Ahzay. Have you heard of him? He’s a hip-hop artist who comes live and direct from this very fine city of Frederick, Maryland. He also has a new video out for his song “Nothing,” and he reached out to let us know a thing or two about a thing or two. If you recognize some of the scenery … well, that was the point: It was filmed at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, here in town. We caught up with him recently to talk about what it was like to open for Young The Giant, the importance to staying true to Frederick, and what’s next for the TJ grad.
Let’s start with some history of how you got into music. What inspired you to be a hip-hop artist and what led to the decision to pursue a career in it?
You know, sometimes I struggle to remember what inspired me to get into music. It began as a pretty casual hobby back when I was in high school at Thomas Johnson. In fact, it started as joke. I was bored one weekend and I made a three-song CD on my laptop. I was honestly just harmlessly making fun of some of my friends. We used to do that a lot back then; it was called “Joaning.” I wonder if that is still a thing at TJ. People surprisingly reacted favorably to that and through the years, I just began to take it more and more serious. Now I think I am finally in a position to give it a go.
Did you have any emcees who you’ve tried to mirror through the years? If so, who and why?
I have to be honest: When I first started, I was essentially a Rick Ross carbon copy, sonically. I never lived a lifestyle like Ross, but I always felt like his music was versatile and entertaining. That was more than four years ago, so obviously over time, I have fused all the sounds from my different influences. Now I believe I sound mostly like Ahzay.
What inspired you to go back to Thomas Johnson High School to shoot the video? And what were some of the challenges in planning the shoot?
I’ve had this thing in my experiences with entertainment (music, hosting step shows, etc.) where I always feel good about getting people involved. I love to share my passion with the world, but I am equally as satisfied by helping others do the same. When I made the song “Nothing” initially, it felt like some of the songs we warmed up to before football games (at TJ and then the University of Rochester). I knew that this time around, I wanted to do more visuals rather than just put out song links, but I also wanted to somehow get other people involved. I put on my creative cap and almost instantly thought of reaching out to my alma mater. I talked to Coach Smith about it during a break at my sister’s graduation (from TJ) and he was kind enough to agree to help me execute.
One of the downfalls of trying to involve a lot of people is the fact that you now have to mold the execution around many schedules. The first home game that we wanted to shoot was postponed — people had some conflicts arise that caused more delay in filming. There was actually a fair amount of things left on the table that we wanted to get done that we just couldn’t get to within our goal. However, at the end of the day, I still think we were able to create something special. I am proud of all the people I worked with (Brian Cassette, Josh Delatorre, Mike Weedle, TJ Black, Simeon, Alexis, Richard and more) and thankful that the TJ athletic programs (football and soccer) allowed me to come back!
What are some of your favorite memories as an artist? Conversely, can you talk a little about some of the hardships you have a experienced through the years and what advice you’d give to someone looking to be a musician for a living?
I think all of my favorite memories of entertainment in general are the moments I got to share with my close friends. I think the best example of this for me was being able to perform at my college’s Dandelion Day (the University of Rochester’s signature spring event). I got to open up for Young the Giant, an indie-rock band based out of California. As a hip-hop act, that was super cool to provide an audience with that blend of two different styles — music is the universal language. But more importantly, I got to share that moment with my closest friends from school. One of my best friends from school was my DJ (Jarrett Hannah), one of roommates was my hypeman (Chinedu Okafor), another one of my best friends performed with me as well (Willie Roberson). The Indulgence Dance Team also did a routine for me which was very cool. We had all done things together for fun for so long and then for us to make it on stage together was unforgettable.
Hardships? I will pinpoint a couple things that have been helpful for me in general. One, I work a full-time finance job at TEKsystems Monday, through Friday. I love my job and I love how much support I get from my co-workers — I wouldn’t trade them for the world. If I want to pursue this dream, though, I have to fund it somehow. I am past the point where I feel comfortable with free beats, below average studio and video quality. That concept in itself can be a struggle. But again, currently, I am fine with that because one of my biggest support groups comes from the wonderful people I work with at TEK. Secondly, I think it’s critical that you have people around you that give you realistic feedback. Do you really have the “hottest song out?” Is your sound and quality really on point? Even the basics, such as, is your sound and flow up to par? I think people make it hard on themselves confusing a collection of yes-men as a support group. Challenge yourself and let your trusted resources help you out.
What’s your perception of the Maryland hip-hop scene? Do you see spots where it could be better? How so?
It’s cool. Artists are very supportive of each other — I can feel that every time I go to a show and engulf myself in the culture. I will say that support from fans could be a little better, and I am specifically speaking about the upcoming talent in regards to that. Personally, I am thankful for the people that have and will continue to support me. I feel as though the general culture in Maryland (or all over, for that matter) is supposed to support acts that may already be established as opposed to helping good artists get to where they want to go. It’s all good though.
Who are some of your major influences and why?
Sade is my favorite artist, and I believe that I have drawn on her ability to add depth to my music. “Like a Tattoo” and “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” are some of my favorite songs by her and are both good examples of tracks that are relatable concepts rather than just an assortment of rhyming words. Not all of my songs are that way, but I would say most are. Wiz Khalifa is another artist who I would surely identify as an influence. Wiz has a way with melodies and harmonies — particularly with his hooks/choruses. Can I sing? No. But like Wiz, I often can use my voice as an instrument of sorts to produce catchy, melodic rhymes. A few people have mentioned Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar to me in terms of who I sound like. I personally don’t see it, but I won’t argue against either one. I definitely listen to both of them a fair amount, though, so it’s possible.
Can you give us names of some artists we need to check out that we maybe haven’t seen yet? Who are you listening to the most these days?
Let me tell you about this guy named Brian Cassette. He is the reason why I started taking my music seriously. He has been making music for quite some time as well. I am a very strategic person and I think about every move I make, every breath I take. But Brian is that voice in my ear that is always saying, “Man, just go get it. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t.” He has been working equally as hard on his new music and I am super excited to hear his new work and see where his artistic journey can take him. Brian and I are working to mold the “Senior Project” brand into a powerhouse collective. Satara, also from Frederick, JustQ, and Christen B are on my ever-growing list of upcoming artists that I am looking out for as well.
Where are some of your favorite places to perform at and why?
Dandelion Day. I’ve been on several different stages from music to acting to hosting events and even hosted a radio show. But being in front of that crowd was amazing. I think colleges and schools in general bring energy like no other. Everyone seems to be there to have a great time, which is all I ever want to do.
What do you think is the most perfect song ever written and why?
“Like a Tattoo” by Sade, no questions. That’s obviously a personal opinion, but an obvious one for me. The instrumentation hits me in the soul. The picture painted of a man scorned by his past, still wearing it on his shoulders. “I still feel the chill, as I reveal my shame to you. I wear it like a tattoo.” It’s a perfect balance between beautiful and haunting. I love it.
And finally, what does 2017 look like for you?
Good question! Well, I am wrapping up my new album, “Patience.” I have been working on it since the beginning of this year. I think it’s finally getting to where I want it be. That will be out sometime towards the end of this year or perhaps the beginning of 2017. Once that is out, then the fun really starts. Shows, promotion, more videos — the usual. I am excited this time around because I feel like myself along with my team (Senior Project) are on to something. It would also be nice to start bringing some attention to my hometown Frederick, and all that it can offer. There are so many cool things going on here and hopefully I was able to display that in my music video. The continued support is appreciated!