Protecting The Future

14 June 2012 | 6:00 am | Cyclone Wehner

Californian rapper Fashawn is on the up and up, and Cyclone chats to the man about exactly what’s pushing that incline.

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Californian MC Fashawn, touring with super-producer Exile, is fascinated by Australia's past as a penal colony. “Actually, I come from a long line of criminals, so I might feel right at home once I get to Australia,” says the twenty-something Santiago Leyva. Note to customs officials: he's joking (we think). In fact, on the subject of his inaugural trek Down Under, the MC behind 2009's opus Boy Meets World emits all the elation of a kid going to Disneyland. “I've never been there, this'll be my first time, and I'm really excited.” Our hip hop scene has a good rep. “I haven't heard much – I've just heard that they embrace artists like myself really well and that they love it. But I can't wait to see what it's all about.”

Leyva is chilled - saying things like “all gravity, all good” - yet thoughtful and curious. And he's possibly the biggest hip hop act to emanate from Fresno in central California – discounting, of course, Planet Asia, who gave the MC his break, inviting him on tour. The teen Leyva had just dropped his premiere mixtape – this was 2006. (Bizarrely, onetime wannabe rapper Kevin Federline is also from Fresno.)

Fresno has a hip hop circuit but, says Leyva, the city isn't associated with a particular 'sound', being “in the middle of two big empires” – the Bay Area (think: Too $hort) and Los Angeles (NWA). “We kinda never had an identity 'cause we're just stuck in between these two places that have so much flavour and so much style,” he elucidates. “But, just because of that, we try different things.” Fresno's artists may sound a little Bay Area or a little LA – the city, the fifth largest in Cali, is “a microcosm of everything”.

“It's usually never distinctive – like, 'Yo, that sounds like a Fresno artist'.” As for Leyva? “People say I sound like an East Coast artist – or a something else.”

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Leyva's debut, Boy Meets World (BMW), was critically-acclaimed, the MC compared to Nas. He teamed with Exile, AKA Aleksander Manfredi. The LA beatmaker was originally half of Emanon with rapper Aloe Blacc. As Blacc reinvented himself into a neo-soul star, Manfredi cut Below The Heavens with Blu. He's also laced Mobb Deep. Issued independently, BMW was, by all accounts, a huge learning curve. “I didn't understand the politics of what it took to put an album on the shelves,” Leyva says. He couldn't just release the album, then tour. “I learned that you have to work extra hard... I learned that my journey had just begun when I put out my first album, even though it was technically my seventh album 'cause I put out all these different projects – all the projects that were practice for me, just for me to find my style.” There were other lessons. For the first time Leyva toured widely – and his worldview changed. He now sees the Fashawn of BMW as “this naive young man.” Engaging with disparate cultures was humbling. “I learned that my words actually have power. I didn't know that until I put 'em out there and saw how it impacted [on] the people.” At points that experience was “overwhelming”, but in an affirming way.

Leyva is progressing on the follow-up, The Ecology. (He had a track entitled The Ecology on BMW.) And, again, Manfredi is behind the boards. “Me and Exile stopped working on it for a second. We got into a creative zone that we didn't wanna stay in, so we're trying to get out of it now.” Lyrically, The Ecology will deal with Leyva's becoming a global hip hopper. “It's just really my perspective after seeing the world.” He's grown-up. “It's a more mature version of Fashawn.” Leyva is inspired by Manfredi's music. “It's on another level. I'm just trying to supply the lyrics that can equate to his level of production – it's really incredible this time around.” Leyva's rapport with Manfredi is easy, the pair sharing an “open-mindedness”. “We don't like to confine our music.” They're good friends. “I could talk to him about anything – and that resonates in the music 'cause I can rap about anything... [as] opposed to a lot of different producers or beatmakers.”

Surprisingly, Leyva has toured with Wiz Khalifa. In 2010 the two 'freshmen' picks appeared on the same cover of XXL (together with another Leyva studio chum, J Cole), but their audiences couldn't be more divergent. Leyva admits that on tour “some nights were rough”. His steez is “boom-bap”, while Khalifa is closer to the electro-hop so pervasive in the urban mainstream hip hop. But, being on home “turf” in Cali, Leyva's fans came out to support him. Plus he worked to win over any haters. Leyva can “relate” to Khalifa's style. “He doesn't rap like 'super-lyrical', I guess – he just gives it to you straight, like taking a shot of vodka with no chaser.” Beyond that, Leyva is fond of the Black And Yellow MC. “Wiz Khalifa's a cool dude – that's one of the only guys in the industry I could say, That's my friend... He's a good guy.”

Erykah Badu has expressed concern that hip hop is losing its identity, at least commercially, being subsumed into EDM. It's almost a stylistic monopoly. Does Leyva ever worry about hip hop? “Sometimes I do, 'cause I feel like hip hop and house music and all this dubstep stuff, it's all becoming real synonymous with the name 'hip hop' in America. It's just weird to me. When I hear the word 'hip hop', I don't think of that stuff.” But he is “open-minded”. Afrika Bambaataa sampled Kraftwerk – German electronic pioneers – on Planet Rock. Dubstep is a DJ-created hip hop offshoot. “Hip hop's future – I can only try to stay around and protect it.”

Aside from defending that legacy, Leyva has paid tribute to it. With DJ Green Lantern's encouragement, he released the mixtape Ode To Illmatic, modelled on Nas' seminal debut, two years back. He didn't hear from Nas. “I've never met Nas in my life, I've never talked to him, so I don't know how he feels about it,” Leyva says. “I know [Slum Village's] Elzhi put out [a homage] very similar not too long after I did mine – but he did something different, he actually remade the beats and everything and I just stuck to the actual production of the original album. But, hopefully, [Nas] likes it. I don't know. I have yet to meet him, but we will be on the same tour this year – Rock The Bells – so hopefully I bump into him and pick his brain.” Indeed, Leyva is joining RTB with another collaborator, Murs. Before that, he'll be in Oz with Manfredi. Leyva hopes that he and his cohort will perform material from The Ecology – ”if he says it's cool” – for the first time anywhere. “It's gonna be fun! You can expect a lotta surprises. I haven't got to tour with Exile in a while, so we're just gonna have a great time and give the audience everything we got.”