Grieves isn’t your stereotypical rapper by any means. For starters, he’s the only MC we can think of besides Del The Funky Homosapien who has a lip ring. But it’s his music that really sets him apart. While a pack of other emerging white emcees are spitting the carefree, red cup party lifestyle, Grieves has joined the likes of Atmosphere, Brother Ali, and Evidence on the legendary Rhymesayers label and gone a different route. His 2011 album Together/Apart is a more revealing, personal, and (thanks in part to his partner in production, Budo) musically-inclined brand of independent hip-hop.

We had the chance to talk to Grieves and get a look into what music he’s listening to, what he thinks of some of the other up-and-coming rappers in the game, and what it’s like being part of the Rhymesayers family.

Interview by Midas

What’s up, how’s it going?
It’s going great, just counting some money. About to go buy a 1973 Fender Rhodes electric piano.

Awesome.
Yeah, I’m pumped. I’ve wanted one for a long time, and now I’m going to have one.

That sounds great, how much are those?
Um, I’m paying $700 for it.

So, we just wrapped our albums of the year list and it was a tough process to finish. I was wondering what you thought of the practice of trying to rank all these albums that came out in a calendar year?
I think a lot of time it comes down to what’s popular. If you’re looking at the radio stations that are doing it, it ends up being, “Alright, all of y’all just vote for what your favorite album is,” and then they take the top 10. Or magazines and blogs will give their top 10, but it’s probably from people on the blog, or what was popular that they covered, or what brought a lot of traffic to that publication. It’s a way to keep things going and album cycles moving. It’s something your publicist wants. If we’re hitting someone’s top albums of the year, that list comes out, some people haven’t heard of us but can then be like, “Oh, I must have overseen that.”

So yeah, it’s kind of stupid to be like, “These are the only albums that I loved this year,” but I think it’s a good way to give shine to records that did well that year.

If you had to name your album of the year, what would it be?
Oh, shit. My album of the year. I don’t know. I don’t listen to that much modern music, all my records are older and have been out for several, several years. Album of the year. I don’t want to be biased and be like, “Oh, anything on Rhymesayers!” [Laughs] Although it does sound weird, I do listen to a lot of that stuff.

Did Stone Rollin’ come out this year? By Raphael Saadiq. Was that from 2011 or what?

I think it was 2011.
Well, good. I do like that record a lot. For the reason that it sounds like it was recorded in the 60’s, it’s sick. It sounds like he got in a time machine and recorded with Ray Charles and all that shit. It’s amazing. I appreciate that from the standpoint of just sonics.

You mentioned you’ve been listening to a lot of older albums, what have you been listening to this year?
I stay true to the things that I love, so there’s a lot of D’Angelo in my collection. There’s a lot of Raphael Saadiq, there’s a lot of Bilal.

So a lot of neo-soul type stuff?
Yeah, I would say that neo-soul has kinda been my jam for the last couple years.

Cool. I don’t know if I would have thought of that from listening to your music.
Yeah, I love that stuff. Brings me right back home.

Did you see the XXL preliminary top freshman list? I wanted to see if there’s an up-and-coming rappers that you personally have been listening to.
Who’s on the list? Was Macklemore on the list?

“That XXL thing is the weirdest thing ever to me. Because I could tell you halfway through next year who’s going to be on that list.”

Yeah, he was on there.

Of course he was.

I don’t know, that XXL thing is the weirdest thing ever to me. Because I could tell you halfway through next year who’s going to be on that list. It’s such an easy thing, by who they’re working with and where they play their shows, I could tell you who is going to be on that list. I would say Macklemore, though. He’s my homie, too, but he’s definitely killing shit. He’s doing things I don’t think a lot of people are doing at all. So I think everybody should keep their eyes out for that dude.

It’s weird he’s on that list, just because he’s been rapping for years now.
Oh, yeah. None of those guys are fucking freshman. Yelawolf was just on it a little while ago and he’s been around for a long-ass time as well. It’s just their careers are bubbling where their careers are about to be big. It’s not supposed to be, “These guys just started rapping, look at what they’re doing!” That would be crazy. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard somebody’s first rap CD, but it normally fucking sucks ass [Laughs]. Not going to get a lot of press off that.

From what I hear it takes a while to get good.
Yeah, so the list ends up more being for people who maybe don’t have a deal, but are popular. So, like, “Who’s going to graduate at the top of the class?”

I wanted to ask you a little about Rhymesayers because you’ve been there for a while now. Can you imagine yourself at any other record label?
No, I can’t. And I wouldn’t want to. I love where I’m at. It’s the most comfortable, inspiring position for me to be in right now. I fucking love it.

What’s it like having the backing of a label where you know all your music is going to get out there? And what kind of pressure comes with that situation?
Well, they don’t pressure you to come up with a hit, or anything like that. But they do encourage you to do well. They encourage you… It will be like, “OK. We know you can do that song. We know you can make that song a million times. Why don’t you do something a little different? Something that meets it in the middle.” At least that’s what I got with the record. You have all these weird skills, but you’re in your pocket right now. Why don’t you take it out of the pocket for a little bit.

So you’re getting encouraged to try new things?
Exactly. But with the things that I’ve already acquired. All the instruments we play and all the singing and all the weird production. If I just did the standard 16-8, 16-8, 16-8, rap rap rap, put your hands up – it would be like, “Come on, man.” So they encourage you to work hard in the realm you flourish in.

“Well, you know what I didn’t want to do? I really didn’t want ‘Against The Bottom’ on the record. Because, to me, it felt poppy and weird.”

Can you give me any examples of tracks on Together/Apart that might not have come out the same or made at all without that kind of input?
Well, you know what I didn’t want to do? I really didn’t want “Against The Bottom” on the record. Because, to me, it felt poppy and weird. I didn’t get it. I know why I made the song, but when I made it I was just like, “Oh my God.” And the engineer was like, “You’re an idiot if you don’t put this out.” “Well, fuck you.” And he goes, “I’ve watched way too many people be self-conscious about their music and sit on good songs. You’re an idiot if you don’t put it out.” And I sat on it for like a year. But then when they got their hands on it they wanted it to be the single, which I didn’t like because I was self-conscious about it. But now that it’s out there, and I when I play it live I love it. It goes great and it feels awesome.

I guess for me, I just hadn’t made a song like that yet. I hadn’t released a song like that. So I was definitely self-conscious about having made a song like that. But once I did it, it went well and felt good. There were so many new things going on with me at that point. My main record is coming out on Rhymesayers, I’m performing on the fucking Warped Tour – God only knows how that’s gonna go – I’m having my record in stores for the first time. People are counting my first week and first month sales. I’m doing in-store performances in Best Buy. While people are trying to buy fucking toasters, I’m rapping at them. It was a new, crazy thing for me. So I was like, “I don’t about ‘Against The Bottom,'” but it ended up being really cool.

Another thing about being on Rhymesayers is that it has a really big name. Do you ever get worried about upholding the legacy of the label?
Yes. Of course. It’s not pressure, I feel like I’m in a good spot. I feel like the things that I do and the work ethic that I have fit in really well there. So I feel like a good addition, and the things that I do will be positive for the label. Because I want it. The association feels so good at the end of the day, just to have it, because I grew up listening to these guys! I love these dudes. And now your idols sort of become your peers, and not just your peers but your really close friends. That’s a cool-ass feeling.

You do seem like a pretty tight-knit crew. What’s it like going on tour with those guys?
It’s great. It’s easy. You don’t have the first week tour dance-around, where you’re trying to get to know each other. It’s just, “Oh, I haven’t seen you in a few months since our last tour. What’s up?” You can pick up right where you left off. It’s easy, it’s comforting. Especially since a tour can be so uncomfortable and so sporadic. Different people, different places, different weather, different fucking scenes every single day, it’s nice to have those friendly faces that you know and love so much.

Do you ever worried about getting typecast as just a part of Rhymesayers? Like, overshadowed by this group rather than on your own individual output? The label definitely has its own pocket of hip-hop.
I think that people putting it in a category like that is kind of on them. Like, we don’t sound alike. I think we make pretty like-minded in what we’re making. But to say that we all sound alike would basically just be saying that we don’t sound like the cats on the radio, and that’s kinda dumb. I try to hit the studio with a clean slate.

Do you ever try to collaborate outside of your area of the music world, or do you try to keep it in the family?
No, no, I’d love to work with all sorts. If I’m inspired by somebody then I want to work with them.

Do you have a dream list of people you want to rap with?
Yeah, but it’s a little weird. Of course I want to work with people like D’Angelo and Bilal. I’d like to work with that band Chester French. I loved their record. I’d like to work with that Miike Snow group, with their crazy-ass Swedish production team. There’s a band called Bad Rabbits, out of Boston, and I’ve been working with their lead singer on a little singy-soulful thing.

They do funk, right?
Yeah, they do this kind of new jack swing, funk/soul. It’s badass. It’s the shit. They introduced me to this producer that I absolutely love some of his beats. I would love to do a song with Common.

Are you still working a lot with Budo?
Yeah. The way to look at it, is Grieves is really a group. It’s him and I, and we’re going to ride that out. We just work so fucking well together. I think we want to do some more recording video in the studio kind of stuff, to show the dynamic between him and I in the studio, because it’s dope. I couldn’t even see myself working with anyone else.

When did that partnership really take off?
I don’t know. We sat down to make that song Gwenevieve, that was the first song we did together. And that song turned into a record, and that record turned into a career. It wasn’t really discussed, we were just banging out tracks and it felt so right.

Is it a typical rapper-producer partnership?
Well, I do the beats too.

Oh, I didn’t know you produced too. When you mentioned buying yourself a piano it threw me off.
Yeah, I do a lot of production.

The beats you guys come up with have a very live feel to them, more than a lot of hip-hop production you hear today.
Well, I think that’s because there’s two of us. And we both play it all. So all of those textures are provided by us. And if we can’t play it then we outsource it to one of the homies that can.

Cool. You seem to do a lot of experimentation with changing up the beats mid song and keeping the arrangements pretty dynamic. What do you think that adds to the music?
I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of repetition in hip-hop, and some of the best songs ever are just two bar loops. Because it’s an undeniable feeling. But I think sometimes people feel like that’s all they have to do. I feel like there’s a lot of lazy production. I get a lot of beats from a lot of different people that are just lazy. Just a two bar loop and some shitty drums and then bam, “I make beats.” But it’s like, really? You make beats? Alright, we make music. The swells, the changes, the drops, the pauses, the reverses – that’s human emotion in music. Don’t you want your music to move you to feel? I think that’s important. And we do those two bar loops, too, but if the song deserves change and variation then we provide that.

So, I wanted to ask you about your lip ring. Not too many rappers have one of those, when did you decide to get it?
I got it ten years ago, when I was 17. I won it in a snowboard thing. I used to snowboard a lot, and I won this thing, this gift pack. It was like a women’s gift pack [Laughs], so I gave the shit to my girl. And she was like, “You should go get a piercing,” and I was like, “I don’t want a fucking piercing.” “You should get your lip pierced.” And then I thought about it, and was like, “Alright, fine. I’ll get my lip pierced.” So I did that and just never took it out, I guess. I forget it’s there until people mention it.

Do you ever get worried that it’s going to get hooked on things? I feel like that would be a constant fear of mine if I have my lip pierced.
No [Laughs], I don’t put my mouth near things that I could potentially get hooked on.

If you were going on a first date right now, what would you do?
I’d take them to my homie Mike’s spot. He’s got this little spot called Il Corvo in Seattle. What he does is he drops his daughter off at daycare, then he makes all the pasta downstairs, by hand. Then he goes to the market in Seattle and finds out what’s fresh, picks it all out, writes out a menu on a chalkboard. Then he opens his doors, feeds everybody, is out of there by two, closes up shop and picks up his daughter. He’s got the tightest job ever. But, it’s a very personal lunch and the food is amazing. So I think that’s what I would do. And then we could walk around the market afterwards. Maybe have some sex with a bum by a trashcan.

[Laughs] You’ve got it all planned out.
Yeah, man.

If you had a time machine, when would you go?
I think I’d stay right here, man.

That’s not a good answer.
Well, do I get to come back if I want to or is this a one way trip?

You can come back if you want, sure.
OK. I’d go to the 1920’s. The Depression and tommy guns. Bootlegged liquor. Chicago in the 1920’s. Speakeasies and prostitutes and shit. I’m reading a book right now called “Pimp” by Iceberg Slim, it’s like the autobiography of a pimp that was born around the 1920’s, it’s crazy.

“I want to go be a pimp in the 1920’s. I would be a lousy pimp, because I’m too affectionate towards women.”

Good book?
Yeah. I’m actually listening to it as an audiobook, but yeah, I like it. I want to go be a pimp in the 1920’s. I would be a lousy pimp, because I’m too affectionate towards women.

[Laughs] What’s your drink of choice?
Bourbon on the rocks.

So, what’s up next for you, artistically?
Well, I’m gonna buy this piano and make some beats. Then I’m going to take my girl out for food, she just reminded me. Then I’m going to hit the studio. I’m actually going on tour with the Gym Class Heroes and T-Pain in February [Laughs].

Oh, wow
Yeah.

That will be something new.
Yeah. All of the indie rap kids are flipping a shit about it, but it’s like, come on. We’re going to do this, and play for the kids that are radio-fed and we’re gonna tear down the walls of genre separation. We’re going to show those kids the other side of what exists out there, and I think that’s a really cool and positive thing. I’m excited to do it.

How did you get picked up for that tour?
I don’t know. Do not know. But I’m taking it as a blessing.

Just got the email one day?
[Laughs] Yeah. Actually, yeah.

Those will be huge venues, right?
Yeah, arenas. Huge stuff.

“Fuck pigeons. They’re like flying rats.”

Pigeons or Planes?
Planes. Fuck pigeons. They’re like flying rats.