“Why So White?” – RESPECT. Interviews Kam Royal

Everyone hates frat rap.  It’s true.  It’s become somewhat of a cliché these days, a barrel of drab crabs that occasionally will spit out a goofball like Chet Haze.  But Asher Roth and the legend of the “great white hope” keep college campuses buzzing with wannabes and hopefuls.  BroBible’s comprehensive “College Rapper Database” places D.C. native Kam Royal at number 22, but the Tulane University junior has his mind on the mainstream; as a management/marketing/Jewish studies major, he’s learning how to make you take him seriously.  He’s a favorite of popular college music blog ThisSongIsSick.com, his YouTube channel is popping, he’s opening for your favorite rappers, and the labels are starting to notice.  After the jump, we pick his brain on what it’s like to be one of those guys.

I don’t know if we wanna get into this right off the bat, but did you move to Adams Morgan just to be able to say that you’re from D.C.?
No, I moved to Adams Morgan because I actually was born and grew up in D.C., and my parents moved into Maryland because D.C.’s got terrible public schools.  So once my younger brother graduated from high school, we moved back into the District.  And if now’s the appropriate time to talk about it, I’d like to say that I’ve lived in Maryland for 10 years of my life, and I’ve lived in D.C. for 10 years of my life.  I was born in D.C.; I currently live in D.C.; I have a D.C. driver’s license; so I’m pretty comfortable saying that I’m from D.C.  If people have a problem with that, it’s really just their problem.  I think one of the big problems that faces D.C.’s hip-hop scene is that everyone’s always trying to really get on to the detriment of others.  If you look at a city like Pittsburgh, which has had so much success recently with their music, it’s because everyone’s really one big family and everyone’s supporting each other.  So D.C., stop hating.  Everyone needs to support everyone if we wanna be successful.

Why do you think D.C. is so goddamn territorial?  And does it matter — any of the shit that you just said about the license — does any of that even matter?
I personally don’t think it matters.  If you are from the DMV area, if you have love for D.C. and you have pride for D.C. — ‘cause this is our nation’s capital, it’s really a phenomenal, beautiful city — you wanna rep that, I’m cool with that.  The only problem I would have is if someone just moved here from California a day ago or something like that, and they’re like “Yeah man, D.C. or die!”  That’s kinda silly.  You asked me why is D.C. so territorial?  I don’t really know why that is.  I’m sure it’s something that developed over time, long before either one of us was born.  I really don’t have any big idea or epiphany about why D.C. is the way it is like that.

It’s confusing, right?  It’s sad.
It’s nonsensical, is what it is.  D.C. does have somewhat of a music culture, if you look at — Marvin Gaye’s from D.C.; we have our own music in go-go.  It doesn’t really make sense that people are really just trying to get on and not support the whole movement and just support individuals.  Maybe that comes from the culture of the city, it being a government city — only one person can win.  Maybe it stems from that, I really don’t know.

When did you start getting into music?
I’ve been rapping forever.  I wrote my first rap in fifth grade.  But I didn’t ever really start taking music very seriously until, I’d say, about 11 months ago.  When I got to school, I started writing some more raps at the encouragement of one of my friends.  And then last July or August, I forget which, I’d written some new songs, and I decided to go to a nice studio and get ‘em done and recorded.  And so it was last summer that I first sent it out to a blog, and my first song got picked up by like 20 or 30 blogs, and it really grew organically from there.  The more I did it, the more I really developed a passion for it and a love for it.  I’ve always been into rapping, but I’ve only been saying “Oh, yo, I’m a rapper.  I’m trying to be a rapper,” for about a year now, a little bit less than a year.

Would you say that it’s transformed from a hobby into something that you really want to pursue, as a career even?
Oh, absolutely.  That’s how I describe it to people all the time.  It’s something that very quickly grew from — as you said — a hobby into something that I definitely want to do full time once I graduate from college.

What did your parents say when you told them this 11 months ago?
The plan wasn’t actually fleshed out 11 months ago.  Now, my parents encourage that I stay in college and get that diploma.  They definitely see that I’ve had some success.  I don’t waste making decisions about what I wanna do with my future.  I’ve still got two years of college left, so until I graduate, I’m not really worried about what am I going to do.

Obviously, you’ve got another strike against you in the sense that you are white.  Now you have this archetype of college rappers like yourself, like Mac Miller, Asher Roth, the list goes on and on.  What do you think of those rappers, and where do you see yourself fitting in with that sort of archetype?
I think there’s definitely positives and negatives to being a white rapper.  The negative, obviously — as you said — is that I get pigeonholed into this whole college rap-frat rap category.  And that’s also a positive at the same time because it really has brought a whole new audience to hip-hop that wasn’t there before.  People are always gonna wanna listen to what they can relate to and what they’re interested in.  So because I am a suburban kid, all these new suburban kids listening to music and starting blogs and downloading music and paying for shows, that’s definitely given me an audience that I probably wouldn’t have had five or 10 years ago.  At the same time, it’s very frustrating because, for example, when I do shows down in New Orleans, a lot of people don’t give me the respect I feel I deserve when I get on the stage because of my skin color.  Once they hear what I have to say, I definitely can convince people that I’m more than just a kid rapping about Solo cups, with Auto-Tune in my hook, singing about college life.  If I have to say where I fit in, I’d definitely say I put myself more in the category with someone like a Mac Miller or an Asher Roth or even an Eminem — not saying I’m on Eminem’s level, but those are people who yes, they are white, but they’re hip-hop artists first, and it’s not really like they’re in that frat rap college scene.

Killer Mike recently said that hip-hop has become much less black and much less masculine.  Do you think that’s necessarily a bad thing?
No, I definitely don’t think it’s a bad thing.  I think it’s just how all music evolves.  I actually really parallel the rise of hip-hop in America to the rise of rock-and-roll in America.  Originally, it was an all-black music and it wasn’t really accepted in the white communities, and about 20 or 30 years after rock was really getting into it, it did become accepted in mainstream, white America.  So that’s when you have the advent of what people call bubble gum rock, and that was all the music that was very accessible, very easy to listen to all for all the white people, with very simple chord progressions and very easily relatable choruses and words.  And I really see a lot of parallels between that and the state of hip-hop in America because originally, it was an all-black art form, and then now, about 20, 30 years after the real birth of it, it has spread out into mainstream America, and get this bubble gum rap that all these frat rappers are doing.  And I’m not saying it’s a good or a bad thing, it’s just the development of music.  If you look at someone like Eminem, he’s someone who stuck to the true format of what hip-hop is, and I see parallels between that and what Elvis Presley did, or what Buddy Holly did.  So there definitely are people who stick to the true art form, and that’s what I try to do, and if it develops as a subgenre, that’s what happens, just like you have punk rock, for example.

But then again, Elvis is credited as the king of rock, overshadowing all of the hundreds and hundreds of black musicians who literally created the genre.  The problem was, Elvis was just more palatable.  As it goes more mainstream, it gets more white.  How would you respond to people saying that you are reappropriating black culture to your own purpose?
I think that throughout history, every culture has borrowed from other cultures, whether it’s the Greeks and the Romans learning from each other, or the Huns learning when they took over China.  Cultures have always learned from one another.  And I agree with you that it’s all originally a black culture, it’s a black art form.  One of the differences between rock-and-roll and hip-hop is that rock-and-roll’s never really about, me, me, me.  And even if you’re singing a song about you, it’s more about your emotions and some girl that broke your heart.  It’s not about bragging about where you’re from and what you do and what you and your friends do.  So I think that’s why it’s easier for people to give Elvis or a similar artist more credit than they deserve because he’s singing about topics in general.  It’s easy to forget who originated those topics, whereas in hip-hop, if Biggie is shouting out Bed-Stuy, you know he’s from Bed-Stuy, and no matter who, you’re not gonna be from Bed-Stuy if you’re not from Bed-Stuy.

So lyrically, since hip-hop is such an esoteric genre, it’s easier to point fingers.  And of course, it’s true — you always have these accusations of authenticity.  You’re aiming for the mainstream, is that correct?  You’re aiming for radio, you’re aiming for mass appeal, like you were saying earlier, right?
Yeah, absolutely.  When I was coming up in middle school and high school I always was friends with every different group of kids.  I could really walk into any clique and be cool with all those kids.  I wanna have as big of an audience as possible.  So if I put limitations on myself, that limits how far I can go.  I feel like I have a lot of relatable content, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or if you’re white, or if you’re from the hood or if you’re from the suburbs.  If you can relate to what I’m saying, you’re gonna like it.  Look at someone like Drake, for example.  All the negative things that people say about him aside, this is a half-Jewish, half-white, half-black kid from Canada who’s arguably the biggest rap star in the world right now because no matter where you’re from, you can always relate to something that he’s saying.

So how have you seen your lyrical maturity — the content, the flow — how is that evolving ever since you pinpointed the direction you wanted to go in?
The first thing is I’m always really struggling — not struggling, I’m always really working on developing my own sound as an artist.  And now with these new tracks that I’m working on — Vindicated to an extent, but this new unreleased mixtape that I’ve got — if you hear that, within a second people say “Oh yeah, that’s that Kam flow.  Oh yeah, that’s Kam doing him.”  So I really struggle to make it so that my voice is almost like another instrument on the beat.  So that way, even if you’re not listening to the words, it’s still enjoyable to listen to.  And lyrically, I’m always listening to rappers and trying to see ways that I can be more and more lyrical, because I feel like a lot of people limit themselves by being over-lyrical.  It gets to the point where listening to the music is a chore.  Nobody wants to do that.  There’s a very distinct difference between dumbing your music down and saying complex things very simply.  I think my lyricism on these new songs is really on a completely different level.  And also, I’m working on doing some more concept songs.  If you look at the progression from my first mixtape, Business as Usual, to my second mixtape, Vindicated, there were a lot more complete, coherent thoughts that I had in songs.  Whether it was the song like “Mary Jane”, it’s all about marijuana, or a song like “I Don’t Know”, which is discussing both sides of relationships, I’m always working to have more complex thoughts and say more profound things in a new and different way with my lyrics.

Something that really, really caught my attention was “Dude.”  I thought you did a great job with the hook, the flow was sounding on point — it really did sound like a new Kam.  Could you tell me how you came up with the hook for “Dude,” and do you feel like it also was somewhat of a turning point?
I was actually — pretty funny story — I was in the mirror getting ready to go out one night.  I’m a pretty egotistical guy, and I was like, “Damn, I look fresh.”  I was like, “Yo, I look frizzy-fresh.”  I was walking around that night, and when I get drunk I often get parts of songs stuck in my head, so in my head it just popped in somehow.  “I get my frizzy-fresh on, yes I do.”  And I kept saying that over and over throughout the night; I don’t know where it came from.  So after that I went into my homie Miles’s crib — shout out Felix Beats, he produced a ton of my stuff, that’s the homie right there — I went into his crib and I was like, “Yo Miles, I got the hook, man.  Tell me you have a beat that bangs.”  And it worked out perfectly.  I just sat down and wrote those two verses in like 20 to 30 minutes.  Those verse aren’t my most impressive lyrically, but overall, the whole song — because it was so catchy and such a good beat, that’s the song that we decided to make the big single and make the big push for the video.  I definitely think it was sort of a turning point in my career, but I tie that more to the Vindicated mixtape than just the song “Dude.”  After I released Business as Usual I really feel like I had a breakthrough with the music I was making.  I was just in a different place lyrically with my flow.  That’s why I named the mixtape Vindicated because I think trying to be a rapper is the corniest thing in the world.  People are like, “Yo Kam, why are you trying to rap?”  Vindicated was my proof of here’s what I can do in my efforts to try and be a rapper.  It definitely was a turning point, that video and that mixtape.  The video got like 50,000 views in a week.  I’ve been contacted by A&Rs from some of the biggest labels — Universal/Motown hit me up, a guy from Atlantic hit me up.  I’m definitely trying to get recognized for the hard work that I’m putting in.  I’m gonna try to keep working and building on that little buzz that I have now.

What are you thinking about the label situation?  What are you looking for?
They weren’t hitting me up trying to sign me, they were just hitting me up to say, “Yo, we saw your video, we like what you’re doing.”  Like I said, it got 80,000 views in the first month — which isn’t a huge number.  You look at someone like Mac Miller, his videos get a million —

Yeah, but for the hype that you got, 80,000’s pretty big.
Exactly.  They’re saying, “Hey, cool video, keep up the hard work.  We’re gonna keep tabs on you from now on.”  So it’s not even a foot in the door — I guess maybe they’re looking through the peephole in the door, they finally see me.

Which crew would you fuck with?
Here’s my top four, I think, in order: first of all, number one, Roc Nation, no question.  Jay-Z’s the best MC of all time, and you also have J.Cole, who is one of my favorite rappers and another one of my biggest influences.  You also have people like Jay Electronica, he’s the essence of hip-hop if you ask me.

Oh, you a five-percenter now?
I’m not a five-percenter, I’m a very proud Jew.  Number two, I’d probably have to say G.O.O.D. Music.  Kanye’s so amazing; Common’s so amazing; John Legend’s so dope; CyHi the Prince is so dope; Big Sean’s so dope.  Number three, Young Money, because again, I’m a huge Drake fan, a huge Lil Wayne fan.  I’m not the biggest Nicki Minaj fan, but everything she does is getting huge numbers.  And then fourth, I’d have to say Maybach Music, probably.

Oh yeah, man.  I really fuck with Ross, hardbody.

What projects you got coming up?
I’ve got a few different ideas about what I wanna do for my next two or three projects.  I view mixtapes sort of like a checkpoint in video games because it’s your most recent reference point.  If you die in a video game you go back to the last checkpoint, which is sort of like your most recent achievement in the game. Similarly, if someone unfamiliar with my music asks to hear my music, my most recent mixtape is a checkpoint of sorts in that I can show them how much I’ve achieved as a rapper.

Jumped to a conclusion and made a harsh judgment?  Great!  Now, check out Kam Royal’s latest visuals for his song “What a Day.”