"Right before Rick Ross hit me up I had bought this pair of Balenciaga shoes that was $545 and people were calling me crazy," says Rockie Fresh while laying back in a chair in a conference room at Atlantic Records' Midtown Manhattan offices. A 21-year-old dapper-dressed Chicago rapper signed to the Bawse's M.M.G. label since last summer, Rockie's ostentatious footwear brag is the sort of thing you'd expect to hear from a newly minted cocky young thing. But with the release of his Electric Highway mixtape this week, Rockie seems intent on positioning himself outside of Ross's street-rap encampment. Instead of cutting his raps with copious coke boasts, Rockie favors a tenor closer to a stoner's stream-of-contemplation when he raps. Ross fulfills his contractual duty guest verse on "Life Long," and Rockie isn't shy about suggesting that this year he may buy "too many cars," but the mixtape's highlight comes with his spacey team-up with TNGHT producer Lunice, "Spaceman O.G." After Rockie reveals day-dreams of "chilling in the sky," the tape begins to take a cue from Lunice's airy beat and an otherworldly ambience emerges as Electric Highway's defining charm.
So while he was in New York last week to host a playback session of Electric Highway, Hive hooked up with Rockie and skipped the standard questions about his label boss to chat about dropping out of school to write raps inspired by Jake Gyllenhaal movies, bouncing around the studio with his new natural-fit production foil Lunice, and why you shouldn't be surprised if he ends up collaborating with Taylor Swift.
After talking about your Balenciaga shoes, you mentioned that your parents bought you your first pair of Air Jordans as a reward for doing well at school.
Yeah, I actually skipped a grade when I was younger. It was something that they rewarded me for, like with the Jordans. But I ended up growing to hate school. It just didn't make sense to me as far as where I saw myself going and what I wanted to be; I didn't think school would give me what I needed to be successful. At that time I didn't know that I wanted to rap, but I just knew that I was different. I knew my career was going to be a little different but very lucrative. I looked at people outside of the school world, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and saw what school didn't really do for them and they were billionaires! I wanted to make my parents happy so I tried college for a semester, but while I was doing that I was working on my first mixtape and the release party was a sold-out show, like a 500-capacity venue and we turned away 250 people. Honestly, I'm one of the youngest Chicago artists to have a sell-out hip-hop show. That was my motivation to be like, "This school stuff is not for me."
Who did you relate to more, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?
Honestly, I feel like I got to give it to Steve Jobs because I utilize more stuff that he's responsible for in my own life. Everything I got electronically is Apple, from my cell phone to my computer to my Apple TV to my iPod and what I play on my iPad. Just seeing what he's done for my generation, he's a little bit higher. But Bill Gates is also a legend!
Do you write your lyrics in your iPhone?
I used to but now I got a little bit of a format for recording so with the Notepad now I'm just using them to write down new words. I watch a lot of movies because I'm not in school. The things I learned in school like the content and the certain vocabulary they had me learning, I utilize that in rap and that's probably the only thing I utilized from school, but when I dropped out I still needed to be learning that so what I do is watch a lot of movies and just listen to the way they use words. If I hear something I don't know and I've never used before, I type it down in my phone and look it up and then I can use it in a verse.
When was the last time you came across a word or an idea you looked up?
Man, every day, honestly! I don't even have cable no more ever since I got the Apple TV. As a 21-year-old I don't know everything, so there's certain movies that I'll watch in the '80s or the '70s and just get up on the content. Even certain sayings that they use and certain points they're trying to get you to see as a viewer, that's how I'm trying to touch my listeners. Even in movies, I think what separates them from rap is that it's deep in movies but it's still surface enough that by the end of most good movies you understand why everything went down. That's how I want it to be with my songs. I definitely have the ability to be a crazy deep artist but it's not about that -- it's about relating to people and letting them in on your story and being able to paint this picture for them that they can relate to. I got that from movies.
What was the last movie that you used that way?
It happened last night before I hopped on the flight. I was watching Jarhead. Just certain things and certain motions and visuals from that, I want people to feel that way on a record now. That's something that I worked on.
Are there any songs on Electric Highway directly inspired by movies like that?
I think it's more like the vibe. Like I was watching this moving October Sky and it's with Jake Gyllenhaal and he wants to build a rocket but to start it off he just starts building science projects and he's testing them out and people are calling him crazy. But there's a point in the movie where it's night time and he wasn't too sure how he's going to cope with the big science fair, but the day comes and it was a lot more smooth of a situation and he realized he had the confidence to know that he can do it. So I have this record called "Lights Glow" and it's definitely a non-rap record I'm singing on the entire song and it has an alternative beat -- but watching that movie gave me the vibe to want to do that.
There's another record called "I'm Ready," the last song on the tape, and the vibe of it is real tribal 'cause to be honest I was watching Hotel Rwanda and hearing different drums inspired me. When I see stuff like that in movies I always go deeper beyond the movie. For "I'm Ready" I got inspired by the tribal song and how tribal records were structured. At first I was going to do all this super rappy lyrical stuff to it but I ended up going for more of a repetitive format 'cause that's how those [tribal] records feel. It's just certain stuff like that that gets me going in a whole other direction.
So you're saying that kids should drop out of school and just watch movies all day!
Oh no, not at all! One of my best friends graduated college and I'm super proud of him 'cause I'm never going to be able to do that. And I got another friend who wants to be a lawyer and he's super passionate about that, like that's his thing. They've been blessed to be able to get with that format. That's a talent as well and I feel like society needs to respect school more as a talent, like they do with rap and basketball. [Pauses.] Salute to everyone who's a success at school 'cause you're a better man than me!
You have a song with Lunice on the album, "Superman O.G." How did that hook-up come about?
Me and Lunice were on tour together. To keep it real with you, I don't… Let me say there's dudes in the past and I'm not gonna speak on specific people, but when I met certain artists it's not been what I thought it was going to be as far as how cool they are and how real they are -- instead it's the chip on their shoulder because of where they're at. When I first heard about Lunice all I'm hearing is, "Oh, he's working on Kanye's stuff! He's coming straight from Hawaii to work with you!" So unfortunately I didn't know -- I don't mean like a misconception -- but I just didn't know what to think about him when we first got put in the same setting. Then we was pulling up to pick him up and he sent my tour manager this text message and I forgot what he said exactly but when my manager read the text I was like, "Ah, he's a real dude!" He got in the car, he smoke just as much as me, but musically when he played me his beats it was like nothing I'd ever heard before. My crowd accepted him and his fans accepted me and we just started building. We got a lot of songs that's gonna be coming out, to be honest. Though it's just the one song on the tape.
Is Lunice as lively in the studio as he is when performing on stage?
Ah, man, it's so much energy! He's bouncing around more than the artist, legit! I'm a dude that's really into my own music and I like to sit back and listen and critique myself with a perfectionist mindset, but Lunice's energy is making me look at records in a new way. Just his energy and how he's going crazy in the studio, you realize the record is nuts! His energy takes it to a whole other level and I feel like that's what makes a great producer when they know what they want an artist to do and they're not afraid to show that emotion.
On the song "The Future" you have a line about preferring to listen to Taylor Swift than other modern rappers.
Ah yeah! Taylor Swift is super dope. I got a video that used to be on YouTube where I'm joking around -- this was back when I was doing my first tape -- and I shot this little video with a Taylor Swift record playing in the background just to be joking about it and I shouted her out. Anybody that can reach that many people musically like she can is dope. And you can tell she uses the music as an outlet for whatever is going on in her life.
So you'd be open to a Rockie Fresh and Taylor Swift collaboration?
Man, that would probably be amazing. I'm really not afraid to go anywhere musically. I'd want to be inspired by her sound. I'd still add myself to it but I think my appreciation for her style of music would allow for something people have never heard before. It'd be tight.
Finally, what's the story behind the rumor of you and John Mayer getting drunk together in New York?
Ah, yeah! That's crazy. So basically with that I was in New York, performing at the Bamboozle Festival, and the night before I was just walking around some random bar in New York. I was under 21, had a fake ID on me, and John Mayer was there. This dude that knew me, he was like, "That's my favorite rapper here, you're my favorite artist, you've got to take a picture!" So John Mayer's like, "Okay, bring him over and take a picture." So I go over there and it's John Mayer and B.J. Novak from The Office and we're all super drunk. We take the picture and John Mayer decides he wants to get a picture for himself too and says, "I wish I had a Twitter so I could post it." The whole time I'm like, "I wish the dude had a Twitter 'cause this could really be my breakthrough right now!" But it was cool and I didn't ask for no favors -- I still view these people as regular people, I don't fan-out or nothing like that. It was really cool to be able to pound a drink with him and post up and have a conversation.
What were you, John Mayer and B.J. Novak getting drunk on?
Jameson and coke, that's my favorite drink.