(Photo: Zawcainmusic.com/The Freedman Bureau)
While some may describe BET Music Matters artist Zawcain’s refreshing sound as eclectic, the 30-year-old rapper believes the proper word is “collective.” Growing up as a military brat in El Paso, TX exposed the MC born Taron Johnson to a far-reaching collection of influences that ranged from Outkast to Snoop Dogg. “In Texas we had Lil Keke, UGK and Geto Boys and stuff like that,” explains the energetic wordsmith, “but because I was an Army brat, I lived around people from everywhere— The first person to put a Nas record in my ear was my man from Brooklyn whose father was [stationed in] Texas.” Today, Zawcain’s diverse tastes are evident when listening to his latest mixtape, last June’s superb C.E.B.M Vol. 1. Tonight, the former hotel manager made his third appearance on 106 & Park (he’s performed twice as a featured Music Matters artist) to debut his new video “Ride Wit Us” off of his first mixtape, last year’s The Public Option. BET.com spoke with the fast-rising star to talk about his new video, his musical influences and giving up his promising career as a hotel manager to try to become a rapper.
BET.com: The video for “Ride Wit Us” has a very high class feel. What were you trying to say with the visuals?
Zawcain: We shot it in Las Vegas probably about a month ago. I had been working on it for a minute, man. I wanted to capture an Ocean’s 11 feel. Originally I had thought about maybe shooting it in LA, New York or Miami, but being that I’m from El Paso, TX, the crown jewel of the southwest is Las Vegas. I wanted to shoot it in the Southwest’s version of New York or LA. We shot it at the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas. We wanted it to be Black sophistication.... I wanted it to be elegant… black tie, ladies in dresses, taking it all the way back to the Rat Pack with Sinatra and those guys. A lot of champagne and that jubilation that you get with Jay-Z’s “Excuse Me Miss” but the sophistication that you felt when you watched the “Roc Boys” video.
You just threw out some diverse influences— Sinatra and the Rat Pack as well as Jay-Z. What artists inspired you growing up?
Nas, first and foremost. I think he’s the best— my favorite artist. Just because of his introspection, man. It was music that I listened to that made me want to better myself. I was influenced by Outkast a lot, especially growing up in Texas. But on this specific endeavor, making this video, hands down my number one influence was Jay. I’ve watched a lot of videos but that “Roc Boys” video is just: “Wow.” I don’t know where it was shot at, but even now when it comes on it just holds your attention. That was really my point of reference. I knew what I wanted to do, but after I saw what they did, I was like, “that’s the class we want to have with it.”
How has being chosen as a Music Matters artist affected your career thus far?
Music Matters is the opportunity for BET to shed light on the up and comers. In the first class there was Marsha Ambrosius, J. Cole, Big Sean, B.o.B, Miguel… I’m the only one without a deal. I’m the only one who was working a 9 to 5 while I was doing the cypher on the Hip Hop Awards. Kelly G, Stephen Hill, Omar Grant, if it hadn’t been for them I wouldn’t have been able to quit my job. Music Matter is exactly what they say. They got me to SXSW, they got me to meet great artists like Cole and Big Sean. Without BET Music Matters I would be nothing. I’d just be a guy that can rap who smiles when he’s kind of nervous (laughs).
Which hotel did you work for?
I used to manage Marriotts. I used to be a corporate executive with Marriott Hotels. Specifically, I used to manage the JW Marriott in DC, a block from Barack [Obama] in the White House. I was pretty good at it. As far as age, there wasn’t too many African Americans in the position that I had. Definitely not at my age.
Wow that’s like a real career. Was it tough to put that to the side to pursue your music dream?
Ah man, it was really tough. I had been rapping since I was 16, but I had never made a mixtape. I put out my first mixtape The Public Option in April, 2010. I met Kelly and Stephen in June, 2010. And that’s when I became a part of Music Matters. I did a show at BB King’s, they were there and they were like, “Yo, we got this thing called Music Matters, you should do it.” You can talk to anybody back home, they’ll tell you. I was never like, “I wanna be an artist. That never happened.” I always had a passion for music, always enjoyed it… but I never had that as no dream. But it’s funny when you have this stable, great company to work for where you have upward mobility and you can do a lot of things in this company and you’ve got this guaranteed money, it’s difficult to take a chance. But when you compare it to what you can achieve through your goals and through your dreams, how many lives you can touch and how much light you can shed on situations, it wasn’t even hard for me once I broke down all the pros and the cons. I’ve already passed 99% of the people that are going to try to do it, you just have to define success for yourself. So if they took music away from me tomorrow, I’m good. But I have a feeling we’ll be here for a little bit of time.
I was checking out your Twitter and saw a lot of tweets about politics— you were talking about the Republican debates. You also work some pretty heavy social and political messages into your music.
I enjoy politics, I enjoy current events. I read a book a month. I read five magazines a month. I’m a nerd, man. I have this insatiable hunger for knowledge. One thing that I think people will see in the music is, they’ll see me speaking on issues, but I’m gonna try to make sure I don’t come across preachy.
That’s a fine line. It seems like the artists that really connect with people—the Lauryn Hill’s, the Kanye West’s—are able to get across some heavy messages without coming across as preachy, while others can’t seem to strike a balance. How do you toe that line?
You know, I’m still learning that. But I’m learning that music should be first. If you have a message that is resonating with people, it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, they’re gonna feel you and they’re going to identify with it. That’s the first thing I had to learn, you can’t be afraid to talk about anything. But then that brings me to the second thing that I’m still learning and that’s just bettering song structure. I critique myself a lot. I don’t even listen to my music because I can hear so many things that are wrong with it. So many things that I could have said different or I should have done this. So, I’m always trying to improve and get better. And I’ve found that the best way to get better is to learn from the people that are doing it. I’ve learned things from Soulja Boy, I’ve learned things from Drake and then I can go back and listen to a Nas record and learn from all those great artists. Just bringing more people into the creative process like, “Hey, listen to this hook. What do you think about this? Does this catch your attention? How do you feel about this?” I play my music for people who otherwise don’t listen to hip hop to see what they took from it. I’m trying to toe that line of great music with a true message.