Do For Self: An Interview with Medhane

Photo Credit: Ade Sayeed

While grizzled hip hop fans lament the alleged decline of lyricism in hip hop, Medhane is refining his craft and bucking expectations with the poise of an athlete jogging through warm ups. The 21-year old rapper and producer splits his time between Pittsburgh, where he studies Civil Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and Brooklyn, his hometown. He is part of a coterie of New York City artists that includes Caleb Giles, Gio Escobar, MIKE, and Jasper Marsalis. Marsalis is the other half of Medslaus, a portmanteau of Medhane's name and Marsalis' artist name, Slauson Malone. Together, they form one of the most exciting hip hop duos around.

The two released their second album, Poorboy, in May of 2017. The project explores the boundaries of atmospherics in hip hop and favors crusty beats that swell and shape-shift while steering clear of rhythmic humdrum. Medhane's lyrics are frank and incisive, and his delivery rings out with a lived-in resolve. Since the release of Poorboy, Medhane has released an assortment of singles on his Soundcloud and a free-form project, DO FOR SELF, available on both Soundcloud and Bandcamp. I had the honor of speaking with Medhane through Twitter, where you can follow him for the sundry musings he has to offer.

What can you tell me about the title of your latest project, DO FOR SELF?

The phrase "do for self" was on this bedazzled Malcolm X shirt that I wore a lot last year and it resonated with me pretty deeply. I wanted to do a project that reflected the emotional and artistic space I was in over the summer—I felt like I was relying on my friends a little too much musically and that if I wanted to grow as an artist I needed to “do for self” and learn more about music and just my own creative process. I needed to put myself and what I want the music to sound and feel like and the messages I want to convey before anything else.

Is last summer when you started producing? People might not know this but you have self-produced loosies on your Soundcloud page. My personal favorite is "intheWind" because I love that the beat is as pensive as your lyrics are.

Yeah I tried to start like a year or two ago but I got frustrated with Logic and quit, but I got Ableton over the summer and the homies were showing me some basic stuff and I just went from there. Shout out to Jasper he’s like Ableton master he recently showed me some stuff to get my mixes right.

Speaking of Jasper, could you talk a bit about your collaborative process? I know you two prefer working in the studio together, but I’m impressed that on record you two are always in step because his beats seem difficult to rap over. Do you usually start with a beat? Or the concept for a verse? Or does it vary?

Yeah usually we start with a beat, Jasper has like a book of ideas that he turns into songs and then I just try and add words. I guess the work dynamic works out because we have been working together for so long and we know each other's idiosyncrasies.

One of your idiosyncrasies, or something you repeat in your music, is the line, “Ten toes on the cement.” Is that a tribute to Earl Sweatshirt? What can you tell me about it?

It's funny you said that because Jasper, Caleb, Gio and I all make fun of the whole “ten toes” line because everyone in our circle says it in some way, shape, or form. I wouldn’t say it’s a tribute to Earl, it’s more about remaining solid and true to whatever mission that you’re on, ten toes down is having firm footing and trusting in whatever it is that you’re doing. I know Earl has said the ten toes line in songs before though so I get where the question comes from, but no it’s not a tribute.

One of the things that brings me to your music is that you paint the struggle to stay true to yourself while others try to tug you this way and that and the world gets more depressing by the hour. I say struggle because to me your music is more than "I'm the shit, bow down to me." I feel like I'm hearing someone working things out in real time. Is there a sense of closure or stability you get when you can express your feelings through a verse?

Yeah definitely, it helps. I wouldn’t say it’s groundbreaking though it’s more of the ego boost that I just barred out and said some crazy shit, you know. I feel like closure comes from really sitting down and examining the factors that put you in this emotional space and then dealing with them, not just rapping about it because that’s how you end up stuck.

Do you also use your verses to express mindsets other people are stuck in? I get that impression from a song like “Follies (P.M.W.),” where you seem to be responding to the limitations of some of your peers.

Yes and no. The "P.M.W." track is fully about me being overcome by the allure of vices. Sometimes it really does feel like pussy, money, and weed is all a nigga need. At the same time, I'm a reflection of my peers too. I'm not some perfect person or whatever. I feel like a lot of my generation deals with the same type of stuff so when I'm talking about some things that could seem more in the superficial vein I’m fully talking about myself as well because I do the same shit you know?

I like your honesty in saying that. One of my favorite things about you as an MC is that you never sound holier-than-thou. At the same time, you’re a sharp observer of what’s going on around you. Some of the lines of yours that cut deepest for me were, “Tried to spread love but learned my lesson / Everybody heart ain’t your own.” Is there a story behind that refrain?

That just came from me trying to see the best in people and being honest with them and not receiving the same in return. You can do the most for a person out of the kindness of your heart and they might never reciprocate in the way you would want them to just because it’s not in their nature. In realizing that I was like "damn, people really just aren’t all on the same type of stuff"—everybody heart ain’t your own. In "5 02" though I'm playing with stuff like Black people being killed by police so it also ties into that and how Black people are perceived in America. Black people built this country on their backs to get shit on a stick in return you know, so “everybody heart ain’t your own” definitely applies to that as well.

It’s a beautiful moment on the record. Do you ever hope that your music can change people in a way you can’t in the relationships you describe? Or is your approach less didactic?

I kind of just say whatever I'm feeling and hope people understand it. I never really intend to teach. I just want to express myself clearly enough in the simplest way possible. I feel like trying to change people through music is kind of impossible or futile unless you’re influencing them to do negative things, as crazy as that sounds. I think a person is more likely to try a drug after listening to a song than they are to go do volunteering or something.

So would you say the fact that your lyrics deal with urgent issues is more because of how they connect to your experience than from a desire to convince anyone of anything?

Yeah, definitely.

Do you think people put too much pressure on hip hop artists to use their platform for advocacy?

No, but I do feel like if people did put pressure on artists to use their platforms in that way then they would. I think people actually don’t care about advocacy at all they just want to turn up which is totally fine but there's definitely space for both sides.

What can we expect from you moving forward? Or is everything under wraps?

I'm working on mad music right now, another solo tape is coming, and the next Medslaus project is coming too. As far as dates, I'm not too sure yet. Soon.

Will you keep the yeet genre tag alive?

Absolutely. Yeet music forever.

That’s all I needed to hear. Thanks so much for talking to WHRB!

Thank you for talking to me man, it means the world.

Cam Loftis DJs/writes for The Darker Side. The Darker Side has air every Saturday Night 10 pm - 6 am and Sunday night 10 pm - 5 am.