These days See’J Foster might be best known as one-third of the Mobile group Basshead Jazz. He’s been on a journey over the last five years, moving to New York, coming back home, starting a new group, and throwing shows in Mobile. Then, in March of 2019, one day after his 73rd birthday, his father had a stroke and passed away suddenly. This left Foster to take stock of his journey and put things into perspective. Like any artist, he poured all of these thoughts and feelings into his work, with turned into his new solo album, HiSonGreWings, a beautiful work of art that captures the highs and lows of this five-year period of his life. He recently took the time to talk to us about this journey, his relationship with his father, building the scene in Mobile, and what it’s like to be an artist during a pandemic.
Scratched Vinyl: I’ve talked with you as part of the group Basshead Jazz, but I haven’t talked to you as a solo artist, so let’s start with some basics. How did you first get into hip hop and start rhyming?
See’J Foster: I wrote my first poem in fourth grade. That was kind of my introduction to everything. My introduction to hip hop wasn’t as much through music as it was through poetry. I started writing poetry because I used to have to go to these anger management classes when I was real little, because I had a bad temper. One of the things that my counselor would tell me would be to write my emotions down. And I would, but I would find ways to engage myself while doing it. It became, ‘Can I make these rhyme?’ From there, I wrote my first rap…I started rapping for real, for real, somewhere in high school. I put out my first project in 2010. It’s been a lot of different growths and changes as a solo artist leading up to Basshead Jazz.
SV: Right. And that kind of gets us up to the timeframe for the new album, HiSonGreWings. You kind of start the story of the album with you going to New York. About what time were you moving there?
See’J Foster: I moved to New York in January of 2016.
SV: And what lead you to make that decision?
See’J Foster: Well, I would say the album starts right in 2015. In 2015, I dropped an album called X the Street from the Church. It was my last full solo project. And it takes place from that time period right up to me moving to New York, and I was unhappy being in Mobile. I think the proverbial ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ [was] I remember I opened up for Big K.R.I.T. It was a big thing for me, man. They gave me tickets to sell, they gave me $20 tickets. They gave me 50 tickets, and I sold the 50 tickets in like two days. So still people wanted tickets, so I went back and got 25 more. Sold those before the show, so I came to the show with like $1500, and I didn’t get paid anything. They didn’t let me meet K.R.I.T. None of the things I was looking forward to, I didn’t get to experience any of it. As a local artist, I was getting looked at as a peon, in a lot of ways. So I had to make my name elsewhere, in a big city like New York.
SV: So you’re in New York – how long are you there before you come back?
See’J Foster: It was two years.
SV: How did New York change your perspective so that you could ultimately come home again?
See’J Foster: New York was a transformative experience. To put it in context, the first week I moved up there, I met more people from different countries than I had ever met in my life up to that point. It was just an eye opener – life being so much more. People having so many different perspectives. I had to come back home, just because I got the point where I realized that I didn’t want to do this by myself. The city is kind of harsh, and I love what it turned me into, as far as like pushing me to see my strengths, to see my limitations, and in a lot of ways surpass them. To not have an emotional…to have a companion. Like a real companion. Everyone that met up there – this was when I was going by No Suh – everybody knew me as No Suh. For context, the whole time that I was up there, there might have been two people who asked what my real name was. You know what I’m saying? I having all of these experiences with people – and I met good people up there – but there was still this feeling of loneliness, ‘cause I didn’t have anyone that I knew up there. So I felt like I wanted to come home and implement the things that I learned up there with my people, to have these experiences with the people that I started out doing this with.
SV: So you come back home. How do you implement this new perspective, now that you decided you want to build in Mobile?
See’J Foster: Basshead Jazz. Everything that Basshead Jazz has become is an example of that. In a lot of ways, Ottie and Sid, their contribution to the vision is invaluable. You know what I’m saying? It wouldn’t have been without them, but a lot of the ways that we decided to move was based off of the experiences that I had in New York. With The Shindig, it was like, “Let’s do our own show!” That came with seeing people in New York doing their shows in barber shops, or art galleries – this, that, and the third. That was a direct reflection of the DIY culture that Basshead Jazz has been able to build since coming back.
SV: For those that don’t know, what is The Shindig?
See’J Foster: The Shindig was -is- I keep saying was because this corona thing has slowed everything down. It’s the monthly showcase that we do in Mobile. It’s an open mic/artist showcase featuring regional talent in a different lane than you might expect music from The South or music from Alabama to be.
SV: You’ve been doing The Shindig for how long, two years?
See’J Foster: It will be two years in May.
SV: In that time, have you had a chance to see any talent come up and develop?
See’J Foster: Oh yeah. A shit ton. It’s one of the best things to see. You see cats come out and be a little unsure of themselves, and you see them grow as far as their confidence, you see them find creative family, you see them find a voice that they doubted that they had at one time. And it’s a refreshing thing to see, it’s a beautiful thing to see.
SV: Just real quick on the spot – can you throw a couple of names out that people should be checking for in Mobile?
See’J Foster: Oh yeah. IndYah Rashaud, Kontrol the Lyricist…dang! You did put me on the spot…Neighbors Through The Wall…I know I’m forgetting somebody, so let me come back to that at the end.
SV: We can circle back. So you form Basshead Jazz, you’re doing The Shindig…that brings us to tragedy that was the catalyst that brought this altogether, which was the loss of your father. Can you talk a little bit about what your relationship with him was?
See’J Foster: Ummm…complicated. It was complicated, but…my father was for all intents and purposes, my first introduction to entrepreneurship, and my first introduction to…he was very poetic when he spoke, wrote very well, wrote very eloquently. I remember being a child and being very excited for him to come home and draw army men, ‘cause I thought he was the best…I used to say ‘drawer,’ ‘You the best drawer in the world!’ So he was very artistically inclined, in his way. He just never had the time to explore it. Because of the circumstances in which he came from, he had to do for himself, so it was something to him that was familiar – he very much enjoyed it. My dad has heard so much shit that no one else has heard. Or has heard stuff that people love now, but he heard at the very beginning stages. Like I would go to his room and just go, ‘Hey dad, I wrote something – do you want to hear it?’ And I’d sit on the floor and rap it to him. And he would go, ‘Oh, you need to work on your breath control.’ This, that, and the third. He always had his pointers. He always enjoyed it, but he was more so concerned about it being a viable living option, he didn’t see that. He never got to explore that with himself, and that became a catalyst for a lot of out conflict. But through all things, however complicated our relationship might have been, I will admit that the album is looked at through rose colored lenses. It’s looked at through that frame. But regardless of that complication, the ups and downs throughout our relationship, he was a shining example of what a father is, as far as providing and protecting and taking care of his family. It’s something that I’m grateful for seeing, for all of his imperfections and all the things we disagreed on, it’s something that in hindsight, it’s something that I’m just thankful for, because innately, it’s given me something in life…in a lot of ways I feel like our relationship continues. Even after his transitioning, because of the things that he may have said, but I didn’t necessarily pay attention to before. Or the things he may have said that I argued with him about, because I thought I knew everything. The things that still ring in my head throughout day to day. Living day to day, actions and repercussions, I hear him a lot.
SV: You mentioned that you learned entrepreneurship from your dad. What kind of business did he get into?
See’J Foster: He had a laundromat in Queens. That’s where I was born. I was only there as a baby, then to advance his life he owned a truck. He drove trucks to the point where he could buy a truck for himself. And the more I get into that world, the more I realize that that’s a business in itself.
SV: Even though he’s of that generation and of that mindset, and you mentioned that he had concerns about you making a living, it seems like he did enjoy hip hop and understand what hip hop is.
See’J Foster: Yeah, my dad was just a music…he was really big into music. And it was one of those things that I didn’t realize until he passed. Like, I have his record collection, and looking through his collection, he had a really peculiar ear for music. I remember him saying how much he loved hip hop when it first came out, because it was like storytelling. I think his gripes with popular music was just how much it came to be…there was a lack of picture painting. I tell you, man, my dad was the first person to make me realize I needed to get paid off of this shit. I got booked for a show in Birmingham – this was like in 2013 – and I took off work. I took off half a day of work early, so I could get up there, and then I took off the first half of the next day so I could get back. So I get back home, and I’m on the back porch, and my dad came outside, and he was like, ‘You finished the day out, huh? I gotta give it to you, that takes a lot. So tell me, how much you get paid?’ I was like, ‘Nothing.’ He just looked at me, and he was like, ‘So you left work, you missed a day of work, you paid for gas to get up there, you paid for something to eat, you paid for a place to stay, and you came back, and you didn’t get paid anything?’ I was like, ‘Nah.’ And he just looked at me like, ‘Okay, cool,’ and walked away. And in that moment, I knew what that walk away was. He didn’t have to say anything to me, it was like, ‘Damn, if I’m serious about this, why am I taking a loss like this?’ And it reshaped my whole attitude about getting paid for shows. I’m not saying it’s all about money, but he definitely made the business aspect aware to me.
SV: Right, and a lot of people do get take advantage of that way if they aren’t aware of it.
See’J Foster: Yes.
SV: We won’t dwell on his actual passing, but when did you realize that this was a catalyst for your storytelling and that you needed to set this to music?
See’J Foster: Ummm…Probably November of last year. October/November of last year. HiSonGreWings isn’t a new concept. All right – this is going to be a bit of a story. The concept for HiSonGreWings started in 2016, and I realize that everyone calls it “His son grew wings,” but it was originally “His song grew wings.” It was just a play on all the words – I was in York, and realized that the title, the last letter of every word starts off the next word. I just thought that was so cool, and there were so many ways that you could read it. It was a completely different album. I finished a completely different album, but for a lot of reasons I just never put it out. And then when I got home, the focus was Basshead Jazz, you know what I’m saying? And doing us as a group. When my father passed…honestly, if I’m being candid about everything, I probably should have just chilled and sat down somewhere and just really processed it. Because there were a lot of things on my end, that personally caused friction between relationships. And with Basshead Jazz, I was getting so upset when things wouldn’t go a certain type of way, because in my mind, I had sacrificed so much. My 30th birthday – when y’all saw that Secret Stages performance – and it was a beautiful night, wonderful night. But my father had planned for me to go to the Corvette Museum with him on my 30th birthday. And my birthday is August 1st. So he had planned the trip amid Secret Stages. And I had to tell him, ‘Nah, we’ll have to do it next year. We have to do this festival.’ And that was the first time I saw him really feel hurt by it. He understood it, but I saw the disappointment. And the fact that next year never came around for him, you know what I’m saying? Honestly, I was mad at the idea of Basshead Jazz for that, subconsciously. And I had to…I’m saying this as I’m completely in the wrong. Me and Ottie and Sid already talked about this in private. I was trippin’. We can put that out there. But it did cause me to go inside my bubble, and have the realization that I was trippin’. I need to heal myself, I need to slow down, I need to process what happened. That process led me to making this incarnation of HiSonGreWings, which everyone calls “His Son Grew Wings,” and both ways are right. It’s whatever you see. But yeah, that’s how it came together.
SV: Now we can get into the weeds a little bit – how did you start to get the beats together and sort of plot out the story of the album over thirteen tracks?
See’J Foster: Well, the beats are…I produced about 70% of it. And some of the beats were…I don’t think I made one new beat for this. These were beats that I had already made, a lot of them right after my father had passed. And they were just there. And the other ones…I had fun with it. ‘Cause I’m so used to handling damn near all of the production, that I got out of the habit of appreciating another producer’s work, and seeing what another producer’s work could bring out of me. So I went outside for different beats, and the process of it was the first song that was made for HiSonGreWings was “GiveNTake.” And it came from a place of desperation, honestly. It was a cry for help. And the way it came out, it was a cry for help, but it’s a conversation with God, like the hook is broken up into two – it’s sounds like one, because I didn’t do anything with the mix to differentiate it, but it’s a call and response. In the beginning I say, “I’ll admit it/I’m in need/need to fixing/I’m yo friend/I got issues yes indeed but don’t we all?” And the reply is “I done crossed the 7 seas/planting gospel for my seed/Cut me open/bet I’ll bleed for your resolve.” So that was my call, my song…that was my individual song to God. And the process of this album was different, because I didn’t write a word, I didn’t write a hook. It was really this process of me having this home studio that my brother Eugene blessed me with. I think he figured that I would get to the point where I would use it like I did. But I just had this studio set up in the corner of my room, and I would hum and scat and cry and sing, and whatever it was I needed to do until something came forward to push the story along. That’s how this album came to be.
SV: So just to clarify, you didn’t write anything down. These were all just – you kind of just did from your head, and did it until it felt right?
See’J Foster: I would say did it from my heart, more than my head. I did it from my heart until it made sense in my head. I think a lot of times from my past experiences with like writing things down, it becomes a block from the heart to the voice. Now I’m thinking, and I’m thinking, “Is this line clever enough?” As opposed to…I was feeling, and then fill in the blanks. Feel and fill in the blanks. There was no second thought on the feeling.
SV: As you’re filling out the album, you’ve got some – well, I don’t want to call them skits, because they’re not funny. You’ve got some interludes that help the narrative, both with your family and with your move to New York. Were these things you had to recreate for the album, or were these recordings that you had?
See’J Foster: It was all recreated. Honestly, it was the most difficult part to do.
SV: I would imagine, because there’s no hiding behind those moments.
See’J Foster: Yeah, and those were literally the last things I did for the album. Was to go back and fill that in, because it was like, “Damn, I really gotta go there.”
SV: What was the process like recording those pieces? Because it wasn’t just you recording those parts. How did you recruit people and explain what you needed to recreate with them?
See’J Foster: Well, the intro, “Fathers Day,” I was originally going to put that out on Father’s Day, but my brother D. Horton was putting his album, The Lighthouse, which is an incredible album, he put it out on Father’s Day. So that made me hold out on putting it out. This whole thing probably started out as a beat tape, because I was going to drop a beat tape on Father’s Day. In respect to Horton’s album, I decided to hold on to it, but that was when this idea of having this thematic…people talking being a part of the album, that’s where it was born. And it was born…it literally came from me going on social media after my father passed, and asking people to record their thoughts on fatherhood and send them to me. That’s where those pieces came from. Actually D. Horton was the first person to appear on the album. When it first comes in an he’s talking about fatherhood, he’s featured heavily on there because of all the people that are speaking, he’s the only one who is actually a father. So I wanted to have that – I felt I had to give reverence to that perspective, because it was one that I didn’t have…after that, it just fit. Once I realized the story that I was telling – I didn’t realize at first, you know. I think the first time I did it was on “Permission Skip,” the second song. When I sampled it, there’s a drum loop throughout the whole beat that’s sampled, and when the beat cuts off – my production heads will know what I’m talking about – I didn’t cut the sample. So the drum loop just played out. I wanted to cut it, but then I listened to it, and was like, ‘This shit is dope.’ Just the whole different direction that it took. And that’s when I had the idea, this kind of sounded like some Papa Bear…you know, kinda getting flustered in a way. And that’s where that one came from. And when I realized what that would mean for the story, all the other ones came last edition. That’s the one that made me realize that’s how I had to tell the story.
SV: On the other side of things, while this album does get into some serious stuff that we’ve touched on, you also get to have fun on it as well.
See’J Foster: Oh yeah.
SV: One of the songs that I had a lot of fun listening to was “‘92.”
See’J Foster: AYYY!!!!
SV: You use the ‘92 Dream Team as a jumping off point to talk about other stuff. What did the ‘92 Dream Team mean to you growing up?
See’J Foster: There was this dominance, you know what I’m saying? They were like world class excellence. Regardless of how anyone felt personally about them, you couldn’t argue with the fact that they were the greatest assemblance of basketball players, probably ever. The song in particular means a lot to me, and I love that people love it so much, because of the feature. I alluded to it on the skit before, but Michael Campbell, that’s one of my longest lasting friends. That’s a brother of mine, friend of the family, I’m a friend of his family, everybody knows each other. He was the first person I ever recorded with. He was a star safety for Auburn, the year they won the championship. Mike McNeil. He kind of got jammed up in a situation that took his life in a different path, and he was one of the best rappers that I know. And I think he knows it, but I don’t know if he knows it knows it. So, for people to respond to that, that’s the shit that me and him been doing for fifteen years now, but no one would ever hear it. But for people to hear it and respond to it the way they have, it means the world to me.
SV: That’s awesome. Another song that allows you to bring some fun into the album is “Homecoming King.” You do get to slip into some braggadocio on that song. How did you write that one and find a place for it in the project?
See’J Foster: ‘Cause it’s a part of the story, still. When I first came home, and we was doing what we was doing, in 2018 – even though 2019 went in directions that we couldn’t imagine – it was still…2018 was what it was, and I think it needed to be addressed. Honestly, it was after everything went down, there were a lot of cats, locally, that were feeling some kind of way, and they were saying what they were saying. And my brother, Eugene, who was also featured on the song, always told me as far as rappers, like, never respond to anyone individually. When people are saying things and doing things, you just create a moment where you address it all at one time. And that was me addressing it. The same person that you’re all in your feelings about, and this, that, and the third…it wasn’t like this before I got there.
SV: And going back to what we were talking about earlier, people might be feeling a way, but at the same time, you’re helping to build up a scene in Mobile, a place that people aren’t necessarily checking for if they’re not from the area.
See’J Foster: The thing is – traveling different places like New York and Atlanta, in New York, there’s a culture of people wanting to see other people making it, because they see it’s possible. They see people go from open mics to six months later, eight months later, having a whole situation. And so there’s an encouragement for that. Whereas in Mobile, everything is looked at as a competition. I think Alabama in general, we’re getting past that. We’re evolving past that, but I still think there’s still plenty of people who get intimidated when they come across somebody who’s got it. ‘Cause there’s not a lot of example of people in Alabama making it and maintaining it. Somebody who cracks through with consciousness, once every five to seven years, so far…people are easily threatened by a thing like that, in my opinion.
SV: They don’t realize that they could all be pulling up a seat at the table.
See’J Foster: Exactly. That comes with…it’s hard as an artist. It’s hard as a hip hop artist, in particular. I think you just gotta know when to play your role. And everything works out. But people don’t take that approach. They see somebody that they know got it – it’s undeniable – and they still try to make them go through certain hoops and this, that, and the third. And if they weren’t intimidated – because I don’t get to decide. Don’t nobody get to decide who got it. The people decide. I don’t get to decide just like you don’t. Everybody put their shit forward, and what people respond to, they respond to. And if folks understood how many roles there were to be played in somebody being successful, they wouldn’t look at it as being a slight to them. If you could have a piece of it, and then when it was your time, all the pieces were already in place, the infrastructure was already in place. But that’s a whole other conversation.
SV: We can table it there. Well, the album is out, and this is normally where I would ask you about touring plans, but obviously that’s off the table for the foreseeable. Is there anything else you’ve been working on?
See’J Foster: Yeah, man. Since the pandemic hit, I’ve been in my zone, artistically. Obviously, we got the Basshead Jazz album. That never stopped being a thing. This was just something I had to do along the way.
SV: I’m still waiting on that album.
See’J Foster: Oh, yeah, and it’s full steam ahead now that on my end I’ve got my personal thing worked out. So that’s coming. There’s a lot of things that are being done right now that are just ideas that I don’t really feel comfortable putting out there yet without them being done. I will say that as far as the pandemic, man…of course, it’s very unfortunate, and the cause behind it, but I think we are in a very advantageous place, and I don’t think we’ve ever been here before, where people can slow down and question why – the hustle and bustle of the previous life, and the previous routines, we can really consider why we’re doing things, and as an artist I think that’s really important. For me, it’s taking me back to the essence of why I did this shit. Before I did shows, before there were video shoots and photo shoots, I was in my room making music. So I think it’s taking me back to a very pure place about what I expect from art, and what I want art to be in the future…I feel like we would do ourselves a disservice if we returned to normal at this point. I don’t even want music to be looked at as a thing to make a billion dollars from in this new normal, unless everything is going to it’s proper perspective and we realize what artists are supposed to be for people and vice versa. I think the balance was off before.
SV: Right. I think this is a time where we can take stock of what we actually value.
See’J Foster: Yes. I was talking to one of my friends about it, one of my comrades, and I was telling him as far as real music and real art…this is the perfect time for it. Because a lot of it…there’s no context for that buck shit now. You can’t excuse being at a club or being at a party no more. We not clubbin’. Talking about a Maybach isn’t as impressive when we just at the fucking house. So what?! For real, man. People are going to have to start going back to real food, just like people are going to have to go back to real art. So it’s an exciting time to be an artist who is in it for the love.
SV: Definitely. Finally, I’ll leave you with the question I ask everyone. If you could work with three people that you’ve never worked with before, who would that be?
See’J Foster: I’d like t work with Alex Wiley, out of Chicago. I’d like to work with – and I’m going to keep it – the last time it was all like legends, this time it’s people who are legends in their own right, but people who are underground, because I want to support that whole thing. There’s a woman named Yani Mo, out of Georgia. I think she’s absolutely flames. The third person I’d like to work with is a producer, you could say he’s kind of big time, but he has an underground feel to him. I’d really like to work with Monte Booker.
To listen to HiSonGreWings, visit: https://seejfoster.bandcamp.com/album/hisongrewings