Hailing from Prince George's County, Maryland, rapper IDK has worked his way from the bottom over the last handful of years. Through mixtape releases, hustling, and using social media strategically, he's seen a meteoric rise to the top of current hip hop culture and inches ever closer to a permanent spot in the zeitgeist of current-era rap music. Last week, in a partnership with Adult Swim, he released IWASVERYBAD, a 12 track project that showcases the amount of ambition IDK carries with him.
IWASVERYBAD is, as IDK himself puts it, not an album but a soundtrack. It's as visual as an audio medium is capable of being- the 12 tracks paint an introspective, graphic, and at sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of life in the D.C. area. Covering topics ranging from disappointing the women in his life to experiences in armed robbery, IDK bares all while weaving together line after line of lyrically pointed and aggressively performed storytelling. Whether it's the energetic "Pizza Shop" featuring MF Doom, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Young Gleesh or the existential "Black Sheep, White Dove", there's something here for everyone.
IDK carries himself with a Musashi-like elegance: from how he answers questions to how he engages with fans, all of his actions seem informed and motivated by the sum of his experiences and skills. You're able to see how his approach to life could directly influence his approach to music. Despite having a specific vision of what he wants to achieve, he has the ability to humble himself, listen to others, and retool an idea so he may yield the strongest end product.
I was given the opportunity to speak with IDK at the All Things Go Fall Classic earlier this month. We talked about growing up in the D.C. area, storytelling, and how he made certain features on the project happen. The following is a transcript of the conversation he and I had.
EM: Your work always had an element of storytelling and scene setting to it. Was that something that you consciously started with you?
IDK: 100 percent. I always like to tell a story. I always wanted to be something people could listen to and visualize, you feel me? Usually I get the inspiration of the story from the instrumental but sometimes I write the story before I have a beat. If I have a beat that sounds like it feels like that story then I put those words to that beat.
EM: You've always paid a lot of attention to vocal effects and mixing and you've been doing that for a while. It's kind of become the norm now.
EM: Is that something you consciously made the decision to do or is that input from your team?
IDK: Nah. It's just like anything I do music wise: it's natural and it comes from me. You feel me? I just do what I feel, what I feel is right. I know my vocal range. I have a crazy vocal range in terms of the way I say my words, my cadences. And it just depends on the beat. If it's a beat with a lot of bass I'm not going to speak low because my voice won't cut through- I rap a little bit higher or something. You know what I mean ? It just depends on what I'm doing. You feel me?
EM: Yeah. Tell me about "Pizza Shop". What was it like working with Doom and Del?
IDK: Oh man. That's the question everyone wants to know. Honestly when I first did the song... First, it was just the first half... And I met Gleesh. The day that I met Gleesh we did "Pizza Shop" and "Baby Scale" randomly. Like, I just tweeted him and he tweeted me back. Like, "I'll fuck with your shit, but look, you're on a label." You know what I mean? And we had that first part. But then, I was like "Yo it'd be tight to put this second half of the beat to it." I was already gonna use it for a different song but it just matched, you know what I mean? ... When I first heard that beat it just sounded like Gorillaz vibes. I'm like "Yo I want get Doom on it" because the first time I heard of Doom was from the Gorillaz... But then I was like "I want Del because of the Gorillaz too." If I get one or the other that's cool. And then I reached out to Adult Swim and Jason DeMarco and he said he could get in contact with Doom. He was like "I'll send him the record." He sent him the record. About a day or two later he sent it back and [Jason said] "Yo he says he likes the song, I think he may do it" and about three weeks later we ended up getting a verse from him.
EM: And was the verse something you kind of gave him an inspiration for or did you just let him do his thing?
IDK: Yeah. They did ask what it was about just to make sure they were on the right subject...Probably two days after they were like "Yo, Del's... Del says he's gonna get on it too." So originally Doom gave me like a 24 bar verse and then Del gave me a 24 bar verse. So I got way more left. I had to cut it down. I had to cut Doom's down to 8 or 12 maybe? And then I put Del right after that. Just so I wouldn't waste time. So that's how it was. I didn't actually meet them. Have yet to meet them. Doom's not even in America. Like he's not even allowed in America or some shit like that.
EM: Oh. Yeah?
IDK: Some crazy shit like that. So you know everyone's tripping that I got him. Just like some unicorn shit. You know what I mean?
EM: What about Chief Keef? That's the only song on your project that I haven't gotten to hear yet.
IDK: Oh damn. That 's the grand finale right there. I mean in terms of potential pop singles. That's the well... There's another one too. So we got a couple. But that one... I always wanted Chief Keef on that one when I originally did it. That was one of the first records I recorded for the whole project. And I was just like "Yo I'm trying to get Chief Keef on this joint." ... It's funny because I met him because back in the day when I was on my super hustling shit. I had the booking number and I just saved it in my phone. I used to mass text my music from my phone like early on. And one day that number just responded. Like, "Who is this?" And I was like "Uhhh @jayidk. That's my instagram." And he was like "Yo, this is actually kind of cool." At first he was trying to manage me and shit. But then we just ended up being cool and he watched my progression and my grind. When the time came I said "Yo I'm doing this I want Chief Keef on it... It took a long long time to actually get him on there... And he sent the verse like... the day before I announced that he was on it. Because they said he was going to be on it. He sent it right then. Like it was like a buzzer beater (laughs). Like the article came out probably an hour after he sent me the verse out. Yeah. After he sent me the verse. Saying that he was on it (laughs ).
EM: Did that hold up mastering or anything?
IDK: No. We had it mastered real quick and switched it over and swapped it out. That's the thing. iTunes wasn't trying to change it and all this shit. But we ended up getting it fixed. So that's probably one of my favorite verses on there to be honest. That's my favorite. I keep going back to that one.
EM: Having released multiple mixtapes and progressing to where you are today, what does releasing your album next week mean to you?
IDK: It's still like a mixtape to be honest. I call it a soundtrack. It's not my debut album. It's... Just get that straight, cause everyone thinks it is. Still not there yet. We trying to be like over 100k first before. You feel me on that? Debut? This is still like a mixtape. It's still going to be great when we come out. You know what I mean? At the same time we made a lot of progression. We have a lot of cool things. The music is much, much better than what I've put out before. I think that this is definitely resonating a lot of people gonna understand and get it. You feel me? Especially "17 wit a 38". When that joint comes out... Aww man. I already know what's going to happen with that one. You feel me? I can't speak on everything else but that one for sure people are gonna get fucking down with.
EM: I'm excited for it. I'm digging everything on it so far.
IDK: Yeah we trying.
EM: So how do you think you would have been a different as an artist had you not grown up in PG county?
IDK: I don't know man. See... that's... that's... that's what I think is the most important part of what I do. I bring like this whole 'nother perspective to the world that a lot of people don't know about but a lot of people live. You know? If I didn't grow up here, I don't know. Honestly, that's a really hard question. But I don't think it would be as unique 'cause there's no one really from where we're from that's making a lot of noise on the national level, that's repping where we're from. There's a lot of dope artists from where we're from though. Like they're coming but a lot of them are more known locally. Still nobody who's the voice of the area yet. That's what I'm trying to be.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Photo Credit: Sarah Heaton