Exclusive Interview: Rilgood talks JFK mixtape, Dot Da Genius & New York Hip-Hop

On an overcast Friday, I found my way into the inconspicuous entrance to Williamsburg’s Bowery Studio. A white kid with an Oakland Raiders cap (a producer who goes by RC Bankwell) leads me into the studio, where apparently Raekwon shot a video one week before. It’s a gorgeous, quaint studio, with wooden walls enclosing sound rooms and booths, a corner bar and dim lighting. In comes Rilgood with a black leather jacket over a yellow T-shirt with none other than the 35th president on it. The JFK image not only faces me during the interview, but also graces the cover of Rilgood’s first mixtape aptly titled JFK.

As sound checks from a nearby studio session filter through the studio’s infrastructure, Rilgood discusses his vision, upbringing and his mentor, Dot Da Genius, who oversaw the project while also working on his and Kid Cudi’s WZRD. Here, the story of Rilgood unfolds.

When’s the first time you figured out that you fell in love with hip-hop and the craft of MCing?

Rilgood: I fell in love with it more as a culture. I’m not from here; I was born in Nigeria. I came here when I was 7. My dad dropped me in the heart of Bushwick and the only two kinds of music we listened to was hip-hop and whatever was coming out of the Spanish people’s speakers.

It was like a culture shock and I just liked it. There were two groups that I took to: it was Wu-Tang and Boot Camp Clik. And I took to them for how rugged they were. They were just mad cool with their Tommy Hilfiger…and they ran in a crew. That’s key to creating something that’s gonna withstand time: Before the people pick it up, you got to pretend the people already picked it up by having a lot of people around you. So I bought into it. And then there was a point where I just felt like ‘I can do this.’

What was that catalyst that sparked to transition from listener to performer?

It was the revenge of the nerds, kinda. I was feeling like, ‘When’s the last time a New York rapper really did it?’

Take somebody like Mac Miller. He comes from Pittsburgh. I’ve been to Pittsburgh once. There’s nothing there. Yet, he’s able to package Pittsburgh for the whole world to see. And he had a number one album in the country at one point. New York is great, but it seems like the rappers don’t understand the packaging of New York. I travel a lot. New York is always gonna be the number one city in the world no matter what. But yet, there hasn’t been a rapper than can kinda package it and sell it to the world. The last major rapper that popped from New York was 50 Cent. That was 2003, if you think about it. The only other person close is Nicki Minaj, but she had to go attach herself to a southern brand. There hasn’t been a guy from New York that’s said, ‘I’m this guy from New York doing my thing and I’m gonna take over the world.’ And I will.

So you just released the JFK mixtape. How has the reception been so far?

Oh, it’s been great, man. Honestly, the industry insiders are chasing me now. 2 – I’m getting fans from all over the world, and that’s how you know I’m gonna be that guy for the next five years. I know it because of the fans I got. On top of that, there’s people who picked it up on their own, like LiveMixtapes, I didn’t reach out to them, they put it up and I’m like #3 on their Indie [list].

Why John F. Kennedy?

It would have been cliche to do an Obama mixtape. I wanna pay homage to another great dude who was a thinker and was avant-garde and just had style. And JFK was that guy. He was the first Obama, if you think about it. He was the first [Catholic] president, he was mad young, he was getting mad bitches. He was not like anyone before and he was so young. So I was like ‘that’s how I’m gonna come in the game.’ I’m the chosen one. I’m sure he knew that, too.

Also, JFK is our international airport. A lot of these rappers, they not representing New York correctly. It’s so crazy, if I show you my Twitter and the people that are hitting me up, like Osaka (Japan) and Australia…exactly what I wanted to do is what I did. You have to go through my mixtape, it’s the airport, to what New York really is. I’m making music about New York, from New York, that they’re connecting with all over the world, which is my plan to begin with: global music.

What’s your take on New York hip-hop right now? I heard someone on Twitter say, “New York rappers need to stop using the South’s style.”

What has New York been the last 10 years that you’ve been living here? If I go to a club right now, what songs are they playing? They’re gonna be playing “Racks.” Where’s that from? Atlanta. It’s to a point where the kids – that’s what we grow up to now. Think about it. Since snap music, everything is from the South. And that’s what we have to hear on the radio ourselves. So essentially, that’s what we are too now. Ain’t no way around it. I feel like it’s the people who have lost touch and are not thinkers – that cannot pick that up. It is what it is. If I go to a club right now, I’m not going to be hearing Wu-Tang. I’m gonna be hearing Southern songs in the club. Lil’ Wayne is on the radio 24/7. Toronto – Drake on the radio 24/7.

I feel like in New York the rappers are selfish, man. The guys that have a shot aren’t really trying to paint a picture of what New York fully is, you know what I mean? They wouldn’t necessarily leave that gangsta thing alone because they want that credibility. And that’s being selfish. You’re not giving back to the culture because New York is bigger than that. You’re making a false representation of New York now. I could take you to a place in East New York that is exactly like what these gangsta rappers are talking about, though.

But then all the kids now – are in Soho, designing T-shirts and wearing wood chains. And that’s New York also, and that’s why you have to capture everything. You can’t just be that gangsta rapper because you have that street credibility you’re dying for. You’re only gonna stay local, you’re not going to do anything. Keep it real with New York and the rest of the world will keep it real with you. The world is bigger than that.

On the tape, there’s a few clips of JFK and some clips talk about revolution. Why did you choose to include the reoccurring topic of revolution on the mixtape?

With that, it was more renaissance. We gotta start a revolution over, where it’s cool to make different music. We gotta change New York. We gotta revolutionize and make New York cool again. It’s not cool. The kids are not coming here. They coming to Wiz Khalifa from Pittsburgh, the coming for Kendrick Lamar from Compton…these are the new guys that run hip-hop. New York is not cool and we gotta do something about it. And even outside of music, as a fan I’m passionate about music, but not even as a rapper.

How do you mean?

I don’t go to the studio to do freestyling ‘cause I wanna rap. I’m doing this because I paint a picture, I put the artwork together. I painted a scene behind mine to actually do something to the culture. I more so want to permeate the culture with my ideas and just bring back decency to the world. I’m not passionate about rap. I’m more passionate about changing people’s lives. I am so thoroughly passionate about music as a fan. I listen to more music that most people.

I can tell from the wide range of sampled tracks that you went off of. You used a Lonnie Liston Smith sample (A Garden Of Peace) off of the track “Rules of Engagement” on your mixtape Good Times. On the record you talk about how the record industry will chew you up and spit you out. What sort of relations have you had with the labels so far?

Honestly, I wasn’t referring to me. I was actually thinking about Wale. “Get a co-sign, they’ll pick you/ Flop, they’ll chew you and spit you.” And that’s what happened with Wale at Interscope. Mark Ronson and the whole Roc Nation people supported him. It didn’t too well. And they spat him.

You used Miike Snow’s “Animals,” as well as Passion Pit’s “The Reeling” on the Good Times mixtape. What attracts you to artists with the Indie/Electronica-type sounds?

My lifestyle, really. There’s not much a rapper can tell me these days. I’m not saying that the art form can’t still move me, it’s just that most rappers are stuck in this certain box. So, when I listen to radio, there’s nothing there for me. But when I listen to these guys, they’re so abstract that you can kinda pull certain meanings from your own life that kinda make it relevant. It’s grown man music, because it’s about you. Even though he made it about him.

Like Passion Pit, (singing from “The Reeling”) “It reels and calls me towards it confounding destiny.” It’s my destiny right now. And that song is relevant to what’s going on right now. So that’s what I mean with the abstract way they make their music. The actual production is cool, but on top of that, the poetry and the abstract writing, you can pull your own life out of the music. That’s not really prevalent in hip-hop.

What’s your creative process like?

I write my raps in like 3 minutes. I don’t organize it. And I’ve been getting a lot of hate on the Internet saying, “this nigga flow is wack.” And that’s because I don’t take time. To me, the music matters more. The rap is just what you’re saying. I’m not a perfectionist with raps. It’s about to change though. ‘Cause now I’m getting eyes on me, so I wanna show you that if I take my time, I could be a great rapper. But right now, it was more the music as a whole. The verses are just there to carry the song. But now, I’m getting exposed, I’m like ‘Alright, I’m gonna show ya’ll niggas. I’m gonna take my time with the raps.’

You ever feel like you have to compromise your music or your content to cater to any demographic?

In terms of compromising lyrics, I did, but it came from an organic place. It wasn’t a compromise like ‘oh, this is how I’m gonna pop.’ What happened was – I’m a college graduate. I can really talk about intellectual stuff, my life, the grind and doing this music thing – my life can be mad complex. I don’t wanna have to digest music to the point where I’m deciphering lyrics, so I dumb down. And it’s not dumbing down to gain more fans, but it’s like Bob Marley, one of the greats. He’s one of the simplest lyricists ever, but so powerful. When he said ‘We don’t need … no more trouble,’ that’s so simple, but yet so deeper than a rap talking about hieroglyphics.

I’ll touch a little bit on some more stuff, but I don’t really want your ears all hurting like you getting an ulcer from listening to it. Something cool, not too much, but definitely say something. The kids have to know. That’s how your music becomes timeless – you need substance, because that subject is still gonna be relevant 20 years from now.

How did the relationship with Dot Da Genius come together?

We met through my cousin, OBreeze. He’s on the mixtape as well, he’s on “Metropolis.” He just brought me around and he was like ‘I’m about to start making music.’ And Breeze and Dot’s dad are both pastors. So they be going to church conferences and I guess they had to bring the kids. And I guess they clicked. Breeze told me to come through and Dot was the first dude to develop me, when it took me 3 hours to do a 16. I guess he saw what I could be, without [me] having the skills yet. And Dot was just like, “I’m going to keep recording you, I’m going to develop you.”

Him and Kid Cudi have an album, WZRD that came out yesterday, February 28th. It’s known that this is going to be different for Cudi, it’s going to be more rock ‘n roll inspired. Do you make it an effort or is it more a natural process for you to experiment with different sounds?

It comes natural. There’s a few tracks on JFK that are up-tempo. And a lot of people will think it’s some jiggy shit, or some Flo Rida or Pitbull, trying to be some pop artist… No! Last year, I was on tour with Kevin Saunderson, the founder of black electronic music. Him and his friend brought electronic music to America. Period. This is how authentic this is for me. I listen to this. It’s in my fiber. One of my closest producers, his nephew, Kweku Saunderson, he just hit the charts on Beatport. And he’s like a regular black dude from Nostrand. So we’re not really forcing this at all.

Do you ever feel like there’s a need to tie in your African roots? Like K’naan does or Wale sometimes does?

No, but I will though. Not because I’m African or what I listened to when I was growing up, it’s solely because I love music. I love Amadou & Mariam. I don’t even listen to Nigerian hip-hop. I’m not into that, but I’m so into Amadou & Mariam and they’re from Mali. And Youssou N’Dour. I will do it and I have done it, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m African.

On Twitter, your username is Ril Scott-Heron. What’s your inspiration behind that?

Gil Scott is a legend. And he’s a revolutionary. This was around the time he died, the more he was sampled, the more familiar I got with him. When he died, New York Times had this article about it. I was like, ‘this guy was crazy.’ Drugs, he had bitches in Paris, he was just an ill dude, but at the same time a revolutionary. So that’s just me paying homage to him. That’s just me saluting him and showing that we young rappers study. I probably wouldn’t have this platform if he wasn’t doing the things he was doing. It’s no disrespect, I’m not on his level of revolutionary shit.

Do you ever see yourself progressing to the point where you’re as driven to stir up a revolution?

I plan on it. It’s part of the master plan. And I wanna do it right now.