Don’t rap it until you hear it. Country and hip-hop. The two genres are known for their storytelling, real-life lyrics.
Earlier this year Carrie Underwood released “The Champion” featuring Ludacris. The Brett James / Chris De Stefano / Christopher Brian Bridges / Carrie Underwood co-write was featured in the Super Bowl LII and the Winter Olympics coverage. Previously, Ludacris was featured on Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem.”
Who knows, Z. Smith may be the next hip-hop artist to do another stellar collaboration with a country star… Maybe it will be with his girlfriend, singer Gracie Carol, who is featured on Smith’s upcoming Smoke Before Fire album. The two left Cincinnati, Ohio, for Nashville last year – she attends Belmont University and interns for Big Machine Label Group. Now he is about to share his musical transformation with Music City.
How did growing up in Cincinnati influence your music?
Cincinnati is such a historic city. Growing up on the West Side of Cinci in a town called Bridgetown is what shaped who I am, from my morals and values to my goals and aspirations. With the friends and family I had around me, I developed a strong sense of community and loyalty early on and as a result, I still hold Cincinnati as my home rather than just the city I’m from. I had a tight-knit group of friends that had been together from elementary school through high school and they were the guys I leaned on; any time some shit hit the fan we would all stick together and power through it. I have a single blood-sibling but I had about 22 brothers that I knew had my back. When we all went to college everyone stayed (and still is) in touch on a regular basis but this was when I was really on my own. I had fallen out with some of these guys over the choices we were making and I started to realize that my entire sense of identity was based people that I considered family but no longer had them right next to me and I struggled to find out exactly what I was meant for. I had stopped playing sports, wasn’t involved in anything on campus, and other than working to support myself, writing Hip-Hop songs was the one thing I continually turned to. I think Cincinnati gave me that initial hope that I could do something out of the ordinary with my life. I went to school with a ton of people that were pursuing careers in Marketing, Business, Engineering, but very few choose to take that road less traveled and that journey is what shaped my music early on. My main goal became to prove to myself that I could take large steps and accomplish goals on my own and that’s what led me to getting my first project together, organizing live shows and starting to map out my own path. I’m still searching for my next steps, but that same sense of exploring mixed with wanting to carve my name in stone is very well represented on Smoke Before Fire.
As a teen, you turned to music when things at home weren’t going well. How did you come to record in your high school’s studio?
So I went to Oak Hills High School and we had a class called Music Technology and it had three different levels. This class taught you how to use different audio software, mainly Logic Pro, how to record, how to Mix and Master, etc. It was ridiculous how much information was available to you. It was taught by Mr. Grant Anderson and after taking his class he was pretty open to letting us create with the equipment he had. When my friends Nick Brems, Joe Anderson, Brian Cybulski, and I decided we wanted to start rapping and making music, we would get to school an hour or two before class started just to use the studio when nobody else would be there. We would do the same thing after class and with some things going down at home, I would find myself not wanting to leave that place. I got my chance to experiment with the lyrics I was writing and fell in love with the recording process. To this day, it is still my favorite part of making music.
Musically, what are your biggest influences and who are your favorite musicians?
The biggest things that influence my music are real-life events and situations I’ve gone through or if I’m looking forward to where I might end up. It’s always fun to tell a story, but when that inspiration stems from something real, it brings out so much more emotion and passion and you can hear that in the recordings. When you tell your story and you’ve got something to prove, it’s going to come across much differently than if you’re just trying to make something you think everyone else will like. My favorite musicians are Jake Miller and Machine Gun Kelly, Jake Miller being the reason I started pursuing a career in Hip-Hop and MGK being the reason I’m able to keep going and allowing myself to grow. Other than that, I’m a very big fan of G-Eazy, Logic, Eminem, Aerosmith, the Beastie Boys, Futuristic, Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Joyner Lucas. Also, Bruno Mars is the man.
How would you describe your own style?
To be honest with you I really don’t know how to describe my style. I focus very heavily on the lyrics of my songs and that is exactly what I want to stick with listeners the most. I want them to think about what is being said and pick it apart and interpret it. That’s what I do with the songs I listen to so naturally I begin my writing process with the same approach. I’d say I bring more of a 90’s style flow to modern instrumentals. Also, I don’t think I’m far off from most Midwestern Rap.
Who do you collaborate with?
On Smoke Before Fire I collaborate with Country Artists Gracie Carol and Vinny B., Pop Artist Kendall and Rapper Royal Jayy. Each of them are incredibly talented and adds a unique touch on these songs that I can’t thank them enough for. The main guy I’ve worked the most with on this project, though, is Ryan Rajagopal. He spent hours upon hours with me recording, mixing and mastering every single one of these 15 tracks. He has my full trust and utmost respect for making sure we created something special. If there’s any artists looking for someone to record them, you need to find him fast.
In what ways has your newest music changed from when you first started?
I think my music has done a complete 180 from when I first started. The first 10 songs I had ever made were recordings that I used to show myself I could do whatever I put my mind to, with the hopes that some people would enjoy what I was creating. Back then, I wasn’t sticking to a plan; I was stabbing in the dark hoping something would stick. With this new music coming out, I truly feel like I planted a seed and it’s grown into something I’m proud of. The quality of the tracks, the lyrics, the rhyme schemes, the messages, my confidence level, it has all evolved and developed into something larger. I believe I’ve captured my growth into my music and I’m hoping others can use it to relate to their personal journeys.
What are the backstories to the songs on your upcoming album Smoke Before Fire?
Smoke Before Fire is a concept/phrase that fits the album perfectly in my mind. Each one of the 15 tracks from the project have their own backstory, and from beginning to end, I hope that listeners can see a transformation. Right now, I’m happy to provide the stories behind 4 of the songs from the album, the rest I’d like everyone to try to figure out and piece together when they hear them after the release.
1. ‘Outcome Unknown‘ (feat. Gracie Carol)
‘Outcome Unknown‘ was the very first song I had written when I moved down to Nashville. Gracie is actually my girlfriend and we had decided to move in together and take this leap down to a new state and really get our lives going. The song picks up from where I left off in Cincinnati, I was trying to put together a collective of artists called New Class Music and since leaving that behind I wasn’t sure of exactly where to start. I remember thinking ‘I have no idea where the hell I am supposed go from here or how I’m supposed to make a name,’ and I found it very fitting to have Grace sing the hook of this song since we were going through that process together. In each verse you can hear me sort of argue with myself on how to go about this career and this industry and finally come to the conclusion that, even though I may not know where this could end up, I know I need to go down this path.
‘TAMED‘ was written when my life was literally going the exact opposite way than I had planned. I was working 50-60+ hours in a Snow Cone truck so that I could barely make my half of the rent, and wasn’t able to keep up with my friends or family in Cinci. Meanwhile, Gracie was taking some large strides in her career and I felt myself snap. I had something to prove and I wanted to show music is what I was meant for, so I took out the frustration on the pen and page and on the mic in a studio session to show that I’m not tamed, I’m ready to hunt down what I’m after. As a turning point in my mentality, it is my personal favorite of the songs I’ve made.
6. ‘Desperadoes‘ (feat. Royal Jayy)
‘TAMED‘ may be my favorite, but this is a close second. ‘Desperadoes‘ is about both embracing personal struggles and finding a home as an outsider. At the time, I was about finished with the album and wanted to go over what I had come and how that led to where I’m at now; I had gone from selling the blood in my arm for money for food and living by myself in run-down housing to a life of pursuing music in Music City. Going through those things on my own may have seemed like setbacks but they made me who I am. I needed a like-minded person on this one and someone who is passionate about their own story and, Royal Jayy does not disappoint. That man can RAP.
15. ‘Fading Fast‘ (feat. Vinny B.)
The very last song on the album was the very last one written. Originally based on a title I called ‘I Jumped,’ it took shape after reflecting on everything that had been accomplished in about 8 months and how I had grown as a person. Without giving too much away, I will say that I feel it’s the most important song of the collection. Vinny B. is a very talented pop/country singer that solidifies the hook and Ryan Rajagopal came up with a mix that kept me smiling for about a week. If it were a single, it would still have the same cover art, and I hope it helps anyone who feels like they might be in too deep or past that point of no return to keep pushing forward.
Finding one’s place in the world transcends generations. The video for your current single, Paint (ft. Kendall), is very relatable. We want to make our mark, but don’t know how to start. What advice would you give others looking for their canvases?
I’m extremely happy that the message of the ‘Paint‘ video came across clearly. You hit the nail on the head, the video is all about finding your identity and figuring out who you are, but also about searching for a starting point that will lead to greatness and purpose. For anyone who is currently searching for themselves, or still trying to figure out exactly what it is you are looking for, the advice I have for you is, to be honest with yourself about what you want and how you will make your mark. Do not fear any sort of ridicule or scrutiny from anyone, especially your friends. Personally, it took me way too long to start taking myself seriously and putting myself out there because I was more scared of what my friends would think of me than complete strangers. It’s much easier to brush off a comment from a random person but that feeling of being rejected by those closest to you can be a huge hurdle that most people shy away from. Make that jump. Be excited about finding what makes you happy and embrace the adventure of it all.
Did you know he goes by the name Z. Smith because that’s what his sports jerseys said when he played?