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From Saba to Smino to Solo: An Interview With Producer-Turned-Artist Phoelix

The producer and artist who's worked with Saba, Noname and Smino is making a statement all his own.

“I’ve always had things to say, I just haven’t necessarily known how to say them.”

Phoelix’s musical history is also his family history. His uncle, Ray White, played with Frank Zappa. Every instrument you could think of, Phoelix had access to from an early age—be it the drum set in the basement or a guitar lying around in church. He got into production at age 16, from there he went on to meet Saba at one of his shows, and the rest is Chicago music history.

When Phoelix produces for an artist, he needs to know more about who they are and less about how they rap. Hence why his work with Noname, Saba and Smino has him building dense soundscapes that capture the essence of who they are as artists. Hence why his debut solo project, GSLP, is steeped in introspection and self-discovery. Stepping out from behind the boards gave him an enjoyable level of control, which manifested in the unique—still somehow familiar—sound of the record.

As a pastor’s son, people often expect his music to be gospel in nature, but from the stylization of the title to the cover to the gravity of the content on the project, Phoelix subverts all expectations. GSPL is a statement piece about his identity, and how little of it is derived from the path his father chose.

Phoelix describes the time leading up to the writing of GSLP as tumultuous: “I wouldn’t call it a low, but I knew I had to do something for myself to release that energy and that tension.”

Music and family continued brushing shoulders, inspiring the framework of the project. The conflict and message on GSPL had been bubbling inside of Phoelix for years, but it wasn’t until a trip with his father to the Virgin Islands that the tension finally boiled over. The Virgin Islands was also the birthplace of the project’s defining intro track “Red Beans & Rice.” While by the end of the record we are met with a huff of breath and some resolution, Phoelix explains that “There’s no winning point in life, you just continue to grow and learn about yourself.”

During a recent phone conversation, Phoelix and I discussed his musical upbringing, his work within the Chicago scene, his relationship with spirituality, the mental space that prompted the writing of this album, and his next steps as a solo artist.

You grew up in Fox Valley, IL, an hour or so southwest of Chicago. What was that experience like?

I enjoyed my childhood. I was blessed to grow up in a happy home. In church, there was some conflict as I got older, just the judgment that comes with being a pastor’s kid. I did have a typical suburban childhood, but I think a common issue is being black in suburbs. You’re always looked at like, “Oh you’re not from here, you don’t belong here.” But this is where I grew up. Then on the opposite end, in the city, they’d be like, "You’re not from here either, you’re from the suburbs.” So that concept of not belonging anywhere forced a lot of us to create something for ourselves to call our home.

How much of your musical style can you credit to that conflict?

All of it! I can credit my entire artistry to that conflict because it forced me to not conform. There was never a place that felt like it was mine, so I had to make something of my own.

I know you have a musical family, so what was music’s role in your childhood?

My dad’s brother, Ray White, he played with Frank Zappa in the '70s. Watching him be famous and go to Guitar Center, and just be given guitars? That was crazy to me as a child. My dad played bass growing up, my brother plays drums. Everybody does something musical in my family. It’s made it easy to get to the music. I had a lot of resources as far as instruments and being in church, I was always around a drum set or a guitar. There was always something to play. My dad started me on drums when I was little—there’s a drum set and keyboard in our basement. At 17, I started playing bass.

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Over the past year, you've worked with Saba, Noname and Smino. How did you connect with all of these artists?

Ralph Gene was this drummer, and he was playing a gig in October of 2015. He was telling me about this Saba gig and told me to come with him. I had been a Saba fan for two or three years before that, so I was excited. At the Saba show, I met Noname and Smino on the same day. Then I just started working him on everything— Telefone, Bucket List [Project], blkswn. All the tours, too. It all just happened right after we met. It’s a really enriching friendship. They’ve all helped me a lot and built my confidence as an artist.

Around the time Telefone was released, Saba revealed that the two of you formed a production duo—can you elaborate on working with Saba behind the boards?

It’s just so natural working him, even from the very beginning. The first beat we made, we went back and forth like, "Let me see what you’re going to do.” Or he’d be like, “I can see you’re going crazy. Let me just let you do you.” We started trusting each other. I’d do keyboard stuff and he’d do drums, then we’d switch. It was so organic because we loved everything we were doing. It felt like we could do anything, and he made me a better producer. He showed me a lot of techniques and put me on to Ableton.

GSPL feels like your proper debut. How did you know it was time to drop this project?

I’ve always had things to say, I just haven’t necessarily known how to say them. I was around so many talented artists, and I was taking notes and learning. I got to a point in my life where I felt like I was going to explode. I wouldn’t call it a low, but I knew I had to do something for myself to release that energy and that tension. This project was the best and safest way for me to do that.

When you work with other people, it’s different because you have to compromise a lot more. There’s nothing like speaking for yourself. As much as I am in love with Telefone and Bucket List, those don’t fully speak to me. That’s Noname and Saba, and me helping execute their voices. With this project, I was able to be fully me and say what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it. I knew I would get to this project eventually, but this was the time.

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What was the catalyst for you knowing that “the project” would be GSPL?

I knew this would be the project when I made the first song “Red Beans & Rice.” I was in the Virgin Islands, and me and my dad were in this weird place of not fully rocking with each other. Neither one of us said that we weren’t rocking with each other, we were kind of being cordial, and then he took me to the Virgin Islands. I was in this bad mood and frustrated, so I started making this song so I could experience the whole thought. It wasn’t even just him, there were a few things that were happening. From that point, I started writing and producing a lot.

When I got back to Chicago, I started recording all of the stuff I had been writing. Then it became, “I gotta record this project. I gotta make this project. I gotta find a way to make this cohesive and get this thought out.” What’s crazy is, before I called it GSPL, it was supposed to be called DNA. Then Kendrick dropped his album, and I realized that title was cooked. So I had to rethink what the project meant to me, and it became GSPL.

How was your process different putting together this solo project as opposed to working behind the scenes for another artist?

Working with other artists is more so about waiting for responses. If I wasn’t with you, I would send you something and wait to hear what you think about it and what you want to change. With my own project, I can spend more time thinking about it because I can make changes quicker. The control factor is really the biggest difference. I don’t have a problem with either, but with someone else’s project, you’re always trying to work with someone else’s thought. That’s why this project sounds different from my other stuff because there is more of me and my own approach to music.

I read that when you produce for someone, it’s critical that you also know them as a person—more critical than understanding how they rap. How much more did you have to learn about yourself before you could produce a project for yourself?

A whole lot. That’s why it also took so long for me to get to this project. I’ve been producing since I was 16. I’ve been writing and recording since I was about 20, and I’ve been in a rap duo. All that time, I didn’t feel like I was in a space where I could really finish anything. Sometimes, I could only write a single verse at a time, sometimes I couldn’t really finish a verse. I had to discover myself as an artist, had to find myself and my style. I had to be comfortable with myself. That’s also why this project came out now. This project has even helped me know myself more than I did a year ago.

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You have a complex definition and understanding of religion and spirituality. What is the origin story there?

At the start of “Red Beans & Rice,” I get at this idea that I’m not my dad, and I’m not this person that y’all think I’m supposed to be. People assume that I’m going to come up and be a pastor like my dad, but I’m not trying to do that. I think there’s a whole list of expectations that comes with religions and limitations. Spirituality is not about any of that. Religion is a calculated and even miscalculated system. Spirituality is very different. “Temptation” is definitely about spirituality.

I played the entire project for my mom. My family, they’re very religious people. They’re a church family. The one response they had after I played it was, “Is there a clean version? Is there a version with no cussin’ on it? I don’t like hearing you this mad.” It’s as if my music is supposed to sound a certain way, is supposed to be gospel. If they were listening to the actual words, they would have heard a lot of biblical references that they would understand and appreciate.

You highlight this struggle and subversion on the cover.

The church being on fire, it’s a symbol of what’s happening in religion now. The Church in itself started out being something completely different, and I feel like it’s being destroyed now. Me standing outside it, with my dreads still out, is because I don’t consider myself in religion. I don’t consider myself a religious person. It’s like, "It’s burning down, what are we going to do? Are we going to fix this? How are we going to fix this?” Things aren’t right now, the way that it’s a business and money-driven. The cover poses the question, “What can the church do to heal itself, to make it what it was?”

“Temptation” is my favorite track off the project, particularly because of its potent imagery. Break down the creation of that record.

The track paints a picture of being in this dark space, searching for a way out, but not really getting anywhere. Then, you find yourself at the end, and you’re still where you are, but the sun is kind of coming out so it’s not as scary as it was before. It’s a mental space that makes you feel like you’re in danger. That’s what temptation is, something that’s in your mind and that you can conquer with your spirit. A little bit of the track isn’t to that point. Some of the song gets at issues that we deal with: black on black crime, police killings, and the things that people do to retaliate. It’s about staying focused on what’s important and keeping our hearts and minds strong.

My grandpa once told me to never argue with a fool, because all a fool cares about is difference.

“Heartless Sonata” is very somber journey. Where were you trying to lead us as the song progresses?

I made that song way before I made any of the other ones. It starts off with the piano and takes you to this place where you’re sitting by yourself in your room, thinking about heartbreak. I dealt with that a lot, being in relationships and having people fall through. It’s not anything profound lyrically, it’s more about combining sounds and textures.

“Tom & Jerry Outro” works so well because it resolves the emotions on “Heartless Sonata,” but the title of the song implies we are still chasing something.

It’s this endless type of journey. There’s no winning point in life, you just continue to grow and learn about yourself. You’re always going to experience the same things over and over. So “Tom & Jerry” at the end, if you play it on repeat, you kind of forget that it ends. It’s endless and it’s timeless.

With GSPL out now, what's next for you?

A couple things. I have more songs, of course. Hopefully, you’ll see me on the stage pretty soon. I’m back in the studio and recording a lot. It feels great, I feel like a different person.



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