This Saturday, Iowa City hip-hop artist, Romulan will open for Shabazz Palaces at The Mill. In preparation for that show, he answered some questions for us about his experiences in the Bay Area, Iowa, and where he finds his inspiration.
Hey Erik, thank you for taking some time to answer some questions for DSM shows. How is life? What have you been focusing on lately?
Life is good. I’ve been focusing a lot of balancing all the different parts in my life to achieve the perfect combination of accomplishing what I want (in music and school) and having the time to enjoy the sometime overlooked parts of my life (spending time with my girl, my family, and traveling) as much as I want. Thank god for rap music letting me express myself and pushing me to succeed.
AWTHNTKTS played GDP here in Des Moines, what was that like for you?
GDP was a blast, huge thank-yous go to Angela for bringing us out there, Christopher Ford for the warm welcome, Pretty Girl Hate Machine and DEFT for making us feel at home up there, and all my people in Des Moines that came out. Also, a special shout-out to Chad Taylor for not being there.
As an avid concertgoer, I’m often guilty of lying back, sticking to the bar and talking to friends. How do you approach an inattentive audience?
Honestly Bruce, I’ve been the guy at the bar a million times too. To be frank I just love kicking it, having a drink, and watching an artist do their thing from afar. But I can also tell you this, if you see me front row, that’s because I feel compelled to be there. The artist on stage has captivated me with his energy and crowd interaction and I simply need to be closer to get the full experience. The AWTHNTKTS always want to achieve this scenario.
Often times, and no offense to anybody out there, but I approach the situation as if maybe acts that played before us were not worth being front row. Maybe they didn’t demand that attention, I intend to change that. Bottom line, I owe it to myself to give it my all on stage whether its to three die hard fans, 200 inattentive slouches or 700 screaming fans in the audience. You can take every one of your lackluster crowds and charge it to the game. It’s something we’ve all dealt with.
Tell us about ION, johndope, DJ Johnny Sixx, and Clarence Johnson. What is it like collaborating with them in AWTHNTKTS?
It’s kind of like Survivor. Take the 5 most unlikely people to match up, watch them go through hardship and slowly develop into the most tight knit group of human beings you’ve ever seen, fueled by the task they seek to accomplish, making banging ass rap music.
What made you want to make music? Is that initial passion still present?
I am a quiet and implosive person with what I consider a valuable perspective and unique experience, and I want my fans to relate to my life, that is what defines good music in my opinion. I get to articulate this and express myself on the most grand of all canvases, the stage.
I know you as a skateboarder as well as an MC. How do those two things compliment each other? Does one take precedent over the other?
Well, skateboarding certainly predates my rap career, but at this point in my life I would say I take MC’ing more seriously than skateboarding. That being said, I would never live in a world where I had to choose just one! It’s so important to have a passion outside of a passion, so to speak. When I have a bad day skating I know I have music to work on and shows to prepare for. When I have writer’s block for weeks and I’m fed up with music, I go to the skatepark. They compliment each other in an awesome way. At the end of the day, I just want to have fun with them, both feed my soul and that’s what is most important. Although I do grind my ass off in both of those hustles (pun very much intended), so I won’t be angry if I end up getting famous!
You spent some time out in the Bay Area, right? What made you come back to Iowa?
The bay area was an incredibly inspiring and beautiful place. One of the first people I saw on the BART was Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and Soulside. I was constantly freestyling with emcees I respected, and it pushed me to become a better rapper and gave me the perseverance I needed. You have to make yourself present in Oakland if you want to be respected, even just walking on the street. If you look weak, you are weak and you’ll definitely get picked on at some point.
I think about rapping the same way nowadays. I credit large parts of who I am to the way Oakland shaped me and pushed me to rap about real life and work so hard. I would get up in the morning at six, skate a mile to the BART station, get off in SF, skate a mile through the city and walk into the restaurant by 7:45 am. I would then wash dishes for 8-10 hours, make the same trek home, go to sleep and repeat.
I also credit large parts of who I am to a producer I worked with out there, by the name of Josiah Fields. All my time spent off work and off my board was at his crib in Montclaire making my first rap album, entitled drifter, that sadly never came out. Josiah and Johndope are the two people I credit for showing me the tricks to the trade, and I’ll never forget how important Josiah was in that process.
I came back to Iowa City to establish myself as an artist, my boys ION and JOHNDOPE were killing it already and I figured why try so hard to succeed in the Bay Area against artists like Aesop Rock, Gift of Gab, and Charlie Tuna when I don’t have any experience with shows, no accessories, and no recorded material I felt appropriately represented my talent. So, I came back home.
Iowa City has quite the reputation around the country and in Iowa. Do you enjoy living there? What is it that keeps you there?
Iowa city does not actually maintain the reputation you speak of. The University of Iowa and the shenanigans where in, actually own that reputation. I’m here because the people that I love and the people that inspire me are here. It’s ground zero for me. I’m here to establish myself as an artist until the opportunity arises to make it somewhere else, likely “going going back back to Cali Cali.”
Talk about Sick Day. What did you hope to accomplish with the album? How do you feel about the final product?
I wanted, I needed a project out!! A project that I was proud of. A project that would live forever. I wrote and recorded two full records that were never released before this album.
The process went a little like this: I started by wanting to get all my old bangers out, that feeling where you need to share your work with the world before it dies and you move on. I would say three days a week, over the next seven months, I would get off work and go to ION’s crib to record. One: because he is a sound engineer and two: because he’s the only person patient enough to record an entire record for me because I’m neurotic as all hell.
Basically, once I had started trying to record my old material I realized it wasn’t coming out genuinely because I wasn’t presently behind what I was saying in my lyrics, this pushed me to write totally fresh tracks for this record. By the time the album was done there was only one old song on it called “Read Between the Lines.” You could say it’s my anthem, my fans’ favorite song and the most important song I’ve ever written.
I feel amazing about the album, and I know I put out a timeless project. It was also a learning experience. I know which spots on the album are weak and I know which spots are strong. It’s a relatable album if you have the aspiration to succeed in your true passion and you know the feeling of working on that for years and years just to achieve art that you are proud of. I feel that it was the first step in getting my life story out and that feels amazing.
Where is AWTHNTKTS headed now? What albums or events are you working on?
We’re attempting to take a breather from doing so many shows to put an album together and give each other time to focus on solo material. We’ve love throwing down in our home state but it’s time to look towards touring. I’m currently working on my second album with Clarence Johnson.
The past two years have been big for everyone involved with AWTHNTKTS, did you ever imagine yourself opening up for high caliber acts like Sage Francis, Grayskul, and Freddie Gibbs?
From when I started writing music at 17, the learning curve has been steep and unexpected. I was first influenced when I started listing to Aesop Rock, MF Doom, Count Bass D, Ceschi Ramos, and a handful of other underground rappers that open my eyes to real lyricism. This, in conjunction with watching my best friend (ION) start making beats and raps and performing them live, gave me the push to start making music for myself.
Besides, I’d been a drummer my whole life and I’d pretty much reached the end of the road in that respect. My first handful of shows were composed of long unorganized sets where I nervously fumbled through my songs and didn’t talk to the crowd at all. Then after moving to the West Coast and establishing my confidence and my own lyricism in a scene as titanic as that, I felt I was ready to begin my career as a rapper. I felt I had what it took.
From the second I moved back to Iowa City, me and the crew went to work. I would say after the Killer Mike show for Mission Creek 2013 I wasn’t surprised to get a big slot again. The way AWTHNTKTS performed was flawless. We played an hour long set and every homie I’d ever had was in the building, the energy was electric and addicting. Mike jumped on stage not two minutes after we got off to vibe on that same energy. After this experience, I knew my group could tackle any show you threw at us. We need these shows. That is the kind of energy we’re equipped with! Nowadays, it is balancing these big shows with the need to leave town and tour, write and put out music, and stay in tune with other big parts of our lives.
Give us some local artists we should be listening to. What local albums have you paying attention?
My biggest influence in Iowa Hip hop is Fooch, the emcee from the group Strangers of Necessity. After that would be IMPERFEKT out of Cedar Rapids.
As an MC do you feel outside of the larger Iowa music scene? I’m not trying to start shit here, but it seems like hip-hop and rap are genres that don’t get equal attention in our state. Do y’all even pay attention to shit like that?
Of course I pay attention, but honestly getting no coverage makes me that much more hungry and inspired to make good music. I’ve never once thought by staying here in Iowa I would make it as a rapper. I simply love operating here. I make my best music here. It’s sound isn’t diluted by the greater hip scene in say, Minneapolis.
That being said I do feel a part of the larger scene. I put a record out that was heard from my friends all over the country, I’ve performed with cats from almost every state and forged relationships that will give me a home when I swing through their neck of the woods. But, I would say I gain most of my inspiration to create music from my fellow Iowa artists. To reiterate: Yeah, I jam the new Action Bronson and the new AB Soul but the influences that mean a lot to me do live in this state. Knowing that my homie Fooch up in Fairfield is working 45 hours a week like me and still pumping out as much legendary material gives me a warm feeling. We share the same struggle in the name of making good music.
Take us out by telling us about the first time you were on stage as Romulan. How have things changed since then?
This is second show I ever played I’ll just let the footage speak for itself:
I’ve been writing and performing music for almost six years now. I’ll never look back. I can feel myself getting better and better each year. “Rapping” is played out nowadays, everyone does it. But, if you have the gift of writing good music that helps and inspires people, it’s special. I know I have the potential to be an artist that does this for thousands/millions of people and I won’t give up. It’s a huge part of my life.
More information available from The Mill website.