“We Just Knew to Grow Up Quick”: An Interview with Trapo

Jimmy Ness talks with teenage rapper Trapo about growing up black in Wisconsin, hearing his music played at his high school, and visiting Atlantic Records.
By    June 9, 2016

trapo

Talent defies age. Wisconsinite Trapo still attends high school, but he’s blessed with sublime musical instinct. The juvenile old-soul, christened Davon Prather, reflects on life with maturity and mystique. He captures existential hurdles like race, alcoholism, and romance without deferring to self-indulgence. Trapo’s deep croon and salient rhymes invoke a gumbo of Isaiah Rashad, Digable Planets, and a pinch of Andre Benjamin. His latest exploit, She, is consistently great with warm production that’s restrained, but too multicolored to be tedious. Although only a few projects deep, Prather has the indefinable quality that a hundred struggle spitters can’t force. Some people just get it.

Undoubtedly one of many future interviews, I chatted to Trapo at a junction in his emerging career. The day before his 18th birthday, Prather spoke on winning his parent’s approval with a trip to the Atlantic Records offices and dealing with growing popularity in a small city. Being a teenager is a moment you rarely reflect on until it’s over. Trapo seemed aware of youth’s momentary nature and discussed how he’ll look back on his early artistry. Determined to focus on music, Prather also discussed his plans post-school and how the internet introduced him to his main producer, but also contributed to social anxiety. —Jimmy Ness


How much time do you spend on music?


Trapo: Every day, my whole life has been involved around music. I can’t even give you an amount. Literally every day I’m writing something, listening to something or recording. It’s just what I love to do. It’s really just music and trying to keep up with school.


Were you born in Madison, Wisconsin?


Trapo: Yeah I was born here, lived here pretty much my whole life.


What’s it like?


Trapo: Madison is cool. It’s real small. Everybody pretty much knows or has seen everybody, already. There’s not a lot to do here, especially for the youth, so there’s a lot of other stuff to get into. If you get bored, you might get into the wrong thing. But it’s not super hard not to do the wrong thing in Madison. It’s not super difficult to live out here, you can live out here and be pretty good. You can chill. I know it’s harder in another places to stay above water, and not do a lot of dumb shit. It’s easy to separate yourself from it. But then again, it’s easy to fall into it, if you live in certain parts of the city.


Do you remember the first time you heard your voice on a record?


Trapo: Yeah, I think I was in fifth grade. Super young. I’ve been writing raps since third grade. The first time I recorded, heard myself and played it back was like fifth grade. I was with my uncles because they rapped and I was trying the shit out too. Once I heard it though, I knew that it was for me. I just knew this was what I wanted to do.

My whole family knew my uncles rapped, but they never tried to encourage me to rap. I kind of just fell in love when I heard my uncles doing it, then I gave it a try. They were teens making music, because my uncles are kind of young, like 23 right now, so they were kind of like me, just making music in high school. They didn’t get to the popularity I probably have, but they were still having fun.


How will you look back on the music you’ve made when you’re older? There’s a unique part of being a teenager you lose when you’re an adult.


Trapo: Years from now, when I look back, I know I’m going to be hella proud of it because everything I made has stemmed from my life. Everything I went through, all of the challenges growing up. Even like the petty stuff, meeting girls, being in high school, I’m going to be proud of it because that’s like a point in my life where I actually cared about shit like that. I feel like, in the future, there’s going to be way different shit to stress about. I’ll probably laugh, thinking that this was my biggest stress at the time. I’m going to be proud of it because I know it’s all good music and it’s all what I really felt.


She sounds like a complete project. Where was it recorded?


Trapo: I recorded the whole project in my room, from start to finish. Every single track I made in my room, mixed it, did all of my engineering for it and everything. It took a while, but like I said, I do this every day. Literally, my process was, I would go out and do some stuff, but always remembered to come home and record something, no matter what I did.


Is your bedroom soundproof?


Trapo: Nah, I’ve just got a little mini-booth around the mic. They [Trapo’s parents] most definitely hear it. They support me making music now, they didn’t so much encourage me to do it when I was younger. They just let it be my option, but now they see that I take it seriously, they’ve been more supportive and my mom lets me record in the house.


What do your parents do?


Trapo: My dad’s a barber and my mom works at a nursing home.


You were never babied during childhood.


Trapo: Even the kids I grew up around and my family members. They always prepared us for what the world is, so it’s like when we growing up, I took all of that and remembered it. I’m not about to be surprised by certain shit. We already knew that we had to take things serious at a young age. It’s hard to explain, we just knew to grow up quick, to get it together, you know.


Did your parents make sacrifices to get you this far?


Trapo: Yeah, my mom had me in high school. I’m in high school now and I see teens pregnant and I couldn’t even imagine having to go through all the shit they go through. For me to still feel comfortable, that means she did a great job.


You’re not a particularly social person.


Trapo: I’ve got a lot of friends, but I’ve known them since I was in elementary school, since I was little. Of course, I’m going to be super social with them because I’ve known them my whole life. But as far as high school, I remember in my freshman year, it was super weird trying to get to know people. I’ve spent my whole life around like four select people that I knew were my friends. They were almost like family because we grew up together. Then being a kid, especially as a 14 year old with the internet and everything, you spend most of your time on the internet. That makes it hard. I didn’t realize what it was doing to me, but it was making me really antisocial. When I learned that, I kind of broke away and started expressing myself.


You met main collaborator Derrick Thomas on YouTube. He produced the majority of She.


Trapo: It’s funny, I saw his beats on YouTube and I followed him on Twitter. I didn’t know they were the same people. I ended up releasing [a song over] a beat that I think was a free download or something, so I put it on Soundcloud. That’s when he reached out to me and ever since then, we clicked. He started sending me beats. We’ve never met each other. I’ve only known him for like a year, probably. I tell him what type of feel I’m looking for, or if he ever wanted to call and really just show me something beforehand to see if I’m liking it, he does that.

But for the most part, everything he’s sent, we’ve just been clicking, because we built it around the sound he was cooking up. We’ve just built it around the beats, kind of like his vision has grown to life. Not meaning the songs on the tape, but like the beats and what he wanted to do with them.


How did you start singing?


Trapo: I used to go to church a lot when I was little, again in elementary school. I was always singing in the house and my grandma was like “give it a try.” So I joined the choir and tried it out for a little bit, but I didn’t really like it, like I thought I was going to.


You don’t have a traditional singing voice, but you make it work.


Trapo: Yeah, I make it work. I can’t hit every note like I want to, but I bounce around what I can do. Eventually I might be able to hit notes I can’t now, but I haven’t found out how to do it yet. I’m pretty sure I can do whatever I want to do, I’ve just got to really practice it. I do what I can and that’s been working and I like it, so I kind of stick to that.


Singing on records would test your confidence. Rapping is one thing, singing is completely different.


Trapo: Right, and it brings a lot of songs to life and that’s what I like about it. It paints the picture more, when something sounds beautiful or something. It helps whoever’s listening to it paint a picture so they can see it in their head, what it looks like, almost just from what it sounds like.


You talk a lot about love for a 17 year old.


Trapo: Like I said, there’s not a lot to do in Madison. Each and everything you experience in life, you’re just going to do it over and over again. Girls and meeting people, that’s all part of growing up. Once I start experiencing shit, it pushes my creativity so I have something to talk about. That’s why I made She.


The songs are quite personal and specific.


Trapo: I’m an artist who wants to give whoever listens to me what I’ve felt and that experience. I won’t hold back when I’m making music and people understand that. It’s not like super out there, like nobody even knows who these people are, except for the people that matter to me.


Did any local rappers help you when you started out?


Trapo: Actually not at all bro, everything I’ve done has been through the strength of the internet. It’s like a gift and a curse, the internet. It’s like everything I’ve done and everything I’ve built to get where I’m at has been through the internet, me and my manager. Luckily my manager is in a spot where he can meet people and make new contacts, but as far as Madison, I kind of just had to do everything by myself. Get equipment and all of that, push my music by myself.


When will you consider yourself successful?


Trapo: I just want to be a voice, I really want to effect a lot of people and change shit for people. As long as I’m good, I won’t have to worry about nothing. The people that helped me get to where I am, as long as they’re good, like my folks, as long as we’re in a good place, where we don’t have to worry about bills then I’ll feel successful because I kind of returned the favor to my mom and pops. To be successful will mean I was finally able to do everything that they did for me, with no stress. I’ll be reaching everybody.


Do you have plans to focus on music after school?


Trapo: I want to do music full time, actually. A lot of people ask me what I’m going to do after high school, but it just makes sense. If I have this gift, I want to just do it my whole life. If I’m in a position where I can maybe do this, then I’d be a fool not to go for it. If I do school it’ll probably be for a couple of years, but music full time obviously.


You mention racism in your music, is that something you’ve dealt with a lot?


Trapo: I live in Madison, but I live in Wisconsin, and it’s one of the most racist places to be, honestly, for young black males in Dane County. We experience that, it’s probably part of me being anti social. I’ve always seen this weird shit that I wasn’t used to that I later found out was people being prejudice. It’s hard to explain. They say, now days when people are being racist you won’t know because when they’re racist they do it with smile. But there are obvious signs, comments and body movement, you can just tell.


On “Bad Girl,” you describe a girl hiding you from her parents because you’re black.


Trapo: That’s like some weird dramatic shit that can really happen. It’s weird, it shouldn’t matter what race the person is your dating, but that shit matters to people. To some parents, they actually care. Maybe the students don’t, like it’s a new day, but you’ve still got the old heads who think that way, that are holding us back.


How was visiting Atlantic Records? Did that make you look at your career differently after hearing labels were interested?


Trapo: Definitely, because I didn’t know it got that complex. I knew what labels were, but I didn’t know that I would get to see what all of it was, be in the same place. When I went it just made me realize that okay, not only can I have a voice, I can reach hella people.

I can be a household name if I really wanted to take any offer that any label gave me. I can be one of those people that you see on TV. It just let me know that I have options and you don’t always have to take that route, there are other ways to do it. They flew me and my parents right to LA, and took my manager from New York.


Did they make you an offer?


Trapo: Not like a deal, nothing like that. It was kind of like they wanted to get to know me and they gave me an option to do a song for a Jeep commercial or something. They sent it and I listened to it, I played it back a few times, but it really just wasn’t something that I was interested in doing. It wasn’t my lane, it was a totally different sound and stuff that I wasn’t comfortable with. I just wasn’t with that.


Your parents must have enjoyed the experience.


Trapo: They were really surprised. You’ve got to think about it, for them I was just their kid in the room, screaming into the mic. One day I told them, like “yeah, we’re going to LA.” They were like “oh no, we don’t believe that.” They thought it was some goofy shit, but then we were there in LA, it’s surreal. It’s like “wow, this shit can happen.” People are actually watching and listening, which is cool. They were happy. That’s the happiest I’ve seen them in a minute. They know it’s possible now. It was my first time I had been to LA, I had never seen that before. It was dope as hell and I was like “damn, people live here.” That was my biggest moment, going to LA.


Do people recognize you locally?


Trapo: Yeah, that shit is dope though. I like it, it’s cool to see. I’m not on every side of town. I don’t spend a lot of time on the North or East side, I’m only on the South and West. It’s cool when you go to a party and there’s people from all over the city and they know who you are.

At my school, we have this thing called Fine Arts Week or something like that. I’m not that involved in my school, I kind of just go there like any other average kid, go to school, go home. This was weird, in the auditorium when they were doing performances, in between transitions they would play my music. Like the song “Chicago,” they would play it. They wouldn’t tell me or anything, it would just come on and I was like “damn, that’s dope.” Everybody knows it, it’s weird. Last year I was super normal, going to school, just being average and now hella people want to meet me and hang with me. It’s weird.


Cheers dude, I’ll let you get back to school.


Trapo: Yeah man, thank you. This was fun, best interview I’ve done so far.