Words by Grant Brydon & Hayley Louisa Brown
Exiting onto the third floor of the Cumberland Hotel in London's Marble Arch was akin to stepping through the wardrobe to Narnia. The slick, metallic and clean lines of the hotel lobby BRICK had been sitting in only moments before had been transformed, with the opening of a set of elevator doors, into a smoke filled set of corridors carrying that distinct smell of something that wasn't the Diptyqe candled ambience you'd hope for in a hotel like this. Following our noses, we head to the source of the smell and wait patiently outside of a white door that probably should have been blocked underneath with a towel. The white door only leads us further into Narnia, the smoke becoming overwhelming whilst Q, regal, lounges on the leather couch and fills a carefully emptied cigar case with the source of the scent filling the aforementioned hallways.
BRICK was promptly informed that Q was running behind schedule and our promised hour of shoot time had been quartered. A cover shoot in 15 minutes? With no choice but to make the most of the situation it was all hands on deck to set up a studio within the four walls of ScHoolboy's room; swiftly manoeuvring both the furniture and the omnipresent and oversized security guard, Bear, to make room for a backdrop and lights.
Q breezed through the shoot in a sea of wide brimmed hats, suitably impressed with our stylist's knowledge of spectacle designers and professing his love for Oliver Peoples frames. Trying on (and rejecting) everything from a camouflage jacket to a fur stole, he slowly and methodically moved between outfits whilst story telling events from earlier in the day. He was particularly perturbed by his previous interviewer who had told him she was skipping his show that evening in favour of seeing Katy Perry at the O2 arena. 'Katy fuckin' Perry', he mused, 'I wonder if she even knows who I am?'. Throughout the rest of the shoot he constantly slipped in and out of song – mostly Juicy J's verse from Katy Perry's 'Dark Horse' – before declaring it was time to finish off our photo session 'penitentiary style' by promptly removing his vest to be photographed bare chested; his array of tattoos placed like haphazardly mapped out notes on his still unwritten autobiography.
He sat comfortably in front of the camera, smoking and staring down the lens in a manner reminiscent of a Teddy Pendergrass vinyl sleeve.
BRICK's shoot was interrupted with a knock on the door from hotel security. We, apparently, weren't the only ones to notice the smoke filled hallways of the 3rd floor. Bear answered the door, leaving the catch on and showing the hotel staff a slither of his conspicuously oversized frame. From inside we could only hear one side of the conversation which mostly consisted of Bear repeatedly stating 'Nah man, nobody's smoking in here' and 'We got a photo-shoot going on in here, I will let you in when we're finished.' Meanwhile, the interior of the room was straight out of a Benny Hill sketch – Q's entourage took on various roles in removing all evidence of smoking; one opened the windows, another sprayed air freshener across every available surface, whilst a third scooped any paraphernalia into an empty pizza box. By the time Bear let the hotel staff inside, BRICK's team were calmly carrying on with the shoot, entourage lounging on the bed reading magazines, stylist chatting with management and poor hotel security looking increasingly confused and disappointed at the lack of any physical evidence.
Two days later we find ourselves reunited with Q in a hotel in Manchester. This time, although the entire floor that Q’s room is situated on reeks of weed, it doesn’t seem to be causing any trouble. A pair of trashed Red October’s lay on the floor like some slain mythical beast surrounded by plastic covered clothing and a tone of bucket hats, labels still in tact. He asks us to pass him a soda as he puffs on a blunt, scrambling around with the TV remote in an attempt to turn it down so it isn’t picked up by our recorder.
After a couple of lesser known mixtapes that he’s rather not talk about at this point, ScHoolboy Q as we know him, started to build a buzz with his brilliant Setbacks, an independent album (still slept on to this day) that was first released on iTunes where it sold just under 1000 copies. Two weeks later, in order to reach as many listeners as possible, a slightly different version of the album was released on DatPiff for free.
Little did we know that Setbacks was the beginning of a five album series detailing the rapper’s past as a gangbanger and drug dealer. Habits & Contradictions dropped a year later and broke him through to a wider audience, independently shifting 3,900 units and ultimately securing him a deal with Interscope who released his major label debut Oxymoron earlier this year. During our conversation he tells us that he hasn’t yet begun work on the fourth and fifth instalments, but he has titles and knows that they won’t be as dark as the material he has released so far.
“That’s all I know how to do. As a rapper, I don’t know how to just rap. I don’t,” admits Q when questioned about the incredible realness and detail that is contained within his music. “I can’t go to the studio and just rap. It’s got to be for something. So I have to talk about realistic shit. I got to have some detail. There are so many songs that I’ve been wanting to write but I’m like, “Man I can’t talk about that.” So I like talking about past, past life, one day I’m going to get to my present life. Right now it’s a lot of past going on, people really don’t even have no idea the type of person I am now. My next album is going to have a piece of present Q, but at the same time I still got a story to tell.”
This also describes his preference for full-length projects rather than singles, although he is determined to have a number one single in the future. “Everything I do has a meaning and is going for something, and is meant for something,” he says, sipping his soda. “That’s why I don’t just leak songs, and if I do leak a song it’ll still have something tied into what’s going on with me.”
Where many rappers struggle to improve on their previous material in the eyes of their fans, Q has been adamant about the improvements that lie throughout his catalogue, arguing with anyone who dares to tell him they preferred a prior release. “I mean, I grow with every project, simple as that,” he says. “Setbacks was a good album, Habits & Contradictions was a step above it, I was able to touch radio for the first time, was able to really tour and sell out shows and gravitate fans to get booked for festivals. And then from that album alone, Habits & Contradictions, I got a buzz big enough to where Interscope TDE and the people demanded an album. Like, no more Internet, indie projects this time. You’re at that point now.”
He attributes the improvement to the fact that he has never been involved with the rush to flood the Internet with material faster than his peers. “I just took my time with it,” he says of Oxymoron. “I guess by taking my time I was just growing as an artist, with each studio session. Scratching songs, re-doing songs, choosing a beat, not just rapping to every single thing you get. Because sometimes you might rap to something, you like it, but really deep down you know it’s not the one.”
Q carries the double-edged sword of being his own biggest fan. “You could really like it, because you’re a fan of yourself, but that’s why you gotta be careful,” he explains. “Because you’ll really like it, but niggas might just be like ‘Nah!!’. So you gotta be careful, at least with me anyway. I take my time and do it the way I want to do it but at the same time understand that you still gotta connect with the people musically.”
The care and self-control has certainly paid off though, with overwhelmingly positive response to Oxymoron. Despite this though, Q doesn’t believe in the speed at which albums are being reviewed nowadays. “Whatever,” he sighs indifferently. “It’s part of the cycle now, it’s what they do. I’m not tripping.” Before opening up further on the subject. “I just don’t think you rate music that fast. I don’t even want to name the albums because I’ll feel bad - but so many albums that I hated, like hated! And then next two months I’m playing it non stop, like I can’t stop playing it. Even songs, regular songs, you just hate, like, “I hate this dude.” Then I week later you done bought it, now you like it. So that’s what I’m saying, reviews, I don’t even care for them anymore.”
He takes a puff of a ready-to-burst blunt before continuing: “I’m on my third one, so I done seen them and I done got good reviews every time. But now we’re at the point where we’re giving Internet people too much power. They don’t have no power. An Internet comment has no power. The fans that are coming to your shows, the fans that are buying to your music, that’s the power. We feed too much into reviews and giving reviews power - even though, I got good reviews like I said - but still, we’re giving reviews too much power.”
While many artists condemn bloggers and reviewers for giving them negative reviews, it’s intriguing to hear the point coming from one who has been so well supported by the online community. And he’s right. With so many artists masquerading in boots that they’ll never fill due to some hashtag friendly single that will never translate to packed venues or units sold, Q sees it for what it really is. “I think it’s more about the artist, and who is out there really doing it,” he says. “Who’s out there really hustling? Who can go out and do a show in the Philippines or over here? Who can go to a show and people be excited to be there? People recite the words and know the words, move units, sell units, make a hit single, don’t make a hit single, go number one - there’s so much shit that makes you who you really are.”
That night at his sold out show in Manchester, like the sold out shows in London earlier in the week, what he is saying becomes an obvious reality. Fans of different races and genders parade in bucket hats (Q’s usual choice of headgear) rap along to every word that he spits into the mic as he plays tracks from Setbacks onwards. This isn’t something that can be achieved just off the back of some Internet hype. “The typing thing is unrealistic,” he says back at the hotel. “My mind is on way bigger things, like Grammys and getting a number one single. I got a number one album, that’s a gold check, but I want a number one single one day. Why not? Why limit myself to just being “the dope MC”? Why not have a number one single? Have goals. And you can’t worry about a review, because that number one single is usually going to be the one that people say this sucks, and he’s washed up, he sold his soul, because I got talent. All of a sudden people hate Drake because he can sing, but sorry he got talent.”
He’s already transcended boundaries that have interested him. For example, a fan favourite from the album has turned out to be Los Awesome, a track that he wrote strictly for gang bangers. Despite the Pharrell-production, Q thought that it wouldn’t be relatable to the majority of listeners, but put it on the album anyway. “I wasn’t expecting nobody to like it,” he says mildly amused. “But people love that song, it’s a lot of people’s favourite oddly. But I was just strictly talking to gangbangers you know.” He suddenly starts lazily spitting the song’s hook to highlight what he’s talking about. Pants sagging, rag dragging, rather gangbang witcha, trigger squeeze, dog howling, throw them thang thang's witcha, hot degrees, antifreeze, chilling cool cool witcha. Even when delivered without the energy of the recorded version, the cadence and the way Q has constructed the words is contagious. Like trying to repeat a tongue twister, it’s addictive. This is proving to be Q’s forte, look deeper into the meaning, fill in the blanks and vivid West Coast gangsterism comes to mind - a shooting, the barking of a pitbull, a (blue) bandana trailing along the ground hung from the pocket of a Hoover crip. “I’m really talking about gangsta shit through the whole song. I even talk about Crip history, where the first Crip incident happened at UCLA; I put some history in there,” he reveals.
His writing is carefully calculated. You won’t catch Q with a rhyme book and a pair of headphones writing bars, he saves his writing for the studio. Scrolling through the notes in his iPhone, he shows us scraps of ideas for songs waiting to be developed into his next two albums. “I’m not one of the rappers that go to the studio everyday or write a rap verse everyday,” he says. “I talk about nothing but realistic shit, so I need to sit and think about it. Everything I do is jotted down. It’s almost like going back to college, about to graduate for this big essay, you’re doing your last test to graduate, jotting down doing your notes studying. And then one day the test comes, you’re going to ace it or fail it. That's basically how I write my music.”
With room still left to climb towards his towering ambitions, it certainly feels like Q is acing the test is far, even if the Internet reviewers aren't an exam board he necessarily believes in.
Words by Grant Brydon & Hayley Louisa Brown