by: Ali Shana
“When you look at hip hop music in terms of location, everyone wants to stand out and be the face of their city. I don’t feel like I’m one of those people - I just want to do what I do.”
Select a few songs at random from femcee Taj Raiden’s musical catalog, and you’ll see she truly is doing whatever she wants. At age 22, the lyricist and producer can confidently tell you her origins, style, ambitions, all without representing a familiar archetype. Raiden’s music is fresh, exciting, and arguably hard to digest for the average Joe. Describing her sound as punk with an R&B/soul influence is a definite start - still, one definitely has to experience a live performance to realize what they’re fucking with.
Under the stage name Taj Raiden, the creative’s been releasing music for two years. She’s a part of the Milwaukee-based hip-hop collective Team Ugly, including artists DestiGotBarz, WolfThaMan, YL64, WillTheGlide, and Weekend Neely. The camp’s name is suiting for the artist’s hard-to-categorize sound: Proud like a member of a sports team, ugly like different and hectic. Ugly like a protest before it catches on. Ugly like the truth in any lighting.
Raiden was brought to my attention after being shown a series of snapchat recordings where she was really screaming her lungs out live. Before sitting down with artist to get the full story, I was surprised to hear how versatile her songs can be. One track being ghouly and aggressive, the next being laid back and full of singing.
She cites being influenced by Chicago rapper and producer Supa BWE. Outside of this, there doesn’t seem to be many conscious influences in her songs. It seems that Raiden as a full creative package, sonically in control of every note, lyric, and live deliverance, is distilled within her. “When I was young, I went through an emo phase where I listened to a lot of screamo,” she grinned. “But honestly, my stage presence just happened like that naturally.”
This second nature to make and perform such wild music roots back very early in Raiden’s life.
Born in Milwaukee and spending sometime in North Carolina, Raiden remembers writing rhymes as young as nine years old. By the time she was recording, however, Raiden says she was already producing on Fruity Loops and GarageBand. Her rhythm can be stemmed back to being a percussionist in her middle school jazz band and high school marching band. “Growing up, my Mom played everything,” she said. “Hip-hop, disco, jazz, even alternative rock. My Dad played trap and oldies.”
Elements of trap and oldies are evident on songs such as ‘We/Back From The Clearing’, featuring fellow Milwaukee female rapper Chakara Blu. The singing vs rapping dichotomy between the two, over a smooth boom-bap beat, is almost reminiscent of early Outkast records. This track’s vibe is incredibly different from the bass-heavy, in-your-face track ‘More Than’. A song of this nature I could see being influenced by various types of rock music.
The genre-barrier-bending elements found in all of Raiden’s music, and in every aspect of it, are glued together for this very reason. Why analyze the genre when you can more clearly analyze the writer’s preferences? Here we see consistencies: full-fledge lyricism but of any topic, seance-esque production conveying any emotion, and a stylistic contrast that keeps the listener’s attention.
The talk of dichotomy and contrast was no surprise for her to hear.
“When I first started making music, I wanted to be a singer,” said Raiden. “I wanted soul music, but I also wanna scream and be chaotic. I don’t want to limit myself.”
These contrasting styles are not to be thought of as a young artist finding her sound. It’s very much an artistic tendency she embraces. In fact, this already displayed contrast is the mold of the artist’s next project.
Raiden is planning to drop two contrasting EPs at once to demonstrate this Gemini quality within her. The first EP is titled ‘Recurring Themes’. As the title suggests, Raiden’s writing about things she can’t help but keep writing about. Beyond this innovation, ‘Recurring Themes’ will be a visual EP. Although there are various production collaborations, Raiden is once again gripping full creative control by executively producing both projects.
Amongst many songs and features, Raiden’s only project till then is the three-track instrumental EP ‘Prod. by Taj’. Her production style features a unique set of hits in it’s drumming, and an unpredictable set of tones to paint each picture. Raiden says the new EP will feature some videogame-inspired soundscapes.
Her production isn’t the only aspect of Taj Raiden that’s videogame-inspired. ‘Taj’ being a shortened version of her birth name, ‘Raiden’ being a tribute to a Mortal Kombat character. “I love Mortal Kombat. I’m a fighter, I’m Taj Raiden.” She cites her initial rap alias, Taj Major, simply being a name she could live up to. I consider Taj Raiden to be the name of what she’s living, documenting and releasing.
Several tracks, such as ‘Milwaukee Bloodshed’, I deemed as fast and competitive. Hip hop’s history of competition, however, doesn’t seem incredibly authentic to the artist. “I love freestyling but I find the competitiveness in it unappealing,” she said, “because in that competitiveness come these hidden insecurities.” What I thought was an element of competition she described as “genuine feelings of hate.” With this being said, Raiden doesn’t shy away from freestyling, especially on Team Ugly tracks.
The emergence of female rappers in Milwaukee is plentiful. Throughout the conversation, I felt moments of deja-vu stemming from my first interview with Zed Kenzo. In a world where men and women are force fed gender roles in the media, it takes a fearless character to go against the grain.
Still, female rappers are a minority in an eagle eye view of culture. “There’s a hypersensitivity when it comes to masculinity,” Raiden said. “I’ve heard a lot of men don’t want to hear a woman’s music being ‘hard’ - they’d rather it sound more “feminine” (EMPHASIS on the quotation) and soft...which is ridiculous and needs to end.”
I was curious as to why one song in particular, ‘Right There (At The Deep End)’, featured a positive message. Over and over, the refrain reads “I’ll be there for you.” The track was actually written shortly after her cousin had passed. “They were dealing with a lot of depression and I wish they would have came to me, because I’m going through the same thing. And that’s why the song is saying “i'll be there for you”.”
I imagine Raiden being a voice the city will be forced to recognize. She plans to keep performing, producing, recording and releasing her art. Stream the track More Than’ belowand keep your ears open for more to come from the Team Ugly sonic warrior, Taj Raiden.