Caleb Steph won’t be Virginia’s best-kept secret for long. The 20-year-old spitter and storyteller carries himself with an attractive humility that permeates his music and makes him one of the most endearing rising acts of 2019. His first favorite rapper was Lil Bow Wow. He recorded his first rap at 12 on his cellphone camera. He promises to never give up on his dream. He just loves music. What could be better?
“It was just one of those things I never really saw as a talent, even still,” Steph says of his knack for rapping. “It was always just something like… It was life to me. I live it and breathe it. I just do it how somebody might do something every day. I just do it; it feels good to me.”
Yet, for as empathic and cheery as Caleb Steph sounds, his music has a heavy tone. His debut, Bellwood Product, set for release on April 11, is laced with tales of gun violence and pain. Though Caleb strews optimism throughout (“it’s a product of an environment, not a victim”) the weight of Bellwood Product is immense. There is anguish all over the debut, but the music itself is not overwrought or pitiful. Caleb Steph reveals himself to be adept at telling the truth of a place and time without editorializing it into the ground. He’s a natural storyteller in that regard.
“It’s a certain mentality that you see in different communities and different places that you live in,” he says. “This goes on everywhere. All of those feelings, things that I’ve learned, things that I’ve seen; I let those stories get told on this project. You get songs that are five minutes long, that’s because that’s one movie. I took that approach on every song.”
Talented as they come, Caleb Steph is not without his hardships, admitting to me that just last year, he wanted to give up on music. Of course, he didn’t.
“One of the mistakes I made was paying attention [to other people] instead of just looking at my situation,” he says. “I just come back to knowing that whatever they’re doing has nothing to do with what’s going on over here, on my side. I need to remember that at all times.”
“A lot of things are gonna try and stop you, on a journey like this. You have to know how to navigate around it, and you have to know to never give up,” Steph concludes with some pep in his voice.
Our full conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: What album made you want to make music?
Caleb Steph: It was a gift to me—I can’t remember which Lil Bow Wow CD it was. I had this Lil Bow Wow CD and I thought the CD was tough, it was so dope to me. I think that kinda sparked something within like, “Yo, I’m young, but I can do stuff like this.” Lil Bow Wow was my first favorite rapper, ever.
Who was responsible for forming your early music tastes?
I gotta give it to my parents, my aunts, and my uncles, they’ve always been into music. I was always listening to all kinds of different music, going to family members’ houses.
What were your first demos like?
My first song, it’s funny… When I first started, when I was 12 years old, I produced it myself. It was a freestyle. My dad saw I’m trying to rap, so my dad went and bought me a mic and a little beat pad. Soon as I figured out how to use it a little bit, I made my first beat. I wrote lyrics to it and I recorded my first song, using the video on the phone. I got a video of myself rapping the song, and I showed it to my dad. He recorded me on the software, and that was that.
Then I went into the boom bap influence when that came around again. Once Joey Bada$$ and stuff like that came out, that’s when I found out about MF DOOM and J Dilla, and it just kept building from there.
What did it feel like when you realized you had a knack for rapping?
It was just one of those things I never really saw as a talent, even still. It was always just something like… It was life to me. I live it and breathe it. I just do it how somebody might do something every day. I just do it; it feels good to me.
How has being from Virginia influenced your style?
Virginia is tight because it’s kinda like a melting pot, but the area I’m from, it’s got the Southern flavor in there. So you got all these things mixed with the Southern flavor. The trends were always cool, but they not flipping it like this. I flip a trend and turn it into something else. Virginia is tough, man. It’s dope out there. Something in the water, definitely.
What was the sonic inspiration behind Bellwood Product? Because you’re right, it’s not trendy.
I’m Caleb Steph with these songs. I know who I am as an artist and a musician. I know what I wanna talk about. It’s important that I let it be known what my foundation is, in terms of the music. I took inspiration from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Ready To Die, good kid, m.A.A.d city. All the ones I listened to front-to-back and my mind was blown. I just took little remnants of these things, and that’s how the project came about.
You tread very serious topics, but the music is very sonically pleasing. How do you strike that balance?
I’ve always been the one where whenever I would make songs, I would let the beat speak to me first. I have the lyrics down, I have what I want to say in me. Like in a little safe. When it meets the beat, it’s always beautiful. It’s like forming a little relationship. I’m forming eharmony relationships with the lyrics and the beats. I just always had a thing for beats that had words before you put words on ‘em. Talking to each other to form a beautiful conversation.
You lace a lot of optimism into this project. How do you keep your head above water?
It’s very hard to do, sometimes. I definitely do get in moods and moments where it’s like, “Man, what’s going on? Is it worth it? Does it matter?” As soon as I think about that, I flip the switch like, “Of course it matters!” A lot of things have happened in my life that remind me I have to keep going. Really, those periods are a reminder that it’s happening on purpose. Like, it’s okay to question things sometimes, because you navigate to the answer within your questioning.
When’s the last time you wanted to give up? Why didn’t you?
The last time I wanted to give up, it was probably a year ago. I wanted to give up because, again, some things on the outside change your mind. Things were getting to me, man. I know what I have, and I know the gift that I have. But certain things, man, I get discouraged. Things might not come out the way I want them to come out, and I look around like “You got people who don’t care, really, that it seems like they’re thriving and flourishing.” One of the mistakes I made was paying attention [to other people] instead of just looking at my situation. I just come back to knowing that whatever they’re doing has nothing to do with what’s going on over here, on my side. I need to remember that at all times.
Things are never easy when you look like you’re trying to accomplish the impossible. A lot of things are gonna try and stop you, on a journey like this. You have to know how to navigate around it, and you have to know to never give up. Patience and persistence are key. I’ve been so patient, man. Before I even put the music out, I made sure a lot of things were in place.
What’s the most important story you’re telling on Bellwood Product?
It was a lot of stories put into one. I called it Bellwood Product because it’s a product of an environment, not a victim. This is a time that I felt a major shift. I saw a lot and I learned a lot in the time I lived in Bellwood. It’s a certain mentality that you see in different communities and different places that you live in. This goes on everywhere. All of those feelings, things that I’ve learned, things that I’ve seen; I let those stories get told on this project. You get songs that are five minutes long, that’s because that’s one movie. I took that approach on every song.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned about yourself while making this project?
I learned a lot of personal things. I was going through a lot of personal things while creating this album. A lot of things spoke through me when it came to this album. I tapped into things I had never tapped into before. Sometimes I’d get in the mood while I was writing, and it feels like a blackout moment. You get done writing, then you record it, then you reflect on it and you can’t even fathom what you just created because in a sense it felt like it wasn't you. It was some higher thing speaking through you. I learned about that feeling.