Interview: Isaiah Rashad is a regular shmoe, and the hottest thing out of Chattanooga since Usher.
When Isaiah Rashad steps off the elevator at the HNHH NYC office he looks more like an elementary school gym teacher than a dude two days away from releasing The Sun’s Tirade, one of the best rap albums of the year.
A white t-shirt and ragged sweatpants hang off his wiry frame and dreads dangle out the sides of his nondescript blue unstructured six-panel cap. He is here for an interview, over the course of which he will reveal himself to be a regular 25-year-old shmoe who drinks coffee, swears constantly, appreciates good fuel economy, flies coach, and can't sit still.
At the beginning of 2014, Rashad released his celebrated debut Cilvia Demo, a project that demonstrated not only his prodigious technical ability but also his willingness to explore serious themes like fatherhood, depression, and suicide. In the 30 months that followed, he would release precisely two songs due to a xanax and alcohol addiction that lingered for two years and nearly got him dropped from Top Dawg Entertainment multiple times. In early 2016, he finally extricated himself, dripping, from the proverbial sauce.
Here’s where he’s at today...
You started writing at a very young age. What were you reading when you were a kid? What were your favorite books?
From what I remember I wasn't one of those kids who read a whole bunch of books. I read because my mom made me, so that's where my skills came from. I started writing because I wanted to write Dragon Ball Z comics and stuff like that. And poetry. I liked creative writing from the job. Books? “Cat in the Hat,” “One Fish, Two Fish,” shit like that. At a young age. I nerded out and read all the “Twilight” shit when I was in high school. Other than that, not too many major books I remember reading. That's more of a now thing.
Do you have any authors or books or movies that make you want to write?
Honestly, naw. I wanted to be a rapper. Writing happened second. I was in love with the
aesthetics of being a rapper at first. I was 8. I don't think no 8-year-old that deep. I don't think no kid that age is that deep - maybe now. Kids are kinda introspective, but back then, naw. It was ‘99 or 2000. I liked Project Pat a whole bunch. The reason I wanted to be a rapper wasn't for the writing part. My respect for the game as a student of the game - that's where the writing came from.
What rappers were you listening to when you started rapping?
When I started rapping was a whole different time period than when I first got into music. Lil Wayne. Kanye West. You know, that type of stuff. Travie McCoy - I really liked Papercut Chronicles. I thought Tyga was gonna be some alternative whatever the fuck, until he came out with “Lime in the Coconut” shit. I really did.
I was more inspired by girls to be honest - Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu - they inspired me to actually make music. Rapping though - it was pure aesthetics. ain't that what it is? Why we attracted to a lot of shit? The visual of it, that feeling? And then sonically, if it stick with you, it's a thing? If it only stick with you either way, it's a niche thing. I need a dictionary.
You still want to be a sociologist? Is that still in the cards?
Dog, dogggggg. I want to finish college so bad. My friends graduated, I be hella jelly. Little organizational skills lookin’-ass. Little got-your-shit-together lookin’-ass. Little I-can-fall-back-on something lookin’-ass.
I don't think i wanna be a sociologist anymore. I think I wanna learn Chinese, teach English in Asia or something.
How many years were you at college?
Shit, I have more than enough to graduate. Four or five. I kept flunking out cause I didn't wanna do math. I was originally trying to be a music engineer -- but that requires like two or three maths. I wasn't about that life.
You still bust out the clarinet?
You know any other rap songs on the clarinet?
So you got the clarinet on deck.
I ain’t gonna act like I'm some type of Mozart with an instrument. I'm probably better with my voice than the clarinet anyday.
Lemme break that down so niggas know. Scion had gave my girlfriend a car… when we went to LA. I was like, “Damn we need a little throwaway whip.” In terms of gas, that shit took like $8 to fill up. So it's like, “Shit, drive that bish.” Two of us in that bish, smoke that bish out. Pull up [on] Q, don't spend 20 or 30 dollars crossing town, only eight dollars to fill up this car. Only two of us go, we go to the studio, and we knock the shit out. If niggas wanna pull up, they pull up. They know. It's like a lil mini mini mini cooper. Mini mini mini mini mini mini cooper. It's cool.
Can you explain your Twitter handle ‘young lack sleep’?
I was like, “I probably don't wanna stick with this Billy Batson shit,” because outside of just putting it into the universe and leaving it there, if you know I'm a comic book fan, it's just easy. But ‘young lack sleep’ - I just quit sleeping, dog! Be up. Sleep for like three hours, four hours. I go lay down, and my body tell me I got something to do. So I get up. I've been really busy. I've been tryna keep myself really, really busy.
Like with what?
Music. I've been recording a lot more than I usually do.
I saw an interesting quote about your last project, that you wanted it to feel like a relief to listeners. Is that also true for ‘The Sun's Tirade’?
I guess it's more of a mission statement than an album description. Everything I do in that sense I want it to be a relief. I ain't put this project out till I was cool with how I felt about everything on it.
Definitely the mission is to connect with people, and make them feel a familiar way, whether it’s good or bad. Just not alone. It's cool to know somebody feels the way you feel, even if it’s shitty.
Do you feel like you went deeper on this one than you went on ‘Cilvia Demo’?
I just went to a different place. I think I went from a different part of my chest.
Can you elaborate on that?
I wasn’t really too concerned with talking about depression, just more so the events that happened in the midst of it. And I talk about it real scattered. Cause I want it to feel like one event. I want two years to feel like one day. And that's how the project is.
It's not chronological.
No. I close off ties on certain things, it's usually my dad. I finish them up on this one. Suicidal shit, I finished them up. Loose ends, so niggas don't think I'm nuts or some shit is going on. So niggas don't entertain them things. You don't want kids out here to feel like it's cool to feel some type of way about their parents. Just cause they heard you say it - like “Dog, I feel that shit!”
I'm not married to my opinions I need to fix my shit too. I'm just older. And it's hard for me to act like I'm not getting older when I got two kids.
Is that therapeutic for you to get things off your chest?
I don't think since music has been therapeutic since I got signed. I think after music, not having to do anything is therapeutic. I think the idea of me not being able to rap is scarier though than anything else. The idea I would have to do something that isn't spend my whole day rapping would be fucked up. It would be whack. So that above anything else is motivation.
You know when you're working out? After you done with it, you feel better? It's like that. It's like that with music and shit. No matter what I'm talking about, as long as I did it, I feel good afterwards. It definitely is therapeutic. I thought by therapy you meant some spill-the-beans-you-feel-better shit. Nah, it's like a mental therapy, physical thing.
It's less what you're talking about and more the act of it?
Yeah, it's about the act of getting off some ill-ass syllable combinations. I'm a lil nerd on this rap shit too. That's what I’m into. Coming up with bars is fun to do. It's fun to do to have the homie make a crazy ass beat. And then you just go in on that bish. After a night of that shit, you feel like you did something the next morning.
On ‘Cilvia Demo’, you worked with a lot of producers that no one had heard of. And on the new album it's the same thing.
I just brought all of them back and added a lot more. I added maybe eight more dudes.
How did you find the new dudes?
I dunno, through them? Through my producers. My producer are my friends. So they were easier to like put my hands on, and tell them like, “Yo, I want this kind of thing” without them being stuck in a certain style. I feel like the younger dudes when I first met them around Cilvia, and now they got more experience, and they have real solid sound. They have all these extra producers that they’ve been working with now, and they’ve been bouncing ideas off of. It's like grabbing a community. I opened myself up to having new friends.
What do you think makes your sound as a rapper meshes well with these producers' sounds?
I’m good at finding the pocket of the beat. We train each other to do as necessary. It sound way more technical than what it is. I dunno man, we got chemistry, ill-ass chemistry. We know what we doing. It's easy. Everything is easy. In the project we really wanted to make sure we had hella bass. I tweeted make sure you're in a fucking car or somewhere with real subs. The bass on the project is the type of shit you don't hear. This is some shit you feel. The frequency sound. You need to hear that shit. You need to hear that womp.
So no laptop speakers.
Do not laptop speaker that shit. That's cool if you want to just listen to pretty twinkles and strings and shit. But if you wanna feel that shit, get in the fucking car. Or put an amp on, my nigga. For real.
How did you come up with the title “The Sun's Tirade?”
I was on my bed with a dictionary, because we had named it “White Walls” before -- like a new apartment. And I'm like, “Uh, it's too tight, I don't wanna do that. It's too easy.” “The Sun's Tirade” sounds like it'll stick around better. And it describes how I was feeling better. It's a long-ass hot day versus white walls, [which] sounds like a fresh start. I do want to feel like I have a fresh start but I don't wanna hit you with brand new shit. Nah, lemme tell you about a new experience.
Who did the album’s cover art? Are you supposed to be jumping on top of the car?
The car is part of just the scenery. I'm above that shit, over that shit. Like, over that shit. Not floating, I'm over it. It's tight though. It was this artist named Blue the Great, out of Dallas.
Did you always want it animated?
Definitely. I kept tryna flip different pictures. We flipped that one from Billy Batson turning into Captain Marvel or Shazam, right before he turned into Shazam we flipped it. It was a picture, you probably won't ever be able to find what it looked like.
I know your dad had some drug problems. Did you see yourself in those terms while you were going through your own issues?
Yeah, it's hard not to look at myself - I look just like my dad - I see my dad when I do shit. That definitely has some small impacts on me trying to get my shit together over the last two years. Looking in the mirror very literally and not liking the person you see. But also wanting to do better for myself and being a better example for the people fucking with me. And the people around me. It's crazy how clueless people can be sitting next to you.
Was there at turning point or was it gradual?
Gradual. It was definitely a gradual thing. I think the turning point probably was when my mom saw me drunk. She saw me and it was kind of weird. Me and my mom smoke and shit, but we don't drink, so it was kind of strange.
You and your mom smoke?
Yeah definitely. We real earthy. We go hang in the trees together.
Were you able to make music when you were dealing with addiction?
Yeah. I was able to make music at that time, but it just wasn’t what I was willing to hear about. It wasn't really about shit. It was good shit, but it wasn't really about shit. It wasn't really addressing what was going on or anything. And I wasn't really doing anything to write about anything. I think me getting over a lot of shit gave me something to write about. ‘Cause I ain’t have shit to write about when I was going through shit.
When was that turning point would you say?
Probably like six months ago. seven months, eight months. That's when i started to get back in the studio heavy.
I remember seeing a report a year ago that the album was done. Was that the same project or something different?
That was different stuff. Different project. I feel like that was part of the whole almost getting dropped shit. It was like, “Let's drop this shit so we can drop this nigga lowkey. Let’s get this nigga out of here, this nigga trippin'.” And I didn't get dropped. It didn't drop.
Were they straight with you? Like we're about to drop you if you don’t get it together.
Yeah. Dead ass.
That must have been wake-up call.
Nah… you really gotta find motivation in yourself. You gotta wanna be better for yourself - that's really it.
Were you not feeling that way for a while?
I just didn't know what I was doing, bruh. I was in a weird place. I don't think I'm the only person that's been at a real confused place. We live in a country of idealism. You can lose your grip of reality, see too many cool things, and things happen too quick -- you don't know what you capable of or what's really going on. You gotta check yourself.
What do you do with them when you hang out?
Me and my kids do playgrounds and a lot of bubbles. My son used to be into bubbles a lot, and now he's into a dude named Mr. Dougie, and Super Why. They love Super Why. Everything PBS. They bang with TVs. We just kick it.
What are their names?
Lei and Yari. He's 1, she's 3.
What in your mind makes TDE such a special collection of individuals? What have you learned from them?
Coming from where I come from and the time period I was in, I can see why people veer away from rapping, 'cause a lot of your favorite rappers were in the midst of doing that shit. They was experimenting with different sounds, and it made you think some different shit. TDE reminds me that at the base of it, it's still rap. Keeping the quality of the art form. Being a top rhymer. Even if I wanna sing or play the clarinet, do whatever -- be a top rhymer at all times. Creatively, they are the most embracing group of people I can imagine. From all angles, from top to bottom. It's always support. You gotta open up to them as much as they gotta open up to you. It's a real brotherhood.
Would it have been hard if they had dropped you?
They stuck around with me 'cause they love me. I'm only one man -- they must have gave a fuck about me.
Do you see yourself ever moving back to Chattanooga?
Me and Top had this thing, where I wanted to move back -- like that was my goal, and I think that was fucking me up. I kept wanting to go home, like buy a crib and go home. That's a short goal. “I wanna drop a project and go home.”
I wanna do more now. I wanna see more, and experience more. I wanna buy a home back home. I wanna build some shit there. I wanna put some of my people on. I'm really about community development, so I wanna do some of that there. I might live in Tennessee at some point, but I want a compound like Prince.
Is there somewhere you want to go in particular?
I wanna go to Buffalo so bad. For the chicken wings.
Bruh, the chicken is so good. Duff's is so good. I wanna go to Nashville. I like chicken. I like hot chicken in all its different forms. I'm not afraid of it, I'm not afraid to say it. I want some Nashville hot chicken. It's so fucking hot.
I wanna go back to Australia, I wanna go to New Zealand. I wanna go to China. Tokyo. I wanna go to Maine with my kids - when I think of Maine, I think, "Go get a cabin! That would be raw.”
Are you into the outdoors?
Yeah, ziplining. I was going to go skydiving for my homie's birthday like two weeks ago and then I just forgot about it the day of. Like really forgot, I didn't bitch out. That adrenaline rush, I'm all here for that.
I wanna finish “Fallout 4.” That's my top goal for the week.
You address these last few years on the album. If you could predict from here where you're going content-wise, where will you go?
I actually started working on the album, and then quit a few days ago. I was thinking I gotta find some more producers. You shouldn't box yourself in early on. I'm just gonna keep recording. I love that more than anything, some Dedication 2 shit.
When you wake up with nothing on your plate, what do you do?
Watch some Coen Brothers. I might watch “No Country For Old Men” for the fuck of it. I like seeing that shit. He got the cattle gun.
You wanna cop one of those?
Hell naw, don't try to incriminate me.
I didn't really like “Hail, Caesar.” They did a really good job of taking me to the ‘60s, but I don't wanna go back. Seeing George Clooney, that fucked up on camera, but I don't wanna go back. Shoutout to him for being a great actor. That's what I spend my days doing. Sometimes I just call [my manager] Matt just to fuck with him.
I don't wanna say anything cause it sound so stereotypical, but I'm really good at frying chicken. I'm really good at southern food. Ribs, baked beans, tilapia. I can grill it, I can fry it. I can't bake it, I don't fuck with baked food like that.