Coney Island, Brooklyn emcee Torae is the last of a dying breed. The married father of two came of age when New York City hip-hop was at the center of attention during the ’90s; a time when a higher echelon of rhymes, metaphors and content were married to top-notch boom-bap production. But that was then and this is now.
And timing is everything.
Despite being an ‘80s baby raised during hip-hop’s Golden Era, Torae didn’t get into the game until 2007 with his Daily Conversation mixtape. But back then the South—as they still are today—were literally suffocating the rap game. Outside of Jay Z, Nas and some Dipset members, not too many cats were checking for New York rhymers. Songs like Playaz Circle’s “Duffle Bag Boy” and Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” hogged radio stations and clubs that year. And a still fresh and less egotistical Kanye West continued stacking his buzz to the heavens with his much celebrated third effort, Graduation. So unless one was already an established spitter like The L.O.X., Esco, Hov or Fabolous, it was hard to carve out a lane and make heavy loads of mula as a rapper back in ’07.
“As I was riding here and Fab was on, I was like: ‘Man, Fab got in at the right time. Respect to the longevity he’s had,'” Torae says. “Man, if I would’ve got in in that window and would’ve maintained through, now it would’ve been a better vibe.”
But bad timing is a small thing to a giant. While Torae may be the last of a dying breed, that doesn’t mean that consumers aren’t checking for that classic feel. With heavy wordplay-laden tracks like “eNd” about his refusal to use the N-word, the motivating “Coney Island’s Finest,” which contains actual news clips of fellow native Stephon Marbury getting drafted into the NBA, and “Get Down,” which is just straight screwface, middle-finger hip-hop, it isn’t by chance that Torae’s current album Entitled (Internal Affairs Ent.) peaked at No. 23 on Billboard‘s hip-hop charts.
“I want to be included in all conversations when it comes to spitters,” Torae tweeted to me.
Taking a break from his host duties on his Sirius XM hip-hop radio station and fresh off his acting debut on VH1’s The Breaks, mobbing solo (how many rappers do you know that can roam their city solo?), Torae strolled into VIBE’s tidy Manhattan spot. During the lengthy sit-down, he discussed everything from the N-word, to the mind state of young black men, to his opinions on why more young black men can’t get out the hood.
VIBE: You came out at a rough time, but spitters respect you and that has to mean a lot.
For me, it’s the respect. When I was coming around, I wanted that Little Brother respect. And once I got that it moved to [DJ] Premier f**king with me. Pete Rock working with me. And a few years later, I was looking for the Slaughterhouse respect. Then we dropped Barrel Brothers and Royce Da 5’9″ went out of his way to comment on it, as well as Joe Budden and Crooked [Kxng Crooked, formerly Crooked I]. Then I wanted The L.O.X. respect. And I ran into Styles P the other day, and he was telling me how he f**ks with certain stuff. So it’s lovely to have that respect of your peers.
Often we hear rappers say it’s not about the money. Is that where you’re at with it?
A friend of mine asked me some time ago, ‘If you had a million dollars right now what would you do?’ I was like, ‘I’d put that money into music.’ And he was like, ‘Why? You got a million dollars now, you rich.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Because you want respect. You want the respect of your peers, you want people to be like, yeah, I f**k with son.’ You know if you put your money into it and invest in you, you can get to that place where everybody will understand and feel what you doing. But it’s not about the money. It’s about that respect.
The way you went about the Kickstarter was dope—actually hanging out with fans. Did you establish any long-term relationships from that?
I don’t even like to call them fans. I call them supporters. They support my life, my family. Kickstarter was a way for me to further engage them and kind of level off who’s where in the support realm. There’s the ten-dollar supporter who’s like, ‘Yeah, I like your sh*t. I’ll wait until it comes out to buy your sh*t.’ Then there’s the five hundred plus guy who’s like, ‘Nah, I want the whole experience. I want to hear it early, come to my house and let’s chop it up.’ Whether they want to play my music or pick my brain.
That was mad creative.
I don’t have a big budget. It’s not a big machine behind me, so you have to be creative with the ways that you market your music and market yourself. If I could figure out a way to get out there and touch some supporters, then I’m all for it. I made some cool acquaintances. My man Hank, he bought the Kickstarter package for me to go out to his crib. And we had a cool time. I brought pizza, bottles, balloons and sh*t. Just chilling with him and his family. And his wife was pregnant. When I saw that his wife was pregnant it meant that much more to me, the fact that he went in his pocket. This is a very crucial time in your life and you still went in your pocket to spend five and some change to support this? Like, that’s my dude. Since then, I’ve invited him out to other stuff. He’s going to get that money back tenfold. Just the fact that people rock with you like that is very humbling. It was dope for me, I really enjoyed it.
You have the great Saul Williams on the album. What are you reading right now?
The last book I read, I re-read the The Big Payback, after The Breaks—you know being involved with that. I love that book so much. I remember when I first read it I couldn’t put it down.
What about it do you love so much?
The information. Just feed me information. I love knowledge. I love to be a sponge. I love to be the novice in the room and just to get all the information. I love just getting all the information. And with loving hip-hop so much, seeing how it was birthed and seeing how it is now, that was so intriguing to me that I just stayed on it. And once The Breaks came around and I was in the studio with them doing some of the recording for the movie and I grabbed my book off the shelf for them to sign it, and I just started reading it again. I have this book in my phone that I’m going to get. Some people that I respect have talked about it so I have to get it.
The Stephon Marbury clips on “Coney Island’s Finest” are very inspiring.
If you’re inspired by him in Mississippi, imagine me down the block? It was just that real. He was the first celebrity in the hood, at least for me, that I know. Sports Illustrated was coming through. But I’d see Steph in the hood, at the games, at the center. He’d come in the center and shoot fifty half-court shots, wet’em all, and walk off. He was super cool.
Just hearing the news clips and picturing what you are saying right now is mind-boggling.
It was amazing to see somebody that was touchable. It was right there. It was that real. So the bigger he got, the more notoriety he got, put more fire under me to do my thing. Most importantly, it showed me how real it can be. He’s from the projects just like me. He’s from Coney Island just like me. We go to the same schools for free lunch. It’s that real. He kind of kicked the door open for everybody else from my hood to go to the NBA. We ended up with seven guys. He paved the way for everybody. I wasn’t a hooper like that. But for me, I wanted to make it to the league doing music.
Talk about “The eNd” and why you decided to stop using the N-word?
As you grow up and mature, you are not supposed to just age, you’re supposed to get wisdom with these years. It took some traveling the world. I think a big part of my decision was being abroad and touring Europe and these different places where there aren’t a lot of black people, and they don’t understand the culture the way that we do. When they hear the word on the song, to them it’s just another word—hat, shirt, pants, n***a. So when they come up to me with the utmost respect, and be like: ‘Sign this, n***a. I was like: ‘Yooo.’ And, I can’t spazz, and I can’t be mad, because that’s what I gave them.
Time out, time out. So, you’re telling me that they don’t understand everything attached to that word?
Poland, Germany, they don’t understand everything attached to the word. To them it’s just another word in hip-hop. Not to a degree where they would feel wrong by saying it. A lot of the fans over there are younger, and add to that aspect, all they listen to is hip-hop. And a lot of their English comes from what they hear in hip-hop.
Dawg, you just dropped a bomb on me.
For me, it stung. It was a slap to the face one too many times. I was like: ‘You got to stop, you got to grow up, you got to get to a place where you stop using the word.’ It’s not going to change everybody else over night, but you got to spark that change that you want to see. And you got to be big enough to do it. My vocabulary is large enough. So for me, that was the first challenge, to get it out of the music. Now it’s to get it out of the conversation. Hopefully, making it a song is opening the doors to start this conversation. I love the fact that so many people are asking me about it, tweeting me about it like: ‘Yo, word up, I’m going to stop, too.’ That’s what music is for: is to get these things across, get these points across, to help get people through with what they dealing with without you even knowing. Mad people hit me like: ‘Yo, I was on the fence about it. Thank you for this song.’
Torae, you’ve made it out the hood. How’d you do it, and why can’t more of us do it?
The one thing about making it out of the hood is that so many people who make it out don’t go back. For you to get out of that environment is beautiful, but I feel like if you don’t give back and get somebody else out then for what? We always got to pay it forward. I’m not a hoarder of anything. I like to give out information. If you trying to get somewhere and do something and I can help you get there, I’ll give you that. And I’m not looking for anything in return, because God got that. I feel like the more blessings I get, it’s for me to bless other people. Me doing something as simple as giving out book bags and turkeys and different travel things for my hood, I feel like that’s going to inspire someone else. They are going to see me, a guy that grew up on 23rd street in building two. And you can turn on the radio and hear, turn on The Breaks and see, open up a magazine and see, click on VIBE and see, that’s going to inspire them. I’m touchable. I’m right here. And it makes it that much realer to them.
You said there were several reasons. Another one?
I feel like it’s no coincidence that the music is so negative in its nature that it’s promoting a detrimental lifestyle. You turn on the radio and all you hear are songs about popping molly and having wild sex, and never nothing about taking care of your kids, never nothing about respecting your queen, never nothing about respecting yourself. It’s all get drunk, get high, live fast and die. That’s by design, because to them, they got the nuclear family. They got the moms, the pops, their kids are getting instilled in them all the things that’s going to keep them in that position. Their job is to keep us in our position. ‘Y’all stay down there, keep getting fed the poison and we going to keep getting the good sh*t to stay up here.’ Somebody got to change that. Somebody got to do something or cause enough raucous to see behind the curtain.
So for the rapper that says “That’s all I know,” how do you counter that?
The more you learn, the more you live, the more you grow, you experience other sh*t. Even me, my first two tours, I didn’t make no money. But I saw sh*t I never saw before. And experience is commerce as well. The fact that I was able to see all this new stuff enlightened me. When you don’t know anything, you can’t fault a person for their ignorance because they don’t know. I feel that the problem with a lot of the artists is they stay in the same place, and they keep giving you the same lifestyle that they did before they started to see sh*t. When you start to live life and grow, your music should grow, your conversation should grow in hopes that your listeners grow along with you.