No need to be a reality show junkie to be drawn to Audubon’s charisma.
The star of MTV’s Washington Heights — the popular show that depicts the lives of starry-eyed dreamers trying to make it out of the Heights — is immune to negativity and keeps his hustle at the top of mind.
In an interview with VIBE, the budding emcee discusses his musical endeavors, how the Dominican community has reacted to the reality show and the struggles of a local artist trying to go major.
What’s your creative process like in the studio?
It kinda varies. Lately, I’ve been trying to think of a subject, like a song title then make a song around that. I was thinking something like “Moonlit River” then making a web diagram to see what subjects I can touch on and how I can reach people. I was trying to get really deep with my songwriting, but normally I get in [the studio] and I immediately work with Frankie P,The Reason or Joel the Dreamer and we vibe off each other. I don’t really have a structured process that I go through. Whatever comes out comes out. I try to do a lot of living so that I’ll be able to put that into my music.
On one track, I hear a Drake and Weeknd influence. Do you get comparisons to him?
I’ve been singing and rapping since like 2007. I get compared to them, but then I get that he don’t got nothing on me and vice versa. People are going to have their own opinions. There’s always going to be comparisons. I just make the music that I like to make. There’s enough fans out there for everybody..
Who do you think is the ideal artist?
James Blake. I love him. First of all, he’s really young, so for him to be so far at such a young age and then be White and not from America is an amazing thing. He makes his own beats, vocal arrangements and everything.
On “The Fall Of Johnny Dakota,” I get a sense of your songwriting expertise. How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing for a while. [For that song,] Dakota was a character in the show Saved By The Bell. He was an actor that came in and everybody was loving him, he scooped Kelly and all the shawties, and then they found out he smoked weed at the parties and tried to get Kelly to smoke too. She was like, “Yo man, what are you doing? You can’t do that. I thought you were cool.” He said, “This is cool. Everybody’s doing this.” So basically I’m trying to say that I’m the guy that’s cooler than the cool guy.
Was English your favorite subject?
Yeah, English and History.Anything that challenged my imagination.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
Yeah. “It’s a cypher son, and I’m coming full force/ Test me, find out if I feel remorse/ Y’all cats ain’t on my level, better do y’all chores/ Watch me transform like Optimus in Beast Wars/ I’m an automatic spitter like an AK/ Niggas love the way I spray from up close to far away/ Fuck drive-bys, pop him in his right eye.” I was like 11, 12 years old. I recorded that in the studio on a tape. I was hype walking around the house with it.
Do you favor rapping over singing?
Yeah because it’s easier. But I love the singing because I feel that I can say more by saying less. I could sing four bars out and get my point across [as opposed to] rapping 16 bars. When you put them together, you’re able to touch more people.
How would you describe your sound?
It’s definitely not safe music. It’s not like I’m catering to outlets. My music is just music for humanity; it’s so all over the place. That’s why I try to make my albums conceptual so that it can make sense when you listen to it. To be an Audubon fan, you have to love all kinds of music. What I really wanna do is get a whole bunch of artists, like A Tribe Called Quest and James Blake in the same room and make a song. I want to do collaborations that normally wouldn’t happen.
What age did you decide that music was what you wanted to do?
I’m not really sure, because it was on and off. I would make music and kind of give up on myself, then try to make music again. Last time, I almost gave up. I was 24 and thinking maybe I should be focusing on something else while doing the music thing but then I quit my job. I just went broke and told my mom to hold me down, we’re going to make something work. And I did. I can’t really tell you when I decided to take it serious. I guess you could say I always wanted to do music. It’s just been hard. Sometimes I lose hope or things don’t go my way but the drive is always there.
What made you almost give up that first time?
The same reasons why a woman would be depressed in a marriage that’s going perfectly fine. Just that validation, you know? You’re not getting acknowledged by as many people as you want to. I don’t know, maybe I was feeling myself too much, but I was like, this is really interesting music that I’m making. Why isn’t it getting accepted? I thought I was supposed to get signed when I made my About a Girl mix-tape in 2007. I was singing and rapping, and the beats that I was making sounded just like the beats that are coming out now. So I was like damn that’s crazy but it wasn’t my time. That’s the kind of stuff I told myself to not give up.
You were fortunate enough to land an MTV show. How did Washington Heights come about?
Me and some friends. Becky,Nelson & Pedro have our own Production Company (171 Productions) we just finished buying the new Canon 5D, so we were hype. We shot a video and were like, what can we shoot that can challenge us more and show our neighborhood in a different light? We did an open casting call, saying that we were doing a project on the Heights, we didn’t really know what it is but we want to interview a few people and see what you guys think. Nobody responded. So I said maybe I should hit up my friends because they all want to do things with their lives anyway. So when we interviewed them, we said how has Washington Heights established where you want to go, hindered you, etc. We did a sizzle reel with all my friends and it took about two years [to get picked up]. MTV saw it and they were like, ‘Hell yeah, we’ll buy this off of you guys. We’ve never seen a group of friends that already knew each other without us.’ It’s not like they’re casting us and putting us in a room trying to find out what our talents are. We already knew what we wanted and they just wanted to capture our drive.
I’ve heard mixed reactions about the show, some saying that it is not an accurate portrayal of the Heights. How do you feel about the feedback?
People saw the name and thought if they saw the Heights, they would see the Dominican Republic. That’s what they wanted to see – DR shit. People are going to judge stuff regardless. If we were to make the show according to the way people wanted, there would’ve been mad fights. If we would’ve had three more fights on the show, it would’ve had millions of viewers because that’s what they want to see. If they were to put some show that was educational, nobody would watch it. That’s what they have to sell and that’s a problem. I listen to ratchet music and love turning up but there has to be a balance.
How’ve you handled the fame from the show?
I’m not that famous yet, but I love it. Twitter is crazy but in the streets it’s mad love. Old ladies saying, ‘I really appreciate what you’re doing for the Dominicans and Hispanic people.’ It’s a lot of that. That’s why when you ask how I feel about the mixed emotions, I honestly don’t hear the negative shit. The positive stuff totally takes over. You also get a little girl who says I’ve been watching you guys and you’re helping me with my dreams. That’s the shit that drives me. I don’t listen to the negative.
What’s your situation as far as getting signed look like right now?
I’m still waiting to go on a tour, but for now we’re grinding and doing shows. I went to go talk to a school and we’re trying to set up a speech at Rikers Island to talk to the juveniles. I want to reach the younger group. If I’m touring, I want to be at a school during the day and then turning up and performing at a club at night. That’s the way I want to hit every city. I don’t want to be your average artist. I don’t want to be something that a label just put together. That’s why I didn’t even want to sign to a label. I just want to get out there and cause some kind of change. That’s all that matters.