How one small city rapper is putting it on for his hometown
In the midst of all the great music and artists that have emerged this year, Rochester, NY’s ISHMAEL fka Ishmael Raps has made his mark by continuing to prove why small city kids are up next.
With the release of his singles “Peace”, “Maria”, and “365”, ISH has made it clear that he intends to go above and beyond his origins as a rap artist displaying not only his lyrical prowess but vocality as well.
A year of self-reflection
Tactically ISHMAEL has used 2020 as a year of self-reflection. He’s taken pride in improving his craft on all aspects of his artistry.
In doing so, ISHMAEL’s efforts ultimately landed him the opportunity to collaborate with music legends like Grammy award-winning producer and songwriter Paul Epworth, as well as, legendary producer Mike Dean for his debut album Voyager that released in early September.
Accompanied by a star-studded feature list of artists like Vince Staples, Jay Electronica, Ty Dolla $ign, and Lianne La Havas to name a few, ISHMAEL’s performance was a standout component of the project.
On records like “Mars & Venus”, “Hyperspace”, “Binaural Trip”, and “Space Inc.”, ISH showcases his ability to intersect between various genres.
As the most frequently featured artist on the project, ISHMAEL held his own with the likes of Vince Staples, Elle Yaya, and Bibi Bourelly. On each track, he showed why his versatile skill set makes him one of the more exciting rising artists in music today.
One small city kid’s musical journey
I connected with the Rochester native for an in-depth interview. During our conversation, I was able to gain insight on ISHMAEL’s creativity. We discussed ISHMAEL’s solo work, his collaborative experience with Paul Epworth, his hometown and his journey to becoming the artist he is today.
In light of the negativity that has clouded this year, ISHMAEL used 2020 to advocate for his city. All while maintaining a routine to utilize his creativity.
ISHMAEL holds it down for Rochester
Recording music plays a large role in his daily schedule. Still, a balance of activities outside of music keep ISHMAEL mentally grounded.
ISH had embarked on his musical journey early in his life. He divulged into a childhood anecdote about the role his music teacher played. Especially, in evoking his aspirations to make music at nine-years-old.
His teacher presented the possibility for students to make the best song using classroom instruments. The grand prize? A feature on the radio. ISHMAEL saw this as his time to shine.
Despite the teacher’s CAP about the connection with the radio station, the challenge sparked the inspiration in ISH to continue making music.
Seeing his cousins make music and their own videos, ISHMAEL was driven to stay focused. Back then, he would work tirelessly on his craft. ISHMAEL further explained how his upbringing motivates him to strive for excellence in his music.
“First, of course, it [music] brings me joy, I think that’s why every artist should make art. Second, I want to continue to raise up my community and inspire my family.”ISHMAEL
The rapper continued, “I’m from Rochester, NY. Upstate, in general, there’s not a lot of representation for us in the music industry. Live shows don’t really happen where I’m from. If I can be that person to shed the light so my city can get more opportunities then I’m all for it. That’s why I always scream ‘Small city kids up next’ because I really stand by that.”
Being an artist from a small city, ISHMAEL has used Rochester’s lack of representation in the music industry as a motivational edge for him to go as hard as he can with his music.
While it has been a trend in Hip-Hop for small city rappers to forget where they’re from, ISH fully embodies his roots with the intention of opening more doors for future artists who come out of his city.
By helping to build the musical structure within Rochester, ISHMAEL is hoping to establish a feeling of encouragement for artists in the city.
Alongside his recording schedule, ISHMAEL used this year to continue experimenting with his sound. When speaking about his musical evolution ISH referred to a new sound that he’s had on the back burner since 2013..
In retrospect, the creation of this sound prompted ISHMAEL to drop “raps” from the end of his stage name.
A new sound
ISHMAEL felt that the former name was limited to the essence of his artistry. And he did not want his music to be defined by his raps. In hopes of debuting the new sound this year, ISHMAEL made a decision.
He wanted his music to provide the energizing feeling that songs like “Bimmer Music” and “Focused” provided to offset 2020’s draining reality.
While the anticipation for ISHMAEL’s new sound remains, the Rochester native did not leave his fans empty-handed. He released three heavy hitting singles including “Peace” which was accompanied by a music video that was released in March.
Working with legendary producer Switch and HBTL’s Ness, the creative energy brought ISHMAEL to new heights. In explaining the driving forces that inspired the records, ISHMAEL’s words revealed his careful and thoughtful approach to music.
For ISH Peace was interesting, he recorded the song while locked in a studio in LA, for a month. “I was locked in the studio for a month at this place called Bad Romantic every day… There was something about the day I made Peace…,” said the Rochester native.
He continued, “I heard the beat and I felt like nothing was going how it was supposed to. So I went back to the crib, threw on a hoodie, some sweatpants, and really took it to where it needed to go.”
It was time for ISH to lock-in. “I think the other thing with Peace is that I wanted to show my producer Switch what time it was. He sent me seven beats and I wanted to rap over all of them and Peace was the first one.”
“I wanted to set the tone for other people I work with in the future and my fans. There was a lot of energy that went into that record.”ISHMAEL
As far as the other singles, “Maria”, was produced by ISH’s boy Ness. He’s from Rochester as well. Growing up, the two went to basketball camp together and when Ness sent over a beat pack it was game over.
ISHMAEL said the first thing he sent back was Maria which was the first record where he experimented with his voice. ISH went on to shout Ness out for unlocking that creativity in him for the record.
“With “365”, my homie Novella who I grew up with as well said ‘I got this beat pack from this South African producer, I think this beat will suit you’ he plays me the record and I instantly go in,” said ISHMAEL.
He continued, “It started out with mumbles because that’s how I get the melody out, sat on it for a day and I eventually threw words on it after.”
With these records coming from a place of meditation and childhood connection, ISHMAEL channeled his introspective energy towards the execution of the music video for “Peace”.
Conceptualized and Co-directed by ISHMAEL himself, the video details a therapy session where ISH reflects back on his days growing up in Rochester to move past his experienced trauma. In the video ISHMAEL depicts the process that initiated his transformation from Ishmael Raps to ISHMAEL.
In comparison to ISHMAEL’s visuals for Bimmer Music that released in 2017, the video for Peace serves as a representation of how far ISHMAEL has come as an artist. ISH further expressed the importance of visual content in relation to his music and as a result will continue direct videos for records to come.
Pushing the music forward
Reflecting back on artists that have influenced him along the way, ISHMAEL attributes his influences to his name change and how the diversity in his music taste growing up helped craft his multifaceted sound.
Mentioning artists like Prince, D’angelo and Sid Vicious whose vibrant persona’s guided them to make groundbreaking music, ISHMAEL believes that artists like them are to be credited for pushing music forward.
ISH explained that a key aspect in their success was a collective desire to make music for self-fulfillment. ISHMAEL felt like it ultimately created the most relatable music as artists leave greater room for progression.
“ Fans come in and they can appreciate it or not, I feel like there was something unstoppable about certain artists up until the 2010’s I guess.”
That drip is important, tho
One thing that these artists have in common is their vibrant styles of dress that assist their personalities both in and out of the recording booth.
With fashion being a big part of ISHMAEL’s artistic expression he feels as though his dynamic sense of style is contributive towards the confidence he brings to his music.
For ISH, his style of dress is simply another form of expression that allows him to engage in dialogue that transcends verbally speaking.
Transitioning towards ISHMAEL’s work with Paul Epworth on his album Voyager, ISH went into detail about how the album’s creative process allowed him to step outside of his comfort zone.
Describing how the collaboration came to fruition, ISHMAEL reflected back to 2018 after performing at Orange County’s Day N Night festival. ISH would receive the news shortly after being woken up by his manager who let him know of Epworth’s desire to collaborate.
While this claim was met with a visceral reaction of uncertainty from ISHMAEL, he eventually put that aside to connect with Paul Epworth.
During their conversation, the Grammy award-winning musician declared ISH as the missing link to his album. As Epworth explained the concept of the album, ISH was challenged to push himself artistically in a way that he had never been before.
Upon flying out to London to work with Epworth and Mike Dean on the album, ISHMAEL recalls a special feeling that was present during the sessions that brought him to new heights.
Working on writing techniques and lyrical cadences with Epworth, ISHMAEL commented on how the process drove him to constantly find ways to improve the delivery of his lyrics regardless of its perceived completion.
Detailing the countless hours working on reference tracks and songs like “Space inc.” and “Mars & Venus”, ISHMAEL likens the strong connection that he made with the music on Voyager to that of his own album.
ISHMAEL is up for any challenge
Overall, ISHMAEL’s recording experience for Voyager was a special moment in the Rochester artist’s career. Not only for its collaborative nature but the growth that it brought him as an artist. ISHMAEL spoke adamantly about what this process taught him as an artist.
For fans who have known ISHMAEL from his beginning as Ishmael Raps, they would know that collaboration was uncommon.
ISHMAEL never opposed the idea. He has always challenged himself to do everything in his music. From the need for a rap verse to melodic vocals, ISH drove himself to do everything.
“ This is the first time I actually got to collaborate with people and I loved it because I learned so much from other people. ‘Space Inc.’ was already made when we brought it to Mike Dean but he added the synths on top of it, layering drums, and brought it to life even more. It shows you to go back and listen to your songs more, don’t be afraid to listen more. ”
Gaining momentum from the Voyager experience, ISHMAEL has no signs of slowing down mentioning that more visuals were on the horizon as well as an upcoming solo project.
Personally, I believe the versatility of ISHMAEL’s sound has all the components to take him to the next level. Aside from making dope music, speaking to ISHMAEL revealed the purity in his intentions behind the creativity of his music.
When it comes to Rochester rapper ISHMAEL, dynamic, and limitless are words that can be used to define his music. As ISH continues to release, I am confident that the world of music will feel the same way.
I want to give a big shoutout to Rob and Nidgel who helped bring this interview from an idea to reality and of course ISHMAEL for being authentically transparent throughout the conversation.
Fans should be on the lookout for new music from the Rochester native, but in the meantime, make sure to stream his singles “365”, “Maria”, and “Peace”.