Sitting inside Rapsody’s trailer, I recall the words she spoke during her performance, which had just concluded an hour before. “When you tell your friends about me, tell them I’m a f*cking beast, not a female rapper,” the North Carolina-bred rapper stated.
In these tumultuous times, it’s refreshing to see someone with such confidence call out the stereotypes of female emcees that persist in hip-hop. Whether it’s on stage, in the studio or behind the scenes, Rapsody speaks with a sense of raw honesty. If something’s on her mind, you know, it’s her thoughts coming through the mic.
We caught up with Rapsody after her performance at the Smoker’s Club Fest in Long Beach, California earlier this month. Coming off of her second and third Grammy-Award nods with the critically acclaimed Laila’s Wisdom album, she discussed the origins in the North Carolina hip-hop scene, how to make competition healthier in hip-hop, and her collaboration with Anderson .Paak.
So you linked up with 9th Wonder around 2004, can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
I met him in 2005. Well, the very first time I met him, I sold him a pair of Adidas (laughter). The classic Stan Smith with the green on the back. (Professionally) It was a day we went to a friend of mines house. It was like a club meeting. We had a club on [the North Carolina State University] campus called H20, so it was about 20 of us; I was the only girl. I sat in the back, and 9th had basically came by just to talk to us and give us advice. A friend of mine, [9th Wonder] was teaching him how to make beats. So, it was real laid back, he listens to the mixtape that he did. He’s playing Little Brother’s unreleased songs. Jean Grae’s unreleased songs. During the process of him listening to the mixtape, he listened to the first two songs that I ever recorded. He looked at everybody and was like, “That’s your star!” At that moment, I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I was going to try to pursue music. That’s how it happened in a nutshell.
During this time you were attending NC State university, how was the hip-hop community around the university?
It’s dope man. A lot of talented artists. A lot of emcees. A lot of rappers. It’s definitely a fast growing community — in Raleigh, Charlotte. I can name a bunch of emcees. It’s like any other community, I think. The only thing that I wish you know that would change… You would see, like the scene in Chicago, you see artists supporting each other more. I mean, it’s growing. J. Cole has moved back. He started the Dreamville Festival. Jamla [Records] headquarters is located there. It’s dope. You see artists like Lute from Charlotte working. King Mez is from there, working with Dr. Dre now. So you know, it’s a lot of talent there.
How has it changed from back when you started?
It’s always been a scene. I think what helps now is the rise and popularity of more artists from there. Before, we had Black Sheep. We had Petey Pablo, and we had Little Brother. Now, you have all of those artists with a J. Cole, who’s a superstar. I’m coming up and King Mez; Lute, who J. Cole signed [is from here]. We’ve been advancing with a young 17-year-old kid that we signed, and there’s a bunch of other artists from there. It’s just a dope time, where you see people coming up and the world is seeing them, and noticing them more. Before, you might get one every 5-10 years. Now you get ’em popping up at random. The internet helps. It makes the world smaller. It gives you a bigger platform. I just think it’s just the process. We’re not a big metropolitan area like New York or Los Angeles. It just took us a little longer.
I remember reading somewhere about you meeting Jay-Z for the first time, and how he put his hands on your shoulder, and you were just shocked…
That was at B-Sides. That was the very first time I met him and I was f*cked up (laughter). It just happened too fast and I wasn’t ready, so he was consoling me.
Do you still remember what he said?
No. I can’t remember after he said it, and I still won’t remember to this day. We were going to a party — and I’ve probably been rapping at that time, maybe like five years [and] I’m still like super young in the fame. So, this is like my second tour, I was with Phonte and 9th. We’re going to this party. We get off the elevator and 9th is in front of me, but he’s 6’4, so I can’t really see around him and I just see him talking. Then he slides and it’s Jay-Z, so I really wasn’t ready for it. At this time, I hadn’t really been around artists, and I didn’t know how to process it.
I guess stars get starstruck too?
Yeah, I ain’t been starstruck since. I’ll never make that mistake again.
Who else would you say had a major influence on your music back in college and who are your biggest influences now?
Back then? Just starting, studying the craft, I was listening to a lot of Mos Def and Common still. Of course, I listened to Jay-Z and Little Brother. At this time The Blueprint was out. The Black Album was out. Dipset, Juelz Santana… that was the CD I used to ride to a lot. A lot of J. Cole mixtapes. I was on that early Kendrick, all the TDE stuff. Busta Rhymes, Big Bang came out, I ran that into the ground. Now, currently what I listen to? I love J.I.D.; I’m a big fan of his The Never Story. There’s an artist who lives here, but is from North Carolina named Marian Mereba, I’m listening to her stuff. Leikeli 47, she’s ill. You know, my label-mates GQ, who’s from Oakland. He just put out E 14th. SiR, with HER and HER TOO. You know 4:44, DAMN. All the hot sh*t, that’s what I’m listening to.
Getting into your performance today, you said a lot of things, so I guess I’ll break down some of it. I remember you said: “Don’t call me a female rapper, I’m a beast. Whenever you talk about me you call me a beast.” Can you explain that a bit for me?
I can remember that time when — especially in hip-hop — we’re still separating artists by gender. I just know that coming up for me, it used to always feel like women were separated and that we can only compete with each other [and] our skill level only went to a certain height. We weren’t looked at as being able to compete lyrically with men. Music is intellectual, it’s in you. It’s not like sports where we are physically made different. I cannot jump as high as a man, I’m just made different. So, it’s the same in art. This is my way to remind people, don’t get it twisted. Just because I got two boobs and a 34 B, doesn’t mean that I can’t rap better than your favorite dude. It’s just looking at women in a light of just being emcees and artists and not separating us by gender.
You mentioned competition a little bit between female artists. In the past there have been misconceptions that there can only be one top female rapper, and at times, this competition between female emcees can seem hostile. What can be done to help female work together and ease this competition?
I think one thing it starts with us as artists, knowing that we don’t have to make another woman an enemy because she raps too. We can support each other. I’m really big on that, whether it’s Leikeli 47 or Ill Camille, or Noname, or 3D Na’Tee, or Dreezy in Chicago. Champion other women. Remy Ma, we have a great relationship. Cardi B even tweeted about my album, and in the same way, I talk about how much I love her. It starts with us and I think a lot of times, for the most part we’re cool, it’s the fans. Just be open-minded and it doesn’t always have to be a competition. Yes, hip-hop is competitive, but in the same way, men compete with each other every day, [but] they also respect each other. We can do the same thing. I look at competition as: I can compete with you, so I can get better. If we don’t feed into the narrative ourselves, then we change the story. Shout out to all the ladies from Nicki to Cardi, to everybody else.
I discovered you because of a collaboration you did with Anderson .Paak called “Without You.” Can you tell me a bit about how you met Anderson?
I met him back in late 2015, during the recording sessions of Malibu. We were all just vibing. Khrysis just started putting on the beat and then Anderson just started singing the hook to it. We just spent the night just kicking it. I’m attracted to energy. If the energy is right, everything just flows. It was just good energy that night. Khrysis put on a beat. 9th put on a beat. Anderson was going in the booth to do his thing. That’s how it was, we just sat in there. It was like a jam session, without the loud instruments. That was the night and we’ve been homies ever since.
Going back to your performance, you were very energetic on stage. What gives you the energy to perform on stage?
Well one, I love what I do. Two, I never wanna cheat nobody. People pay to see the show, so leave it all on the stage. I’m really big on that. If you love what you do, you should always go out and do it to the best of your ability every time. No matter who’s out there. I know my responsibility. I know what a performance can do and inspire people with those words. That’s what it’s all about. Touching somebody. Even if it’s one person, if you touch somebody from your performance, then you don’t know what that does to them.
I remember some girl in the audience in front of me was crying tears of joy during your performance, how do those reactions influence what you do?
It’s humbling. Like I said, it reminds you the power that you have. To go from writing a song and recording it, putting it out, to having somebody come out and feel that emotional about something that you did, it lets you know your power and your responsibility. Again, I take that and I own it, and that’s why I tell the story, to make the music that I make. I know what it feels like to be that. Because, I know what MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill — and even a Nas and a Jay, and Common and Mos Def — meant for me. It’s all about passing that forward, for the culture and for the people. To get through this thing called life, to quote Prince, “Music is the soundtrack of life.” I take all that with me.
Sometimes you music is categorized as “conscious hip-hop,” what do you think of that label?
I’m not a big fan of labels. Labels are meant to divide. When you put labels on things, like this is conscious, people like to put you in a box and keep you in a box. That’s separation, that’s how you separate and divide. At the end of the day, it’s all culture; it’s all hip-hop. You know it’s trap, trap-soul, conscious, you got that ratchet, you got that thug, whatever you wanna call it — it’s all hip-hop. I listen to it all. All of it. Some more than others (laughter). I don’t like to get in labels. At the end of the day, we’re talking about conscious, we’re all conscious in some shape, form or fashion. If you ratchet, then you be telling your ratchet story. Your consciously lifted in your own way. That’s how I look at it. I don’t do boxes. I was watching a documentary and Buckshot was talking about this very thing. There’s no such thing as labels, it’s style. Every artist has a different style. Once you put labels, that’s when you have the rift.