I first met Kyle Rapps at the 2010 Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. He wasn’t performing. Kyle was handing out his demo. It’s common for musicians to use this type of platform to get their work noticed. And I was one of those who got a free CD and continued to follow him over the course of his career. Since then, Kyle has collaborated with KRS-One, Talib Kweli, Action Bronson, Murs, Mr. Mutherfuckin’ Exquire, and Joell Ortiz (of Slaughterhouse).
This year is proving to be promising for Kyle. In the first week since releasing his new mixtape SUB, he has received press from The Source, HypeTrak, HipHopDX, and The Needle Drop just to name a few. When I spoke to Kyle over the phone for this interview, he was in Ohio finishing up a show at a detention center with his spoken word trio, The Mayhem Poets. During my talk with Kyle, we discussed his mother, his time spent in Liberia, his own creative metamorphosis, vintage porn, and community outreach.
During our conversation, Kyle stressed that fine tuning ones talents comes with hard work and commitment while staying true to the music and oneself. To him growing older means getting better—at whatever you do.
Last time we talked it was 2011. You told me your dad got you into making music. Was your father a musician?
No. My father is a minister. But, he played the piano. So, you know, he got me into that.
I watched an interview you did in 2010 at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival. You mentioned one of your inspirations was being raised by a single mother.
I was just wondering. How does your mom impact your life and your music?
Oh wow—well, like for me, she worked so hard, you know what I mean? She had three jobs when I was growing up, and at the same time had time to be there for us. And for me that makes me feel the inspiration to work really hard on my craft. To continue growing. And also, at the same time, she was always pretty supportive. Like when I started rapping, she would sit down no matter what. Like when she got home from work, she would just listen to me do my little raps or whatever. And she would always be encouraging, even if I wasn’t really saying anything, or had anything fully developed. But, she always kept on giving me that encouragement and support.
I’ve been following your music for three years now. Since the project you released with Diwon, I noticed your sound has changed. To me, you sound darker compared to ReEdutainment or On Air. Do you think your style has changed? And if so, what drove you to change your style?
Well, a couple of things are key for me. First of all, I got to give credit to Belief, who’s my homie out in L.A. He’s a producer. He’s not, just like, a beat maker. He doesn’t just send beats through e-mail. I actually went out to L.A. and recorded [the mixtape SUB] with him. He gave me so many gems as far as like—song making and like—artistry. He saw that raw talent, and it really helped mold me into what I feel is the artist I am right now. Where I can feel a little bit more like I can communicate what I want to say in a song that connects better. Before that—I definitely feel like I had joints that I was, of course, proud of. With the ReEdutainment joint, I was trying to merge … you know I run a slam poetry group … the [poetry] I do at kids’ performances. You know, I have to keep my rent paid and everything like that. So, we [the Mayhem Poets] would go out to schools and teach kids how to write poetry. We’ll go to detention centers. Actually, we are doing something now in a detention center here in Ohio. I’ve been to places like Liberia in Africa—teaching kids how to write poetry. That’s something that’s sort of already been my bread and butter. And I thought, maybe, I could do a record like ReEdutainment that could cross into that crowd—that younger crowd. But, it didn’t really feel like hip hop to me.
At the end of the day, this is the only type of hip hop I love. I was trying too hard. But that’s the type of feedback I was getting from people like Belief and people in my camp. That’s how I was able to grow into a style I feel one hundred percent represents what I’m trying to put out. And, yeah, with the Diwon stuff, we worked on some things together, and it was cool. But, I felt like I was still in a metamorphosis stage. If the caterpillar stage is ReEdutainment, the Diwon stuff was the metamorphosis. And in the meantime, I had the “Love, Love” joint with Homeboy Sandman and KRS-One. That’s one I feel like I just got that off. I feel like it just worked out well. Like some songs take on a life of their own, and that one was just blessed. So, at any rate, I feel like that was when I was in some cocoon—you know what I’m saying? And, with SUB, I am starting to bust-out of the cocoon and spread my own wings.
How have people been responding to your new style, especially for those who have been following you for awhile?
To be honest, I think that in general people interested in rap music can connect with what I am doing now. Because I think it’s more artistic across the board. It’s edgier. I think it has more craft to it. So, across the board, I think it will connect to more types of people. And I think the crowd who were digging ReEdutainment either they can recognize that and move with me, or they can just fall back and chill with ReEdutainment and enjoy that. I’m not one to feel like I have to maintain like “Yo, I have to keep this crowd.” I just need to make sure I am respecting my art in a way that feels right.
Did your time in Liberia have any connection with you working on your SUB mixtape?
Yeah. It was crazy when I was out there. I was working with exiled soldiers. The harshness of the reality to see kids who literally had no food. And they have come across incredible paths where they killed their own parents. They had to fight against people who they didn’t even know. That type of experience is what I’m trying to use. It’s heartbreaking, really. And to come back to the States after that, it makes you a little darker. There is a darkness that I kind of felt like I needed to express in my music and art after that.
On the track “Black Suburbs”, you mention your old alias Black Skeptik. What does that old alias mean for you?
Yeah. You know how you just pick up names along the way. The first name I ever had was Skeptik and that was when I was part of a group during my days in college. We would hit up all the open mics and all the battle of the bands. And we were called the Thought Breakers. They called me Skeptik because I was always questioning everything. I think I had somewhat of a negative outlook. I always had a screw face. And then basically as Black Skeptik—that was when I came back from Liberia. I was feeling a real connection to Africa and to the blackness. And that was cool. I ran with that. There was some darkness going on with me that I wanted to express. I wanted it to come out more in the music, and I didn’t want my name necessarily to sound so dark. I wanted to be me. I wanted it to say something more like “This is me, Kyle Rapps.” I once heard some dude say “Yo, Kyle raps.” And I was like “Yeah, I do.” [laughs] So I added the extra “P” to make it sound more like a name.
How did the concept of 70s vintage porn come about for the “Super Glue” music video?
Well, you know I got love for the industry. At the end of the day, the oldest profession is prostitution and, on some level, I feel like porn is the crazy business version of that. So, I definitely had that on my mind. I guess you can say it’s my love for the industry. Especially cause I like the old-school style of it. There was some weird, twisted, sleazy, and artistic flavor [to 70s porn] back before they were even allowed to show everything. They had to be more imaginative and use some real funky twisted disco-style. So, I just thought it fit well with that video.
I’ve been looking at the name of your mixtape. How did the name SUB come about?
First of all, I wanted to keep it real simple—one syllable. Let it have some level of abstractness to it, where you can extract whatever type of definition [you want to]. Whatever “Sub” means to you, as a listener, or as an audience member. Also, for me, my own personal thing—I grew up in the suburbs. I feel attached to subculture. I’m trying to dig deep to access my subconscious without trying to be overly intellectual. There are so many different types of sub prefixes that I associate it with. Submachine gun. Submarine. And also I’m trying to sub-in. I’ve been on the bench for a minute now. I’m an old ass man. [laughs] So, I want to sub-in. It’s my turn to get up in the game. Get up on the court. Get my playing time. And also, I have to get my acronym going. It stands for “Strength Under Barbara”. Barbara is my mother. My mother passed away in 2006.
Sorry to hear that. It’s a great name. You’re in your thirties. Right?
Something I’ve noticed, there’s been a big interest recently in rappers who are in their thirties. Danny Brown, EL-P, Killer Mike, Action Bronson are just a few examples. What’s the reason for the interest in not younger cats, but guys who have been around for awhile?
Well, I think there’s so much variety now in rap music. There are so many different platforms to release it. But, I definitely think content is key now. Especially, the music you find on the net. We’ve almost seen every type of freak show rapper. The super young rapper. The white dude who is thugged out. Like I can’t believe he’s thugged out, but he still says really strange things that appeal to white culture. The white-trash trailer park rapper. The dude who has been shot nine times and is a real G. [laughs] There are so many different types of styles. It’s almost like the gimmicks thing—not to say that all those rappers are only gimmick based—but, the gimmicks thing is starting to fade a little bit. The musical content rises up. The older you are, the longer you have been studying the craft. You are about the music and about the progression. Your content has a lot of potential to be well developed—artistically to a point of having something unique and creative. You listen to some music, and it’s got everything under the sun. I don’t think it’s an old man thing. It’s still a young man’s game. But, there is a wider lane for older people like me [laughs] because of that.
What do you recommend to those who have been creating music for awhile?
Do it because you love it. Do it for love. Be humble. Make friends. Be about your friends. Be about your fans. Focus on that the most. Make bread. Kyle, you have to make bread. And don’t expect them to hand it to you. Because—the percentage of people that are actually going to be able to make a living off of this music is so low. Don’t put all your eggs in a basket that has so many holes in it. [laughs] And yeah, just like, keep growing as an artist.
It’s a universal thought for most to think about what they would be doing if they weren’t doing what they are doing. What do you think you’d be doing if you didn’t rap?
Aw man—I don’t know, B. I don’t know. If I didn’t rap? I would want to be like some sort of motivational speaker. [laughs] I would want to work in detention centers. And like help kids with drug addiction problems. Like really be about inspiring people who are at the end of their rope. I like being around people who are desperate. Like real people who are desperate. Maybe do some work in Africa. I definitely want to do … something. There is some level of humbleness and some level of real connection that you get when you are around people who are really hungry and desperate.
Great. I really like that. A lot of musicians remember the first piece of music they heard. What was the first album you remember listening to?
Rap album? Any genre?
First album? It’s got to be Thriller. Michael Jackson. For me—that was like—it defined my life, my early childhood, really. It’s a really intense album. It was beautiful.
What three musicians—of any genre—would you like to collaborate with in the future?
I really like Radiohead. So, it would be cool to collaborate with Thom Yorke. And as far as rap goes, I’d like to collaborate with Schoolboy Q. And James Taylor. I grew up on James Taylor. My mom was always bumping James Taylor. I think he is like the most G songwriter.
Now, I’m going to name a few people you’ve worked with. Would you tell me how you met them? What you think of them? We’ll start off with KRS-One.
I met him through his manager. I was in awe of him from the moment I heard the first thing he said on a record to the moment I met him. I just feel blessed to have had the opportunity to collaborate with him. And to make what I think is a really good record. Awestruck. Definitely, awestruck.
What about Action Bronson?
I met him in Brooklyn at Southpaw. It’s a venue that closed down in Park Slope. He’s hardworking. He’s an incredible rapper. He’s got a brilliant sense of humor. I’m just glad that people are catching on to him.
What about Mr. Mutherfuckin’ eXquire?
He’s like an authentic artist. I also met him in Brooklyn. Actually, I met him first at South-by-Southwest in Austin, Texas. We talked there. We talked at the Southpaw live show. He’s an authentic artist dude—a real dude. He’s a very uncompromising artist. Also, he’s real supportive of me. I really respect that he’s showing support.
Would you speak a little bit about Belief? I feel like not enough people know about him.
He’s from L.A. He did production work with early Def Jux artists a lot. He’s doing a lot of alternative hip hop stuff. He produces everything from like working on commercials, to my project, to Kosha Dillz’s project. He’s a diverse dude. He’s also a really good dude. He’ll give you honest feedback. He pulls no punches. But, it’s all coming from a good place. He’s a real chill dude.
I’m interested in how you got connected with the Inner City Kids rap movement. Would you speak about them?
Well right now, one of my really good friends is Aaron Cohen. We’ve known each other for five years now. We’re really good friends. We hang—we chill a lot. When he got started … he’s a real industrious dude and he needed a mic to record on. So, he came through to my crib and recorded his first mixtape Crack. I felt a little bit older and more experienced. He had a lot of brilliant artistic ideas. It was really cool to be able to see those come into fruition. Meantime, I thought Inner City Kids were an inspirational artistic movement. They are a group of young people focused on collaborating in a real organic way. And they bring real edgy New York rap shit. I really respect them. They are my friends, my family. Like I’m away in Ohio now and one of the Inner City Kids—Flapjak—is taking care of my dog while I’m away. So, it’s a real family over there.