"Samples go in cycles, but styles change."—SKE Speaks to Promoe (Looptroop)
SKE: The concept of "realness" is inextricable from rap music. While some have claimed that realness (authenticity) has been linked to the genre since its inception in the late '70s, it is undeniable that the concept acquired a sinister shade in the '90s. During the era of gangster rap, any rapper who boasted about "having a gun and intending to use it," was expected to keep his word. Those who violated this ethos were dismissed as "fans, phonies, fakes," (in the words of Nas) and such a label, justly applied, could ruin careers. During my adolescent years, I admit that the ideal of realness trumped almost any other edict of morality. Secretly, I preferred the rapper who said that he would kill someone and did, to the rapper who said that he would kill someone and didn't—which reveals the barbarism that such an ethic engenders ... later, during my more thoughtful years, I stumbled upon another interpretation of the concept, that of German philosopher Hegel, which has come to undermine my previous prejudices on the subject ("realness in rap"). According to Hegel, a subject that makes itself what it is, is more fully real than that which does not, than that which is determined by its environment. To become "real" one must reflect upon the world—upon the causal forces that compel or constrain one—and then ally oneself to those causal forces which comply to reason (one cannot act outside the laws of nature). Understood in this way, the gangster rappers of the '90s, who strived for realness in the sense of keeping their bond of violence, drug-peddling, and (need be) jail-time—were not fully real. After all, in an inner-city environment that compelled its underprivileged citizenry in the direction of gangs, prisons, and drugs, the gangster rapper was merely fulfilling a prophecy foretold by America's dark history ... whereas in the '90s, Tupac may have been the paragon of realness, today—according to this new understanding—Swedish-born Promoe (Looptroop) may better exemplify the ideal: thoughtful, open, ever-evolving, struggling for truth and for freedom (even though 'Pac possessed many of the same qualities, and I still love him dearly). Last week, Promoe released the song "Tattoo the City" (off his upcoming album "The Art of Losing"). I spoke to Promoe about the new song, the state of rap music, and politics.
(The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Interviewee: Mårten Edh (Promoe)
Photog: Mathias Fossum
SKE: Hi, Promoe. Thanks for taking the time to talk. How've you been?
Promoe: Keeping busy. Running. Reading. Eating. And a little bit of rapping.
SKE: The new song—as well as the forthcoming album, as we understand it—is composed in English. Why did you decide to revert to English?
P: Yes, The Art of Losing is in English. I actually recorded two albums last summer, one in English and one in Swedish. So it's not really correct to say that I've reverted to English. I'm still doing stuff in Swedish and I never stopped working in English. Although you're right. It's been a while since I've released a solo album in English ... I mostly write without a plan; ideas just come to me in the form of words and expressions that somehow intrigue me. These ideas can be in any of the two languages (sometimes in Spanish too). They lie around in my phone for years sometimes before they get turned into songs.
This summer was special. A couple of years ago, I used to write songs, or parts of songs, every day. When I started studying law in 2016, however, I didn't have the time anymore because there was so much required reading. So, in the summertime, and especially last summer, all of my ideas had welled up and just poured out of me like a river. At the same time, Cosmic started producing and we wanted to try and make some songs together. We wound up doing almost 20 songs, or two albums. It was a great feeling. A bit feverish maybe, but so free. I guess I needed to balance out all the reading.
SKE: Listening to Tattoo the City one is left with the feeling that the song is a reference to graffiti—but in a metaphorical way; in the song, graffiti seems like a kind of surrogate for youthful honesty and rebelliousness, an affirmation of how important youthful idealism is in exposing the often wrong-headed status quo ... am I way off track, here?
P: Your interpretation is as right as mine—but my idea was to write about graffiti straight up without metaphors. I mean, the tattoo part is a metaphor, of course, but a metaphor for doing graffiti. I've often thought about the fact that the adult world—or the world of power—is too scared to try and understand graffiti. It sees its ugliness and gets turned away, I guess. But if we really want to understand the youth (I might be talking more about my own youth than the youth of today, but the reasoning could probably be applied to other cultural expressions as well), we have to embrace and deal with it fully. We might not have to accept it, but if we want to criticize it we have to understand it. So if graffiti is a way of trying to communicate, how do we expect the youth to evolve in this field if they are being met with scorn, punishment, silence, or anger?
To me the song is a mixture of what I would want to say to the youth trying to express its feelings, whether ugly or beautiful—and my own feelings and recollections of being a writer.
SKE: There's this trite quote that I'm sure you're familiar with, often falsely attributed to Churchill: "If you're not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative at 35, you have no brain." Some of the people whom I most admire, however, seem to have gone in the opposite direction. Have your politics evolved since you began rapping, or are your views founded upon values that have stayed, more or less, the same?
P: It's a very cynical quote, I think—and it speaks volumes to many people's distrust of themselves and the people around them. This distrust leads to egoism and the individualistic politics that have ruined our notion of solidarity.
(On a side note: In my mind, there's not much of a difference between liberalism and conservatism, but I know these terms are being used differently in different languages. And in Swedish, I think we say left instead of liberal when we translate the quote.)
I still believe a world without hierarchies is our only way to survive, or, at least, to thrive—just like I did when I was younger. I think my way of expressing it might have changed, and the way I think we can work towards it. But I'm not sure my ideas are better now though.
SKE: Two years ago you posted a very ambitious stack of books for Christmas, including works by Deleuze and Foucault. What have you been reading these days and is there any one idea that has stood out?
P: I study law, so there's a lot of reading constantly, and sometimes not what I would choose if I were reading for pleasure. Some of it is very interesting though. I'm looking forward to getting to the advanced part next semester. I'm sure I will find more ambitious stuff then.
(Promoe laughs and admits that he "still has to get through Deleuze too.")
P: Most of the stuff I can think about, off the top of my head, is books in Swedish. Criminal law from a historical or sociological perspective.
SKE: You said somewhere, I can't recall where, that Hip Hop is your way of understanding the world, that it's your way of "digesting the world," so to speak (if I understood correctly). This contrasts with my own experience. As soon as I began to read—to really read—and to think critically, rapping, as an art form, began to feel like an inadequate means of expression, perhaps because of the limits that it imposed (this may just speak to my own shortcomings as a rapper). Have you considered seeking new media for your expression? Writing a book, e.g.?
P: I definitely want to write books. It's one of maybe too-many summer projects I have planned. I'm actually pleased with having Hip Hop as my language, but I agree that there are other ways of expressing other things. I think I meant Hip Hop as a way of communicating more than a way of understanding the world, although I'm unsure I recall your exact reference.
SKE: The pace of the modern world, and its fragmented nature, seems to have wreaked havoc on art, particularly rap music. Are you disillusioned with the state of rap music?
P: Yes and no. First of all, I don't listen to it—so I might not really have a say. I mean, I use my own music to try and balance things a little, but I don't want to tell anyone else what they should listen to, or what kind of music they should make. At the same time, it's obvious to me that the values being expressed are extremely self-destructive. This must be brought to light and criticized if we're going to evolve as a people. This has been going on for a long time, since we started in the '90s and before that, even though it feels like it's spinning more and more out of control.
SKE: Sort of on the same subject: When Future's Mask Off was released my younger friends were immediately quite enamored with it, while I felt that it was a gigantic step-down from Looptroop's Topp Doggz. Any thoughts?
P: Samples go in cycles, but styles change. I'm not judging anyone's taste. I haven't listened to it either, to be honest. Each period has its way of channeling our understanding and energies. There are also connections through time, which in this case is the music we rap over. That's actually pretty interesting; how we in one way are drawn to the same thing—and in another way can sound so different.
SKE: We hear that you'll be touring Europe later this year. Will you be visiting Iceland?
P: There are no plans at the moment, but I would love to if there's an opportunity.
SKE: One more thing. Why did you decide to study law?
P: I had no specific plan for it to start with. I just wanted to study something new—to gain some more knowledge besides music. I have been a bit torn between identities. I have great respect for people who live their whole lives getting deep into their craft, whatever that craft may be. At the same time, I also want to evolve and to expand into new areas. Maybe with my line of work, it's both of those things; if you focus on the music side of my work, studying law is something else entirely, but if my work is a struggle for truths and rights—and communication—then the endeavor could be interpreted as me trying to gain a deeper understanding. Also, although I may not have had a conscious, outspoken reason for studying law that doesn't mean that there weren't subconscious reasons; ever since I was very young, I have seen how the law is used to keep the power structures and the imbalances of wealth at a status quo—and I have been very alert to abuse of power. So in light of this, it's not hard to understand why I might have felt the need to decipher the law: the law understood as the language, and the science, of my enemy.
SKE: Anything that you'd like to add?
P: The Art of Losing drops in April! Thank you for your time and your support. Bless!
(SKE thanks Promoe for taking the time to talk and encourages readers to listen to "Tattoo the City," as well as heeding the new album upon its release.)