Q&A: Chicago’s SoloSam Makes His Own Waves on “ITIS”

For Samuel Akainyah, making music is an internal process. The Chicago-born rapper and producer, known as SoloSam, finds bliss in being unconcerned with what others are doing around him or what sounds may be hot at the moment. Instead, he finds motivation in the idea of self-love — a concept that echoes heavily on his latest project, “ITIS”.

Staying true to oneself is an increasingly difficult attitude to have, especially as a rapper in 2018. With so many new artists emerging and careers taking off at light speed, it’s tempting to replicate someone else’s path to success. But, as he makes clear in this interview, Sam has no interest in moving at any pace other than his own.

(Album Cover by Sincerely, Veronica)

Where did you grow up?

All over Chicago. When I was a baby, I was in Lakeview. Then when I was like 6 through 10 years old I was on the Southside. … I’ve just lived everywhere in Chicago really.

What was it like coming up in all different parts of the city?

My household always felt the same. My dad is an artist and a writer who taught at the university. He’s from Ghana. And my mom worked in nursing at different facilities. She’s from South Korea. She grew til she was like 5 in Seoul, and then was adopted to a family in Chicago that also ended up hosting my dad as an exchange student. That’s how they met. It’s crazy–like all the way across the globe. Shit happens.


Is music your full-time job?

Right now I actually have two careers: music, and I also do glass blowing. I do cold working, which is kinda like detailing glass pieces–it’s a lot of fun.


That’s pretty sick. How did you get into glass blowing?

Life, man. What happened was I decided to leave college on some cliche artist shit, and when I left, a friend of mine was just like ‘yo, if you want some pocket change, I could use some help around my [glass] studio.’


Who are some of the other artists that have influenced you?

When I got into rap, it was a lot of mixtape Wayne back in the day. … Kendrick Lamar back in the day, like “Overly Dedicated”. I used to heavily rock with The Cool Kids. I had a J Cole phase in college too.


When did you start rapping?

I got into the idea of music when I was in about 8th grade. I would joke around, but everyday I would just make these stupid songs about what happened at school. Then I really got into music around my junior year of high school. I hate this name, but I called myself ‘The Nicest’ at that time. Then around my senior year I changed to SoloSam.


What made you leave college?

I was at Valparaiso University in Indiana, and I was playing football there. Then after like 3 weeks of football camp they come to me and tell me I’m .5 credits short on an art requirement to play in the NCAA, so I had to sit out a semester. During that semester, I started working on music and I made my first project called “Off-Season”. Then when I came back the next year, I quit football and decided to just do music. The coaches were pissed, but the other players thought it was dope. Eventually, I decided to leave school to pursue music.


How did you realize that music was what you wanted to do with your life?

I was going through so much shit. I wasn’t even set on going to college, but they had ball there. I wasn’t even really into football, but my grades weren’t that bad and I knew football could get me into a good school. After going through a month of hell and then finding out I couldn’t even play, I was really depressed. That’s when I started fucking with music and realized that I really loved it. I really didn’t care about anything as much as I care about music.

Could you tell me about the EPOCH project you dropped in 2016?

That was really just rebranding. Before I dropped the EP, I had like 89 songs on my Soundcloud. I just decided to restart and EPOCH was the start more of a real, legitimate brand. … I feel like I cluttered my music career, like when you clutter your desktop on your computer and you just gotta move shit. I had to take all that down, professionally record a project and grow in the Chicago music scene and as an artist in general.


You mention rebranding. How would you describe your current “brand” or what your style is as an artist?

I would say individuality and self-love. I feel like so many people stray so far away from loving themselves and hate to be alone, but I enjoy being alone. Just understanding that you can be your own support system and that’s the best way you can be a support system for somebody else–you’re internally strong.


Does that concentration on self-love influence your songwriting too?

I feel like I have a very conversational style of music. Of course there are gonna be songs that you can vibe to, but there are also gonna be songs that might be a conversation between me and the listener where I say something that’s very common to anybody that’s alive.


What would you say distinguishes you from other rappers coming up in Chicago?

The thing that not necessarily separates me from other Chicago artists but that solidifies me as a person is the way I look at the significance of what rap is. I know the strength of what I’m doing, and therefore, I’m able to create music that’s not focussed on what’s around me or influenced by what everybody else is making. I can make music for the purpose of making music. Music is one of the purest things ever. It’s untouched. I’m able to dial in on the growth of my own music.


Do you find that staying true to your own path makes it harder when you’re not also conforming to what sounds popular at the moment?

No. Nothing’s popular or cool until it is. A trend is set by the person, not by the thing itself. Everybody can wear the same high-waisted pants, but it’s not until you see A$AP Rocky put on those pants that you realize it’s relevant. It just comes down to a point where people get bored of what they’re hearing, and they’re gonna want something different. Then the fuck would I look like if I decided to change everything I’m about to be something that nobody cares about anymore.


You refer to “the strength” of rap. Does that connect to when you couldn’t play football and first discovered your love for music?

Yeah. I remember listening to some Lil Wayne songs that were just crazy. I think it was “Sky’s The Limit” where he’s just like, “I’m probably in the sky, flying with the fishes // Or maybe in the ocean, swimming with the pigeons // See my world is different like Dwayne Wayne // And if you want trouble, bitch, I want the same thing”. When I heard that, I thought it was so cool the way he would paint these unfathomable images with what he was saying. That shit was amazing to me.


Wayne is definitely the best at those mind-bending type bars.

Yeah man, people try and disregard how dope he was, but Lil Wayne is the reason a lot of things are the way they are. From the people you hear to the way rappers rap, there was a time when no metaphor could be said like Lil Wayne, and freestyled too. No one could do it as good as Lil Wayne could do it.


I saw one of your shows where you performed in the crowd, like really up close with people. Is that something you planned or was it a spontaneous move?

That’s something I do because I lowkey hate stages. I don’t want you to feel like I’m performing at you from this platform. The reason I get in the crowd is because when you get down there, the crowd gets into the presence of the music. It’s not like I’m rapping at you–I’m rapping with you. It’s a conversation. That’s when my raps come to life because I can relay that to you and people can interact with it. By the end of the show, I can get back on stage and people are more engaged. It allows people to realize that I want them to find something they love as much as I love this.


Could you tell me about what inspired your song “The Come-Up”?

That’s what I’m on in 2018, I’m really trying to have a breakthrough artist year. I want people to be a part of that process, not just supporting me, but supporting the idea of success. Whatever you do, I’m trying to support that just like you support me.


What’s your process like when you record a song?

Writing can be done in like 10-15 minutes if it’s there. … Like I said, I have a conversational style so it’s not about what punch line might sound good. It’s just like if I was talking. It’s a thread of ideas and thoughts. There’s so much in the beat that could make you feel a certain way, and that’s where the song comes from.

What drove you to make your ITIS project?

“ITIS” is just a variety platter of my production with my rapping to give people SoloSam as a complete artist. I’ve been working on it since November. There’s also this overarching project I’m working on called “Egocentrism”. That could be after “ITIS” or two projects down the road, but it’s very important to me. It’s gonna be pretty much the peak of the self-love movement–that’s what my goal is.

It’s funny because when people think of egocentric, you see yourself as the center of the universe. Technically, there is a negative connotation to it, but also seeing yourself centered in the universe can also mean [you’re] grounded. I do think that there are times where it’s important to put yourself at the center of the universe. In the chaos of life and being for everybody else, sometimes you just need to be for yourself. A lot of people need that shit.


From an artist’s perspective, do you find people are open to collaborating within the Chicago scene?

It’s inspiring, but at times I find it to oversaturated with so many people willing to throw themselves out as an unfinished product. It’s not that I don’t collab, but I want to be a complete artist before I start doing that. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would rather focus on my self-development than on shopping myself out at early stages. After “ITIS”, I’m gonna be collaborating more.


With the oversaturation that you mention, how do you set yourself apart?

You just gotta keep working on what you’re doing, who you are and the music you make. Like in any other field when you realize there are thousands of other people, to be the best at it you gotta focus on yourself and being the best version of that. If you already instinctively have the want and the need to be the best at something, then that’s instilled in you. By being the best version of yourself, you’re always gonna be going with that goal in mind. Try and be better within yourself every day.


That’s kind of like the Jimmy Iovine quote about having blinders on, not worrying about what other people are doing.

Yeah, like last year all my friends and other people would tell me about how they were going to SXSW. It wasn’t my time to go to SXSW. It’s one of those things where I could’ve checked someone else’s Instagram all day and see how much fun they were having, or I could spend the next year working so that I could go for myself.

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