A couple of years ago, I stumbled over the website of some unknown indie rapper and producer by the name of Sun Zoo from New England. He had a bunch of tracks online and since the little comments on his website were kinda funny, I figured I’d give the tracks a try. At the time he’d just put up his first album entitled “Hope Flies” for free and I was outright surprised how good it sounded. I’d expected something a lot more à la “my first steps in music.”
I never really went back to the album much after that, but I just recently fell upon the songs on my harddisk again, and since I remembered kinda liking them I decided to look the dude up, to see what he’s up to now. Turns out, he’s meanwhile got another two albums out, and that’s only at the young age of 22!
Like his first album, he’s giving his second one away for free as well. “Can’t see the forest” is again a collection of personal experiences turned into stories of hope, hopelessness, alcohol and the trials and tribulations of a young artist who’s desperately trying to keep his integrity (among other things…)
His third and brandnew album “Roads on the Earth” is the first album he made with the help of a proper record label, Veggie Co. It can be got as a digital download and a CD, both together for one price. (I haven’t peeped it yet, but I will.)
But let’s cut right to the chase and meet the man himself… (quotes from his lyrics and songs are inserted by me, not him, by the way.)
Tell us a little about yourself. Where you’re from, how old you are, what kind of stuff you do, what your background is, whatever you wanna share.
Well, I’m a rapper/producer named Sun Zoo…I call various places in New England home (CT, RI, ME), and I’m about to move to Harbin, China, to teach and work on music for a little while. I’m 22, and I’ve been making hip-hop for about ten years now. I just released my third album, Roads on the Earth, on Veggie Co Records, and I have two albums I released independently that are free on my website.
How did you pick your name “Sun Zoo”? Art of War? You don’t sound very martial. Is there a story to it?
Originally yeah it did come from that, because I was into battling. I wanted to spell it in a way I thought would be easily memorable and easy to say, so I chose Sun Zoo. I don’t really think about it like that anymore, though, it’s kind of more abstract to me now. I just like how it looks and sounds.
How did hip-hop reach you in your neck of the woods (Providence, Rhode Island)? What drew you in?
Well, I actually grew up in suburban Connecticut and rural Maine. When I was in fifth grade, I think, my friend gave me a mixtape he had made with some 2pac songs on it, and it was totally different from anything I had really heard before. I guess the danger and the “don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude drew me in (remember, I was like 10 years old…), but by the time I realized how ridiculous it was for me to be listening to that stuff like I related to the stories in it, I had already discovered Atmosphere, Sage Francis and a lot of other underground guys.
What people do you look up to? Who has been a major influence on you? (Be it literature, arts, politics, your mom, anything.)
In terms of music? El-P has been a major influence the last few years. Not so much his music itself, but the attitude he approaches it with and his theory about it. He’s just a ruthless innovator, and whether what he’s doing works or not, that’s inspiring. A Chinese philosopher named Zhuangzi has had a pretty significant impact on my thinking, too, which comes across in a bunch of my songs. The Mountain Goats have also been a big influence since my girlfriend gave me one of their albums… John Darnielle is an amazing songwriter. I get intimidated listening to Mountain Goats albums, but they’re wonderful.
I’m inspired and influenced by tons of things, though, from Hemingway to Dizzee Rascal.
Hip-Hop ft. DJ HDL
How and when did you end up becoming an active member of the culture?
Well, I got into MCing because a friend of mine was doing it, and he knew I was a fiction writer, so he was just like ‘yo, try this out.’ It seemed to work, so I just kept doing it after that. He and I were a group for a while, but after we split I just kept going because I had already put a lot of time into it and it had become a sort of catharsis for me.
In terms of involvement in the culture, there wasn’t much going on in suburban CT, so until I moved to Providence for college, I was mostly connecting with people through the net. That’s how I hooked up with DJ HDL, for example. I’ve never actually even met him face to face, but he’s done the cuts on all my albums, brilliantly. And the battle scene on the net forced me to develop my skills a lot in a way that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
Then, when I got to Providence, the community sort of reached out to me. I went to a PackFM show and discovered that somehow, some people knew who I was and had heard my music. Chachi, who’s a big figure in the RI hip-hop scene, showed me tons of love and introduced me to a lot of people there.
You hold down both the microphone and the production knobs. How did either one of them evolve? Do you have priorities between the two? Do you produce tracks for people other than yourself?
MCing was just sort of natural for me. I’ve always been writing things, so that just became the new channel for writing when I started doing music, and that was that. Producing was more complicated. I started doing it only because I couldn’t afford to buy beats, and because people weren’t making the types of beats I wanted to rock. Plus, I was always interested in making albums that SOUND like albums–that have a cohesive sound and theme. It’s hard to do that if you’re just trying to mix together other people’s beats.
I don’t really have priorities between the two. If I just feel like making music I’ll usually make a beat, and if I have something more specific I’m feeling, I’ll write it. I end up making a ton more beats than I use, so I do produce for other people occasionally, mostly emcees I know from online. Spoonful, Point Game, Taiyamo Denku, etc. If you don’t know those guys, look them up, they’re dope.
Do you have a “crew” you roll with? Since everybody seems to need a crew, clique, gang, group of weedcarriers…
No, I have no crew at all, which means I generally do shows solo. The Veggie Co guys are a little like a crew now that I’m signed to them, but music tends to be a solitary thing for me. I have a crew of friends who come to shows and buy albums because they’re my friends and they support me, but they aren’t there when I’m writing or recording. They’re just regular friends.
Now let’s talk business for a moment… You’ve got two full-length albums online to give away for free. A lot of cats put out their music on the internet for nothing. But most of it is not as good as yours (blatant asskissing.) Your stuff doesn’t sound like a bedroom production at all. How did you make those tracks?
They actually both are bedroom productions, more or less. I recorded them myself, the first one on a roland multitrack thing I was borrowing from someone and the second one on my computer at home. Getting good sound from home recording really isn’t that hard for a rapper, because the only thing you really need is a good microphone setup. That, and a willingness to spend hours and hours and hours mixing. The beats, I make on my computer using Reason. For those albums and for Roads on the Earth, I was using Reason 2.5, but I just got the upgrade to 4.0 and a whole bunch of sweet refills to use for the next albums.
How can you afford to give away your music for zilch? I take it you have a daytime J-O-B?
Yup. I still can’t really afford it, though. I definitely lost money on Hope Flies and Can’t See the Forest when you take into account what the equipment and software cost, but that’s just the sort of thing I’m willing to spend my money on, I guess.
Just fuckin around
“I’m dope as fuck, but I don’t even try
So if I quit this rap shit yo, don’t be surprised
You wanna sign me to ya label? I don’t wanna be down
Cause I ain’t trying to get rich, I’m just fuckin’ around”
-Chorus of “Just fuckin around” off “Hope Flies”
Hahahah…I was lying. No, that really was how I felt at the time, and still do mostly. I’m still not trying to get rich, but I have discovered that to do everything I want to and make the music I want to make, I need help. Financially and otherwise.
What’s your daytime job now?
I just graduated last month, so I don’t have one at the moment; I’m waiting for my job in China to start and working on music in the interim.
What did you graduate in?
I graduated with a B.A. in East Asian Studies, focusing on China.
I take it you speak one of the Chinese languages? How come?
I do speak Mandarin, although not as well as I’d like. It was required for my major, but really just because I find it interesting, and it isn’t as hard as everyone says.
How did you get the connect for the job in Harbin?
I didn’t, really. I basically just found a bunch of English schools in northern China, where I knew I wanted to be, and sent them resumes trying to see what was available. This job turned out to be the best looking because it’s also a training program–at the end of six months I’ll have a TESOL certification that will allow me to teach English as a foreign language more or less anywhere.
Just to see the proportions here, I’m really curious how much it cost you to make your second album “Can’t see the forest.” Also to give people an idea how much somebody like you puts into their passion, just to give it to the interested listeners.
Well, technically it was free, in that I already owned all the equipment at that point. But if you want to know how much that stuff cost me when I did buy it a few years earlier, it was probably about $1,500 total.
Hosting my site so people can download the albums is about $100 a year. Advertising, recording, writing, producing, etc, are all “free” in that I do them myself, but thats hours and hours and hours that I spend not being paid.
“The thing is, it wasn’t like he couldn’t afford
To buy the things that I had, yo, he could have had more
He was rich, I worked my ass off, spent over a thou
On the equipment, all he had to do was open his mouth”
-“Glass House” off “Hope Flies”
Is there a way for you to make a little money off your music? Do you get to do shows?
Yeah, I just did a show in Hartford and made a little money off it. I don’t get do as many as I’d like because I’m busy with other stuff and to because it’s hard to get booked sometimes.
You’re now signed to Veggie Co. What kept you from getting a contract before? What made you sign with Veggie? How does the deal work out for you?
Veggie Co was the first label that managed to convince me they actually brought something to the table, and weren’t just trying to get a piece of me, so to speak. I don’t want to discuss specific contract details, but I have complete creative control over everything from the content of my albums to the cover art. They help with anything I need help with, but don’t ever force me to do one thing or another. They also genuinely love the music, which is probably the most important part.
“You on a contract, then you probably finna get jerked
I know it’s big bills they be giving at first
But they don’t pay for your studio and it’ll get worse
When you find out you have to pay back the advance
Before you see any money that they make on your jams
Too many of you rappers put your name on the line
And then end up broke when your label is fine”
-“Get Free” off “Hope Flies”
Hahaha…that is the way majors work; luckily Veggie Co doesn’t operate that way. They paid for my studio time in full, for example.
In your own words, if you look back onto your three albums, can you see a development in your work, lyrically, musically, or thematically, and how would you describe it?
Yes, definitely. I think musically it’s getting better, or at least, my production is getting closer and closer to being exactly how I want it so it fits the vibe of the lyrics exactly how I want it to. Lyrically, I think I’m developing too. I don’t know if people care–I think the honesty is what attracts a lot of people, and that’s there throughout–but if you look at “November Alone” from Hope Flies and compare it to “November Alone (Part II)” from Roads on the Earth, for example, they both express the same basic idea, but “Part II” expresses it in a much more complex and interesting way. I think, anyway.
Thematically I think it’s getting complicated too. The omnipresent hope theme remains, of course, but I think I’m complicating it, and in the next couple albums I will be complicating it even more.
Is there something you think you do better now on your third release than on your first? etc.
I think I do virtually everything better. Which isn’t to say I don’t like the first album, but I think the lyricism and production are both stronger on the new album.
Is there something you wouldn’t try again? ;)
Uh, not really…I’ve done plenty of things that didn’t work–whenever I try to sing, for example–but I’ll probably keep doing them anyway because they’re interesting. I didn’t sing on “Roads on the Earth”, but maybe I’ll force people to endure some more singing on the next album…
In your lyrics, among other things, the drinking theme/metaphor keeps coming up (November Alone, One Sip, Escaping…) Do you wanna talk about it? What about you and drugs?
Well, I do drink. I don’t think I have a problem really, but then again, I was in college, where you can basically be an alcoholic and nobody cares. Now I’ve graduated, so we’ll see. I don’t really ever drink alone, though.
Drugs I don’t fuck with, mostly for financial reasons and my desire to never, ever have to deal with police. Although I just recently got my wisdom teeth out, so I’ve been on Vicodin all week, and it’s pretty great.
Anything coming up in the near future?
Yes. There will be some more live videos up from my Hartford show on my website, but more importantly, the website will be switching over to be a part of my new project, American Expatriate, soon. It’s going to be a concept album about American life through the lens of living abroad (since I’m about to move to China), and as a part of it I’m going to be keeping a blog about life there, producing videos about various aspects of life and music, providing some instrumental downloads, etc., to keep people interested while I’m working on the album. At the same time as that album, I’m also going to release another one for free on my website that will just be another regular Sun Zoo album.
American Expatriate won’t have any samples and will be a cohesive story album that’s only available by purchase, so the other one will be the typical sample-heavy Sun Zoo record about anything and everything people are used to. Plus it will be free.
So, get excited.
Famous last words?
And help me out by telling your friends about my music if you like it. Word of mouth is the best possible promotion, and I will be very grateful. Add yourself as a fan on my facebook page, myspace, etc. Post up posters around your town. Shout about my albums in the street. Every little bit helps, and I appreciate it greatly.
Thank you so much for taking the time. All the best with your new projects!