Words by Evan Froiland
Things come full circle. Sometimes they happen out of order, but everything makes sense when it’s pieced back together.
Perhaps I was more lost than I realized at the time, late second semester, senior year of high school. I was just a couple months away from graduating – little of my focus on my studies, lots of my focus on cherishing moments; all the while looking forward to what came next. The months of March, April and May felt like great times… like some of the best times of my life. And they were. But in retrospect, I wore a mask through a lot of those times. I wasn’t focused on seeking out help to deal with troubling things in my life at the time – school and friends were very separate things than what was going on at home, or what was in my mind, or how healthy I was. None of it really hit me at the time, but looking back, I didn’t immediately realize the weight of things in my world.
During this time, something happened that really inspired me. A random chance: hearing a song, replying to a tweet, and… boom. My life shifts in a way – the dreamer in me comes out, I begin to manifest things for myself I didn’t know to be possible. What I am referring to here is Milwaukee hip-hop artist WebsterX (Sam Ahmed) visiting my high school, resulting in being so inspired that I made myself a blog and self-published a personal essay about what Sam’s visit meant to me. Apparently, people quite enjoyed and resonated with it. I got more feedback than I ever anticipated. People shared it like crazy, 88Nine Radio Milwaukee picked it up and shared it on their Facebook, and a couple people even reached out to me personally about it (shoutout Niko, who’s now a good friend of mine).
Part of the purpose of the piece was to shed light on the depth of talent in Milwaukee’s music scene. The response I got to it pinned that purpose back on me. I decided that I would keep blogging on the subject, reach out to artists for interviews, and simply see what comes of it. Just a couple months later, my new-found friends, collaborators and co-founders and I launched this website. I could try to explain how “the rest is history” but it would be more easily explained by simply clicking around on our site. The receipts are right here.
Life went on for me, balancing college with growing Explain, and truly, with pursuing getting my name out as a hip-hop journalist. Things were going really well for me, momentum was increasing. There’s only one honest way to describe what happened next. I was smacked with a wall of depression and anxiety. A lot of it related to finally realizing the weight of and having to face things of the past, those that I earlier referred to not really addressing at the time. A lot of it came from simple insecurities: getting to be an adult and struggling to find faith that I could achieve the things I want to achieve. Some of it even had to do simply with smelling a little bit of success when it came to things that I was pursuing, and as a result, putting way too much pressure on myself. It came from a lot of different places, but it came all at once, and it consumed me. Life wasn’t good anymore and I wasn’t succeeding anymore. It took me a short time to be strong enough to seek help, but once I did, things got better for a while. It felt good to make myself vulnerable and to get some of the help that I needed. However, after making the effort to seek help still wasn’t proving to be enough for me, I lost a lot of hope and sunk into an even deeper depression. There were many times that I felt I turned a corner only to end up feeling even worse.
Through this whole experience, I felt able to see my situation from a future lens. I saw that despite how much difficulty I was having overcoming my demons, if I was ever successful in doing so, I would come out as a much stronger person than I ever was before, and that I would have something to share with the world. A large part of the reason I saw through this lens brings Sam back into the story. His words in Complex News’ 2015 mini-doc 'No Ceilings: WebsterX' brought this thought to light:
“I really never knew what anxiety or awkwardness was and all those kind of things. It kind of just started forming all in my brain, so I’m actually seeing that stuff as a blessing. Going through that depression was so awesome because I got to see things from a dark standpoint. When I was in that depressive state, I kind of saw things as ‘aw man, I don’t know what I’m about to do’. It’s an insane thing to be in that place, and it kind of brought me down in the best way possible. I feel like I needed to be grounded in that way.”
At a time that I was stuck in a dark place, I watched this video and heard this quote. In a way, it made me keep believing.
Fast forward something like six months later, I’ve yet to totally escape my depressive state, but I feel as if I’m getting there. It’s early March, just over a month ago, and Web’s prepping for the release of his debut studio album, ‘Daymares’. I reach out to him to arrange an interview corresponding with the album: he sends me the album 3 weeks before it drops, we do the interview 2 weeks before it drops. The album dropped on March 24th. You might ask why the interview hasn’t been published yet, and it’s because I was still in what I think and hope to be the last stage of overcoming a dark period. I knew that this interview was special and that I needed to give it proper context in order for it to seem as special as it is, but my head wasn’t in a spot where I was feeling inspired quite yet.
But now we’re here. And so this means what you think it means. This was the first time I ever formally interviewed Sam, and there was something unique about the relationship that we each brought into it. Prior to this conversation even, I felt as if Sam knew and understood what his arrival into my life meant to me; I also felt as if I knew and understand how much it meant to him to have made that impact upon me. I felt like a tangible example of the wide-spread influence he hopes to make.
Here’s the interview, conducted on March 11th, 2017.
I was just reading a couple old interviews you did and saw you mention coming up with the name and idea for WebsterX at age 20. Definitely took that as a sigh of relief. I turn 20 in a couple weeks and I am the person this album is speaking to, a ‘Lost One’.
Coming up with everything I felt like I did my shit kind of late, but I had to find myself before I was able to do any type of thing related to art. So where you’re at is okay. There’s an interlude on the album, ‘We Have Fun Trying’, some of it got cut out, but I was saying how Anderson .Paak didn’t even pop until he was like 30 years old. There’s so many things, whether it be music-related or otherwise, that you can do at any point in time in your life. You just kind of have to let that shit flow and find yourself. It’s okay to be lost, people still be lost, I still be lost in some aspects of life too. People look at me sometimes like “oh yeah, he’s got all his shit together”... hell nah. There’s still random dumb things that happen on a day-to-day basis.
From the outside perspective of a clueless, wondering fan, where have you been since Desperate Youth? What have you been up to?
After Desperate Youth, I went through a phase of doing nonstop shows. I did the headlining ‘Lost Ones Tour’ in May 2016. I was in a big improv phase but I knew I didn’t want to drop anything massive until I felt like it was the right time, I had the right connections, the right people around me, all that stuff. I was exploring, really. And of course I was dropping random singles here and there, whether it be ‘Lately’, ‘Kinfolk’, etc. From there, I’ve just always been there. That’s what I tell people. You still see me. But what people really wanted was to get a project early on. A lot of people operate on that – if you have a body of work, a fat 15-16 track project, people appreciate it more, they get to go through it, whatever. My case I felt like was kind of special. I got to be able to grow myself to the point where now I can drop this Daymares album because it’s the right time, and I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen any other way.
How is a lost one found? How did you overcome the dark period that you went through?
The way I came out of it, what I learned, it came from within. All the advice I got from Katie (Siren, fellow New Age Narcissism member and Sam’s girlfriend of 3 years), she helped me with a lot of stuff. There was this one time we were in the car, I was in the passenger seat, pissed off, damn near on the brink of tears, and she brought up Kid Cudi, looking at everything he’s gone through, and what he turned it into. I don’t know, it just stuck with me super hard, it’s a lyric on the album. I had all these points during that period of time where I would really wake the fuck up again. I was my own best motivation. There was another time I was watching an Earl Sweatshirt interview with NPR. He had a big ass Smart Water, I’ll never forget because it’s one of the coldest interviews ever. He was talking about his dark period too. I was searching online, what is everybody else doing to combat this? I was looking for answers left and right just trying to figure shit out. It makes you feel so good talking about it too. That’s the coolest shit when you can come out of that rut. I watched ‘Arrival’ recently and part of the premise of that movie is that people that speak languages can potentially think differently. Imagine if you didn’t know what the word “anxiety” was. If you felt it, you wouldn’t really overthink it like that because you wouldn’t keep telling yourself that you have anxiety or whatever. That’s beasty as fuck. The way I came out of it was being patient with myself and being patient with all these worries and self-doubts that I had, doubts that kind of came from me doing well.
What’s your take on the way that music is released now? So rapidly for the most part, and consumed so quickly. It seems that you’re straying away from that.
It fucks me up hard, that’s how I felt about ‘Blonde’ with Frank, and really with a lot of projects that have released in the last 2 years or so. People just don’t appreciate them anymore… but they do, but… I feel like a lot of this social media stuff is super out of wack, but it’s also fire at times, and in points artists have to be able to use that tool. They don’t have a choice. I don’t have a choice. I try to be myself as much online as I am in person, and then still try and have a persona on there too. It’s all faded. But you kinda just gotta go with it, you don’t have a choice. People gotta realize that this is where music is at right now, it’s releasing at a rapid pace, and now you have to figure out ways to make it last longer. What I try to do personally is have a rollout that speaks in terms of length. I don’t wanna just… “yo, I’m dropping a project next week”… and not really have it do anything that it was supposed to do. There’s a method behind it, that’s how I combat the rapid pace. I’m moving at a natural pace, I never get too anxious about what I’m putting out or how it’s been received, I just put it out and let that shit ride. That comes from the confidence I built up from being super lost, I was gone, out of my head, question everything, overthink everything. I came out of that battle stronger and everything else made sense.
Why is promoting the scene that surrounds you so important to you? What motivates you to work on something like FREESPACE?
First, because I can do it. I have the mental capacity to be able to do it. My parents taught me to treat people like neighbors, blah blah blah all that shit, and it spoke to me. I feel good doing good things. Plus, there’s just so much talent out here that’s not seen. The mission of this ‘Desperate Youth’ thing is that it was a plural thing, not a singular thing. So it just made sense, it was engraved in my artist DNA, I had no choice. Nowadays, I’ve been scaling back on it a bit because now people kind of have a platform that they built for themselves. You see a underground kind of trap scene here in Milwaukee that damn near stemmed from FREESPACE. You see IshDARR handling his own, you see a lot of people handling their own. That makes me feel good, because I helped create that.
The impression I got from this album is that one of its main purposes is to speak to people who are trying to overcome the same thing that you overcame.
That 100% is what the project is serving, I’m really spilling it out. The coldest stuff to me that I see from people is when they speak their own truth. That’s why I have a fan base, that’s why people follow me, I realized that they think about most of the same stuff I was thinking about. I’m not trynna be some “darkness savior”. I know it comes off like that, but that’s okay, because this is a phase. The next album I could be talking about cotton candy, Lamborghinis, bling and shit, you never know. It’s what's around me, I write about my life.
How did piecing everything together for this album come about? It seems like between the 14 songs, it was a bit spread out in terms of the time period that they were recorded.
Yeah, so the first song that was recorded was 'Nightmares', and the second was 'Skin', I believe. I started making it in May 2015. I was writing a whole bunch, I made like 35 songs for it. Some of them I wrote on the road, many at my house. Q the Sun and I tried piecing it together as best as we could. He executive produced the entire project, we made that shit together. He would re-focus me when I would come out of focus. He would give me opinions, yada yada here and there. And that’s what made it the best possible project it could have been. It came from a lot of different points. ‘Underground’ and ‘Tick Tock’ were two songs I made in the same time period with this dude from Minneapolis named Danny O’Brien, ‘DEM YUUT’. I had to make it feel and read like a story, you’re listening but you’re reading in a way. Piecing it together was a long and patient process, but it felt great putting something together that addresses all this super dark stuff from a positive standpoint.
The words definitely do what they do on this album, but I think it’s also driven in a major way simply by the feeling that it evokes, very focused on a vibe.
Straight up. Something I’ve gotten really good at is writing songs quickly, a lot of the songs I was writing in 10 or 15 minutes. I’m so confident in myself now that if someone sends me something, I can make a song out of it real fast if it actually speaks to me. If the words aren’t coming out fast enough, I shy away from it.