The Ascension of Shawn Chrystopher
words & interview by: iman n. milner
The reason I love words is the same reason I essentially love hip hop: it’s never just the words themselves but how you put them together that makes your statement powerful or mediocre at best. Hip hop has this great vastness and diversity that allows it to reach inside of you, with all its contradictions and shortcomings, and somehow touch you…deeply. As with words, hip hop allows for many expressions. Even artists in the same vein never quite sound the same. Everyone uses their personal experiences, losses, joys and pains to paint the pictures that make us feel. Ever so often a hip hop artist takes their abilities to another level and we are all witnesses.
Right now, Shawn Chrystopher is ascending. With his engaging rhetoric and transparent passion, he is carving out a comfy place in hip hop’s ever growing Mount Rushmore.
EDGE: How did music become your lifeline?
Shawn C: Well, my mom was a single parent and she would put me in activities to keep me busy while she was working to take care of me. She put me in a drum class when I was in 2nd grade and that’s the exact moment that I fell in love with music. I started producing when I was in high school and I started rapping sporadically, I really didn’t take rapping serious until I graduated. In college, I had a full ride to USC, I did about three years and there was never a time that I wasn’t actively doing music but I was trying to do both. Eventually both school and music were suffering. I was making mediocre grades and mediocre music. So I had to have a conversation with my mother and tell her that I felt I was here for a bigger purpose than going to school, getting out and working for somebody. I knew if I really wanted to make it work with music, I had to dedicate all my time and energy to that.
EDGE: What was it about hip-hop specifically that attracted you to the genre?
Shawn C: When I was a kid I would listen to Tupac. Tupac, Tupac, Tupac. My mom hated it because of some of the things he said but that’s all I wanted to hear. It was just something about it–they (hip hop artists) could say whatever they wanted and that was amazing to me. I was the only child at the time so I was alone in my room a lot and I would just write for hours. Also, my grandmother was a published author and I would spend my summers with her and she would make me write stories and then critique me on them. She opened up my vocabulary and she would push me to find different ways to tell my stories. That challenge would always have my mind going. Hip-hop allows you to be as creative as possible.
EDGE: So your grandmother was a big part of your love for the spoken and written word, in general?
Shawn C: Definitely. She would tell me if you’re a great writer and a great speaker, no one can ever stop that. No matter what you’re trying to preach or bestow upon the public, being a great orator will make it east. Take Hitler, for example, his message was so negative but he was a genius in his delivery. He’s a brown eyed, dark haired man saying that blonde hair and blue eyes is the superior race–and he wasn’t even that. But the way he conveyed the message was so powerful that people followed him. Words are the most powerful thing in the world and my grandmother helped me to see that. I infuse that in my music.
EDGE: Do you remember your first rap?
Shawn C: My first rap was called “Time”. I was about 11 and don’t know why I called it that. It was so wack. I wrote it on some of that handwriting paper from elementary school, super huge. It was like 6 pages long. I don’t remember anything about it really, aside from the fact that it was wack but I do remember appreciating the fact that I could sit there and write down what I was feeling and make it a song, that’s always been dope to me.
EDGE: So what’s your process when you’re approaching a record for the first time?
Shawn C: The process of actually transforming those ideas in your head to a picture on paper or on wax is difficult. It takes practice. My process sort of never ends. I’m always writing down notes or little lines that I think are dope and I just keep them until I’m back in the studio, I make a beat, get high and start writing.
EDGE: Marijuana seems to be a big part of the creative community. Why do you think that’s the case?
Shawn C: I can only speak for myself but it’s crucial. It’s not that I need it but it helps me to be able to create without second guessing myself. Artists are really hard on themselves and we get in this place where we care so much about what people think of our art. I don’t care what people think when I’m high but when I don’t smoke I’m so caught up in making something people will like. I’m finally at a place where I know I have my own lane, my own voice, my own sound and I don’t have to compare myself to anyone else. I have my own stories. I don’t second guess myself as much anymore but the weed makes it even less. That’s just my take on weed and the creative process though.
EDGE: Do you consider yourself “underground”?
Shawn C: I hate the word “underground”. For some reason our generation doesn’t care about Grammys and stuff anymore. That’s always been my goal, I still strive to create an album that’s Grammy nominated. I want to have plaques. As a kid, I would see all my heroes accomplishing those things and I wanted it. I still do. Underground doesn’t mean what it used to mean. I’ve done shows for 7-8 people, we’ve all done shows where you had to sell 25 tickets to open up for Joe Blow and you buy all the tickets yourself–I’ve done all of that. At the end of the day, I believe God gave me this gift to improve the lives of the people around me and I can’t do that if I’m “underground”. I want to die with people saying “he was the greatest”, that’s it. I see Kobe and he chases Michael Jordan. That’s what I do, I chase the greats. I don’t pay too much attention to what people in my “generation” are doing…and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I want to chase records, break them and make my own. Those are the things I want. I don’t need an “underground” championship trophy…I want the stuff that makes you legendary. I’m not “underground” and I don’t want to be.
EDGE: How are you preparing yourself for that?
Shawn C: You know, I’m blessed to have the people around me that I have. Talking with Tim (Grammy award winning producer, Timbaland) and him giving me so much advice; I know I can do everything I envision myself doing. I used to be the kid watching all of these producers on documentaries or behind the music and now they know who I am and they want to work with me. It’s crazy in one way but on the other side it’s like what did I expect to happen? This is what I’ve been working for.
EDGE: How do you measure your success? Have you made it?
Shawn C: I set such high goals for myself so when I come back home and people are like “you’re really doing it!”, I’m just like “really?”. I forget that I used to just make beats in my room and the only people who heard my music were my friends or people who heard it on my Myspace page or something. But now I can drop a video and a lot of people watch it–thousands. I have fans who send me messages and they tell me they listen to my music when they’re going through hard times and I’m humbled by that. I realize how blessed I am to have even made it this far with my music. This is what I wanted. But a turning point for me came when I was working in the same studio that Kanye recorded “Late Registration” in and I walked out of the room I was in and went to get some licorice and as I was reaching in the bowl, Will.I.Am was reaching in too. He was recording in one of the rooms right across the way and he asked me to step in and listen to one of the records he was working on. He had the engineer cue it up, he doesn’t know me, but I was working there—I was his peer. So, I’m walking back to my room and I bumped into Pharrell and so I asked him to listen to a song I was working on and he came and rocked with me for a second and that’s when it hit me, I definitely wasn’t doing the s*** I used to…things were moving for me. But have I made it? Naw…not by my standards.
EDGE: So what’s coming up for you?
Shawn C: In September, I’m dropping an album that’s executive produced by Timbaland.
EDGE: That’s amazing. How does a fairly new artist get a cosign like that?
Shawn C: One night I was in the studio while Tim was making beats and when he got to one in particular, I was bobbing my head and really feeling it. He turned to me and asked me if I liked it and of course I said “yeah”. He gave it to me and told me to go to the hotel and write to it. I approached the track like it was my one and only chance to rhyme on a Timb beat so I made sure I gave it everything I had. I wrote this record in one night and walked in the next day with heavy confidence and said “I killed that beat you gave me” and he was like “word, you killed it?”–I plugged in my laptop and started playing it. He played the first 30 seconds of it and then stopped it and started it over. He did that about 10 times and then he just said “yeah”. Now we’re working on a whole album together. That’s the story.
EDGE: If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Shawn C: I would make a draft like the NBA because that weeds out the bulls***. When you turn on a NBA game you know you’re about to see professionals. Just because you buy an album doesn’t mean you’re about to hear cream of the crop music. Can you imagine if Timb, Pharrell and other people at the top of their game set back and put together their dream teams? All the music would be top notch. Imagine if all the ni**as who play ball on any level could all play on ABC. You’d be like “I don’t want to see this s***! I want to see Kobe!”. If there was a recording industry draft every year, that would be G.
EDGE: So play commissioner right now. Who would you draft on your team?
Shawn C: I’d draft Drake first. I don’t like a lot of new music but I don’t think anyone makes better music than Drake. He doesn’t miss. I would pick up James Blake. James Blake is a G. He would run my point. Next, I’d take Adele. My little brother Mann–he’s finally finding himself. The music he’s been playing for me really shows how much better he’s gotten. He would be the Christian Laettner on my Dream Team. He’s going to learn a lot. So that’s Drake, James Blake, Adele, Mann…oh, give me Kendrick Lamar. I’d be the 6th man, player/coach.
EDGE: What do you want your legacy to be?
Shawn C: I just want people to say that I really loved music. That’s it. At the end of the day that’s all I care about. There’s so many people in the industry who don’t care about music at all and it frustrates me. I want people to say I was a genius and that I cared about music. I look up to Tupac, Basquiat–people like that–they left behind a legacy where their art spoke for itself and that’s all they cared about.
Shawn Chrystopher’s mixtape lovestories is available for download now! Get it today!
Photos by: Brittney Roughton
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