California rapper Caleborate isn't rapping in triplets over trap beats. He's not stringing together buzzwords, promoting the trendiest fashion of the moment, or linking up with whichever producer has recently landed a few Hot 100 singles. He doesn't have many rapper friends. For years, he's operated outside the frenzy of hype that surrounds mainstream hip-hop culture, and he prefers it that way.
His new album Real Person is a reflection of all this—smart, introspective hip-hop that doesn't reveal itself fully upon first listen. He takes a more subtle approach, writing from real-life experience and sometimes burying the punchline four bars in, a trick he learned from Lil Wayne. Over the course of his career, the 24-year-old has flirted with mainstream success and major label ambitions, but in the wake of his best body of work yet, he's already thinking about quitting.
The state of music, and hip-hop especially, is enough to drive an artist like Caleb insane. He dedicates his life to making songs that he hopes will last and art that requires an investment of time and attention, but the relentless news cycle favors the immediate. He wants to earn a comfortable living off of making music, but he doesn't trust the industry. And he doesn't want to rap forever, but he can't stop writing songs.
Watch the premiere of "Bankrobber" and read our interview with Caleborate below.
You’ve talked about your responsibility as an artist, and not making music just because you think people will like it. Do you ever get tempted to just tell the people what they want to hear, or give them what they want?
Not so much now. I think it was over the course of the last year when I really realized the benefit of just doing my thing. I think that’s kind of what Real Person is depicting, just showing that transformation. I mean, I wouldn’t say I was ever doing everything just to fit in, but I was definitely making some songs like, “Okay, I want this to be successful.” I had other people’s perception in mind as opposed to just saying what I wanted to say.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been thinking about my last projects and the music I’ve made previously, and I can hear the growth over time and I wonder if that’s an effect of what’s going on in pop culture. People are influenced, because of Twitter and Instagram and shit, to do everything they do.
I think that every artist should keep it real. Even if the music is going to be fuck-around music, just keep it real to how you fuck around, you know what I mean?
That is part of why Real Person clicked with me. I had been really into what people are calling SoundCloud rap over the last months, and there’s a place for that kind of music, but I found myself craving something else. That’s one of the things that you offer as an artist. It’s like a return to reality.
I feel that. I have some of those kinds of moments when I listen to OG, old school music sometimes. I’ll be like, “Damn, this shit is nice.” [Laughs]
Do you think it’s every artist's responsibility to speak on real issues, or do you think it’s alright that some artists don’t care and just want to have fun and do whatever they want?
I’m a firm believer that there’s a time and place for everything, but I do think that every artist should keep it real. Even if the music is going to be fuck-around music, just keep it real to how you fuck around, you know what I mean? Just keep everything authentic. That’s all, because hip-hop is starting to get whored out. It’s becoming the number one genre, so it’s like pop, technically. That’s a big concern, and I think what can keep it from being pop is that realism in it. That’s the art of it that can never be lost. Once it starts to get so diluted and oversaturated with stuff that’s not honest and real, it could be really bad.
We talked about how things are clicking for you right now, is there also some sense of urgency? Are you ever like, “I gotta make this happen before this age”?
I used to feel like I had a timeline. But honestly, the game is so fucked up right now, I’m not going to stress myself out. Bro, there is so much trash in the world—media, music, movies, fashion, video games. It’s like when they started doing reality TV and then they realized, “Oh, people like watching trash shit.” A light went off, and everybody realized they can just put this trash out there and people will buy it. If that’s the case, I’m not going to stress myself out and feel like, “Oh, I gotta hurry up and get on.” I’m just going to play my game and do what I’m feeling, and that works for my fans. Even if it’s for people who just want to hear some real shit for a minute and then go back and listen to SoundCloud rap or whatever, that’s cool.
I’m not going to stress myself out, because the world is fucking insane. The game is crazy, entertainment across all realms is crazy. N****s are just insane, and I’m not going to try to exist in an insane industry. This shit will stress you the fuck out. Half the people in the music industry who make decisions have never even made music and they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. It’s just people with money, you know? So I don’t put no pressure on myself no more, I just live my life, go in the studio, record my records, say what I gotta say, make my art. Anything else, you’re just gonna run yourself ragged. Because a lot of the people who run shit in the music industry aren’t cut from the cloth we’re cut from, and they don’t appreciate the art form that we appreciate.
You’re independent, right?
Yeah, I’m independent. I’ve got a partnership with United Masters. It’s not like I’m signed as an artist. Honestly, I don’t know what you’d call that, because it’s some new shit. But I guess I’m independent—I’m pretty sure I’m independent. [Laughs] No major labels.
Is that important to you? That’s something I hear from a lot of artists—how fucked up the industry is and how they want to remain independent because of that. Is that a goal of yours?
I mean, my main goal is to just be successful and take care of my family and keep making music. However I can do that. Dave Chappelle said once, “I’m just going on whatever network will let me say whatever the fuck I want. I’ll be on Animal Planet if that’s what it takes for me to say what I want to say.” [Laughs] So for me, it’s not as much about the label so much as it is about me being able to do what I have to do. If that’s a label deal and I’m getting paid and I can eat, cool. If that’s being independent and I get paid and I can eat, cool.
My mentality is always that I’m going to be okay no matter what. I think the music is going to save everything. You could be in the worst label situation ever, but if you drop a classic, you drop a classic. It doesn’t really matter who you’re signed to at that point. You’re going to eat regardless, at some point. You’re either going to do a tour, or you’re going to write a book about how you didn’t get paid off your classic, or something.
a lot of the people who run shit in the music industry aren’t cut from the cloth we’re cut from, and they don’t appreciate the art form that we appreciate.
One artist you’ve mentioned a few times in conversation and in your music is Lil Wayne. What is it about him that you like?
Wayne has this charisma, man. It’s very effortless and unapologetic. The way Wayne arrives at his punchlines and metaphors is similar to my writing style. It’s not always conventional. Say you’re reading a Wayne verse, you low-key can’t just pick out one line. You have to keep going through the verse, because sometimes the punchline is buried four bars in. I think Wayne is one of the best at taking what he thinks and putting it on record. I think that’s one of the reasons Drake is so successful, because he was able to get next to Wayne at such an important time in his career. Even Drake talks about that in some early interviews, about how Wayne helped him get shit from the pad to the pen to the mic.
But I take shit from all artists, like Amy Winehouse is my favorite singer, and I don’t even sing. What I like about Amy is that she’s a true star. She was blessed with this immense talent, and didn’t even know it. She had no idea she was such a star—she was just Amy. I take different pieces from all my favorite artists.
Are there any artists that have been mentors to you?
I don’t really know too many artists personally. I mean, I know G-Eazy, we’re from The Bay. I know a lot of artists from The Bay but I don’t have many rapper friends. I watch a lot of interviews though.
Some of your music is very moody—songs like “Caught Up” and “Wanna Be.” If not sad, it sounds kind of bittersweet or melancholy. Are you most inspired when you're sad?
I definitely write more when I’m sad. It’s definitely like therapy, it’s very cathartic for me. I make songs for everything though; I have so many songs. My biggest problem is I can’t control myself. I have songs from years ago that I haven’t put out yet. I’m just writing all the time. The only time I’m not writing is right after I finish an album and get to mixing it and making videos. I need to remember to eat food, have fun, laugh, go out, just live my life like a human being. But doing that usually just inspires me to write more. When I go out and live life, then shit happens to me that I have to write about.
Do you plan on releasing any of that old music, or is everything you put out new?
I might put out some old stuff. I don’t know how much more rapping I’ve got in me. Maybe two more projects. After that, I don’t know. I’m not going to be rapping forever. I might rap for a couple more years, then I’m going to be over this shit. Rap is getting played out. Everybody started doing it, and I don’t like anything that goes to mainstream. I stopped smoking weed this year because I feel like weed got too mainstream. [Laughs] You used to smoke weed because you wanna smoke weed, you didn’t give a fuck if you got caught by the opps. Now it’s like everyone got a permission slip to do it, and it’s fucking lame. I hate to sound like that type of guy, like, “Oh, I was doing it before everyone else” but at the same time, I just don’t like doing things that are so mainstream. And rap is becoming so mainstream now that if you’re in it, you’re mainstream, you know what I mean?
Are you going to keep doing music, just music other than rap?
Maybe. I know this sounds hella cynical, but sometimes I feel like why try? Do I sound crazy for saying that? You’re a writer, and print media is dying off. But there’s still a lot of quality in print media. I don’t need to be a writer to know that. There’s something very important and special about picking up something that’s been written by someone and holding it and reading it and having it. Yet n****s just don’t understand the importance of having printed news. You might wake up some days and it’s like why bother, why not just do some other shit? Why sit here and go so crazy over something? It’s like trying to go into the NBA and being like, “No, everybody stop shooting threes.” No, that’s what the game is on. Go do some other shit. Why bother?
I feel that way with Pigeons & Planes sometimes. I can’t change the way other people are doing things, but I don’t want to do what other people are doing.
Exactly. It’s like, “I’m not gonna do that shit. Fuck outta here.” Like, I dropped my project. I’ve done my service. I think I’ve got one or two albums left, then I’m gonna be like, “N***a, I’ve done my service to rap.” I feel like I dropped some solid shit. From that point on, I’m not gonna be stressing over this rap game. I’m gonna be fucking 30 soon. But that’s just how I feel right now. I’m 24, that shit could change. I’m also a Gemini, so the way I feel tomorrow could be completely different.
Let’s chill on how much content we’re putting out and promoting all the time. Let’s get back to making good shit again.
Same. I’m super inspired sometimes, then other times I’m like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna quit tomorrow.”
[Laughs] I’m glad that you understand my pain. I don’t know what it is. I think I get in my head and I have that realist moment. I shouldn’t be negative in that way, but I don’t think I’m being negative, I’m just being real. My life is my life, and I’m not going to try to kill myself to change humanity. And not to say hip-hop is small, but I could change humanity in a different way. I could dedicate the rest of my life to feeding hungry children. That is just as noble and honorable, if not more, and a better use of my time on the earth, instead of sitting here sweating it out in my room.
So what do you want other people to get from your music? I know a lot of it is just getting your thoughts out, but what do you want the people listening to take from it?
Overall, I just want people to fucking feel something. I’m not trying to be hella extra, but I do think that our world could benefit from a gear shift. Let’s chill on how much content we’re putting out and promoting all the time. Let’s get back to making good shit again. I just want my music to help inspire that.
I like music that’s not just good for three months, or six months, or a year, or two. I like music that’s good forever. Like “Confessions” by Usher is always good. It’s never not going to be good. You could throw that on in the whip right now, everybody would be singing that shit. It’s a great song, and that’s the shit that I like—movies like that, like Reservoir Dogs and Love Jones, fashion like that, like Nike with the Prestos. Anything that’s great, that’s gonna last. Like Jordan 1, that’s a classic shoe that became the template for a lot of shoes after that. If you’re going to make something, try to make something worthwhile.
I feel like the culture we live in today, with all the social media and shit, has allowed people to use all the hot words and the trending topics and exploit those. They just get on because of that, and then keep talking about the trending topics as opposed to anything worthwhile. And those trending topics last two days because then another one comes along. It’s a race to keep up with all this content. I think people will slow down if the music is good, and they’ll appreciate the shit.
So are you going to let your project Real Person sit and marinate for a while? Or what’s in the immediate future for you?
Last year, I wrote and recorded a lot. There are songs that didn’t make Real Person that are great songs. If I continue to wake up and feel like I need to write, plus I have a bunch of things that haven’t been used, then I still have work to do. I wouldn’t say I have another project done, but I have enough for another project. But it’s not done until I put the songs together, put a few new ones on there, sit with it, listen to it. It’s not done until it’s done.
Listen to Caleborate's Real Person below.