January 28th, 2009 | Interviews

Download: Wale “Nike Boots”


Wale is a rapper from Maryland and D.C. and released a Seinfeld-themed mixtape last year with a guest spot by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He is bringing his full-backing band to L.A. tomorrow and is working on his debut full-length for Interscope. He speaks now from his mom’s basement. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

How did you get Julia Louis-Dreyfus to say ‘motherfucker?’
She got a potty mouth—that’s her own problem, know what I’m saying? She probably got a lot of backed-up curse words being on NBC so long. That was my manager who set that up—that’s all Dan. His father knows her real well. But I’m such a big fan.
Do her kids think she’s really cool for doing it?
I’m sure they do. How many mothers are asked to be on mixtapes?
How many of the cast from Seinfeld are fans?
Jerry and Elaine. Jerry and Julia. I haven’t even met Julia—I just talked to her—but I’ve met Jerry. He was telling it to his guys—‘This is the guy who did the mash-up tape!’ I was like, ‘Uh—mash-up tape? OK—whatever you want to call it, man. You’re rich and you’re funny, so it’s all good!’
Did you talk sneakers with him at all?
See, I don’t know—he might be one of those guys who just like on the low be getting sneakers but he doesn’t know that he’s like low-key a sneaker dude. I haven’t gotten any confirmation that he’s into them. But I’ve seen him with Baltoros on and like Air Force—Flight 1s and stuff on there.
Do you think he has stuff in his closet and he doesn’t even know what it really is?
I think so.
You’ve been working at this for ten years but some people have been saying it’s almost overnight success—do you think it takes ten years to be an overnight success?
I ain’t even heard the ‘overnight success’ joint yet. I got haters that have been around for ten years. They’re hating on me for ten years—and I’m only 24! I got dudes hating on me in the free lunch line. You know, it takes a lot to have people hating on you for that long. Even my haters wouldn’t call me an overnight success!
What makes you say that one of your favorite things about hip-hop now is that it gives so many people a chance to work?
Can I thank you for asking me that question? I ain’t even trying to kiss ass. I wanna make a point. You basically informed me that you read a previous interview—that makes a true journalist. But I digress. Think of it this way—let’s take an artist like Young Jeezy. You got Young Jeezy’s road manager. You got Young Jeezy’s day-to-day. Young Jeezy’s A&R. Young Jeezy’s producer. Young Jeezy’s design person for 17-5 or whatever. You got the whole staff. You got Jay Z, John Meneilly, Jay Brown, you have Tata, you have Carline—you got his publicist, head of Rocawear, interns that work at Rocawear. And it goes on and on—it employs a lot of people. It’s like a kajillion-bazillion-dollar jump-off.
Is that the kind of organization you want to build?
I’m-a build it. I’m trying to do the same thing in D.C. I can be really spaced out and irrational and have really big dreams that aren’t going anywhere, but my goal is to kinda have a Motown thing in DC with UCB as my first project. Use UCB as my N.E.R.D. I’m part of it. We create music. So my first priority is putting out my record and the next thing—second priority—is getting UCB a record deal. Getting them everything I’ve got in the past—overnight!
What kind of myths about how the music business works do you think people need to unlearn?
If you’re an artist right now and you’re trying to shop your music and make that hit locally and spread it and get signed, stop chasing what’s out now. Like stop trying to go in the studio and do autotune. Stop trying to make snap records if you’re from New Jersey or Honolulu or something. Exude what you come from. I’m from D.C. and Maryland, so I like go-go beat as a driving force in my music. And there’s a lot of people that don’t like go-go and that’s all right. Just have some type of resemblance to where you come from and stop chasing the now. Create what’s gonna come rather than chasing what’s around now.
Your motto is ‘grind or die.’ What’s been the heaviest grind and what’s been the closest to dying?
Low key—I’m competing with the label. I’m trying to make myself a bigger star. Build my profile up. I know they’re doing it but I’m doing it, too. I want them to look at me and go, ‘Wow. We need to pay you more to do this for another artist.’ It’s just a mnemonic device to push myself—in everything I do. It’s a certain work ethic I get from my parents. My father drove D.C. cabs for about ten years and that’s where I got my approach on music. When my parents first came to the country, they were really influenced by everything they saw on TV or whatever they hear. That’s why a lot of times in the early ‘90s and ‘80s you’d see African girls trying to have a little ghetto accent—because they take influence from the first thing they see. And I would hear Phil Collins, I would hear all the go-go bands, I would hear Fela, I would hear Sugar Hill—I would hear everything. I was just a big melting pot of sounds coming from my apartment when I was young. And it stuck with me.
How do you think that got you ready to make music now?
My thing is I don’t try to set out an idea. I just make the music—like the album it’s like TV On The Radio and Lady GaGa and then like Bun B. There ain’t no boundaries for me because I come from a place where we don’t have anybody. I’m trying to make the net as wide as it can be. I want to make a record where track one is Lady GaGa and track two is a track with Bun B. and track three is John Mayer and track four is all people from D.C. you’ve never heard of.
Is that who’s really on there?
It’s not the sequence, but it’ll be like—one track you have John Mayer, produced by Mark Ronson. Next track is Weensey from Backyard Band. Next track would be like Cool ‘N’ Dre and Jazmine Sullivan on the hook. Next track would be Lady GaGa produced by Cool ‘N’ Dre and Q-Tip or Mos Def. The net is so wide because that’s who I am as an artist. I like to experiment. People always say, ‘Oh, Wale—he’s a go-go rapper.’ But that’s just where you hold it. Wale might be the most authentic go-go sound you gonna find, as opposed to Amerie or Lil Mama—no offense, but that’s not go-go. I’ll show you what it really is. To box me as a go-go rapper would be completely inaccurate.
You’ve said you want this album to be a complete body of work—is it coming out the way you want it?
Sometimes you gotta make the album you gotta make—not the album you want to make. And I don’t say that like it’s less than what I want it to be, but you know—Kanye on his third album he had an opportunity to do whatever he want. Jay Z had an opportunity to do whatever and the industry is his playground. But where I am in my career—let’s show the world I can make hit records. Let me give you an album with seven singles that all sound different. Let’s make music be interesting again. Let’s work with a rock band. Let’s get Mos Def and let’s have Mos Def singing. Let me sing. Let me work with Marsha from Floetry and get some spoken word on there. All my ideas couldn’t even fit on one album. I’m well into my third album right now. I got fifty-something songs right now. The idea is to make the best possible music you can make. When I first said body of work, I said, ‘Let’s go heavy percussion—a go go-esque sound.’ But then I thought of it and I don’t want to limit myself.
What are you saving up for another record?
Electro like a lot of the Justice stuff that we did. I want it to be completely another monster. The whole next album could be all Cool ‘N’ Dre, Justice and TV on the Radio. We’re experimenting more—I’d like to show them how I freak this sound, or freak this kinda vibe.
Where do you see yourself a year from now?
Jay Z is a good person—I’m chasing what he’s done. Minus the clothing line. I don’t want to do that, but the impact he had with Rocawear—essentially just have that in another element. I want to be Quincy Jones-slash-Diddy. Direct a lot of artists from D.C. and help them along the way.
Is this a situation with a lot of talent in D.C. but no structure to help it grow?
There’s definitely structure issues in D.C. now. A lot of go-go bands are very talented but don’t have anybody to vouch for them outside of D.C. That’s what I’m doing with the band. We’re trying to pave the way.
Why do you think it is that so many American musicians have to go to England first to get a following in their own country?
England is forward-thinking. International consumers are more forward-thinking than domestic. They don’t have nothing! They don’t have too many of their own artists so all they can do is judge what’s out there. They have a genuine appreciation for musicianship—for people who play instruments and for lyrics and things of that nature.
Did you have a master plan when you started your career? The way you always hear about RZA mapping things out for decades?
Naw, man. Not to get all extra holy-moley, but I think that God has a plan and you just have to put your best foot forward and have faith and good things happen. They don’t happen immediately, but if you’re walking that line, then they will. It didn’t happen immediately with me. I’ve been doing this since ninth grade and nothing happened.
Do you have any recordings from ninth grade?
I have one Da Brat song. It wasn’t the ‘Funkdafied’ joint but the second song. I have the tape—no one will ever hear it because I was terrible! I almost sound like a girl because I was so young. I don’t think I had even hit puberty yet. My voice was so so so high-pitched.
What first made you want to be a rapper?
I was in Miami one time with my peoples, and we was on the train and I started rapping and everyone started crowding around me—I was on my super-duper punchline shit back then. It’s wack now but back then it was like, ‘Oooooh!’ Everything’s progressed since then. But I knew then. I was always pretty good at public speaking. I was always good at speaking in front of crowds. I was always a leader in that sense.
Did you ever do student government?
Nah—I was a jock. I played football and basketball and I ran track.
At the same time?
I was like Bo Jackson.
Is it true that someone stole one sneaker out of your luggage?
I left my bag down somewhere. I didn’t know. My whole thing is I’m learning as I grow—even the bad things. I was going to London to do the Glastonbury festival. I set my luggage down and went to go get some headphones for my iPod, and I come back and the dogs and two police officers were sniffing my bags—the dogs were sniffing, not the police officers. And I’m like, ‘Yo, it’s good!’ And they’re like, ‘You can’t leave your luggage.’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, I’m here now—my bad, I didn’t know.’ And they said ‘Nope, we’re taking it. Sorry.’ And my plane was taking off—so I went to London with a dirty Stussy t-shirt, raw denim jeans and some Nikes that didn’t even match my shirt. I was sweaty. It was bad. Another time when I was on tour with Jay this past summer, they lost my bags and—this was hot—so I rode the plane in some basketball shorts, some flip flops and a t-shirt. And lo and behold, I performed in basketball shorts, a t-shirt and some slippers. I had to hear everybody’s mouth that night! Everybody had jokes that night.
What do you think about the last Seinfeld episode?
That wasn’t fair but you can understand why they did it. They wanted people to always talk about it. If it was a genuine ending, then no one would be talking about it ten years later. You wouldn’t be asking me this question. They wanted it to live on.
Do you take a lesson from that?
I don’t like cliffhangers. I wouldn’t do that to my fans.