New York City has long been a dreamer’s city, a place where many a success was made and many a pipe dream shuttered. When it comes to hip-hop, it’s essentially Mecca. It’s where the music first took root, where B-boys and MC-ing first became popular. Because of that, NYC has long been seen as the place to make it, if looking to do so, as Jay-Z has reminded us for years. Seattle native Aaron Cohen made his way to the Big Apple looking for new opportunities aabout six years ago, diving into the bubbling scene that has many calling the current period the latest in a long line of hip-hop renaissances that have taken place in the birthplace of rap music. With an unapologetic rhyming style and an intimidating beard to match, Aaron Cohen hustled his way to the forefront of the underground scene in his adopted hometown. November 11, the Decon signee dropped his latest project, Potential Fans, a thrashing, complete project that stands to prove why Cohen deserves his own lane in the greater landscape of hip-hop today. I had a chance to catch up with the owner of the best facial hair this side of Action Bronson last week as he was getting off work and on the heels of the release of his latest project. It’s easy to feel the passion and drive in every word Cohen spits and speaks, check out my talk with one of the latest artists to emerge from the bubbling cauldron that is New York City today.
Jake: Tell me a little bit about your story, leaving Seattle for New York City, breaking into the scene there; what’s it all been like?
Aaron: Basically, I actually moved down here before I started doing the music seriously. I always knew that I wanted to but just hadn’t made that decision to say fuck everything else and just do music, because that’s really how you have to do it if you want to be successful, you know? So I moved out here because I wasn’t really doing anything productive in Seattle-we had our friends growing up and we’d just get high, hang out, you know? (laughs). New York was much better for my work ethic and then pretty soon after I got here I started doing the rap stuff seriously and it’s pretty much the place to be for that as there’s a lot of underground rappers coming out of here right now.
Jake: Most definitely, so it was just kind of a spur of the moment decision?
Aaron: There was nobody offering me any kind of real opportunity so I just said fuck it, you know?
Jake: For sure. But what’s it been like going from Seattle to a place like New York, working there and trying to make it out of that heavily populated scene?
Aaron: Yeah, it’s definitely a whole different thing, I don’t really know because I never really worked as a rapper in Seattle, you know? But the differences that I see is that in New York it was good for me because I’m a very competitive person so I wasn’t comparing myself to people who were trying to do something local, I was comparing myself to people who were making major moves and getting a lot of attention and whether or not I’m on that level yet, that’s who I see as my peers. So I function like that, I ended up being at the same shows, the same parties, the same everything as people who were really on and it sort of gave me the opportunity to act as if I’m on their level, you know?
Jake: Yeah, what was it like initially, just entering the scene in NYC and beginning to establish yourself?
Aaron: It was hard asl hell at first. The thing is, you gotta be a little crazy to start trying to be a professional rapper in the first place, you know? I was definitely delusional a little bit when I look back, I thought things were headed for bigger things or were going to do more for my career and they did at the beginning. Like the first song was like ‘oh shit, this is hot’ and then the next song was like ‘this is hot too’ and I think that’s how it has to be-you have to be so hungry for each opportunity whether its like a shitty open mic in Astoria, Queens on a Tuesday night with a bunch of comedians (laughs) you know, I did plenty of that struggling rapper shit for awhile but you know if you put yourself out there enough and you make some quality stuff, people start to take notice. The scene in New York is cool because a lot of the people I linked up with when I first got here already had deep roots in New York, Inner City Kids is my crew-they’re all from around here.
Jake: Tell me a little bit about Inner City Kids you’ve been repping them everywhere.
Aaron: Inner City Kids is a collective of artists. Besides rappers we have graffiti artists, video people, photographers. Basically we were started in Gowanus, Brooklyn by four kids before obviously I was in New York and then they took on Spaceman, the kid with all the dreads in my videos who’s a rapper, and they were friends with him and they started working and then I did some shows with Spaceman and he knew ABGOHARD from Jersey and he basically just asked if I wanted to hop on board with them and the way that they work and they’re motto-everything we do is unique. It’s not like some crews where there’s like a head figure and then everyone else just follows suit. With us, we’re all completely different, which may take people a little longer to get familiar with each style, but I think at the end of the day we benefit from our differences.
Jake: Most definitely. And you got hooked up with Mishka as well, how did that come about and what has that connect been like?
Aaron: Basically, I knew a dude, who knew some people at Mishka. It wasn’t like locked in for sure or anything but I knew I had a pretty good mixtape on my hands with MURK and I had a couple videos and then with the last video I decided to just really shop it to them and they got me some shirts and then we sent them the total package with all the videos and all the mixtapes and they were like ‘yeah, we fuck with it’. So, it was really just that simple and they’ve been really, really cool, just helping legitimize me and the whole movement by giving us their stamp and pushing it. They definitely helped me get a whole new fan base and helped the cause a lot.
Jake: So the mixtape is out now, Potential Fans, how has the reception been initially, how’s it feel to have the weight kind of off your shoulders and have the project out into the public?
Aaron: It’s very cool because that’s one of the hardest parts of all this when you’re doing shit officially or at a higher level with a label, you gotta wait. The second I record something I want to show all my friends and fans so to have it out feels awesome. The next stage of my development is now out there for people who believed in me before and new fans after that. At the same time I’m already working on the next stuff. I think Potential Fans is a lot better than MURK and Murk was a lot better than Crack before that. By the time I put shit out I think, ‘ok, this is cool’ it definitely gives you something to work with but I want to do so much more, in my eyes I’m just getting started.
Jake: That’s kind of how you have to be today though.
Aaron: I think you have to be like, I’m not nearly ready to get complacent, you know?
Jake: For sure, tell me about the name of the latest album, Potential Fans?
Aaron: Yeah, I think the name of the album came from the song initially, it was the first video we dropped from the tape. It was a nice, productive way of saying fuck you to critics, you know what I mean. I think we put something together with both the song and the video, the beat and everything that was really thorough, I liked it a lot and instead of saying ‘there’s the haters’ or whatever, it’s more like ‘I know you can doubt me and say whatever you want, but that’s not how I see it, I see it as you know who I am, you’re listening to me, I’m on your radar and you’re going to be a fan. It’s almost like a business thing, how to turn potential fans into real ones. So yeah, it’s just saying I am what I am and if you don’t fuck with it don’t worry, you will.
Jake: Alright, so I originally thought you were independent but you’re signed to Decon. What’s that experience been like, being singed to a label today and working with one of the top names in hip-hop as far as indie labels are concerned?
Aaron: This is free, it’s still a mixtape and they put this one out and we’re going to be building for a little while with them. It’s been dope, I think everyone or most artists for good reason are scared of signing and handing over control to a label, but it’s not like I’m working with a major where I’m getting lost in a sea of money and other artists, it’s been totally a team effort. We work hand in hand, I talk to my guy there a few times everyday just figuring everything out and build together so, so far it’s been pretty good and I didn’t have to worry about them like pushing me to sell out or anything because I knew about it from the roster and the brand that they’ve developed and it’s shit that I really like. So if anything, they’ve helped me get a leg up. The guys they have running their music department is a musician so that’s why sonically this album was engineered really well, put together. If anything, the label has helped my music get better.
Jake: So what do we have coming up for you here through the end of 2013 and heading into the new year?
Aaron: We got a bunch of stuff coming. I actually have like three more videos coming, I like to drop the videos because it gets people’s attention since everyone’s so ADD (laughs). I think that it’s kind of a lesson I learned early on: if you’re not a major artist you have to grab them with the visuals, you know? It’s the modern rap game. We’ve got a video coming out for “Why You Mad For” with Grande Marshall from Fool’s Gold, that’s one of the standout tracks on the tape. I’m doing that with Jason Aino, who did “My Mother and My Music” and also did “Purple Swag” A$AP Rocky, so he’s a really dope director. I actually have an animated video coming out for one of the tracks which I think is going to be real dope. I shot a video out in France, that’s going to be out. So a lot of videos coming out and also just working on new music, whether it’s going to be a mixtape or an album is yet to be seen but I’m just going to make as many solid projects as I can. I’m about to go out to LA this week to do some shows in San Francisco, just a lot going on.