Although major touring artists attract the most notice and crowds, it’s the local artists who form the lifeblood of D.C.’s music scene. Smaller, more intimate venues like Jammin Java are prime for local musicians like Maryland-based rapper Composercleo.
Composercleo’s music is an eclectic mix of hip-hop, reggae, lo-fi and R&B, and explores themes of love, heartbreak, social media and happiness. D.C. audiences can catch him, along with cover artist Brianne Nguyen, on April 8 at Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia.
We sat down with Composercleo to talk inspiration behind his music — and what he’s most excited about with the upcoming performance.
District Fray: How did you first get into music?
Composercleo: It goes back to my dad. I remember being young and sitting with him. He’d show me how to construct music and we’d make songs together. He never stunted me creatively. Whenever I reached a barrier, he’d give me a pointer or two, which helped me develop my creative process. I also sang in the school choir, so I was always involved in music.
How did choir transition to rap?
I only started rapping when I graduated from high school. I’d take choir pieces and sample them, creating hip-hop instrumentals and singing vocals over them. Choir introduced me to different genres and perspectives. You hear the bass, tenors, altos and sopranos learn their parts; you see the building process. So when I started producing, accurately incorporating and layering different instruments made sense to me.
When did you know you wanted to be a rapper?
When I released my first song and people noticed and responded. It wasn’t validation in the sense I needed people to react to my music to create. I always felt I was creating music for myself and for me, that was enough. But when I realized other people enjoyed it too, it pushed me to do it seriously.
Which artists inspire you?
Honestly? My dad. He didn’t release much music, but his love of the process and music as a whole inspired me. He never boxed himself into one genre. He listened to jazz, reggae, classical — even Britney Spears. He kept my brothers and I very engaged. I didn’t grow up listening to Jay-Z, Mobb Deep or other artists rappers typically listen to when they’re young. We listened to a very slim selection of artists: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Marley, NSYNC. It sounds bad, but I don’t have many influences or people I idolize in the music industry. A lot of good artists have stuff I love, but nothing majorly inspiring I would try to emulate.
So where do you get inspiration?
I would say people. People I meet at work, friends I made at school. I grew up sheltered, so school and work were ways I could see more of the world. When I first started working out of high school as an AV technician, I worked with older guys and while they weren’t who I wanted to be, they were really influential. Don’t get me wrong: I listen to the music of composers like Eric Whitacre and I’m moved, but it’s not the same. People and life are bigger influences.
What’s your songwriting process like?
I haven’t released a song to date written in one sitting. Whenever I get an idea of a melody, I hum and record it on my phone. This is so I can capture the cadence and build boards around it later in the studio. I’ll freestyle and [if I] like the delivery or how the words and instrumentals match, I’ll write around it. That said, I don’t have a problem writing with constraints. I’ll do it in my streams sometimes and it’s a good way to challenge myself, but it’s not in the music I release. It has its drawbacks. Sometimes I struggle to finish a song I’ve started. I’m not in the right mood and won’t feel the same will to get the track release-ready.
How are you feeling about your Jammin Java set?
I’m very excited. There’s a lot of preparation going into this. My set lasts 45 minutes and I’m opening for the other main performer, Brianne Nguyen. I’ll sing my own stuff mostly, but also a few covers. A big thank you to Damion, Jibreel, Oscar and Parker for playing as the live band. Great friends.
What are you most looking forward to at this concert?
Performing my song “Great Day.” It’s my biggest song and I love the version the band and I are rehearsing. Also, I hope people recognize my artistic diversity. My albums mostly fall within hip-hop but my EPs have R&B and Afro-Latino influences, so I’m excited to showcase different aspects of my music.
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