St. Louis doesn't exactly have the best reputation on the national hip-hop scene. While we do have our share of platinum-selling artists, most of the outside world still views the Gateway City as something of a one-trick pony; good for the occasional club-banger, but for lyricism...not so much.
Among the myriad local emcees capable of shattering the St. Louis stereotype, Prince Ea stands out, and not just because of the bow tie and glasses that have become his signature look. Having graduated summa cum laude from University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2010, Ea utilizes the combination of his wit, complex wordplay and shrewd marketing tactics to push his message of "Making Smart Cool" to a growing audience.
There was a time, however, when school wasn't a top priority for Ea. While growing up on the city's north side, he was a mediocre student who often felt overshadowed by the achievements of his two older brothers. "I was complacent. I did enough to get by — enough to make my parents happy, but that was it. I didn't have any passion for my education." At one point, his parents even wondered if his performance at school was indicative of a mental disability.
While attending Metro High School, his growing interest in rap music became the catalyst for change, despite the fact it was forbidden in his home. Ea would sneak home cassette tapes to listen to artists such as Canibus, Ras Kass and Immortal Technique. "It changed me. I developed a passion for learning. I would spend hours in the library researching all this stuff like [the World Trade Center's] Tower 7 and Bilderberg, and that translated into me getting better grades and eventually pursuing anthropology."
As far as his own music, Ea made his start as a battle rapper at age sixteen. He recalls, "There was this kid named AEJ who was creating a buzz around the school — but I didn't think he could rap. So I put out a diss record about him, and the school went crazy for it. We went back and forth for a little while, until he eventually stopped rapping. I just kept going..."
While still in high school, he released his first mixtape, The Birth, under the moniker Richie Rich. "When I started writing, honestly, a lot of it was braggadocio. I still had some conscience songs, and I was always lyrical — but it was more so about punch lines. 'I only see green like night-vision goggles' — lines like that. For the cover I had my little Bape hoody and stunna shades on. [Laughs] I'm not showing that picture to anybody."
But it wasn't long before his rhymes unwittingly separated him from the pack. A defining moment came for Prince Ea during a freestyle cypher in his school cafeteria. "I came through and spit something political, something intelligent. This one chick was like, 'How you gon' be a smart rapper?' Everybody started laughing, and I got a little embarrassed. But when I really thought about it, what she was basically saying was that rappers are inherently stupid people. That was when I decided that I have to show people that it's cool to be smart."
Taking inspiration from emcees and intellectuals alike, the budding talent adopted the name Prince Ea, a reference to the Prince of Earth in ancient Sumerian scripture. "I chose the name Prince Ea because I felt like it was my duty to educate and enlighten through this vehicle called hip-hop. It's a language that's understood by a certain subculture, and I felt like that was the subculture that needed these messages the most."
In the fall of 2008, Ea self-released The Adolescence on the Internet: His first mixtape under the new pseudonym. He recorded the album at his home using simply a computer, a mic and a karaoke program. Though the recordings were extremely rough, fans immediately responded to the well-polished verses and political messages. Ea's mix of humor, pop-culture references and conspiracy theory had earned him a dedicated following on the Web.
These same fans proved to be a huge asset as Ea continued to seek a larger following. In 2009, he was voted the "Vibe Verses" champion, netting him $5,000 worth of gear and a full-page feature in Vibe magazine. This would be the first of several vote-based contests Ea would win, including the Magnum Live Large contest in 2011, when he was flown out to Miami to perform with Ludacris. Ea jokingly describes his fans as "loyal, but a little spoiled. I think they're very, very weird people."
Although Prince Ea won't hesitate to rap about topics that the mainstream media typically doesn't cover, he doesn't believe that it will stop him from succeeding. "I think a lot of underground rappers use that as an excuse. People talk about Lil Wayne selling a million copies in one week, but you can go back and look at Public Enemy — they did the same thing." As far as people's reactions to his unconventional lyrics and criticisms of the status quo, Ea states, "I get a lot of silence. Some people don't even want to engage [in that conversation]. I used to get more laughter or people saying, 'Why's he talking 'bout JFK?' But now I get a lot more acceptance."
Though there's never been an official followup to The Adolescence, Prince Ea regularly posts his new material online. Songs such as "The Brain" and his more recent video for "Backwards Rappers" have snagged the attention of everyone from Worldstar Hip Hop to the Huffington Post. When asked if there was any concern that he'd lost his edge in the three years since his last mixtape, he replies, "I've heard people say that before, like, 'He sold out — he's done.' But when they hear 'Bars from Sumer 2,' when they hear these collabs with Immortal Technique and Black Thought, they'll understand the totality of who I am. They'll know how multifaceted I am as a human being. I'm trying to create music that is identifiable to a lot of people. The only way my music's changed, really, is that it's more honest. I speak more about my experiences, so it's more personal."
Perhaps the most noticeable change Ea's recently made is his onstage appearance. Gone are the standard-issue hoodies and wife-beaters, in favor of snug-fitting button-downs and brightly colored bow ties. Anyone who knows Prince Ea knows that this is another calculated move. "Branding and identification are always important," he says. "This image separates me from other people, and since I am a nerd, this was a logical move." Ea's not worried about being dismissed as a gimmick or caricature, because "the thing that will nullify that assumption is me, as soon as they hear me speak."
With a double album, a revamped website and multiple endorsement deals in the works, Prince Ea is more focused on his career now than he's ever been. His music, as he sees it, is only one part of a much larger picture. "I'd like to drop a couple of albums then move on. I want to be able to use my degree at some point; maybe to teach or host a [TV] show — I don't want to be rapping when I'm in my forties. I think anyone who only wants to rap is selling themselves short."