Emcee Trek Life recently dropped his third full-length album on Mello Music Group, titled Hometown Foreigner. It represents the ideology of being “so close, yet so far” and the feeling of “not quite fitting in” though you’re not a stranger. As a man and an artist Trek Life’s more recent life experiences have been living slightly on the outside of things, reflected on his new album.
The Find sat down with the passionate and humble artist to talk about his personal growth, his favorite show ever in Germany, the importance of intro tracks, Mello Music Group as a label, collaborating with producers like Oddisee and Duke Westlake, working with members of Black Eyed Peas back in the days – and a surprising mention of Vanilla Ice.
Hometown Foreigner is your third full-length album, your last one being Everything Changed Nothing in 2010. Since it’s been about 3 years, what have you been up to since then?
I think the last album, Everything Changed Nothing, was around when my daughter had just been born and there were a lot of immediate changes to my life. I was learning how to be a man through all of that. I would say now, I’m a father of a five-year-old, and we own a beautiful home. I’ve been kind of living my experience a lot more. I’ve just grown up. Through every album you can see a more grown up individual.
What is the main development and growth on Hometown Foreigner?
I hate the word formula, but really there is a formula for putting together records. I think if you go all the way back to the first album Price I’ve Paid, there were kind of two of the same song on the record, and the subject matter, although it was dope, wasn’t cohesive so to speak. So with Hometown Foreigner, I just learned how to make a record cohesive. From track 1 to track 14, all the songs sound like they belong together, but they have their own identity. That’s something I really wanted to make sure that I did with Hometown Foreigner. So musically that was the growth.
The intro song to Hometown Foreigner is very strong. What do you think about the importance of intro songs?
Extremely important to the point where I can’t even start my record until I find my intro song. It won’t even begin until I find my intro song, and then I’ll have an idea what direction my record is gonna go in. Prior to finding the intro, I have no idea which way the record is gonna go. I like when the intro song is kind like one verse, to the point, raw. That’s the way I enjoy them. I think it’s a very important element in the album. I mean, if people don’t like it from the beginning then you’re starting down 10 points at that point.
What are your favorite hip hop intro tracks?
“Return Of The Gangster” off ATLiens by Outkast is probably the greatest intro song in the world. I thought that was crazy. And the intro for A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders is dope. Actually, I’ll give you the number one intro song of all time: Common on One Day It’ll All Make Sense. I don’t even know if I remember listening to the entire album for a couple of hours just cause I had that intro song on repeat.
Your albums have been primarily produced by one person, as opposed to many emcees these days who have a different producer for each song. What do you think is the difference in doing a project in those different ways?
I think it’s like painting a picture with 11 people, or painting a picture with two people, you know what I’m saying? I’m giving my 100% artist’s perspective, so I wanted to give people the opportunity to give their 100% artist’s perspective. The word cohesive comes up again. Working with one producer makes it a more cohesive project, because you’re bouncing these ideas off one person and you guys are the people that are going back and forth making it happen. I wanted a cohesive, quality, consitent sound, so I started to go to just one producer.
And that happened almost immediately after the first record: the next record was entirely produced by J. Bizness, and the record after that was entirely produced by Odissee, and my latest album by Duke Westlake. So I got accustomed to and enjoyed the idea of working with one producer giving him the chance to paint an entire canvas, and then me adding the color to it that I desire.
How does that go down? How do you work together to select beats and create songs?
What is interesting is that I absolutely hate spending time in the studio (laughs). I work entirely from my home, but it’s hard to work with a producer you can’t talk to. Me and Duke [Westlake] have had a lot of conversations: music conversations, favourite artists, why they’re our favourite artists, ins and outs of the music business and things of that nature, political conversations… So you get to know each otherand it actually makes it fun, because you’re learning from each other, and then you do a song about what you just conversed about. I think a lot of conversation is required, whether you do it in the studio or in separate studios, I think a lot of conversation is what makes a record work.
When you worked with Odisee, he lives on the east coast and you live on the west coast. Were you living on opposite sides of the country and working together?
We were, but we were on tour A LOT together. It was a large amount of the year we were around each other because of touring. More often than if it was just a producer that lived in the east and a rapper that lived in the west. So it was kinda the same thing that I had spoken of before, we hung out all the time. That’s my brother right there. He’s a pain in the ass and he’s my homeboy. We know each other really well.
You’ve mentioned being on tour and your name alludes to a lot of travel. Do you have any stories about best and worst show experiences?
Best show ever was in Tubingen (Germany). It was the first time I had ever been overseas. We were out there for 5 weeks and Odissee was really the main feature of the tour. So people were getting to know me, and I’d put on a good show, and people would be like ‘Oh man I’ve never heard of you before’. But in Tubingen there was a college station and a college DJ that put on the show who played my music a lot and was really into west coast hip hop, so when I was performing people were rapping the words and I was like ‘What? How do you guys know this?‘ I’d been in about 9 different cities and nobody knew, but they knew who I was. It was crazy to perform a song and have the whole front row singing every word with you and you had never met these people and it was a total different country. So thats the greatest show ever for me
And, this is a funny story, because I was on tour with Diamond District. I won’t say where we were cause I actually still like the promoter, we had a good conversation about it but… the promoter got really drunk during our show. I mean he had like a 2 liter bottle of vodka, just drinking vodka the whole show. We didn’t know our way around, he had walked us to the show, we had no idea how to get back to our hotel and all he wanted to do was party after the show. It got to the point where we almost had to stop other tour members from beating him up because he just refused to take us back to our hotel. It took us about an hour and a half to get back to our hotel room. We had to ask directions from other people because he was just trying to go to another club. It was a crazy experience. The show was dope, but the after effect wasn’t.
You got your start in hip hop with the Atban Klann who eventually became the Black Eyed Peas. How did you link up with them?
In my local scene I was the best battle rapper at the time. I was a kid, you know. We had a manager that linked us up with Motiv8 who was Atban Klann’s producer. So that’s initally how we linked up. We were just in the studio with Motiv8 and met Will and met Apple. Will did the first song I ever rapped in the studio. This is like almost 20 years ago. The manager that managed us also managed the Atban Klann’s producer. It’s kind of less of a story than it’s turned out to be. It’s really just Will and them trying to figure out their way, and he was learning how to produce and we were like guinea pigs for him. He was like ‘Yo can you rap to this beat?’ and we did cause we were just so psyched to be in the studio, so that’s how it went down.
Does that material still exist somewhere?
My homeboy Bambu told me he has a cassette of it, cause we put it out on cassette, but I have no idea where that song is. It’s called Broadsway.
What kind of music did you grow up around?
My father is a blues fan, BB King and all. My mother is a kind of a doo wop R&B fan. Big Etta James background, big Nancy Wilson background. And then of course our house was full of Michael Jackson and Prince records. Then my brother and sister were into SOS Band, Alexander Oneill and Bell Biv DeVoe. So yeah, I would have to say Soul and R&B was full in my household.
How did you come in to contact with hip hop?
Mainly because it was like a family thing. I’m so much younger than my brother and sister. My sister is 8 years older than me and my brother is 11 years older than me. You know, I wanted to do anything my brother was doing. When he was playin basketball I wanted to play, whatever cartoon he was watching I wanted to watch it. We had the bus system, which is old news now in L.A., but back then it was bussing kids from the inner city to schools in the suburbs. On those busses they used to battle, so my brother would come home and battle me, and that’s how I learned how to rhyme. Me my sister and brother used to battle over UTFO records back in the day. That’s really how it started. Then he went to college in Texas and my sister eventually went to college not too far, but still a distance from me. So it was kind of a way to keep in touch with my siblings and have that last little thing that we could share since they were older than me.
Did they continue rapping like you?
Um, you know, my brother had a part -he’s gonna kill me for telling this… He had a part in co-writing Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice.
Yeah, yeah, they wrote it in a dorm room. So I don’t know if he’s owed some royalties, but he was part of that. I don’t know how that’s gonna help me out, you know what I’m saying. Might take away a little realness from me. And my sister just kinda really rapped for fun with us. She’s a big supporter of my career, but she didn’t continue rhyming. She actually managed me at one point, and the first studio experience I ever really had was via my sister.
You’ve been with Mello Music Group for a while now. What do you think makes them a great label?
Communication. I mean you can call and speak to the man [Michael] and talk to him for an hour if you need to. You formulate your album on your own, and he doesn’t really question your creativity or force you to come up with different types of songs or whatever.
He gives his opinion and then you’re formulating the push between you and him. You’re formulating how your record is going to come out and what it’s gonna look like. It’s an open conversation and I think a lot of artists really appreciate that. You don’t feel like you’re just dropping a record off and you don’t have any control of it after. He has a good ear, Mike from Mello Music has a really good ear. He is selectively picking Mello’s artists, not just taking what’s thrown at him. He knows what he likes and puts it out and I think that’s fresh. I also think he genuinely wants to support the artists, it’s not really so much about the money, he really does wanna support us. That’s why you see the development over the last few years being so dope is cause he really wants to.