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A Man Of All Trades: A Conversation With Wale

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Washington D.C. native Wale, born Olubowale Victor Folarin, has a lot on his lightning-quick mind lately. Attention Deficit, his debut album, just dropped on November 10th, and expectations are high. He’s among the new breed of artists whose careers are both augmented and tarnished by internet hype, and he is among the few who are looking to inject some excitement to what many feel has become a suffocated, copycat form of expression. In an article from the October 26th issue of the New Yorker, the in-house pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones tackled the question “Is Hip-Hop Dead?” that has been percolating through blogs, street corners, bars, and record label offices for years. Frere-Jones’ answer is neither a firm “Yes” nor “No,” but he does suggest that a trend in the genre points towards a definitive shift to a more static electronic thump in lieu of the swing that once typified the art form. Wale has been on the rap radar for a few years, partly because he brings that bluesy, soulful swing to the mic by deftly weaving intricate rhyme patterns and nimbly mixing genres and influences while staying true to a sound that defies rote categorization. On an album that’s part D.C. go-go, part R&B, part greasy funk, and part post-pop, he maintains a sound that is unmistakably hip-hop.

Before his national introduction to music fans in 2007, Wale got regular spins on Washington D.C. airwaves with his go-go infused “Dig Dug (Shake It).” A year later, Nick Catchdubs, co-founder of Fools Gold Records, collaborated with Mr. Folarin on a mixtape called “100 Miles & Runnin,'” which showcased his ability to rhyme over a variety of tempos and styles of music: from Camp Lo’s “Glo” to Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” to Lily Allen’s “Smile,” he showcased his unique cadence and energetic wordplay with an unmistakable bravado. Mark Ronson, who executive produced Attention Deficit, signed Wale in early 2007 to Allido records, and the duo has been making waves ever since.

While grabbing a microphone and moving a crowd is the foundation of hip-hop music, today’s artists, especially those who are unproven, are expected to do much more than rhyme. With the substantial decline in record sales in the past five years or so, record companies have looked for artists who have branding potential, not just those who may move units in Best Buy and on iTunes. Wale fits this requirement, as he is not just a hip-hop artist, but also an influential person in the ever-crowded world of street fashion as well. Wale makes frequent reference on his songs to his rare Nikes and smaller, niche-based clothing labels like The Hundreds. On sneaker and lifestyle blogs, Wale is a regular topic of discussion—his kicks and t-shirts are just as important to some in the online community as his music.

It’s no secret that today’s new recording artists are in a sort of e-paradox—on the one hand, their constant exposure through blogs and Tweets stamps their music and image onto the screens of innumerable prospective customers, while on the other hand, the next-big-thing leaves that star-to-be open to loads of unsolicited (and usually unedited) scrutiny. After all, Wale isn’t the only new hip-hop act that has high expectations, and fans become divided as to whose records they will spend money on. Some would argue that during the two years since he signed his deal with Allido, he’s become old news already—even before releasing his first album. The debut album is in no sense a true debut, as he’s released seven mixtapes since 2005, some of which have had original productions made for the compilations just like a traditional album would.

Many fans and music industry people are closely watching how Attention Deficit sells, as Wale is undoubtedly one of the freshest new voices in hip-hop. His verbal and demographic dexterity will likely lead him to eclectic and successful collaborations for years to come, but a great deal of his branding potential depends on the success of this debut. Whether it’s fair or not, Wale’s career is often linked to those of other up-and-comers like Drake, J.Cole, and Kid Cudi (whose debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of Days debuted at #4 on the Billboard charts in September), and he knows that his fans often vacillate between artists like these and the next next-big-thing who will inevitably come along. It’s no easy task to be a rap star in a genre where the expectations are almost impossible to meet, but if anyone is poised to get close, it’s Wale. Freshness caught up with Wale just four days before the album release to talk about naysayers, clothes, his ADD, and whether or not hip-hop can come back to life.


What’s up, Wale? So, Tuesday’s the big day, right?

Definitely. What’s up with you?

I’m good. So, to get it started, there’s been a lot of talk circulating lately about an article by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker that explored a question that seems to come up often nowadays—”Is Hip-Hop Dead?” So what’s your opinion: is hip-hop as we once knew it dead, or is it expanding?

It’s crazy because I think the internet is enabling too many people, who don’t deserve to be published, to have power. There are a lot of sites that have propaganda that kill off a lot of the artists’ fanbases just by being super-opinionated without any reasoning. And people aren’t really buying albums like they used to in this particular genre, whereas in the country music genre people are buying albums and supporting artists like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus.

I heard you on a mixtape track, “The Plan,” which address this subject of internet bloggers’ being opinionated. You said on that track that bloggers set the bar at a “level that’s unattainable,” even for legends like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. Do you feel like that’s something that you’re facing heading into Tuesday when the album releases?

Yeah, I mean, me and all the younger guys won’t ever be able to catch the greats or ever be great because I don’t think people will let us be great. They’re going to keep comparing us—we make completely different music and they still keep comparing us. We have completely different subjects—they are still going to keep comparing us. They are going to keep creating their own new heroes a month later saying “Now he’s the greatest.” First it was me, then it was Cudi, then it was Drake, then it was J. Cole, and then it’s going to be somebody else. They won’t let anyone be great and support whoever’s good. They’ll always be trying to find out who’s the best, and then they’ll be like: “I like J.Cole. I don’t like Drake. I like Cudi. I don’t like J. Cole.”

It does seem like it rotates ridiculously fast. You’re a new artist who hasn’t even dropped an album and it seems as if people even “date” you. The game is different than it was when people were just known for their albums, but it seems like you manage to stay relevant in other ways as well. I was looking through your Tweets right before this interview, and sneakers are important subject for you. You rap about being a member of NikeTalk, so how long have you been checking that site?

About four years. I used to just lurk at one point, then I was doing this music thing and I wanted to introduce myself to people. I was open with who I am on there, but I’ve had a love/hate relationship with NikeTalk. But, at the end of the day, I have love for those people because we share one common interest.

On “Is there any Love,” a bonus track on Kid Cudi’s album, you call yourself “The muse of the haters.” And in the conversation so far, it seems like something that’s something you’re constantly dealing with. So, how do you deal with so-called haters?

I’m just trying to make sense of it in my mind. I really try. Is it something I’m doing? Am I rubbing people the wrong way? My style is not so far left that you either love it or hate it—it’s just hip-hop. It’s just that people hate because they can, because they have a voice to do it. I’m not saying I make that I make the best music in the whole world, but some people go to extremes.

I’ve listened to Attention Deficit, and I was surprised to not hear any uptempo tracks on it. I’ve heard you in the past few years release a Baltimore-club themed track with a Scottie B beat, a verse over M.I.A.’s “Boyz,” and you certainly got a lot of attention when you did a verse on Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” So, were you tempted to put something a little more uptempo like that on the Attention Deficit album?

I definitely want to do some more of those type of tracks later, but on this album, I wanted to do some soul, because that music is just honest to me.

I was fascinated to see that you had Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio produce two songs on the album. What are some other non-hip-hop acts you listen to?

I like a lot of R&B. I like artists like Jazmine Sullivan, Beyonce, Solange, MGMT, JUSTICE, Ne-Yo, and I still listen to a lot of go-go. I also still listen to Jodeci, SWV, and Escape, the 90s R&B.

There’s definitely a strong R&B presence on the album, too. Is that a frame of mind you’re in right now?

Yeah, I just enjoy R&B—it’s the most honest music to me.

I heard a story on Marc Ronson’s show about how you ended up doing a verse on M.I.A.’s “Boyz”. Tell us what happened, it was kind of a dare, right?

Yeah, Jay-Z kind of joked around and said to me, “I should make you rap on that crazy beat. You probably can’t hang.” I just laughed, and the next day I emailed it to him.

So it was just playing in the background?

The video was playing on a flatscreen TV in the office. So he was in the elevator, walking me to the car, and he said he should make me rap on that.

Was Allido records your first deal?

Yeah, Allido signed me, and we started shopping. We went to Diddy, Jay-Z, J.Records, and Jive. The bidding war was crazy at that point.

So how did you decide on Interscope?

They were the label that let me do what I wanted to do and believed in what I was doing. We had a lot of offers, but they understood me.

I heard you say in a recent interview that you’re “not a radio guy.” Explain to our Freshness readers what makes you different than a “radio guy.”

I just haven’t connected with the radio as much as the other guys. I have a lot more fans than some of the people with top albums but I never connected with the radio. Whether it was because my music has too many genres clashing or they didn’t understand go-go or whatever, I just never changed the music to fall into a specific category on the radio. I just made the music that I thought people would want to hear and would enjoy hearing me perform.

The end of your song, “Prescription,” a song I find really interesting, finished the album with a sort of spoken-word statement. It reminds me of an experimental track on an Outkast ablum. What made you want to end the album that way, as a final statement to Attention Deficit?

I think it was the rawest form of expressing myself. I didn’t use tricky rhyme patterns or tricky flows. I’m trying to talk to everybody who sank their teeth into the album and really let themselves become one with the music. I wanted to end it off like that, let everyone know who am, and that this is what I stand for [and tell my listeners] nice to meet you.

Has your own ADD helped you on the album? It seems that you go through a wide range of influences.

It definitely helps. Sometimes my mind shuts down, while other times it goes so fast that I’m sweating.

You reference Supreme on the song called “The Hype” on the Mixtape About Nothing. On the cover of URB magazine, you wore a Supreme crest hoodie and Jordan IVs. Can you tell us the story of what happened after the URB cover when you went in back to the Supreme store?

I don’t need to be acknowledged. I don’t treat myself like a celebrity, and I don’t expect anybody else to. But it was weird. There are some dudes in there that are cool, and there are others who just look at you like they don’t want your money. Everybody knows that they act like they don’t like people. It’s a running joke—it’s like they don’t want anyone’s money. But, the quality of the clothes is so great.

So, in the song, you say that you were right back at the store the next season, even after your experience you just described. What happened when you went back?

They don’t care who I am, and I don’t care either. I just like the clothes. I know a couple of people in there who are cool, and ask me what’s up. But I don’t care, they’re rude to a lot of people, and that’s well-known. My hat goes off to them, though. They’re one of the most consistent brands.

It seems like there’s a lot of “streetwar” nowadays. What are some brands you keep checking for?

I love 10 Deep, obviously, that’s like my family. Obviously, Supreme. BAPE, BBC, they’re like family—me and Pharrell are really close. I like a lot of stuff. Bobby and Ben are my real good friends and I just haven’t been wearing The Hundreds recently because I haven’t had any new stuff from them. But now I’ve been wearing The Hundreds for like 7 days because I’m in LA and I had the opportunity to go there and re-up. I love to support my friends like Emeka and the dudes at 10 Deep, Loic at BBC and Pharrell, Bobby and Ben at the Hundreds and Greg at Mishka, those are my friends. They support me and tell people about my music. That’s what it’s all about. If Greg asked me to wear this jacket on TV because it would do wonders for them, I’d be like “Hell yeah, no problem.” Even sometimes at Mishka, when I go shopping, they tell me it’s on the house, but I’ll pay because I want to support my friends because Mishka is really looking out for me. And the LRG guys, I can’t say enough about them, those are my friends like Jonas and Dan, and Woody and Kevin Delaney . These are my friends, so I want to support them however I can.

So, on the sports side. How long does the Redskins coach have left until he gets fired?

Any day now. I mean, when 10 seconds pass after the last game—he’ll be fired. As soon as that game is finished, he’ll be finished.

Ok, Wale, thanks for your time, and best of luck on the album.

Ok, man. Peace out.

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