By Lindsey Rothering —
If there is one thing to know about hip-hop artist Ryan J. Quinn (stage name RjQ) it’s this: he is a genuinely nice guy. In every one of our interactions, I felt like I needed to apologize for something I had screwed up, while he glossed over my shortcomings, never once coming off as frustrated or upset.
A radio DJ and recurring performer at Acoustic Cafe, Quinn is no stranger to a microphone—or a coffee shop for that matter, considering his first three mixtapes were recorded after-hours at a Twin Cities coffee shop. Don’t let the pretentious hipster sense of loving coffee shops fool you though. Quinn quotes the band Atmosphere as one of his main influences, and is as down-to-earth as you could hope any semi-local artist to be.
After talking with Quinn/RjQ, I definitely have not only more appreciation for his music, but far more respect for him as a person, as well. And I will definitely be keeping an eye out for upcoming shows at Acoustic Café.
Your Facebook fan page has your name as Ryan j Quinn, but event pages commonly have you listed as RjQ. Is there a reason for the difference? Just easier to spell it out as the abbreviated version, etc?
About a year ago, maybe a little less, I went through this whole “re-branding” thing. The RjQ is a product of that. It’s happened a few times. I don’t know that “Ryan” is the best name for a rapper, but then again, it’s what mama and daddy named me, so why would I try to be someone else? Eventually I hope to just print RjQ. It’s kind of my logo, I’ll always call myself Ryan on stage though. RjQ just doesn’t sound as good as “DMX,” ya know?
How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?
Experimental, kind of. I’m not out to break new ground or have some sort of amazing song you’ve never heard before. But at the same time, I’ve never been formally trained in music composition, and have done very little, if any, legitimate research as to how you should go about composing music. So in that regard, I’m just trying things that feel good, that feel right. My music is very introspective, to a point it could be bad for my health! It’s also kind of grumpy. I’m not as grumpy as my music would have you think. It’s more of a therapy thing, to write my feelings. I’ve got notebooks and notebooks full of half finished raps, or just a few stanzas of this, a few of that. When you listen to my music it’s about the lyrics, for sure. Beats, instrumentals, the part that makes it not a capella is important, but there’s a message in the song that I’m trying to convey, or a problem that I’m trying to figure out and that’s what I hope gets across. Emmitt James, who appeared at The Acoustic Café with me on my first performance has accused me of writing spoken word poems and putting them over hip-hop instrumentals… I’d say that’s a fair assessment.
Do you write your raps first, without the music, then find a beat to go along with it, or do you listen to the music first and then write your raps? Also—where do you find the beats to go along to your raps?
The process starts with writing lyrics. I’ve tried a few times to start with a beat, but that doesn’t work out too well. It seems like it shouldn’t be any more difficult. I don’t understand it, and I wish I could actually write in the reverse of how I do now. I would love to get the beat and write to that. There’s so much more I could do with rhyming patterns and different enunciations and vocal styles knowing what kind of canvas I’ll be painting on, but alas, I mix the paint before I pick a canvas. I think it goes back to the message, or problem. I write for a reason, more often than not. Sometimes it’s trying to figure out what I want out of life in general, or from relationships, sometimes I write about specific events in my life. The first three mixtapes I made were all about one break up and finding my way in life after that. Different songs reference different points in the process of getting passed the things that don’t matter. The three mixtapes I released in May 2014 were more of finding my way as a millennial brought up on old school ideals. They also dipped into my radio life a little bit, professional struggles and what have you, along with a touch of politics.
Who are your influences/what artists do you take inspiration from?
Number one has to be Atmosphere, especially at first. I’m kind of trying to break that habit now, but if I didn’t list that first I think a lot of people would be upset with me. That Minneapolis duo captured me with the 2010 EP To All My Friends/Blood Makes The Blade Holy. That EP alone may be why I rap. I rapped some in high school, but didn’t consider it a possibility to actually record and perform until I heard that. Songs like “Free Fallin’” especially. “Free Fallin’” spoke to me and the place I was at, and helped me understand the things I was feeling and thinking about at the time. Also, having just graduated college, and having big radio dreams I envisioned what it would be like to have “All My Friends” playing at my first class reunion. Radio isn’t rap, but certain themes resonated. And then the song “The Loser Wins” was kind of my first experience liking the braggadocio style of rap. Before that song, I thought rappers who rapped about how cool they are, were fairly boring, but with an opening line of “You know fucked up right? Bye-Bye wish you luck with life” and then later “You get lost in/How awesome I is/Watchin’ like you bought stock in my biz” I was sold. Others on the list of influences definitely have to be the Deltron 3030 album. What a concept! Especially as someone who doesn’t quite relate to “the struggle” so often associated with what rap and hip-hop is and where it came from… hearing a hip-hop album, a hip-hop concept album at that, like a rap opera, was very exciting. I remember folk singer Andy Nelson turned me on to Deltron. (If he’s reading this, I’m sorry about not returning that CD. I still have it.) Current influences though are wide-ranging. Working morning radio on an adult contemporary station has certainly influenced my tastes… I hope for the better, but I’m hearing things that I’d love to try in hip-hop that are more akin to other genres. That was kind of my goal in the beginning. I’d love to make a rock album and rap through the entire thing.
You’re a radio disc jockey. Do you think your experience and work in radio has shaped your work at all in hip-hop music, or your stage presence? If so, how?
If anything, I think it might be the other way around. Certainly there’s trade off, and things come from radio and go into hip-hop, and vice versa. If anything I think I probably come off a little more abrasive on air because of my dealings with hip-hop. I sometimes stop myself from saying certain things… in hip-hop I don’t feel I need to. Tact is nice, but certainly not necessary. In my hip-hop I allow myself to state exactly what I’m thinking, my exact emotion or thought, regardless of its unstated implications. It’s raw and real, and that’s what hip-hop is, or should be, at least to me. Radio on the other hand is about relating to an audience, setting the listener’s mood for the day, regardless of my mood, and making sure they are informed about what they need to know. I get selfish with the music I guess. It’s about me, and it’s for me. If I understand it, good. If you do, awesome, if not, well, I’ll release something next year… maybe that’s something you’ll dig. If not… at least I’ve completed my therapy. I get competitive with the radio stuff, there’s no competition [for me] in hip hop. I don’t need to do this for a living… I have a pretty cool job, I can’t lie, but hip-hop offers me a chance to let loose and perform. That is what I crave… performing. So as long as I have an audience, I’m happy.
What came first, you being involved in radio or making hip-hop music? Did one lead to the other, or have you always been interested in both?
I’ve wanted to get up on stage and perform since I heard Queen’s “Greatest Hits” for the first time when I was 12. In one of my songs on “Possum Dog” I claim that I was born to be an entertainer. I’ve never been all that shy, at least publicly… get me one on one with a girl and I’m all sorts of shy. Dating, for me, is brutal: I choke. But in school I did the choir thing, a couple of plays, then when I was sixteen I got into DJing at a teen dance club. After that I opened a mobile DJ company with a longtime friend, so if anything, I think it might be the other way around, my performance history has shaped my radio career… I knew I was going to be a DJ, but I would have never considered radio, at least when I was younger. That was too mainstream to be cool. Haha, I still don’t listen to all that much radio.
Based on this post, (Sorry, I creep) it sounds like you believe there is no difference between hip-hop and rap. Some people perceive hip-hop and rap as two different genres of music, with hip-hop bleeding into the R&B genre, and sometimes even pop. Could you explain why they are wrong?
This is a good example of being aware of what you post online and how it can come back at you. It’s also why I could never be a politician, I’m human and I evolve. I think I sound rather foolish in that post. I stand by YG being an idiot. But it’s more just him being immature. Nothing to do with what rap and hip-hop is.
This goes along with the previous question—I was watching an old Ice-T interview where he said “Rap is vocal delivery; hip-hop is the culture” and I am wondering if you share that view?
I think I do. It’s a question I’ve asked myself time and again. What is the difference? Semantics really, and I think that’s all it boils down to. You’ll get folks who say that rap is dead, or hip-hop is dead and they’ll use the terms interchangeably. I won’t argue too much with them, at least not over their vernacular. Rap and/or hip-hop is not dead, like anything, if you don’t want cookie-cutter music, turn off the radio. Am I allowed to say that? I suppose. Don’t turn off the radio if you want engaging content. There’s my save. Tune in to radio for the content, not the music. This hole’s getting deeper and I’m getting off subject.
I think rap has a certain amount of rawness to it that hip-hop doesn’t. I think the difference comes from hip-hop having a certain vanity to it, where rap is just what it is. Rapping to my father growing up was talking. It’s not a coincidence that the genre stole the name. Rap is talking. At its roots it was talking to your [black] community; a way to vent frustration and make your voice heard. That’s what the cypher was—or is—coming together to rap about life. Maybe life right now is hot cakes and sweatpants, so you don’t get a very serious song, but maybe life is finding yourself and working through your issues, be it baby mama drama, or trying to get respect at work or from peers. And if I say all of that and believe it, then I think I would say that hip-hop is just rap with it’s fly kicks on. Ready to impress.
You’ve performed at Acoustic several times; what do you like about playing there? Furthermore, you recorded your first three mixtapes inside a coffee shop. Is there something about the coffee shop environment that inspires/attracts you?
I think it started in college, I worked in a coffee shop in the Twin Cities, but it was corporate. That’s fine if ya like it, but I loved the indie coffee scene. It’s where I was introduced to a lot of great music and even more great people They’re friendly!! If you like pretentious types. I joke! Coffee shops are fun. I love them. And the Acoustic Café is by far one of my favorites. Not just because they let me play their stage, and it has very little to do with the fact that they have local beer, which certainly is a plus, it’s more the vibe. It’s friendly, creative and welcoming, plus Lisa and Melanie are wonderful humans. Same with Heather at Badger Brew in Rice Lake. She let me use her coffee shop after hours to record my music along with one of my podcasts, and quite honestly, if it wasn’t for Heather and her coffee shop I probably wouldn’t be doing this interview. The majority of my friendships were made and/or cultivated in coffee shops. I’d record more mixtapes and radio shows in coffee shops if people let me.
What would you say has been the most memorable or influential moment of your hip-hop career thus far?
Most definitely my first performance at the Acoustic Café; I hadn’t actually booked a show of my own yet. I had performed with other acts, or on street corners or what have you, but never booked my own gig. After the show was done and I was going through the tip jar I found a hand-written note that read “I will remember your name”. There was nothing else on the note, but there didn’t need to be. The rest of the tip jars contents didn’t even matter. I touched someone with my music and that was reward enough. I still have the note and it serves as a reminder sometimes of why I continue. That and if I didn’t I don’t think I could afford the therapy bills.
What can people expect from one of your live shows?
Emotion. That’s what drives my performance. I want to bring my songs to life right in front of you. I don’t just want you to hear the song, I want you to feel it. I’d like you to feel like this is your song, that I’m rapping it just for you, because let’s face it, everyone needs a song. So why not take mine? I won’t even charge. Download it for free from soundcloud.com/ryan-james-quinn so you can rap along [at the next show].