The question ‘What does MN Hip-Hop sound like?’ has been debated for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. So, what’s the answer?
The hell if I know...
However, if anyone can spot a regional sound, it’s globe-trotting MC Populaire, as he sets off on his trek to tackle the Twin Cities rap map.
Cutting through his terrain with heavy-trap beats, a silky-smooth cadence, and a thumping Houston draw, the 31-year-old delivers a unique Southwest flair to MN’s fast-rising Hip-Hop scene.
With his hidden gem EP, ‘Cheap Flights‘ dropping earlier this year, the St. Paul native looks to build off his swirling influence in the Minneapolis music scene, one discount plane ticket at a time…
How did your love of hip-hop manifest before you ever decide you want to make music?
Honestly, it was my Pops. He was a singer in a local band, so music was always a part of my life growing up. Between going to his studio sessions, rehearsals, and being put into a variety of different artists, music was always a huge part of my creative diet. I started inking lyrics when I was 10 years old; and as I got older, music became my most natural form of expression.
What role did music play in your upbringing?
I grew up in St. Paul on the fairgrounds near Como Avenue. I didn't travel much until I was a teenager. Though my dad put me into a lot of great music, one of my biggest hobbies was film. I just love movies altogether. I always loved old-school 80s action so Arnold Schwarzenegger is my guy. Growing up, I always wanted to explore the environments I saw in those films like California, Miami, New York, etc. Wherever I saw in a movie that wasn't my house, I had to fucking go there.
A lot of rappers have gone into acting and filmmaking. Is that something you would explore at any point?
Oh, for sure. My newest project, ‘Cheap Flights’ was actually inspired by the settings of my favorite flicks like Hawaii, California, Vegas, Miami, you name it. Exotic type shit, you know? That way you can attach a visual to my music. Every track has a certain vibe, and I was very intentional in curating a sound that put the listener on the west coast or really just anywhere luxurious or lavish. I definitely feel the director in me come out during my music videos. I really value creative direction. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some professional videographer, but I've probably watched over 2000 movies, so I know a camera trick or two.
At what point would you say that you started to take music seriously?
When I was in high school, I got my first laptop and my little in-home studio. When I was 15, I swiped a little USB microphone from Radioshack. I downloaded a free recording program off YouTube, taped my microphone to this janky aluminum pole, and just started recording like crazy. It was great too because all my homies were following suit, so it pushed me to dive deeper into it myself. But I started taking him more so serious probably like six or seven years later like my mid-20s doing my first few shows and then on and off with this shit man but I had told myself at the age of 25 that I'm giving myself to the age of 30 to get somewhere with music or I'm gonna quit. I'm 31 now, and the energy I've felt over the past two years is unlike any I've felt before. It's more than a feeling.
What's your most obscure influence as an artist?
I get mad inspiration from anyone that lives their life in a way that's true to them no matter what society preaches. Throughout the time, I’ve drawn influence from figures from all walks of life. For example, Malcolm X: He was telling African-Americans essentially, “Don't let anybody punk you” pretty much you know, I'm saying like, Hey, we're gonna do what we need to do. We’re our own people!’. There are just certain people who have that mindset of doing what they want to do. I picked up on that hard. Fast forward to Nipsey Hussle: He jumped from hardcore street hustling into Hip-Hop. He just lived his fucking life. People like that who just do their thing no matter what, those are the influences that energize me the most.
What's one piece of technical advice that you would give your 15-year-old self to level up the quickest?
It's very simple: Do what feels natural. If it doesn't feel like you, scrap it. Music is a vibe, so if you're not feeling it, you can guarantee your listeners won't either. Make what you want to hear!
How do you go from when you first hear the right beat to the finished product?
My favorite thing to do with a hot beat or a track I’m playing with is to hop in my car, drive around, and just start finding the flows as I’m driving. There’s something about being on the road; it's almost like I'm on autopilot. Like I'm not even driving. I just hear the music and I just see the car moving, I hear the hook and I just might start off by humming or just thinking of something to say. Then I'll go word for word after that until I create just the hook and then once I've got the hook then I'm in there now it's just what I'm gonna rap about pertaining to the hook and that's how I write it. I'll brainstorm a whole track riding around all day while I'm at work put the headphones, write bars and try to remember them so later when it's time to hit the studio, I just lay it out like it’s nothing. From there, the song takes on a whole new life because once I hear my voice on that track, now I can add more layers and refine it even more. It's a hella fluid process and I love it.
What’s your ideal creative setup?
I try not to stockpile music, so whenever I’m feeling a beat, I try to get the song out as quickly as possible. There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting a melody or flow because I didn’t take time to write it down in my notes or get it off in the studio. So when I find a beat that I instantly f**k with and just go to the studio while it's fresh on my mind. I feel like in the studio, some people are just in there all day without much of anything to show for it. I don't know if it’s because they can just sit and smoke weed and drink all day like it's like a party, who knows? But for me, I view it as going to work like I’m clocking in once the headphones are on. I don't even smoke like I'll be kicking people out of the studio for smoking. Plus it fucks with my voice. When it comes to finding that perfect creative setup, it’s all about experimenting to find what environment works best for you.
Do you remember your first time performing?
The first time I performed, I think that was cool because I went through this program called Afton where they set you up with a venue and they make it seem like you're the headliner of the show. They give you all the promo gear you know, like flyers, and tickets. It's great branding practice too because you have to sell tickets for your slot and you can sell them at whatever price point you want after you make the money for your slot. I just thought that was dope. I felt like a real artist at that point, selling myself, performing, etc. Plus the company cuts you like a little check afterward. I never actually cashed it though, I kept it as a little milestone for my musical journey.
What was your mindset right before you went onstage?
I was excited for sure. I was too excited because as soon as I started rapping my voice cracked! I had to take myself back like at that moment I was shaking my voice cracking and after that, I was kind of a roller coaster. I was no expert at first, so my stage performance was definitely amateur. I don't even think I looked at anybody, I just looked straight ahead at the back wall. That shit was definitely a confidence builder though. At the time, my confidence probably wasn't so high in terms of performance just cause it was so brand new to me at the time. After that first show though I grew way more comfortable and I've grown addicted to that rush. Performing goes crazy.
How would you describe your aesthetic as an artist?
I feel like I'm a perfect mix of everything that inspires me personally. Lifestyle rappers, storyteller rappers, and I kind of fit in right in between. I just make the shit I like to hear. Sometimes I'll go heavy into flexing and punchlines, while other times I lean more on the conscious side. What's interesting too is that two fans may fuck with the same exact track for completely different reasons. One may like the vibe while the other really resonates with your wordplay. That's the beauty of creating art. You pour your whole vibe into it and people create their own meaning from it.
What was the vision behind your most recent project ‘Cheap Flights’?
Everything I do is just a reflection of me. For instance, I just happen to like traveling so there’s no saving face when I'm booking a flight. I look for cheap flights like I don't care where I'm going, I'm gonna find me a cheap flight. I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth between here in LA. So when COVID first hit, I just started spamming as many cheap flights as I could. Why the fuck not? Go to LA one weekend, Miami the next, shit let's go to New York! It was wild. It got to the point where I would get an idea for a video, and I'd book the flight off of where I wanted to shoot it. It was a luxury like no other. Now I have connections wherever I go now.
What role, if any, do you feel that your travel habits play in your perspective as both an artist and entrepreneur?
If you're waking up doing the same shit every day, taking the same route to work in the same city, going to the gym at the same time, you're gonna see the same shit. Not me. It's the optimal way to network and meet people, not even close. In the music business, you want to rub elbows with as many people as possible. I implement that social tool wherever I go, man. Anytime I'm in a new area, I'm trying to find a local DJ, local blogger, radio station, or just somebody in the music industry. Find a local artist who's popping, reach out to them. All you have to do is try. The worst that can happen is either a no or they just don't hit you back. There's no risk involved. You either win or you learn.
When you think back on all the traveling you've done, are there any experiences that stick out?
Man, I went to Japan a couple of years ago and I damn near wasn't gonna come back. Growing up on shows like Dragonball Z, I’ve always had a thing for Japanese culture. I feel like that's one of the dopest cultures out there. Going there was amazing; the food, the cities, the hustle and bustle of the culture, I just felt like a damn kid. I also had a crazy story in LA where a music homie of mine was in talks with some big-level studio executives, though the circumstances were kinda sketchy. He actually took me to a meeting across the street from Paramount Studios. It was crazy. I got to that point because of music connections and nothing else. There was no other reason why I'm talking to these people. I had to take a moment like even if my boy was getting scammed, I'm literally across the street from where movies are being made at somewhere I never been before so the experience in itself was dope, outside of how legit the opportunity actually was.
Which track from ‘Cheap Flights’ would you recommend to first-time listeners?
‘2 Legit’ is one that I pushed hella hard just because I knew it was the most accessible song for new listeners. It's just one of those tracks where if you play it in the club, the hook comes on, and you feel the vibe right away. That and the way I come down on both verses just works for a party-type vibe. Maybe I'm biased, but it just goes, bro. It’s got the right BPM too, perfect for the club.
What's your unfiltered take on the state of Minnesota Hip-Hop today?
There's a ton of talent for sure, but I feel like some artists don't mix with other artists, they prefer to keep to themselves. And I feel like that's the way you should do it. I feel like you should get on those other tracks with artists and put yourself out there as much as you possibly can. Like why not? But there are definitely some workhouses out there. Is everybody taking it seriously or not? I don't know. But I definitely heard some really unique sounds here in Minneapolis. from him. But yes, getting that exposure is essential, especially when you're trying to make shit shake in the beginning.
Where are you putting your energy for the rest of 2021?
When it comes to my work philosophy, I know a fair amount of people who just skim through an album; but because 'Cheap Flights' is only 20 minutes, I feel like I’ve been able to really hone in on the quality of each individual track to the point where there’s literally zero skips. In other words, it's quality over everything. I’ve also curated a great variety of vibes as well. The project has a perfect mix of chill/smoking, club-jumping bangers, sentimental tracks, etc. Between all the learning I’ve done and the steps I’ve taken as a professional, I’ve never felt more in the zone as an artist.
So, when the Minnesota Hip-Hop Plane is cleared for takeoff, you can count on Populaire to be sitting first class with his headphones and a neck pillow.
Just don’t ask how much he paid for his ticket…
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