SunN.Y.: Soul of A Hustler
Interviewer: Alex Fruchter
Perhaps the most popular part of BET’s “106 and Park” is the Freestyle Friday segment of the show. Each week emcees battle each other in hopes that someone may take notice and their dreams of rap stardom may be realized. Such is the case for seven time Freestyle Friday champ SunN.Y. The Rochester, N.Y. native held the spot down for seven weeks, walked away as a grand champion, and received a deal from Jermaine Dupri, the head of Virgin Records’ Urban Music division. Now the freestyle champ is putting the finishing touches on his debut album, Overnight Celebrity. Already a name in Atlanta, thanks to his appearances on 107.9, SunN.Y. is ready to make a splash nation-wide. As evident in his music, the 23 year-old emcee sees making music as his calling, his purpose in life. Read the exclusive SoundSlam interview in which he discusses his early rap experiences, the temptations of street life, as well as the making of his album. When you’re done, you’ll see why he’s probably right.
SoundSlam: I’ll just jump into the interview with a quote from you, “ I ain’t chase rap, it was sent to me on the strength, God gave a gift to me.” When did you first realize that?
SunN.Y.: When I was like seven years old. I started out seven years old. My [friends] used to all hang around the hood as kids, beat boxing and shit. That’s when I started freestyling.
SoundSlam: When did you start to think that this was something more, something that’s meant to be?
SunN.Y.:…I did my first talent show when I was like 12. At that talent show this producer named Dorian came up to me and my man and was like, “yo, ya’ll ever been to the studio?” We was like, ‘nah.’ Even when I did that show, I didn’t have no written rap. We played an instrumental and I ran out there and started freestyling. That dude Dorian was the first person to ever come to me and be like, ‘yo, you’re going to be in the studio.’ That right there made me say to myself, ‘maybe I should take it more serious.’ But, I didn’t take it more serious even at the age of twelve. I didn’t start taking it serious till when I first came to Atlanta in 2002. I had went to an open mic at this place called Cream. And I had rocked with a live band and all that. When I got finished it was like so-called, or whatever you want to call them, mad industry people coming to me and asking me who was I signed to, if I had a manager, lawyer? Those types of questions. When I saw people really taking an interest in it to a serious aspect, a serious level, that’s what made me take it more serious like, ‘Maybe I am bullshitting.’ Even then I still went back home to N.Y. back to Rochester.
SoundSlam: Can you compare the Atlanta Hip Hop scene to the New York’s Hip Hop scene?
SunN.Y.: To keep it real man, the Atlanta Hip Hop scene, I don’t too much about the New York City Hip Hop scene. I’m from Rochester, New York, upstate. I never really indulged in the New York Hip Hop. I never went to New York, as you said in that quote, ‘I ain’t chase rap. It was sent to me….’ The Atlanta Hip Hop scene, it’s actually real cultural. I guess that’s a city where the underground, people don’t really expect it to have a Hip Hop scene being that crunk music and stuff like that comes from there….But it actually do have an ill underground scene. I was just in Chicago yesterday….I went to Subterrean last night, and that underground Hip Hop scene they have there, it reminded me just like being in Atlanta. I was feeling it. Atlanta is like the New York down south. It’s like a city. It’s not country.
Soundslam: You list some of your influences as Jay-Z, Nas, the Beastie Boys, and Eazy E. What stands out about those artists that makes you count them as your influences?
SunN.Y.: Nas’ Illmatic influenced me to write my first rap. I was listening to ‘New York State of Mind.’ I started writing raps writing Nas’ parts. Illmatic, ‘New York State of Mind,’ he was saying so much s**t that I started writing down all his lyrics just so I could read. That evolved into me writing raps….Jay-Z, Jay-Z influenced me just because from a fans’ perspective I’ve really seen his career go far, [from] Jay-Z the n***a on the boat, to Jay-Z the president over at Def Jam. Not to say me and him have similarities, but just to say the typical story of a young black man growing up in the hood it relates to hood stories no matter who you ask. Your mom’s at home, by the time you get old enough you start to establish things in the street picking up. ‘Boyz in the hood sell anything for profit.’ Jay-Z’s influence came from just seeing a lot of myself in him. Plus when he dropped ‘In My Life Time,’ the song, people were in middle school or high school. They were like, ‘there’s this n***a out named Jay-Z that sounds just like you.’ I had a little tape out or whatever. That was the craziest thing growing up. When he was at his beginning point when nobody really knew about him, I watched Jay-Z through the whole s**t…. Beastie Boys, they just inspired me by the fact that back when I was growing up as a kid, ‘Fight For Your Right To Party’ was any kid’s anthem against society. Beastie Boys, they gave me the right to create different s**t and be open, get outside the box, and say what you want.
SoundSlam: When I was listening to ‘Soul of A Hustler,’ I thought of ‘One Mic.’ I was wondering if that went into your mind at all?
SunN.Y.: You’re the first person to say that, that it reminded you of ‘One Mic.’ Usually I hear Jay-Z s**t.
SoundSlam: It really does. The way your voice builds too in the song, the whole vibe of that song.
SunN.Y.: Now that I think about it, it does have similarities to ‘One Mic.’ ‘One Mic’ didn’t pass through my head. When I did that song I wasn’t really thinking about it. We went to the studio, we loaded up the beat in protools, and I just went in the booth and two-tracked it. I ain’t write that or nothing. That was a straight one-take shot. That’s why if you listen to it now that’s it’s mastered you can hear that noise in the background a little bit like shhhhhh. That extra shhhh’s not being compressed or whatever. Man, ‘One Mic,’ you kind of left me speechless with that one. All I can say is thank you. I feel like it’s possible.
SoundSlam: And you have no chorus in that. I was going to ask if that’s just how it flowed out but I guess you just kind of answered that.
SunN.Y.: It was supposed to have a chorus. But I got so caught up in the song once I went in there. I forgot what the hook was going to be. One thing about me and beats, I don’t know but when I go to record a track I can time the 16’s and the hooks without having to listen to the beat and find it. You can kind of feel where you got to stop and go. With that song, I meant to put the hook in there. I was even going to go back and put the hook in after I recorded it. But emotionally I got drawn into myself and I just had to let it out. When I first did it I was like, ‘damn, I don’t know if I want that,’ like that s**t about my mom making me pay. Because I know someday my mother’s going to hear it. And that song made her cry a couple times. I like listening to it because growing up you start hanging with your friends in the street they become your family. You know your mother, but she’s not knowing you, and you start straying away from her. That song kind of told her a lot of stuff about me that she didn’t know.
SoundSlam: You have a line in there where people are telling you that you have a talent in rap and you’re like, ‘are you kidding? Do you see those fiends right there? I could make money-
SunN.Y.: ‘I could get dough, are you crazy? You see those fiends right there?’
SoundSlam: Why is it so hard for even successful rappers to leave the street alone?
SunN.Y.: Because first of all, it’s a long shot. People say the easy part is getting a deal. Some people might have to live in Atlanta for five years trying to get a deal. Compared to me getting one in one year, which does prove that. But that’s not true for everybody. I guess it’s just when you’re hustling and running the streets there’s no authority. Nobody’s telling you to do anything. You’re your own boss. Even now that I’m in the rap game I have obligations to do things. I got a career. I got a job. My first taste of Atlanta was in 2000. I tried to stay down there for good. I only did it for like 6 months because I didn’t know anything about it. I ran through mad money. It sent me back to Rochester, back to 819. I can’t speak for everybody but I know Rochester has a bad problem. It’s a small town. The access to get product and to move it is so easy. It’s people that work at places in Rochester that hustle because of the fact there’s people at their job that gotta have it. I think it’s just kind of being young and stupid and at the same time the actual drive of money. That’s for anybody. Especially if you grow up listening to Hip Hop and you love to live the life of Hip Hop, which could drive somebody to hustle just to get bass because bass costs $200 and they know that’s the latest trend in Hip Hop. The fastest way to get it is to sell something. That’s why I got a song called ‘the State of Hip Hop.’ Now that I’m older I do see the way Hip Hop influences life in the community. I know n***as that shot n***as just because of a CD. I see them get high, drinking, and all they play the whole time is ‘Back Down’ or listening to Get Rich or Die Trying….
SoundSlam: I teach 2nd grade in Chicago and I see kids they all listen to Lil Jon and want to be like that….
SunN.Y.: You can see how much music influences them. And in a way that’s sad. At the end of the day TV and radio, they project a certain genre of the music. You don’t see them project KRS-ONE or [other Hip Hop artists] that could actually change the community. Imagine if Common Sense sold 8 million records, how many people he might change. Compared to 50 selling 8 million records, and the s**t he’s talking about. It ain’t like it’s improving s**t.
SoundSlam: Talking about your album, you have ‘Soul of a Hustler,’ and then you have a song like ‘Introduction.’ You’re going to be able to reach a wider audience from kids that would just listen to songs like ‘Soul of a Hustler,’ to people who might listen to more clubby songs. Do you think you’ll surprise some people with your versatility?
SunN.Y.: You heard ‘Introduction?’ I guess now that I’m an artist in the game I guess that’s one of the fears I do got, not being able to reach a wide audience due to the content of my album. When I was going into the studio to make my album JD asked me to give him a list of producers that I would like to work with. The other people around me were like, ‘in order to reach them you got to have the club. You got to bring in the club.’ And don’t get me wrong, they’re right. A lot of people go to the club. There’s a club in every city, every town. If you got a hot club song a lot of people are hearing you that probably don’t listen to the radio or don’t watch videos but they do go out and hear good music. You know what I say? I ain’t never heard Eminem’s s**t in the club. And Eminem’s a battle rapper who made hot albums and sold millions. He never had a club record, he’s made some of the hottest s**t I ever heard. At the end of the day, there’s an audience for that. With my album, Overnight Celebrity, it’s the title of my album but ‘Introduction,’ when you hear the album, it don’t even fit no more. ‘Introduction’ was one of the first songs recorded and we put the single out. After that we started putting the album together and me and [the producer] just kept collaborating on other s**t. I’d come over confident and I’d have a beat and I’d be like, ‘how this sound right here?’ And he be like, ‘yeah, knock it out.’ My album should reach the wide audience.
SoundSlam: Do you have any collaborations on it?
SunN.Y.: Naw, I ain’t got no other rappers on my album at all.
SoundSlam: Ok, that’s something that’s not that widespread in Hip Hop nowadays. Why did you choose to go that route?
SunN.Y.: Because I’m a fan before I’m an artist. I pick up albums, I look at new artist’s albums and be like, ‘this motherf***er don’t know this n***a. These two rappers never hung with each other, he ain’t never been to the West Coast probably.’ So how could you really make a song with somebody? And another thing, I reached out to Nas for my album because I had a song called ‘Same Corner’ that I believe Nas would have complimented real good just because of the type of emcee he is. But of course it didn’t happen….They asked me, ‘do you want any collabos?’ At first I’m like, ‘yeah.’ Because I’m like, ‘n***as know me.’ I’m thinking local minded for Rochester like n***as at home will be like, ‘this n***a got a song with Game and boom, boom, boom.’ But then I heard Nas say, ‘my first album didn’t feature no guest appearances.’ That meant a lot to me. I held 106 & Park down for seven weeks by myself. I went to the studio and recorded my album with no help, just JD’s guidance. I think the real Hip Hop fans and the people that watch 106 period would respect to see my album solo more or less than walk in the store and be like, ‘ooooh, he got a song with Game. I gotta get it.’ Ain’t nobody about to buy my album just hear a 16 from a n***a that’s already established. I’m not hating against nobody or nothing. I do believe in that but I don’t. Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life Vol III, that had so many guest appearances on it, it was like a collaboration album. That was one of his best sellers. He sold like five million. Did he sell five million because it was Hov? Or because X was on it, the Lox was on it, Foxy? I want to know at the end of the day all the credit, a majority of it go to me. I got producers on it. I got Chad West from Philly, of course JD. JD and the Track Boyz are the only two so to say Hollywood names on my album.
SoundSlam: Has working with Jermaine Dupri influenced your approach to music at all?
SunN.Y.: Yeah it did. Because I wasn’t working with Jermaine my approach probably would have been, let’s do some club bangers and this that and the third. But see how I was working with the R&B producer king, the n***a known for making smashes, known for having songs in the club and all that. To work with him and for him not to come at me like that, it gave me a sigh of relief. I love making party and club records. I got some that ain’t on the album because of the direction the album went in. He did change me. If it wasn’t for JD my album would probably be on some bulls**t.
SoundSlam: It’s coming out in September right?
SunN.Y.: September 13th, Overnight Celebrity.
SoundSlam: Are you going to be on tour with this album?
SunN.Y.: Yeah. I’m on my radio promotional tour right now….That’s another thing, my album doesn’t come out till September 13th and it’s July and I’m doing mad promotional stuff. I still got August. Hopefully when this is done I get to go back to these cities and do shows at clubs and underground Hip Hop spots. Every city I went to, if I went to a club and if I was able to grab the mic and do something or perform ‘Introduction’ I have done it. I hope to go back and get this band from Rochester named Black August, they’re in high school, I want them to tour with me. I like to perform with a live band instead of just having a replay machine and have my s**t on CD.
Note: The release date of Overnight Celebrity has been changed to 11/22/05.