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Steve Lacy: Predicting The Future

Steve Lacy has been nominated for a Grammy, is a member of unconventional LA-based collective The Internet, and has produced music for Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean and Jhené Aiko. And he’s just 20-years-old. On the face of it, Lacy already has the music industry at his feet. But, as he tells WIP Magazine, he’s not thinking about that.

Words: Myles Andrews-Duve, Photography: Jerry Buttles, Styling: Beth Gibbs

There will probably never be another Odd Future. The Cali-based hip-hop troupe, founded in 2007, made up of Tyler The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, Domo Genesis, The Internet and others, revitalized a stagnating rap scene. They were anarchic, intentionally unnerving. And their success spawned a generation of talented off-shoots, performing at a level frankly not seen since the early days of Wu-Tang.

Steve Lacy, now 20-years-old, wasn’t around for that. He was only 13, living in Compton with his mom and two sisters, when Tyler The Creator, OF’s founder, dropped Goblin. He had yet to commit himself to music full-time (as would any 13-year-old kid). “But at Thanksgiving, there was always a moment, when my grandma was alive, where she would lead this song and the house would sing like a choir,” he recalls. “No directing or rehearsing this shit, it was just like everyone knew their part and where to harmonize. I just grew up seeing that, so I didn't think that was crazy, you know? I thought everybody was doing this.”

Lacy’s path to The Internet started with playing bass guitar in a high school jazz band. After joining as a freshman, he befriended Jameel Bruner, Thundercat’s younger brother. Bruner, after being recruited to play keyboards on The Internet’s third album Ego Death, released in 2015, invited Lacy to sit-in on sessions. ‘Sitting in’ is underselling it. Lacy ended up producing six of the 12 tracks on what became The Internet’s breakthrough record, nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the Grammy Awards in 2016. That was an obvious indication to go full-time, and since then Lacy has done just that, going onto produce tracks for J. Cole, Big Sean, Jhené Aiko, and Kendrick Lamar, including the song “Pride” on the Compton rapper’s 2017 Grammy winning album DAMN. We meet on a bench overlooking the flora of Topanga Canyon (a spot between Malibu, Calabasas, and the West San Fernando Valley), just as the early September sun is beginning to set. It’s a fitting place, between three points, given Lacy’s music is as easily hard to categorize as one genre. “Sometimes I drum, sometimes I'll just start playing my guitar and singing with it,” he says, casually, of how he starts piecing songs together, describing his music as “plaid” – an amalgam of fleeting passions, shifting soundscapes and colors, cohesive in a way you’d never expect.

Steve Lacy’s Demo – a series of songs he recorded on his iPhone and released in 2017 – is a case in point. The opener, “Looks,” channels Funkadelic with its slinking guitar lick, while “Haterlovin” feels like a sweatier pent-up version of N.E.R.D. “Dark Red,” his biggest his to date, is an accelerated Motown ballad with melodic layering influenced by David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, and part of a body of work that feels momentous, despite its brevity. The 13-minute-long series of tracks resonate more as appetizers of Lacy’s ability, rather than fully fleshed-out tracks. 

Our conversation follows a two-hour photoshoot, Lacy’s third of the week. He chooses his words thoughtfully, punctuating sentences with “and shit” and slowly-drawn drags on a spliff that he offers up between questions. We catch each other before The Internet kicks-off its Hive Mind tour in October. He says he’ll get back to working on his own music when the tour wraps, but even he isn’t sure what that will sound like. “When I think too far ahead, even fucking hours ahead, I get all weird,” he says. But that doesn’t mean he lacks focus. “I'm very present. I focus on the moment,” absorbing the textures and references, the tonality and color, which give his work a meditative quality. If his recent trajectory is anything to go by, whatever he comes up with, it will likely see him join the list of groundbreaking OF affiliates that emerged before him. Not that he’s given that much thought; he isn’t one to try to predict the future.

MYLES: You like doing this many photoshoots?

STEVE: I like when it's spaced out. This is like back-to-back. I had one yesterday, so it's a bit exhausting. But it was good. We got this offer, and I was like ‘sure’ because I actually wear Carhartt WIP. So I was like ‘dope, fuck it.’ We’ve got to do something when I got a fresh fade [haircut]. It’s not good right now, I know where it can be.

MYLES: You’ve got the waves, though. You been wearing a wave cap?

STEVE: Nah nah. I actually did a lot for waves; I never got ‘em because I'm half Filipino. That side of my background just straightens my hair in such a dumb way, so it was hard for me to get waves as a kid. But it's cool, my hair looks nice anyway [laughs]. But I did want waves.

MYLES: Your dad's Filipino?

STEVE: Yeah. He passed when I was 10. But I had another father figure who stepped- in and raised me and my little sister. I do wish my dad was here to see my glo-up, you know? But I can't let that shit keep me down. Just like, damn that sucks; whatever.

MYLES: You’re living with your mom, right?

STEVE: Yeah, we're really close.

MYLES: You tell the story often about how she pushed you into jazz band in high school. Was that the first time you picked up an instrument?

STEVE: No, I picked up a guitar when I was 11. And I loved it, but I wanted to be, like, ‘cool.’ When my mom put me in jazz band she made me choose: do I want to be a sports kid, or do I wanna be a musician? I had to choose in ninth grade. Everything felt super natural, so yeah, it was the right thing to do. But, growing up, playing the guitar wasn't popular. I still wanted to be ‘cool.’

MYLES: What did you grow up listening to?

STEVE: What I can remember as a kid is just like whatever my big sister listened to. That's what I heard. So it was shit like John Mayer, Pharrell, Sade, Musiq Soulchild. All that. But all that stuff didn't really shape my musical identity; I really got that during that year in ninth grade. All the music I got at that time is pretty much what influenced me today: Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Mac DeMarco. That was when I just started to fall in love with just different types of shit, because before then I was just listening to whatever I heard or whatever my friends were playing. I didn't really grab onto anything before that.

MYLES: Did you grow up in a musical family?

STEVE: Yeah a bit. It wasn't like everyone's playing instruments but everyone could sing.

MYLES: I don't know if it was like this for you, but you know what the traditional black household is like Sunday mornings... We're getting up, heading straight to church...

STEVE: It used to be like that; we used to go to church.

MYLES: ...or Sunday mornings we're getting up cleaning the house, we got like Jill Scott playing.

STEVE: That was definitely it growing up. Now the house has been more free, but no, it used to definitely be like that – Jill Scott or whatever music was on, cleaning up. That was Saturdays.

MYLES: What made you start describing your sound as "plaid"?

STEVE: I was in a thrift store, Jetrag. They had a section only for annels and it was just the color combos, realizing how complex but simple-looking plaid is. That's kind of what I chase. So it was just like one of those moments, like ‘holy shit, like I can totally hear my music as I'm looking at these clothes.’ Basically, the connection is just the mashups of my inspirations, and the different colors that I choose to use – or patterns – from what I'm inspired by. I just feel like it comes together like a plaid shirt.

MYLES: When do you expect to start working on your own music again?

STEVE: Shit...uh, whenever the Hive Mind tour is nished.

MYLES: You were sitting on Hive Mind since April. How does it feel to be done with it?

STEVE: Good. Like, I can be creative again. There's a point after the music is finished, when you're sitting on it, where you're just like... you need for it to come out to be creative again. You put your heart and soul into this shit. I think now that it's out, I'm back and creative again, and then once we tour that's

when I'll be at my most creative...

MYLES: At your peak?

STEVE: Not peak. I guess a peak. It won't be the only peak, but yeah I think that will be cool. I'm looking forward to that period.

MYLES: This The Internet record is really interesting, because you, Matt and Syd all did your own solo things before coming back together. It sounds like there's a lot more freedom for all of you. Did you feel that?

STEVE: Yeah, definitely. Like finding your place, because with Ego Death, that was my first time in it – in this process. I didn't really know what capacity I would work on this record, I was just there. So, the growth from that is like... I'm in the band now. Before, I wasn't expecting to be recruited or anything, I was just there. Then I got recruited while working on the record, so now it's like I’m for sure in the band. They know what I do. So, it's kind of like we all know our places to stand in the line.

MYLES: And you got the Grammy nom’ too.

STEVE: Oh, yeah I did [laughs]. Forgot about all that shit.

MYLES: Are you still creating music on your iPhone? That's the legend around Steve Lacy.

STEVE: You know, that was all I had at that time. Thanks to the people, they paid for my laptop and other gear I use now. But sometimes if it's all I have, like yeah sure, I'll still do it. But it's not my primary way of

creating.

MYLES: We spoke earlier about how your sound is unique from Compton. But were there elements of L.A. rap that influenced you at all?

STEVE: Yeah I would say subconsciously, it's just ingrained in me. I didn't even have to necessarily listen to the Compton stuff. I heard it already, you know? I didn't have to listen on my own to want that realness, that grit. Seeing artists like YG and Kendrick, they influenced me a bit, yeah. Like I used to jerk to YG before “Toot It and Boot It” got on the radio. I remember all of that shit..

MYLES: Before it was hot?

STEVE: Yeah I was jerking to YG. I met him and I told him I used to you jerk to your shit, and he was like "Ayyy!"

MYLES: You were singing “Handgun” from the new album, Stay Dangerous, earlier. You into it?

STEVE: Love it. I'm just a fan of YG. I got a trap banger with YG that may never see the light of day.

MYLES: You produced it?

STEVE: Yeah.

MYLES: Did you rap?

STEVE: Fuck no [laughs]. I mean I could, but people don't need to hear that.

MYLES: Stay Dangerous is pretty striking. He's going over some beats that seem out of leftfield for him.

S: Exactly. That's why I respect him so much. He's doing something completely out of what he's known for... Compton, it births some greats. I don't have to worry about putting Compton on the map.

MYLES: Do you feel some desire to want to be one of those greats?

STEVE: Nah. I just don't hope for anything. I just want to be. So if they make me that, then fine, but I won't reach for that. I'll just be me. Maybe it's just me being biased because I live here, but I think the people who are from LA kind of create their own worlds. People from other places do too, actually, so maybe that's not that's accurate [laughs]. I’m just thinking.

MYLES: What's on your mind?

STEVE: I just love Topanga. I want to raise my kids here. I'm working for some land in this bitch. When I saw a black woman lived here, I'm like, ‘wow, you're tight as fuck.’ I didn't know there was black people in Topanga. It’s expensive. I want to live here. It’s gonna take some years; I've got to get my money up. I've got enough to move out right now. But I don't know...

MYLES: Think that’ll be difficult for your mom?

STEVE: Maybe. I think she'll be happy. But I'll still be over there, because I love my mom, and shit, and I think it'll make us closer, for sure.

MYLES: Do you ever think about where you'll be in five years from now? Ten years from now?

STEVE: I don't think that far ahead. I just want to be present at all times. Those questions are always hard for me, because... I don't know. Why predict the future?

WIP Magazine Issue Two available soon at Carhartt WIP NYC at 284 Lafayette Street and free with orders over $200 at us.carhartt-wip.com.

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