All Killer No Filler: An Interview with AJ Suede
Step rashly into AJ Suede's world of grit, of clenched teeth and white knuckles, and it might just rip you apart. The Seattle-based rapper, producer, and nascent tattooer has a knack for making music that is at once unfiltered yet collected. He has released more than twenty projects on Bandcamp since 2012, and shows no signs of hitting the brakes. In this year alone, he has released three EPs: Melancholy Trill II, System of a Frown II, and Rain Based. His recent music doubles as a showcase of his own whip-smart lyricism and of the envelope-pushing producers that hail from Seattle. Over shadowy instrumentals, Suede leaves nothing off the table. His verses, often delivered in a staccato flow, work in lacerating bursts. They target everything from the need for marginalized peoples to stick together to the smug ignorance of people who judge and misunderstand addiction. I caught up with Suede to talk about his approach to art-making, his love of tattoos, and his plans for the future.
On one of your most recent EPs, Melancholy Trill II, you bring together a number of Seattle-based producers like Wolftone, Diogenes, and Levitatingman. I know that you were working with Wolftone before you moved to Seattle, but I'm wondering how your recent move to the city has changed your relationship to the scene. Has it surpassed your expectations?
I never worked with Wolf until after I met him in person, but we've been working since before I officially moved here. I think my presence pushes people to work a little harder. I'm not too concerned about the local scene but I also benefit from being around people that are from it. I have relationships with certain artists that are deeper than music and we all elevate each other. I didn't really have any expectations because my name is going up regardless.
Is it important to you that your connection with the people you collaborate with runs deeper than music?
These days it does. I'm not really into internet collaborations anymore so I prefer to work with people that I'm surrounded with.
It seems like your music has been more collaboration-based than before. When you started putting out music on Bandcamp in 2012, you were producing on top of rapping. Has the shift toward bringing in more producers occurred because you have made more connections along the way, or is there another artistic reason?
Yeah I attribute that to not living in Pennsylvania anymore, because even when I went to live in NY again in 2012 and in 2014 I was collaborating with people I was with. PA was just very isolated from everything else so I didn't really leave the house when I was in the mood to make music. But I think collaborating with other producers made me a better rapper; when everything was self produced I would have to split my energy in half to produce and rap. Rapping on other people's beats gives me the chance to go 100% with that energy. Still very hands on when it comes to other people's production though. I know exactly what I'm looking for. I have another self produced album in the stash and it's the first one since Lefthanded Virgo (2015 Mishka Records). Just waiting on the right time to release it, and that's not now.
That's one of the things I love about your work. Melancholy Trill II has a different producer for each song, but the EP feels remarkably coherent. Could you tell me about the process of putting different beats together? I imagine that each producer has their own style, and I'm wondering how you select and sequence them to keep the atmosphere consistent.
I think it's important that a project sounds cohesive whether it has multiple producers or one. The process of selecting beats is one of my favorites because I like to release bodies of work as opposed to singles. So if I love the beats enough to bump them on repeat, I already know they’re going to sound better with my voice on them. For Melancholy Trill II, every producer was from Seattle except for JPEG and even though we been hella familiar with each other, we didn't meet until he came to Seattle and we did a show together. So part of what separates MT II from MT I is that it’s really rooted in the atmosphere of the city, especially in the winter when it's raining all the time. There are songs that don't make certain projects because they aren't cohesive but other projects may branch off from that when I come across more beats that flow with them.
It's interesting that you say that because one word I would use to describe the beats is "chilling." Your verses always keep me afloat, though. The mood is dark but you never sound defeated. Is that something you hope to communicate to the listener?
I make music that I would like to listen to so I only really focus on myself. It just really resonates with people that understand where I'm coming from. If I focused on the listener or the consumer more, I think my music would be more filtered.
I noticed that many of your releases are only available on Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Does that have anything to do with having an unfiltered approach to your art?
I used to have everything available on Mediafire too but I took all the free links down so I could put some more value on the music. It's high art. Gold and Water is $100 because you had to have been there, otherwise you're late. There's a couple releases on Apple and Spotify but that's not a priority right now. A lot of full project streams on Youtube through 3rd party channels too.
Hip hop isn't the only art you make though. On February 17, you tweeted that you plan on working on a different art form throughout the spring. Can you talk about what that is and if it has any connection to your music?
I've been practicing tattoos pretty vigilantly for the last 2 months since I have hella music in the stash. But I can't stop making music so I'm doing both.
Do you have a favorite tattoo that means something special to you?
My favorites are probably my first 2 professional ones: my sister's name and my deceased cousin's name in his own handwriting from a graffiti black book I had. RIP Londell.
You rap about needing new tattoos on "Grind 2" from System of a Frown II. I was wondering how you view that song in relation to "On the Grind" from the first System of a Frown. On the earlier song, you talk about being "at the right place wrong time," whereas on the sequel you say that you are "at the right place right time." Is that a reference to where you are at career-wise?
Tattoos are an expensive hobby of mine. But it's more of a reference to being ahead of my time 2 years ago but now people are catching up to what I'm doing. I could have easily backpedaled to make my shit sound like everybody else's but I didn't deviate from what I'm doing. At the right place artistically but it was the wrong time.
Why do you think people are appreciating your work more now?
I'm not sure. The universe is slowly paying me back for all the hours I put in. I'm looking forward to exponential growth very soon though.
You just released your third EP in this year alone. Is there a reason you gravitate toward the EP format?
I don't know, it's probably an attention span thing. Putting together projects over 10 tracks require a great deal of focus and patience. It's also easier to listen to all 5 tracks than every track on a larger project. It's all killer no filler.
Is there anything else you’re doing this year that we should look out for?
Yeah bro, look out for everything I'm doing this year. Trying to shoot a lot of videos for some of the tracks that were released this year.
I’ll be on the lookout. Thanks so much for chatting with WHRB!
Thanks for having me though, talk to the Dean and tell him I want a music scholarship. This is high IQ music.
Cam Loftis DJs/writes for The Darker Side. The Darker Side has air every Saturday night from 9 pm - 7 am and Sunday night from 12 am - 5 am.