exclusive feature
Brian Hughes Kasoro
{Brooklyn, NY}
The Liberator Magazine 10.1 #25, 2011


When Eminem won Rap Album of the Year during the 2011 Grammy Awards, Minneapolis-born producer Columbus Smith won too.

They don't win often these days in Minneapolis. If you're not at a Rhymesayers concert, you can smell it in the air of frustration hovering over the immensely diverse and talented, but often disjointed, creative community. Prince lives on through a timeless musical legacy, but long gone are the days of his "hey!" and the Minneapolis Sound of Jimmy Jam Harris (son of Cornbread Harris, co-creator of "Hi Yo Silver," the first rock & roll record out of Minnesota) and Terry Lewis, who together produced Morris Day, Mint Condition and Janet Jackson.

{Kendrick Lamar's song, "i" was produced by Rahki as well as Lamar's "Black Boy Fly" from the album Good Kid M.a.a.d City}

It's not to say that they stay losing in Minneapolis these days, either. A steady influx of East African immigrants and refugees since the '70s and a generation of maturing black youth not as plagued by the hardships of crack cocaine atom bomb explosions -- in a small, isolated city -- as their forefathers were, are contributing to a renewed culture of collaboration and a sort of tribal diplomacy. But it's still young and vulnerable. And young and vulnerable things need considerably more care in a cold climate like the North Star state. But the struggle for a new national-level voice after the reign of the Purple Rain has been long. And so, individual struggles to be heard nationally have been long as well.

Confronted with that reality, Columbus "Rahki" Smith, did the two things that many young Midwest artists of color have to do these days to get the respect and opportunity they know they deserve: 1) get to a U.S coast and 2) study. He picked up, with his new wife toward the beginning of 2008, and moved to Los Angeles to intern-apprentice under humble, veteran producer DJ Khalil (note: He is not the dude who always screams "We The Best!").

Fast forward through some old-fashioned, beautiful struggle, and 2011 finds Rahki Grammy-certified. The live drums -- he samples sparingly, preferring mostly to use the musical skills he learned in church growing up -- on Eminem's hit "Won't Back Down," featuring Pink, are his fine work. And the beat knocks like if Dr. Dre was Questlove, or vice versa.

Usually, what a musical subculture needs is a "sound" before it can truly emerge to the embrace of the larger culture -- a cohesive, unified vibration to play to (and experiment around and inside of). And while Rahki is young, humble, and quiet, he seems most up to the task right now. In his late 20s, though, with a wife and a son, who knows if he'll ever want to re-trade the utopian weather patterns of L.A. for the cold, hard ones of his Minneapolis youth.

For now, dig in, get your hands dirty and peep how hot dogs are made (or maybe delicious crab cakes, if you prefer; tamales or In-N-Out ground beef might be appropriate for the West Coast, huh?) in the extremely insightful conversation that follows.

Liberator Magazine: How do you describe who you are, your purpose on Earth and what you do?

Columbus "Rahki" Smith: I would describe myself as a hard worker, very humble and focused on whatever it is that I put my mind to. I feel like my purpose on earth is to help other people and give good advice about some of the same things I have gone through. I think I lot of young people feel like they have no purpose, so I try to enlighten them with my life and show them you can do whatever you put your mind to.

LM: So, how do you describe what it is that you're putting your mind to?

Rahki: Well, if we're talking about music then music, but I’m talking about whatever obstacles come my way in life. Half of the reason why people aren’t able to succeed in life is because they hypnotize themselves into believing that they can’t accomplish their goals, it’s a mind game they play with themselves. I have always been the type of person to want to reach a goal no matter how far-fetched it was.

LM: A lot of times people seem to separate what we say our spiritual purpose is from our careers, or from our money-making activities. Is that you? Do you leave helping people and giving good advice to the off-hours, or do you do that through your work as well?

Rahki: I'm giving good advice everyday however I can help. People will hit me up and ask me all types of questions. I really don’t know too much except what I’ve gone through, but whatever knowledge I have, I try and give. Sometimes I'll call King Karnov for questions or even DJ Khalil because I know I don't know everything. So, if they're willing to give a helping hand when I know they don't have to then I should be able to as well. But the other side to that is you can’t have somebody guide you through everything -- some things you have to learn on your own.

LM: Who are your spiritual guides, musically, then? Who inspires you, musically and in life?

Rahki: I would have to say God is my spiritual guide. Half the music I come up with I really don't know where it comes from. I never took any [formal] lessons for drums or piano. My inspirations when it comes to music are Pharrell Williams (The Neptunes), DJ Khalil and Justblaze (produced Jay-Z's Blueprint and The Black Album). As far as my inspirations for life, I would have to say my manager (Mark Webster Jr.) and my pops. I look up to both of them because of the way they carry themselves.

LM: It seems like all of the musical forefathers that you pointed out -- Pharrell, et cetera -- are New School and none of the life inspirations were outside of your immediate environment. Do you have Old School inspirations in music? And what about people outside of your family and friends who inspire you?

Rahki: It's funny, man, because I'm new to secular music. When I say that, I mean I grew up in the church not being able to listen to anything but gospel. So, while [other] people grew up with their parents listening to Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, I never knew they existed until I was able to listen to what I wanted to. I grew up listening to Commission, Kirk Franklin and Hezekiah Walker. If I was found listening to any rap, my pops would throw them out, or crush the CDs and tapes -- literally. As far as my inspirations, I just like anyone who is making good music -- period. I like so many different genres of music that I guess it would be hard for me to pick one person who inspires me when so many people inspire me to make good music.

LM: Do you pattern your style after anyone? I'm talking classics, oldies, Old School or New School?

Rahki: No, I just look up to anyone who made music back then because you really had to be a musician. There were no samples or drum machines. Those people back in the day paved the way for people like me.

LM: When you first started I heard a lot of Dipset-type samples in your compositions. Was that intentional or just coincidence? Do you let music you hear influence your next beat, or do you try and block out other music you've heard when you're in the studio?

Rahki: [Laughs] That’s so funny to me. It's embarrassing because when I first starting making beats, I didn’t know samples were being used in any beats. I had no idea where producers were getting the real string sounds or the voices on their tracks. I knew nothing about loops or sampling off of records. So, by me knowing nothing about this it made me concentrate on my chords on the keyboard. The only reason I started using samples was because people talked about me not sounding like Kanye or The Heatmakers. The sped-up samples were really popping in the industry at the time. But I should have just stuck with what I was doing because it was original. But, you know, when you're young, sometimes you let other people get in your head which, in turn, makes you lose focus. So, now that I'm past all of that, I'm really just concentrating on making good music, whether it's using a sample or doing an original track. When I'm in the studio I just try to zone out and not think of whatever is in the industry, if it sounds too much like someone else, I have a tendency to erase it.

LM: What do you think your music is supposed to do?

Rahki: My music should evoke a feeling; whether it's a feeling in your stomach, goosebumps, whatever. When you don't get a feeling then there's a problem.

LM: Is that your main purpose then with your music?

Rahki: Yeah, that’s my main purpose. I'm just trying to bring that '90s feeling back. I loved that era of hip-hop and rap, so hopefully, I can re-create that feeling.

LM: Tell us what you think about the music industry right now? From the youth comin' up, the indie/underground scene, to the way the major labels are marketing and pushing the larger artists through radio and videos. What's good about it? What's wrong with it?

Rahki: This is the problem I have: Everybody wants what's in. So, as a producer, if you're not really making what's "in," you're not selling tracks. It's a Catch 22, because I want to sell tracks but at the same time I want to stay true to the music I like. This is why I love the underground scene because they can stay true to what they want to do. But at the same time I feel like they can only go so far. As far as the music out right now in the industry, people's albums are garbage! Everybody is looking for a hit single but what the artists really need is an executive producer to help put better albums out. Albums aren't even selling anymore and there’s a reason for that. Record companies are just signing single and ring tone deals and it doesn’t seem like they're focusing on albums. So, these young kids out here see what's on TV and feel like they can start rapping. They think rappers are rich and really have their own jets and Bentleys, but in lot of cases that stuff is rented. So, you have the rap industry trying to stay above water by giving the people what they want, but then you have the people who are partaking in it and seeing it and they want what they think these artist have. And I’m mainly just talking about in the African-American community; I think we have always had a problem with glamorization. At times, I find myself partaking in it [laughs]. But in the end I think, for a new artist to come up, what it takes is a lot of money, dedication, a huge fan base and hard work to even get looked at by a major record company.

LM: But kids can still rap and be great without the money and record labels ... do you have to have that to be good? How can you stay true to what you want to do and get as far as you want to go? And how far, specifically, do you want to go -- where's the destination?

Rahki: Of course, kids can be great without the money or the record label, but this is a business. And that’s what I have learned in the last couple of years, everything takes money. If you want to record you're going to have to pay one way or the other, whether you’re paying for studio time or buying your own equipment to record. I don’t want to make things sound like it's all about money because it's not, but this a big piece of the puzzle I think a lot of people look past. I think at the end of the day you can do both: make money and stay true to yourself. But a lot of young people look for that fame that some of these huge artists that they see on TV have, not knowing they can do what some of these underground artist are doing which is not selling their souls for a buck. It's a beautiful thing to build your own fan base and pay the bills knowing that you’re staying true to your music at the end of the day. I look at life like this, the sky's the limit! So how far are you willing to go? Sounds corny huh? [Laughs] But I really believe in that.

LM: If you had the opportunity to run other people's careers, but would have to give up making music, would you?

Rahki: I would keep doing music, definitely. The only thing I'm trying to run is my own music and what I put out.

LM: Do you see that as thinking small?

Rahki: I have no problem with thinking small. Sometimes you have to think small first in order to think big, ya dig? I don't have to be as big as Dre, Kanye or Pharrell. Nobody even has to know my face. As long as I'm getting placements and I'm making good music and able to support myself -- I'm good.

LM: Is there anything in the world you'd give up music for?

Rahki: No, I love music too much. The question should be the other way around, have I given up anything for music? Yes. -END-

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