When I ask Raleigh rapper Steez how COVID-19 has impacted his creative process, I don’t receive the answer I expect.
“This time is one of the best to create,” he tells me, Zoom video feed flickering, a constant reminder of pandemic constraints on our conversation. “I feel like a lot of people have had time to create and make new sounds, and find themselves as a person.”
And Steez (with an optional “ie”) would know. Since our last interview in March 2019, his star has continued to rise as an engineer for the Triangle hip hop set and an artist in his own right. But since he’s sequestered away from Raleigh’s music venues and the bulk of his social scene, Steez has blossomed as a recording artist. Self-isolation has resulted in his first self-titled album, Steez.
Steez feels like a self-portrait of the artist, and most of the album is devoted to exploring his ultra cool, unflappable alter-ego fighting an upward battle to the top. But on “Feel the Same” and “Insomniac” Steezie gets candid with listeners – a first in his recording career. As if he’s closed the bathroom door on a rollicking house party for a moment to himself, he pauses to reflect.
Both “Feel the Same” and “Insomniac” reference a bad breakup, and hint at a persistent loneliness under Steezie’s 24/7 grind. Perhaps it’s not easy being Steez, but the new spectrum of emotion he reveals to listeners goes down a treat.
I caught up with Steez on his admiration for Lil Wayne, the unexpected setbacks that arose while recording Steez, and the vulnerable side he wants you to get to know.
How has COVID-19 affected the writing process for you?
[The pandemic] definitely has an effect, because live shows help. When you make a new song, and you want to test it out and hear how people feel about it, seeing people feel good about it will inspire you to go back and make more songs that people like. I’m not able to go out and get inspired, to see how people react and the energy.
But I also feel like I’ve been able to really lock in and find myself and get inspired by myself. Because that’s the first place you need to find inspiration.
Steez is your first self-titled album, and it feels so much like a self-portrait. Can you tell me more about that?
I can see why you say that. I feel like for a while, I wasn’t able to control how I wanted everything to sound. But being able to produce and mix my own record really gave me control when I made the final product. As for me, I can make four or five versions of one song because every small detail is so fun to work with.
I make my beats for myself to begin with. When I make a beat, I’m thinking about rapping on it. And when it doesn’t work or feel like me, I like to pass it on. I’m not trying to force myself into doing something that’s not really me.
What kind of beats did you find resonated with you while you were making this album?
I feel like the more…the melody type songs. As I’m growing as an artist, I feel like melodies are the best way to deliver a message, or to catch listeners better. That’s the new sound I’m breaking into, doing more melodies and experimenting with my voice. Fast, melodic sounds are my favorite right now.
Your vocal delivery when you’re rapping always sounds effortless, and it’s interesting to hear that carry over into your singing voice.
What works in my production is more opened out vocals. My production stands out, so I don’t need to rap every second. I can always space my beats out and deliver the feeling I’m trying to convey.
Did you have a song on this album that you really thought embodied the new Steez?
Oh yeah, it’s called “Wesley.” I like to call myself Steez, and I’m Wesley too. And people know me as the stage name Steezie, and I wanted to bring more of myself into the picture. Like, who I really am.
How does Wesley differ from Steez?
Wesley is really just chill. He likes being by himself. He likes reading. He’s a family man, and I like going out in nature. Things people wouldn‘t find cool. People know Steezie, he has ego. But I want them to know Wesley. Wesley is humble.
This is the first time in your recording career that you’ve shown us more of who you are outside of your stage persona, especially on “Insomniac” and “Feel the Same.” Those songs feel like cousins, very similar in terms of production.
The beats were very fun. I love repeating melodies and beats, because they’re so fun and colorful. I see why you say they’re like cousins, because they’re kind of poppy, but they still have the hip-hop style drums. It’s a fun sound.
I like “colorful” as an adjective. If this album were a color, what would it be?
That’s a hard question. I feel like the first half was a really bright color, and the second half was a teal color. I would combine those two into blue.
I can see that. You really do mix it up a lot on this album. You transition from dancey to introspective halfway through. Can you talk me through the pacing on Steez?
I wanted people to have something fun to sit back and reflect to, to smoke to. Life has its ups and downs. Some days I feel like some party music, and some days, I want to talk about the things that are in my heart, so I really like the balance, and I tried to put that on the project. Even on the songs that are introspective, I didn’t try to make them too sad. I want people to feel good, and feel like they can take on anything.
Do you find there’s any songs that are resonating with people since the release that surprised you?
“California” gave me such a hard time. I was mixing it, and my computer crashed. This album probably would’ve been done way earlier, but my computer crashed. As an artist, I didn’t want that to drain my motivation. I was like, yo, it’s a fresh start. So I got a new computer, transferred as much stuff as possible. Any setback inspires me. I’m not just gonna quit because now I make beats every day, whenever I want to. I knew I could make new songs.
“California” surprises me, because I had to redo it, but I got to a point where I was happy with it. And I’m so happy that people love it.
How do you pace out your creative process?
I work every day on my own stuff. I feel like I’m good at making beats, and I’m getting close to polishing up how I mix and write my music. I’m really inspired by Lil Wayne. He said that “When I’m not in the studio, I’m in the studio.” I’m inspired by him, because he’s still going, even when people say “Oh, I don’t like him anymore.” That shows how much he loves making music, because a lot of people burn out at that point.
What’s next for you?
I’m just going to keep feeding people music. I have so much to give, so many colors, so many sounds that I know I can do. I can make Afro beats. I want to make songs in my language, from Zimbabwe. I got to keep giving people all these flavors. There’s no reason for me to hold back my music.
Image courtesy of Steez. By Tommy Coyote. (@tommy_coyote)