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Ain’t My Cup Of Tea: The Time Capsule

Elijah Powell, Opinion Editor/ Staff Writer

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A couple of weeks ago, on June 6, I released my first album. The album is a body of work that was made over the course of my four years of attendance at NMHS, and therefore encompasses my experience. Well, at least most of it. Production began during my sophomore year, after I realized the true message I needed to convey. It was one of intellectual elevation rather than flaunting wealth that I obviously did not and still do not have. Creating the body of work I titled “Ain’t My Cup Of Tea” helped me get through the most bittersweet times in high school. During the most depressing times, I at least knew I was working towards something great, and if the final product reached enough people, maybe it would mean that what I created would be something greater than myself.

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But this piece is not going to be about what the album will mean to listeners- the listener’s interpretation of my work is not for me to determine. This is about what the album and each and every song on it means to me personally. “Ain’t My Cup Of Tea” will more than anything else serve as a time capsule, surpassing the intended purpose of my high school yearbook, because when I’m older and feeling nostalgic about high school, I’ll turn on my very first album rather than reach for my yearbook, listening to the voice of an artistic, creative, intellectual, rebellious, and misunderstood adolescent.

 

  1. “June 6th”: This song, in its final form, was not the first song I recorded for the album, but it was the first song I wrote which for me set the tone for the entire album. Originally a poem I made after I realized how much of a wreck my freshman year of high school was, I converted it into rhythmized lyrics and slapped the nasally vocals on a simple beat I created on my first beat production machine, the Akai XR20. The song became the first song I released on my Soundcloud account, which I deleted a few months after. I loved the song, but the beat sounded undeveloped and the lyrics unrehearsed. Adding bass and some harder drums made the beat sound more interesting, maintaining a chill vibe while not making the listener fall asleep. I also made it a priority to annunciate my vocals more so that everyone can hear the punchlines. Some of my best lines are in that first song, but the song is important because it taught me that it was okay to acknowledge my mistakes as well as situations and events going on around me, no matter how uncomfortable the topics make me or other people. This theme is what laid down the true foundation for the album. I vowed to be uncompromisingly honest. Rerecording the song, I knew it would be the intro song for the album, so I threw in some shout outs and a brief message to people who thought that since it was taking me a while to complete the it, the album would never come. It felt good to officially start the journey I knew Ain’t My Cup Of Tea was sure to be.
  2. “BassHit”: I remember how pumped I was to record this song. Earlier in my sophomore year, I attempted to start my own talent show that would be bigger and better than previous high school talent shows, which were very low in attendance. The idea ended up not panning out as I had imagined it, but what I got out of the plan was a meeting with a Hackensack-based rapper known as Leek. My boy from Hackensack High School told me he’d reach out to him after I told him I was looking for emcees to do the show with me. We met up at my man JR Medina’s crib (JR and me make up the Paragon Squad), to talk about what we wanted to do for the show. Leek had brought with him two emcees, Rich G tha Genius and J. Fear. In the midst of planning for a performance that ended up never happening, Medina showed us this beat he made, which all of us immediately started nodding our heads to. The sample was a smooth cut from an old soul song from the seventies. It was chopped and played staccato on top of a hard drum loop. It was an incredibly well done beat, and it was the first beat I used from JR, which impressed me so much that we started working together pretty much full time. On that same day, Rich let us hear his first single, Chilly Chill, which actually gained him significant popularity around the city of Hackensack. He had a great voice, a great flow, and a knack for catchy hooks. Later that year, August of 2013, we recorded BassHit, a song about being comfortable with the come up, so to speak. The song basically talks about being patient for things to fall into place while also working hard and putting everything you got into your craft. It was my first song with a feature and while me and JR already had a mellow friendship, that song made us realize what we could do when we worked together. He went on to produce pretty much 75% of “Ain’t My Cup Of Tea”.
  3. “Watch-N-Learn”: On my seventeenth birthday I was going through J. Fear’s Soundcloud account when I saw he had re-posted an instrumental beat produced by BLVCK CANVAS, back then titled “West Hall”. A beautiful saxophone sample and a laid back drum pattern gave the beat mass appeal, but the melody had soul, and therefore fit the old school hip hop sound I was looking to have on my album. I asked J about it and he put me in contact with BLVCK CANVAS, who gave me the beat for free on the spot. I don’t know why he was so willing to just hand such a gem over to me but he did, and besides my iPhone 5c, it was the best gift I could’ve gotten for my birthday. I used the track to send a message that I was a genius and that listeners best pull up a chair and simply watch and learn from the master. There were many things that I was just then starting to realize were American epidemics, like dependency on technology, shortened attention spans, and a content attitude with ignorance. A PSA packaged in braggadocio rap.
  4. “Groovy”: I had been going to school with Mr. Rutherford since I first entered the New Milford School system back in middle. I remember in eighth grade him showing me his first beats he made on his computer at home. To be honest I thought they were pretty mediocre, but everybody has to start somewhere. The point is, when he heard my first version of June 6 back when it was still on Soundcloud, it inspired him to create a beat he titled “Groovy”. I know this because he told me this himself. To be totally honest, I felt “Groovy” was ten times better than the beat I created for June 6, and I was utterly impressed because of how much his production had improved in just two years. He let me use it and I wrote a song about the pros and cons of the internet, and the fact that even while people use the internet as a veil under which to lie or say mean things, I would still remain true to myself. The song became my second post to Soundcloud and being that everyone who uses social media can relate to the message, the song gave me more exposure than I had ever had before. The delivery of my lyrics and the beat meshed together so perfectly, and that song further solidified my plans for the direction of the album during its early development.
  5. “Ain’t My Cup Of Tea”: After dumping the title “Down To Earth” because I found out emcee Monie Love’s debut album had the same title, I renamed the project “Ain’t my Cup Of Tea”, realizing that pretty much all the things promoted to me through television and my peers really was not my cup of tea. This includes smoking, partying, and other things of that nature that are imposed on the youth as the standard for a fun teenage experience. This realization stemmed from my peers beginning to shun me for my political views, not because they disagreed, but simply because they didn’t want to be bothered with social issues they believed did not have a significant effect on their daily lives. A couple of school years before, my classmates would be eager to hear what I had to say, but only because I would package my points in fun little freestyles upon their requests. Upon realizing that my art is not simply cheap entertainment for a temporary thrill, I demanded more respect. People would ask me to “rap for them”, and I began to feel like my skill was being turned into a novelty, so I sternly turned them down. Me refusing to be anyone’s dancing monkey made them close their ears to me completely, and I came to the conclusion that people like them are simply not my audience. Their attitudes and allegiances are simply not my cup of tea. Eventually a fun boom bap beat I made, whose melody is reminiscent of any 8-bit video game from the eighties or nineties, became the platform for me to talk about who I really am, and what I was and was not willing to do in my life. While I rapped about being a work in progress as a human being on the track, I still held true to unbreakable principles, so my convictions shined bright on this title track.
  6. “Revelation”: Anybody who knows me knows that I complain a lot. Once freshman year ended I was left a very bitter person. I sulked for a while because all my peers who I admired and so desperately desired approval from pretty much let me know they did not care about me that year. But then I realized how unproductive I had become because of my bitterness. During the summer after freshman year I accomplished absolutely nothing creatively. I needed to get my head back in the game and do what I was always meant to do: create art. Once I thought about it, creating art has taken me through some dark times, so I wrote a poem entitled Revelation, and vocalized the words just enough to ride the border between rap and spoken word poetry over a mellow trap beat I made. I rhymed about my past, and the plans for success I used to think were infallible. The song is a trip through everything that motivated me and made me, as well as what broke me down and almost caused me to waste my talents. Only through continuous elevation, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, could I make it through the tunnel to see the light. The song was a reminder to myself that acknowledging the unfairness in life, also known as complaining, is perfectly okay, but complaints can only be rectified when one converts whatever oppresses you into motivation to do something positive. You can be mad about something, but unless you get off your butt and do something productive about it, nothing will ever change.
  7. “Hot Mess”: Junior year was tough. My work was cut out for me, and pressure for things like standardized testing and college preparation was coming from everywhere. So, one night when I should have been studying for a test, I wrote a song about how overwhelmed teens like myself get. The beat I made for the lyrics marked my mastery of the machine I was using to produce music, the Akai XR20. I finally knew the machine inside and out, its functions, possibilities and limitations. The machine could not sample so I was challenged to create my own melodies as well as working with the random sound kits already programmed into the machine. Even though I now use an upgraded sampler, the Akai MPC 500, I still every now and then go back to the XR20 and test my skills. It was a great place for me to start, and it was nice to know that I could not only rap but produce, as well. Not many rappers in New Jersey can say that.
  8. “Do or Die”:  When the pressure peaked, I wrote Do or Die. Its the hardest track on the project because it gets down to the hardcore stresses of teenage life, topics that are usually silenced by parents who simply pass off their struggling teens as merely hormonal. While Hot Mess discussed hardships involving schooling, Do or Die dealt with the emotional instability of adolescence, which to us as teens is viewed as much more critical. Not only do we worry about things like teen pregnancy and run ins with the law ruining our lives, but we also feel the pressure from those around us who either expect the most from us. For many teens like myself, if your parents are constantly micromanaging you, life is far from easy. You have your families on your backs and failing at anything, whether it means losing a an athletic or academic competition, being denied a job, or falling into temptations like drugs in an attempt to alleviate stress, will result in not only disappointment, but also distrust and skepticism in your abilities. This may leave on indifferent when the lack of approval comes from third parties like school peers or coworkers, but when your family, your own flesh and blood, doubts you as a person because of honest mistakes or simply you being caught in the middle of an unfortunate event, the pain can run quite deep in one’s psyche. Therefore, many of us, regardless of economic status, can still experience the same type of constant tension that causes our attitudes towards activities that will determine the outcome of our immediate lives to become intense. Mr. Rutherford produced this one. I had written to the beat’s rugged sound, unleashing woes that unlike the ones describe on Hot Mess, were not exactly in my control. Most fear comes from a sense of uncertainty. Many times that year, I was actually scared for my future, seeing many old friends become victims to bad luck or choices they made that seemed like good ideas in the moment. I could no longer afford to be a blissful child because my every move was being watched and if I didn’t play my cards right, my freedoms, dignity, or my very life could be easily revoked. I still feel like that now, as a matter in fact…
  9. “ARMGDN”: Much of my love for Hip Hop music comes from my father. His producer moniker being Reef Roc, I had always watched him make head banging beats on his massive MPC 2000XL ever since I was a toddler. When I began rapping seriously at thirteen, I wanted to use his beats, since I had not yet had the means to start producing my own. But my father knew I was nowhere near ready to record, and my skills frankly weren’t not worthy of his skillfully crafted instrumentals. Time passed, and as he started to hear how well “Ain’t My Cup Of Tea” was coming along, he knew that I was not the arrogant little freestyler I once was. He sent many beats he could imagine me rhyming on to my email in the summer of 2014, but only two made it to “Ain’t My Cup Of Tea”. I remember playing the beat and then replaying it over and over again. The violin sample was just so sinister, and I knew I had to write to it. Around the same time, JR put me in contact with an emcee known as Damien Styles, who he had recently produced a track for. He let me hear the song and it was dope, but JR waited until the end of the song to tell me that Damien was thirteen. I was seventeen. This kid had a mastery of emceeing and a voice so rough it could make football players fall back. He was doing what I wish I was skilled enough to do at that age. No lie, I was and still am very jealous of this kid. He’s a prodigy, but rather than letting my pride get the best of me, I reached out to him on twitter and the friendship began. He’s actually the first person I’ve ever befriended solely through the internet. We’ve still never met in person, but I know it really is him rapping those fire lyrics because of the youtube videos I’ve seen in him. After our consensus about the disturbing state of Hip Hop, I knew that this was the track I needed to have him on. Coming up with the concept that our authenticity would mean the end of the world for rappers who obviously are not true to the roots, art form, and culture of Hip Hop, ARMGDN (a cool way to incorrectly spell armageddon) was completed by the end of summer 2014.
  10. “Bizness”: The development of Ain’t My Cup Of Tea was going well and I guess word got out. I like publicity just as much as any artist, but not the kind that attracts insubordinate people. Being mr. nice guy, I allowed too many people who were not worth my time waste it. The second beat I picked from the music my father had allowed me to use, sounded to me like the soundtrack to a no nonsense business man who gets things done, denying simpletons access to his time. I wrote Bizness to convey the same message. I remember being at JR’s place when we were putting the song together and his friend was just like, “dang”. That was exactly the reaction I wanted.
  11. “StopWatch”: I had begun listening to hip hop music with a much more hardcore sound, since my Junior Year was pretty depressing. I identified with the sound of sheer hopelessness in Black Moon and Mobb Deep’s music, and the intellectual aggression of GZA’s and Jeru the Damaja’s music. I wanted at least one song on my album to sound like that- an ominous melody that was intriguing enough to harbor a blunt message. I remember when JR was over at my crib that day. We were finishing work on another song, and then he showed me the beat he called “Be You”. I loved it, but it was purely coincidental that he had the beat with the exact sound I wanted at that specific time. I had just started to really appreciate the more abstract brand of Hip Hop music and I wanted to try my hand at it, and once I get that idea in my head, here comes my DJ with the exact sound I needed. It was a miracle, and I wrote the hook and the first verse on the spot. When I had the vocals ready for him about a week or so later, JR was listening to the hook I recorded. It was the first time I used our group name, “Paragon Squad” in a song. I originally thought it was a little corny, but he thought it was dope so we stuck with it. The song was similar to ARMGDN in that I was telling fake rappers that their time was up and that a new breed of real artists who were independent and did not play by the mainstream music industry’s rules were coming to take the spotlight they had stolen from us. I also touched upon the fact that many of these fake rappers are merely pawns in music executive’s games, being for one hit single and then being kicked to the curb. Ask Trinidad James, because that’s exactly what happened to him. As much as I hate perpetrators of Hip Hop culture, I hate the fact that people only commit such transgressions to the art form because they are lured in to do so by a music industry that tells them that by promoting ignorance through rap music, they can make millions. I know this to be true because I myself was almost roped in by the same trick when I first began rhyming back in middle school. StopWatch is a personal favorite of mine and the album wouldn’t have felt complete without it.
  12. “Catana”: When I was a kid, the coolest thing on television for me was anime on Cartoon Network’s action cartoon block Toonami. Around the time I entered sixth grade though, many fans of Toonami were getting older and fell into other things. My old friends and I felt that we were too grown up for childish things such as Toonami and that it was time to start acting like teenagers. Many anime fans started watching uncut anime on Youtube rather than on Toonami, and in 2008, Toonami and many of its shows were cancelled, marking the start of the slow death of anime and action shows airing in general on American cartoon channels across the board. Three years passed and once we all realized how much growing up sucked, many fans petitioned on social media to bring Toonami back, and our outcry for a childhood favorite to return succeeded in reviving the block in 2012. I was excited at first, but the initial line up of shows did not really interest me until 2014. So I got back into anime, watching newer shows on Toonami, and older anime movies from the eighties on Youtube. While on Youtube I came across an old anime movie titled Sword For Truth. The movie was pretty cheesy, but the music was interesting. I sent the link to JR and he ended up buying the movie’s original soundtrack, and sampling the movie’s opening song. The instrumental starts with a really dope soundbite from the movie, the protagonist samurai stating “You leave me no choice but to destroy you”. The beat then builds up with bass, bursting into an explosive trap beat. Staying true to my appreciation for intellectualism, I came up with the hook, comparing the sharpness of one’s mind to the edge of a katana blade. I had entered a cypher competition in late 2014, through which I connected with fellow NJ emcees Coolboi Av and Dreb of the OTO collective. Both have skills on the mic and I got them on the song as soon as I could. The song became a hardcore way for us to say that by elevating the mind one can do anything, becoming invincible in the face of enemies.
  13. “Train Traks”: There’s not much to this one. Soon after BassHit was completed, I knew I wanted to do a song with J. Fear. JR had the beat ready but it wasn’t until I heard J. Fear’s style on his own singles he released on soundcloud that I realized he was perfect for it. The song was going to be conceptual, but Fears came through with rhymes completely different from the topic I originally told him the song was supposed to be about. His lyrics were dope though, so I just ran with it. I wrote new lyrics and we just showed our skills as emcees. Sometime in Hip Hop music, it’s not so much about the subject matter as it is about the feeling invoked in the listener. We both rapped about being the best at what we do, driving home sharp points over a smooth beat. The song has this night time vibe to it. A video for this one is coming soon for sure.
  14. “All Mine”: Around the same time Ain’t My Cup Of Tea began development, I started dating this beautiful dark skinned female who has supported me throughout the entire process of creating Ain’t My Cup Of Tea. She supported me and without her I don’t think I would have had the emotional strength to complete the album. I was present while JR was creating the beat. The synths were beautifully chopped and the melody was perfect. I didn’t really want the track to be a love song available to any female listener. I wanted the song to be specific to my girlfriend, because after all she’s done, I felt she deserve at least that much. I went through many drafts but it was a month before our two year anniversary that I finally wrote the perfect lyrics. I remember the day I called her on the phone, secretly recording her voice so I could use her sound bites for the song. I later apologized for being so secretive about it, but i needed her words to be sincere and unrehearsed to have the real effect the song needed. JR actually wanted to sell the song on itunes. He loves that song, and for good reason. It has commercial appeal and I agree with him that if we put it out as a real single, it might actually sell. In the end though, the song made my girlfriend smile and that’s all I really wanted. 11377551_476761862487382_1343493832_n
  15. “New Heights”: Before I ever started working with JR Medina on a professional level, I was working with my close friend Izzy. We pretty much did everything music related together. We discussed music together, listened to music together, and made music together. That was early stuff, man. I had the XR20 before I got my mixer to actually record vocals, so we’d just show each the beats we made. He used the online Fruity Loops program, and despite his opinion, I really liked his early beats. He ended up moving from New Milford To Florida near the end of sophomore year, and that messed me up. I had made up my mind to start Ain’t My Cup Of Tea and my partner in crime moves down south. It was a miracle that I was still able to get him on the album. I sent him the Mr. Rutherford produced beat, and he emailed me more than just a 16 bar verse. We had to edit part of it out, but the message remained the same: it takes courage to acknowledge mistakes, but once you do you’re one step closer towards making amends. We were and still are very close and have shared with one another our regrets but now that we’re graduating, it was cool to use the song to look back at the legacy we’re leaving. Thanks to the internet, distance couldn’t destroy our bond over music. 11379724_1458444221120457_785965518_n
  16. “When I’m Gone”: Starting in sophomore year, I began reading up on activists they don’t really talk about in school: Huey Newton, Angela Davis, and Betty Friedan to name a few. Learning the large positive impact people like them have, I began to idolize them far more than any mainstream rap artist I ever came across. People like them boldly took a stand against oppressive systems disguised as trustworthy authority figures, all in the name of truth, justice, and freedom. Upon reading the life stories of many activists, I started to understand why so many wrong doings today go ignored by mainstream media, and the real reason why many of these activists were assassinated, some by the american government. This knowledge, rather than intimidating me, made me want to be even more like them, because even if my life is at risk for trying to speak the truth, what good is life, especially here in America, if you refuse to utilize your right to be heard? Hearing stories of idealist activists(many of whom started their activism during their later teenage years) opposing corruption, sexism, racism, and other forms of systematic oppression gave me the strength to strive to do more for the world, leaving a large enough footprint to catch the eye of another who may then be inspired to take up the good fight as well. When I’m Gone is about contributing to such causes, and being remembered as someone with the guts to do so.
  17. “Toast”: I originally wrote this song to a beat I found on Youtube, but then Mr. Rutherford put this beat on Soundcloud and after getting his permission, I slapped my lyrics on it. This song doesn’t have too much of a back story. I really just wanted to give an overall synopsis of everything i had learned, and give some recognition to myself and everyone who’s been rocking with me since the beginning. We came a long way since the beginning of Ain’t My Cup Of Tea’s development. All I was doing with this track was giving credit where its due.
  18. “Last Word”: Lyrically, this was the most difficult song for me to record. There are almost no pauses in between my lines for me to inhale a significant amount of oxygen, but I could breathe in just enough to commit to the next line. This fast paced conclusion was addressed anyone who doubted me. With the exception of a few Soundcloud releases, the album’s development was not done in the public eye, so many who used to be excited lost interest in it’s release. This was the “I told you so” song, for anybody who thought that this project would never be completed. Thanks to some serious ongoing social media promotion, Ain’t My Cup Of Tea made it to about one hundred streams its first week after being released. Not too shabby if I do say so myself.

 

So it’s all done. Right as my senior year is coming to an end, the release of my life’s work finally came. Seeing my album up on Datpiff, and music sharing website I’ve used since I first found out how to download music for free, is a dream come true. In the end, regardless of how many people hear my music, I made the album for myself. It is truly the embodiment of my and my coming of age experience, and will always hold a special place in my heart, not matter how much I change on this road to adulthood. So many people told me to use my time and energy for other things, but those other things don’t make me happy. So because of the sense of fulfillment from a job well done, all the sad days spent as an alienated black teen at New Milford High School was worth it. Some may disagree, but whoever does is not and will never be me, so I couldn’t care less, man. I got what I wanted, and did it on my own terms with the support of the greatest allies the creator could have given me. I am truly thankful for this blessing.

 

I just want to take this time to thank my mother and father, my little bro who always holds me down, my gorgeous and conscientious girlfriend, JR Medina and Izzy, and all the teachers who kept me on the right path through high school at any point when I was bound to wild out. Much love. And also, I just want to say to anyone reading this who also feels alone in their struggle to find fulfillment in a world constantly trying to define what success and happiness is for the masses: Keep your chin up and follow your dreams. I won’t lie, it won’t be a smooth road, but as long as your intentions are pure, your work ethic is solid, and your patience is a virtue you hold dear, you can’t lose. Find what you want out of life, and do what you have to do to get it.

 

Like I said on the album, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to live the dream/ I’d rather try and fail than never try and live in misery”.

 

It’s been an honor writing for The Lance this year. Shout out to Mrs. Groff- Thanks for bringing me on board.
Peace.

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Ain’t My Cup Of Tea: The Time Capsule