Scuare is an emcee/producer from Austin who has worked as a solo artist, but also as part of groups like …&more… alongside no1mportant. He recently released his sophomore solo album, Phenomenal. He took the time to talk with us about coming up in the Austin hip hop scene, finding his voice, and of course, his excellent new album.
SV: Let’s start with some general background. How did you first get into hip hop and when did you start producing and rhyming?
Scuare: So I feel like everybody has a storybook story as to how they got into hip hop. For me…I really loved Ludacris. When I heard “What’s Your Fantasy,” back in the day, I think I was in sixth grade, and I thought it was the coolest thing I ever heard in my life, the way he rapped on that song. And so that was my first intro to rap, but it was the first time I though, “It would be really cool to do that kind of thing.” So then I started listening to more and more stuff. As I got older, that’s when all the Limewire stuff started happening, and Napster stuff, and all of a sudden you had all of these mixtapes…just listening to everything that you could. That’s when I started listening to a lot more hip hop that wasn’t on the radio…Over time, I started getting an early copy of FL6, or something like that. And I was just making beats, but I didn’t know anybody else that was making music like that, so I started rapping over the beats as well. Then I got better at rapping than beats, so I pursued rapping for a while, then I recently started working on production stuff more.
SV: So when you started rapping, you were back in Oklahoma still?
Scuare: Yeah, for fun. I wasn’t doing anything serious. I probably started writing around sixteen, but I actually started writing seriously around nineteen, when I was in college in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Really, when I moved to Austin when I was twenty one, that’s when I started writing every day and doing stuff every day. That’s when I started taking it really seriously.
SV: What brought you to Austin?
Scuare: I mean, kinda music. Everybody talks about it being the Live Music Capital of the World. Part of it was that I grew up in Tulsa, so partially getting out of Oklahoma, and Austin being a close place where I could find a scene and find some music that I could do stuff in. I moved down here with a friend, and I thought it would be fun. California and New York seemed too far away at the time.
SV: When you get to Austin, how did you find the scene at the time versus how you’ve seen it grow since you’ve been there?
Scuare: You know, to be honest, when I got to Austin, because I didn’t feel like – I like to be prepared for stuff when I do it, so for the first year or so when I was in Austin, I didn’t do anything hip hop scene related. I just worked on making music, because I didn’t think I was good enough. So I was actually releasing music on Youtube – there would be random rap battles on Youtube, ciphers on Reddit, and so I would just write and write and write as much as I could. So the first year I didn’t do that much stuff in Austin, but once I did start coming out, there was already a scene, especially in terms of the people who grew up in Austin. There were a lot of dope artists by the time I even started looking at stuff, but it was a little bit different…Actually the first time I went out in Austin was to perform was at this open mic called AMX (Austin Mic Exchange). That was started by Miss Manners and Protextor. That was very cool because it was a very inclusive open mic. I think that the way the Austin music scene has gone typically – I’ve only been here since 2011 – but there are things that galvanize people and there are a whole bunch of shows that are happening, and people love it, but then it dies out, and then there’s a new wave. So things change, but there hasn’t been a lot of A&R, stuff that makes it a national scene, quite yet.
SV: So you found AMX. How did that help shape your performances? Did it help you find your artistic voice?
Scuare: Yeah, so, like I said, I had been writing for a long time before I ever started to perform. So I’m not naturally a performer. The first time I went to perform at AMX, I had already started writing my first solo project, Alphabet Soup. I already had some of the songs from it, and I tried to perform one and I was so nervous that I almost blacked out. I couldn’t get the words out, I couldn’t do anything. So in terms of AMX, the thing it did for me was that it introduced me to all these different rappers, all these different perspectives, and it allowed me to become better at performing without…it was a very accepting place of a lot of different styles and a of different people. I think a lot of other rap places, music places, or even comedy open mics, if you’re terrible, sometimes people just boo you off the stage. I don’t know what would have happened if that had happened, because I would have been booed off stage the first time I did it. A little bit off topic, but I wanted to bring up because we were talking about developing my sense of style or finding my voice…I think one of the things that helped was that before I started performing in Austin, I actually met Rav and Kill Bill and a few other people online, and we eventually became EXO.
SV: You met them before you started performing live?
Scuare: Yeah, I met them when I first moved to Austin, and I didn’t perform live until 2012.
SV: So you already had some people to bounce stuff off of before you started performing live.
Scuare: Exactly! That’s how I did it for like the first four years. First, you send it to your friends, and then you realize you’re annoying all your friends, because they don’t care. And then, meeting them, this was the first time I was having these long form conversations about hip hop, where you’re talking about everybody and everything and about styles and who you like, and the history of hip hop and how it affects you. I think that did…it was almost a hyperbolic time chamber of learning. That was really helpful in terms of me getting up the courage and creativity and inspiration to make Alphabet Soup. Which I considered my like entry into taking the music as a very serious thing.
SV: Not to jump too far ahead, but in terms of learning writing and producing at home and then going in front of a crowd – ‘cause in terms of listening to the new album, there are several points across the album where I was like, “Oh, this will kill live!” It sounds like stuff that maybe could have been workshopped in front of an audience, where you could be like, “Oh, these hooks are working.” Am I reading into that correctly, that this is something that you learned starting at AMX and then playing shows?
Scuare: Yeah, I think you do, whenever you’re performing, you get a better sense of what people react to and interact with. So I definitely think that is a factor, but I don’t know that it’s at the forefront of my mind when I’m writing as much. I think another thing that contributed to that was over time feeling more confident and reassured about myself. I grew up in an environment that outside of classical arts – outside of that stuff – art wasn’t really a profession, it’s more of a hobby. So the idea of pursuing it so seriously wasn’t something that I thought was potential. So I think becoming more comfortable with that allowed me to – I think a good example of this is the song “General Lee,” which I really regret naming it that, (at the time I just named it that because I kept saying the word ‘generally,’ but now I feel dumb every time I see it), but that song, when I first wrote that hook, I was incredibly insecure about that hook, and I almost threw it out. I used another part of the song as the hook. But then the people I was interacting with at the time really liked it, so I kept it, and that hook turned out to be something at live shows that people really love. So yeah, I noticed that some of the stuff that makes me feel insecure might be pretty good.
SV: I think what I’m trying to articulate is that the first time that I saw you perform live, I thought, “This guy is very good technically, but maybe he hasn’t gotten his feet underneath him as a live performer.”
Scuare: Oh yeah, for sure.
SV: And now, listening to the new album, the technical stuff is still there, but now there are this hooks that you can sing along to, they get stuck in your head…It’s more well-rounded is what I guess I’m getting at.
Scuare: Thank you! Yeah, I appreciate that. I don’t really know why that is, but I worked really hard on it, so hopefully…I’m glad to hear that.
SV: We’ll jump ahead a little bit now. You mentioned that you released your first album, Alphabet Soup, in 2013. Since then, you’ve been working this whole time, …&more… with no1mportant and some other collaborative EPs. What finally got you in the right space where you were finally ready to do a second full-length album?
Scuare: I’ve been trying to…I wanted to work on something like this for a long time, because it feels different to do your own thing. But, I was also super busy, because I work full time and I was doing shows, and I had other commitments. Then around 2016, I was like, “You know what?” I was having trouble writing over other peoples’ beats. They never felt like it was what I wanted to write. So I was like, “I’m going to do a whole project where I produce all the beats.” I worked on that for like 6 or 7 months. Then, I don’t know if I was just insecure, or if the beats weren’t very good, but it completely burned me out. So I threw all of that stuff away. I didn’t delete it, but I moved on from it. I guess I just wasn’t ready at the time to do it. Then over the last year before the pandemic, I had started working on “The Bottom,” the first song from the record, I had made “Forward and Back Again,” and part of the last song. And I felt like that was a sound that I liked and that I wanted to pursue, but still I didn’t really have a lot of time. Then, when the pandemic hit I started working from home, so then there’s less going back and forth, there’s less commitment to things…I had all this free time to do it. I just thought, this is going to be my one opportunity to do it this way, so I put maximum effort into doing it.
SV: Did you have a specific sound or theme in mind as a starting point, or was it something that evolved as you started to work on it?
Scuare: I generally do it the second way that you explained it. The original kind of loose themes as I was thinking about was as a response to Alphabet Soup, and actually “These Words Again,” that song I thought I could make as a bridge between both projects, but when I finished that song, it felt too deliberate, so I just decided to release that song as a single and recalculate everything. I guess my process is that I have these ideas in my head, and then I try to be deliberate about them as I’m writing these songs, but then as I’m writing, I start to connect them to other songs, so that when I’m done, hopefully everything comes together. But yeah, I just started to think about what’s changed from then to now, what’s my perspective, what are things that I don’t like about Alphabet Soup that I could differently here? So in a way, it was kind of a response to Alphabet Soup, but only in a broad sense.
SV: Going into the production, you hit on several different styles across the album, but one thing that stood out to me was how much Brazilian music there was to the production. Was that a specific choice, or was that something that you were just messing with and maybe realized as you were making it that was a direction you were leaning in?
Scuare: I don’t know if it was a specific choice as a much as it was – I have this running joke with most of the collaborators that I’m close with, is that they know that I’m Brazilian, and they don’t do it on purpose, but there have been so many times when people have sent me beats, or made beats for me, and they’ll be like, “You’ll be perfect for this,” and it’s a sample in Portuguese. Every time! Anyway, I just decided to not shy away from it. For a long time, for some reason or another, I didn’t lean into that, probably because of that stereotype of how people kept sending me stuff. But I found myself doing a lot of like four on the floor kind of beats, stuff that wasn’t as traditional hip hop-y when I was making beats. I didn’t lean too far into that, only because I don’t have as firm a grasp on electronic music to feel comfortable making super electronic beats…but I think it was just accepting that and then working on what I thought was dope.
SV: Did you have much of a background with the Brazilian music? I know sometimes when it comes to the children of immigrants, as a kid you might want to be American and stay away from that music a little bit, but then as you get older you might want to reconnect with your roots. Was that there at all, or am I just reading into it?
Scuare: I think there’s a little bit of that. It wasn’t super deliberate, but when I was younger I didn’t listen to a lot of Brazilian music. Honestly, most of the Brazilian music I listened to was through my parents, and it more gaúchesca, which is like South Brazilian cowboy country music, so I never really liked that music all that much. And then, I did go back and start listening to Elis Regina and some of the other famous bossa nova artists, but I do think to certain extent it may have been a little bit of that, but also I didn’t want to want to completely lean into that because I feel like hip hop in general, especially with lo-fi, has gone so hard bossa nova, that it’s almost played out, even though I am Brazilian.
SV: That can be a tough tight rope to walk. You mentioned that you also had an electronic music influence to the album. What were some of the other influences you had on the production of the album?
Scuare: I mean, I’ve always felt a little bit of imposter syndrome speaking on stuff like this, because my influences are so…they don’t make sense to me. I don’t think about my influences when I’m making music. I’m very clearly influenced by people. I’m very influenced by Knxledge, and…I love listening to the Kaytranada stuff. But nothing that I make sounds like that, or is directly influenced by it. So I don’t really know – I used be really into Ratatat. I love the way they mixed their music. But I don’t think my stuff sounds anything like their music at all. So I don’t really know what the influences on the album are. I just went in with these samples – honestly, the samples were influences, and I did percussion to them depending on the sample that I liked.
SV: Going into some specific tracks, one that caught my ear the first time I listened to the album was “A Message To Young People.” It’s much more abstract and experimental than the rest of the album and it’s stuck right smack in the middle of everything. How did you develop that track?
Scuare: I came across that sample – it was a Youtube video that was literally called “A Message to Young People,” and I looked up the translation, because I liked the general vibe of the video, and if I remember correctly, the translation was something along the lines of him telling young people to learn to be alone and value the things you can do when you are alone. Things of that nature. When you become an adult, you’re going to spend a lot of time alone. So I liked the nature sounds and the general message of what he was doing. I also thought, “I don’t have answers,” and so I thought that if I have a song, and it’s called “A Message To Young People,” I thought it would be cool to have it in a language that you won’t understand unless you’re a very specific person, so the people that listen to my music aren’t going to understand what he’s saying. And then, I also liked the idea of having the soundscape be both distorted and nonsensical and kind of harsh, but have a sense of a really pretty melody to it. Because, really, my message to young people would be that things are really confusing, things are very scary at times, and no one really knows that they are doing, but things can be really pretty, too. So it’s like this jumble of things that I kind of perceive through it.
SV: You have a few collaborators on the album. Some of them are to be expected, like you have no1mportant, you’ve got Rav, but one that may not be as obvious is FLOOG, who plays trumpet on “Trouble Shooting.” How did that come together?
Scuare: The producer who made the beat, sow, I’ve known him for a long time. He used to go by Rupert, he did “Alphabet Intro,” – we’ve worked together a bunch of times. He’s the one who sent me this instrumental, and he had hooked up with FLOOG, and he played trumpet, and then [sow] sampled it and made the beat. I’ve reached to FLOOG, and he’s incredibly down and just has all this great stuff on his sites. So they sent to the beat to me, and then I made the song and sent it back to both of them, and they liked it, so we went with it.
SV: Just to clarify, FLOOG was on the beat when you got it?
Scuare: Yeah, he contacted sow and worked on the beat, and they sent it to me, and then I messed around with it and cut it a certain way and made the song and sent it back to them and they both really like it, so we did it.
SV: If this was normal times, we’d be talking about a release show and stuff like that. You’ve got the vinyl release coming, are there any other things people should be looking out for?
Scuare: The vinyl campaign is completely funded…which is amazing to me. There are going to be more things coming, but they are secret right now. But we’ll definitely have stuff out in the coming weeks. There’s also more stuff coming with no1mportant. That’s pretty much it right now.
SV: Where’s the best place for people to be looking for these announcements?
Scuare: On Twitter is where I usually communicate these things - @Iamscuare. Some of the stuff is going to come out on Youtube, so you can follow me there. Also, Instagram, Spotify.
SV: Finally, if there were three people that you could work with that you haven’t, who would they be?
Scuare: You know, I was asked this the other day, and I always struggle with this…but if we’re talking bucket list, it would be amazing to work with Andre 3000. Right now, I really love Tierra Whack. It would be great to work with her. Honestly, doing something with Ratatat or RJD2 would be awesome.
To purchase Phenomenal, visit: https://exordiummusic.bandcamp.com/album/phenomenal