Meet YTK, the Chill-Hop Rapper Learning to Be Vulnerable

“I’m not trying to cater to sounds and trends.”
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YTK Meet Interview, 2019

While you were playing with your Tech Deck, YTK was studying to become a rapper. Nineteen, rapping since the age of nine, soft-spoken, and hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, YTK occupies a unique lane. That is, he makes lo-fi R&B and chill-hop with a heavy hand in storytelling. His debut EP, BEREA, is a dusty and warm affair. Punchlines are laced with an unexpected maturity, and beneath his wordplay, you are poised to find a real emotional range.

“I was writing since I was nine years old,” YTK tells me over the phone. “When I was doing it, it wasn’t even cool to be rapping. Especially when you’re nine, nobody’s thinking about rap. Everybody’s playing with Tech Decks and stuff.”

After pressing play and speaking with YTK, I found him to be very exciting, especially since I have a Tech Deck on my desk. But for those keeping score, this means that for the past decade, YTK has been working on his writing and rapping, gearing up to be the next name you associate with the DMV.

After pouring over half your life into a craft that’s become so saturated, you’d expect YTK to feel some semblance of pressure, but it’s all good on his end. No pressure; he has faith in the music. “Of course I feel as though I’m different, but I don’t feel as though I need to prove it,” he tells me. “I feel as though it shows, or I have faith that it will.”

Perhaps most exciting about YTK is his understanding of restraint, releasing a six-track EP as his debut project.

“Right now, being so young and kind of new and releasing music, I just wanna experiment and do so many different things and so many different sounds,” he says. “It’s kinda hard to not release some stuff because of course, I like some sounds and some vibes, but it’s important to keep a cohesive sound.”

That restraint and quality control, above all else, is what will allow him to go far in the music industry. At only 13 minutes, BEREA is a complete offering that gives a nice glimpse into the mind of a bedroom studio rat. As for where YTK is going: “I’m not trying to force it. I’m trying to make something that’s real to me. I’m not trying to cater to sounds and trends.”

Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: What’s your favorite album?

YTK: Ooh, all-time? I’m gonna have to say Blonde by Frank Ocean. I just like the way he writes. It’s not too regular, but you can relate to it, still.

How did Blonde influence you when you first started making music?

Frank… The way I make music, is I try not to be influenced by styles, just by how people are as themselves. Frank was always, to me, you could tell he was really honest in his writing so I guess that influenced me in a way to be really honest and refine my stuff in that way.

Who else inspires you to be honest?

Childish Gambino, that’s another big one. Isaiah Rashad, for sure. AZ. Boogie, him too. That’s just another side to it because Frank Ocean, his lyrics, it’s really obscure and it feels like you really had to be there to understand what he was saying. Boogie, he’ll name drop, he’ll say where he was at. He’s really specific and you kinda feel like you’re there. Those are two different writing styles that I feel are really important in storytelling.

When did you realize you had a knack for writing?

I was writing since I was nine years old. When I first started making music, I was in a little group with my cousin. Whenever he used to come over—a party of a cookout—it was like “Yo, we should make this song about this,” but I’ve been writing for a really long time. I hadn’t released anything until 2017, which is crazy.

What’s the most rewarding thing about writing?

It’s really therapeutic. Getting the feelings out, getting experiences out by talking about things, sometimes I’ll realize stuff that I didn’t know I actually felt. It’ll come to the forefront, and on top of that, once I release it and people relate to it… That’s the most rewarding thing about it, for sure.

When everyone is trying to drop a debut project, why pursue something so saturated?

My whole thing is, it wasn’t saturated when I started doing it. So I don’t feel like I need to prove that I actually care. When I was doing it, it wasn’t even cool to be rapping. Especially when you’re nine, nobody’s thinking about rap. Everybody’s playing with Tech Decks and stuff. When it got saturated, I really don’t feel pressure. Of course, I feel as though I’m different, but I don’t feel as though I need to prove it. I feel as though it shows, or I have faith that it will.

YTK Meet Interview, 2019

So, talk to me about the debut EP. What did you want to communicate in six songs?

Talking about Frank Ocean, it was kind of an intricate way of telling specific stories about where I’m from, what experiences I’ve seen, how I feel… It was a really, what’s the word? It was an intricate way of telling people who I am, and an introduction to things I could do as a lyricist and a rapper. It’s kind of a baseline.

What’s the most important story you’re telling on the EP?

I would have to say “DUSSERITA,” ‘cause it’s really about a very specific feeling I was feeling, that I tried to encapsulate. Just the way I am, I’m kinda closed, guarded with my feelings. Whether it’s in music or with my family. So when I get “emotional” with stuff, that’s really some of my most vulnerable and important art to share.

Have you always had an easy time being vulnerable?

Nah! I really don’t. The only time I’m really vulnerable is in music and I have two people I can talk to about my feelings: my mom and my best friend. That’s really it. I’m definitely not really comfortable with being vulnerable, but I’m trying because it’s not cool to be all hard and closed off.

Is that your biggest challenge in making music?

It’s one of the biggest rewards. I can always find a way to express some of my closed up vulnerability in the music. That’s one of my one routes where I can [express myself]. It’s the easiest thing to do.

Biggest challenge putting the EP together?

The hardest part was getting cohesive sounds. That was one of my biggest goals for a debut project. I didn’t want it to sound all over the place with production and themes. I had to 10 songs at first, and I had to chop it down to a tight six.

Was that frustrating?

It was definitely difficult, but it was a challenge I welcomed. I was ready for it. Right now, being so young and kind of new and releasing music, I just wanna experiment and do so many different things and so many different sounds. It’s kinda hard to not release some stuff because of course, I like some sounds and some vibes, but it’s important to keep a cohesive sound.

Since hip-hop is so multiple, what lane do you see yourself wanting to occupy?

I feel like right now it’s cool for me to hang out in kinda the lo-fi, R&B, chill-hop kind of wave. Later on, I wanna transition to more R&B heavy… I’ll see where it goes. I’m not trying to force it. I’m trying to make something that’s real to me. I’m not trying to cater to sounds and trends.

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