Aaron Alexander: Through Being Cool
Photo by Austin Withers
Words by Martinez Hillard
I first met Aaron Alexander a few years ago in downtown Topeka at a restaurant called The Break Room. It frequently doubles as a forum for live entertainment, primarily hosting comedians at the time. This happened to be a showcase that CULT hosted to bring some acts in from neighboring cities. I recall him as being eerily calm given his age - most of his peers are overeager and, as a result, easily distracted. Aaron even sat down for a portion of his brief set, unspooling his inner musings over contemporary hip hop production with remarkable focus.
October 13, 2017 saw the release of his long-awaited debut album, Memento Mori, a collection that captured the early promise of his initial singles. He identified the musical history of Kansas City from the jump with early favorite Charlie Parker and sought to square his own legacy with those rich traditions. Alongside a short list of fellow Kansas City enigmas like Mae C and DEV3N, Alexander delivered a melody-rich, technically precise body of work. Then, save for his sleeper single Behave the following April, he went quiet.
But as 2018 drew to a close, he re-emerged with a single called Everlasting, accompanied by a video from Kendu, another understated yet pivotal figure in Kansas City’s creative class. In both song title and lyric, Alexander seems to be closing a chapter that was rife with frustration and paranoia in favor of letting go. His aim is still on those who doubt him but he decidedly turns their skepticism and inauthenticity back toward them rather than absorbing it - a lesson any young artist would do well to learn from.
Marty: Let’s start a few years back - my earliest recollection of your work was through through Aaron Rhodes and Shuttlecock Music Magazine, perhaps in 2016 but maybe even earlier. Can you tell me about your inception as an artist? When did you know this is the music you wanted to make and share?
Aaron: I discovered my love for poetry in elementary school, I think it was around 5th grade or so. I started making music under the name Double A when I was in high school but I would only really share it amongst my friends because I was not that confident in it. Eventually I changed it to my real name around 2013. But it wasn't until I started making music with B and E that I started taking it seriously. Before that I never thought of my music as worth sharing. It's still something I struggle with on occasion but I've made a lot of progress in terms of being confident in my art.
Marty: Your music details what I believe to be a largely internal dialogue within yourself - your observations of community issues, struggling to connect with your expression, self-medication, etc. I’ve been curious for a long time where that stems from. Can you tell me about your experiences as both a young person and artist in Kansas City?
Aaron: I grew up primarily in Kansas City, Kansas in Wyandotte County and that is where I have been making much of my early music. Now that I am in Kansas City, Missouri a lot I think it puts me a lot closer to systemic issues, for better or for worse. My music is definitely an internal dialogue, you hit that right on the head. I think being in Kansas City gives me a lot to think about. I have always found the placement of the Plaza and Troost Avenue weird. A juxtaposition of gross wealth and gross poverty. Kansas City is an endless well of inspiration. Being a young artist in the city is hard because there are a lot of goofies who want to capitalize off of young artists and the new ideas that they bring to the table. There are a lot of pitfalls to look out for but I have been blessed to come across some of the realest people ever and they keep me on my square. I also believe there is a stigma attached to the modern day hip hop artist, which lends itself to me struggling to connect with my expression. I want to set myself apart from everyone but at the same time I want to connect to everyone which is pretty difficult because of how fragmented the Kansas City art scene is.
Marty: You’re the type of artist that appears to collaborate with others as they fit into a narrative rather than for an exchange of clout. Can you tell me about why that’s important to you and your work? Are they any common threads among your producers and guests that attract you to working with them?
Aaron: I do not care about clout in the slightest. I work with my friends for the most part and I tend to only hop on the songs that I really like. I love to collaborate but I can be super picky sometimes. I have a really hard time sharing the canvas. I'm pretty particular about the story I want to tell and I'll never compromise my vision for clout because it's not important to me. I like working with artists who can broaden my perspective on music. I've worked with a lot of producers recently and I asked them to send me things they would not normally see me on. I like working with individuals that challenge me as an artist because challenge promotes change.
Marty: I’ve seen your performance style shift in increments over the years. You seem to really pace yourself at a time when your peers are at peak animation. Have you spent a lot of time thinking about how you want to present your work in a live setting?
Aaron: My live shows are something I am still working on a bunch. I want to tell a story but I am trying to figure out how to tell a story on stage. My stage show is very much still in process. I am working on the story-telling aspect of live shows and just interacting with the crowd more in general. I get very in the moment on stage and sometimes I forget that there are people watching and I should probably interact with them. I hope the shift in my live shows continues for the better - it's something I will continue to work towards because I want people to feel like I am talking directly to them when they come to one of my live shows.
Marty: I remember a brief conversation we had at Flying Lotus’ concert at the Midland - you mentioned that if you could do it again, you would release Memento Mori at a much slower pace. Can you unpack that for me? What would you do differently?
Aaron: I would have probably just worked on more songs in general. We did 15 or so songs for MM and 14 of them made the cut. I would have liked to make 50 or so songs and picked 14 as opposed to sticking with the same 15 songs for two years. There were times after mixing sessions I would ride around in silence because I hated the sound of my own voice. If I could go back I would probably just experiment more instead of making 14 or so songs that HAD to sound a certain way.
Marty: I recall you naming an early track Charlie Parker. How important to you is the global impact of Kansas City jazz, and do you wish to be seen as a descendant from it? For that matter, are there any artists in particular you wish for your music to be seen in league with?
Aaron: The global impact of Kansas City jazz is extremely important. We were once the mecca for it and I feel like I will definitely be seen as a descendant from it one day. Not because I use jazz in my music or jazz instruments but because I make my music with the philosophy of jazz in mind. I feel like it is one of the most rebellious genres there is and I have been trying to push myself out of the box that many rap musicians get placed in. I want my material to rebel against the box. I want it to impact someone in the future like jazz culture impacted me. I feel like jazz and hip hop are one in the same. I feel like artists get rewarded when they break the conventional rules. I'd like to be seen in the same league as the top tier artists like Drake, Cole, and Kendrick honestly but I want to do it in my own way. I want to be in a bunch of top 5s for many years to come.
Marty: What are we seeing happen with singles like Everlasting and Journey of the Spiritual Playboy, in terms of your personal growth and what you are writing about these days? Are they pointing us toward additional plans for you this year?
Aaron: Those are songs I wanted to get out in 2018 just to show people that listen to my music that I am still working. I am just really particular about what I put out because I want what I am trying to convey to come across as clear as possible. My team and I have been working extremely hard to make 2019 a year to remember. I have nearly 30 or so songs in my vault currently. I want to show the people who take the time out and listen to my music every side of me this year.