Two years from today, Vince Ash will be older than his father was when he died. His mother raised him and five brothers, constantly fighting geographic displacement and scarce financial realities. Do or Die, his debut LP, feels like a reckoning, a shift into heightened focus and awareness. As Vince says, the project is meant to map the ages between 17 and 19.
It starts with jarring nihilism. Hauntingly, he snarls, “I’d rather be carried by six than judged by twelve.” He’s 21 and all words uttered are connected to the life he’s lived. The constant is urgency, translated into different languages—the threat, the flex, the taunt, and startlingly, the celebration. Always present.
Do or Die is a visceral experience. Drum kicks start your heart pounding. 45 seconds into “6 Deep,” the subwoofers explode. Just 20-minutes long, it appears to have the explicit goal of jacking your heart rate up past its BPM; its cold-eyed ferocity feels more like an objective than a consequence. If Vince’s music reflects the world around him, it feels reasonable that his musical treatise is delivered breakneck, no breath taken when a syllable could be sneered instead.
It’s hard to resist the urge to read Vince Ash as a set of intersections. City tribalism in hip-hop does feel somewhat antiquated under the New SoundCloud Rap Economy, but it’s hard not to impose some implied musical tradition upon his childhood passage through east Chicago and Hammond and Gary; it is even harder to not listen to his music as some multiplication of Prodigy’s elasticity and Ghostface’s dexterity and G Herbo’s verbosity, all pitched down to 2Pac’s octave.
But while this isn’t all completely without consequence, context is just context, and it feels deeply inaccurate to engage in trying to boil away the solvent to get the solute. When we talk, he mentions Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Gucci Mane in sequence as reference points for his music, and it occurs to me that I might be less drawn to Vince’s music if he was just from Atlanta, wholly subsumed by and beholden to the tropes of a city.
The classic cliche about debut projects is that they become snapshots of their artists’ entire lives to the moment of release, and from that point on, artists are tasked with having to create as they live. But that implies static music, and that is something Do or Die is not. The voice that fuels the music is still finding itself and clearing its throat, and as Vince himself notes: you can almost map his growth across the project’s eight tracks.
On the older cuts (backloaded, here) you can hear the occasional lapse in concentration and the subsequent microseconds where Vince chases the beat’s tempo back, but on the album’s opening two-song salvo, he’s already jumping in and out of the pockets between the drums, fluid. Do or Die stays close to the concrete of Interstate 80, refusing to diverge from Vince’s story as he’s lived it. Even if we can’t hear it in the music yet, we know the highway is leading to somewhere new. —Sun-Ui Yum
How’s it feel to have your first project out?
Vince Ash:Nerve-wracking. But at the same time, I’m confident in it, because we’ve been working on it for a minute. I’ve been trying to put together a project since I was sixteen, but it was just progression, getting the beats right, trying to get my voice to sound a certain way, getting comfortable in the studio.
It’s gotta be surreal. How long have you been working on it?
Vince Ash:The little eight tracks we got probably took me a couple months. But as a whole, bouncing off ideas from older shit, it’s all been a long process, I ain’t gonna lie to you.
The creative process is a long thing. How old are you exactly?
Vince Ash:I’m twenty-one.
You’re from Hammond, Indiana, right near Gary. What was it like to grow up around that area but be bouncing around from place to place?
Vince Ash:When I was a kid, that shit was fun. Experiencing different shit, going to parties in all these different types of neighborhoods, meeting new people, females, all types of shit. I ain’t really notice it…it’s me, just now, reflecting on everything now that I’m more stable, I’m thinking all about the shit a nigga done been through and shit that we done did and shit that motherfuckers done seen. I’d say I was upset about, you know, about being broke, but you don’t even really notice it if you’re broke. You don’t notice you’re broke until you have money.
Yeah, especially when you’re younger…you’re just living.
Vince Ash:Exactly. You don’t really notice it if everybody else is doing the same shit you’re doing. That it’s weird for like, you to go somewhere, and motherfuckers don’t be stealing and shit like that.
Are there any memories from your childhood or when you were younger that really pop out to you now that you look back?
Vince Ash:When I was a kid and growing up, I would say I was more of a follower, I guess, because I was the youngest hanging around my older brothers and their friends and shit like that. So I was always trying to do what they was doing.
When do you think you really grew up, then? When was the turning point?
Vince Ash:I would say when we had moved to Georgia and I was away from all the people I grew up with, because northwest Indiana and Chicago and that area was the only shit I’d seen my whole life. I wasn’t by nobody, I had time just to sit and think about who I was. After that, we had moved back to Chicago because we were only in Georgia for a couple months, and I spent a lot of time inside the crib, because out there you can’t just be wandering around if you ain’t from there.
What do you think changed in your mindset? I know you said you moved somewhere else and did a lot of thinking about your identity, but what did that look like?
Vince Ash:Just trying to figure out who I was. I’d do shit based on, you know, what my friends was doing, what my older brothers were doing. So me, coming into my own, I was like, okay—what do I want to do?
How many siblings do you have?
Vince Ash:Shit, uh…[laughs] I got like…I’m the youngest, I got five older brothers.
How would you characterize what your family was like growing up?
Vince Ash:I would say that everybody…given the situation we was in, everyone had their own hustle, what they wanted to do. We’d laugh, motherfuckers would joke all day, but then when it’s time for shit to get serious, shit can go left for a motherfucker—but at the same time, it’s smooth. Everybody contributed to helping each other out given our situation.
Did you live with your mom growing up?
Vince Ash:My mom raised all of us by herself.
What’s your relationship with her like?
Vince Ash:When I was younger, it wasn’t really too close. I’m close with my momma now, though.
I know you rap a lot about your mom and her losing your father on “Thoughts” and just wanted to ask you a bit more about that.
Vince Ash:My dad died when I was three months, so I ain’t really know him like that, but he was partially raising my older brothers before me. We ain’t all got the same daddy, but my dad stepped in and took on the responsibility at a real young age. He died when he was twenty-two, about to be twenty-three. Having that as context growing up, I was always just hearing stories about him but not really being able to connect, because everybody else knew except me.
My momma growing up, she was real strong. She always had a job, always was taking care of us. Most of the time she was either out working or trying to go to school at the same time. Trying to do what she can so she can get more money and help us all out. My mom had a big heart. When we was coming up, it would be times when my friends would get kicked out the crib, or one of our family members going through some shit—even though we ain’t got shit, we would let motherfuckers come in if they needed a place to lay their head. We’d try to help as much as we could.
How do you think growing up in that way affected you when you were younger?
Vince Ash:I think it goes with a lot of my brothers too, but I think we got a tendency to look out for other motherfuckers more than an average person would, but at the same time, we got a heart. It made me a more genuine person. I ain’t one of those people who’re just in a shell about motherfuckers I deal with.
I know you said you were in Georgia and that was about freshman year of high school, when you first started to think about rapping as serious. When you were younger, did you grow up around rap?
Vince Ash:It’s always been my life, my uncles used to do that shit. Some of my earliest memories and shit like that. I ain’t go to preschool, I went straight to kindergarten. So that whole period, I remember my uncles being up at my grandma’s crib, I’d ride around with them and they’d play their CDs. And growing up, my older brother rapped—two of my older brothers rapped. My whole family listened to hip-hop heavy, my momma was real into that shit.
What kind of music did you grow up around? What type of rappers, what did your mom listen to?
Vince Ash:My mom listened to rap but she’d listen to more the R&B shit too. She’d play the shit up on the radio, but she fucked with Pac heavy, Nas heavy. Same thing with my uncles, they’d listen to Nas, 50 Cent. The shit I’d catch on the little video shows, MTV and shit like that.
Did you ever listen to rap from around Gary? Grind Family…
Vince Ash:Man, I ain’t get into that until I was older, because growing up that shit had passed. But I went back and did my research, I saw all that shit. One of my homies, rest in peace, his uncle was part of Grind Family.
Was it a common thing for people to rap when you were younger?
Vince Ash:Around eighth grade, freshman year before I moved, motherfuckers used to rap heavy. We used to have rap battles at the lunch tables and shit. We used to have thirty minutes in the morning before classes started, niggas used to be in breakfast battle rapping.
Why do you personally think that’s something that so many people gravitate to at that age?
Vince Ash:Coming from the environment that surrounds niggas, niggas ain’t really got too many options. You either gonna play sports or you gonna rap or you gonna be on some street shit, but even the street niggas rap. Or they used to hoop. You ain’t really got too many other options to think of making it out. Don’t nobody want to end up settling for that factory job that a lot of motherfuckers end up doing.
I wanted to ask you a bit more about Hammond and Gary, since it’s so notorious for being a rough area, and it’s a big part of your music as well. Did you have a sense when you were younger that the places you were living were rough?
Vince Ash:I ain’t notice until we moved, to be honest with you. When we moved, we had moved to Merrillville, and Merrillville is right on the border of Gary. It was motherfuckers from a little bit of everywhere: from EC, Gary, Hammond, Michigan City, niggas from Chicago, and motherfuckers from ‘Nap. The environment was decent, and motherfuckers would talk about how they used to live. And when you’d have conversations it’d all sound normal, but to look at the environment you were around, it’s like—damn, we was living fucked up, huh?
I remember gunshots at fucking nighttime at a certain type of time. Even something closer to home: I had to be around five or six, and my older brothers had worked up on the ice cream truck, and my momma had to tell them to stop because motherfuckers had tried to shoot up the truck when they weren’t on the joint. You don’t notice that it’s fucked up until you’ve got something to compare it to.
Do you think growing up where you did affected you? Looking back, obviously not at the time, but how do you think it changed your mindset?
Vince Ash:I’d say for the better. I know a lot of people who grew up, not where I’m at, not in a rough environment and from struggle—motherfuckers be blind out in the world. I think that’s why motherfuckers be interested to hear stories from niggas from the hood. Because they don’t know about the little shit I do. If I go into a party, I don’t go in there relaxed at first. I check the scene first. Or when I’m walking, I’m always looking over my shoulder a bit, when cars pass.
For better or worse, as your career continues on Freddie Gibbs is gonna be a big reference point for you because not a lot of people know about Gary and Hammond, and he’s the big rapper from that area in the last decade. Gibbs ended up moving out of Gary to Los Angeles, so I wanted to ask—I know a lot of rappers from Gary and Baton Rouge and cities like that end up moving out, could you see yourself somewhere other than Hammond?
Vince Ash:You always gotta touch back to where you come from. People get a bad taste in their mouth about you if you move and you never come back, or if you move and you don’t do shit for where you come from. Out of everywhere I done moved and been, I done always told motherfuckers I was from Hammond. I always go check in on motherfuckers and shit like that.
When I get some money, I help out them communities that made me who I am. That’s something a lot of people don’t care to do anymore, because the problem isn’t that they moved out, it’s that they moved out and then forgot. People love Boosie like a motherfucker, and I know he don’t stay in Baton Rouge anymore. People love Kevin Gates so much, I know he don’t stay out there no more. But I know they come back to those communities and help out.
I also obviously want to talk to you about your music, and wanted to ask about how you linked up with Archie, your manager, and Passion of the Weiss.
Vince Ash:So, it’d probably be a year ago, this time last year—I was working at some factory, and then out of nowhere, I was tired as hell in the crib washing dishes. I get a motherfucking email, and it’s Archie. He wanted me to be on that MTV or VH1 or whatever, a rap competition that had Rick Ross and The-Dream on it as judges. He wanted me to do that, but ultimately I said no to that, because usually niggas you hear get up on them competitions, you’ll hear about them on that show but you won’t hear about them no more. Them shows be making rappers look corny as hell, I ain’t want that to be me.
Did you know him before?
Vince Ash:I ain’t know shit about him until he started talking about wanting to be my manager and introducing me and linking me up with people, I started doing my little research on him. And then he brought me to Jeff.
I also wanted to ask you about the music you’re making now. I was going back through the old work and there wasn’t a lot I could find, but what I did find was always dark and heavy and grimy, just like your music now. I was curious what made you gravitate towards that type of sound.
Vince Ash:Because the music you make should be a reflection of who you are and what you come from. And that’s exactly what it is. If you ride through Gary and you play “E. 1999” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony or some motherfuckin’ old Gucci, it fits the scenery. I wanted my music to be that same type of soundtrack. When you ride through whatever you ride through—it looks like how it sounds.
I saw somebody compare you to Prodigy, and Mobb Deep, and that made a ton of sense: just how your voice carries and the gravity it has. And then obviously, the cadence in how you rap is really reminiscent of 2Pac. I’m curious what you think about all of that, and also how you characterize your own music.
Vince Ash:It’s representative of who I am and what I went through and my personal experiences, it’s just something that’s natural. I understand when people make the comparisons, but at the same time, I want to know exactly what they mean, because I can hear it, but I don’t know…is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? I could see what motherfuckers draw their conclusions from for this project right now, but my next project is going to be completely different. Not like I’m switching up my whole style or sound, but I feel like it’s important for me now to really make myself my own person.
What do you think separates the music that’s coming out next from Do or Die? What’s changed about your approach?
Vince Ash:Obviously growth. I feel like I should progress with every song, with every line. You’ll hear growth through this project, you’ll be able to tell what are the older songs and which ones are the newer songs. I’m getting more into detail—when I’m telling the stories, to actually be able to feel like you’re there. I’ve been trying to sharpen up my skills on that, to really paint that picture even broader. And then, the production is getting better. I’m just going to be hitting motherfuckers over the head with this shit. The next project is all new material.
Is there a song on Do or Die that really stands out for you?
Vince Ash:“6 Feet” is probably my favorite joint. It starts the tape off perfectly, I like the flow switches I had in that. Damn near the whole tape in order is structured from what I like the most to what I don’t like. [Laughs] So it would be “6 Feet,” then “Text Free” because I like how it all grooves together, then “Solid” because it’s just so dark and the beat is fucking crazy. And then “Pull Up” is one of them fight songs, shit like that, I love fight music. And then “Mobbin’” is a cool little party joint, but “Thoughts” really wraps it all up with the skit and the emotion that I drew in that song, too.
Did you sequence the project?
Vince Ash:Yeah, most definitely. Anything that gotta do with me from videos, to the beats I pick, to any and everything I can put my hands on, I try to put my hands on.
I really wanted to ask you about your videos and your VHS aesthetic, why that’s something that attracted you.
Vince Ash:Growing up, we used to record the shit that came up on BET on the tape recorders, and we were always playing them back. When I watch the old school videos and how the music complimented it, it just captured the whole vibe of what hip-hop was. Everything looking all polished and shiny, it’s cool, but when you think about hip-hop, it’s dusty, it’s gritty, it’s street.
When I was getting ready to interview you, I was doing my research and you’re pretty much a ghost. There can’t be more than ten songs of yours floating out there. And that feels pretty uncommon, especially for a young rapper in 2018—it’s not like the Lyrical Lemonade, post-a-song-on-SoundCloud-every-week type thing. So I was really curious about that: Was that a creative decision you made, or is it just the pace that you work at, or…
Vince Ash:Everything I do as far as music is reflective of who I am. I’m not the type of person that’s all on social media, that’s just never been me. And then as far as putting out a lot of music, I’m a real perfectionist. You can ask Jeff and you can ask Archie, they had to literally pull me away and convince me multiple times to add certain songs on and tell me certain shit was good. I gotta get things exactly how I hear them in my head, or I’m gonna think it’s trash.
Are there any rappers you look at and think, “That’s how I want my career to go.” What would you say your artistic vision is moving forward, how do you want these next two or three years to go?
Vince Ash:Fuck two or three years, I’m trying to be around longer than that [laughs]. I mean, it’s not a certain artist I’d say I want to model myself after, but my goals for this, all said and done, I want to be—in a thousand years from now when people are studying hip-hop and they gotta mention certain motherfuckers, I wanna at least be in that conversation. I want to make impactful, timeless music.
Right now, I’m really just working with what I got: YouTube beats, the little studios I got right now, and the little money I could hustle up. I’m doing good for just that. Once I get my resources and I can actually put my hands into more things and get better quality shit, I’m trying to make timeless classical music. You know how motherfuckers be listening to Luther Vandross, or still listening to The Temptations and Frankie Lymon and all that shit. You could play some of those songs from back then and still relate, still feel something about them songs. That’s the type of music I want to make.
What do you think you rapping means to the people around you, whether that’s your family or your friends? What does it signify, what does it mean to them?
Vince Ash:Speaking from all of my friends, I got a small circle. I ain’t the type to have a lot of motherfuckers around me. We’re a big family, but we’re really still close-knit. Everybody wants to see me achieve my goals because they know the type of person that I am, where they lift me up and I could lift them up. Even the people who can’t be there at every video shoot, every studio session, is still proud of me and still supports in some way because they’re living that dream through me.
My family was really deep into music, hip-hop. Even though they didn’t make it, they still like to see me achieve my goals and still see things go good with me. It means the same thing it means to me—everything.