Life After Polka Dots: Rapper-Producer Kwame Talks About His Music, Mentors & Today’s Hip-Hop [Interview]
Writer Samantha Hunter takes a trip down memory lane with Kwame Holland as we talk about his career, his nostalgic memories, and who he thinks has the game on lock now.
Kwame Holland’s life story reads like a fairytale. Imagine hanging out with your good friend, who has an older brother in the music industry. For young Holland, that “music man” was Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor — the creative force behind legends Kid ‘n Play and Salt-n-Pepa. Holland was drawn to music from a young age and used to hang around the studio with Azor, helping to write and give production ideas. Holland’s dream of making his own music began to take form, and he went out on his own to record his first album.
Once the album was completed, Holland shared it with Hurby and he liked it so much that he took it over to Atlantic Records and got Holland a record deal. Kwame the Boy Genius featuring a New Beginning was released in 1989, and at age 16 Holland found himself among rap’s royalty. With his high-top fade, statement-making cane and signature polka dots, Holland made a mark on the musical landscape that has earned him a place in the history of the genre and the culture. Holland went on to release three more albums — A Day in the Life: a Pokadelick Adventure (featuring the hit singles “Oneovdabigboiz” and “Ownlee Eue), Nastee, and Incognito — before making the transition from artist to producer.
His success as a producer has also been significant — he’s worked with the likes of Missy Elliott, Keyshia Cole, Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera and LL Cool J, and earned co-writing and co-producing success in 2005 with Tweet‘s “Turn da Lights Off” and Will Smith‘s “Switch”. Holland has also written scores and original music for film and TV (Drumline, Step Up 1 & 2, Stomp the Yard, Freedom Writers, The Comebacks, Coach Carter, and Fantastic Four) as well as scored all the music for his own episode of TV One’s Unsung in 2016.
As the head of his own label, Make Noise Recordings, Holland has enjoyed the success of his artist, Vivian Green, whose albums Vivid and VGVI (both produced by Holland) have spawned chart-topping singles.
Holland’s fairy tale is still being written, but his contribution to the fabric of rap, hip-hop and New Jack Swing is forever etched in music history. Holland is a man on a mission to make good music and Okayplayer was able to catch up to him while on the road to ask him to take us on a trip down memory lane as well as share his thoughts on hip-hop music today and who he considers to be the genre’s brightest. Holland also discusses beef within the genre.
Okayplayer:: What are your thoughts on how hip-hop music as a cultural art form has evolved since you were doing your thing in the ‘90s. The vibe, the fashion, the flow, the fun — how does today’s hip-hop compare or complement the ‘90s scene?
Kwame Holland: I won’t compare the hip-hop from then and now. It’s all perspective. Kids today may consider hip-hop from my era wack. Just like folks from my era feel the same about today’s hip-hop. That is a wrong way of thought in my opinion. But I don’t know who is to blame. I just feel that hip-hop is separated by generations. A lot of kids don’t know their history and adults ignore the history that the new generation is making. Production value has evolved. I feel the vibe and visuals of new hip-hop tends to lean in a distorted direction. Fashion from the ‘90s is back [in style] now so what comes around goes around.
OKP: Talk about your transition from artist to producer. What has this been like for you and why was it a power move that you felt compelled to make? How do you think your experience as a hip-hop artist influences your work as a producer?
KH: I have always been a producer. I’ve produced all my records as an artist. I understood early on that in order to survive this game you must provide a service. Artists come and go, but music is always needed.
My experience as an artist gives me an advantage over most producers because I can work with artists from their perspective.
OKP: In a recent interview Jaden Smith said he no longer hangs out with Kanye [West], Drake, or Donald Glover, because prior to his Syre release he was “the little homie” but with that album’s success he became the competition and was shut out. What are your thoughts about competition in hip-hop and how do you think it’s changed or morphed from the time you were an artist to now?
KH: Rap is extremely competitive. It’s always been that way. I believe everyone is competition. There is only ONE #1 slot. But competition can be friendly.
OKP: Does mentorship exist in hip-hop in your opinion? Who were some of the people who mentored you and what were some of the lessons they imparted to you that still resonate with you and are put into practice today?
KH: I think every artist has an “OG” they look to for guidance. It can be managers, other artists and/or close confidants. I have surrounded myself with those whom I feel are far more accomplished, talented and experienced. I still do. I always seek advice. Some of my mentors last for years; some have only been around for brief moments. Most of my mentors are not famous but some of my “famous” mentors are Dana Dane, Chubb Rock, Big Daddy Kane, Salt-n-Pepa, Will Smith, Hurby Luv Bug and Play from Kid ‘n Play. [Their advice] ranged from the music business, performance, financial to relationship advice. Everyone listed has touched on each of these subjects, without going into specific private conversations.
OKP: As hip-hop has transcended into a universal art form, we’ve seen artists representing the genre accomplish the incredible — such as Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff making music history by winning hip-hop’s first Grammy, to Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer prize, to Nas teaming up with the National Symphony Orchestra to perform Illmatic at the Kennedy Center and teaching at Harvard. What are your thoughts on these accomplishments and where would you like to see hip-hop go or accomplish in the near future?
KH: I am truly happy for the recipients of the prestigious awards. My era of hip-hop was “rebel music”. We never sought mainstream acceptance. Hip-hop has never been a “chaser”. Meaning, awards, and accolades built by the mainstream were traditionally avoided by hip-hop. On the flip side, it’s very dope to see that hip-hop artists and culture are now seen as national treasures because when I was I kid, hip-hop was vilified.
OKP: Can you name a few artists who you feel are innovating hip-hop today and pushing the genre forward — what hip-hop artists are you feeling at the present and why?
KH: I think hip-hop is so filled with copycats and artists doing “what’s expected”. When the one or two innovators come through they shine brightly.
I think Kanye [West] still holds it down in a overall sense of innovation. J. Cole holds it down for the lyrical aspect. Drake still holds it down in the sense of making “consistent pop records”. I also really like what Jaden [Smith] is doing. I hope he remains consistent and keeps pushing the envelope. I also love Anderson .Paak’s artistry. Kendrick [Lamar] keeps pushing the visual aspect as well.
OKP: Some people love a hip-hop beef, and legend has it that you had one with the late great Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G. The line from his hit song “Unbelievable,” ‘Your style is played out like Kwame and those f**king polka dots,” is what sparked the beef rumors. Did you ever get a chance to confront Biggie and share with him your thoughts on this lyric before he passed? How do you feel about it now, looking back?
KH: I don’t address the “Biggie line” anymore. That’s been a 24-year-old question that’s been answered way too many times. But I think going back to the competition question, rap is so competitive and it’s in most rapper’s nature to knock whoever is popular at the time. It’s to be expected. Also, there has been rap beef based on an artist’s sensitivity level. Some take things the wrong way. As for me, I’ve never really had “beef” with anyone.
OKP: Can you share the “Top 5” moments of your life as a rapper that, when you look back on them, you say to yourself, ‘I can’t believe that really happened’ or ‘that moment really changed my life?’
KH: Wow, my top 5 moments? That’s a tough one.
1. Hearing my record “The Boy Genius” on the radio for the first time.
2. Getting on a stage and everyone was dressed in polka dots. This was the first time I’ve seen this and I thought it was a joke. I was shocked.
3. Randomly being in the street in New York City and a disguised Michael Jackson comes up to me and tell me he likes my music.
4. Producing and appearing on records with hip-hop giants such as LL Cool J, Method Man and Will Smith.
5. Finally launching my own label Make Noise via Capitol Records and putting out Vivian Green, which has received high-charting records after all these years.
Samantha Hunter resides in Westchester, New York and has written entertainment and lifestyle features for Essence, SoulBounce, Inspirer, Haute d’ Vie, Black Westchester, DELUX, and VH1.com. Her family and friends say she’s always going somewhere, but you can find her on Instagram at @Sapodillic.