[Interview + Podcast] Rapsody talks meeting Jay Z, self-belief, and choosing to “give a damn”

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Make no mistake: for all her humility, Rapsody is not an emcee to be overlooked on the microphone. On “Hard To Choose,” the budding Jamla star raps, “The quietest in the room is the baddest one like Durant.” The more you think about it, it’s not that far of a stretch to compare her to the NBA’s reigning MVP. Both entered their respective fields being thought of as too soft to succeed — Durant, for his wiry frame, and Rapsody, for being a woman in a male-dominated genre. Durant shed that misnomer in Oklahoma City’s first playoffs series win in 2011. Here’s how ESPN writer Royce Young described the moment:

Kevin Durant, who had dropped 41 points, including 14 in the final five minutes, stalked along the baseline, right in front of where owners Clay Bennett and Aubrey McLendon sat. With his teammates hanging on his shoulders, Durant popped his jersey and bellowed, “This is my motherf—ing team!”

Nobody was questioning KD after that. As for Rapsody? That defining alpha moment could very well be her latest offering, Beauty and the Beast. After steady growth on The Idea of Beautiful and She Got Game, the Snow Hill, NC emcee sounds like an artist who has finally found her voice. The rhymes and delivery have always been there. The difference now is in her confidence, which shines through on every track. Three years after Durant’s alpha moment, he had his MVP season. It’s only a matter of time before Rapsody has her own. We caught up with the Jamla emcee to talk about meeting Jay Z, where her confidence comes from, carrying the torch from the likes of Ruby Dee and Maya Angelou, and much more. Listen to the podcast above and read the interview below.

TCUS: You’ve said before that your two biggest influences are Lauryn Hill and Jay Z. You’ve met both of them now. Tell me the story of meeting each of them and what that was like.

Rapsody: [Laughs] Yo, that first time meeting Jay Z was like magic. The way that we met, if anything would have gone differently – any split second of me picking up a piece of paper – I would not have met him. That’s just how on-time everything was. We were in New York at the House of Blues, and it was myself, 9th [Wonder] and Phonte on tour. I think HaLo had come up with us to New York.

Angela Yee was having a birthday party down at a bowling alley, so it was within walking distance. We were trying to get out after the show, and 9th was talking to this person, HaLo was talking to this person, I’m talking to this person. Then we wait for HaLo to get the merch, and we walk down there, and 9th’s still getting stopped to take pictures.

“I’m not looking at you dudes, I’m looking pass you” #JayZ much love to the Big Homie

A photo posted by Rapsody (@rapsodymusic) on

We finally get to the venue, and we’re Zulu Nation, so the guy at the door – he was Zulu – and 9th didn’t tell me this, but most of the time, if you go somewhere and you see a Maybach parked out front, there’s a chance that it could be Jay Z. There were two Maybachs out front. I didn’t think anything of it, but I’m thinking 9th did. We were talking about Zulu Nation, and I hear the guy and 9th – they kind of step off [to the side] and whisper. I still [didn’t] think nothing of it.

We walk in and get on the elevator, and it’s one where the door you walk in is opposite from the door you go out of. We go down one floor, and the door opens, but because of the way we walk in — 9th walked in first – so when the door opens, he goes, “hey man, wassup?” I’m behind him, and I can’t see who it is. It’s 9th, another guy, and me. I hear him talking: “I’ve got this artist. You are her greatest influence. She might be one of your biggest fans. You gotta meet her,” and he’s thinking I’m directly behind him, but I’m not. So he grabs the [other] guy, and he’s like… “oh, this is my man Rory, but let me let you meet my artist.”

When I saw it was him, I was thankful I wasn’t right behind [9th], because I had a second to compose myself [laughs]. I was f—ked up for a second. I don’t even remember what I said; I just remember shaking his hand. He says something – I don’t know what it is. I guess he saw that I was f—ked up a little bit, because he put his hands on my shoulder and just nodded [laughs].

That was the first time meeting Jay, but after that, I’ve met him three more times. Every time, he’s always the same: humble, cool, real laid-back. I still don’t know if he’s ever heard the music [laughs].

Lauryn, it was real quick. It was right after she performed at Rock! Like a Girl. The hallway was packed – they were waiting for her to come out to talk to people. I was the first one in line, so I just asked her for advice. I told her how much she was an influence, and she gave me advice. I told her I was going to move out of the way, because I could feel everybody breathing on my neck [laughs]. But it was cool. I’ve met her twice since then.

“Music is suppose to inspire” -L Boogie #RockLikeAGirl

A photo posted by Rapsody (@rapsodymusic) on

TCUS: Back to Jay Z, what significance does The Black Album have to your career?

Rapsody: That was one of my homework assignments. When I first met 9th and he heard the first two songs I had written and recorded, he was like, “you’re a superstar; you got it; you just need to be coached. You have to work on your flow and your cadence a little bit.” He gave me homework – about five or six albums – to study. He told me to go memorize them from front to back – word for word – but not memorize so much what they said, but how they said it: how they rode the beat, where they breathed at, what inflections they put on certain words. Jay Z was my favourite artist, and 9th named The Black Album as one, so that was the one I probably studied the most – that might have been the only one I studied [laughs]. I used to ride and listen to it every single day, front to back, until I had the whole thing memorized – to the point that every day I’d get in the shower, and I would start with the first song and rap every song from beginning to end. That was my homework.

TCUS: What’s the most impressive aspect of that album to you?

Rapsody: Just his ability to be simple, but complex at the same time. We’re talking about the science of rhyme. That’s the beautiful thing with Jay, and I think that’s why he’s been able to be as successful as he is and keep reinventing himself. He’s still complex, and he still knows how to use complex similes and metaphors, but the average person can still get it. It’s not too far over your head. I really appreciate how he did that on this album. The honesty in the music… one of my favourite songs is “Moment of Clarity”: “Pac died, didn’t cry, didn’t know him that well…” His cadence and his charisma on a track is bar none. Not too many can do that. That’s what separates him from a lot of people. You have emcees that are lyrical all day, but what separates one from the next as far as who’s better is their charisma sometimes, and how they say what they say. That’s what I love the most about Jay Z and that project.

TCUS: So The Black Album was one of the albums you were given to. Low End Theory was another. What were the other three or four?

Rapsody: Snoop’s Doggystyle… I think there were two Tribe albums: Midnight Marauders was the other one. I can’t remember the rest [laughs]. I know that Jay Z was in there, though.

TCUS: On a related note, getting into Beauty in the Beast, Young Guru mixed your EP. How did that come about?

Rapsody: Guru’s like family. That’s my big brother. I really wanted this one to sound good. Khrysis usually does our mixing – he does a really good job – but his main focus is making beats, and I wanted somebody who really had a passion for engineering. Guru’s one of the best – if not the best – at it in the game, so 9th actually reached out to him. He was like, “yo man, let us know what we need to do, how much we need to pay, whatever.” As busy as he is, he fit me into his schedule and made it happen. But Guru’s like family – him and 9th are best friends.

TCUS: I want to get into a couple lines off Beauty and the Beast. You have a line on “Who I Am” that goes, “Faith is believing in something they’ll never show me.” Tell me about that line.

Rapsody: At the time, I took it to mean that you can’t always seen it; you just gotta believe it. That’s what faith is. You’ve gotta go with your intuition and what feels right a lot of times, before you’re actually able to see it unfold in front of you – that’s basically what it means. You may [not be able to] see it at the time, but you’ve gotta have faith that somewhere down the line, it’s going to happen.

TCUS: I think of a very similar line on “Hard to Choose.” You rap about making the choice to walk out on faith and do what feels right. You’re a university accounting graduate from NC State, but you ultimately chose to get into music. When and how did that decision come to take that leap of faith and go for your passion?

Rapsody: [It came from] just not being able to ignore what was really inside. Ever since I was five or six, I knew I wanted to do music. First, it was Michael Jackson – me falling in love with him. Then I got into hip-hop. When I saw MC Lyte, I knew I wanted to be a rapper, but because of where I was from, I didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t think I was good enough.

I had to really get around the right people that were going to nourish it and help me grow, and really show me that “you can do anything you want to do.” I got around Kooley High and 9th, and they’re dream chasers: “anything you want to be, you can do it. Be your own boss. You don’t want to live life and have any regrets. Even if you don’t make it, at least you can say, ‘I tried.’” It was just more getting around the people that were positive about it, and would push me and have my back, because I knew my family wouldn’t really understand it – but they get it now.

I just couldn’t ignore it. Accounting wasn’t my passion; I took it because I was good at math. I’m in college and thinking, everybody knows what they want to do — “I want to be an engineer, I want to start my own business” – and all I wanted to do was music, but [I wondered], is that really possible? I remember thinking, I’m good at math, my older sister’s an accountant, so I’m gonna take accounting – no passion for it whatsoever. But [getting] around the right people, you hear it enough: “yo, just try it. Go for it.” You’re like, f—k it, I’mma do it.

TCUS: You’ve got a line on “Who I Am” where you say, “Don’t be flirtin’ with your gift, you better marry it – you nervous?” Describe what was going through your head in the years between graduating and finally making a mark in the music industry – feeling like you’re secure in the field that you’ve chosen.

Rapsody: It was a real moment of awakening. The music business is not what you thought it was when you were growing up. It wasn’t easy as, “oh, you’re talented, get a record deal, boom, you’re on.” It’s nothing like that – especially not today. The Internet changed everything. I dropped my first solo project in December of 2010, and I’m seven projects deep, and we’re just now really breaking ground.

I think a lot of artists don’t understand how much work goes into that [and] how much patience you have to have – especially if you want to be an artist that’s going to be around for 20 years and have a strong foundation. It takes a lot of time to build that. You think it’s really easy, but that’s what it is. [It takes] having faith that everything is going to work out. You drop one project, and you think, this is going to be the one, and it ain’t the one. You drop another one, nah, it’s not the one. It’s just really being patient, having faith, and being honest with your music. [You have] to keep pounding.

You hear people say a lot of times, right before you get your big reward is when it’s the hardest – that moment right before you feel like giving up. You’ve just gotta keep going, and that’s what it’s always been [for me]. There have been some hard days, like, ahh, I can’t do this no more, but I love it too much. I have little signs [that tell me], “keep going, you’re almost there.” So that’s what it is: having faith that it’ll work out.

TCUS: What was the first moment when you started to feel like everything was coming together into place?

Rapsody: I think with every project, there’s always something different – whether it was Ali Shaheed [Muhammad] tweeting me, or 9th getting a text from somebody, like, “yo, such and such really likes your music,” or you get this great review saying all these great things. It’s a bunch of different things. Going to Japan and getting the love that you get there, it’s like, wow. South Africa was a really big awakening. I was doing shows here in the States [with] anywhere from like 100 to 300 people, and I go over there, and it’s 900 people crying, grabbing your ankles, and reciting lyrics. That was eye-opening for me. With everything, it’s different. Even tweets from Missy [Elliott] and Questlove, it’s always something to keep building off of.

Getting the email the other day that we made Billboard, that was nuts – I didn’t expect that. So every project, I have faith [that] as long as we grow and improve, then that’s all you can ask. After awhile, you’re gonna be where you want to be, as long as you keep moving up the mountain.

TCUS: Where does your confidence and perseverance come from? What sort of influence did your parents and grandparents have on you?

Rapsody: My parents and grandparents were hard workers. Both of my grandparents owned farms, [and] they made the kids work. You had to get in that field, whether it was getting corn, or tobacco, or whatever. My dad worked shift work, and my mom paints the gold on china, so they’re very hard workers. She would come home from work and cook us dinner – I have five brothers and sisters – and she’d clean up and fold clothes, every day. You’d see how hard she worked, and [you realize], you can’t be lazy; you’ve gotta work for everything you want.

Basketball played a big [role] in that too. I loved basketball, and I was really good at it, and I was the first one in practice and the last one to leave. I was also the team captain, so it taught me a lot about teamwork and how to be a leader. When we had somebody who was doing suicides and running slow, somebody had to step up and motivate them, and that had to be me. It just taught me a lot about hard work, and [how] you’ve just gotta keep going. Every day’s not gonna be a bad day. In the grand scheme of things, life will be beautiful. You control your own destiny.

TCUS: On “Who I Am,” you rap, “Auntie shared some wisdom, [said] in life you must be cunning.” Can you dig into that?

Rapsody: I’ve got a lot of aunts. I have five aunts on my mom’s side and three on my dad’s side. They’re always giving me advice. My one aunt – I call her aunt Dell – I’ll go see her and we just talk about life, and how you’ve gotta be smart, and where wisdom comes from, and listening to your elders and those that have walked the path. So just being smart, making the right decisions and the right moves, being aware of everything that’s going on around you, and listening more than you talk – that’s where you get your wisdom from. That’s what saves you a lot of trouble and saves you a lot of steps. You’ve just gotta play life the right way: it’s chess, not checkers.

TCUS: You were mentioning earlier how one of the positives of the past year has been more and more people recognizing you as an emcee above all else, rather than a female emcee. Tell me about this Oprah Winfrey quote: “Excellence is the best deterrent to sexism.”

Rapsody: It’s just being great at what you do and not boxing yourself in. Me and 9th always said we’re not gonna focus on me being a female rapper or trying to be the best female rapper. I want to be the best emcee, period. Once you’re so good at something, people can’t box you in, and they have to recognize you solely for your talent and who you are.

“Black and I’m witty, while y’all still argue about Nicki/
Iggy, I’m killing these biggies, Biggie.” – Rapsody on “Godzilla”

You have to be excellent at what you do to beat yourself out of any box, whether it be race, or gender, or religion, or class. That’s why that’s probably one of my favourite quotes from her, and that’s why she is what she is today. She never let [the fact] that she was a black female hold her back. She just wanted to be the best at what she did, and she is.

TCUS: 9th Wonder had a quote I want to get your perspective on. He said, “there’s a certain stigma with being from the south and having lyrics – like you have to be more animated or make yourself a cartoon.” Tell me about this.

Rapsody: Yeah, we had just been reading reviews [saying] “she’s monotone, and she doesn’t switch her voice up.” I’m thinking, that was what we did more on this project than on any other one. We really experimented and tried some new things, and I really found my voice on that one. We just thought it was funny, there would be other artists that are just as monotone if not more, and they would get praised for their lyricism. You wouldn’t hear any talk of how monotone they were, and it’s because they’re from New York, or LA, or Chicago. It’s where you’re from – the respect of being from that place is different.

We always talk, if I was not from North Carolina, and if I was from Brooklyn [instead], I wouldn’t have to work as hard as I am to get that respect and notoriety. It’s just something from being in the South; people already think we talk slow [and] we’re not as intelligent. It’s just something that comes with the game – it’s another box you’re put in that you have to get out of. Jay Electronica has been one of the best at that, if we’re talking about [artists] from the South – shaking off the stigma of “we’re not lyrical, and we’re boring.” That’s just what it is.

TCUS: When you think about J. Cole and Big K.R.I.T., and others like that, do you see a shift in that perception?

Rapsody: Oh yeah, without a doubt. Even if they won’t say it, they know it. You can’t not acknowledge that when you have artists from these big cities trying to sound like they’re from the South. Your records sound like a South record; that don’t sound like a New York record [laughs]. You’ve gotta know what it is. You’ve gotta give us that respect. Even if you don’t say it, we can tell by your actions that you recognize it in some form or fashion.

TCUS: One of the things you say on “Hard to Choose” is “I chose to give a damn.” That line goes hand-in-hand with what you say on “Who I Am”: “Sad they call it hate when we speak on some of them issues/
But we can’t go ssshhh no more/ I’m just trying to be all I can be for y’all/
Cause Ruby Dee and Maya’s gone/ And we gotta keep the fire strong.” Where did you get your sense of duty and responsibility from?

Rapsody: Outside of my parents, just being a fan and being inspired by artists like Harry Belafonte and Phylicia Rashad. [Two] of my favourite people ever are Cicely Tyson and Nikki Giovani. They stood for something, and they were classy. We need that. When Maya Angelou died, and Ruby Dee died a little after that, it’s just like, man. I told 9th, that’s the last generation that really got to experience the civil rights movement. They stood for something else. When they are all gone, who’s going to be the leader? Who’s going to carry on that torch? It’s gotta be somebody, otherwise we are doomed if we don’t have anybody to continue that on, and talk about those issues, and stand for something, and fight, and pick up where they left off, and continue to march in the streets.

“Muthaf—k the cops, we still singin’ for St. Louis.” – Rapsody on “Drama”

“I’m thinking ’bout Mike Brown, what my nephew might have to face if/
I don’t talk about it.” – Rapsody on “Forgive Me”

It has to be somebody, and I don’t mind taking on that responsibility, because it means something to me, and I grew up inspired by these people. Those are the people that I looked up to along with Jay Z, Nas, and Lauryn Hill. I have a supreme respect for our older generation and I don’t know if that comes with being raised in a big family, and being in the South, and learning to respect your elders – family was really important to us, and our grandparents and our aunts. It just comes naturally for me.

TCUS: One of those songs where you choose to give a damn is an example like “The Man.” How did this song come about?

Rapsody: Man, it really all came from that beat. Eric G gave me that beat, and dude, I was in love with it. It sounded painful, and there was a lot of feeling in it. At first, I got in the booth and just rapped three random verses over it to see how it would sound, and 9th was like, “yo, that’s crazy dope.” I was like, “yeah, I like it, but I really want to do something with this one. I really feel like I could make something doper.”

I wanted to play with that [voice] sample. I was sitting, and I couldn’t figure out a concept. I was just playing it over, and over, and over again, and it just clicked: you can talk about a boy having to be the man of his house, because I had friends that had been through that, and I see the effects of it – having to lose your childhood and be the man of the house at a young age. You don’t know how to handle certain situations and talk to your son, because you never had a father to talk to.

It was a really important subject to talk about, and I felt like a lot of guys would be able to relate – even though it was being told by a woman. I felt like it was something that needed to be addressed, and I don’t think I can remember anybody doing a song like that. It came out dope. Problem and Bad Lucc were here that weekend, and I think they were the first ones to hear it outside of me and 9th. They were just like, “dang, I wish I had done that song. It’s crazy you can tell that story as a woman, and I can still feel it, and it still feels real.” I’m a tomboy; I’ve got a lot of guy friends, so I understand guys.

TCUS: Here’s a quote from “Hard to Choose”: “I know the scale tipped ain’t in no black girl’s favour.” I want to connect this with an article called “How Black Music Was Neutralized.” Tell me about the issue here.

Rapsody: I know you read that article on the history of music. People often ask me, “when did the role of females in hip-hop change? What happened after the nineties when we had MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott? How did we get from there to Nicki Minaj?” I have a theory. I still don’t know exactly, but once it becomes about money, they treat it like everything else. They use women to sell [everything] sexually. Whether you’re selling Axe deodorant or shampoo, it’s going to be sexualized with a woman. [Even] in movies, when you include women, it’s always something sexual. They did the same thing in hip-hop. It’s like, “women don’t need a voice; we can sell this easier with sex, so we’re going to make that the main focus and role for women.”

There’s also this thing too within our black community of light skin versus dark skin. It’s just really a struggle and a battle for black women. We don’t have a lot of places where you can go see a positive role model anymore. You don’t have that balance in hip-hop; you don’t have A Different World; you don’t have The Cosby Show; you have Love & Hip-Hop made 25 different ways – and that’s the image that’s always portrayed. We only have Nicki – and she’s a phenomenal, talented artist – but all we have is that view. We have nothing to balance it out and say, “this is sexy too. Nicki’s beautiful, and she’s sexy, but this is sexy too. You don’t always have to be naked, and you can still love yourself.”

It’s just a struggle in how it’s really not tipped in our favour at all. We’re already boxed in where women aren’t expected to be able to rap, and men can’t relate to them, and we don’t make as good of music. It’s a battle from a bunch of different angles for us.

TCUS: On a somewhat related note, on “Forgive Me,” you rap about how “the ones selling records are the ones rapping for real/
Future sold 100, Kendrick sold a hot mil’.” So there is a reaction and a change to this. Do you get a sense of that?

Rapsody: Oh yeah, without a doubt. The Internet has helped tremendously in that. You’re back in control of everything. In the nineties, to be as successful as a Chance The Rapper or Kendrick Lamar, you had to have TV and radio. There weren’t too many other outlets for you to reach somebody halfway around the world in seconds. The Internet takes out that middleman. I have direct contact with my fans. I have iTunes; I don’t need major label distribution.

Everybody uses their phone to listen to music and watch videos now, so we have iTunes, we have VEVO, we have YouTube, we have Vimeo… you can do everything yourself and create this fan base – and that’s the beautiful thing about now, and why we have this independent movement and so much great music now. Everybody has that freedom and control to do what comes naturally and be themselves. They don’t have to feel like, “I need to be another cookie-cutter carbon copy of what’s hot right now.” I can do what I want to do, and these are the people that like me, so there are the people I’m going to focus on and build off of that.

That’s why you have Kendrick Lamar selling a million records, because he built his fan base over time. He didn’t try to go catchy and be what’s popular; he did what was natural to him, and he told his story that a lot of people could connect to, so he has a solid fan base. It’s the same with J. Cole. He doesn’t have a hit song on the radio, but he went Gold. He took the time to build that, and that all came from the Internet, and being grassroots, and connecting with fans. There’s definitely a change coming. People want something they can connect and relate to.

TCUS: You mention an independent movement. Tell me about the Indie 500 collaboration. How does this change things?

Rapsody: Indie 500 is basically Jamla Records (run by 9th), W.A.R. Media (run by Pharoahe Monch), and Javotti Media (run by Talib Kweli). We all make the same kind of music. You have these other artists who make trap music, or crunk, or whatever’s popular now, and they tour together and get on each other’s songs. Why don’t we do that on our level? Why don’t we support each other and have this network and community of our fan base? They do it, and it’s successful for them. It’s the same [reason] why Atlanta is the way it is, because Atlanta supports Atlanta. Atlanta artists work and tour [with each other], so why don’t we do that?


A photo posted by 9thwondermusic (@9thwondermusic) on

[Indie 500] is just bringing that idea to this sound of music – boom-bap or whatever you want to call it – and also [introducing our music to each other’s fan bases]. I’m a new artist; I have new fans that don’t necessarily know Pharoahe Monch, and Pharoahe Monch has this crazy fan base who might not know who [I am]. So [we can help each other] and also keep this sound going, because I come from that family tree. 9th comes from the Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch family tree. They come from the Tribe Called Quest family tree. So why not keep that going and create this community where everybody that loves this sound of music is all together?

TCUS: Let’s end things off with a rapid-fire round. Give me your top three albums of all-time.

Rapsody: Shit [laughs]. Mama’s Gun, The Black Album, and I’mma say The Miseducation. That’s tough, man.

TCUS: Duke and NC State play each other. Who do you cheer for?

Rapsody: Duke! I’ve been a Duke fan since Grant Hill played in the nineties.

TCUS: Favourite home-cooked meal?

Rapsody: Baked macaroni and cheese, cabbage, and baked chicken.

TCUS: If you could bring any one hip-hop group back together, who would it be?

Rapsody: Little Brother [laughs]. No hesitation.

TCUS: First rap verse you memorized?

Rapsody: Oh! It was Method Man’s verse for “All I Need”: “Shorty I’m there for you anytime you need me/ For real girl…” I loved that video and that song; I listened to that all the time.

TCUS: You have one word of advice to offer to kids growing up: what is it?

Rapsody: You can be anything you want to be. Anything you dream, you can be that.

For more on Rapsody, read our previous interview with her.

Subscribe to The Come Up Show Podcast!