Zero Past A Hundred: Angel Haze Interviewed
, November 9th, 2012 04:58
Angel Haze, who has attracted deserved attention for her ferocious wordplay on recent releases Reservation and Classick, speaks to Laurie Tuffrey about growing up in the church, sexuality and collaborating with The Smiths
On the chorus of 'New York', Angel Haze's signature cut from her recent EP Reservation, she intones "I run New York" over sparse loops and a skeletal beat. Unshakeable boastfulness may be a rapper's stock in trade, but the conviction with which the 21 year-old MC spits the line is borderline vitriolic, and she convinces. Maybe it's because she's rapping over a Gil Scott-Heron sample, re-appropriating, palimpsest-like, the work of another NY wordsmith - or maybe it's that she's just told us "fuck them other bitches I sound better in the place of them / I kill this shit, this the motherfucking requiem" and you believe her. Either way, it's a formidable calling card.
Haze grew up in the Greater Apostolic Faith, a fiercely Christian community in her native Michigan. She and her family left when she was 10, with her mother fearing for her and her brother's souls, and, freed from the church's strictures, Haze consequently consumed as much music as she could, getting turned onto rap through Eminem and Kanye West. She's since released a number of mixtapes, taking on West, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne on their own tracks, before putting out Reservation, a 14-track EP of her own material, ranging from the introspective, Drake-esque hip hop of 'This Is Me' to the blunt-force beats of 'Werkin' Girls'.
And it's an ascendancy looks set to continue. After we spoke, she put out a new EP, Classick, featuring her take on Eminem's 'Cleaning Out My Closet', a harrowing listen that looks back over the childhood sexual abuse she suffered, touches on her pansexuality and deals an endgame punch to her abuser, simultaneously showcasing Haze's furious, mercurial vocal skills.
She's currently recording her debut album, Dirty Gold, but we caught up with her on a fleeting stopoff in the UK, which took in a handful of sets, including a brief but brilliant showing at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen.
How did you settle on Angel Haze as a name?
Angel Haze: Um, I kind of just thought to myself, if I was a porn star, what would my name be? And that's how I came upon it.
AH: No, I'm kidding! It was that, combined with the fact that it's a metaphor for things that are high - weed, angels - so it was just me trying to be everything that I say I am.
On 'Reservation', you've got tracks like 'Supreme' and 'New York', where it's triple time rapping and then you've got 'Hot Like Fire', which has the feel of 90s R&B - do you think you'll hone down to one?
AH: I think sonically I'll always try to vary it and make it just as far across the board as I can. For me, I make the music that I like to listen to and my genre... The list of shit that I have on my iPod is just limitless.
I read that you wiped everything from your iPod...
AH: Yeah - see, I went on like a music diet when I was working on Reservation and I didn't listen to anything because I didn't want my sound to be influenced by other people's fuckery. Afterwards, now I listen to myself here [picks up her iPod, which is playing Reservation] but still. Now I listen to people from Spinner, from the mp3 of the day section, because the new bands are always really cool.
Lyrically and musically, you sound bulletproof, but on 'New York' you say "I am, whatever they say I am" - I wondered if you viewed this as a positive or a negative?
AH: When I said that "I am, whatever they say I am", it's like the media. I think that, in a certain way, the media is who gets you an audience - the way that they portray you is what audience you have, it's what people ultimately think of you. So that was my way of saying "I don't give a fuck - whatever they say I am, I will be", but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter.
Your EP Voice featured a lot of backing tracks from other artists, like 'Roman's Revenge' and 'No Church In The Wild', but featuring your verses. What does it mean to be taking on big-hitters like Nicki Minaj, Kanye West and Jay-Z?
AH: It's really just a statement. It attests to the fact that I can go head to head with anyone at any given moment at any given time, and I'll probably win.
Do you think you reclaim the track as your own?
AH: No, I can't do that, I can't do that. I just do a remix and people happen to like mine better.
What would a typical day in the Greater Apostolic Faith involve?
AH: This is the new question! That's amazing - I'm astounded right now...! Let me think about it. It's Sunday morning, everyone would get up, they'd get dressed, they'd put on their best Sunday clothes... Ah no, let me do Wednesday night: bible study. You'd go to the fucking stupid church, you'd watch everyone get slain in the holy spirit and me, typically, a day for Angel Haze, is she's sleeping under the bench or [laughs] the time momma slapped the shit out of me in the back of the church! I don't know, it's just a bunch of preaching about nonsensical bullshit and a bunch of people falling out and the holy spirit. And we're there all night, until 12 o'clock, so it's from like 6 until 12, and everybody's just praying and talking shit and it's boring.
Do you think it's impacted on your music at all?
AH: Yeah, a lot of my obsession with religion and god and deities and people being manipulative, it comes from me growing up in a church that had people believing that if they wore pants they'd die and burn in hell. It's just, like, "okay". But you want to shed light upon these things, especially in America, which is a Christian country - they believe that homosexuality is something that gets you into hell. They believe that fucking premarital sex is something that gets you in hell and all this other shit... So it's like "shut the fuck up!" I don't think anyone's every really heard from god, I think god's voice is universal. I think that niggas just say shit that they think and then they want people to believe it because they believe it. So it's like, "whatever", to me.
Do you feel that it's been cathartic tackling these issues in the music or does it still drive you?
AH: I think it's a little therapeutic, honestly. Music is definitely my coping mechanism and it's helped me get over a lot of things, but not only my music, other people's music. Through their's, I was able to find some healing and some explanation, and through mine I was able to explain it and communicate with the fans and other people who were going through the same thing. It still drives me, but I'm pretty much over it.
After you left the church, you started listening to everything. How did you start attacking all this music that was suddenly opened to you?
AH: Well, I remember hearing Jason Mraz's 'The Remedy' and New Radicals 'Someday We'll Know', and a movie, I think it was A Walk To Remember, so I kind of azlyric-searched it and then they had some similar artists to them, and then I started listening to everything that I really liked. After a while, it all came naturally from Jack Johnson to Train and all those people.
But then who made you settle on rap?
AH: Eminem. His angsty fucking emotionally-lucid and expressive ways. If he was angry, you knew he was angry and just to what degree he was angry; if he loved someone, you knew how much he loved them. Listening to a song, you're just like "damn, either he's crazy or this is some great shit". And then there was Kanye West and after that I stopped really being influenced for a while. Nowadays, it's really hard to influence me, so it's kind of like I have my catalogue from back then.
You previously said that you originally wanted to be a poet, and there's a huge performative leap from being a poet to being a rapper. Is that something that came naturally to you?
AH: No! [turns to friends] Do you remember when we first started rapping how badly I fucking sucked? I was terrible! Whenever I started out I was like "ah...", I had to teach myself to change up the flow, the concept of metaphors and wordplay. So it was a task, but once I tackled it, it got kind of easier, especially since I broke the dictionary one summer. And then I was like "oh, I'm just going to use all these big words, because nobody knows what they mean anyway, and that's what makes me a great rapper. But it didn't [laughs]!
What kind of influences do you look to poetically?
AH: I'm really into a kid named Joshua Bennett, Andrea Gibson who's really amazing. I don't know if anyone really considers Edgar Allen Poe a poet, but he's great. I like Shakespearean sonnets and this old shit. It varies for me; I even went as far as to read Alicia Keys' book, Tears For Water, which flopped terribly. I thought it was great, but I like all types of things.
It feels like every time you've talked about your sexuality, it raises a lot of questions for people. Why do you think bisexuality and pansexuality are still such an issue?
AH: Well, in America, it's Christianity, it's homophobia, it's people thinking that you can't do these things, god has said it is wrong. It's not anyone with the willingness to accept a person for who they are, no matter what colour, shade or whatever... It's like, with me, I accept everyone, because I don't give a fuck what you do in your private life. If I'm not having sex with you, it's none of my business, and it's also none of anybody else's business. So in a sense, I don't see any reason for it to come up - I didn't wake up one morning and decide to tell the world that I was a black woman with a vagina - it doesn't really matter, no one cares. So at the end of the day, it's always the concept of god in religion and what's wrong and what the fucking Pope says.
Do you think that with you describing yourself as pansexual and Frank Ocean talking openly about his sexuality this year, it will effect a positive change for hip hop?
AH: You know what's weird - I've been through so many phases in my life, including one where I thought I was gay. And then I was like "okay wait, I'm not gay, I still like boys", then I thought I was straight, then I thought "okay am I straight, I still like girls" and then I met a transexual who was fucking hot and then I'm like "okay, something's going on". So for me, it was a journey, and for other people they're really afraid to experience those things, because everybody bosses them in and says "this is wrong - if you like a transexual, you are fucking disgusting". For me, it's really important, I don't know, I don't showcase that part of me, but if someone asks me, I don't hide it, because I love who I love and it's important to feel that freedom, especially for kids who've let that be the one thing that tears them down. People think that sexuality defines you as an entire person, and it's only a spectacle of who you really are.
Now that you've signed to Universal/Island, labels with no shortage of cash, are there any collaborations that you want to set up?
AH: Jason Mraz, and I think as far as I'm concerned, and as far as he's concerned, that's been set up. So I'm really excited about that. That's really the only person I have a genuine desire to work with.
I like The Smiths - I would love to do a song with The Smiths, because they are so sonically different. And they just go into that little rampage where they're just super fucking loud and noisy and I think it would be really cool. I don't know, I'll guess I'll save that for some kaleidoscope theory I have.
Hang on, who would you have - Morrissey or Johnny Marr?
AH: I want both of them!
On the same track?
AH: Yeah! Maybe I'll just record one at one time and then record the other one, and then they think they did a totally different song when I come out with it. And I'd probably get sued, but still, who cares?
And have you got anything of the album recorded yet?
AH: I've got two songs that I recorded here in the UK with Rudimental and Paul Epworth, and then, for the rest of it, I can't tell you.
I also read you were putting in some hours practicing guitar.
AH: Yeah, I'm actually going to be getting guitar lessons as well as vocal lessons - got to be well-rounded, man!
What kind of stuff are you going to do?
AH: I guess I'll do acoustic at first, but then I really want to be Hayley Williams [laughs]. So maybe I'll take that up later and get on my Lil' Wayne and make a rock album, but a good one. I guess my rock influences are mostly soft rock, so I guess they don't really count much, because I said it on radio, the other day and Zane Lowe looked at me like I was stupid. They're like Train, New Radicals, Coldplay.
Would you ever consider a crossover track?
AH: Yeah, I'm waiting! Think I want to be a rapper? Please!