An SOTB Q&A with Brain Rapp

I've followed Brain Rapp for the past year or so, after Arteest recommended I check him out. Obviously, I'm glad I did, because the guy has talent. So, when I finally got the chance to catch up with him at this month's Made in the DMV event, I had to link up and get his thoughts on music, life, and unity in the region. The result was this interview, one which asks some tough questions. But, as with all of my interviewees, Brain Rapp didn't shy away at all.

SOTB: I know you’re from the DMV, but where exactly in the DMV are you from?

BR: I'm from Columbia, in Howard County. If people know Columbia for anything it's either The Mall or Merriweather.

SOTB: I know a quite a few people from HoCo, so I definitely know what you mean. But, where did the name “Brain Rapp” come from?

BR: My real name is Brian Raupp. If you switch the I and the A in my first name and drop the U out of my last name you get Brain Rapp. I was sitting in biology in tenth grade and wrote my name down then drew reverse arrows switching the I and A then I drew a line through the U. I was just doodling, it wasn't intentional. At that time I wasn't like “Yeah! That's my rap name!”I actually didn't start going by Brain Rapp until my 20s.

SOTB: How long have you been doing music?

Thirteen years. I started writing at thirteen, recording at 19, and performing at 23.

SOTB: How would you describe your style to someone who’s never heard your music?

BR: Boom bap with a little bit of trap. If “boom bap” and “trap” are unfamiliar words to that particular someone, I would describe my music as thoughtful, honest, fun, and slightly sarcastic. Lyrically, my style is reminiscent of the New York hip-hop I grew up on. You can hear traces of Big L, Papoose, Nas, Jay-Z, etc in various cadences and in the way I pronounce certain words. At the same time, you can also hear bits and pieces of my southern influences (Outkast, Three 6 Mafia, Ludacris, etc) in the way I rhyme. To put it succinctly, I'm a good mix of Northern and Southern hip-hop.

SOTB: Who would you say was the biggest influence on your approach to music?

BR: I would have to say that Outkast, particularly Andre 3000, has been a major influence on my approach to music. I don't like to write anything that I can't stand behind. When Andre stopped smoking and drinking after Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, you heard it on ATLiens. He wasn't making songs about getting high anymore because it wasn't what he was doing. Both Andre and Big Boi, to my knowledge, were always very true to themselves. I try to take their approach when working on a song. My music is personal and honest.

SOTB: My first exposure to you came from the video for “Shine,” so I was a bit late to the party. What was the story behind that video?

BR: The theme of “Shine” is all about doing things yourself. It's about showing people who you are and taking pride in that. For the video it was important that I capture where I was at at that moment in my life. At that time, I really didn't have a budget to make the video all fancy and what not so I decided to shoot it on my phone. I wanted the video to match where my career was.

SOTB: What made you say “hey, lemme shoot this though an iPhone?” Was it more of a “day in the life” approach or something different?

BR: I really just wanted to make a video that was true to where I was at that stage in my career. I've been doing this for a while but I feel like a beginner in a lot of respects and the video shows that. It feels entry level. A lot of people want to come out of the gate with a '90s Diddy-style video with fancy explosions and all types of crazy big-budget stuff going on. I wanted a video that says “This is where I'm at and I'm cool with it. I'm proud of it. I'm growing, learning, and getting better with time”. That way, when people see the next video they'll see the progression.

SOTB: So, would you recommend someone else doing that just for the hell of it? Or would you say “hey, kid, do your own thing?”

BR: Hell yeah I'd recommend it! First, I'm all for people being fiscally responsible. It doesn't make a ton of sense to drop $1000 on a video at certain stages in your career. Second, people want to see from a first-person view what that life is like and shooting stuff on your phone is a great way to capture that.

SOTB: Ok, last “Shine” question. How was it performing at AC3?

BR: It was really cool. It wasn't a huge crowd or anything but it was a lot of fun. It was nice to just be in a different state showing people what I have to offer.

SOTB: What brought about the “Throwback Thursday” tracks? (Ed. Note: One of them, "Get Down," is featured below)

BR: I was listening to my instrumental hip-hop station on Pandora and the beat for Pharcyde's “Otha Fish” came on and it was rocking! I needed to write to it. I generally don't like rhyming over so-called “industry” beats, but this one was undeniable. It was then that I got the idea of trying to highlight lesser-known artists through the Throwback Thursday series. I dislike referring to Pharcyde and other artists of that era as “lesser-known.” But, there are a good chunk of younger hip-hop fans out here today that have never heard of them (and others). 

I thought that I may be able to bring attention to their work by rhyming over some of their records; this is why I included the name of the artist and the title of the original song in the title of my rendition. The best part of hip-hop is that it builds on itself, knowing its history makes the experience that much better.

SOTB: This one’s kind of tricky. Which of your albums do you think is “better” than the other: More Than I Am or Feels Good? “Better” can be, like, better sequencing, better story, better bars—whatever.

BR: Man, that is a difficult question. I can't really say one is better than the other. More Than I Am is special to me because it has a lot of very personal stories in it. A good portion of my life up until that point was captured in that project. More Than I Am is me. Feels Good is special as well but for a different reason. I like Feels Good because it was a concept that I was able to see through from start to finish. I really wanted to make something that felt like it was from another era. I wanted to give people something that they could put on in the morning on their way to work and just vibe out.

SOTB: Do you have a follow-up to Feels Good in the works?

BR: I'm not sure if these means like a Feels Good II or another project in general. I'll answer both ways.

1.       Not at the moment, but I do plan on making a follow-up. It may be a year or two though.
2.       I'm currently putting the finishing touches on a project produced exclusively by my longtime friend, Nature Boi. The first single will be released in January of 2015.

SOTB: What are some of your thoughts on the DMV scene these days?

BR: The DMV is bubbling right now. There's a lot of talent here. More and more eyes are looking in our direction. The critical thing to nurture and sustain our buzz is organization. People working together. We could all fight over a piece of the pie or we could make the pie bigger. I have no problem doing what I can to help other artists succeed. I don't feel like a particular artist making it big somehow cuts down on my ability to do the same thing. A rising tide lifts all boats.

SOTB: Do you think that the DMV needs more networking events like #MadeInTheDMV?

BR: Yes. I like to think of #MadeInTheDMV as our A3C. A few years ago, A3C wasn't a multi-day, nationally-recognized event. It was one day, in one building. Who knows what #MadeInTheDMV could be in a few years. I know there was some grumbling about how the event was run but I don't find it to be constructive. 

If you think you can do it better, do it. The important thing at the end of the day is that it happened. People from the music industry, who've figured out how to survive and thrive in this business, found it worthwhile to take time out of their lives to try to help people in our area succeed. The more organized events that bring people together the better.

SOTB: Now, apologies if this gets a bit “out-there,” but do you ever get, like, stares from people when they see you perform? I mean, like myself, you don’t exactly “fit” the stereotype of a rapper*. 

BR: I get increased attention when I perform because I'm white. I'm the “other." Typically, I'm one of maybe three white people at a given hip-hop event, usually the only one [performing], so I automatically stand out. I'm not sure what's stereotypical of white rappers or even rappers in general because they are so diverse. 

The attention I get because of my whiteness is a double-edged sword. I want people to hear me and say “he's a dope rapper”, not “he's a dope white rapper”. I like to think that after performing for about a minute—when people realize that I'm truly passionate about this—all the color stuff goes away and I can be judged solely on my skills and abilities as an artist. At the end of the day I can't control what people think of me, the only thing I can do is stay true to myself, my life experiences, and try to represent the art form as best as I know how.

SOTB: How do you respond to critics?

BR: I don't really have any critics. Not yet at least. If I do, they've never let themselves be known. I know some of the things people may knock me for or accuse me of and I'm prepared to address them when, and if, the time comes.

SOTB: What are your thoughts on pay-for-post blogs?**

BR: This is the music business. I believe there's a place for pay-for-post as well as traditional, free blogs. Blogs are businesses, bloggers have bills, and people need to make money from what they create. For better or worse--frequently worse--capitalism has found its way into journalism. I don't particularly like it but I understand and accept why it exists. 

SOTB: My thing has always been with paid posts that if you're paying crazy cash for a site that isn't worth its weight in printer paper.

That being said, I believe that pay-for-post blogs should be honest about who is paying for posts and who isn't. Blogs of other types will typically flag “sponsored” posts so that readers know that the post was paid for. When it comes to pay-for-post transparency is key. Also, just because a blog doesn't charge doesn't mean that it isn't biased to particular artists. Knowing a blogger and getting the “homeboy hook-up” gets you essentially the same thing as pay-for-post.

SOTB: Would you advise artists to pay for posts or would you recommend they check out the free alternatives?

BR: I think free is always the way to go. Pay-for-post only makes sense for artists with a dedicated budget. Cost-benefit analysis is crucial when deciding whether or not to pay for a post. Say an artist pays for a post and it goes viral; what next? Do you have all the proper publishing, do you have a follow-up record, is this a single for a project, is there a video? If you don't have a plan of what happens next you probably shouldn't be paying for anything. Also, if you can't get your song or video on a small, local blog, you should question whether or not your material is ready for primetime. If you haven't had the track mixed or mastered, you shouldn't expect blogs to post it. Ultimately, it is up to artists to do their due diligence when deciding whether or not the purported benefit of a pay-for-post justifies the cost.

SOTB: Do you have any suggestions for artists who aren’t exactly “mainstream” in their approach? Like, blog submissions, people to link up with, and so on.

BR: Not really, I'm still trying to figure this out for myself. One thing that I've heard is helpful is to include an explanation of why and how you're different from other artists. Don't be too longwinded about it, a short description of why you stand out from the crowd could be beneficial. 

SOTB: True, from a blogger and an artist standpoint. I used to write long-ass letters to bloggers. When I got more concise with it, I got more feedback. 

BR: Yeah, bloggers get tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. If you're different, say something about it. 

SOTB: We’ve got a couple more. Who would you consider to be in your “top five,” dead or alive?

BR: Andre 3000, Eminem, Big L, Guru, Lupe Fiasco

SOTB: You know you're one of the first people who's mentioned Big L on my blog. That gets you some extra props, since L is still one of my favorite artists. So, producers? Who are some producers that you want/need to work with to feel “complete” musically?

BR: Premier, Organized Noize, DJ Paul and Juicy J, Q-Tip--the list goes on. I don't think I'd feel incomplete if I didn't work with some of these people. But, it would be awesome if I ever got the opportunity.

SOTB: What about artists? Any one artist you absolutely want to work with on a project?

BR: All of the living rappers that I named in the previous question. Andre 3000 is at the top of my list. I'd also love to be on a track with Oddisee. To make things more interesting, I'll throw out some of the local artists that I'd love to work on a project with: Ezko Barz, Jake Sinatra, Clifford Cartel, DMV Mac, and Jay IDK, just to name a few.

SOTB: Do you have any parting words for the readers?

BR: Thanks for reading. It's our time.

* Ed. Note: I spoke on this a bit in 2012 and via a post I did with Arteest entitled "Looking the Part." If you have a chance, check it out here.

**Ed. Note: My thing with paid posts is this: I have no problem paying for an established blog to be honest. Hell, I have no real problem dropping $10, $20 to a smaller blog, especially if I know their work, and know that they're legit in what they do. I'd rather not, since it does kind of dilute journalistic integrity. But...sometimes you've got to work within the constraints and "play the game" if you want to revolutionize and break the game. My thing is, and always has been, people paying a fortune for a site that gets a small amount of views a week. That's more of what I was getting at in my "Dear Rap Bloggers/Dear Internet Rappers/Dear Rappers" posts when referring to paid blogs. 

I've used a couple paid posts. And if someone asked me if they helped, I'd legitimately tell them the truth: it's a crapshoot. Sometimes, it'll help, sometimes it'll backfire--especially if you're paying for nothing really other than a place on the internet. But, again, sometimes you've got to play the game to change the game. I used those, built an audience for myself (along with, you know, good ol' fashioned networking and abstract, but still good, music) and I'm now able to get an interview with an Illa J or begin setting up a roundtable of journ--lemme stop because that last part is coming. Soon.

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