When Hip-Hop first blasted out of that legendary party on Sedgwick Ave decades ago, it was immediately rooted in the musical precursors that the African American New Yorkers knew and loved. Disco, Soul, Jazz, to name a few. And in those early years, the pioneers started to dig, started to go further and further back into the music their parents & grandparents cherished.
People were already putting Jazz into their records when the 80s rolled around, but it was the 90s where the Native Tongues Collective started blowing up and really put it on the map. Try and say to me that ATCQ, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul don't hit. I dare you.
I'm currently trying to get into Jazz and let me tell you, It's a very daunting task. But in that mountain climb, it has made me appreciate Hip-Hop/Jazz fusion more. Because Hip-Hop artists like Tribe, De La and the subject of our interview today, have the ability to give us the flavour of Jazz and make it accessible to the untrained ear.
My interview is with an artist that fully embraces the "Jazz-Boom Bap" sound and in over a decade, has provided an amazing catalogue that I believe anyone can get into. We talk about his beginnings, his inspirations, life as an independent Record Label owner and, of course, his Top 5.
Ladies & gentlemen, Awon.
C: So we begin at the beginning! Where were born, what was life like for you growing up and describe your environment as you were growing up.
A: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, Fort Greene to be exact. The environment I grew up in was a complete oxymoron because on one hand, Hip-Hop was exploding, I saw a lot happen in the early years of my life. On the other hand it was the height of the Crack Era and incredibly violent.
Hip-Hop was an escape for me because it was so dangerous in my neighbourhood at times I wasn’t able to go outside by myself. Sometimes I felt like crack made me a prisoner to my own home. I am thankful for Hip-Hop giving me an outlet to express my ideas even as a child I was creating art and writing rhymes. In 1989 my family moved to Virginia to escape the pace and crime of the city and that is where I have called home since.
C: So what was Virginia like in comparison? Polar opposite I imagine?
A: In comparison to New York, Virginia wasn’t that different. So many people had travelled from the North East to the Mid Atlantic Coast for similar reasons. It felt like a lot of New York was in Virginia. The great thing about it was that it was more safe, the bad thing about it is that escaping misfortune was not the case for my family. Due to the nature of business some of my family members were in, the Feds raided our home ironically during my brother’s first birthday party. So there were toddlers and agents pointing long guns at their mothers.
My own mom was pushed to the floor with a gun to her back. It is a sight I cannot unsee. No weapons or drugs were ever recovered, but the dignity of the new black family on this suburban block had been taken away in that instant.
C: Oh wow so you never really had the chance to live different even though part of the decision to move was for the different environment?
A: I would say I did because even though it was still rough at times, I had a great childhood. My parents were young, but they are awesome. They always pushed me to be the best I could be, even in Hip Hop. My parents gave me all the tools and resources that I needed to succeed early on. Music was always my escape and that escape was always provided to me. I had to freedom to be artistic, and when I moved to Virginia I also had the freedom to explore and be a kid.
C: Ah I see. Okay since you mentioned music, let's dig into that a little bit.Clearly you have your parents high on the list in terms of influence. What music were they personally into?
A: My parents are 19 and 18 years older than me respectively so obviously they listened to Hip-Hop, my dad also listened to classic Dancehall and dub. My mother was adventurous listening to everything from The Police, to New Order, to Patrice Rushen, a lot of classic 80s R&B, Soul, and Dance music.
C: Nice! Obviously the Hip-Hop side caught your attention, we'll explore that more later but did you personally vibe with all of what your parents, or any of your family for that matter, was playing?
A: Of course! I still love the music that I heard as a kid in my house. It helped to shape me into the man I am today. My cousin Jay stayed with us for a while in New York & he had turntables. My uncle Bartese used to wake up every morning and do an exercise on the tables to get the day going. He would play Public Enemy or juggle some Big Daddy Kane, even Prince, Pop Life got a lot of burn. My aunt Shawn loved EPMD. My moms killed Lisa Stansfield and "Dead or Alive You Spin Me Round" and I loved it. Just recalling these memories are taking me back.
C: Family got great taste! Was anyone in the family into music artistically like you are now or was it just strictly great taste and spinning them?
A: My grandmother cut a gospel record in the 60s, it was a private press and I don’t even know the name of it. My great aunt had the vinyl and it’s somewhere in storage because she passed away some years ago. My grandfather played the guitar and sang the blues. They are from North Carolina and Georgia respectively. They made it to New York City as teenagers to escape Jim Crow.
Their southern heritage stuck with them from the food they prepared to the music they loved. My grandma was all gospel by the time I was born, my grandfather loves James Brown. My uncles on my father’s side are all DJs, my dad is from Barbados, so my uncles played a lot of calypso and Dancehall. My cousin Jay Swift has many production credits under his belt and his son Jr Swiftz has produced records for Conway, Westside Gunn, Flee Lord, Tiff The Gift, and more. Also my wife is an emcee, Tiff The Gift. So I guess it is in the family to some degree.
C: To a large degree I'd say! Those are some deep roots! Okay so let's zoom in a little to yourself. At what point in your life did you begin to explore music by yourself? Not in terms of creating, we'll get to that shortly, but just finding artists & music to be a fan of?
A: For me everything starts in 1988 seeing Big Daddy Kane’s "Ain’t No Half Steppin’" video on Video Music Box. I was 8 years old and immediately went to my aunt Shawn for help with writing my first rhyme. I’ve been doing this consistently since that day more than 30 years ago.
C: These consistent mentions of BDK is great. People don't recognise how cold he is. So you kind of answered my next question which was when did you begin to write rhymes. I guess I'll ask now, how was that first rhyme?!
A: Kane is King Asiatic Nobody’s Equal, so there it is. My first rhyme wasn’t great. I don’t think I was good until I reached my late teens.
C: Yea it never is! So you said you kept at it since then. When did you begin to put it on wax?
A: Ironically my debut album "Beautiful Loser" came out in 2008, exactly 20 years after I wrote my first rhyme. My path was different because I preferred to be independent. I read so many articles that covered my favourite artist and the story was the same, they all hated their record labels. I’ve been making music and making my way around the underground for the past decade. It’s been a blessing thus far.
C: I'd like to put a pin in that independence statement, come back to that. There's a gap there in between your debut and writing your first rhyme, let's try & fill that gap in. You said you weren't writing at a good quality until your teens, did you do anything with your writing in between your teens & your debut album? Or where you just living life as it came.
A: So by the time I was 13 I started performing at local talent shows and I school. It was kind of crazy, my first show was myself and my cousin Kareem as my hype man and I had to be no more than 13 with my head shaved like Onyx rapping off Jeru the Damaja’s "Come Clean". By 94 I was making demo tapes with my man DJ Big E. We lived in the same neighbourhood, but I was also getting caught up in the streets. From 1995 to 1997 I was incarcerated in a juvenile correctional institution.
I honed my skills while I was away and once I touched down, Big E put me on his "Still Shining" mixtape series. I was on "Still Shining" Part 2 and 3 and I began to gain buzz locally. From 98 until 2004 I would work on mixtapes, and I had a few promos on our local radio which was 102.9 as well as 92.1 The Beat an all Hip Hop station. Things went were going well and in 04 through my man Kaveen I was introduced to The Soul Students, a Hip Hop collective out of Hampton University. The brains of the crew was Albumz who ran an underground Radioshow on 88.1 which was Hampton University’s radio station. Meeting Al and Dane, “Kameleon Beats” would be what shaped my first album, "Beautiful Loser".
I worked on my album and toured with The Soul Students until 2007 and by 2008 "Beautiful Loser" was released via Goon Trax of Japan. Somehow the album made its way around and has had me working ever since. I know that’s a lot of information, but it’s literally what was going on.
C: No such thing as too much information! Whew alright let's break it down. Two questions. What were you incarcerated for and describe how it feels to have "local buzz", to have people around your way eating what you're serving?
A: So I was incarcerated for robbery and use of a fire arm. It was really stupid and I take full accountability for my actions even as a teenager. Gaining that local buzz was intoxicating at first, but it had begun to get redundant and it didn’t matter anymore because I had bigger goals for myself, I was never content.
C: I see. So you've been steadily building up your catalogue over the past 11 years. How d'you think you have evolved creatively from "Beautiful Loser" to your latest work "Soulapowa"?
A: To be completely honest that evolution has nothing to do with Hip-Hop and more to do with embracing what Hip-Hop is built on. Before I met my wife, I collected vinyl sparingly before it really had a resurgence in the marketplace. We began dating and eventually got our first place, she also collected vinyl and we shared interest in vinyl. Specifically, Soul and Jazz made me dig deeper into my music, specifically the aspect of sampling which has leaned more towards Jazz and the outer edges of soul that has kept us off the beaten path and more into my own lane.
I fully embrace the term jazzy boom bap or jazz rap when defining my sound and the evolution. I also have to credit my producers from Kameleon Beats, to Phoniks, I’ve learned from everyone I have worked with which has helped me to gain a better understanding of the sound and how to build on it and remain innovative without seeming like we pander to the same audience. I look at my sound and progression as an alternative experience.
C: The people that know me know that my favourite Hip-Hop fusion is Jazz and hearing your work really builds on the foundations the Native Tongues did and producers like Pete Rock, Dilla & 9th Wonder have brought to the masses with their sampling. How has it been from your vantage point, seeing how Jazz & soul have slowly made a resurgence back into Hip-Hop? Not that it ever left of course.
A: I feel like everything has seasons and right now it’s the season of consciousness. With consciousness comes high art and in my opinion, Jazz and Soul are high art genres of music. I was always taught that listening to Jazz and Classical music helps you to focus, my daughter’s name is Jazz “Katherine”Jazz Kat for short. I’m over the moon that a new generation of people are being inspired by Jazz and Soul music.
C: You mentioned that you're Independent which I am always fascinated with. You started when Digital copies/downloads were king which was great for artists because it curbed some of the piracy movement that was running wild in the early 00s. We're now firmly in the Streaming age, digital downloads are dying, hard copies are making a minor resurgence but not enough to rely on.
As an independent artist that's had to reconcile with the consumer landscape & evolve because of it. How has it been for you, watching the money go to streaming platforms and giving the artist a fraction of a fraction of the reason the consumer is there, which is to spin your music? How have your business acumen evolved?
A: My evolution in the business has been really an adaptation to the market. Independence for me personally gives me more equity and say over my product. I say I, but truly it’s we, myself and Phoniks founded our label, Don’t Sleep Records to house our catalogue, but to also showcase the ethos of our brand. Music has always changed with the medium in which it was consumed from vinyl to cassette, cassette to CD, and CD to MP3, now MP3 to vinyl.
Everything comes in cycles and anyone running any sort of successful operation has to understand supply and demand. Our product is not the medium in which it is consumed, our product always has and always will be music. I embrace streaming because again it’s about ownership, those pennies add up when you are putting them in the roll yourself.
We cannot close up shop just because someone doesn’t want a vinyl anymore or for a segment of the population that are minimalist in terms of their possessions and prefer digital mediums. What we do have to do is adapt and accommodate as many customers was we can to familiarise them with our catalogue and if it comes through streaming so be it.
C: Well said! So you mentioned your label with Phoniks. Talk to me about Don't Sleep, what is it like to have your own label and the autonomy that comes with it.
A: Thank you, having our own label is having freedom. We are blue collar musicians, we do large stages or small stages, we sell our own merch, sometimes we work the door at our shows. We answer customer emails,and most important we manage the day to day business deals of procuring a new vinyl release or booking a tour.
Phoniks is the brain behind the designs of our artwork, I view his role as not only a producer, but the creative director of our operation. On the other hand I talk to people to make things happen, together it’s the perfect balance to where neither one of us is truly over whelmed and we stay fresh so that we can always give the label 100 percent.
We truly take pride in what we have been able to do over the years. Initially our friend Mason Strehl helped us get everything in place and he moved on to being an amazing photographer travelling all over the country and the world documenting the natural environment. He took amazing photos of us and helped us out with our very first tour. The mechanisms that were in place early on are still in place today only tweaked to fit each release and artist.
C: That's what's up! So before we finish up, let's talk about your latest release that put me onto your work, "Soulapowa". The production is firmly Hip-Hop/Jazz fusion which is right up my alley, but you also tell some great stories on here which has to be hailed. But what did you seek for this album? What did you want to broadcast to the listener?
A: Thank you for the kind words man. I was looking for something more mellow, more jazzy and soulful. I was looking to tell stories of how I felt because I was in a blue mood when I was recording it. I was worried about being a dad again because it had been almost 13 years since my wife and I had a child, and this time it was a girl, even more pressure to be the best man I could be.
My daughter coming into this world made me reflect a lot on my life past and present. This album was introspective for me and the production reflects that. I enjoyed the recording process and all the producers I worked with are my homies so that was dope too.
C: And I think you succeeded in that mission for sure. I think we can leave it there! But before we call it, every interview has to end with me asking this simple question. What's your Top 5?
A: Thank you man. I appreciate you taking the time out to speak to me as well. As far as top 5, any category, I have to say:
New York Style Pizza
Air Tech Challenge II Lava
Sade “Love Deluxe”
Jazz, Soul, and Funk (The Foundation)
Ladies & Gentlemen! That was Awon, very eclectic Top 5. Starting to get some variety to these now.
I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I spent sending E-Mails back & forth with Awon. Below I have embedded his latest album "Soulapowa". I highly recommend you give it a listen, as well as his previous work. The Independent Hip-Hop scene is always in need of support and I think Awon is an artist that definitely deserves love.
Thanks for reading everybody. Till the next time, take it easy.