The Spirit Moves

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke

Raz Simone considers every step of his skyward trajectory.

The awkward descriptor “conscious rapper” never fit Raz Simone; instead think of the MC as a conscience rapper. Simone is prolific, releasing two albums and a half-dozen music videos in the last two years, and he’s a perfectionist. Where other artists spew hurried, half-sketched breadcrumbs, each of Simone’s productions is fully formed and meticulously wrought, specific and outspoken in their subject matter.

When we spoke in early June his tour bus was stopped in Idaho, returning to Seattle from a three-week Western U.S. tour opening for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis—who he’d respectfully challenged in the 2015 song “Macklemore Privilege and Chief On Keef Violence.”

As usual, Simone had a lot to say. 

[A condensed version of this interview ran in the print version of our July 2016 issue. The transcript below has only been edited for clarity. It otherwise appears in its entirety.]

Where are you guys right now?
Middle of Idaho, outside Boise. Still trying to make our way back to Seattle. We’re in this bus—we call her Merla, this baby right here—and we’re trying make sure she gets back safe.

I’ve been following your Instagram. Looks like you guys are having an awesome time on tour, onstage and off. ATVs in the desert, camping under the stars…
It’s funny—Macklemore and his crew were saying they were jealous! “You got my crew looking at me like, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?'” We knew we had a few days to get it in so we’re trying to utilize some off days to do awesome things. It’s been an epic experience all around.

The crowds look monstrous. And ecstatic.
Yeah. Lots of growth for everyone. We got the Village [supporters and fans of Simone and his work]—people who have come together who are like-minded in wanting to change the world. It’s like the Grateful Dead, where their people came out with their own vehicles following them from show to show. We got our bus and [Simone’s production and promotion company] Black Umbrella, so the fusion of those two things has been a great time for everyone to get know each other, if they didn’t already. All these cats from the Village and cats from Black Umbrella who are behind the scenes, everyone is bonding, spending days and days on the road sleeping inside tents or double-bedding together. So everyone’s had time to get close and see how everyone operates under pressure—vehicles breaking down, fixing them, getting back on the road, all that.

I’ve seen a lot of photos of you tearing through tank tops at the front of the stage, Hulk-style. How many have you gone through?
[Laughs] It’s been a few packs. I only do it when the spirit moves me.

How did this tour come about? I know you’ve had some words for Macklemore in the past. Had he heard “Macklemore Privilege and Chief on Keef Violence”?
That song came out exactly a year ago and that album came out around that time. He knew about me and knew my music prior to that. I remember at some point I reached out, sent him a text and I didn’t expect him to respond. It was a time when every label in the game was trying to sign me—I had Shady Records, Atlantic, all that stuff. I remember thinking, Who should I talk to about this? Who around the city where I’m from would have insight about this, that’s been through something similar, who can give me some advice? I thought, we got Sir Mix-A-Lot, but he’s not really around that like that. And we got Macklemore. The people I was really looking at was Lyor Cohen and Todd Moskowitz and that’s who had been Warner and now they’re doing their own thing. Todd signed off on the whole “Thrift Shop” radio promotion deal for Mack to make that stuff happen. So Macklemore, he’s literally walked through these same doors I’m trying to walk through. I sent him a text like, can I get some advice or speak to you for a few minutes?

I didn’t get a message back and didn’t think anything of it. But I’ve always been a supporter of Macklemore. After a few years of him being famous and all the things he says he stands for and especially his older music, wanting to put on for The Town, wanting to help the community and specifically my community, the Central District, my neighborhood, talking about Seattle and giving back and all the causes he stands for, I’ve always been in support of that. I was thinking, it’s been a few years, I’m just curious, do you still stand for that? Have you been avidly trying to build up and put on The Town? When someone says, “I’m trying to put my Town on,” in a rap sense that means you’re trying to blow the music scene up. In layman’s terms, you’re trying to create industry, music industry to feed multiple individuals so they can spread the fire and push it around and other individuals and families are being fed and you’re bringing the industry and spotlight here, and now there’s a bunch of mangers and management firms and lawyers, all this stuff. It’s become something where industry is here and you wouldn’t have to leave the city to feed your family and have that type of juice. I’m not really looking at what another man is doing and worrying about, but it was one of those questions.

Where I was at when I made that song—I was on Sunset Boulevard in LA, sitting in my car and I was outside a hotel and doing the same exact thing I was doing since I was 14: street shit. And it was my birthday. January 15. I’m sitting in a car outside a hotel about to run in with my gun and go check on someone and make sure—and facilitate a situation. And a bunch of other things. It was an emotional moment. It was my birthday and I’m doing this thing that’s not very positive. But it is for a reason. But because I’m trying to help everyone around me and I’ve been doing this since I was 14. It makes me feel insane because I’m doing the same thing over and over again. I remember sitting there and thinking, who are my allies? What’s going on, what can I do?

It was a weird point. Like, I don’t wanna be doing this but I’ve dodged too many bullets to be like, I’m going to be Gandhi right now. That was the thing—what can I do to expedite this situation? I’ve been on MTV, I’ve been in Rolling Stone, VIBE, Complex, all these different places doing all these different things and I’m still in this situation. Still being stepped on, still having to do what I was doing when I was 15 to make things happen for everyone. But not doing it in the way I want to. Giving people adequate jobs where they don’t have to make people worry that they’re risking their lives every day. I don’t wanna give someone a job that takes them away from their family in any way, but those were the jobs I had around. That’s what I was doing.

Being there, it was like, hmmmmm. I was thinking, what do we have, what’s the industry? And I thought about Macklemore—he’s been famous for three, four years now, I wonder if he really cares. Is he passionate about how he says he is? Even in “Same Love,” putting on for the gay community, I was wondering does he care about that or is he just appropriating that culture? Then as far as The Town, does he really wanna put on for the town or is he playing big man on the mountain and trying to keep people’s shine? And if so, why?

I had these things swirling around in my mind and I was curious. So I asked the questions and got the conversation going. And I’m gonna hit a few other birds with one stone. Speak on other things that are important at the same time. The whole project was a mixture of those questions, those frustrations, and “Chief on Keef Violence,” the statement about drill rap and trap rap Keef saying, “When I drop this mixtape it’ll raise the murder rate!” Looking at how music affects us and how it’s really fucking up some young people. I was diving into all that. That’s why I called it “Macklemore Privilege & Chief on Keef Violence.”

It’s not just white privilege—lots of people have our own privileges. I wanted to speak on that. If you can pass for white, you can receive that same type of Macklemore privilege. It’s not black-on-black violence; the way I describe it is “n*ggas-on-n*ggas.” They come in all different colors and sizes and especially with the Internet being around now it’s not the same as it used to be. You can tap into and become that persona. Dialects are non-regional now. You can be whatever you see, become it, that thing you’re watching or listening to. That’s why I had to be careful when I named those things. I put the song out and he heard it and everyone was talking about it in The Town.

And I put out “Same Problems,”—“we don’t have the same problems”—and that whole thing was stating clearly that we don’t have the same problems. It wasn’t supposed to be mine are worse than yours, they’re different. I was speaking on my experience being a street n*gga who’s a young black man. Especially being in the music industry and touring with other white males, and being able to see how their fans are super racist, some of them. Some are blatantly, some don’t even know it. And it’s not about the music—it’s, “This guy is white like me,” literally watching people go through this and seeing that.

That was on the top of my head because I’ve done music with a lot of white people, and seeing that [racist phenomenon], it gets to you. I had to comment on that. Is said it about Action Bronson. People are uneducated. They’re segregating their iTunes. I listen to this and that, but I don’t like this and that—they like the white guys but they don’t like the black guys who sound like them but did it before them or better. It’s interesting.

I was speaking on that and a little on the socioeconomic stuff, and then Fatal [Lucciauno] goes in on that, he’s not going in on color but coming up from the bottom. And Gabby [Gifted Gab] comes in. I wanted to have me, Gabby and Grynch be on the song. Like, ok, I’ll cover the base for the young black man in the industry, and Gabby comes in as a black girl, half-Jewish, half-white, whatever that means. And then I got Grynch, he can cover the role of white dude in the game because he’s coming in from the era when being white was not an asset. And he’s not a pretty boy. We don’t have the same problems. His were stepping up to the mic and people were like, “What’s Charlie Brown doing up here?” I’ve seen that and felt that and understood that we don’t have the same problems, so I wanted to showcase that. But he said he didn’t feel the beat so he didn’t get on it. It started an uproar, but other folks were like, dude, do you not hear what he’s saying? Everyone started talking and it was great. And it was during Ferguson and people needed to be talking about these things.

Then I dropped the one with Tupac and all that, where we’re in Vegas. That’s the one where Macklemore retweeted and texted me back. That’s the first text I received from him. Before that he’d been around some mutual friends who was trying to hook us up. But eventually he reached out, like, let’s get some lunch. That was a year after [I had reached out to him]. I was like, I’m definitely down to talk, let’s make it happen.

We had lunch and a three-hour conversation and going back and forth on things and I was trying to see if he’s an ally, is he genuine. And he was asking me, “What should I do? I used to be so passionate, but going through enough times where you have everyone telling you what you’re not doing right, I don’t know.” He also said, “You’re one of the first people who said they had a problem with me to my face! He appreciated that I was being bold and asking questions about how I felt about things. It wasn’t, “Fuck you.” He understood it wasn’t a dis. I knew he’d get it.

We had a long conversation about that and I told him, I don’t think you should do anything different. I said, “As a man, you’ve done more than you should be doing in life. You’ve gone over and above. Over 99 percent of the people talking shit about you, you’ve done multiples more than them. So I can’t tell you anything other than you’re doing great. I’m just curious for myself, I wanna know who my allies are and to know if you’re genuine in those things you said and what you stand for. I wanna know for myself.”

He said he had a heart for it but after people telling him you’re not doing this or that, or you should do this or that, he got to a point where he was like, fuck it, I don’t give a fuck about any of that shit now. It made it hard for him to have that heart that he had. And then he said on top of that, the stresses of touring and being sober every single night. He’s talking about people saying, “I can’t wait for the next album, you’re going to have so much to talk about!” Like, yeah, going from the mic check to the show to the hotel and doing it all over again.

He voiced that to me and I saw where he was and we connected in that moment, but I wasn’t sure how much was, does he really care or does he not want me in his head asking questions? Is he finessing me? I wasn’t sure. We had a great conversation for three hours so I walked away, like, that was a good talk. But I wasn’t sure. He said he didn’t give a fuck but he’s not sure. He asked “What should I do?” I said, I don’t know, you’re a grown-ass man! I haven’t thought about what you should do. But if you’re asking me, and you’re putting yourself in that position like we’re peers and on some brother shit, I can think about it. He was like, “Yeah, what would you do?” I was like, I’ll think and we’ll have another talk later.

I thought, what would I be doing? What would I do if I was him? Just broke it down like, let’s create industry that we can grow and build and spread the flame. I said I’d take any opportunity I could to put people on from the city: You’re touring, you’re one of the number-one pop acts going around. I would bring someone from the city that could benefit from your crowd on tour with you. I’d make a couple songs or do some shout outs, hook them up with people, like, here’s a good lawyer, a good agent, a good artist.

His team now, it’s DIY, everyone he knows personally and he cares about putting on like that, but we look at things a little differently. I’ll be like, fuck the homie, this person deserves it more. He might be from an opposing block, an area of town that has killed somebody from my side of town or vice versa, but they’re a good person and they deserve this. They need to tell their side of the story. He was looking at it in the same way, trying to give back and do good, but with homies that had been there.

Through all the conversations I realized we had a lot of similarities and little slight differences. At the end of everything, I had conversations with a bunch of different people and everything confirmed that he does have a good heart and he cares and he’s meticulous about choosing people, but the way he goes about it is different than me. He was going out of his way doing something else he thought was a righteous deed. We just make different moves. Through us talking, going back and forth, I was like, bro—I just gave him that approval.

We butted heads a couple times. He said, “We’re better together than apart,” and I was thinking he’s on some greezy stuff where he’s trying to play me to the left. I was like, well, see, I don’t know about that. But then one day I called him, like, bro, I wanna let you know I appreciate you and all the moves you’ve done. I’m in your corner and you don’t have to worry about me dropping anymore songs about you. That whole time we were talking we were dropping songs, you know? I let him know, you’re killing it, keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t wanna be another person telling him you’re not doing it right! He’s got a thousand things to think about I don’t want to be one of those, especially when we both want the same things but we don’t know how to get there. I made sure he knew that.

Months and months later he texted and was like, hey, you have five minutes to talk? I was in the studio so I was like, yeah, hit me. So he ended up hitting me and was like, what are you doing from this day to this day? I was like, nothing I knew of. He’s like, well, I’d really like you to go on tour with me. We all would. Ryan would be ecstatic and I think would be a powerful thing and it’s what the city needs right now. I was like, I really appreciate that, bro. He was like, through all our conversations I’ve listened to what you’ve been saying and I think it’s what the city needs. That meant a lot. I didn’t hold back, I didn’t cool-guy. I let him know I really appreciated it and he didn’t have to do that and it means a lot to me.

The whole thing sounds really personal and intentional.
Yeah that’s how it was. It’s funny—the whole time I was thinking he’s not gonna fuck with me. He listens, but you don’t help out the kicking, screaming kid. You help out the kid being quiet and patient. My plan was to get the conversation going and get him thinking and hope he’d reach out and bring another peer, someone from a different camp, on the road. That was my whole thing. I know people in my generation are entitled but it wasn’t like that at all. Everything he’s done has been, thank you so much. I feel bad that he had people around, like, I’ve known you so long, why haven’t you given me this? That’s not the way I was thinking. I was more like, you’ve said you wanna do this, and it’s been this many years, why aren’t you pushing this power around while you have it?

You’re doing similar stuff with Black Umbrella, working with other artists and building up their presence and their base—Malitia Malimob, Fatal, King Leez…
I wanna make sure even as I’m coming up I’m still doing that. You’re supposed to put your mask on first when the plane is going down. I’m putting others’ on for a few reasons. That’s a reminder every day so that when I’m in that position that I was looking at, something similar to where Macklemore is at, that I’m not losing sight of myself and the reasons I’m doing this.

When you have those people around you—people who aren’t holding back their words—iron sharpens iron. You have an accountability system. As opposed to having people like, “Yes, Ben.” Or people who are leeches saying, “That’s great!” when you actually made the wrong move. They just wanna be around. I like keeping some real people in my corner. I’m trying to make sure I’m helping them out along the way. That’s what I would want and what I set out to do. I’m just doing what I feel like is just and righteous. Fatal, I watched his rise, him being the big guy in the scene and then everyone disowning him and him going to jail and his people just leave. Not returning calls. I watched that happen. And him being a killer MC.

It’s one of those things where people are afraid to do work because they’d rather… it’s a rapper thing. People are always watching, seeing how much pull you have, whether they should do a song with them or not. They don’t wanna benefit the other person at all. It’s horrible and it’s not good for collaboration. It’s a system of keeping people down. Let’s push each other up! Everyone pushing up. It all comes back around and even if it doesn’t at least you know it was right. You won’t go up holding people down. I’m always thinking like that. You put out that good, it comes back around. It might not hit you; it hits someone else, but you don’t do it for yourself, you do it because it’s right. That’s how I look at life. And I apply that whenever I can. And looking out for the younger guys too.

Right. I’ve heard you’ve been working with Romaro Franceswa too.
Romaro is part of Black Umbrella. He’s been part of it forever. He brought [his manager] Meli [Darby] and I was like, this is the family I’ve always wanted. He’s looked up to me and my music and been a huge fan and supporter and looked at me like a bro before I knew him. And he’s Fatal’s cousin around the way.

You’re super prolific but also your work is incredibly polished. A lot of artists might be prolific but it’s only because they’re constantly busting out half-formed ideas. But your stuff—the videos, the songs, the production—is all fully developed. How do you maintain the relentless pace—plus the quality control? It seems exhausting.
It’s funny—I don’t try to maintain any pace. It’s not like I wake up and go, “I gotta go to work!” I go long stints without writing. I just let it naturally come to me. I write it when it’s spilling out of my heart or head or soul—wherever it’s coming from—and it needs to come out. It’s like, “I’m going through some shit; I won’t write right now, I’ll keep living.” Then it needs to come out at some point and I’ll hit the pad, pull out the iPhone or iPad or napkin, usually while I’m driving. It’s always when it’s supposed to happen. I live a lot of life so I have a lot to write about.

Thankfully, in these last couple years I’ve been learning how to write past pain. When things are great, you’re not screaming, “My teeth feel fucking great!” Nobody ever says that. It’s, “Fuck I have a toothache and it’s killing me!” You’re not screaming about the positive things. I saw that as a good problem to have. But I want my music to represent me, like if you listen to my music you’d know a lot about me. So it can’t all be weighed toward the negative. I gotta figure out how to document those positive times, having a great moment with my woman or my mom or my son, enjoying life or whatever. Documenting the other things that are going on, not just the things like we need to save the world or my world is crumbling or I almost just killed somebody. Thankfully I’ve found that.

“Missing Joogs” sounds like that to me. It’s an upbeat love song but it’s coming from your actual experience, not some corny cliché.
It’s not forgetting where it’s coming from, it’s got a little from-the-street stuff. I’m saying I’m missing joogs so I can see you. I’m missing trappings, lucrative business opportunities, so I can see you. It’s letting down a little guard or whatever. That was one where I wanted to uplift people, like if they weren’t going through something heavy it’s a nice light song that would remind them of a loved one. And someone going through something heavy, they can relate to it too. Multiple individuals have told me this. It’s one of those things that’s so specific in its own way that it means so much to someone else because they’ve never heard a song that relates to their situation like that.

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke