One of the models in our fall men’s fashion campaign, 22-year-old rapper Deem Spencer, has a different angle on hip-hop. In a field known for brash extroverts, his songs are notably chill, with main themes of “fear, insecurity, being naive.” If you’re unfamiliar with Spencer’s music, start with his 2017 album We Think We Alone, which you can hear in our video below. Should you like what you hear, stay tuned to his SoundCloud and look out for his sixth project.
Spencer spoke to us about making music for calm kids, his city and his journey to his personal style.
What’s your experience of growing up in New York City?
It’s like a race. There are so many people. There are millions of kids. It feels like everyone’s racing to get ahead. To get out.
Do you know a lot about New York rap history?
Not really. I know like Notorious B.I.G., I know Jay-Z–that’s my mom’s favorite rapper; I know all the hits from In My Lifetime. But I wasn’t around in the ’90s. My earliest memory is probably ’99. Every hit after that is what I grew up on. 50 Cent was my favorite rapper, because he’s from where I’m from: Jamaica, Queens. My favorite 50 Cent song is “Patiently Waiting.” Or “Many Men.” Great melodies. That album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, really shook up the neighborhood. Imagine you’re seven years old and the biggest superstar in the world is from your neighborhood. Rapping about your neighborhood. And his persona is a gangster superhero, he’s got a durag and a bulletproof vest, he’s brolic and he survived several shots. Clearly if he got shot nine times, it’s a rough place. But that magnified it. So many people thought they were 50 Cent. So many people thought they were G-Unit, and were literally playing the role. There was a lot of fights, a lot more violence. Being seven, I was pretty sheltered. But it was exciting. Because it was the biggest thing in the world, and I was seeing it all around me. I love 50 Cent. It’s how kids probably felt about Shaft.
Let’s talk about some of the stuff now. There’s a lo-fi/underground rap scene bubbling. How much do you feel like you’re a part of it?
There’s a community. I’ve got my people I started with, but as far as the scene in New York, it’s so spread out. Me personally, I don’t know many artists that I haven’t met out here. It’s people I know. Standing on the Corner. MIKE. sLUms. Ratking. I met a lot of those guys. I met them at shows, just getting out in the scene, and having mutual respect for each other’s music. It’s exciting to build with people who know what you’re trying to build.
What age were you when Ratking came out?
Wiki93 was in 2012. I was 17. I found out about Ratking through this Complex article, “20 Best Rappers Under 20,” and I was under 20, so I was looking to see who else was out. Wiki [from Ratking] was on the list and I studied his s–t. It was exciting to see artists within the age group, because that was new. Before 2012, I don’t remember a big wave of young kids getting liked. Some of the first young kids I saw getting liked were Joey Badass, Chief Keef, Wiki, Earl.
It’s easy to get burned out on negative SoundCloud rap. A lot of the new New York stuff we’re talking about is more cerebral, not as much turn-off-your-brain.
You need balance as a listener. There’s somebody for everybody. There’s someone for every mood. I’m excited for there to be more stuff for the calm kids. The quiet kids. That’s who I try and make sh–t for. People like me who aren’t really out there, getting in trouble, causing trouble. But at the same time, have a response for all the trouble out there. I like to talk about emotions, stuff that people don’t really address too often. Like fear, insecurity, being naive. I don’t always want to be the hero in the story.
What you’re doing is vulnerable, but there’s strength in those themes.
I’m surprised how well things have been working out for me. I didn’t expect so many people to gravitate toward my music. I thought it would be just kids like me. People whose lives mirror mine. But everybody’s scared.
It is exciting to have people care about what I’m saying. The attention is new. This is one of the first times I’m popular. Adapting to that, I feel this is an opportunity to be more than human for a sec. By that I mean, humans don’t live forever. If people are going to be listening to me forever, I can make that interesting. I don’t know how to describe it exactly. But it’s going to be exciting. I’m going to try my best to keep my music exciting.
How has your sound evolved?
I started rapping in 2010. I was 15. Wayne was on top. Well, Wayne was fizzling out. But he was one of my favorites of all time. My early s–t, I was rapping over everything that came out at the time, like Wiz Khalifa had just come out, Rick Ross was buzzing, and I didn’t have a style. By the time I developed a style, Kendrick had come out, and that was the best rap I’d ever heard. A lot of my raps were just raps. I didn’t do hooks until 2015. It took me five years to try and make some appealing music, like song-songs. I started out just with bars. Bars forever. It’s different from what I’m doing now. I’ve toned it down over time. I didn’t want to just impress people [anymore]. I was trying to be better than Kendrick when I started. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t, that’s how hard I was going. But over time, I understood: nobody wants me to be better than Kendrick. They want me to be entertaining. They want to enjoy my music. They don’t want me to cancel anyone out. Plus, you gotta be more expressive than you are impressive. My first tape was in 2012. We Think We Alone is my fifth tape.
You’re no longer trying to outrap Kendrick, but you’re still wanting to make a grand statement.
Kendrick taught me the power of a great album. Section.80…. He just makes great albums. That’s his thing. I want to follow suit. I want to make a great album that only I can make.