By Tim Larew
It’s been a strange year for the Texas native. With the release of MTV1987, he and his young, creative, multi-state spanning Alive Since Forever collective made their first true, tangible splash. Their rising influence has been bubbling underground since the group’s inception four years ago, but July 15 marked the culmination of a brilliant, multi-faceted album rollout and the beginning of what could potentially be the rise of the next great supergroup. Their energy and drive are palpable, but the same can be said for a slew of other up-and-coming collectives. What seems to be setting ASF apart from the crowd—and it’s evidenced through the quality of all things MTV1987—is their proven ability to deliver sonically and visually.
ASF is the fuel to Abstract’s fire, and anytime he speaks—be it onstage, on Twitter, or anywhere else—it feels like he’s projecting all of their voices, and the voices of others beyond his circle as well. His series of notes (in photo form) posted on Twitter sporadically leading up to the album remain some of the most compelling pieces of content in hip-hop this year and allowed his small but devout fan base to connect with his message on a deeper level.
The Macbook desktop theme present throughout videos and various promotional pieces carried a similar depth. The videos (yes, with an “s”) for the album’s lead single “Drugs” were pure and expressive, giving off the vibe that what’s most important to Abstract is that his releases mean something to him, even if they don’t resonate with the rest of the world. It’s a quality all greats seem to have in common.
Though he’s still unknown to most of the world, statistically speaking, Abstract’s ceiling is remarkably high. He knows it too, and it wasn’t a sudden realization. He’s known it since he first started recording music and reaching out to fellow young creatives through the popular forum at Kanye To The (KTT) at age 14, and over the course of the past four years, he’s remained astutely aware that it’s patience that’s been the most important piece of the puzzle.
It’s unusual to think of an 18-year-old as a veteran, but in a sense, Abstract is just that. When he moves, he moves with purpose. When he isn’t moving, he’s plotting on something much bigger than himself. MTV1987—produced entirely by fellow teenage ASF member Romil—is a work of art. Some may even go as far as to call it a masterpiece, and this might not seem so unreasonable considering the fact that masterpieces aren’t often recognized as such for several generations.
At worst, Abstract is a young artist with promise. At best, he’s on his way to becoming the voice of a generation, one that, though in its infancy, has yet to produce many proven leaders. With his palette of vulnerability, vision, and above all, musical talent, Abstract might very well have the recipe. We spoke to the rising star about MTV1987, the past year of his life, and what’s to be expected from the increasingly bright future.
Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like? You’ve talked a lot about both Houston and Atlanta as cities that raised you.
I was born in The Woodlands, Texas, a little suburb north of Houston. I was like 4 when I moved to Atlanta for a little bit, and then I ended up moving to Corpus Christi, Texas when I was like 5. I started elementary school there, so when I was in first through eighth grade I lived in Corpus Christi, and then I moved back to The Woodlands. Then I moved back to Georgia for my junior year.
What was growing up in Texas like?
Corpus is really interesting. I didn’t grow up on the bad side, but at the same time it’s like, I don’t know, there was a lot of sus shit going on. Kids being kids and shit. Corpus is a little more middle class and Woodlands is a lot more wealthy. There are a lot of white people, a lot of judgmental people. There are a lot of Hispanics in Corpus, it’s near Mexico.
How come you moved to Georgia?
I don’t know, man. A bunch of weird shit was going on. I was going to The Woodlands High School, and then my mom moved out of the school district so I lived with a friend for a little bit because I didn’t want to change schools again. Then my mom told me she was moving again, and at that point my friend was also moving out, so I went to go live with my sister in Georgia.
One of my favorite actors was Will Smith; he really got me into rapping.
So when did you first get involved with music on any level?
I wrote my first rap in fourth grade, and I recorded my first song in sixth grade. So like 2008? Something like that. At first I was really into acting and shit. That’s at least what I aspired to be eventually. One of my favorite actors was Will Smith; he really got me into rapping.
When did Alive Since Forever come together? Was that your vision or just a bunch of people randomly coming together? How did that get birthed?
I always wanted to start some sort of collective, and one day I was talking to my friend Jalen who I met online, and he said the name Alive Since Forever. I asked him if I could use it to create a collective and he was up for it, so at the time I just added a few local acts in Christi and then I made a thread on KTT and was just trying to get new members to join. It was 30-plus people at first.
Around what time?
ASF originally started in 2009, but we didn’t add all those people until 2010.
When did Romil come into the picture?
I met Romil in 2011 I think. Yeah. At first he joined ASF as a graphic designer. He was making beats on the side, but he wasn’t really telling people about it. And he just got really, really good.
And that was all through KTT?
Yeah, someone from KTT brought him in.
How did you guys start creating? How did it become a real life thing that extended beyond the internet?
To be completely honest, it still isn’t a real life thing. We only see each other like every other month, but we’re all moving in together in Austin in September-ish.
What was the first collab or first thing you guys did together that got put on the internet where it was like, okay this is a real thing?
It was probably something from me to be honest. I was the first real artist in ASF before I added all these other people. I was dropping so much material when I was younger that I’ve tried to take off the internet because it sounds awful to me now. The first thing I put out that got any sort of blog pickup was this thing I did called The Comics when I was like 14 years old. Mostly Junk Food had posted it and did an interview with me and shit, and that was like the first thing. And then I did a thing called Beyond Our Dreams, an album with a friend of mine that I met in Texas. It was a collaboration album. I think that was the first real ASF project, that’s when Romil and everyone else were in the group.
What did you look for in these dudes you were meeting online? Were there certain qualities you wanted to work with?
At the time I was 14, so I was just looking for anyone creative and who was talented. I didn’t even really know what I was trying to do. I didn’t have a vision at the time or no real sense of direction. I was just looking for creative people that wanted to do something.
When did you start formulating the whole MTV1987 project? When did you and Romil start working on it heavy?
It all started with me before I even pitched the idea to Rome or any producers like a year ago, I had put out the Kevin Abstract EP and I had already had an idea of what I wanted my first full length to sound like. I wanted it to be super influenced by Justin Timberlake and stuff, so sonically I knew where I wanted to go, but as far as art direction and stuff I was still getting inspired.
I saw this short film called Noah, and it changed everything for me as far as where I wanted to take the project. I reached out to a few producers, but with me and Rome it just clicked very well. He knew exactly what I wanted to do. That’s the key with that shit. He understood everything that I heard in my head. We did half the album together and the other half while we were still in school—me in Georgia and him in Connecticut.
You made a few of the tracks in one night, right?
We did “Drugs,” “27,” “Save”… I feel like there was one more. But we did those when I was stuck in CT during a storm in the winter. There were a few other songs that didn’t make the project too. But we made really, really good songs together that night.
So what was that night like, having been working through a computer screen and finally being together to create?
That was the start of recording MTV. By that point I knew what I wanted to do but there were no songs recorded, just a bunch of ideas in my head. We built “Drugs” together as far as the chorus and everything—it was just a lot easier to tell him my ideas and where I could see the song going.
So with something like “Drugs,” are you starting with a concept? What was the process like?
At first he had the dark sounds you hear at the beginning of the song on loop and I wrote a 16 to it, and we kinda just kept listening to it throughout the day. I had the idea of like switching the chorus up like “On Sight.” As far as the second half, that was Rome’s idea to add that to the song. He had it on loop and something told me to sing Cassie. So I laid the Cassie hook down. We made that song really fast, it was crazy.
Did you know right when you made it that it was big?
Yeah, we definitely knew. Not that it’s like a number one song or anything like that though.
Yeah I meant like you knew it was gonna resonate with people.
Right, we knew it was special. We knew the whole project was special, and it hasn’t even reached as many people as I want it to yet.
Here’s my thing: I feel like the majority of the internet is a lie as far as social media goes.
You talk about the internet generation a lot, and you’re shining light on people that are kind of creating facades, behind which they’re actually lonely and depressed, but they put up fronts to keep people appeased on social media.I feel like people who’ve inspired you—Cudi and Frank Ocean, as you’ve mentioned—are so special because they’re vulnerable publicly, and you act similarly. As a creator does that help you? And what do you see from people who are the opposite?
Here’s my thing: I feel like the majority of the internet is a lie as far as social media goes. Kids create these characters for themselves, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing to me. It’s kinda cool. We’re just in a different time now. Number two, my favorite thing about people is that I love when they’re honest and straight up about things. I know there’s tons of kids out there that gravitate towards that. I loved the whole MTV1987 process where I was putting notes up every now and then. The ones people would talk about the most or react to the most were always the ones that were super, super honest. That inspired me to always be one hundred percent with myself. I’m still not even one hundred percent comfortable with myself, but I’m building up towards that.
What about Cudi and Frank specifically, how did they influence you?
Man, just being super young, I loved Cudi’s approach to rap. Like the melodic rap. I’m not saying it was never done before but he did it in such a fresh way that sounded so new to me. As far as his lyrics go I just loved how honest he was. I had never heard a rapper talk about suicide in the way that he did, and it was different. It was like rock records and shit. As far as Frank, Frank’s just great. Also super honest. I just love how he’s such a great storyteller and how he can bring people into his world so fast through lyrics or sonically. I love that.
I know life has probably changed a bit since the album release. More people are paying attention, you’re taking meetings where people want a piece of you and what you’ve been working on—I can imagine it’s a weird time.
I mean, yeah things have changed, not crazy but things have changed and they’re gonna keep changing. As far as labels and stuff go, I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to stay independent forever, that’s not my goal. I’m gonna be very big in the future. Not right now, I like the slow buildup. I don’t want to be an artist that’s hyped overnight, but I’m down to keep exploring every option and keep figuring things out. I just wanna roll off this project, maybe with a few more videos and see what else it can bring. I feel like the album has a lot more to it.
I feel like having the core team of ASF around you must help with everything.
Definitely, I wouldn’t have been able to do the album if i didn’t have HK, Romil, Anish—everyone. We all get each other. If I have an idea I can call someone up, and they’ll help me execute my vision.
What’s you ideal next year of your life? When you turn 19 next July what will have gone on in the past year?
I just want to tour for a while off MTV. I want it to reach people over time. I definitely want to become a pop star. That’s one of the main goals, but I don’t see that happening right now. I don’t know what could happen in a year though. The main thing is to tour and get better. I want my live show to get really, really good.
What do you think drew you to wanting to be more a pop star? Everyone wants to be a rapper. You’re rapping, yeah, but you’re making music that’s bigger than that.
Yeah, my thing is I like big songs, big records, big videos. I like things that feel and look like an event. If you look at a Lady Gaga show or go to the VMAs, those things are events. It’s bigger than a typical rap show. I like rap, don’t get me wrong, but I just prefer that aspect of music. I love the feeling of it. There aren’t too many really great pop-rappers right now. Like Kanye—he can sing “Heartless” in a stadium and to me that’s pop. He’s a rapper from Chicago and shit, but he’s reached so many people. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to be Kanye, though. [Laughs]
What’s your favorite Kanye album?
It changes all the time. I’ve been listening to Late Registration lately. But it changes every day.
What about Cudi?
Man on the Moon 2.
Favorite Cudi song?
“Don’t Play This Song.” Definitely.
Do you have a favorite song off your album?
Yeah. “Tame Cab.” It’s kinda hard to pick. I love all of the songs but right now I’ve been listening to “Tame Cab” a lot.
What’s the strangest thing that’s happened throughout this whole process?
We were in Houston—you know The Neighbourhood? The lead singer Jesse Rutherford DM’d me the day the album came out, he put me and my friends on this list to hang out with him. So we went on the bus and played Super Smash Bros. That was a few days after MTV came out. It was really random but it was tight. He gave me a bunch of advice and shit, which is sick because I love their aesthetic and everything.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give someone younger, maybe someone 14-15 years old like you were when you first started?
I would say the same thing Jesse told me, which is to keep everything tasteful. It might be kinda vague but it’s so true. If someone’s going crazy in your mentions on Twitter like, “Check me out, check me out,” it’s like… [laughs] you know. I kinda just keep my shit on my timeline and it looks fresh, and I feel like that’s how a lot of cool people move. I want it to spread through a retweet or whatever.
Yeah people forget that it’s an art, and any type of art you’re supposed to attract people, not throw shit at them. It takes time.
Exactly. You can Google my name and you’ll see shit popping up from 2010, 2011 and stuff. I’ve never wanted to be an overnight hype. I’m so glad “Drugs” didn’t get bigger than Kevin Abstract, if that makes sense. I want things to build up slowly. I’m fine with it.