Ohio Raised, Philly Bred
Critically acclaimed rapper Vada calls himself King, but it’s not manifested arrogance; it stands for “Knowing I’m Not God.” The disguised humility may be mistaken as hubris, but given his career record he has every right to be confident. Vada has already proclaimed himself to be the best rapper in the world, and with the success of his previous projects MURDRxFLWR$ and The Measure, his stance stands justified. He’s been affiliated with the world renowned acts of Stalley (of MMG), Rashad, and J Rawls and witnessed at the inception of the now defunct Fly Union. In the city, he is on the short list of top MC’s and many aspiring hip hop artist would be fortunate to have the success that he’s enjoyed.
When I met with him, his humble personality revealed itself. He was dressed in relaxed attire, carrying a cool demeanor and an approachable personality. Vada, formerly known as L.E for the Uncool, has strong ties to the community. When I met with him in the Upper Cup, an artisan coffee shop near downtown where many creatives frequent, the conversation was interrupted several times by patrons who recognized him and wanted to say hello. These interactions really underscored the respect that Vada has earned, as he was approached by fellow artists (such as Bruce Slaughter) and community leaders alike.
From all of the fellows who made a point to speak to Vada, it was clear how deep his roots were here. Vada was born in Philly but Ohio, and specifically Columbus, is where he calls home. The first neighborhood that he ever resided in was Old Town East before the gentrification cleaned it up, but he’s moved all over the south and east side of Columbus. Vada reiterated this point.
“This is home for me.”
The Rich Heritage of Columbus Hip Hop
For Vada, home means more than just a city that he lives in; it is equally a mindset. Our conversation winded between many topics, ranging from his love of hip hop to his respect for the culture. Overwhelmingly present throughout the entire interview was an air of authenticity. Nothing was gimmicky, calculated, or formulaic. Vada creates because he is passionate about creating and what he makes is intentional. In ways, his music is a form of giving back to the community, and he has respect for anyone that’s contributing to the culture in similar fashions.
Earlier in the week, I ran into Vada at a Boldy James concert at Skully’s. Opening for Boldy were a couple of artists local to Columbus, as well as a few traveling acts from Detroit. While I did enjoy the performance of Nes Wordz and Darrio Lamont, the Detroit artists left a lot to be desired. I jokingly shared that if Columbus sounded anything like that, I’d retire all of my efforts with FlyPaper.
Vada defended the acts though, explaining that their styles were authentic to where they were from. “That’s Detroit. That’s the culture there. That’s really how it is. I appreciate it because I know the vein that it’s coming from.”
Vada went out of his way to find the jewels within a relatively unappreciated performance, when he could have just as easily criticized it as mediocre. Vada has such a sincere love for the culture that he understands that music comes from self-expression, and it allows him to be a fan of other performers. Anybody can make hip hop, but that doesn’t mean that everybody should. He believes that Columbus has a high standard that really separates the city from other locales.
“We’re ahead of the curve here in Columbus. The standard for people here is high,” he said. “It started with J Rawls and Rashad and the Third. They were local artists that were putting out good music nationally. That raises the bar for everybody.”
He doesn’t believe that you have to look outside of the city limits for inspiration and competition. “The problem with some of the young artist today is that they don’t realize you can’t chase the success,” he goes on. “You have to check the quality of sound or else you’re going to end up sounding like other cities. Let the competitiveness here drive you upwards. The raps have to be good. The production gotta be good. The sound gotta be good.”
Vada has a lot of respect for the people who have made music historically from the city, but he rejects the notion of a local rapper.
“There’s no such thing as a local rapper any more. If you’re local it’s because you pinned yourself as being local,” Vada said. “If you want your music to get out, it’s pretty easy. The internet makes it so nobody is local anymore. I haven’t been local for a long time. I have fans in whole other countries, Amsterdam and Australia. If you have fans in other places then where you live, you’re not local. Nes Wordz aint local.”
In this way, Vada believes that Columbus has been contributing to hip hop, at large, for a while and therefore has a responsibility to consistently create the best product. He has high standards. He recalls speaking to a young rapper after a show who did his entire set over pre-recorded tracks.
He remembers questioning him: “Why’d you rap over your vocals? You clearly know all the words so don’t rap over your vocals.” He then went on to share performance etiquette tips. “Don’t do ten songs if you’re not headlining. Do 2-3 songs and then bang out. Make an impression that way. Don’t perform like you’re the headliner.”
These were lessons that he had to learn early on in his career. In his passing along the wisdom, he was doing his part to preserve the climate here in the city. He recalls the kid being receptive to the knowledge and taking it as a learning moment.
“He took it; that was tight,” Vada remarked.
Trust the Pen. Don’t Believe in Hype. Hometown Love.
“I always rapped. I always loved to rap,” he tells me when I ask how he got into the craft. “All of my friends free-styled and rapped. I was just good at it.”
Vada went to a Tribe Called Quest concert when he was a kid. He felt the energy and was pulled in by the performance. He credits that exposure to the development of his skills. Attracted to lyricists like Phife Dawg, Vada studied the techniques that they employed and began to use them himself. Starting at such a young age, he had a solid foundation that allowed him to stand out from his peers.
Vada’s pen is strong. Beyond the respect that he garners for his own work, he has been contracted to write for other artists as well. At the time of this publishing, Vada has several songs on the radio that he’s written for others, and he receives publishing royalties for work that he’s done.
As he grew older and his career matured as an artist, he took special care to maintain his creative integrity. “Everything that comes out of my mouth, I write,” he says. “I’d never feel comfortable with anybody ever writing any of my raps. I’ve been in the studio where somebody said something dope and was like ‘you should say that.’ I’d give them their props and say ‘yeah that’s dope, but I ain’t saying it.’”
“If you hear me say it, I wrote it. Hooks, verses, everything. I write it.”
Even still, sometimes Vada doesn’t feel like he gets the recognition that he deserves from Columbus. “I’m not going to sell Skully’s out until I’m on TV,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “I could put accolades out there and then maybe people would hop on my nuts, but that’s not what I want. I don’t want conditional love. Support me because you want to support me. I don’t want that fake stuff.”
Vada reflects on the words that Curren$y shared with him about how he struggles to get support in his hometown of New Orleans. “To people in NOLA, people look at Curren$y and say ‘Oh, it’s just Spitta,’” Vada said. “And you know, every artist from every city goes through a period where their city doesn’t support them. There are people in Pennsylvania that don’t support Lil Uzi Vert and he has national buzz.”
He spoke to the feelings of hurt that he experienced over the course of his career. “When I was off the scene and I was a myth, not hanging on high street, I got more respect versus when I first came around and people actually saw me. When I was out here, my support dropped.”
Vada has found his peace with the matter, reflecting that if he was on the radio, he might be more popular, but that isn’t the type of career that he wants.
“I don’t even want to be on the radio. I don’t want to be in that company with some of the songs on the radio. It’s no disrespect. We just do different stuff. Don’t play my record after that record. I’m just in another vein from all of that.”
The Autobiography of Vada
It’s Not A Conspiracy: Black in America
So what vein is Vada in right now? Currently, Vada is making music that is focused in street culture. He has a strong belief that there are forces within the community that contribute to social issues such as poverty, violence, drugs, and other criminal activity.
“I hate the term conspiracy theory because it’s not a conspiracy if things are proven,” Vada explains. “It’s proven that the CIA put drugs into our community–for a purpose, for a reason. It’s proven that police brutality takes place. School systems are set up for our young people to kill each other and end up in jail so the government can get free labor.”
This direction is personal for Vada as he seeks to shed light on these realities. He reflects on the conversation that we had about Chip earlier, recalling that he’d always been a good kid that sometimes found himself finding trouble. All of the music that Vada makes now is about telling the story of those good kids who found themselves in bad places. He’s talking about selling dope. He’s talking about having guns. And it’s all autobiographical.
20s Go For Nix
Vada promises that it will all make sense by the end of the summer. His newest project, 20s Go For Nix, is an EP done with Rashad that explores the mind of a ‘menace to society’.
“I’ve done things that I need atonement for. I’ve got things to ask Allah for forgiveness for. I’ve sold crack to people,” Vada explains. “I’m talking about things, explaining to you the person that America has created. The hood doesn’t create these people; America created these people. I grew up feeling like I could only sell drugs, play basketball, and rap. My parents ain’t have nothing to do with that. America made me feel like that.”
Drug talk in rap is not uncommon, but Vada insists that while a lot of contemporary artists make a mockery of it, choosing the subject matter because it is the cool thing to do, he is one of the few people who can legitimately rap about it. True to his artistic moral code, he actually did it and therefore feels he has a license to talk at length about it.
“The phase we’re in right now is to tell you, yeah, I am a dope boy. I am strapped, and nothing is a front because I did it,” Vada says. However, he is not talking street behavior just for the sake of entertainment. He intends to hold up a mirror to American society, the streets, and the community, as to reflect the consequences of the politics from the past several decades.
He insists the importance of knowing the story behind the vilified characters running the streets. “They’re still important,” Vada stresses. “That’s why I made money phone. I was there, once upon a time where I had the mentality ‘I ain’t got time for nothing else besides money. I deserve things because I’ve been down and out and doing so bad for so long, I deserve this chain.’ People don’t understand that.”
His next single, Tecjam, explores the desperateness of somebody running the street. “I rap, ‘I hope it don’t jam, if somebody run up on me’ and that’s a prayer. I am literally praying that my gun doesn’t jam on me,” Vada explains. “And later, I say ‘when I die, help my momma when she cry.’ That’s crazy and scary, because in the song I am acknowledging that I am going to die before my parents.”
The whole perspective towards poor people is skewed in his mind. Every impoverished person is still human and has a story. He reflects on the double standard of society, that when well-off people go buy jewelry, it’s never a big deal because they are supposed to have nice things. He argues, “When poor people get stuff, they’re not materialistic, they came from nothing…and they want something.”
“My whole life I’ve had a good heart. I tried my hardest to be a good kid. I tried to fight what has been planted in my head and that’s tough, that’s hard to do. That’s why I would fall and go back into it. I am the menace to society but the ones you put on a platform and hold with high regard, are the ones who made me this.”
Vada promises that Tecjam and 20s Go For Nix is coming out really soon, but to be weary because it’s not a pretty story. It’s a mirror to an America that has done some ugly things. It may end up being his most important project yet.