Travi$ Scott: Breaking Houston Boundaries

The ‘Owl Pharaoh’ rapper on credibility and Kanye…

With TMZ running headlines about Justin Bieber’s lean addiction and chopped-and-screwed vocals appearing on Beyoncé’s latest album, it’s safe to say that Houston’s rap culture has penetrated the mainstream.

As a native of the city, who has also experienced living in New York and Los Angeles, Travi$ Scott isn’t convinced by the way his hometown is being depicted.

“My whole shit is to redefine that, because a lot of people are making it mad corny,” he tells us. “I lived there my whole life. I don’t know about all these n*ggas, but Houston ain’t like all that shit they be talking about in their raps.”

His nomadic lifestyle has injected the influence of other locales into his sound. His debut mixtape, 2013’s ‘Owl Pharaoh’, combines the sharp drums of the East Coast, the laid back vibes of the West, and the dark vocal distortion of the South.

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Travi$ Scott, 'Upper Echelon', from 'Owl Pharaoh'

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It’s not that Travi$ is necessarily against the codeine and promethazine concoctions or the slowed down music – on the contrary, as in our conversation he refers to himself as a “lean connoisseur” before breaking down into laughter.

“I just said the word ‘connoisseur’ with the word ‘lean’ – how f*cking weird is that? I think just that being the whole forefront of what Houston is driven behind, that’s what I’m against. There’s n*ggas like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino that’s basically showing you the iller vision of Houston or the South. Whereas that is like fictional; it’s just, like, the textures, people never see that.”

These textures are sonically present in the epic, expansive productions that share his unique vision. Similar to Rodriguez and Tarantino, Scott’s songs come across as an exaggerated, fictionalised take on real environments and emotions.

“I’m not totally against that [perception] because I grew up around it,” he clarifies. “But I feel like there’s a way fresher culture in front of that, which can stand next to all of that lean and that screwed-up shit.”

After he fled Houston to pursue a career as an artist, Scott couch-surfed New York and LA, recording, collaborating and honing both his rapping and beat-making abilities until he was eventually approached by T.I., who signed him as a rapper, and later Kanye West, who signed him as a producer.

“Having those two in my life, it’s not like an office where I’ve gotta report to either side. It’s just like ill friends, I just gotta pick up the phone. It’s not like, ‘Oh I make beats here and I write songs with T.I.’ – I do a lot of music with Kanye really, and I bring a lot of songs to T.I. to ask his opinion. But I sit most times around the homie (producer) Mike Dean, or by myself.” While these deals are separate on paper, Scott sees his art as a whole, and is receptive of both mentors across the board.

His formal introduction to the mainstream came on ‘Cruel Summer’, a compilation put together by West and his GOOD Music imprint. As such, it’s common for people to overlook his relationship with T.I.. The Atlanta rapper has provided invaluable advice for the 21-year-old on maintaining a credible career as a recording artist with the ability to breakthrough to a wider audience.

“Me and T.I. spend a lot of time together, because he’s in Atlanta, he’s right there. I pull up on him and we bounce ideas around. We talk a lot about carrying shit out and making it cut across. He achieves a lot with his TV show and just being able to carry out albums over years of time. We talk about keeping it in the streets, keeping it vital, just keeping it popping. He’s a good dude. That n*gga is a genius at music and keeping shit credible.”

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It was f*cking ridiculous, we were going ham too much!

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It’s common to hear words like ‘idol’ thrown around when a newcomer is paired with an established act through a signing or collaboration. In many cases this feels like a business move to align themselves with their new ‘investor’. In the case of Scott and GOOD Music, however, the admiration is clearly genuine. Looking back on YouTube at videos such as ‘Love Sick’, made prior to being signed, the influence of West is clear, and the darkness and melodic elements of Scott’s music can easily be aligned with KiD CuDi.

The enthusiasm that comes across when he talks about his influences is inspiring. It brings us back to growing up as music fans and it’s clear that the business side of the industry hasn’t corrupted Scott too much at this point. He’s a misfit who has grown up empowered by the words of CuDi and the rebellious attitude of Kanye, and is now a fan working amongst his idols.

“I’ve been listening to those guys since they first dropped. Whenever I was old enough to comprehend. ‘Freshmen Adjustment’, Kanye’s first shit, and ‘A Kid Named CuDi’, and little lost tapes before that. I’m a big-ass CuDi fan, more than anything. I feel like, when I was young and shit, he was talking to people like me, and he was super against what rap was. He’s so ill because he can body n*ggas like a Jeezy but still cut through like (FKA) Twigs or MGMT.” 

With ‘Don’t Play’, the lead single from his forthcoming album debut featuring Big Sean and The 1975, it’s clear that Scott is aiming to make a similar lane for himself, balancing between mainstream rap and more experimental indie and electronic sounds. He recently remixed ‘Neptune Estate’ for King Krule, which proved an instant fan favourite at his London show, and demonstrates the kind of music he’d ideally like to be making more of.

“I really wanna do that music all day f*cking long,” he says excitedly. “Then in rap I’m trying to break that barrier. It’s just my likings; that’s how I grew up. That’s what I was listening to; it was like a mixture between rap and stuff like Archy’s (Marshall, aka King Krule) shit and Jai Paul.”

Tracks such as ‘Shit On You’ from ‘Owl Pharaoh’ demonstrate Scott’s affinity for melody, but in the past he has expressed a dislike for listening to singing. When prompted to talk about this he explodes with laughter.

“Yeah, that sounds about right. I love melody – I mean, I think singing is kinda like weird and shit. I’d never call myself a singer but I love melody, and I’d express melody on a track.” Perhaps another trait picked up by listening to his idol? “Yeah exactly. What CuDi does is some ill shit!”

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Travi$ Scott, 'Don't Play'

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With the Internet allowing us into all aspects of artists’ lives, we are used to following and anticipating their careers as they progress. However, Scott managed to remain under the radar for the most part, surfacing for the first time in front of the mainstream on one of 2012’s most anticipated releases, ‘Cruel Summer’ – a set housing massive hits like ‘Mercy’, ‘Clique’, ‘Cold’ (better known as ‘Theraflu’) and the ‘Don’t Like’ remix that broke Chief Keef through from the streets of Chicago to a wider audience (which Scott actually reprogrammed the drums on).

Referring to working alone multiple times throughout our conversation, Scott has learned to work in Kanye’s factory-like beatmaking method, working into other people’s beats and contributing elements here and there rather than full instrumentals. Following his work on ‘Cruel Summer’ he returned to contribute to last year’s polarising ‘Yeezus’ (review)

“That was a super fresh process. Working on that album, I went to Paris for the first time. There was only a couple of tracks considered at that point and then ‘New Slaves’ came from there, ‘Black Skinhead’, and ‘Hold My Liquor’. It was f*cking ridiculous, we were going ham too much!”

Despite such an impressive catalogue of achievements already, Scott is confident that he is nowhere near peaking at this point. He is currently preparing to release his debut album. He estimates that it’s about 40% complete, but is already excited for it to be released. “The shit that’s about to come out next is about to smash that shit out of the water. Man, I just can’t wait ’til that shit comes out.”

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Words: Grant Brydon (Twitter)
Photos: Kevin Amato (online)

Travi$ Scott online.

This interview is taken from issue 95 of Clash magazine, full details here

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