Hailing from Youngstown, Ohio and now located in the sun-splashed locale of Los Angeles, veteran emcee Aarophat may have changed his place of residence in recent years, but his ability to craft quality Hip-Hop remains the same.
Making his initial foray into the rap world in the late-90s, the authoritative lyricist has amassed an impressive catalogue over the years which includes potent solo material as well as collaborations with the likes of West Coast wordsmith D-Strong plus Bronx-bred Wildelux as the crew Third Rail and also Atlanta-based producer Illastrate as the duo Black Noise.
Mixing thoughtful insight with forceful wordplay, Aaro has built himself a well-deserved reputation as one of the most consistent lyricists to dwell within the subterranean world of underground Hip-Hop. With the recent release of his latest album “Invictus” (which features production from Illmind, C-Dubb and Tone Beatz) being met with an overwhelmingly positive response, the hard-working mic controller is hoping to draw a few new listeners towards his brand of beats and rhymes before moving on to the next stage of his career.
In this interview, Aarophat discusses his efforts to break into the Los Angeles Hip-Hop scene as an outside artist, the creative inspiration behind “Invictus” and his thoughts on today’s digital world.
You’ve been releasing music for over a decade now so for those who may be unfamiliar with Aarophat talk briefly about your first record…
“The first record I ever put out was back in 1999 which was the “Black Phoenix” EP. Before that I’d grown up around music and Hip-Hop and had really taken it onboard in the same way that so many other people of our generation did back in the 80s and 90s. I mean, my mom had records from Kurtis Blow and The Sugarhill Gang that I’d hear in the house that I used to rhyme along to, so the music was always there. So for me it went from banging on tables in the lunchroom to cyphers in the park and really enjoying the craft as a recreation to then becoming older, taking it more seriously and deciding to be brave enough to jump in the booth, get on the mic and actually make myself heard. So I was really playing around with it from 96 to 98 and then I finally dropped the “Black Phoenix” EP in 1999. That release actually did pretty well and people still remember it now, which is cool. But after putting that first release out I caught the bug basically and became addicted to the creative process and really wanted to keep contributing to the culture. Now, here we are seven albums later…”
Seven albums is a pretty impressive statistic for an underground artist…
“Yeah, I’m proud of it. Particularly considering the situation I’m in as far as being an independent artist and not really being in the forefront of who people would consider to be the most popular emcees out there. So for me to be able to say that I’ve released that many albums without a label push, without a big budget, and without all those extras that put you into that machine, I’m definitely happy to still be running.”
How would you describe the Hip-Hop scene you came out of in Ohio?
“Ohio’s different to somewhere like a New York or a Los Angeles because it’s not a large area where you have a massive population in one place. So the music scene has always been strong in Ohio, but it’s always been in small pockets and because of that it’s never really been strong enough to be able to over-power the game. I mean, when you look at the bigger picture, you had Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony who obviously did what they did, Lord Jazz from Lords Of The Underground is originally from Ohio and so is J-Ro of Tha Alkaholiks. So in terms of the impact Ohio has had on the Hip-Hop world, it’s probably more than some people think and I definitely think the area as a whole is underestimated in terms of the amount of talent it has.”
I would imagine the Ohio scene you came out of is very different to the Los Angeles scene you’re now a part of?
“The difference between the two areas is like comparing a lake to an ocean. There’s so many people here in LA and the population is so dense, which means it’s more difficult to make any waves out here because there’s a lot more going on. But on the other side of that, once you do make yourself known it’s then easier for that wild fire to spread because of everything that’s happening out here.”
Has making that transition into the Los Angeles underground scene been an eye-opening experience for you or has it been how you expected it to be?
“I think it’s been a little bit of both. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got a lot of Hollywood going on out here, but at the same time the underground scene here is very, very strong. It’s very interesting sometimes seeing that mainstream world that exists here running alongside the underground scene, especially when the two meet.”
So how have you been accepted as an out-of-town-artist trying to make an impact on a local scene that isn’t yours?
“I still have a whole lot to prove. Even if you come to LA with something of a track record or back catalogue, if the people don’t know you, you still have to prove yourself as an artist in every situation you find yourself in. So it wasn’t like I got embraced with open arms when I arrived here, I still had to pay my dues. Even if you paid dues elsewhere, unless you broke through that glass ceiling of your local scene and got to a point where you’re known, you have to start all over again when you come here. I mean, I’ve been lucky enough to have been in certain situations where my name has proceeded me, so I’ve gone in thinking that perhaps I wasn’t going to be accepted and people have been familiar with my material. So coming from a relatively small place like I came up in, it definitely feels good to find people in somewhere like Los Angeles who recognise the work I’ve put in.”
I suppose it’s something of a double-edged sword situation – you probably have those people in the LA scene who are interested in you because you’re from somewhere else and others who won’t show an interest for that same reason…
“That’s when the politics take hold (laughs). I think politics dominate any scene though regardless of where it is, in terms of who you know and who knows you. But when that happens it’s then up to me as an artist to show people that I’m respectful of what they’ve already built and that I am bringing quality music to the table.”
The title of your latest album “Invictus” was inspired by the Victorian poem of the same name by English writer William Ernest Henley – what was the connection there?
“It was basically the never-say-die mentality behind the poem that interested me. It’s basically saying that regardless of what people do to you or say to you, you’ll still continue to push forward and wont lay down for anybody. So that mentality in the poem really captured how I felt going into recording the new project. Taking all of what we’ve just talked about into consideration in terms of the situation I’m now in, it was either a case of deciding to hold ’em or fold ’em. So I chose to just continue to push forward, hold it down and put out another record independently and do it exactly the way I wanted it to be. I didn’t feel like I was in a position where I wanted to compromise, I didn’t feel like I wanted to do anything but go full steam ahead. So that’s what “Invictus” was really about to me as an album, not really paying attention to the game as a whole but just concentrating on putting my love for the culture and my energy into making this record as intense as possible. This album wasn’t about me bowing down to fit in or gracefully bowing out after already putting out so many projects, it was about me using the struggles I’ve been through to make the best music I possibly could.”
Taking what you’ve just said into consideration it would have been very easy for “Invictus” to have sounded like an angry, bitter album, but you’ve managed to capture that energy of your struggle and make intelligent, passionate music that avoids any predictable mad-rapper stereotypes…
“I think a lot of that comes from just being proud of the work that I do, being proud of the quality of the music that I can bring forward and not really letting either the state of the game or my position in that game have a negative impact on my creative process. A lot of the politics and business aspects of the game can affect you, but you should always have pride in your music and I don’t think that’s something that everyone has today. So the “Invictus” record was about me having a determination and confidence to really showcase what I’m about as an artist. I’ve always been extremely focused on my catalogue itself, so that whether you’ve followed me since 1999, or you’ve found me now and then go back to listen to my older material, you’ll be pleased with everything you hear. I like to try and push myself creatively but also stay true to my roots.”
Getting into some of the tracks that really stood out to me on the new album, what was the concept behind “Mystery Of The Sands”?
“I think “Mystery Of The Sands” is just about togetherness. Like I say in the song, if you just take one grain of sand it’s nothing, but once you take many grains of sand you’re able to cover a whole area. Then the next thing you know you have a desert that’s larger than many bodies of water. So basically the idea behind that track was to show that when people pool their energies together they can accomplish a lot more. In certain situations in this game when you’re dealing with politics and bulls**t you have a lot of people that try to hold on to their grains of sand instead of coming together and manifesting the fact that together we can do anything. So on “Mystery Of The Sands” I really wanted to put the idea out there that so much more could be accomplished if people pushing in the same direction pooled their resources more and that idea still seems to be a mystery that many people don’t seem to understand.”
On “Megalopolis” you talk about how the globe is becoming a much smaller place and how we’re heading in a One World direction – what do you consider to be the pros and cons of that?
“As far as the positives of it, I mean right now I’m sitting on the coast of the Pacific and you’re over in the UK and we’re able to conversate like it’s nothing. Twenty years ago you couldn’t talk to someone in the next town on the phone without it costing an arm and a leg. So the world is a lot smaller now which in some ways is a good thing because it gives us a different perspective on the grandeur of everything that’s around us. We can build with people near and far via the Internet, which is definitely good for independent artists such as myself because it means we’re no longer having to rely on these major labels in order to reach people. But at the same time, you can see the powers-that-be finding ways to take advantage of how the world is becoming smaller, you can see governments working together, orchestrating things, you can see the money involved, so there are a lot of things happening behind the scenes that we need to pay attention to as well. As people all over the world, we’re in this together, and we can rise together or fall together regardless of race, religion or location. I mean, if you look at the economic situations in a lot of places across the world right now, everyone is going through the same thing, and the situation in Britain influences the situation in Greece and the situation in America influences the situation in Britain, so we’re all linked in one way or another and just because something that’s happening in another country isn’t happening right on your front lawn, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen or can’t happen. We all need to pay attention to what’s happening across the world nowadays because it does have an impact on us whether we’re aware of that or not.”
“Tell You About The Game” speaks on your early experiences making music and finds you giving your thoughts on the current state of affairs – how has your opinion on the music game changed over the years?
“I don’t think the game has changed really, the music game is basically the same. But with the more people that become involved with it and the increased availability of the technology people need to be able to put music out, literally anybody can make their music available to the public and all of a sudden they’re an artist. So because of that the market is flooded which means that the competition for a listener’s attention has intensified because so many people are fighting for the same position. It’s definitely harder to be taken seriously as an artist nowadays because of all the rappers that are out there on Facebook etc. I’m here putting everything into my music in order to deliver a professional product and then you have these other people who’re just throwing music out there without any real thought. So that makes it even harder on top of all the other bulls**t that comes along with the industry as a whole. I mean, just because you play some hoops on a Saturday afternoon, that doesn’t make you a professional basketball player and the same thing applies to music.”
I think the idea of putting out music today means something different to artists who’ve come up in the digital age. Back in the day if you told someone you were releasing your own music they expected to see you with a finished product, whether that was a vinyl single or a CD album, with artwork etc. Now releasing music to some people means putting a badly mixed track up on YouTube or SoundCloud and they then think that validates them as an artist…
“I mean, that’s where it all starts. Back in the day I was making music and duplicating material on the dual cassette-decks and walking around the streets with a backpack trying to sell my tapes. But at the same time you knew you weren’t on the same level as those artists you looked up to and you were also aware you had to work hard to graduate to that next level of actually being taken seriously as an artist. The other problem now is that, with so many people giving their music away for free, established artists are feeling like they have to do the same thing in order to try to keep people interested in what they’re doing. So now you have known artists microwaving their s**t real quick because they feel that if they put something out that people like and they don’t do the same thing again next week then they’ll be forgotten about. It shouldn’t be like that. Look at someone like Pharoahe Monch, there have been years between his solo albums, but everytime he drops a project the fans are there waiting to support. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Real artists shouldn’t feel like they have to cheapen their product in order to compete with all these other people out there.”
In recent times there definitely seems to have been a steady flow of official album releases from quality artists rather than just mixtapes and random tracks which has been good to see…
“That’s what will help bring the game back to where it needs to be. True artists need to make sure that the material they’re bringing to the table is of a high quality level so that there’s an unquestionable distinction between those of us who are really serious about our craft and make music with longevity in mind, and those who’re putting stuff out that will be forgotten about by next week. You have to be able to tell the difference between the professional and the amateur. I mean, I understand that the industry as it is pumps so much bulls**t down our throats that it’s easy to see why some people do think that lacklustre Hip-Hop is actually something special, but people need to be able to make the distinction between music that they’ll still be able to go back to in ten years time and take something from, and the mediocre music out there today that they won’t even remember in ten years time.”
So following “Invictus” what’s next for Aarophat?
“Just more music. Looking at the game as it is I understand that people can forget about you very quickly, so I’ve set-up a few projects going forward that will keep my name out there for a period of time. But at the same time, these aren’t going to be microwave projects, I still want people to be able to hear that I did spend time in the kitchen (laughs). I have another project coming with Illastrate who I did the “Black Noise” album with in 2009. I’m also in a group called The Minez with producer C-Dubb who’s been with me since day one and is one of the most phenomenal producers I’ve ever been around, so it’s well overdue that we put something out together. Then there’s the next Third Rail project with Wildelux and D-Strong that we’re coming with as well. So I’m really just making sure that there’s a lot of music coming, but that the quality is also there so that people can really make the distinction between what I’m doing as Aarophat and the other stuff that’s out there.”
So you’re definitely going to be spending a lot of time in the lab over the coming months then?
“Yeah, that’s home right there. This music saved my life and definitely kept me out of a lot of negative situations, so when I’m making music I like to take my time with it and there really is a lot of love that goes into it so hopefully people can hear that in the finished product. Hip-Hop is an incredible culture and I think if more people within it treated it with the respect and honour it deserves then we would all benefit from that.”
“Invictus” is out now via IllSevenzMusicGroup.Com.
Aarophat – “Touching You” (Ill Sevenz Music Group / 2012)