Interview: OnCue Takes His Time
At this year’s MTV Movie Awards, Bradley Cooper snagged the award for Best Male Performance. After his name was called, his walk to the stage was soundtracked by a hard-hitting rap song by budding Brooklyn rapper OnCue.
Titled “No Way,” it is the prevailing single from his most recent project and debut album, Angry Young Man. Named after a Billy Joel song, its name continues a recurring theme in OnCue’s music, one of childhood frustration and frictional family life. The project in its entirety was executively produced by industry legend Just Blaze. Focused on meticulously perfecting the album’s content, he persistently postponed its release date for several months, and ultimately unveiled AYM in September.
After taking a considerable hiatus from performing, Cue recently hopped back on the road for a mini string of shows, to present both new sounds and tried favorites. Though he’s a product of a Connecticut suburb, he always felt an inherent affiliation with his current place of residence, New York City, which is where we caught up with him before his show.
Are you excited to play in New York tonight? It’s been a while since you’ve toured.
It’s been so long, and I have a lot of people that are fans of me, undyingly, you know? I was like, “I just need to get out there.” I don’t have the biggest fan base in the world, but they’re insanely loyal. The music’s personal, so it stems from that concept.
You grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut. What kind of music was playing around the house as a kid?
So my dad’s a Boston Red Sox fan, right? I don’t follow baseball, but I’m a Yankees fan. My point is my brother listened to a lot of rap, so I was listening to rap from like age three. I started listening to rock when I was like 16, 17, so I was like backwards for a suburban kid. I didn’t want to listen to what my parents were when I was younger, but then I started appreciating their tastes.
When did you start writing raps?
When I was nine. I was scribbling in a notepad and hiding it from my family members.
Why did you feel you needed to hide that?
My older brother is seven-and-a-half years older than me, and if he saw it I didn’t want him to make fun of the raps! He was the one that put me onto hip-hop. Eventually my whole family found out, but I even kept it from my friends until I was 11 or 12. When I was in fifth grade I tried out for a talent show and actually got denied. Straight up. I was the only kid coming in with original raps and everything! There was a kid, who was a seventh grader, who just covered some other rapper’s song, and he got in! And I didn’t! Whatever, man.
What kinds of things were you writing about when you were little?
At that age, your influences are everything. My first song was called “Party in a Box.” I think I got that idea from my mom who was drinking boxed wine…
Well you’ve come a long way since then. Now your music is really personal and introspective. Do you find it hard to share those feelings with public audiences?
No, because I’m naturally a very open person. If I go on a date with a girl, I’m an open book; she can ask me anything. That’s just how I am. I think it’s really just a character trait that translates into my job. I was also attracted to those types of records. I was a big Joe Budden fan growing up because his first album is so raw and honest. There are records where it’s like 10 minutes of just talking about everything. That’s what made me fall in love with an artist.
When did you come to New York?
I came to New York on February 1, 2010. A little over five years now. That whole summer I was working on Cuey Sings the Blues.
Was it hard to make that move at first?
Yeah, at the time. I pulled a little J. Cole; I transferred schools, took out extra money to pay for rent. Plus I was with a now-ex-girlfriend of mine, and I mean it was real. I was in love with her, so it was difficult.
So, Just Blaze.
You’ve obviously been working a lot with him. How did you guys meet?
It was an industry friend, a good friend of mine, we call him “The Bald Guy.” I had just recorded a song with 88-Keys off of Can’t Wait, the one that Mike Posner randomly hopped on at the ninth hour. He played him my song and showed it to Just, and he didn’t even think Just would like me, but he knew the plug. Just was like, “Who is this kid?”
How has he shaped the direction of your career?
It’s a dream come true working with him, number one. I grew up on Rocafella. Jay and Kanye are two of my favorite rappers of all time. Not only is he legit an idol, and one of the best rap producers of all time, but he just lets me do me. He doesn’t want to change me. My team will make the record, and he’ll come in and just make it sound better. He doesn’t take anything away. And he’s a great friend.
You spent a good amount of time on your last album, Angry Young Man. Did you find yourself being overly critical as you were creating it?
First six months, yeah. I felt myself getting better. From Cuey Sings the Blues to Can’t Wait, I felt like that was a totally different artist. When I first came out, people thought I’d be all samples, but I knew that eventually we could figure out how to translate that same thing, but in our exact palette. I felt like my sound quality and bars could have gotten a lot better. And at the end of the day, we nailed it. It’s a little bit darker than Can’t Wait, but I brought my A game on that record. I knew there was a bar that needed to be met. Once we met it, it was pretty much smooth sailing.
You’ve said that when you’re making music, you tend to set “pillars” for yourself. What did you mean by that?
With Angry Young Man, there was a certain trajectory that was done on purpose. I needed to set pillars because there’s like, the break up record. I needed the essential break up record. That’s what I was talking about.
Now that it’s out, how do you feel?
I was telling my best friend since the seventh grade, “What if they don’t like it?” And just to know the core fans that waited around for so long love it even though it’s a different direction, it’s a crazy feeling. Nobody else matters. We worked so hard for this, so it’s a blessing.
Are you working on anything now?
I can say I’m working on music. Ideally I’d like to put out multiple EPs this year, and I think for me that might be the smarter way to do it. That way, when I have five songs ready to come out, there’s five songs.
I want to be great. If you don’t do the necessary things and you decide to take shortcuts, it degrades your legacy. For the tens of thousands of people that do know me, they know I put my heart and soul into everything. I’m just making sure I keep doing that.