Creative Corner: SAMMUS
Written by Kristine Hassell, Twitter Administrator.
Hey there faithful readers! I was chatting with fellow staffer and amazing emcee in her own right, Shubzilla who mentioned an artist that I should check out. I did and I was hooked hard! If you aren’t familiar with SAMMUS, you are in for a treat. She is a New York-based rap artist and producer who uses synths and smart rhymes to make some seriously fly music. She just launched a kickstarter to fund a Metroid-inspired EP and I thought what better way to introduce her to our audience than with an interview with producer and emcee, SAMMUS!
Kristine (K): Hi SAMMUS!
SAMMUS (S): Hi Kristine! So wonderful to chat with you!
K: Me too! Let’s begin with an origin story. Tell us a little about yourself and how you started rapping?
S: My mom and dad are from the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo respectively, but I’m from upstate NY. I was born in Rhinebeck, NY and my family moved to Ithaca, NY when I was about five. I had a pretty regular childhood. I was a big nerd, I loved school, I played a lot of video games with my two brothers, watched a lot of cartoons and movies, and played volleyball year-round. I will say that I was a little more artistically-inclined than many of my peers in that I was always drawing pictures because I had aspirations to develop a cartoon and video game series, I wrote a ton of stories, and I started producing video-game inspired beats in high school. Still, I would never have believed that I would ever grow up and become a rapper. Based both on my older brother’s influence and my own musical explorations I mostly listened to alternative rock and electronic music with a little bit of hip hop thrown in for good measure.
I continued producing instrumental tracks throughout high school and into undergrad, and while my beats became more hip-hop oriented after I first heard Kanye West’s “College Dropout,” I still never considered rapping on a track. The first time I ever attempted to rap was towards the end of my senior year in college after one of my friends recorded himself rapping on one of my beats and shared the song without my permission. While I was slightly flattered that somebody thought my beat was hot enough to steal, I was also furious that a friend of mine would do that to me, and annoyed because I thought I could do a better job lyrically. I ended up producing another song and putting together a little rap to go with it. Even though I cringe when I listen to it now, I did receive some positive feedback and it made me start thinking that this was something I could do.
It took another year before I began to take rap seriously and start building a catalog of original music. By that time (2009) I had moved to Houston,TX to begin my first year as a corps member in the national teaching program, Teach for America. The first half of that year was rather difficult for me and I ended up going through a major depression. The only thing that really carried me through that experience, besides my adventures with my roommate, was making beats. Eventually I met some people with whom I really clicked and started attending an eclectic church with a great artistic community. I was inspired by all of the amazing artistry around me and from that moment forward I started writing songs, rapping, and recording myself on Youtube to practice and share my songs with my friends (if you go through the archives of my Youtube channel you can find some of these ridiculous videos). My first show was in October 2009 and after that I just kept going!
K: I’m not a fan of labels and categorizing. If you had to describe your rap, how would you?
S: I appreciate that you started off that question by gesturing towards how damaging and limiting labeling and categorization can be. As much as labels are applied to me (and any artist, for that matter), I will continue to fight them for as long as I’m producing music. If I had to describe my rap, I would say that it’s a mixture of honest introspection, snark, and innocent fun that channels the spirit of College Dropout era Kanye.
K: Do people make assumptions about your music based on your name or when they see you?
S: I have definitely encountered some interesting assumptions about my music because of my name. The first is that I’m simply riding the nerd/geek wave that seems to have gripped much of popular culture recently. I’ve had people approach me after a show and tell me that when they first saw my name on a flyer they thought I was some sort of poseur and probably didn’t actually know that much about Metroid/video games if anything at all, which is interesting because I don’t know if somebody would say that to an artist like Mega Ran, who also has a video game inspired moniker. I’ve also seen the other side of the spectrum, in that there are those who assume that the only thing I will rap about is Metroid, or more broadly, video games. I’m not offended by those assumptions at all considering that the names of my last two albums were inspired by Metroid, but it does make me aware of the extra work I have to put in to make sure non-gamers know I exist. At one point I became uncomfortable with all of these questions so I started purposely pronouncing my name “Say-mus” to avoid the immediate association and some of the assumptions that came with that connection. I’ve since learned to deal with whatever may come and proudly embrace my name!
In regards to the second part of the question, because everything and everybody are easily Google-able and my face is on a lot of my artwork I don’t think it’s much of a surprise when people see me at shows or in videos after they’ve heard my music. If I had thought more about the message I wanted to send out, I definitely would have tried to mess with people a little more as it relates to revealing and challenging their assumptions. When I was first starting to take my music seriously my boyfriend suggested that I even go so far as to wear a helmet a la Daft Punk and alter my voice on recordings to sound lower, only to one day reveal that I was a woman — it’s a little late for that but maybe I’ll dip off the radar and try that at some point in the future!
K: You have been called a “20-credit” rapper. What does that mean?
S: That refers to the fact that I am a graduate student and that I am openly reflective in my music about my experiences as a scholar and graduate of an Ivy League program. Since I first started rapping I have become increasingly critical of the educational system, so my message is less “stay in school, kids” but I remain committed to promoting an agenda that says being intelligent and well-informed are fundamentally good things. Long before I knew what nerdcore was, I named my first EP “Fly Nerd” because I wanted to be the type of rapper that my fourth grade students should be hearing. I thought about how inspiring it might be for them to hear a rapper, particularly a woman, expressing pride in her academic success without being corny about it (which is a very hard line to walk, I’ve discovered).
K: What you do when you’re not spitting rhymes?
S: I’m currently a graduate student so I spend a lot of time reading, and wondering why I’m in grad school (lol.). I’m also a huge fan of watching awesomely bad movies (like The Wicker Man, Atomic Twister, Mortal Kombat, etc) and catching glitches with my family and best friends. When I need to decompress I play my Sega — usually Sonic the Hedgehog 2 because it takes me back to a simpler time and I love the music. Lastly, I love cat naps! All I need is a relatively comfortable surface and I’m good.
This year I’m also trying to do more work in the community since I’m no longer an elementary school teacher. Next month I’m going to be helping to facilitate a youth empowerment program for at-risk youth here in Ithaca so I’m very excited about that.
K: You play video games but do you have to understand video games references to like your music?
S: Not at all! I often tell people that the moniker “Sammus” works for me because while it is an obvious nod to the video game Metroid, it’s also a reflection of my role in subverting assumptions about gender as it relates to the broader context of hip hop. There is much more to my experience that I would like to share than just my love of video games, so even though I make references to Metal Gear Solid or Bob-ombs in certain songs, I’m very intentional about making music that touches on the full spectrum of my experiences and thoughts. On both of my albums I share my ideas about topics like gendered representation in the media, love, sex, God, race, and consumerism among other things because they are just as much a part of my makeup as Mario Kart.
K: Your kickstarter is doing really well! Do you feel you are reaching a wider audience using this method?
S: I definitely do! Since I launched the campaign, my social media has been buzzing with support from lots of different places. Thanks to the tweets and retweets of platforms like GeekGirlCon, Black Girl Nerds, Bitch, OC ReMix, and Okay Africa among others in promoting the project I think I’ve been able to reach audiences I never could have by myself. I’ve received support from geeks and gamers from all different backgrounds, lovers of hip hop, and feminists eager to hear Sammus’ story, particularly as told by a WOC.
K: What are some things that have helped you grow as an artist?
S: I think Youtube has been one of the most helpful resources for me as an artist, particularly as it related to my performances. I never knew how awkward I was until I saw video of myself moving (or rather, NOT moving) on stage, and it was only then that I began to actively think about how I could put on better performances. Youtube also has tons of footage of amazing performances as well as beat-making tutorials, which has helped me to get better as a producer.
This doesn’t work for everybody, but something else that has helped me to grow as an artist has been periodically stepping back from my music between releases, during which time I exclusively listen to other artists. Being an artist can make you very myopic — especially if you are the lyricist and a producer because it’s all about you. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back not only to be inspired by what else is out there, but also so that you can have some more clarity when you come back to your own music.
K: Are there any female emcees that inspired you?
S: Missy Elliott is one of the best to ever do it. One of the things I loved about her as a child was her creativity. She wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries as it related to her music and her image. Not only that, but she’s a producer so she inspired me on that front too. MIA is also a great inspiration for me because she’s very politically minded, and uses her platform to shake things up. She’s another woman who likes to push boundaries through her art and through her image.
K: Any recommendations for other female emcees we should check out?
S: PLEASE drop everything and check out E-turn from Orlando, FL. I got the chance to see her perform at this year’s Nerdapalooza afterparty and my jaw literally dropped. She has the flow, the content, the energy, the EVERYTHING. Of course my girl Shubzilla is a beast and I’m looking forward to hearing some more great music from her and the 9K1 crew. I would also recommend listening to Lizzo, an incredibly talented singer and MC whom I met in Houston in the underground rock + hip hop scene. Look her up and thank me later! Finally, if you haven’t heard fellow producer/rapper Awkwafina — definitely get on that! I had the pleasure of opening for her in October and she is a ton of fun and snark both on and off stage.
K: I listened to Lizzo’s Faded and was blown away. I will definitely check out those suggestions. What words of advice would you have for anyone aspiring to become an emcee?
1.) Surround yourself with creative, positive, and hard working people. For several years, every time I made a beat I would send it to other producers and hip-hop enthusiasts to hear their thoughts. Of course ultimately you have to go with your own opinions, but it’s nice to be able to hear how others are responding to what you do. I would never have grown as an artist without the guidance and assistance of my network.
2.) Set tangible, realistic goals. People lose interest quickly if you tell them that you’re a rapper yet your album has been “coming soon” for three years. I like to tell people about projects I plan to drop far in advance because that holds me accountable. If the idea of announcing projects publicly makes you uncomfortable, find an accountability partner.
3.) Don’t be afraid to say no. I struggled with this for a long time but I realized that I wasn’t obligated to provide a feature for everybody who asked me. Make sure you are taking care of yourself and staying true to your vision before you agree to do something or work with somebody. Don’t be afraid to say that you won’t do certain things for free. I have had to say “no” to working with people I like, but who are talking about things that I can’t get behind or who want to exploit my talents. While it’s not necessarily fun saying no, maintaining your integrity is worth it.
4.) It’s all about the music! It can be very easy to forget that these days. I know many “aspiring artists” who have no music, but lots of photo shoots booked. Image does seem to go an awfully long way, but you have to remind yourself that first and foremost you are an artist. You can certainly get your 15 minutes by having a beautiful and captivating image, but you can’t keep them if you have nothing to show when all eyes are on you.
K: What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
S: Back in 2009 I received advice from fellow producer, Justin “Eight Months” Lewis, that was so great I actually created and uploaded a video about it! He gave me three pieces of advice (sorry for being so long-winded):
1.) Always make sure that what I release is just the tip of the iceberg. Basically, that I should always be creating in order to ensure that I have a library of material. Even when I finish a new project I should still be working and thinking about the next project — a lesson which is also good if I intend to have any type of career in academia.
2.) To always maintain my vision and integrity. Specifically, if I really like something I create, go with it instead of trying to cater to other people’s desires at the expense of my own happiness and pride.
3.) To stop doing what I’m doing when it’s not fun anymore! If music starts to become too much like a business — it’s time for me roll out.
K: What’s in store for 2014?
S: 2014 should be a great year! My Metroid EP will be dropping in January so if you haven’t backed the campaign, head to my website and do that now! I will then start work on my third album, which should be dropping this summer and hopefully I will be setting up my first tour.
K: We here at GeekGirlCon, love sharing our geekdoms. What have you been geeking over lately?
S: I feel like I may be very late in this, but I have been voraciously watching episodes of Dragon Ball Z Abridged which, for those who don’t know, is a series of recaps of Dragon Ball Z episodes with ridiculous yet accurate voice-overs. Using original footage from the cartoon, the creators of DBZ Abridged have condensed the series into a few hours so that you don’t have to do all the waiting that comes with watching the real deal (no shade to DBZ or Akira Toriyama, I watched the cartoon religiously as a child).
I also have been watching episodes of Goosebumps on Netflix, while crossing my fingers that they start streaming Are You Afraid of the Dark?
K: Thank you for the interview and I hope to see you perform live one day! I’m Kristine Hassell and I’ve been speaking with SAMMUS. She hopes that listeners and future fans will be pleasantly surprised by the contrast between the person society says she should be as an artist and who she actually is. Check out her music on her SoundCloud and her kickstarter to fund AN[OTHER M], her Metroid-inspired EP.