In 1986 Rakim spit one of rap’s most timeless and unforgettable lines, “it ain’t where you’re from it’s where you’re at.” When where you’re at is Hammond, Indiana, a nondescript town near Chicago which boasts a population of approximately 76,000, crowds don’t respond to a hometown shout out with the same intensity as they did when say Notorious B.I.G. would call out “where the Brooklyn at?” For Vince Ash, being from the 219 is a badge of honor, and as someone who hails from Indianapolis, an unassailable sense of pride fills my heart when he mentions his Hoosier heritage.
A tacit identity crisis comes along with growing up in Indiana in the early 90’s. The entirety of our individualistic pride as a state was encapsulated by a singular phrase: In 49 states, it’s just basketball. In Indiana, it’s life. As depicted in the venerable film Hoosiers, basketball was a meritocratic measuring stick that did not discriminate between the city courts in Indianapolis that yielded Oscar Robertson or the small town gyms in French Lick that churned out Larry Bird.
When it came to everything else, we hewed to our uncomplimentary label of “flyover state.” Popular trends made it to us only after being chewed up and spit out by larger cities, and the majority of our destination dining was bequeathed to us in the form of second rate spinoffs from Chicago originals. The stigma was even worse as it pertained to hip-hop. The legendary DJ Quik said in 1992 that St. Louis was “Just Lyke Compton” but, as talent output went, the statement wasn’t adding up. Two years later, that would change. Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-n-Harmony dropped their debut EP, Creepin’ On Ah Come Up and just like that, the Midwest had commercial viability and “Just Lyke Compton,” an identity.
Hip-hop has since come to a point where cities like Detroit, Kansas City and even smaller markets like Flint, Michigan have been branded with idiosyncratic landscape portrayed by artists like Eminem, Tech N9ne and The Dayton Family. The listener experience for me was a visceral journey. Like seeing Avatar in 3D, it created the sense of their Rust Belt surroundings the same way Nas or Wu-Tang Clan made me feel like I knew every grimy crevice in New York. At just over 15 minutes running time, Vince Ash’s latest album Vito does the same. On songs like “Whut It G Like” in particular the 22-year-old puts a Rust Belt twist on daily life.
So now I’m back on the strip
Hoping the boys don’t trip
We ridin’ hot with a knot and the pipe in the whip
We slide down Broadway, had to bounce and swerve
Dodged too many potholes and almost hit the curb
Hopped out on feet, and as I’m making a dash
Four of Lake County’s finest just surrounded my ass so whut it G like?
Within minutes of my conversation with Vince, the dichotomy that presents itself on Vito was evident: A childlike sense of humor belied an understated maturity of someone who grew up fast. A young man with the ambition and presence of mind to seek longevity in his rap career, but who also succumbed to the temptation of fast money that could cost him his freedom. As Vince celebrates the release of his first project in two years with a new buzz and a heightened understanding of his own potential, Indiana now has someone other than just Freddie Gibbs to proudly proclaim as our own. — Jake Rohn
It’s rare to see a new artist take significant time off between projects. What have you been doing since 2018?
Vince Ash: Honestly, it was just about taking time to reflect on the life around me. A lot of my music draws from that. I speak about things that happen in my day-to-day. If ain’t nothing really sparking, I can’t talk about nothing. I also felt like I needed time to grow, get better and go more in detail. I feel like on Do Or Die I was more just rapping to rap. Everything wasn’t really in detail and I felt like if I was gonna try to tell my story even more and connect with my audience on a deeper level I needed to get more descriptive, and I didn’t wanna do it in a generic way. So you gotta sharpen your steel, you feel me? Outside of the music part, I needed to get more on top of knowing business and practices in this industry. If I wanna go far in this I can’t be ignorant to the shit around me.
What was the learning experience like for you on the business side?
Vince Ash: The last go around I didn’t capitalize on shit myself and I didn’t take certain steps. This time I learned to stay on top of my money, to network a little more, I started reading books, like [Donald Passman’s] All You Need To Know About The Music Business. I’ve also been talking to other people that I’ve met throughout this process and they’ve been giving me game. Really [I’ve just been] learning the standards in this industry. Not just contracts, but I’ve learned not to undersell myself, and to build leverage for when n****s decide to have those business meetings so I ain’t just going in there taking the first check that’s thrown at me. I remember when we had first dropped Do Or Die, Alamo had tried to sign me for like $50,000 for two projects. That would have been terrible. I was geeked at the time and I was about to do the shit. Thank God it didn’t pan out. I dodged a bullet with that one and now I’m really taking the time to understand this shit and cover my back. Moving forward we’re taking steps to build more leverage in our negotiations. We’re getting on top of our merchandise and just showing that we can sell a product. We’re getting a lot of attention from the project so far and I don’t even have a video out. That shows that the music stands stronger than anything on it’s own.
When you were in school you moved around a lot. Was there a specific reason?
Vince Ash: I moved to Chicago my sophomore year. Freshman year I get kicked out of school, I get expelled from Merrillville. My momma lose the crib, so we end up moving to Georgia for a couple months then we moved to Chicago from the end of May until the end of August. Then from Chicago I end up moving to Park Forest and that was around the time my sophomore year started, and from there it was like every weekend or every other weekend I was back out in the city that’s where I met Tramaine. When I moved to the city, dog literally stayed a couple blocks down from me.
Being an outsider at the beginning did Chicago artists embrace you or was more of a competitive vibe?
Vince Ash: From the moment I touched down and my homie started putting me around mufuckas, the more I did the music shit and networking in the city the more everybody embraced me. And I showed the same love back. It’s been like that from the jump. You do get a sense of competitive – everybody wanting for themselves – type shit. That happens everywhere. From my personal experience though they’ve been embracing me since I came out.
Does it hurt not being able to tour in support of Vito, or have you found that people having more time to digest music has actually helped?
Vince Ash: I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there’s been a filtering out of the bullshit. Certain artists that would normally drop a project on a consistent basis have went completely quiet ‘cause the reception isn’t the same. I think before all this shit hit, mufuckas weren’t really taking time to listen to the music. They were cool with just a good beat and some shit that sounded right in certain pockets. But now as they’re in the crib not doing shit, they got time to sit back, smoke and really hear the bullshit coming from some people. I feel like the ones that really put the time and energy into the craft are the ones that are shining right now.
The one that stands out to me was how impressive Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” was, both content wise and just the bars.
Vince Ash: Yeah. I was kinda fuckin’ with dog beforehand but recently you can tell that the n***a really putting energy behind what he’s saying. He’s really taking the time and his effort is noticed.
Your style seems to come from a personal place. Was there a particular track on Vito that was especially personal to you?
Vince Ash: “Back in The Dayz” for sure. Just reflecting on my life period, whenever I gotta go back to the crevices of my mind where I push all the shit and just get to thinking about growing up, it’s always tougher for me to get some of them feelings out. I feel like that’s why I didn’t go into as much detail before with some things I was working past but Back In The Dayz” was real personal to me. I give you a piece of my upbringing in the first verse. How things were when I started. When I was hanging around my older brothers and their friends and I was always the youngest around so I’d be the one that would be the send-off n***a. I would just watch, but as I got older and came into my own, now I’m the one putting direction behind what the fuck is going on. Reflecting on that time, those were some of my best memories. In the second verse I’m reflecting on how I was as a child when things were simpler. Even though we weren’t in the best financial situation, those were some of my happiest days. Even now with more money, I sometimes still be wishing to be back in that time.
Was there anything in particular about the incidents with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery or the various other incidents of racism that influenced you to drop now?
Vince Ash: Me telling my story personally, it already deals with the brutality and the problems that we face living in America and coming from lower income households. Social injustice has been happening since the beginning of time and mufuckas have been making music about it since Sam Cooke. It’s terrible that after all of these years, after all of the singing, marching, protesting and rioting that we do, it seems like we still can’t make any real significant changes. I feel like [the government will] make changes to distract us from the fact that they’re not really doing shit that could put us in position. They’ll keep us at a place just good enough to where we get complacent and docile but they’ll never really put us in a position to see some real change.
From just the sheer numbers of people expressing outrage I do feel a little bit hopeful that maybe this time will spark more change. It’s been encouraging to see how many people have been at these protests.
Vince Ash: I’m proud of the country. To see everybody really taking action is a beautiful thing I just hope it’s not just another fast-beating trend [that’s only happening because] everybody’s been stuck in the house for a long time, and they wanted to go outside and be a part of some shit. I hope it’s deeper than that, that it’s more genuine and that we see some real progress from this. We have the numbers to make it happen. It’s just all about continuing to put the work in.