Meet S’natra, the Harlem Rapper We Can All Relate To

“Every time somebody doesn’t tell their story, there’s way less people who can be like, ‘Oh, man, someone understands me.’”
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When it comes to creative careers, there’s often a do-or-die mentality. Either we make it right now, or we never will. Pair that with the notion that hip-hop is a young man’s game, and it’s easy to imagine how discouraging pursuing a life-long career in hip-hop could.

But not for 31-year-old rapper S’natra, whose love for music began while sifting through his father’s record collection. A military man in the Dominican Republic, his father traveled often and collected classic records from the likes of Frank Sinatra and Otis Redding. 

“My dad didn’t even know English at the time, he just had a good ear for this shit—he just loved it,” S’natra tells me gleefully over the phone.

It was that unabashed love for music that kept the spirit of creativity alive in S’natra as he dropped out of college and trudged through countless shitty jobs to fund his music career. “I’ve probably had like 16 terrible jobs where I’ve been up at four in the morning and getting home at 1 a.m., but I was still writing rhymes on receipt paper,” he recalls. “It was just the love of the music that kept me going.”

All the while, S’natra, a native of Harlem, studied the greats and practiced writing his own stories so they could be as relatable as possible. “I started thinking about my story and figuring out the relatability factor with people because we all go through the same things just in different places with different people at different times,” he explains. “But the experience, the emotion you get, it’s all the same.”

Parsing through those experiences allowed him to finally craft and release his debut project, Subject to Change, a portrait of the many life-changing moments and pivots that helped S’natra grow into a stronger man and even more capable musician. Delivering poignant stories over a bed of live instrumentation from Brasstracks, Subject to Change stands to be one of the year’s most lively and resonant releases.

DJBooth’s full interview with S’natra, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: What’s your first musical memory?

S'natra: I think it’d have to be back in the day, my pops was in the military in the [Dominican Republic]. He used to travel a lot and collect records. So all the oldies were my introduction to music: Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding, that kind of stuff. My dad didn’t even know English at the time, he just had a good ear for this shit—he just loved it.

Having spent some of your childhood in the Dominican Republic, how did that influence you and your music?

It was really crazy. I was born in Harlem, and then I went to the DR when I was two, and I didn’t come back until I was nine. I gotta say, having my parents keep that musical foundation real solid for me when I was coming up was just one of the things that made sure that music wasn’t just a hobby. It became part of my everyday life. When I go outside and I see something happening, I’ll probably start freestyling about it [laughs] you know what I’m saying? It’s such a part of me; they made sure that music wasn’t just a mood.

Have you had a do-or-die moment with music?

When I told my parents I was gonna drop out of college. Nobody in my family ever did any kind of entertainment. My mom, she worked on this TV program back in the DR. She was the head of the choreography program, and she would choreograph all these other dancers to these artists that would come to the DR to raise money for the town.

Aside from that, when I told them, I was like, “Yo, I’m writing rhymes during class. I’m not really paying attention. I’m starting to go to more shows…” They were like, “Man, nobody in our family has ever done this, we don’t fuck with this, but what can we do?” For a little bit, I didn’t get any support from them because they thought I was throwing my life away. They knew that they helped me love music, but they didn’t know that I took it that seriously.

When did they come around?

I just kept telling them, “Yo, I’m gonna do this show here and I’m gonna do this show over there.” Then when Ivan [of Brasstracks] finally hit me to go on tour, my mom was like, “Alright, I understand if you’re just chilling in the hood, but you’re about to get on a plane and go where?” That was kinda like the eye-opening experience for her.

From experience, children of immigrants carry this guilt for not taking a more traditional route because of the sacrifices of our parents.

I think, naturally, I started feeling that because, of course, as people, we want support from family. I did feel a little resentment at first, but then I stepped back and thought they really went to a whole other country, learned the language, and did all these crazy jobs just to make sure me and my little sister are good. So there was that back and forth, but they’re doing and did everything they could do for me, so now it’s my time to step up and show them.

You’re don’t sound like anyone else in New York, but you’re definitely a city guy. What are the elements of the city that must go in the music?

Damn, if you asked me this five years ago, I would’ve had a more concrete answer. Whenever I hear somebody from New York, like a Dave East, there’s an element of storytelling that New York rappers will definitely have at the end of the day to separate themselves. When you listenin’ to artists, it’s like, “Okay, this dude is the man, his songs are dope,” but you don’t really feel like you know that person. [New York] artists, you feel like you know them, you have a personal connection with them. You feel like they walked the same streets you walked. It’s something about the way that the scene is portrayed lyrically that gives it that New York vibe because I don’t even know if there’s a New York sound anymore.

Do you consider yourself a natural storyteller, or did you have to push yourself?

I wasn’t a natural-born storyteller. I think I just put in hundreds of hours of research. Like, listening to André 3000 and Nas and all of these cats, I was listening to their stories and then when it came down for me to write my shit—this is crazy, I don’t think I’ve ever said this out loud—I used to kind of write my raps like almost in the form of an outline for a story. Like I’d have a beginning, body, conclusion and that helped me stay on pace.

I started thinking about my story and figuring out the relatability factor with people because we all go through the same things just in different places with different people at different times. But the experience, the emotion you get, it’s all the same. We all get happy, sad, hungry, tired.

Working with Brasstracks sets you apart. How did you connect with them?

I connected with Ivan [Jackson] around high school. I think I ran into him at a couple parties at first, and people were telling me to check him out. We kicked it one time and spoke about music and never really locked in until two years later at a show at Webster Hall. He was playing trumpet and there was this other dude rapping and I was just watching the show like, “Damn! This is cool as fuck. This would be ill if I was up there with a trumpet player and a keyboardist,” because I’ve always loved The Roots’ style of music. When I saw that, it was the beginning of me trying to focus in on being more of a musical, technical rap dude. That just unlocked something and made me think about songwriting more and I feel like have way more of a voice with these beats. 

Not every MC can operate with a band. What’s your approach?

Whenever I’m listening to something, I’m listening but I’m also imagining the live scene. I love performing, so every time I’m writing, I’m also thinking about what it would be like at the live show. I’ve watched people like Kendrick, who is an amazing performer with a live band, and I also go back and see shit that my pops put me on to, like James Brown, and it’s almost like they’re not separate. Like, the frontman is not separate from the band, the band is like an extension of the frontman.

There’s so much technical shit, but it’s fun, it’s like putting together a puzzle. It’s like you have the same pieces to this puzzle, but every time you sit down to make this puzzle, the pieces fit in a different spot. And when you’re done, you get the same beautiful picture.

Which brings us to the title of the project, Subject to Change.

So the funny shit is, I didn’t even have the title for the project. After we recorded a couple songs, I just told Ivan, “Alright, this is just subject to change, like whatever it’ll be later, I’ll think about it.” And the more I played with that title, the more it started to make sense. It just captured everything going on in my life like, subject to change is a change of scenery, a change of sound, a change of mentality.

On this one Kendrick album [GKMC] his mom is on one of the voicemails telling him this is a start of a new life, a different life, and when I heard that, this is what Subject to Change was for me. It was that project that changed everything for me as a person and as a musician.

With that, was there ever a moment where you’ve felt like maybe it’s too late for you? How do you overcome that?

There was one point where I kinda started feeling like that, but then I remembered that JAY-Z didn’t drop Reasonable Doubt until he was 28 and that was like the start of his career. I feel like everybody has those insecurities. If it’s not “Am I too old?” it’s “Am I good enough? Do I look a certain way?” Naturally, people think about this shit, but me, I was just so focused.

I just had the love for music, it just kept me in one lane constantly thinking about how to make my music better. I won’t lie, I’ve probably had like 16 terrible jobs where I’ve been up at four in the morning and getting home at 1 a.m., but I was still writing rhymes on receipt paper. It was just the love of the music that kept me going. It made me disregard all of the insecurities that I had, which is a crazy zone to get into. If you make music, I hope that everybody has a chance to get into that zone because when you’re in that zone, nothing else matters, just the music.

Exactly.

You just gotta remember what makes you happy at the end of the day and just go back to that place. If that’s not the vibe and you’re upset and want to portray that in your music, go back to that one thing that made it hard for you. Chances are, there’s a bunch of people that went through that same thing and every time somebody doesn’t tell their story, there are way less people who can be like, “Oh, man, someone understands me.” We all just wanna be understood.

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