Son Kuma on a photo shoot this past June. (Instagram: Iamsonkuma) June 25, 2021.
When you think ‘successful rapper’, I’m guessing 'science geek’ isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
However, for LA-based rapper/producer Son Kuma, it’s that same passion for experimentation that’s catalyzed him into California Hip-Hop’s brightest-burning young supernova.
The formula for the 25 year-old Cali native is simple: To bridge the gap between science and spirituality through music. Come again?
Between nearly 100,000 followers on Spotify and his hit single, ‘Indica’ sitting at just over 4 million plays, Kuma’s swelling inertia as a young MC has only solidified his stance as a centripetal force in the world’s most hyper-competitive music industry.
Kuma’s Spotify Stats for 2020. (Instagram: Iamsonkuma) December 2, 2020.
With a distinct voice, swirling beats, and biting lyricism, it’s no mystery how Kuma’s unique sound has all but hijacked the ‘Discover Weekly’ Gold Medal.
After escaping from the black hole of his past, Kuma’s rising planetary status in today’s Hip-Hop atmosphere has us primed to crack the formula on the era’s most ‘experimental' new artist…
How did your love of music first manifest before you ever decided to make your own?
Growing up as a science lover, I was a huge nerd. But then, in high school, I started smoking weed; so let's just say I branched out from there(laughs). I grew up in LA and then went to Stanford for college; so at Stanford, a lot of the homies who I smoked with all happened to f**k with the same music, so we’d all just freestyle while getting high, it was fun as hell. At the time, I kept my love of music very private, but I was still the best freestyler in our group, so all of my homies pushed me to make a song. At the time, I was like ‘f**k school’; I remember one day, I had a final for one of my classes, and I was just like f**k this; so I found some beats on Youtube and just wrote a song.
How much of a priority was music when you first started making it?
As soon as I started making music, it immediately became way more exciting to me than anything I was doing in school: Studying just wasn’t a priority for me then. Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly in the right mindset at the time; I still didn’t feel comfortable with who I was so I was very much in the ‘f**k school’ mindset. Around that time, I ended up meeting a girl. Without saying too much, it grew quite toxic; really just living a crazy life: a lot of drugs, partying, debauchery, but I was writing music the whole time. I remember my first track I ever released was called ‘White Xans High’. That summer, I made my first project, ‘Origami’. I remember I rented a studio to record it, but the guy claimed he was a Hip-Hop mixer; this man didn’t even know how to use the sub! I remember asking, ‘Where’s the bass?’ He points to this busted speaker like, “Right there…” and I’m like, “The sub’s not even plugged in!”. Let’s just say that situation showed me just how seriously I valued music; it solidified my confidence knowing that even though I was new to music, I had a grip on the fundamentals like, you know, having actual recording equipment...
When you say ‘your life was crazy’, what specifically about your environment contributed to that?
It’s weird because though my life was crazy, I was literally dissociated from the whole experience; I was honestly just trying to avoid being in my body at all times, so I couldn’t really tell you what it felt like; I was taking all sorts of drugs, partying all the time, in a toxic relationship, I even rushed a fraternity; It all culminated though when the girl I was with left me. That was like a gut punch especially due to the fact that around that same time, I also ended up getting suspended from school; it was a true rock bottom moment. That was what really pushed me into the music; I simply had nothing else to do, music was my only true outlet at that point.
How did that ‘rock bottom’ moment influence your drive towards creating music?
That’s when I started writing ‘Indica’. Nothing was good on my first project, ‘Origami’, especially myself; it was my first mixtape, I still really had no idea what I was doing. At that point, I just had to hit the drawing board and start from scratch. I started writing a ton of verses, and those were actually good. I dropped a few new songs under the name ‘Kuma’ and started to gain some real momentum. Anyways, I got suspended, got a new computer, downloaded logic, and started making beats. Throughout that whole year of suspension, I taught myself how to produce, mix, and master; I was used to the idea of learning something from scratch; I think the most important thing you can learn is how to learn.
So what was the plan after you got back to Stanford?
What’s cool is I had dropped Indica literally the week before I went back to school, so I actually had some buzz swarming from different labels, producers, and local venues right as I got back to campus; it was wild. I was supposed to buckle down and finish school, but I kept getting hit up left and right to do shows, even got to open for Glass Animals! I also got back into that previous relationship, because she loved the tape(especially because it was about her). So I rekindled that, which obviously spiraled out pretty quickly, then I got with another girl, let’s just say it was really intense. Between my name growing as an artist, my relationships, and a whole lotta partying, school was the last thing I cared about.
How did the initial hype behind ‘Indica’ impact your creative process going forward?
After ‘Indica’, it felt like everything I made was trash. I got distracted again with a lot of bad influences, but I made another mixtape called ‘Sativa’ right after I left. Each time that I got into a relationship though, it always had a bad ending; music was my tool of coping through that. That was really the year when I realized I love music. Making that mixtape helped me deal with a lot of bulls**t. After I dropped ‘Sativa’, I really committed myself to taking this music sh*t seriously. I left Stanford, dropped everything, and moved back to LA.
Was that decision an immediate relief or was there initial anxiety about the move?
Personally, I was all in. My family however, definitely had their doubts: ‘You only have one year left, why don’t you stay?’ that type of thing. I didn’t care though: Stanford had a really flexible policy where you could pretty much leave and return for classes at any time. Between that and the fact that there were honestly so many influences in my life at the time that were pulling me back to LA, I felt that I needed to take advantage of my buzz: I gotta capitalize! At the time, it really did feel like fate was pulling me and at that point, I just had to trust my intuition.
As an artist who both writes and produces your music, is there one craft that comes more naturally? Songwriting or Producing?
Neither came naturally, honestly; I’ve learned the most through meeting artists and comparing processes because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. For example, one of my homies is a wizard at basslines, whereas I only just got good at it. I’ve learned a ton from other artists, that to me is the best way to learn. Even producing didn’t come easy. Even now when I’m writing, I can’t just pick up a pen and paper and write gold. I tend to freestyle gibberish, and in that gibberish, there’s always one little word or phrase that sticks out; That one random word tends to be important, so it makes for a very interesting, exciting process; It’s all about discovery.
What’s your most obscure influence?
I actually listen to a lot of Japanese rock music, it’s crazy cause they’re willing to put in things like harmonicas, and bagpipes and still make it sound fye.
Did that influence the cover art for ‘Indica’?
So the cover art is actually a Hokusai drawing from an old Japanese artist. I forget his name, but I always f**ked with that particular style; it just perfectly matched my vibe. ‘Kuma’ actually means ‘bear’ in Japanese, so to link Son Kuma with my art, I felt as though the Asian influence made sense. The final touch was done by my homie Noah, who took the painting and tripled it to make it trippy.
Cover Art for Kuma’s Hit EP ‘Indica’ (2017).
What’s a key detail that separates a professional beat from an amateur one?
It really all comes down to the mix and master. I’d say the 808 low-end for sure; how those kicks are hitting relevant to the 808; little details like that. Also, sidechain compression is huge! That and being very careful with EQ, not taking too much out of anything. Be very intentional and subtle with your decisions, so at the very end, all of those small details come together to mesh a ‘professional’ sound.
Is there a trend in Today’s Hip Hop that frustrates you?
Right now, I’d say just the lack of substance; I’m not sure if it’s a trend, but it’s definitely frustrating. These days a lot of people are making music and telling us stuff, but they’re not really teaching us anything. I prefer music that gives me something to parse through, something to dissect. A lot of that is because production quality is objectively higher than it’s ever been, meaning that the other elements, lyrics for instance, are suffering; the meaning becomes somewhat irrelevant. For instance, I’ve heard the bar ‘we were wearing masks before corona’ five times on rap caviar. Like bro, what are you actually telling me? That’s why I f**k with Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean because they create bangers with meaning and substance. I think the best artists of this decade can create art that slaps. A lot of the artists on the jump, only a couple of them in my taste are fye. It’s all about creating an active experience for your listener; and if you can give them a banger with something to think about, that’s the sweet spot that I aim for with my music.
When collaborating with other artists, what’s the most important quality you look for?
To be honest, money(laughs). Being in LA, I’ve met a lot of artists who’ve wanted to collaborate. They always say that collabing is the best part of making music, but I don’t know If I agree...The reason why is because I have a vision, so sometimes it’s a little difficult for me to just throw myself at any opportunity to make music when I’m reality, I’m someone who really values that vision. However, If an artist comes to me with a collaboration, I can see their vision and facilitate that. Just the idea of having someone featured on my songs, my homie Dewitt, aka DaBreezy, is a god-level producer from Atlanta. He's the only person I've worked with and felt comfortable sharing my vision with him. When I’m making my own music, I may have a vision for a popular artist like SZA or Kendrick because I know their vibe, but obviously I’m not quite at the level yet where I can handpick any artist to hop on my song; not yet anyway... But yeah right now it just comes down to meeting people who fit your vibe, like ‘do they f**k with the vision?’ However, when you’re creating with homies, you’re starting from scratch and that process, because of the raw discovery element, I really do enjoy.
In your past collaborations, has the creative chemistry been instant or was it more of a gradual process of arriving on the same page?
In my experience, It’s all been very smooth. For instance, my producer homie Griffin Stoller came to my crib in LA where we busted out an EP in 5 days in my garage. If I know it’s a collab, even on videos too, it’s all about give and take. I’m particularly stringent in the edit because the concept is huge to me. Tracks like ‘Make it Big’ and ‘Dial Tone' were videos where I had a fairly significant say in the final product, but I really do trust the people who I choose to work with to do their thing the same way they trust me to do mine. For videos, the creative process usually starts with us meeting up at the crib, hearing what ideas they have, then we smoke, and the process always naturally unfolds from there. I’m good at taking the backseat when I need to, and taking control when I need to. Self-awareness is key.
Given your success in such a hyper-competitive industry, were there any internal battles that you had to win within yourself?
The key battle I had to overcome was just being comfortable with who I am. A lot of my past issues stemmed from abandonment, and honestly just not being comfortable in my own body. Some advice that I got after sulking about it one day was from an industry veteran who basically just told me, “Figure out who you are, then be 500% of that. Not 100%. 500%”. I don't know what it was, but that realization awoke something within me and literally propelled me to finish the album I’d previously been dragging to finish. It’s not easy, but sometimes it’s as simple as asking the question, “Who am I?”. For me, because I had so many life experiences under my belt, all it took was asking myself the question.
As an artist who's been known to ‘experiment’ from time to time, do you have any opinion on psychedelics?
So I'll start with saying I've never done shrooms, but I’d really like to. With that, I've done a lot of acid and I've had a lot of bad trips. I've actually had more bad trips than good trips. The first trip was horrible because as someone who needs to have control of my body, that’s kind of the caveat when it comes to tripping. I learned a ton from my bad trips though; just about how I perceive the world, how I function in nature, really deep sort of realizations that, even though the trips themselves were unpleasant, I learned a ton from. The good one was great though: I went camping with some homies in Lake Tahoe, I’d just dropped Indica, was heading back to school, and I was really in a great place mentally; just a very open state. So I took this acid, and just vibed like crazy. I remember I was listening to Frank Ocean, and the lyrics from the song ‘Crack Rock’ literally coincided with the way nature was moving, the trees, streams, rocks, etc. Had these rocks I was skipping on the ocean, made poetic comparisons: “Rocks like humans, have all these different sides”(laughs); Everything just made sense. Acid really helps you make connections that you wouldn’t normally make while sober. All in all, I’d say that I’d never push anyone to try psychedelics, but I’d absolutely suggest that if you’re curious about what exactly they do, you’ll be amazed with what they can show you. Again, that’s just my perspective; I know what they’ve done for me. Also, it didn’t necessarily involve psychedelics, but making my track ‘Wavy’ was a crazy experience involving ‘certain influences’...
What was the story behind ‘Wavy’?
So that was actually on Ketamine, which is a type of horse tranquilizer. My friend told me there were no bad effects, and that it wears off like right away. I’m like “Nah, that's sketch, I don’t believe you”...So I ended up trying it(laughs). It was honestly really cool, everything was just kinda wavy. I actually took a few home with me, went to my studio, and I had three lines on me: No joke, I made a song for every line I did. I remember being in my garage, I had the beat ready to go, the beat went, and I recorded the song, ‘Wavy’. The intro was me literally not realizing what my actual voice sounded like. Also, I did DMT for the first time a few days ago: it was something else. I'm not sure how much I did, but it’s weird because it’s called ‘the spirit molecule’, and I’m a science dude, so it piqued my interest. I’m fascinated that they’ve got all these names, and ‘the spirit molecule’ is what they settled on. I got close, but I didn’t break through. I actually have a song called ‘Cosmic Introvert’ on the new album about getting so high that I feel above the earth, but because it’s such a long way down I might as well just float off into space. Only problem is, at the time of recording the song, I hadn’t actually taken DMT yet. But I was like ‘I have to do DMT so when people ask about the song, I can say it’s about DMT!’(laughs).
How would you say your current lifestyle compares to the glamorized ideal of an LA creative?
My life’s honestly pretty normal. The glamorous LA party life is really just about having disposable income. There’s really not a ton to do here for me other than create. I f**k with the Sun and the waves though; I feel like the glamour of Los Angeles lies more in nature than anything else.
Are there certain topics that you feel compelled to write about or is it more whatever you’re feeling that day in the studio?
Though it’s usually whatever I’m in the mood for at the moment, at the end of the day, I really do have a vision for how I want the world to be and have a vision for how I think humanity should be. Of course my vision to me sounds amazing and moral, but to someone else it might sound crazy like, ‘Why do you want to change the world? Why do you want to dictate how the world is?’ To that I say, ‘You're right, maybe it is kind of dark when you put it that way.’ But what I’ve found that’s so crucial to my beliefs though is the fact that, at the end of the day, all of us have this light and dark within us, and everything can look different based on what kind of light it's under, right? You'll hear these ideas start to bleed more into my music from now on; I'll be pushing for that vision. I'm pushing towards how I want the world to look because I’ve figured out that the best way to go about persuading others is to just let people make their own decisions. They’ve got all their options, but if your option is the best option, they'll pick it.
What’s your vision 5 years from now?
So first, I’m actually going back to school this fall to finish my degree in physics! I decided I don't really like computer science, to be honest, like computer science is cool and all but I mean it's kind of the major we can easily get a job and secure an income; that’s honestly what enticed me to do it, because I've had internships in computer science and I hated it. But physics, I f***ing love physics! It's just so deep and profound, and there’s actually a lot of philosophy involved in it. So yeah, I'm getting my physics degree this fall!
Thank you! The reason I say that though is because it relates directly to where I see myself in five years: In five years, I'll have my master's in physics and I'll have my second album out. My whole vision actually starts with this first album, ‘Good For Life’. I'm going to use this album to build a diehard fan base; and because they'll f**k with this new project so much, they'll be like, ‘No one else is making music like this, I need the next Son Kuma’. So by then everyone will be ready, I'll drop another classic on them. That next album will be so damn good that it’s going to launch me into the mainstream. However, I'm not going to be a mainstream artist, because I'm not going to do a lot of the mainstream stuff.
Do you ever see yourself signing with a major label?
I'm not going to say I'll never sign, but my vision has always been to build an independent empire where I'm doing my own thing yet I also have a large influence that's unpolluted by any sort of corporate entity. That way I can get the world to reach my vision and by then, my master's in physics will give me the credibility to break down the concepts I’ll be pushing in my music; because in the future I'm going to include a lot of physics in my music. You'll hear it in my album. There's a lot of physics in there, you probably already heard it if you've heard my ‘Sativa’ mixtape. I've already started to do it and anytime I do it, I'm not going to give you a song with physics theories, I'm going to craftily incorporate physics into my tracks, talking about how physics applies to everyday life. Because that is everyday life and I'm going to get regular people to understand physics concepts and to apply them both physically and metaphysically to their life: I’ll continue making music that pushes people in the direction of realizing that we need to put more money into physics and science! In my opinion, this is where we need to push humanity; and I'm going to convince them through the music; I'm going to merge science and spirituality as well, because I see a sort of war going on between science and spirituality. My ultimate vision is to merge the gap between the spiritual and scientific communities so they each finally realize the innate synergy of their supposedly ‘separate’ fields; people finally waking up to their connection really is the next step in our evolution as a species.
What would you say to someone who insists that physics and spirituality are separate?
I would say that you’re simply limiting your description of the universe. If you want to be closed minded, fine; but that’s not me. The more I learn, the more I’m fascinated by how little I actually know. At the end of the day, science is mind blowing. First of all, we don't understand a lot of science, and so we use a lot of spirituality to describe things we don't understand. So when you find things you don't understand in science, but then you have spiritual concepts that describe them right, you can claim that, even though they describe them they don't describe them scientifically, that's fine. It’s really just two routes to the same conclusion; Science is focused on the ‘How?’ while spirituality focuses on the ‘Why?”; but it’s the same curiosity, the only difference is how you’re phrasing the question! The thing is, science has such a framework that only certain things can be described scientifically. You can't describe everything scientifically. It's under such a framework like that. So you're already limiting your description of the universe. That's what I would say: no matter what, stay open minded. The most important thing to know is that you don’t.
What was your vision for the cover art on Good for Life?
The cover art is really expressing the balance between light and dark; and the best way to do that is the most universal image that humans have: The moon and the sun. The sun is also viewed as the representation of the soul, especially in America and Western society, you see it all over the place; and so I've always seen it so much so that it meant nothing to me for the longest time. However, one day when I was visiting my grandma who's huge into nature and spirituality, she broke it down for me in a way that resonated really strongly for whatever reason; it really took me returning to my family roots to reconnect with myself; it was that type of rekindling of my true nature that inspired the cover art for sure.
Any skill set in particular that you're excited to showcase with this newest Album?
In terms of craft, let's say for ‘Indica’, I was at a 4 out of 10(10 being my maximum potential). For ‘Sativa’, I think I got to like a 6. With this project, I’m at an 8.5. I've shown it to my close friends and they've all said that it's levels up from my previous work. To answer your question, everything is better than mixes are better, the production is better, and I'm just so damn excited for you guys to hear these beats because a lot of them I actually just made by myself, which I haven't done since ‘Indica’; and though I’m still proud of ‘Indica’, the beats weren't really that complex. These beats are actual fire. I actually snapped and I think I made some of the best beats on the project. Simply put, this is the best I’ve ever been at my craft, and this newest album reflects that.
If you were to give a mission statement for good for life, what would it be?
To embrace the wave nature of life. That's the best way: to embrace it, especially because when you embrace it, it's like you're good with it. Why resist the life you’ve been given? It’s all about accepting the universe the same way the universe accepted you. Simply understand that life is a wave: there's highs and lows and you can’t truly appreciate any of it without embracing all of it; become good with it: Good for Life.
From one side of the Hip-Hop ocean to another, we here at WaterWaveTV know a rising tsunami when we see one…
‘Good For Life’ is available now on all streaming platforms.
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