Question in the Form of An Answer: Raz Simone Talks Seattle Hip Hop, Signing to Lyor Cohen’s New Label, and Why He Loves Gladiator

Brian Josephs got his life validated by shaking hands with Rick Ross. Twice. Raz Simone’s Cognitive Dissonance: Part One is a good, but moody listen, and everyone acts accordingly during the...
By    March 25, 2014

razsimoneBrian Josephs got his life validated by shaking hands with Rick Ross. Twice.

Raz Simone’s Cognitive Dissonance: Part One is a good, but moody listen, and everyone acts accordingly during the listening session in New York City’s Terminus Penthouse Studio. There are empty plastic cups from the free mini bar in the back. Reporters and bloggers listen to the album play and bob their heads in solemnity. Lyor Cohen, the music business legend who’s founded 300, is chilling near the back of the room while watching his first signee Raz Simone — who heads Black Umbrella, his own label — play host.

Simone’s first full-length album delves into thoughts of domestic violence, whipping coke, and violence with a balance of melody and gravity. It’s not quite emo enough to be alienating, but it’s more than simply being “real,” too. I guess Cognitive Dissonance’s appeal was symbolized when I asked him a question as he was welcoming them after the album concluded. “You’re personal on the album. Are you afraid of alienating part of your audience or are you using that openbook-ness to connect with the audience?”

This is a bit hyperbolic, but as he looked directly at me when he answered the question, it felt like one of those movie scenes where the crowd around you parts and the camera slowly zooms in on the subject for emphasis. Simone isn’t that intimidating of a guy; he may be around 6 feet and his voice is only a little more nasally than on record. He was straightforward as he was answered, but articulate enough to draw you in. It’s the same characteristic that buoys Cognitive Dissonance, and he was similarly fluent as he discussed his partnership with 300, the Seattle hip-hop scene, and his inspirations with a similar sense of fluidity during our interview.

Did you have any fear of alienating audiences with how personal you were on this new mixtape?

Earlier in my life I had thought about that, because first I was making music just for myself — just like my poetry class. Then I realized there was at least one person listening, and then there was an audience. Then it’s not a monologue anymore; it’s a conversation. A lot of people who come from a poetry background or just like caring about lyrics, a lot of times they’re like, “I don’t want to dumb it down. I got to dumb it down so they can listen to me and understand.” They’re not realizing it’s not about dumbing down. It’s about: How intelligent is your music if no one understands your music except for you?

You don’t dumb it down to be understood by people. You just speak in a better way. Like if I’m speaking to you and you’re not understanding me, that doesn’t mean I’m that intelligent, I’m not a good public speaker, or I’m not a linguist that I don’t understand the language that you’re speaking. It’s kind of like if I’m a skateboarder and I’m like, “Go do this Ollie,” and you’re like what does that mean. Or if I’m a rocket scientist and I’m talking about a different piece and [I say], “Pass me the obtuse,” and you’re like what. But if I was a great teacher, I would point you the obtuse or would show you if this is an Ollie. It’s just like when you’re teaching anyone. If you’re teaching a baby, you’re like, “This is an apple.” You point to it. It’s not about dumbing down; it’s about how you relay your message.

Making music I realize that even though it is my own story, it’s almost like asking myself…That question you ask me is like me asking you … It’s like me being a director and being like, “So do you still think watching Gladiator alienates you because you weren’t in Gladiator” or “Do you think the movie 300 is going to alienate your audience because no one has cut someone’s head off in this day and age?” People want to hear about stories that they haven’t lived and then people who have lived it want to hear it because it does the same thing it did for the writer, where it’s that outlet where it’s personal to him.

So part of intelligence is being able to convey it, right?

There are different things for different people. In a year or two from now, I can make an album with no words in it and doing weird stuff. That music would do something different for me and the audience. But the music that I’m making now [is about] having this conversation and putting my life into music. That’s what’s so cool and fun for me, because it’s not a competitive thing. I’m looking at it like I’m in the genre of hip-hop. I can’t not be hip-hop. I am hip-hop. But I’m not like…You have all these other genres and people aren’t beefing with each other or trying to make the better verse than the other person or whatever it is. You’re making great music and I think that it’s so beautiful that I make this music that is me as a person.

Even with the dark music that I make, I still get so many people saying this put them through their day or they were going to kill themselves, but then they heard my music and it turned it around. I didn’t know my music had the power to do that. I was thinking that it was maybe too dark or whatever, but looking back over it, there’s still hope during the story.

It’s funny that you mention Gladiator and The Lion King, because I read that you liked movie scores. To what degree do you draw from movie scores in your works?

To be honest, I’m not sitting around movie scores all day. Now that you said that, I’m probably going to go to the store and buy $200’s worth just to sharpen myself up. That’s where I consciously realized that music affected me. There’s a few places where I realized that music was powerful, because when I was younger I didn’t listen. But I realized music was powerful when you go to church and you see people praising and crying and having that non-stop experience with whatever they’re praising. You realize that this is powerful because if the music wasn’t there it isn’t as emotional. Like in a scary movie when you plug your eyes. You might cover your eyes, but you plug your ears and it makes it better. It’s not scary anymore. The tearjerking moments, the music is so moving and the music is a huge part of the hypnotism.

That made me pull toward music so much more, because I realized that it was so powerful, and it was powerful to me. Like damn, this is making me want to tear up and this isn’t even a real person. This is sending chills down my spine. I love music that moves me, so that’s why those things were so great for me. So I incorporate things like that. The music I’m making right now contains a lot of epic moments like that.

What was the first movie soundtrack that evoked that feeling for you?
I remember this one song that’s used a lot in movies — the “Ooooohhhh Child, things are gonna get easier” (“O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps).  That would be in a lot of movies, but that song really did something for me. It just really made me…I don’t know. It felt like it took away a lot of problems. It was one of those things I connected with. Whenever it came on in the movies, I’d have this nostalgic emotional moment.

I get movies in that Gladiator realm, even Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, which are very epic and make me feel a certain way. There’s the Across the Universe with The Beatles and all that. There’s a lot of moving sounds in that.

Just to move on to your relationship with 300, I saw Lyor Cohen sitting in the back while you did your thing. Is that symbolic of the relationship, where he oversees, but you’re still in control?
I still do what I do the exact same, but I have a dope team that’s beside me again. I already had a dope team. People who are in Black Umbrella have already been through these things with me.

[300] aren’t people who are archaic and stuck in their ways, they’re very forward thinking and that’s why they’re making the moves that they’re making right now. They walked through those doors and been through this, but they’re still not so jaded to tell me to not do something because it didn’t work for them. They’d let me know, “Well, this is what happened here.” I’d ask, “Well, how do you feel about this?” That was the biggest thing. When we were sitting down and creating this partnership, I was realizing that Lyor was this wealth of knowledge. I would just follow around and interact.

I’m still making the moves that I’m making and I got the best team behind me. When you got a guy like Lyor, who’s spend all this time with the industry at an executive position. Like 35 years of CEO. So he knows the ins and outs of these corporations and he sees where the fat is and where it needs to be cut, and he sees the people who are doing the best work. Anyone that’s associated with 300 or has a job at 300 has to be the best because they’re all-star performers. They’re on an all-star team.

Isn’t that more pressure though? Do you feel it or is it a boost in confidence and support?
I definitely like to undersell and over-deliver. The majority of my life has been pressure, so I don’t transfer pressure into stress. I transfer that into, “Oh this is great. I got more pressure. They’re waiting on me to perform. To stay on top of my thing.” Stay sharp, be comfortable, but not content. Always strive for more. So it’s not stress at all. I stay on top of the ball.

So I guess it would be easier if no one knew about this, and I was just rapping for Seattle. But nothing I’ve done in my life has been the easy route. It’s always go for the quality, go for the better.

Tell me a bit about Black Umbrella. It’s interesting you had this fully formed label before 300.

The earlier stages of Black Umbrella, it was just an artist’s collective. With that, it’s artists helping artists. It’s not just singer-songwriters and all of that. There are videographers, animators. It’s just like a place where we can share each other. I might go and do a voiceover for someone and then go be an actor for someone or write a script. We’re all like helping each other out. As the momentum keeps picking up and I go out of town to make connections and things, it’s more like having the tools to perform in this other realm. Coming from Seattle and doing what I do, it’s always been very DIY. I’m also a person who likes to control variables.

I don’t like to look at myself as a jack-of-all-trades, but I know that anything that involves my passion, sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. Sometimes you’re the only one who can do the job and get it done the way you want to do it. So I learned how to do all these things that would take me from point A to point B. If I’m dropping an album, I need to know all the things that go behind it.

Everything else from creating an ad or banner, that’s me. I’m doing this, I’m doing that. My thing is that understanding all those things so you don’t take the hands off from anyone, but then having other people that they took the 10,000 hours on that specific passion — not arts as a whole, but at graphic design. I’m not the best graphic designer. I can do it, but I can’t be the best musician or the best Raz Simone if I’m trying to do everything else. So that’s where the artist collective kicks in. We’ve been building with each other for so long that we have this relationship. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with someone just coming in and being like, “300 just handle this, handle that.” It doesn’t work like that. It takes time and you build together.

Now it’s just about bridging the industry with this do-it-yourself model and making it the most robust machine possible. I see so many things in the do-it-yourself model that work way better than the industry model or the standard model. There are things from the industry that are so powerful that you can mix the two.

I feel like this model is changing with Beyonce’s album dropping out of nowhere and Chance The Rapper making the Billboards without even selling his mixtape. How is it coming into the business when the traditional label model is in its decline?

Being with people who are on the cutting edge of that is amazing. People definitely take heed and they see the unorthodox plans being carried out and working. I feel like it’s going to be a positive thing all around the board because people are going to be hip to it and understand that you can’t do this anymore. It’s natural selection if you don’t catch up, but it definitely feels great to be spearheading what we have here and being one of the pioneers from the beginning of what we got going on. You have cats who are “Do It Yourself,” but then you don’t have a lot of cats who are stepping out and finding that positive marriage where you can make this work.

Even the word independent is so weird to me, because what makes you that? To me, it’s more so doing what you want to do or having that creative control. Even independence isn’t a good word to that realm, because it’s not like they’re being their own booking agent or being their own DJ. So it’s not independence, and I don’t feel like people should strive toward independence. Independence is a step. You dependence when you’re sucking on you mom’s titty. You have independence…And then there’s interdependence, where you have people who are working together cohesively to make something greater. How do you think the pyramids were built? How you think buildings were built? It’s not like there’s one person who’s like I did this and I did that.

When did Black Umbrella start?
Umm…I’m so bad with years. I could say that I know it’s be going for five years. I know it’s been going since I was 19 at least.

And I remember you said during the listening session that you were running a club at one point, did you?

Yeah, I was underage and I was running a club at downtown Seattle right there on 1st and Jackson. It was underground Seattle and it was kinda cool. I ran like a speakeasy and it was also for events and stuff like that. It was a private club. Everybody knew about it and it was just called “The Spot.” It allowed people to talk about it in public because everybody calls everything “The Spot.”

It definitely spread like wildfire because it was a speakeasy, and it was a really cool thing. This young’n got this club in underground Seattle and we could do whatever we want and it was pretty cool.

You teamed up with 300 before it was even publically announced. How did the meeting come about?
It was a long story, but just to keep it short: This kid Henry Burch was a huge fan of mine. He is actually Tory Burch’s son, who has all the designer clothes and the $450 slippers that are dope. Tory and Lyor have been close for years, so her son is pretty much Lyor’s family. He was telling Lyor, “You need to hear this guy RS. He’s amazing.” He finally got his attention and he sat down. They were listening through my stuff. He called and the first thing he told me was “I am a huge fan. I have to tell you guys your work is amazing.”

Then he told me they’d taken time out of their day and missed a Packers game to go and watch through my YouTube videos and listen through my music. Lyor and his family, they are huge Packers fans. They don’t miss a beat, and they’re on it. So hearing that they did that…that was pretty amazing.

So he contacted me through social media and we built from there.

How is the hip-hop scene in Seattle? Does it swing more toward pop or is it street narratives?

Macklemore is the only one of his type. There’s not a lot of Macklemores in Seattle. The music that he makes is Seattle and authentic to Seattle, if that makes sense. There isn’t a lot of rappers who are running around rapping and acting like Macklemore…The scene is very diverse and that’s what’s so dope about it. To another level you have the street side and everything. It’s weird. You have a lot of artists and a lot of people doing a lot of different things. The way that Seattle is, the street side hasn’t gotten a lot of light. So a lot of people who would come from there look at me like, “You’re doing this for us. Take it all the way.” You have people from opposing neighborhoods, opposing blocks, who are all on board to support genuinely, because they know that it’s real for one and that it takes more than them. It can be any of us, but that needs to be there because Seattle is so diverse. There’s so many different stories. If you left it at Macklemore, it wouldn’t be correct. If you left it at me…Let’s say I was the first person to be No. 1 and not Macklemore, that wouldn’t be correct either because there is so many different things going on.

It’s good that you said that because even though I appreciated Macklemore (for his accomplishment as an independent artist), I’ve always had the feeling Macklemore didn’t really represent the entirety of Seattle.

Yeah. I definitely appreciate everything he’s done and I think he’s made crazy strides. He’s totally authentic Seattle, but he doesn’t represent it all with Seattle being so diverse. He’s definitely conscious of it and definitely tries to use things [diversity] like that, like my homie Owuor [Arunga], who’s his trumpet player. They went to the same school, which is Garfield, the school Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones went to. And making sure that his crew is still diverse: He’s got my singer Ray Dalton, who was part of my band Razpy & The Vigilantes — he’s African-American. He’s got the homie Hollis, who’s singing “White Walls,” and she’s Asian and white. He’s getting the Seattle mixture color-wise, but he’s got so many cultures he can’t even touch with that type of music. Luckily, my life is so diverse that I’m not on the hood shit and that’s where it stops.

I’ve been in hood situations and I’ve been in very comfortable situations. I’ve been all in the streets. I’ve been all in the suites. I’ve always prided myself in being a linguist and the only language that I speak is English fluently, but there are so many languages within English. My whole thing is being understood and being almost like a mediator: Being able to speak between people and all the different languages that are spoke and all that stuff, and knowing all the different languages that are spoke within English.

You were pretty candid when someone at the listening party asked you about the dark material. Is it easy discussing it out of song?
When I put something into a song, it’s so personal. There’s no denying about it. I had somebody who was critiquing my work and they said it was powerful, but then they said something I didn’t quite like. They were talking about a certain activity I was rapping about. They gave an example of another rapper. They were like, “Listening to so and so,” I’m not going to say any names but, “Listening to so and so, I love listening to it. It’s great, because I know that even though what they’re talking about is serious, I know it’s not real. I know they’re not doing that. I can tell. It’s just so comical. I know it’s a song for me to sing and an anthem to go. But when Raz is saying what he’s saying, it’s chilling because I know it’s real and I can feel that it’s real. So when he’s talking about these different things, it’s uncomfortable.” So hearing that I was like that’s bias and unjust.

I was upset because I’m talking about the same exact things that someone else might say, but I’m also saying it in a more positive light and in a less glorified way. It’s real so you shouldn’t beat me up for it. But when it comes to lyrics and speaking about it, I’ve always been don’t ask, don’t tell. I don’t have to talk about anything I don’t want to talk about. But started putting everything into my music, it started out being for me. So when it’s all there, it’s naked. It is what it is, but I feel like moving forward with interviews and things like that, I don’t even have to go into it. If you heard me say it, that’s what it is, and it’s very comprehendible. It’s not like it’s coded like that. The little codes like double entendres and triple entendres are things that I have. But the big, main thing that you’re hearing is real and not a play on words. It’s not “Poetic Justice” to make the song sound cool.

Raz Simone – Cognitive Dissonance (Left-Click)

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