Making Waves with … ROCKIE FRESH - Jul 4, 2011
“[My first mixtape] was meant to be a jump-start in attracting a wider audience. When I decided I wanted to do music, I wanted to be as big as I could possibly be.”
For the latest edition of Making Waves, our series focusing on how up-and-coming artists are making things happen for themselves, we speak to one of U.S.A.’s hottest young hip-hop talents, Rockie Fresh, who has cultivated a blazing grassroots movement that is spreading like wildfire.
Having made a decisive breakthrough early last year when his debut mixtape was championed by such influential blogs as 2DopeBoyz.com, the Chicago 20-year-old has gone onto to earn performances at SXSW, CMJ and Bamboozle, open for Rick Ross, Big Sean and Cool Kids, draw collaborators in DJ Ill Will and DJ Rockstar, and attract a growing and ever more ardent fanbase – the enthusiasm of whom was highlighted by the 15,000 downloads his second mixtape notched up in just its first week of release.
On the eve of the release of a fresh mixtape, Rockie talks about Chicago’s thriving hip-hop scene, how tastemaker blogs can jump-start careers, and what young hip-hop artists can do to best showcase their skills.
How did you first become aware of your skills as a lyricist and rapper?
When I was in junior high school. I used to play around rapping, and my friends told me I should start taking it seriously - and I did. In my senior year I started pursuing my rap career.
What was it that first inspired you to start making music?
It was a real natural, organic thing. When I really started listening to rap records, a lot of the time they would have outros where there wouldn’t be any rapping, it would just be open instrumentals, and when I’d hear those lyrics would just pop up in my head.
How were you recording your music to begin with?
It started real grassroots. I used the most basic equipment to just get my lyrics down before I progressed to the more state of the art stuff I use now.
I didn’t write my lyrics on paper. I’d just start thinking of lyrics and then rap them directly into the mic. Then I’d copy and paste ideas to form verses.
You started working on your first mixtape, ‘Rockie’s Modern Life’ while you were still at school. How did you manage to record and fund it?
‘Rockie’s Modern Life’ was like a bunch of industry instrumentals that were taken from real underground records. I then had a couple of producers come in at the end and add a couple of records to the project.
I recorded the majority of that in a friend’s basement. My friend had the engineering equipment because his father was a pretty big jazz player, and so had the money to have certain studio equipment. My friend pretty much let me record most of the project for free.
Any extra studio stuff, like mixing and mastering, was funded by my manager, who got involved when the mixtape was finishing up.
Were you always conscious of making something accomplished that could attract a much wider audience?
It was definitely meant to be a jump-start in attracting a wider audience. When I decided I wanted to do music, I knew that I wanted to be as big as I could possibly be.
When I made this decision I knew it was going to affect so many people that have helped me in my life up to that point. And so in order for me to really give back to them as much as I could I knew that I was going to have to be as big as possible.
When I started that project, it was with that mindset, and even now every project I do is still with that mindset.
So, with such early ambitions, you must have had someone else helping you with your music or helping promote or guide you?
I’ve got these two guys, Andrew [Koenig] and Andrew [Gertler] (HQ interview), and they’re my managers. They’re young dudes just like me, and they really took a lot of time out of their days to make my first project possible.
How did you first meet them?
We all went to the same high school, although we didn’t really know each other then. It was later when we were at the same college that Andrew Koenig reached out and was like, “You’re a talented dude, and I want to work with you and let all of my friends in school know about your music.”
So firstly he got a bunch of his friends aware of my rapping ability. Then when we started getting some music together and had records we felt could do something, we knew we had contact somebody that was going to help us get popping on the internet. So we reached out to a kid called Andrew Gertler that graduated before us and who was managing a band at the time.
And what was it that he started doing for you in helping establish you as an artist?
He was trying to get me onto different rap websites to give me a different fanbase, and with that we just started building.
You’ve said that getting a song posted on a blog proves your worth as an artist and your breakthrough came when one of your songs was posted on the influential blog 2DopeBoyz.com. How did that come about?
I was just emailing my records to blogs and it took me a very long time for anything to get posted, but it was definitely worth the wait. I’d been sending 2DopeBoyz music ever since I started making music and after like a year they let us know that they’d just heard my music for the first time, and that they respected it. Then they posted it.
I feel like everything happens when the time is right and when it is supposed to happen, and that you shouldn’t try to rush your season. When the blogs start posting my records I knew that was the right time for it.
What was the effect of having your first song posted and how did you take advantage of that new credibility?
When it first happened it felt awesome. And the response that I got from the blog was real eye-opening - the comments on there gave me a lot of things for me to go back and work on as an artist, but they also opened my eyes to some things that people liked about me that I hadn’t even though about before.
Having the first song posted on the blog really jump-started a lot of things for me. In a lot of cases when one blog posted a song then the others would start to catch on.
Who do you see as being the most influential hip-hop blogs?
I don’t know if HotNewHipHop is a blog or more a website, but definitely them, as well as FakeShoreDrive and 2DopeBoyz.
It’s not that I’m biased to those sites because they post my stuff, they just have great quality posts. I like how there’s not a large quantity of posts, and so it’s easier to find stuff on there.
Your first mixtape became a relative success. Aside from the coverage you got from tastemaker blogs, what were some of factors involved in achieving that success?
It took a lot of hard work as far as me wanting to make certain type of records, and not settling until those type of records came to life. It was a real tough process - especially with having so little resources.
It also took a lot of support from my friends and family. I was really surprised how much my family was willing to support me and how much my manager and my team believed in me. And from that point forward I just wanted to make sure that I was on the road to being as successful as possible, just because I want to see those individuals happy and never want to let them down.
With music so freely available it’s said that upcoming artists should think first of all about exposing their music to as wide a range of people as possible and think about the money secondary. Is that something you agree with?
I totally agree with that, and I don’t have a problem with it either. It helps you build better fanbases, and in order to sell albums you really have to have a product and a brand that people respond to and think is worth spending money on.
I like that aspect of music because I feel it challenges artists to work way harder and put a lot more focus into other things besides music.
What do you think the best ways are for young hip-hop artists to showcase their music?
Having an internet presence is obviously very important because there’s so many people out there using it, whether they’re on Facebook or Twitter etc. But it’s also about finding creative ways to get people interested in the music and take the time to listen to it. But it needs to be done tastefully – spamming people on those websites is not a good way.
You have an ongoing video series that shows your day-to-day life as an artist. Why did you decide to do this and what effect do you hope it has on your fanbase?
We decided to start the series after the mixtape was finished. It was mainly because my life was becoming something that I wanted to showcase. Since I had a certain number of people interested in what I was doing, I wanted to show them how it really is being a rapper and help eliminate a lot of the bad stereotypes you get. I also wanted to just show people that my music is real.
What advice do you have for other up-and-coming hip-hop artists looking to breakthrough?
I feel like more artists should focus on being themselves and talking about the things they know and staying true to the situation that they’ve been put in. But at the same time they should have a progressive mindset and always try and to challenge themselves to do different things and become better. A lot of people think that this industry is just about making records and emulating other artists, but it’s really about individuality and putting the work in to perfect your craft.
Your second mixtape, ‘The Otherside’, was an even bigger success, attracting over 15,000 downloads in its first week alone. What were the key factors in achieving that?
I was able to build on the success of ‘Rockie’s Modern Life’ - it meant it was more widely available and people already had respect for the project. DJ ill Will and DJ Rockstar took on the job of doing the mixtape for me, and they also opened up a lot of doors as far as getting it posted.
You’re currently unsigned and releasing your mixtapes independently. Do you plan to stay independent or are you building up a reputation and fanbase with an eye to securing a record deal?
I’m trying to stay independent for as long as I can, but at the same time I do want to have an album out and I do want to do things that are going to potentially involve me having a record label behind me. When that time comes, we’ll deal with it.
Have you had any label interest?
Not necessarily. I’m just really trying to focus on making the best music possible and staying true to my independent situation right now.
You have an upcoming mixtape due. What can we expect from that?
It’s progression. It’s just me at the point that I am now, and I’m at a better place in my life right now, so this mixtape is going to be a lot more fun.
How did you come to perform at SXSW this year and what’s been the reaction to that?
It was a blessing and a good opportunity for me. I performed at SXSW last year too. In fact all of the shows I did last year are actually coming back this year. And there’s also been a couple of new events that I’ve done based on different blogs that I’ve been posted on.
As a Chicago native how much of a scene is there for young hip-hop artists?
It’s a growing scene. There’s a lot of emerging Chicago hip-hop artists now, and it’s a real fun time to become an artist because we’re starting to get a lot of attention out there and there’s a lot of good guys to network with - there’s a lot of good producers, more people out there are getting studio researchers …
Are there many venues for young hip-hop artists to perform?
Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, in the one year I’ve been relevant in Chicago I’ve been able to perform at all the major venues just due to the way they showcase hip-hop. It’s a real good situation there.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I really want to be an artist that has at least a classic album under his belt. I definitely see myself being on the road, travelling, doing my shows. I love to perform my records, and really connect with people that respect what I do.
*For Rockie’s latest video ‘Sofa King Cole’ and for the latest episode from his video diary series ‘Life on the OtherSide’ look HERE and HERE.*
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Rockie's manager Andrew Gertler on the factors behind his burgeoning success
* Making Waves speaks to Ayah about using social networking to attract big name collaborators