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Meet the most straight-up man in rap music: Torae
Torae is the Brooklynite who sooner hits Europe than Manhattan for a show. Beatnik talked to him about growing up above a soul joint, aspiring to be nothing but an MC and lighting up energetic European crowds.
Torae is the pie and chips of rap.
You only go to him if you want uncomplicated, straight-up, raw, speaker-shaking hip-hop. There’s no bizarre imagery, no strange fashion quirks, no appearances on Jimmy Kimmel, no sexual dalliances with Nicki Minaj. Forget about it. With Torae, you get a kick, a snare, a chopped sample or two and a flow and voice that could cause the earth to crack from ten blocks away. That’s it.
The obvious question is, then: why bother? When you can gorge on a multi-course Heston Blumenthal-inspired meal of Odd Future foams, Mos Def reductions, Lil B tart and Kendrick Lamar infusions with a Mac Miller sauce, why ever go back to munching pie and chips on your sofa?
That’s what we asked Torae. Well, if we’re going to be strictly honest, we didn’t put it quite like that, but we did ask him why anybody should bother. What has he got to offer someone encountering him for the first time?
His voice is surprisingly airy and high-pitched, a world away from his gruff, block-shaking flow on record.
“If you love hip-hop music, if you grew up and were inspired by music made in the late 80s and early 90s, just that real, authentic music and that feeling that you got… if you come from that, then Torae is the artist you need to hear.”
If you are encountering Torae for the first time, then his new album For the Record is what you need to be looking at. Because even if you don’t come from the glory days of rap, it’s an amazing album. It’s not strictly the New Yorker’s first—he’s dropped a mixtape, Daily Conversation, and a collaborative album with producer Marco Polo—but he still calls it his debut.
As an introduction to his style, you simply can’t fault it, but more importantly, it’s just a kick-ass record. With people like DJ Premier and Pete Rock providing the backing, Torae serves up a gorgeous, meat-filled, crispy chunk of rap music. For the Record might be a pie, but it is the best-tasting pie on planet earth.
Torae’s music is deeply embedded in New York—not just in the rap tradition of EPMD and Public Enemy, but also in the geography of the place. He’s most closely associated with Coney Island, but spent his early years in Harlem. He and his family lived above Mr Soul’s, a club owned by his grandfather (evidently something of a nightlife mogul throughout the city). His mother and father worked there, and at night music from the club would filter up into the apartment above.
Torae—which is his real name, by the way, surname Carr—grew up in a living room bursting with vinyl and turntables. And when he and his family moved to Coney, living among the 18-story project buildings, rap music became part of his daily conversation.
There was no better environment to create the kind of musical approach Torae has. “Coney Island in the 80s was crazy,” he remembers. “Hip-hop was just emerging on the scene, and the city was [experiencing] the emergence of crime and drugs. The 80s was the crack era. I didn’t know any different, and I grew up with hip-hop. It wasn’t new to me, it was just what I grew up in. By the same token, I never grew up without seeing drug addicts around the neighbourhood. None of it was foreign to me, it was just all about growing up and learning. Coney Island was a crazy place coming up, and now that I’m an adult I can see that there’s more to life than the type of environment I grew up in.”
With his background, it’s interesting to ask Torae what he’d be doing if he hadn’t gotten into music. “If I wasn’t doing music at all? That’d have to be contingent on music not existing!” he laughs. “I’ve done a number of different things. I’ve worked with children in school settings, I’ve worked in banking, but all I ever wanted to do was music. From the time I was even able to think about a career, I never wanted to be a doctor or a policeman. I never had any other dreams or aspirations.”
Torae got his start in the ciphers and live shows of mid-90s New York, journeying out of his native area to Queens, Manhattan and beyond. He soon attracted the interest of seminal label Duck Down, and together he and the label masterminded Double Barrel, that superb album with Marco Polo. He’s not officially signed to the label—For The Record is an independent release—but he’s hugely complementary towards them. Through them, he got to work with 9th Wonder and New York legends Sean Price and Tek and Steele, as well as scoring those Pete Rock and Primo connects.
Oddly, Torae says he much prefers going out to perform in Europe. He doesn’t really tour the states, despite doing plenty of shows in his city itself—because, he says, New York street hip-hop is more attractive to people who have never set foot in New York.
“The scene [there] is a little different, a little weird,” he explains. “I like to go out and perform for the people that appreciate the music; they’re not jaded by hype or who’s on the radio or who’s on the magazine. They just wanna hear good music. The type of music I create is a little more authentic and it’s something that’s respected more in the culture. With the Europeans… it’s more about, these are the type of MCs, beats, music I like, so I wanna support those artists. Working with guys like Pete Rock, Premier and Large Professor—they make that sound that I feel like the European crowd, I feel like they get into that. It’s much easier to book a tour in Europe than do a run in the US.
“The first time I did Hip-Hop Kemp in the Czech Republic, I was out onstage by myself, and just to look out and see all those people, and their hands up, it’s really saying how the music travels. From a guy who started rapping and writing rhymes in his bedroom in Brooklyn to go out there and rock for ten, fifteen thousand people.”
This is the bit where we make a crack about pie in the sky.