Hailing from San Francisco, creative powerhouse Zachg does it all; rapping, beats, mixing and mastering, video production, album artwork, clothing, even dancing. Zachg went above and beyond in our email-based interview, and I enjoyed reading every answer he gave.
What sort of music did you grow up with before you discovered hip-hop?
None really. I didn’t really get into music till I got heavy into skateboarding. I didn’t have anyone older to school me on shit, and I wasn’t really allowed to watch MTV or anything. Once I got into skateboarding though I really identified with all the punk music, and they put hip-hop in those videos.
What other genres have you experimented with?
I have 4 solid years of training playing Indian classical music. Been studying tabla since 2004 I believe. But don’t play much anymore. I used to make very zoned out experimental music that was focused on drones and atmospheres surrounding drums. Also spent a lot of time just doing field recordings, as well as composing experimental stuff that was similar to John Cage. I got my MA at NYU doing research on the history of sampling and avant garde music. Rappin was the first music I started doing, which lead to a lot of other stuff that all lead me back to rappin.
How did you first get turned on to rap music?
(Laughs) skate videos. I used to dub tapes off the VHS and play ‘em in my car. There was nowhere to get rap music where I lived.
When did you first start rapping?
Started rapping in 2000, or 99. 99 really, but 20000 formally. I used to freestyle these funny songs when one of my homies played guitar. Then once I got to college the dudes across the hall of my apartment had a microphone, so me and my homie Giuseppe started recording these freestyle tapes called Dirty Grandpas. Eventually I got tired of just rapping over radio beats, and the same dudes with the mic gave me a cracked version of Fruity Loops. From there I started making beats. I also started battling really heavy around the same time. This was 2000-2003 in Orlando, which was an AMAZING place for rap music. We had an incredibly diverse scene, and the dudes from back then who were battling went on to found Grind Time.
Who was the emcee who really inspired you to begin rapping?
Damn, that’s a tough one. It was probably The Grouch though. At that time I was crazy into Living Legends, and to me that dude was a respectable rapper and a respectable human being at the same time, which was kinda unheard of at the time (laughs).
Has your family been supportive of your musical pursuits?
Not till recently. I caught a lot of shame and pressure from them for a long time. Which is why I went and got an MA. I was trying to stay true to myself and please them at the same time. To me being a professor of music was a viable option cause it was something my family could understand. Thankfully that didn’t work out completely, and I never got a PhD. We hit a breaking point at the end of last year though. It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done, but I basically told them “either you respect me and my choices or you’ll never hear from me again.” It still hurts to talk about. I have a very close relationship with my family. On one hand they really empowered me to feel strong and to follow my heart, but on the other hand they fought real hard to try and force me to do what they wanted. Thankfully though they listened when I told them they had to quit meddling and be supportive. We have a much better understanding now. It’s cool now. My folks called me on Monday before my show to wish me luck, and they called the next day to see how it went.
When did you begin to realize that you had something that people wanted to hear and that your rap could be something more than just a hobby?
(Laughs) to be honest there are still some days where I doubt whether or not people care about what I do, but that’s really just the human elements of an eternal struggle. I will tell you though, that from the moment I started rapping anytime I ever rapped in front of people, I have always gotten tons of praise from folks of all walks of life. It always feels good when some crazy thuggin dude, comes up to me and is all “man I was really feelin what you were sayin.” But, when I realized I wasn’t going to be a professor, I took stock of my life because it was time to make a career choice. And the thing I was best-qualified for, the thing I had spent the most time doing, the thing that I was most clearly excellent at was rapping. It wasn’t until 2009 that I got real serious about it, and at that point it was a pretty objective decision based on the fact that aside from smoking weed, there is nothing that has come more naturally to me.
How would you describe yourself stylistically?
My shit is and isn’t at the same time. I’ve studied tons of different musicians and musics, and pulled little pieces from everything. I look at myself like a Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan; I just tell my story as a young Jewish man trying to realize myself, and I try to pass on the wisdom I’ve found. And of course have fun. It’s about being responsible to my music history knowledge, but being accountable to my peers in the present.
What do you believe makes you different from other modern day emcees?
Well for one I’m at the older end of the spectrum, which I feel gives me different perspective and different priorities. So in that sense, my business acumen is largely beyond the scope of my peers. But that’s cause I been working more than half my life. I’ve had easily 30 jobs, and I’ve learned a lot about how to run a business. So that just makes me more viable as a business, which is basically the unspoken half of being a rapper.
I make my own beats, record myself, mix and master my own records, and do my own videos (direct shoot, edit, and do the titles). I also do the artwork and PR for all my stuff. There isn’t anyone else I know of that’s fuckin with me on that level. Most of these rappers don’t even know what phantom power is, and the moment you were to make them create something entirely on their own you’d have a radically different impression of them. No matter what happens, my show goes on. Always, and there is never a discrepancy in the quality regardless of what happens.
Being a music critic for Mishka. That gives me a whole different perspective on this because I don’t just listen to what I like. I listen to everything to see what it’s doing.
And really just my knowledge of music, and my personality.
What is the story behind Radreef? What does Radreef encompass?
Rad Reef is my brand. Originally it was a cannabis delivery service based in the area. I had started it with the intention of having a cannabis delivery service that was also a lifestyle brand. If you look at the cannabis industry there is very little conception of branding, let alone successful executions of it. For me it was obvious that if I was starting a business, which I was, it would have to be more than just cannabis to really be successful and fulfilling. And so, when it came time to start fleshing out the brand creating a logo, building a color palette, establishing affiliations and so forth it was natural for me to just graft my life onto the business.
Unfortunately on the day when I filed my last piece of paperwork with the city (I was living in Berkeley at the time) I got hit by a car as I was riding back to my place. That put a pretty firm kibosh on me doing deliveries on my bike. But, I had just spent the last 4 or 5 months building out the front end of a business that was now without a backend. So, I just dropped the cannabis part and started fleshing Rad Reef out as my own fledgling Mishka. Working with those dudes has shown me a lot, and I know I’ve got the right mind state to follow in their footsteps with something different.
When I founded Rad Reef I had to make it a not-for-profit mutual benefit corporation, and form a collective in order to comply with cannabis regulations. Legally, a collective is a very loosely defined term in California, and it just means a bunch of people who share a cause. When Rad Reef ceased being a cannabis business outright (we still promote cannabis, and cannabis-related issues pretty heavy) it didn’t cease being a collective. Yes, we sell t-shirts and stickers, and records but there is an additional element to the business that is designed to help a group of people with a common cause.
Artists are rarely people with sufficient capital to live out their lives to the fullest. And while I cannot do anything to influence how much money someone makes, I can do a lot to influence how much someone’s money is worth. And for that reason Rad Reef offers a host of goods at cost. You can think of us like Costco, except we have the goods catered to the lives of young artists, and we sell them at actual wholesale prices. The idea is to provide artists with the materials they need, as well as very basic goods like alternative apparel t-shirts, Pilot G2 pens, moleskin notebooks at cost. You pay a small fee for a yearly membership to Rad Reef ($20 or so), and then you can purchase goods at cost plus tax, shipping, and a 1 or 2 dollar processing fee per item. It removes the notion of profiting off of basic goods. I personally think it’s ridiculous that we have to pay more for stuff just so that a middleman who does nothing but broker the goods can make as much money as the people who manufactured the goods. We’ve simply run out of fiscal space and there is no room left for profiting like that in this nation. Rad Reef is a lifestyle brand, but if you choose to join it’s also a collective that helps make your money go further as an artist.
What inspired you to pursue clothing as another means of creative expression and business?
Damn, that’s really hard one to pinpoint. I mean I was silk-screening my own t-shirts in college, and sewing to modify stuff. I think my approach to life has always been “How should this be? Ok, how do I make it like that?” as opposed to the idea of just choosing from available options. Clothing and appearance is very important to me because it’s the way that most people in any given day will identify me, and it’s also the most readily readable aspect of a person’s personality. Even if you don’t care about clothes at all, your appearance and the clothes you choose always tell a pretty deep story.
I have very expensive taste when it comes to clothes, and I can’t afford the stuff that I want, so the other option was to achieve the same effects by changing clothes to more accurately reflect my mind state. (Laughs) damn I just remembered in college I used to ALWAYS have a 1.5 litre bottle of water so I made this t-shirt with a big ass pocket on the front to hold my water bottle. It’s so fucking stupid, but it’s so accurate. And I always want that accuracy over everything else. I guess I stuck with it because it still serves a purpose for me, and because it’s another thing I’m pretty good at that can help me survive in the world.
Where do you draw inspiration for your music? Your art?
Everywhere really. I think that’s another thing that sets me apart from the crowd. Little things in life are a major thing for me, so in that sense I draw a lot of inspiration from my surroundings and being in a city is very beneficial for me. Seeing kids on leashes, watching a couple get into it at the grocery store, 3-legged dogs, etc. I’m a very observant and analytical person, and being in a city is just constant fodder for my mind. My mind’s major focus is the production of works of art, chiefly music, so I’m just constantly reading everything from behind very productive eyes. Everything gets folded in.
But, I think the biggest source of inspiration is myself at this point. I’m only here because of how hard I’ve worked, how many times I’ve refused to give up, and how much I love being alive. It’s a lot like a perpetual motion machine at this point. I’m going to keep moving and working and building, and at this point I can step back and look at what I’ve done and there isn’t even any thought to it. By simply acknowledging what I’ve done it pushes me to go further and further because I’m past the hump at this point. I want to be free. I want to eat what I want whenever I want, and I wanna be able to go wherever I want whenever I want. I want to be able to tell my mom and dad they don’t have to go to work anymore if they don’t want to. I don’t have those things. I never have, but I’ve never stopped believing that I need them in my life. The difference between who I am, and who I want to be is probably the biggest single inspiration. I refuse to wake up another day on this earth and not be a little closer to living the life I know I’m supposed to be living.
(Laughs) this one would be too long if I list everyone, but I’ll give you the most major ones: Mishka, Nick Vogt, Main Attrakionz, Shady Blaze, Dope G, Shadowrunners, Sortahuman, Metro Zu, Shuttle Life, Mobbin No Sobbin, Areb crew, Bruiser Brigade, Jel, Keyboard Kid, Fresh Galaxy, BK Beats, Uptown Greg, Ryan Fritch, Black Noi$e, and Turbo Sonidero.
What has been the hardest of being a rapper?
Just the whole unknown clause. Not knowing if I’m going to “make it”, not knowing why the fuck I get up and live this life everyday. But, at the same time I really don’t know anything else. This has always been the thing that suits me best so it’s been really tough to go so long with no real recognition, and feel like I’m not really getting anywhere.
How would your life be different without your music?
Damn man, I honestly couldn’t even tell you. While I never really think of myself as just a musician, I’ve been making music steadily since 2000. It has been both a method of release, and discovery for me. I’ve come to know myself better, as well as the world around me through music. I think if you took music outta my life I’d honestly probably be dead or in jail. I have a crazy temper, and emotionally speaking, my capacity exceeds my control. Combine that with the fact that I don’t go for disrespect, and it doesn’t take much for me to wind up in a situation where I could get hurt, or hurt somebody else. I’ve done a good job over the years getting it under control, but without music I don’t think I would have been able to do that. In fact I know I wouldn’t have.
How do you feel about today’s rap scene?
Very optimistic. You know I been in this since 2000. I’ve seen it go from a time when people could not accept my weirdness, to a time when people actually want that weirdness. Looking at dudes like Danny Brown, or Action Bronson, or Lil B it’s not hard to see how I have a legitimate place in this now. Before I was always part of some outsider faction. Not because I wanted to be an outsider (I never ever called myself a “nerd rapper” cause I think that’s a stupid fucking title, but it’s the box that people used to put me in) but because the insiders didn’t want me around. Now, I still stand out for the same reasons, but it reads more so as virtue than stigma.
What has been the single greatest moment in your rap career thus far?
It hasn’t happened yet. It’s a feeling that I know about that I’m yet to experience, but I’m very familiar with it. It’s like I know exactly what the moment is, and how it feels, but it hasn’t happened yet.
What does the future hold for Zachg?
Eternity. I’m doing more than 20 records this year, and I’m currently at 14. My next solo record Raindancin (in the Pussy) is done. That one’s waiting in the chamber. I’m about to start working on Bright Side of the Moon which is an LP that will feature one beat each from a bunch of different producers, and that will most likely be the next record I release. Left Leberra and I are working on the second Hashburry Gardens record. I’m workin on an EP with Lowercase. All Fucked Up Everything vol.2 (a record compiled solely from voicenotes on my blackberry) is very close to completion. I’m just about due for the second instalment of Foreverglades, which is just all the instrumentals for songs I’ve done in the last 3 or 4 months. I’m working pretty closely with Western Tink and Beautiful Lou prepping the Mobbin No Sobbin record for Mishka. Nick Vogt and I are working on compiling a bunch of our writings for Mishka to print into a Zine. Rad Reef is about to launch a new site and move into phase two. I’m trying to wrap up the second episode of Piffbusters, which is a webseries I started to dispel myths about weed but it’s been kinda languishing. Keyboard Kid and I have been talking about doing some lightweight touring. I got beats on other people’s records. A few other top secret Mishka projects. I mean there’s more stuff too, but this is starting to feel excessive. Basically I have a job that pays the bills, and it thankfully does not encroach on my time or my life in the slightest. And when I’m not at work, I’m working on music. Until I experience that feeling I was telling you about I’m not going to let up, and I’m not trying to be wasting my time on shit that ain’t music.
Information on Zachg can be found below (click links to be redirected):