By Jack Spencer
Photo by Eric Gorvin Mod Sun will perform at the Firebird this Saturday.
Minnesota-born rapper Mod Sun has released a ton of mixtapes and EPs since 2009, under the self-described genre "hippy-hop." Now he's on tour in support of his just-released debut album, Look Up, on Rostrum Records.
An outspoken proponent of self-love in his music, he's continuing his trajectory with this new batch of upbeat tracks. Ahead of his show Saturday at the Firebird, RFT Music spoke to Mod Sun about the journey leading to his new album, and how he fits (or doesn't fit) within the music community at large.
Jack Spencer: How are you?
Mod Sun: Yeah, yeah! Goddamn, I'm fucking live. I'm out here in Pittsburgh. It's as snowy and cold as it is in Minneapolis, I promise you. It's a fucking winter wonderland up here. The architecture -- it's an old city, and the architecture here is like old brick, probably like 200-year-old churches. It's beautiful. That's my vibe right now. If you can picture that, that's my vibe right now. Stained-glass windows in a 300-year-old church.
Sounds like the tour's been going well.
To say it's been going well is an understatement. It's brilliant. This is something that's got me geeking. It's everything I imagined plus a whole lot more.
How's it been premiering some of your newer work?
I've been touring forever. I started playing drums in bands since I was sixteen years old, playing in front of people, but this is the first time I've ever toured and been able to say a few words and hold the mic. It's incredible, man. It's called the Look Up Tour; it's supporting the album, which [was released] on my birthday, March 10. I'm playing a bunch of new songs out here, but I have an hourlong set, so I'm definitely playing songs that I wrote eight years ago. It's a wonderful mix, but the new album is the music that I always thought I could write. People have been able to watch me develop from when I didn't know what I was doing. It's breathtaking, man; it's been wild. All the new ones, they love them the most already. The reaction to the new ones is definitely what I wanted. It's like the first material of mine that is everything I've wanted it to be.
What's different about the approach that you took with the debut album?
The biggest thing is patience. It's been in the making for two years. I started making it when I was in Minnesota, and ended up in California finishing it. At one point I thought my album was completely done, and I was about to release it on my own, but then I met up with Rostrum Records, and something divine happened that became a real relationship. Also, last year I went on tour with one of my friends, Blackbear -- one of my favorite artists of all time -- and I played him my album. And he was like, "Yo, this is amazing, but it could be better. You could make sure the music and the words completely coincide. It's one thing to have great music; it's another thing to have great words, but if they don't fit with each other, it's not going to be as good."
So I literally reconstructed my entire album for a year after that. I will be an artist that is able to say that every single song on there, there will never be a time in my life where I wish that I had done one more thing. I've given it everything, absolutely everything I heard in my head, and I could never recreate this album. I could never anticipate that. It's one of a kind.
What were your beginnings as a musician, and what drew you to rap initially?
Initially, I played drums my whole life in rock bands. In high school, the first band I was in called the Semester. That was like a pop-punk band, and then the second band I was in was called Four Letter Lie, that was a post-hardcore band, and I was drums for both of those bands. It was a very wide array of music. I grew up in a place called Corcoran, Minnesota, when I was real young, on a farm, and all I listened to when I grew up was like the Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young.
But, man, I had literally the widest array of music, and of course being from Minnesota, there's an amazing hip-hop scene that was already going on. That was inspiring me in a way that's not like everyone else, because I wasn't even aware that hip-hop and rap was meaningful at that point. The only hip-hop I knew at that point was Eminem, shit like that. It was cool music, but it didn't feel like this huge meaningful thing. But Minnesota has this huge hip-hop scene that is, to me, very poetic.
Continue to page two for more.
You're releasing an audiobook version of Did I Ever Wake Up?, your first book, alongside the album. What do you touch on in the book, and what compelled you to write it?
I wrote it because I am not [interested in] being one thing at the end of my life, and I wanted to say "Mod Sun: artist, author, poet" -- all these things. To be an author, you gotta write a book. I wrote it to be like my demo CD into the book world. I wrote it from a very humble standpoint, and it blew up. A lot of people connected with it, and a good number of people that I've never met. That was bigger than I could imagine. So I went deeper. It's me reading my book, but not only is it an audiobook, I scored it as well. It's scored like a movie. My book is about making your life a dream, it's about empowering yourself, understanding you can make a change and you can become all of your aspirations, you can become all of your inspirations.
How would you define the word "hippie" in 2015?
I would define "hippie" in 2015 as a positive movement. Those that grew up in the '70s, the way that that generation of hippie-ism ended off was almost in a very vulgar way. It ended with...all the fighting for rights was kind of overshadowed by a lot of drugs, the way the hippie generation ended off in the early '80s. People like Ken Kesey or Allen Ginsburg, the beat generation, that was a different thing. I think people are out here and honestly waking up every day and understanding that you can live in your own world.
With all these different situations, the people are waking up and knowing this is their world and they can create their own freedom. The most beautiful part of being a human is knowing that everything you believe in and love, the 100 percent opposite of that has to exist, otherwise you'd have nothing to love. If lies didn't exist, there'd be no truth. If bad didn't exist, there'd be no good. All these people out here that are waking up in their own world, they're conscious of what's going on around them, but they don't let it determine their day-to-day.
You push positivity in your own work. What do you feel is hip-hop's relationship to positivity? Do you feel that's something hip-hop artists shy away from?
I'll say this, you look at artists like De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, there's all these artists that would make positive hip-hop. Major chords, sampling jazz, really upbeat stuff. I love the track ["i" by Kendrick Lamar], the fact that he would come out and say "I love myself." It said to me that hip-hop is ready again for that kind of positivity.
I released an EP called Happy As Fuck, and when they posted it on XXL, stuff like that, people were not like, "Hell yeah!" They were meeting it with, "No, no, no, this is not what fucking hip-hop is, motherfucker," they were turning the other way or not liking it. But I can definitely say that idea has been [more prevalent]; I feel like the world's ready for that again. The whole thing I've tried to do with my movement is being positive, so every time I hear someone else being positive or writing positive songs, that's the fucking coolest thing in the world! That's why I do this. That's why I keep at it, for that reason exactly.
I've always felt like one of hip-hop's strengths is flipping the negative into a positive, taking something and framing it differently.
That's the theory of a trap song being happy. That's the theory of that. That's like saying a song about a dude breaking up with a chick, and you just broke up with a chick -- you're going to connect with that, the sadness that you're feeling. That's hip-hop. That's hip-hop, saying, "I took something negative and I made it into a positive." But saying that doesn't mean that they're speaking about something positive in that song.
In a lot of hip-hop, they're speaking about the negative, but because it's speaking about the negative and people are connecting to it, it makes their life better. It makes other people's lives better, because they're finding other people that feel the same way. So that's OK, but I'm talking about hip-hop talking positive; I'm talking about saying, "I love myself." A lot of hip-hop is saying, "I came from the gutter, look at me now!" Look around now; hip-hop is literally saying, point-blank, "I love myself." That's beautiful.
How do you maintain that positivity on a regular basis?
There's this term of how to take something simple and make it sound complicated; there's a lot of artists, poets, who try to take a simple sentence and stretch it out to a paragraph. The most simple way to say what I'm doing right now is that I would never trade what I'm doing right now for being dead, ever. Every day is the best day of my life because I'd never trade anything for being dead, you know what I'm saying? It just comes down to that.
Mod Sun 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 14. The Firebird, 2706 Olive Street. $17 to $50. 314-535-0353.
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