why do artists stay stuck?

The hardest thing to do as a talented, hungry musician that feels stuck, is to stop playing shows with lazy artists at the same old spots.  playing a show at a small bar can totally be a good fit, but if you’re playing with bands or rappers who just want to show up, perform and drink and don’t put any effort into promo, you’re fucked.  It’s going to be groundhogs day forever.

There’s a very strong psychology to those artists who won't put the work in (including myself).  There’s a deeply embedded reason that we won’t, and we aren’t even cognizant of it.  I don’t know exactly what it is, but it certainly has to do with staying in our comfort zone.

What we really have to do is say “I’m going to do X.  No matter what it takes.  I’ll rearrange my life in order to prioritize X.”  Most blocked artists pick their X based on what they’re comfortable doing, and then build their life around that.  This mindset makes it really easy for us to act like our lack of a career is happening TO them, when really we are the active agent.  We feel like there’s no way to make it happen under our circumstances.  And we're right — there isn’t.  That’s why we have to change our circumstances.  Otherwise what we are really saying is: “I refuse to let go of the things I find comfortable and normal, even if I'm not really happy with them.” Except it comes out as “I can’t spend that much time networking or learning design, or working on my live set, because I would have to stop going to work or taking care of my kid.”  …No, you would have to stop spending 2 hours a day watching Netflix and 3 hours a day on Facebook, or you would have to quit the job that you hate and find something better, or you would have to stop spending every other night at the bar “decompressing."

We have to rip the band aid off and feel totally raw, totally stupid and inadequate.  We have to cast off our coping mechanisms and feel our feelings, and make room for a new experience.  Then we can really grasp something that works.

Being around people who are prone to the same blocked tendencies is like being in the doldrums in Phantom Tollbooth.  Even if you know you want to get out, the contagious attitude subtly drags you down.  It’s not like taking the red pill in the matrix: you don’t just go “oh, I get it now” and remain awake forever.

I try to remind myself, mostly by telling others, that we’ve traded in the discomfort of being stuck in the bullshit for the discomfort of constantly pushing ourselves to get out of the bullshit.  It’s easy to forget that challenging yourself to grow doesn’t necessarily make you LESS stressed out or alienated.  You have to challenge yourself to grow AND challenge yourself to take good CARE of yourself when you're feeling those feelings.

This trip is my Moment of Truth

I’ve been wanting, for some time, to make an album based on Gangstarr’s Moment of Truth LP.  I heard an interview with DJ Premier about Gangstarr’s formula for making records.  Guru would write down a list of song titles that he wanted to make, then one by one, Premo would make the beat, with the title in mind, while Guru sat there and waited, and then Guru would write the song on the spot.  And like he says in the intro to the album, “there’s always a message involved.”


So I wanted to make an album that way, and as I reflected on the late Guru’s work and that quote — “there’s always a message involved” — I realized how everything the dude did had a message.  When I was a teenager, I used to think he was just a guy with a simple rhyme style held up by a dope voice and a dope producer.  But now I realize the massive contribution to hip hop and life that he made.  So I wanted to do an album where I built every song around a Guru quote from the songs on Moment of Truth.

Check out my song Hypocrite, which includes a sample from the intro of Gangstarr's "Robin Hood Theory"

As I lay down on the bed in my temporary Hollywood apartment with headphones on and listened for quotes, I thought “how could I ever match the impact of what these guys contributed?  how could I ever show as much dedication to my values and make as dope of a song as Above the Clouds?  Above the Clouds was the first rap song that I ever really loved.  I heard it in a skate video — Shorty’s Fulfill the Dream — and it almost single-handedly turned me onto hip hop.  The name of the song is perfect because the entire joint is elevated — Guru and Deck sound like themselves, yet somehow the vibe of the beat obviously inspired them, especially Guru, to just weave words together in this amazingly stylish and inspired way.  It’s the definition of next level.


From the second track, Robin Hood Theory, I pulled the quote “because the youth is the future, no doubt that’s right and exact.”  I worked with youth in Portland, leading a hip hop recording workshop at Morpheus Youth Project, and honestly, I didn’t have the stomach for it.  I wanted to help those kids, and I did, but I couldn’t see myself continuing because, aside from how busy I was, I felt uncomfortable interacting with them.  I had no idea how to really affect their lives — the way that they think is so deeply affected by their environments and it’s really difficult, maybe impossible, to single-handedly impress upon them the necessity of the discipline it takes to forge your own path.  Hell, I can barely do it and I’m a privileged adult.  How could you override the social programming that tells those kids to do what their friends do, which is say fuck anything that takes too much effort and feels like class?

Check out my blog post about working with youth through hip hop

A sample in the background of the title track, Moment of Truth says “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  The truth is I’ve always known what I wanted to do.  The established path was never for me.  The world is too systematically fucked to go with the herd and feel okay about it.  I want to affect those kids lives, I want to build some real shit in my lifetime and live up to my values.  I want to create something — I’m not sure what, yet — that allows me to make dope music, bring a message to people, and help the youth and the underserved.  But I’m scared.  I’m scared of those little, incremental discomforts and all the moments when I feel stupid and weak along the way.  The task I’m setting myself up for is not an easy one, either.  People don’t want to give you money for making music, and they damn sure don’t want to give money, much less their personal attention or care to people who are hard to help.  That’s what the whole system is based on — nobody helps because nobody helps.  You try to help and realize that helping is underfunded and neglected, and it’s too hard to make your ends meet with helping, especially when you feel like you’re on the fucking edge all the time anyway.


So this trip, this journey, is my moment of truth.  I don’t feel like I can do it — I mean, I know I can do this internship, but I don’t feel like I can figure out where to go from there — but I kind of know I can’t turn back.  In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he identifies one of the steps of the archetypal hero’s journey as refusal of the call, wherein the hero is confronted with the opportunity for adventure but he turns away.  After having seen a glimpse of what’s possible, hid old life is now completely unsatisfying — he’s haunted by his destiny.  But, as Guru says on JFK to LAX, coincidentally a song about a trip to LA, “the next level doesn’t tolerate cowards.”  So here I stand, on the cusp of living my true dream, and I think I’m about to shit my pants.  This is my moment of truth.

Quote from Guru about the formula and message of Gangstarr

Quote from DJ Premier about Gangstarr's album-writing formula at 7:55