Hip-hop is an interesting genre, many of those that have come up through the art form do it to get out of a struggle or life situation and use their talents and abilities to make a real name for themselves. Many struggle to find their voice or once they make it, struggle to keep longevity. Yet, as new artists from all genres emerge at the what seems to be the speed of light these days, when talent is raw and brilliant, it is hard to not pay attention, no matter what their backstory may be. For New York rapper ANTHM, his story is one that might be unconventional for a rapper but inspiring nonetheless. Raised around various places by his single mother, before settling in Manhattan, then attending Duke University and coming back to NYC to work on Wall Street, ANTHM saw the cutthroat world of what the financial world has to offer. He has always written for himself and given his music a personal voice, yet, while at Duke, he really began to turn heads. Now, years later, after collaborating with west coast rapper Blu and releasing his EP, Joy & Pain earlier this year, ANTHM is now turning heads in the blogosphere. In an exclusive interview we talked to one of New York's best new emcees who takes inspiration from his life, the world around him and brings the glory days of 90's hip-hop back to life. Take a look at our interview with ANTHM below:
How is your EP coming along?
It’s now complete and released. I’m really happy with the outcome, all of the feedback has been favorable thus far. Joy & Pain is a really important project for me. Aside from it being personal, it’s an artistic departure from the music I’ve released in the past. Much of my relationship with the hip hop blogosphere has been shaped by my prior release, When We Were Kings. So I wanted to make sure that this transition was handled with care.
You use your name ANTHM and spell it without the “E,” why is that?
I used to go by “Anthem” but switched it up to make myself easier to search. I liked the way it looked in all caps so I rocked with that.
How did you adopt the name ANTHM?
I’ve had such a wide range of experiences in my life which that have greatly shaped my ability to relate to different people. I believe it shows in my music. As an artist, what I want for myself is to be able to make music that resonates with a wide audience. ANTHM just clicked. Plus, I’ve gone by the name “Ant” for years because its short for my real name. It stuck.
You have a flow that is very reminiscent of early 90’s rappers, who were some of your influences?
I spent a long time being a rapper before being an artist. What I mean by that is, my earlier years were more about trying to lyrically stunt in my rhyme book. Technical emceeing, if you will. When I was younger, I really looked up to early Eminem (Infinite EP/Slim Shady LP era), Big Pun, and that ilk of technical lyricists. As an artist, I’ve really taken most of my influences from the likes of Kanye and Andre 3000. These two artists are my gold standard on how to create a diverse body of work that shows creative range without losing quality in the process. The end result has been this marriage between a strong brand of lyricism and a progressive sound.
When did you realize you had the skills to do this?
I’ve always written rhymes. Though I was raw, I knew I could rap at a quality level. But I didn’t really know what I could be as an artist until a couple of years ago. It took DG to really spot the potential in me and guide me through the artist development stage. I credit him for A&Ring me, because if I put out some of the content I just made 2-3 years ago, it’s night and day from where I am now. I feel really fortunate to have that type of presence around me, because in this game where the pressure is on to consistently put out content, development feels like an afterthought.
You have worked and toured with Blu, how did your relationship with him come about?
We’ve performed together twice so far. He was a guest during my SXSW set at the 30th Anniversary SOB’s showcase, and we just headlined at SOB’s here in NYC. The working relationship started when I reached out to him for Joy & Pain. I hadn’t worked with any artists at the time, and he’s an artist that I highly respect. I knew right away that “Polaris” would be a special record, and with Blu on it, I felt like I had a unique opportunity to reach a wide audience because of the eclectic production. Since then, we’ve started working toward a collabo EP where he’d be handling the production and appear on a couple of the tracks.
The both of you bring hip-hop back to it’s glory days, do you feel that genre needs more emcee’s like you?
I’m in favor of diversity in hip hop, as long as there as always a lane for lyricists.
What do you think about the current state of hip-hop today?
I hear a lot of people focusing on what’s lacking in hip hop today, but I’m not worried because I feel that quality still exists and can thrive. People still respect thoughtful content when they hear it. If you ask a hip hop lover today, I’m sure they can rattle off a handful of emerging artists that they’re really excited about. Though mainstream rap may feel narrow at times, the culture is alive and well. I look at the game’s embrace for artists like Cole, Lupe and recently Kendrick and feel good about what I want for myself. I think once Joy & Pain catches on, I’ll probably be associated with a broader sound and look forward to the visibility that will come for my work.
You hail from NYC and had a very interesting background, not knowing your father and being raised by your mother from Ethiopia. Does all of this constantly play a role in yourself as an artist that you need to have people know your story?
It’s less so about needing people to know my story and more so a product of making personal music. It’s part of who I am and my music is a direct reflection of that.
Where in NYC did you grow up? How has it influenced you?
I wasn’t born and raised in NYC. I’ve lived all over, but Manhattan is the first place that felt like home. To me Manhattan is not just a city, it’s a mind state. There’s a cosmopolitan feel and a spirit of hustle that exists, and this duality represents both my narrative and music.
You became a sensation when you attended Duke. Was it on campus when you realized you could do more with your talent than just a University wide sensation?
I got some recognition in college for winning freestyle battles. It’s Duke so I can’t front like it was 8 Mile caliber, but I had a lot of fun. I used to hit up other schools in the area and local venues as well. Freesytle battling is all about showmanship and pretty entertaining, so if you eat an emcee, word travels. Beyond that, I wasn’t a recording artist or anything. I always thought I had the capacity to be more, I just didn’t know how it would unfold.
To go from NYC to Duke then back home, the cultural shift must have been major. Did that have an effect on how you look at the world?
I went to HS in VA. The biggest cultural shift was being around wealth. Duke gave me an ill financial aid package, so I never felt like a have-not. But being around such affluence was definitely a change of scenery. For example, one year my roommate’s dad was an owner of the Boston Celtics. It’s just crazy coming from my upbringing to being around people from a different world.
I read in your bio that you accepted a job to work as a Wall Street trader after graduating. Did anything in that field cause you to go back to rhyming?
I came to Wall Street already wanting to pursue music. The job was an opportunity to make great money at a young age and help out at home. Eventually, I decided I wanted to give music a try and made a calculated transition while still working.
As someone that has worked on and off Wall Street, did you take part with the Occupy moment that started in fall 2011?
I didn’t participate, but I understand its purpose. Foreclosure and unemployment has affected my family directly, so working on Wall Street hasn’t disconnected me from the realities of hardship.
You rap about the American Dream. Do you feel it still exists?
People have different interpretations of the American Dream. I mostly associate it with the ambition of being self-made, the fact that you aren’t bound to a life path just because you’re born into one. I do believe it exists. It isn’t as easy as some Disney depiction of rags to riches, but having family that lives abroad gives me an appreciation for the opportunities I’ve gotten by living here.