Life in the hip-hop underground with Symon G. Seyz

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Hip-hop artist Symon G. Seyz lives not for record sales but for the passion of making music. The 28-year-old rapper is a member of the hip-hop underground – where unsigned musicians find audiences by giving away their own mixtapes on the streets, performing at clubs and private parties, and using Twitter as their de facto booking agents and PR support.

You won’t find the hip-hip underground in the pages of Hip Hop Weekly but on social community Global 14, where many hip-hop artists are connecting with audiences and others like them. In fact, Global 14 is where I met Symon G. Seyz, a resident of Hammond, Indiana, an industrial town just south of Chicago.

In the following interview, Symon G. Seyz, a teacher by day and rapper by night, provides an open assessment of what it’s like to create and share your music in the hip-hip underground. And he has a lot on his mind. He believes hip-hop has an image problem, and he worries that maybe he’s too clean to be cool for hip-hop – or at least what middle-class America wants to hear from the art form.

The musician, who recently released a mixtape entitled Power of Wards (available for free here) with an assist from DJ Dimepiece of WGCI Chicago, calls himself the Tim Tebow of hip-hip: he comes from a middle-class background, was raised in a nurturing home with supportive parents, and he raps about positive experiences, usually about love and relationships. He avoids themes such as drugs and violence. His playful sensuality is evident in songs like “Be With-Out You” or “Across the Room” on his SoundCloud site.

But as he discuses with me, his image as a smooth rapper who dresses immaculately runs counter to the thuggish gangster image that he says many people expect from hip-hip – and he suspects he’s disappointing middle class listeners in that regard. As he says in his interview, “People think, ‘This guy’s dressed in Gucci shoes. He doesn’t look like a gangbanger. His music must suck. I speak correct English. I don’t speak slang.  In hip-hip, you’re better off not talking like you’re smart.”

Consider the following conversation a bulletin from the front-lines of the hip-hop underground, a scene that Spin magazine recently characterized as having “exploded on its own terms, forging a genuine alternative network of interconnected rappers and producers . . . and releasing a staggering amount of compelling music.” (Note: Symon G. Seyz appears February 19 at Bobby McGee’s in Chicago: more information here.)

Do you consider yourself a rapper or hip-hop artist?

I am 90-percent hip-hop and 10 percent rap. I tell my story, my way. I want to create a genre of hip-hip soul. I consider rap to be a jingle. Hip-hip is a symphony. Hip-hop is telling your story your way and not caring. Rap is telling someone else’s story and putting your spin on it. Rappers tell you what you want to hear. In hip-hop, the most successful people have personality.

How would you describe your sound in one sentence?

“Real Rap and B.” I rap, but my sound has an R&B feel to it. And I say real Rap and B because everything I say I’ve either done or seen – nothing in my music is made up.

My melodies are slow and laid back. And I rely on word play. None of my lyrics are simple. I use metaphors that make you think.

I rap like I could have been in the 1980s. I dress sharply in suits. I dance. I want to be like a modern Big Daddy Kane although I think in a way Morris Day and Prince inspired my attention to fashion and style.

Originally I thought I was going to be like Michael Jackson. When I was a child in the early 1990s, I emulated him, including his choreographed steps. Then puberty turned me into a rapper. I write R&B, but I just can’t sing it. I compose all of my own music.

Tell me about the major themes of your work. What inspires you?

My music is all about having a good time. When you listen to me, I want you to feel like you’re hanging out with me, having a good time, and learning about what I’ve been up to for the past few months. When you hear “Across the Room” you hear that theme coming across. “More Than Friends” and “Sex Games” are about the ladies. Women can like these songs because they are about them, but at the same time, I’m not using demeaning language.

I don’t rap about negative things like murder or doing cocaine. I write about things that feel truthful to me. My songs can be self-deprecating, and they are always honest and open. For example, I have dark skin. So in one of my songs I rap about how hard it is to give a hickey to me because my skin’s so dark.

I went to Catholic school. My parents have been married 34 years and have provided for me. I am not ashamed of that.

How did your mixtape Power of Words, Volume 1 come about?

Power of Words came about with the encouragement of DJ Dimepiece of radio station WGCI in Chicago. She’s the female voice who introduces many of the songs on Power of Words.

Last year I was putting together some songs and posting them on SoundCloud. DJ Dimepiece heard me perform at a show in Ohio, and we started staying in contact with each other on Twitter. She’s very hands-on with her Twitter fans. She liked my song “Across the Room” and told me that once I was ready with a body of work, I should call her. So one day I let her know I had a project shaping up, and I asked her to perform some speaking parts I had written. She went into a studio and knocked out some drops.

Power of Words is typical of my mixtapes, which are album-length productions of original music. I don’t cover anyone else’s music. My songs are not little snippets but instead are full-length pieces that you’d expect to hear on a real LP. I make my music fresh because I want to give you an update on my life instead of rehashing a story you heard already.

Across the Room” is a sexy song with some great physical interplay between the narrator and a girl with long hair and legs to match. What’s the story behind this one?

The story told in the song really happened! I was at Bootlegger’s bar at Rush and Division in Chicago one night. I was standing outside tying my shoe, looked up at a woman standing in front of me, and I thought, “Damn, does she have a nice ass!” So we got a nice conversation going, but it was stopped short when the doorkeep admitted her into the bar but made my friends and me stand in line outside. As she went into the bar, she said, “I hope to see you later.” Sure enough, when we finally were admitted to the bar, I saw her across the room and almost dropped my drink.

The encounter happened on a Friday night. On Saturday night my collaborators and I went into a studio, I was listening to some club beats, and suddenly I thought I heard a melody. I started writing the first verse, and the guys in the studio said, “Yeah, you gotta do this.”

Who is your audience?

My audience consists of anyone who loves good music and everyday people who are OK being with themselves and like to have a good time.

The ladies also like my songs.  Women are so turned off to violence; that’s just so not them. My songs are uplifting to women and put them in the mood to be with the guy they’re with. I rap the way girls want their boyfriends to be.

I’ve had guys come up to me and say, ‘Your music sucks, but I gotta listen to it because my girlfriend does.” And I just smile and think, “Found my way into your bedroom, didn’t I?”

I think the audience for hip-hip more broadly speaking is middle class America. Recently I attended a Lil Wayne concert, and I think I was one of maybe five black people sitting in the good seats. The people in the good seats paying serious money were middle-class white people with money.

Lil Wayne raps about gang bangers, but gang bangers are not going to his concert, sitting in the good seats, and buying his stuff. People who buy hip-hip are not running around shooting other people. They are middle class.

I had a similar experience watching Odd Future at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. A black hip-hop group was rapping to a bunch of middle-class whites, including me.

I think a band like Odd Future, which has a hard edge to it, can appeal to anyone who is a metal head. I don’t think it’s an accident that Marilyn Manson and Eminem are friends. I am a big fan of the solo works of Tyler, the Creator – he’s outside the box like me.

What tools do you use to make music?

If you create music, you have to keep up with technology. There are so many apps available now — like Fruity Loops, a program that helps you create beats, and Logic, a recording software. Those kinds of tools make the creation and recording of music more affordable. If there’s a song that I feel good about but cannot find the beat for, I can find a beat on sites like SoundClick, Shadowville, or Rocket Pro.

I get by really well with a pen and paper, too. I am always writing. I carry three note pads and a Blackberry with me constantly to write. I wrote “More Than Friends” on a napkin at a BW3 restaurant based on a conversation I had with a waitress. Three days after the conversation, I had a song. I have about six composition books full of songs I can’t even sing because they are oriented toward R&B.

Ideas come from just living life – 75 percent life experiences, just walking around. I might hear something on the radio and like the concept but decide to do something with it. “Sex Games” is like a song that Trey Songz would do.

The difference is that in his music, he’s trying to make ladies “Say Aah” by pouring champagne into their mouth, which is not sexy to me. I decided to take the same idea of getting a lady to “say aah,” but in a more playful way.

How do you find your audience?

I use both the online and the offline worlds.

I share my music in just a few online destinations so that I can keep track of where my music is going. I like SoundCloud because it’s quick and easy: you can record a song and in 30 seconds, you’ve published it thanks to SoundCloud. And unlike Myspace, people can rate your stuff. I rely on Media Fire to share my mixtape directly with listeners although Media Fire is not just for music.

And I love Global 14, the community that Jermaine Dupri launched in 2011. Everyone on Global 14 has a talent they are trying to share. It’s a networking catalyst. On Global 14, I’ve met comedians, singers, actors, and basically ambitious people trying to make it. I think Jermaine Dupri is a genius: he found a way to bring people to him, something akin to American Idol. And as artists, we not only get exposure but useful input. For example, the Global 14 “Pump It or Dump It” group gives me honest feedback from people all over the world.

I don’t go on to Facebook a whole lot to promote my music, but I go there to share about me. Facebook is where I go to share my brand but not my music. So if you want to add me as a Friend, please do, and give me feedback or questions.

I am a Twitter fiend, too. Please follow me @Symongseyz, and I will definitely follow you back. I live on Twitter – that’s where you can really get to know me and get a quick response. People don’t call me when they need me – they DM me on Twitter. I also use Twitter to follow stars and executives in the industry – artists like Fabolous, who shows personality and even collaborates with fans on Twitter, and executives like Russell Simmons. I want to learn from stars how to use Twitter to interact with people, and I want to connect with industry executives who can help me.

But the way to find out if you can really deliver is through the live performance. Performing is where you find out what you got. Are you someone doing karaoke up there or are you really performing? The show is where you find your fans. I admire Busta Rhymes in that regard. He understands the value of putting on a show.

When I’m in concert, I don’t stand there and grab my crotch and tell you to put your hands in the air. I interact with the crowd like Big Daddy Kane. I sweat. I break in new songs and do them live to see how people respond. After a show, someone might ask, “Where can I download what you just played?” And I’ll answer, “Oh, you like that? I’ll record it tonight, and you can download it tomorrow.”

At a show, I’ll also walk around with a camera and record what people say about me, even “I hated your music.” I love that! You have to have an opinion. If they don’t, then they’re not listening. I’d rather you hate me than not have an opinion. I want to listen to your feedback. If you hit me up on Twitter and say you hate me, just tell me why.

I’ll play anywhere there is a microphone: clubs, private shows, anything. I do bars. I’ve done talent shows. I’m not there to make money. Some people are hesitant to do hip-hop shows because of their association with violence. But I’m into all-ages shows where you can bring your parents and Toys for Tots drives.  If you go to an all-ages show, parents come in to check out the scene to make sure it’s safe. If I see them at my show, I’ll go right up to the parent and say hello.

I have a show coming up February 19 at Bobby McGee’s in Chicago. You can get tickets at So come on out and see for yourself.

Of course, I hand out my mixtapes cut as CDs, too. I hand them out at gas stations, clubs like the House of Blues, anywhere I think potential audiences will be. At clubs, I pass out CDs to people as they exit whatever show they are watching.

I’m going to release an album on iTunes for next year, but first I need to give it away free. I don’t want to be considered a flash in the pan. I need to make my music known first. But I have to be careful how many songs to make available. My mixtapes are meant to be enjoyed like albums. You can’t get a feel for the entire mixtape by downloading just a few songs. The track listing and sequencing is so hard. It’s very important to the entire sound. I might take songs out that don’t work in sequence of what I want to do.

Do you remember the first time you rapped? Where were you at the time — how old were you, and what was the experience like?

I started rapping at age 7. It was always a hobby to me. I thought I was going to be an R&B singer, but as I wrote songs I wanted to sing, I rapped to them. You can blame my whole show business career on my aunts. They would babysit me and keep me occupied by having me dance in front of a camera. I just loved visiting them every weekend and getting in front of a camera.

At the time I was growing into a young performer in the early 1990s, many hip-hop fans were into either N.W.A. or Will Smith. I was neither. I was too young to know what Will Smith was rapping about and I sure wasn’t running around with a gun doing the things N.W.A. was rapping about. I was writing about things that inspired me as a child, like sports. One day, I heard a song by Skee-Lo called “I Wish.” Here’s someone who’s rapping about something as simple as not getting a girlfriend! I thought, “Wow! You can rap about that and get famous?”

At 10 years of age, I realized it does not matter what you rap about so long as it’s good. And when my voice started changing, I knew that I needed to find a way to rap because I could no longer sing. Rap is all about emotion and tempo. Rap is all about attitude. Singing is about soul. You have to feel what you sing, but you can enjoy what you rap. You can become anything you want when you rap – you can disguise feeling a lot more than when you sing. You can become a CEO. A pimp. Anything you want. But not when you sing.

While I was getting into rap, of course I had a second life going to school and getting a career as a second grade teacher. But I put my music second for a while, which bothered me. Eventually I got tired of telling second graders to follow your dream and I wasn’t doing that myself. So I became committed to music.

Your biography on SoundCloud refers to you as the Prettiest Rapper Alive. Where did the title come from?

I don’t wear typical rapper attire. I like fine clothing. Early in my career, as I was about to take the stage to perform my third show, the emcee at the club took one look at my fancy clothing and well maintained appearance, and he said, “Wow, you really rap and look like that? You look like the prettiest rapper alive.”

People underestimate me because of the way I look. One day downtown Chicago, I was sharing some of my CDs, and this one guy on the street looked at the way I was dressed in a sweater and nice scarf, and he asked, “Are you an R&B singer?” I just did not look like what he expected from a rapper. People think, “This guy’s dressed in Gucci shoes. He doesn’t look like a gang banger. His music must suck.”

It’s not just my attire that challenges other people’s popular perceptions of what a rapper is supposed to look like, either.

How do you mean?

My background is not what the hip-hop community expects from a rapper. I’m not gangster. I went to a Catholic high school. And I am from a place, Hammond Indiana, that has a very small hip-hop scene. There is no Kanye West in Indiana. So at times when I’ve participated in underground rap contests, people have asked, “This guy is from Indiana? Come on.”

I also don’t talk the way people expect a rapper to talk. White people expect me to talk like a gangster because I’m a rapper. When they realize I use proper English, they scratch their heads and ask, “What’s wrong with this guy?”

Black people also stereotype me. I might bump into a black guy wearing a Hootie and the Blowfish T-shirt. He finds out I’m a rapper, and the next thing you know he’s dropping N bombs at me. He’s changing the way he talks because of his expectation of me. And I want to say, “Dude, you know how many parties I have been to where I’m the only black person there? I am you.” I speak correct English. I don’t speak slang.  But in hip-hip, you’re better off not talking like you’re smart.

Sometimes I actually feel shunned because I don’t do what is expected of a hip-hip artist. I am the Tim Tebow of rap. I am not a gang banger. It would be a slap in the face to my parents to be like that. You can’t blame a person for who brought him up. I was raised right. I am positive.

How do you feel about hip-hip today?

Hip-hip puzzles me. I love the hip-hip community, but the hip-hip industry is fraudulent.

How is hip-hop fraudulent?

Hip-hip rewards you for being something that you’re not. Look at rapper Jim Jones. He raps about violence and killing in the Bronx, but then you see him on a VH1 reality show living an ordinary life in New Jersey with his girlfriend telling him what to do. Look at Lil Wayne. Many people think of him as a hard-core gangster. But his early career was nothing like what it is now. He changed his image to be a gangster and got rich doing so.

Now, if you are really from the street — if that’s your story like DMX — I respect that. But if you’re from an affluent community like Sherman Oaks, California, and you’re rapping about gang banging, you’re just selling an image. You may sound like a gang banger, but you have more in common with a middle-class person like me. And if you’re fortunate enough to become rich and famous, I know you’re going to send your kids to private school while you keep your gangster image.

Hip-hop artists are stereotyped like black quarterbacks are in the NFL. Black quarterbacks are perceived as great athletes who run fast but struggle to learn the plays. Rappers are perceived as gangsters from the ‘hood. A rapper who is not from the ‘hood lacks something that people want to hear.

But there are bright spots like Drake and J. Cole. J. Cole isn’t ashamed that he went to St. John’s University. He inspires me.

I do understand and appreciate that people are not just buying the music necessarily. They’re buying your image. I don’t think Lady Gaga is a better singer than Christine Aguilera, but Lady Gaga is more popular now because people are buying into Lady Gaga, not just her songs. But I often feel that in hip-hip, you need a gimmick to succeed. I sometimes wonder if I have to start wearing a Batman costume when I rap just to have a gimmick.

An A&R guy from a record company who liked my songs recently contacted me. But as we got to talking to each other, he asked me if I could lie about my age — to tell everyone I’m 23 instead of my real age, which is 28 — and write some catchy club songs, which I don’t write. Is this how it works? You create what someone else wants instead of what I believe in? If that’s not selling your soul, I don’t know what it is.

I need to listen to my own songs and be real to them. When many people first heard my song “Be With-Out You,” they told me the song was negative — I sounded like I was moping. But I kept the song in my mixtape because it was authentically me. And now it’s one of my most popular songs. People love to hear it when I perform.

You mentioned that you don’t want to sound like a thug. And yet in one of your songs, “Fight Club,” you rap about gunplay and violence. What’s the story behind the song?

“Fight Club” is my dis record to all the thugs. In the song, I’m making fun of the stereotypical songs about thugs. That’s why at the beginning of the song, I say, “Put the gun down.” I’m saying, “If you want to fight, put away the guns.” I wrote the song in 15 minutes as a joke. People who rap about getting your balls shot off are in no danger of that actually happening because they have bodyguards.

Since when is being shot cool? In December, a rapper named Slim Dunkin, who no one had ever heard of, was murdered in an Atlanta studio. Now his music is everywhere — as if getting killed is a rite of passage to being a successful rapper.

Isn’t that ridiculous? He’s not alive to enjoy his success.

Look at Gucci Mane. He’s famous for shooting someone in self-defense. Why do people think that’s cool?

People have an expectation that all rappers are going to be like Gucci Mane, Slim Dunkin, and Lil Wayne.

What excites you about hip-hop?

Hip-hip is the purest way for people to share with each other – to learn about each other through music.

Hip-hip is also about expression. Hip-hop is like painting. You can paint a picture of anything you want. Hip-hip is like a musical Facebook profile. Everything you sing about is all about you.

Not everyone can be a superstar in hip-hip, but if you have stories people want to hear, you can make it. You have nobody but yourself to blame for your success or failure with hip-hip.

How do you define success?

Influencing someone’s life. Influencing others is better than going platinum. I want my voice in the background of someone else’s party or the song you play when you propose to your girlfriend.

If money were my measure of success, I’d have quit rapping a long time ago.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on Power of Words, Volume 1.5, which will be a mixtape in between POW, Volume 1 and POW, Volume 2. POW, Volume 1.5 will have some freestyles I created over some beats that I’ve always liked. Volume 1.5 will have some re-mixes of a few songs from Volume 1 plus some exclusive new songs, ending with a preview of POW, Volume 2.

I also have a lot of YouTube content on the way – 50 videos, ranging from interviews to me doing shows.

I have some Beatles and Led Zeppelin samples coming out. We are going to do a full-unplugged album, too.

What does it take to succeed as a hip-hip artist?

Hard work. You can’t just cut a video, put it on YouTube, and wait around to become a star. I have sacrificed everything for music. Every girlfriend I ever had left me because I was recording on her birthday. You can meet women through rap. But rap won’t let you have a relationship.

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