“Rap Has Always Been Therapy For Me”: Armani White uses hip-hop to find joy when life hits the hardest
Besides the fact that rap music has created a plethora of millionaires who come from impoverished neighborhoods, the best thing about the young music genre is that it allows young black and brown adolescents an opportunity to vent about the troubles that stay on their mind, providing therapy for those who can’t afford sessions.
In that sense, West Philly’s Armani White is no different than MC’s who came before him. Life has given the young hip hop artist lemons but his gift of poetry has helped him make sweet cups of lemonade out of it. Whether it was watching his parents constantly argue growing up, or the untimely passing of both his uncle and father, White has used these emotions of anger and sorrow to create projects that not only uplift his spirits but also those who tune into his music.
Records like “Rewind,” “Stick Up, and “Touche” have helped him catch the eyes of publications like Pigeons and Planes, HotNewHipHop, Apple Music as well as blessed the stage with artists like Nas, Big Sean, Big K.R.I.T., PartyNextDoor and James Blake. A week ago I sat with the West Philly native to talk about his humble beginnings and how the memories of his late father helped influences his upcoming new LP Keep In Touch.
“The happiest songs that I ever made were during the shittiest times.”
The Key: It seems like you have a lot of different styles on Keep In Touch. When I hear “Onederful Day,” I hear the cadence of Bone Thugs, and even your singing on “Fortnight” and “Black Oak Park” sounds like Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Who are some artists that you listened to growing up that you feel like influenced Armani White’s music?
Armani White: That’s funny! Ain’t nobody else caught that Bone Thugz flow. I think as far as influences goes, I’ve picked up rapping from so many different places. A few different Kanye West albums, specifically 808’s & Heartbreaks and Graduation, are what taught me how to make a song. On top of that what helped me accept my weirdness, even though he kind of drew back from his weirdness, was mixtape from B.O.B. called B.O.B. vs. Bobby Ray. The first half was what people wanted to hear, you know that southern rap Atlanta music, but the second half was guitars being played and a really strange and cool chord progression and to me it was cool abstract shit.
I remember when Philly got snowed out and we didn’t have school for at least two weeks, I was in the crib playing Wii listening to B.O.B.. Those were some of the jawns that helped me learn how to write music. I think influences growing up was always James Brown, Janelle Monae, Eminem, Kanye West. Late Registration was the first bootleg CD that I bought for myself and to me that changed the game.
TK: It’s funny, I read that you used to channel the built-up anger you had watching your mother and father argue and put that into your music, and it seems as if your music influences were those who couldn’t be emotionally tamed…whether it’s through their music or even stage presence. Do you feel like rap or music in general helped you deal with your emotions?
AW: I was very rowdy and rambunctious before rap, but rap has always been therapy for me, It’s always been a vessel for me to get my thoughts out. I always say I write my best music from pain and rap has allowed me to express pain without having to inflict it on myself and others. Putting that pain on a piece of paper and being able to channel it is super important for me.
Before music, I kind of felt like a delinquent just because I felt like nobody could understand me or has been through the pain that I’ve been through and that gave me an excuse to be a toxic human being. I can’t say I remember when I first realized it was therapeutic, but a moment that sticks out to me was when my Uncle Tyrone had randomly got killed. Him and this guy were arguing at a traffic stop and the guy shot his car up. And I remember hearing it and going to my homie’s house and be like “Yo let’s just make a happy ass song.” I didn’t really say what was going on I just told him to make a happy ass song and we made this upbeat, uplifting happy ass song.
Another moment was when father first told me that he had cancer. I left the house after we had that moment and went over to my homie Louie’s crib. He was making this beat and I wanted to get my shit off so he threw it to me and it ended up being the record “Rewind.” That record is really important and special because it kind of saved my life and helped me get my shit back together. Once the record dropped, Louie took me on tour and hit up festivals all across the world. If it wasn’t for that record, none of this would’ve happened.
TK: You first broke into the scene in 2015. How did it feel to make this hobby that was used as therapy for you to becoming a full time job?
AW: It felt like one of those “Finally” moments. It has been always a hobby, but it was also something that I wanted to do professionally and to be taken seriously, but I didn’t know how to cross that bridge. Once people finally started to take notice, it was like a breath of fresh air…like “Fuck, now I can take a break for a second. We finally got on.” But no one ever tells you that once you get what you want, you got to work harder. It’s like you’re working, working to get through school, but no one tells you that college is going to be hard as fuck. So for me it was a finally moment but soon as those gates opened for me more work from every direction was poured onto me.
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I spent 15 minutes showing my mom interviews and explaining who @zanelowe was and why this was so big! I hope I don’t gotta do the same for you. Big1s to @jjcorsini @pigsandplans @constant_g @applemusic @beats1official #olympictraining #armaniwhite
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TK: Your song “Stick Up” is what helped the public recognize your talent in 2017. In the video, I see that you’re walking down your neighborhood in West Philly. Was the video a representation of your neighborhood, your father who was once part of Philly’s Junior Black Mafia or a combination of both?
AW: If you got a dad, an OG, or whomever in your life and you have an impressionable mind, you’re more or less thinking “Damn I wanna be like that.” So when I was a kid, I wanted to be thugged the fuck out because of who my dad was and his reputation. My dad was the one who was telling me that shit wasn’t cool, but in my mind I wanted to be like him. But I’m not going to give “Stick Up” any elaborate meaning behind it. It was just a dope ass record and I think the video just came out really well. It wasn’t me trying to be super conceptual, I just had a dope idea and we executed it really well.
TK: It’s crazy that idea got you a lot of attention from different publications such as Pigeons and Planes, who have shown you a lot of love, HotNewHipHop and even Apple Music. But what’s even crazier is how all of that came after the tragic passing of your father the year before. How was it for you to receive the fruits of your labor, but wanting to fall back because of all these personal problems that you had to deal with?
AW: I didn’t want to fall back, I fell back, you know what saying? I was battling the entire time when I decided to fall back, and that was in March. I threw the towel and was like “I’m done.” And the entire time that I was done, I was still going to the studio but I wasn’t doing anything. We would just be in there, probably watching Dragon Ball Z. They would book studio sessions for me telling me that I needed to be working, but I was burnt out. All the time I was spending time with my dad, I was battling in my head “I could be working. I should be trying to get my life together, this is the perfect time for me to be doing what I want to do. This is setting me back.”
When he passed, all that shit went out the window. I couldn’t articulate or verbalize myself the idea of losing that person, it didn’t seem real to me. Once that happened, I left. It wasn’t like I wanna leave or me joking with it…I was gone. I went out to California because I couldn’t be in the city anymore, I couldn’t see my neighborhood or nothing anymore because the reality of it scared me. So I was gone all the way until the middle of 2017, and started to kind of put the pieces together just to be around music, not necessarily making it at the time.
Once I got back to Philly everything that I was running from hit me, at baggage claim waiting for me. It told me to man up and face my issues because for so long I just dismissed it. I acted like it didn’t exist anymore, like I had a new life in L.A. because I left all of my problems in Philly. So for awhile I was like “Fuck all this shit , it don’t matter anymore.” But once I got back, I was like “Woah, this matters, it actually matters way more than before. This shit hurts!” Had I stayed out in L.A., I would’ve been a lost soul wandering around, because I never dealt with life, you know what I’m saying? I ran from my own life.
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Fuck, I’m crying. I get so wrapped up in the music that I forgot what it really meant. My dad didn’t really want me taking any pictures of him so I used to stare out of this window Everytime I visited. He asked me to wear my chain with him to surgery so he had a piece of me with him. This video was shot the final day he was conscious. My earth shattered this day and I had to realign with every fraction of myself. I could’ve never imagined such a pain; the type where nothing anyone can say or do will help. This was the beginning of the end.. We seen some really ugly things to give you something beautiful and it all ends here. 2maro out now. Keep in Touch 11/8. ☝�Ͻ�Ğ�Ͻ�Þ�Ó�Ƥ�Ɋ�Å�ƃ
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TK: That’s real, man. It’s funny that when you got back from L.A., you actually had writer’s block and it took your niece randomly singing what would later on become the chorus of “Onederful” to get you out of that funk. When she did that, was that the influence to the song “Onederful” or the entire Keep In Touch project?
AW: I had a lot of the records for Keep In Touch before we made “Onederful.” We had the beat for it and I had a bunch of Bone Thug flows for it [laughs], like a lot of that song was built off the backbone of that flow. My dad used to have this black jeep he used to ride around in and I felt like the man when I was in it because he was the only person that would let me sit in the front seat [laughs]. So when I went into making this project, I wanted to feel the way I felt when my dad would let me sit in the front seat.
So I would take my niece driving and let her sit in the front seat. As we would ride around I would play her songs and I would see which ones would stick with her. Before “Fortnights” was finished, she could sing the entire jawn, I got a bunch of videos of her singing them. [laughs] She had some influence on the project, but she wasn’t the initial influence of the project you know what I mean? Once I had the idea, she helped put all the pieces together.
I had a majority of all the other records finished before “Onderful” was finished. We were doing trumpet sessions on the project working on the record “2maro,” and while they were doing that I was trying to write “Onederful.” I had all these types of flows like “This my type of day, aye. This my type of day,” but I couldn’t get it right and as I’m fixing her toy and gives her the toy back, she runs out screaming “THIS MY TYPE OF DAY, MY TYPE OF DAY, MY TYPE OF DAY AY AY AY!” [laughs] I was telling her to come back and had her record that on my phone — mind you I’m at my house, not the studio. So I sent that out to L.A. where they were doing the trumpet sessions at and I told them to try to record something over “Onederful” to this. So when the song comes on and you hear “Come on, you ready,” that’s me getting her ready to do the voice memo and we had got it down like that.
TK: The production on Keep In Touch is amazing, and like your rhyme styles, there’s variety in its production. Who were some of the producers that you worked with on this project?
AW: Thank you. Me and the homie Kill did a lot of joints together, we actually had a duo called The Deadbeats that we did when were 18. I actually branched out and did some joints with Louis Futon, Alexander Louis, my homie Kelly made my first two big songs “Stick Up” and “Young Adults” so it was only right that we’d get back together. I probably sent him 20 samples a day like “Lets flip this one! Let’s flip this one!” Mike Irish is my engineer who records my vocals on mostly everything, we did “Black Oak Park,” together. I had another joint where I sampled “Prototype” but we never really did anything with it, but then I had another idea which ended up being “Black Oak Park.” We did that in like 2 hours in the studio.
TK: I read that Keep In Touch was about your father’s past, but when I listen to it sounds like it’s a way for you to keep in touch with people in your life, whether they were your family, friends or women you were relationships with during your darkest times. Is this album more about you or your father?
AW: So, it’s important that you asked that, When I say it’s a story about my father, it means the inspiration comes from him. Every piece of it is part of my father’s life and I look at his life from 28 to 32, which was like two years before he had me and two years after. When I do anything as far as inspiration goes, I draw it as a venn diagram, one big circle would be my father, the other would be my life and the middle is me blending both experiences so it’s kind of like we have similar stories.
I don’t like to talk about my own life personally or so straightforwardly, so when I do, I bring it up with some form of liaison which happens to be my father’s life. These moments in my father’s life apply to my life, like I’ve also been in these moments. So a song like “Fortnights” is a moment where I think me and my father have the same thought process — him and my mother would’ve worked if they met later on in life, and there’s a woman in my life who I think the two of us would’ve worked really well if we had met later on in life rather than when we met.
In that musical venn diagram of our lives, that shade in the middle is where you highlight family, friends and time. Even a record like “Thanksgiving” was a strong finish, because me and my dad was going through our little strides before he passed, but that was the first record that when I had got back from the studio I got to play it for him. It was one of the first records in my entire career that I got to play him. Before then he would hear the records and be like “Oh yeah I heard your song,” once we started talking again, but that was one of the first records I got to be like “Yo check this out Pops,” and me being able to have that was super important because of that alone.
TK: Your song “Touche” was suppose to be the first single, but I didn’t see it on the tracklist.
AW: Yeah that was confusing. “Touche” was the announcement that Keep In Touch was coming. I wanted to announce the project with a song. Before we did “Thanksgiving,” it was originally the last song off the project, it’s actually a piece of a very long song. My engineer Mike was not letting me not put that song out. [laughs]
TK: I remember you talking to R&B singer Re-Mus about being independent. And even doing some research, you don’t believe in paying someone to do something for you that you know you can do yourself. Did you always have the independent state of mind, or did past experiences steer you into that way of thinking?
AW: Before people cared, I learned the back end of it, knowing how much I was going to make, how much would taken away from me and the amount I would need to survive. And at first it sounded awful [laughs], but even before that I was 17 with big ideas of what we wanted to do but we didn’t have big budgets. Even with the little money I had at the time, I had to use that take care of myself and use what’s left to go to the studio.
When we did the video for “Stick Up,” they told me it would cost at least $1500 to get that done because we were going to need the crane to come in and follow you, hire actors if you want it to look professional. They said it would be between $1500-$2500. So I called my homie who had a digital camera, we got a tripod held it like this and put a 5 pound weight on the other side so we can stabilize it. I told one dude to stand behind the guy recording to let him know what direction he’s going, told another guy call things out that were supposed to happen in the video. It was a 10-man job, but we got it all done for free.
The label tactic is to throw money at everything and see which one really works. For me, I want to find out which one really works first, you know what I’m saying? Let’s see what’s working for others and see what they’re not doing, so we can be as effective. At this day and age, anybody can choose to be or not to be independent, I’m not necessarily saying someone should stay independent for the rest of their life, but I think to some extent people should try it out just to see what it’s like, see what you can do by yourself and figure out what needs to be done. That way when you’re going into whatever situation you’re going into you, can tell when they on bullshit when it comes to getting things done. When I was in a situation, I didn’t know when they were getting things done or weren’t doing things at all. You gotta be aware of what’s going around you.
TK: In the “Onederful” video, you capture wonderful moments of your journey and a lot of them have to do with you performing with DJ Jah, who I ironically met when we used to work at Temple University’s radio station WHIP. You guys bring a lot of energy to any stage you step on, especially at Made In America. What have been some of your favorite shows so far?
AW: Yeah, that’s little brother, we was just talking about that the other day, that’s funny. [laughs] Me and Jah’s first show was in 2015 at Union Transfer. It was the dopest show. We did it with Ground Up, and that was their last show together because they broke up right after that. It was me, Young Savage, who goes by Shawn Smith now, and Ground Up. For awhile that was our best show, then we did Made In America — which was my first Philly show in a long-ass time. This past tour we did with Vince Staples we did DC, DC was a wild good time and Montreal. Who would’ve thought? [laughs] But outside of Philly I would say DC was my favorite jawn so far.
TK: You’ve been grinding in this city for the past four years. How do you feel about the current state of the hip hop scene in Philadelphia?
AW: Philly is cool right now because it’s really big in a lot of different areas. There’s a lot of artists from Philly who are blowing up and getting a lot of shine across the world right now, and I think it’s the biggest it’s been since the State Property days. So I don’t think there’s as much as a Philly scene in music, which is completely fine because I think there’s a big Philly influence in the music industry right now.
A lot of the culture in the city has been stripped away — where we can go here on Saturday nights and hit this spot up, now it’s become a scavenger hunt trying find something or who’s doing what. I wish it did have a scene here, but I think that it’s more important that Philly has an influence outside of the city. I’d much rather have it to where you can go anywhere and see it instead of just having to come here.