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Ross Devlin is chilling in a bayou.
A storm is brewing in Memphis, the city that birthed trap and crunk music, similar to the pressure shift and eerie quiet that precedes a tornado. Producers and engineers like Teddy Walton and ThankGod4Cody have been working with TDE, contributing to Grammy-nominated albums, and traveling the world. Blockboy JB started a dance craze and then got a Drake feature. Xavier Wulf and Chris Travis have long since fled the coop, and are now touring from Los Angeles. To say nothing of Moneybagg Yo, Blacc Youngsta, Yo Gotti, Key Glock, and Young Dolph.
At the moment, I’m sitting with the young vocalist Hotel on a picnic bench behind a Memphis brewery, watching a mustard-colored clump of clouds shoot lightning across the sky.
Hotel wears all black, a tactical bag strapped to his chest across his waist and one shoulder. His long-sleeved crewneck is adorned with the standard sigils of the Church of Satan: a large baphomet, pentagrams, blackletter script. Pulled low over his brow is a black New Yorker baseball cap in Antiqua blackletter. It’s fitting for an artist whose music is carefully designed to subvert and exploit trends in hip-hop. For Hotel, the future is certain: a new wave of music pushes against the old, and he and his core group of collaborators will be leaders, catapulted into the mainstream.
We’re here to talk about Hotel’s new EP, Year of Death, which he considers his “entering the game project”, proof that he’s “not just out here dropping singles.” “I’m not a SoundCloud rapper,” he says, “I’m an actual artist.”
This isn’t a controversial statement. When he was young, Hotel didn’t even listen to rap. He was into rock and metal—Linkin Park and Nirvana—before he was turned on Lil Wayne, Ye, and Pharrell. Skateboarding “was my first passion,” he says. “I fucked with Element,” specifically the crusty Canadian Chris Haslam. “My favorite skater…he used to do all the crazy tricks.” He says he didn’t even listen to rap, “until 9th grade, when the trap shit started to become super relevant in the mainstream. Like Wacka Flacka, Gucci Mane….That’s when I developed a liking for it. Before it seemed too commercial. Trap reminded me more of metal.”
Hotel grew up near Klondike and Smokey City, two of the oldest neighborhoods in North Memphis, and some of the first founded by black landowners. His first CD was Graduation (I tell him mine was probably Meteora). “I had a little boombox CD player in my room”, he adds. “We didn’t have cable back then, so I would just listen to it before I went to sleep.”
In 10th grade he was kicked out of Central High School. At the time, “I was still young, so I was still into innocent shit, like video games, comics books and that. But I got thrown into an environment with a bunch of gang activity. Hot shit 24/7. Every day after school there was a big-ass fight. People getting shot at the school. There was a lot of negative shit going on. And I was living with my dad at the time, so I just kind of ran away from that.” He went to Carver High School in South Memphis, which he describes as the, “worst school I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t working for me.” After that was Northside High, back in Klondike. “I was there for one day, then I was like, fuck this shit. At that point I had already known I wanted to be a musician.” After a pause, he adds, “I just didn’t know it would take this much time to get where I am now.”
It’s interesting the way it works, right? You set yourself a goal but if you work hard towards it you might not realized you accomplished it until later down the road.
Hotel: The way it happens with me, I’ll have this set goal. And then after it happens, I won’t realize it until later. And then I’m like damn, there’s so many things I’ve been focusing on, I didn’t even realize I had met one of my goals.
What were some of those goals?
Hotel: The main one I remember was I was stressing to break 1000 plays on SoundCloud. I knew I had the music, it was just like, dropping something and not having views was so frustrating. Everything after that was just small achievements.
What about going on tour? When I was playing in bands being about to take songs on the road always seemed like a sign of having “made it.” What was your first tour like?
Hotel: You know how it is in the movies? When they have the bands coming up, going on tour for the first time before they are rock stars, and they play those shitty shows? It was a good tour. But it wasn’t an amazing crowd. We had to work for it. We went to these places and just turned up for whoever was there. Same energy, you know? The least people was in Baton Rouge, I believe. That shit was like 10, 15 people. It was still lit. There was this emo kid who was really fucking the wave out there, hair and everything.
Did y’all book your first tour yourself?
Hotel: It was Ish, and my homie [Louisiana rapper] Grosser, and Conner. Grosser had planned on doing a little tour, and we decided to combine it, do a little Down South tour. We went to Nashville, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis. We had an Atlanta date but that fell through.
But you’ve been to Atlanta before. Is that an achievement?
Hotel: I’ve been to Atlanta like three times. Going out there made me realize how close I was to meeting my main goal. To become a “real” artist. every time I was out there I was surrounded by people who were doing exactly what I wanted to do. Just realizing I was there with them, even though I wasn’t popping, made me realize I was pretty close. We linked up with Mofam, the homies out there, doing videos. They linked us in with everybody. We met a lot of people. It was mostly business shit.
Was that your first time in a big studio?
Hotel: Nah. My first time in a big studio was at Arden [a studio in Memphis frequented by Yo Gotti and Young Dolph, among others].
I’ve never been in Arden, but I understand they use it a lot for hip-hop because they got the four rooms.
Hotel: It was a good experience. I only did two songs. I think we were in Studio A. It was a nice-ass room. Way before any of this music shit was even slightly successful. It was just cool to experience it.
Your music reminds me of this mix of different genres. It’s kinda hip-hop, but I hear like grunge, definitely that 90s Memphis vibe where it’s very dark.
Hotel: Since I’m from the South, I like to look at my music as a form of country music. Sounds crazy, but I feel like most southern artists, especially in the lyrics, if you listen to the lyrics it’s whatever situation I’m fighting with or just some sad shit. You find that a lot in country and blues music.
And it’s a really familiar thing too? Even if you don’t listen to country, it’s something you hear a lot when you’re out? Do you know what I mean when I say Southern Gothic?
Hotel: I’ve heard the term.
They use it to refer to like, True Detective, the South is this hot, dark place, where the rules kind of go out the window. Does that vibe kind of describe you?
Hotel: I was just talking about that with Nick, my other homie I make music with. The shit that we’re doing right now, we’re not the only ones doing it, but I feel like the vibe is so original because we’re from the South. We actually live like cowboys, or outlaws or whatever. We’re so much closer to that vibe, so that’s how I would describe it, I guess.
Memphis is kind of an outlaw city, people hustle and do what they need to.
Hotel: I feel like everybody out here is ambitious in some way. Nobody wants to do the normal shit anymore. And they get so influenced by what they hear—if somebody else can do it, I can too.
You know a lot of people around here making music because you grew up with them, do you think there’s a specific sound developing?
Hotel: Uh, in certain areas yeah. There’s the artists that I fuck with out here. Sonpacey, a new artist we’re working with, Grizz. They all have that pop rock sound that’s developing. I’m fucking with that, you know what I’m saying? Most of the artists out here are still eating off whatever wave Xavier Wulf and them left. Or they’re doing some strictly trap shit. As far as people developing their own sound, it’s people in my circle. Everybody else is testing the waters.
You feel like the sound you guys have developed, “Black Mud”, “Hellbound” had a very confident idea. Are there any particular artists that inspired your sound?
Hotel: This project I just did, [Year of Death], I dedicated that to Lil Peep. I feel like he did something with the whole underground, an unorthodox kind of wave of music. He opened a door. I get inspired by the smallest things. I can get inspired by a movie. My whole focus on this project was dark pop. I love pop music. I hate the fact that it could be so “nice.” I listen to shit like Future and Young Thug, and I hear like pop sounds. The lyircs and content are fucking raw.
That comes back to what you were saying about country…
Hotel: When I listen to music, I listen to feel something. Obviously I listen to ignorant shit too, but I’ve been diving more into lyrical artists. People who can catch the wave and hear what they’re saying. It doesn’t just sound good. There’s something in there.
Talk a little bit about being more lyrical. What does that mean to you?
Hotel: There’s artists like Playboi Carti, to a regular person you might think he’s not saying shit, but to me, I could listen to him say the same word five times and it still sounds different to me. That’s what I mean by lyrical. I don’t mean no conscious rapper or whatever. I just want to hear a story and paint a picture.
It’s interesting you bring up Carti. I feel like people are divided on what they hear in his lyrics.
Hotel: He’s one of those artists where if you’re not in the same field, you won’t be able to understand it. It’s war music. It’s like Chief Keef. It’s for people who are soldiers. Niggas that are either out in the streets, or people who can understand the lifestyle. That’s why people don’t understand it.