Donovan Johnson, known to his fans as XV, has had the kind of career that makes hip hop your life. After over 10 serious mixtapes were released Vizzy finally got his break out of Wichita to sign with major label Warner Music Group. A personal friend of mine, the always amiable XV sat down with me after rocking the Longwood University crowd in preparation for his L7 Tour to have a candid conversation on everything from his meteoric rise to what exactly a "Scarian" (not Squarian) was.
EARMILK: So you're enjoying Longwood University? How was the show?
XV: The show was crazy. Doing these college shows every time I never know what to expect going into it. So I don't know if I have a buzz at Longwood, I don't know if people me, so if I go out there and see somebody wearing an XV shirt and I see somebody singing "Gobstopper" it's crazy to me, because it's like the most randomest place, in Virginia, that no one would know that exists, and I come out here from Wichita, Kansas, which nobody would know that exists, and rock a show, it's crazy to me.
EM: So I personally want to know, how did you get the name XV?
XV: Oh you don't know this story? Okay, I'll tell you the tale. Okay so basically you know the Roman numerals of the number 15 are XV. I was going into high school and I had a little rap name back then, I was already doing music but some much changed in my life that summer that I wanted to always remember that this was the time that I became a rapper and I wanted to pursue this as my career, so I made XV my rap name so that when I'm 27 I can say, I started doing this 12 years ago at 15 years old. So that when I have a kid or when he has kids or I'm talking to an NYU student (haha Lil B), yeah, haha, when I'm having that conversation with them about my career and what made me do this, I can say at 15 years old this is what I wanted to do for sure and that's my rap name. Nobody can ever take that decision away from me because that was a really big thing for me to be that young and decide that this is what I'm going to do. It's kind of like you saying, "I'm going to be a manager of an artist" or "I'm going to be an A&R" at 12 years old and then you end up doing all that when you're 30, you're like "yeah 12 I actually wanted to doing this."
EM: So I saw you at SXSW: Nice Kicks, Warner Sound all those places. How is the energy compared to last year and this year?
XV: You know last year I did one show. I did one show last year with Me, Wiz, B.o.B.
EM: That was Warner?
XV: Yeah that was Warner Sound. So in my opinion, a show that you got from my agent or my label at SXSW isn't a real show because that's what SXSW is about. It's about spontaneous shows; it's about doing the shit shows and doing shows where you don't know exactly what it's going to sound like or look like, that's what SXSW is about, its the indie revolt of music. So this year it was just nuts, I did like 9 shows within two days and we were just everywhere, it was good to be able to participate with so many different fans interact with everyone who loves my music in one location and interact with my peers and the people that I listened to like Wiz, J. Cole, and Kendrick, just seeing them on a regular basis is a great time, it's a crazy experience.
EM: So I guess to track back then, I was going to ask I was going to ask who fueled your rap career, and that question still stands. But now I ask, is it something that happened that summer?
XV: My friend actually passed away that summer before I went to high school and that one thing pushed me into wanting music to be my career. But what really fueled me, I would say is hearing Jay Z's Blueprint. It was the album that inspired it all. I believe it was 1999 when I decided I wanted to do music for sure but when I heard Blueprint in 2011 I knew it was the lane I wanted to create. Lyricism, stories, your story, the thing that's going to make you who you are when you're not here and make someone listen to your music. Say this is what that person was about. That what I felt like the Blueprint was to Jay- Z, who was already my favorite rapper and that developed me into becoming who I am. And as you can see I'm very identity-based in who I am now.
EM: I that's what I feel like too. A lot of people have their shtick, even if they don't want it. Wiz has the weed shtick, Curren$y has the weed stick, Mac [Miller] is like the "I'm a suburban teenager kid" but I feel like your shtick is that I'm XV, I'm a rapper.
XV: I'm ya'll. I don't feel like a rapper has ever said "I'm you." Its "I'm not you, I'm everything but you." Like when rappers rap the main thing they're saying is that they're everything you're not. It's "I got more... My girl got... My car is..." that's what rap is but my thing is I do this.. and you say "I do this too.. and then I go I do this.. and you go I do too." Because I feel like nobody every does that in music, at least hip hop music because hip hop is based on status. But you listen to, I grew up on Foo Fighters, Weezer, Nirvana and I listened to that growing up because I related to it, so when I started making my own music, I'm going to make stuff that other people can relate to because I grew up on music that I related to. It's all about what you grow up on. We were talking about hood music earlier, you grew up on hood music you don't necessarily want to hear me because you don't realize that my world is a whole other world than your world. So it's basically me being myself.
EM: I think that speaks a lot more to longevity as well because now when the shtick fades, yours wont: the music will speak for itself.
XV: Exactly, because I'm going to evolve and I'm going to like more things and I'm going to say more things, the music is ging to evolve. A gimmick doesn't evolve, it goes away.
EM: And you'll evolve with your music, so...
XV: Exactly, so everything works out then.
EM: You think your content will ever change because now you have chains?
XV: Oh yeah, my content has already changed from Square in the Circle and Everybody's Nobody. When you hear Everybody's Nobody, you hear Zero Heroes, those are 3 years apart in project and even though the message is the same the content isn't even close to the same. When you hear Everybody's Nobody you hear a dude who doesn't have a deal, I recorded all those in my basement. I recorded all those records and wrote all those records with nothing at all you know? I didn't have a buzz, I didn't have a manager, I didn't have anything. It was just making music. So you'll never get that person ever again. That person is long gone and that was that time you know, but what I've evolved into now is just who I am now and I feel like who I am now and throughout the years is just going to keep the longevity going and it's just like having a friend; you just evolve with that person's personality throughout life.
EM: A lot of the material in your songs says "I've got these fans, I'm doing these shows." Not that I can't connect, but I'm watching you get bigger before my eyes.
XV: That's true and people want to see the blossoming. I'm still me. It's not like, "I'm blowing up, I'm getting paper, I'm getting money," it's just you're watching me live my dreams, what I've wanted since I was 15 years old.
EM: While subsequently getting paper. Are you wearing Just Blaze's shoes right now?
XV: I am, you know it's Just Blazes shoes he handed me, that's impressive that you know that.
(Conversation turns to my uncanny ability to note shoes everyone in the room is wearing, Flight Club, and our opinion on a few odds and ends)
EM: I always felt like "Swervin'" changed up the Vizzy style a little.
XV: "Swervin'" was the beginning of kind of this new shit that I'm doing, you'll hear it a lot on the album, "Swervin'" just felt like that moment, like when you hear "Swervin'' everything you hear in that record was happening that night. I wrote it that night, I was at Taco Bell, I'll never forget, I was in LA and nobody was with me and I was like "rubber burning burnin'... I been drinking all night now I'm swervin'" and I went back to the hotel and everybody's passed out and I wrote that hook.
EM: Is that you as well on the "Drink got me swervin'" ad-lib?
XV: Yep, and then I automatically wanted to sing it. I think that's what people didnt expect, was for me to do a song about drinking and partying.
EM: And the ad lib kind of gave it a party feel.
XV: And it feels more bouncy, more hood, more club and more party, but what people don't realize, like I said, it's kind of like you evolving with a friend. So at one point when you listen to Everybody's Nobody or you listen to Complex I say "I don't smoke or drink, I do my thing" or I say things like, "never mind, I don't want to go out" and then I evolve into going out. You know what happens is that college guys that come to these shows and say "Yo come out to this party we got" and I actually show up, it happens more often. Oh man, Henny's (my friend's house) was crazy, so how do you expect me to make songs about not going out while I'm on tour if that's what I'm doing. It doesn't make sense. So when I was doing Everybody's Nobody and older projects I wasn't touring. Yeah, I love playing video games and being inside though, I brought the XBox on this tour just because I never get to play video games. So I'll have downtime in my hotel and be like okay, Mass Effect 2, let's get into it.
EM: That's something I'm really impressed by, your copious shout-outs to video games.
XV: Well it's like you said earlier, that makes us who we are. It all ends up being relatable. We all watched those movies we all played those video games. Actually what I'm talking about right now is the theme of my new project, it's all based on like popular relevance.
EM: So to throw you a curveball, I don't know if that bio still says it, it says recovering porn addict. Does it still say that?
XV: Okay, well a recovering porn addict is someone who has the strength to stop but just can't, or else I'd be a recovered porn addict.
EM: So you're in the throes of addiction?
XV: Bingo. I'm addicted enough to the point that I haven't watched porn in 2 days but I've download about 12 GBs of porn, torrented.
EM: Now it's a question of do you watch it or not...
XV: Well I watch it, but I download it more.
EM: So you've got a lot on deck?
XV: Oh pshh, I've got porn on deck man, you can't be an addict without having it on deck. I've got porn on porn.
EM: And the ad lib for U.F.C. is a pornstar correct?
XV: Yeah yeah Christina Rose, Isis Love is on the next project. You know what, she brought me weed; like yeah, I have pornstars bringing me weed. Thats like probably the biggest rapper thing I've ever done in my life is have a porn star bring me weed. So she came through, smoked us out and we were working on U.F.C. and we already were like "yo we need a girl to say that ad lib" because originally I was going "You fuckin' crazy, you fuckin' crazy" but we need a girl to do that. She needs to be like.. a freak though, so then we like turned around and were like "...YOU! in the booth now!" and she got in there and ad libbed.
EM: What is the weirdest thing a fan has ever done at a show, with you, for you, near you?
XV: Oh yeah, a dude wouldn't get from behind our van when we were leaving because he wanted to meet me and he started crying. The tears made me talk to him and I came out and talked to him and then he got more intense. So he gets intense, I don't know if he was drunk ("He was wasted" comes from Awesome Sound) yeah okay he wasted, and he ends up getting behind our car crying. My dude is about to beat him up.
EM: He was past the point of you're-a-fan to you're-being-annoying.
XV: Or like just scary, I didn't know where he was going with it. The tears threw me for a loop because it was like "I already talked to you so you're not crying because you're not getting to meet me, now you're just crying." It was a psycho fan. Thats not a Squarian, that's a Scarian.
EM: So that's someone who freaks out on you to the point that you're not a fan, you're a Scarian?
XV: A fan who takes it too far. But you know our fans are just like.. I feel like those people just listen to the music so much that they feel like they're just meeting their boy so it's like really regular to them, its very personal. They feel like they just have a connection with you but that's what makes a fan not just a fan; man that connection can't be scary though.
EM: What is a milestone that you feel like you need to hit before you feel like you made it?
XV: Charting. I've only charted college music charts. Once I get a Top 20 record I'll be happy, it doesn't have to be Hot 100 it can be Top 20 in Iceland.
That's it for the interview here at Earmilk.com, check out more XV's via the artist links posted below and check back for more ThomaskWelker posts!