still] think putting Molly in [people’s drinks] is okay, because “she was in the club, so she must have wanted something to pop off,” you know what I’m saying? It’s the same thing! It’s bad.

It’s not okay; it’s [either] good or bad – and that’s how I listen to music too. I’m kinda critical [laughs]. A lot of people want me in the studio, and a lot of people don’t, because I’m [going to tell you it’s either] good or bad. I’m not your yes-man. Either it’s dope or it’s not. I’ll let you know why, but that’s just how I am.

TCUS: I believe you know Gemstones. He had a very similar quote about that. He said, “more rappers should speak life if we hold the power of life and death in our tongues.” I asked him a few years back about how he finds a balance between appeasing different crowds in his music, and he said, “it’s not hip-hop,” and “it’s not gospel. There’s no title for the music I do.” You’ve spoken before about the challenge of “being not ‘Christian’ enough for the church, and too ‘Church’ for the world.” How do you find a balance in your music?

Promise: I don’t. I’ve just learned to be me, and whoever likes me will like my music – and that’s who it’s for, really. As bad as it sounds, I really don’t care who doesn’t like my music. I just look at it as it’s not for them. Erykah Badu put me onto that. They asked her in an interview, and she was like, “I don’t care if you like my music. I want to know how it made you feel, because [music] is going to make everybody feel something.” I was like, wow, that’s amazing, and I’m living by that. That’s how I feel.

I don’t go out of my way to tell people I don’t like their music. If somebody asks me, I’m truthful. Some people hire me to executive produce their projects because they need that, and they understand why my music is at a certain level, because I don’t play. I don’t ask my friends, “what do you think about this?” I come off the stage, and I ask my manager, “what can I change to make this better?” because I can always be better.

TCUS: When I interviewed LordQuest a few months ago, he was telling me that he’s been doing some work on your new album. What can you tell me about the project at this point?

Promise: Man, I love it. I mean, I’m biased, but… [laughs]. It’s great, it’s different, and I’m just excited for it to drop. I’ve still got a couple more joints I’m working on with Quest – originally, I wanted the whole [album] produced by Quest, but he’s gotten so busy, especially since the ScHoolboy, and the Dom Kennedy, and the Talib Kweli credits have started to pop off. I’ve got two or three [tracks from him] already, and I want three more. But the album… There’s just so many elements. It’s really eclectic and different. I’m not your regular dude [laughs]. I’m not supposed to say anything [about a title or features] yet, but it’s got a cool concept, a couple pretty big features, and over the next couple months, you’ll find out more about that.

TCUS: When all is said and done, what will it take for you to look back on your career and say, “I’ve been sucessful”?

Promise: I guess I’ve already been successful to an extent, but I just want to be able to do what I’m doing in a larger capacity. That’s it. Add a zero or a couple zeros to everything that I’m doing now, and I’m good. I’m good right now. Like, if this was it, and I just coasted like this forever, I’m good – believe me, I’m good [laughs]. I don’t have to answer to anybody in that sense; I do what I want to do, and I love doing it. I’m happy – that’s number one for me. For me, if you’re not happy, something’s wrong. It’s not about, “ahh man, I could be making $20K, but I’m only making $12K, or $8K, or whatever.” If you’re happy, you’re good.

TCUS: Anything else you still want to add?

Promise: Check me out at ipromisemusic.com. Everywhere, @ipromisemusic is me, so if you Google ipromisemusic, that’s me.

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