I’m as open as I can be to what life has to offer. Everyone is “The Guru” if you’re listening.
L.A. VanGogh x Evan Dale // April 7, 2020
Wide-ranging in both his understanding of music and his understanding of what music is capable of providing for those who need its healing powers the most, Chicago artist and Open Mic night host, L.A. VanGogh is a man of community and an artist of transcendence. His music is really of its own making, though draws inspiration from a range of R&B, Soul, and hip-hop names past and present. And his name - one consistent with Chicago as an creativity-centric community and with the world of art through the epochs - is one everyone in the realm of hip-hop and inventive Neo-Soul is bound to keep hearing more of with each passing release. We spoke with him on influence, community, mental health, his most recent project, and more.
RNGLDR: It seems that partly thanks to technology that has given artists access to a wider range of instrumentation and production, and party thanks to the internet that has given everyone in the world access to a wider array of music, we’ve entered a moment of musical history that has largely eclipsed genre at least in its traditional sense. More than ever, artists are existing in a transcendent lane that allows them to explore every corner of their musicality. Rappers sing, singers produce, and producers rap. Would you consider yourself more the product of a modern scene that allows transcendent musicians to thrive, or more of a conglomerate of past influences that manifested themselves within you as a wide-ranging artist?
L.A. VanGogh: Wow. That’s a hell of a question to start on. I would say the latter. I’ve always had passions in all 3 roles of rapping, singing, and producing. Since I was younger, most people saw me as musically talented and before age 15 most that knew I was into music, knew I sang. I had always been into writing and poetry so my passion for rapping felt like a natural extension of that. Producing was out of necessity more than interest. I like having control with my music.
RNGLDR: Speaking on wide range, who are some of your musical influences that grant a glimpse into the rangy scope of the musical styles you pursue?
L.A. VanGogh: Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Outkast, Future, Drake, to name a few. I would even throw The Singers Unlimited in there, too. Oh, yeah and a lot of 90s R&B.
RNGLDR: And speaking on a lack of definability, what would you call your musical style if you had to come up with a name for it outside of any labeling for traditional genres?
L.A. VanGogh: I like to think of my creative style like a martial art. As Bruce Lee would say “my form is to have no form.” I practice the art of “shapeshifting” in my music.
RNGLDR: Versatility is a term placarded on the work of a lot of artists these days. As a songwriter, a vocalist, a producer, and a rapper what does the term versatility mean for you in your creative life? And how does that translate into being versatile in your personal life?
L.A. VanGogh: Humanity is complex. Emotions are versatile once you accept the wide spectrum you experience. Versatility is finding and using as many techniques as possible. Each technique draws on different ranges of emotion. For creativity, there are different writing, production, and vocal techniques I use to achieve certain textures, moods. For my life, there are routines and techniques that give me a certain level of content and peace. I’ve always been interested in the “why?” of things, ya know. Being infinitely curious leads me many places and those places often send me back home with useful information. Each time I wander off to one of these “places,” I come back more versatile. I’m as open as I can be to what life has to offer. Everyone is “The Guru” if you’re listening.
RNGLDR: Your most recent project, Drawback feels like a thesis on the range of your music. How did the process towards Drawback – your first project since 2018 – begin?
L.A. VanGogh: A thesis! I like that. It’s exactly that. It’s a sampler dish. It’s “hey, this is the look and sound of things to come.” There is a flood of music to come behind this that will expand on the ideas you hear on Drawback. It all started when I began missing the fun in music. For me, that was rapping over other people’s beats and just lyricallym destroying them. I miss that mixtape era feeling. I wanted to make something that was fun for me. It mentally took me back to being in high school when I really fell in love with music and was creating to have fun, not to reach a certain playlist or certain demographic. I was just rapping to show other people “yo I can rap and I love this shit” I honestly just wanted to put something out for folks to listen to for free on Soundcloud or Audiomack. Give people something new since it’s been a while since my last release.
RNGLDR: What did you aim to accomplish with Drawback that you feel you didn’t with your other projects: Everything is Subjective: Episodes 1 & 2?
L.A. VanGogh: I wanted to prove to myself that I was certain caliber of rapper. I wanted to be more in tune with my emotions for this project, more fluid flows and vulnerability. I also mixed and mastered it myself, too just to challenge my ear as an engineer. I like that part of the process a lot. It taught me a lot.
RNGLDR: And what do you think you accomplished in particular with Drawback that could have only come to fruition as a result of working through the processes of multiple other projects and intermittent singles?
L.A. VanGogh: Drawback was, for me, majority created with only my taste and desires in music in mind. There was no creating for the playlist, creating to go viral. That kind of mental freedom is great.
RNGLDR: You sample Kendrick Lamar’s DNA, PARTYNEXTDOOR’s Come and See Me, and Drake’s Passionfruit on three tracks throughout Drawback. What differing influences have the three artists played in your own creative sphere? And which if any do you think has been the most influential on your sound?
L.A. VanGogh: Throughout the project I either sample, or directly reference artists that inspired me to make music when I first fell in love with it. In addition to what you mentioned, there’s J. Cole’s Severed Heart, a sample that Wiz Khalifa used on Ink My Whole Body from his mixtape Star Power, 50 Cent’s Many Men, and another Kendrick song, Sing About Me. Out of all of them, Kendrick has done the best job of showing me the possibilities of versatility in the 2010s as well as being a well-respected lyricist. He’s the most influential to my sound. Drake & PARTY: I feel I share with them similar tastes in moods. The minor keys, the big drums, the melodies. I love that side of creating as much as I love a good lyrical onslaught.
RNGLDR: And of the three projects the samples are taken from – DAMN., P3, and More Life – respectively, which do you think you consciously or subconsciously drew more influence from for Drawback?
L.A. VanGogh: None of them really. I didn’t really replay P3 or More Life much. Drawback is more closely akin to J. Cole’s Warm Up or Lil Wayne’s mixtapes than they are to any of these 3 projects.
RNGLDR: While on the subject of influences, we run a series called Collab Elation where we explore hypothetical collaborations that we want to hear in the music industry. So, if you collaborate with Kendrick, PARTY, or Drake, who would you choose, and why?
L.A. VanGogh: I’d work with all 3 of them honestly. PARTY is a great songwriter, Drake is… Drake, and Kendrick is a master of his craft. I would go into those collaborations with my eyes and ears open to learn. I wouldn’t turn down any of those.
RNGLDR: What about collaboration with any other artist in music past or present?
L.A. VanGogh: I would just love to sit in with all the greats and learn more about the process of creating. Great songwriters being the top of my list. Frank Ocean is one of those people. Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock would be lit. And lord, me and D’Angelo?? Maxwell?? Jay-Z?? Travis Scott?? There’s a singer named Dijon. Zack Villere. Little Dragon. TORO Y MOI! There’s a lot man, you damn near gotta ask me collaborations per genre per decade.
RNGLDR: And if you could have any two artists collaborate with one another – excluding yourself – who would you want to see working together? Why?
L.A. VanGogh: I wonder what Frank Ocean and Stevie Wonder would write together.
RNGLDR: We also run a narrative series called Dream Venue taking the reader on an ideal journey that culminates in the ultimate live show in the perfect setting. If you could experience a Dream Venue, how would your journey unfold, where would you end up, and who would be performing there?
L.A. VanGogh: Alright, so it’s a festival where everyone is wearing their comfiest house shoes, there’s an open weed bar, inflatable massage chairs, vegan pizza and the best steak tacos ever, a kick-ass sound system, and everyone is comfortably seated. We’re outdoors btw, near the Pyramids of Giza, matter of fact, under a 70 degree lightly windy day, no clouds. And it’s a weekend festival where I get to see Lupe Fiasco, D’Angelo, Little Dragon, Travis Scott (Travis live is life-changing man), Kid Cudi, Pre-Yeezus Kanye West, The Carpenters, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Amy Winehouse, Chaka Khan, Smino, Beyonce, Maxwell, Tribe Called Quest w/ Phife, Kendrick, Tyler, and Benny Sings. Woo, that was a lot, are ya still there?
RNGLDR: And in the opposite direction, what would be your Dream Venue as the artist performing?
L.A. VanGogh: Okay this is a little scary, but, in a space station in front of a window looking out at the planet Jupiter. You’d buy tickets to that right?
RNGLDR: Speaking on concerts and live performance, you’ve spoken quite a bit on being a product of the Chicago open mic scene. As a young artist, what was the most valuable thing you got out of performing at open mic nights?
L.A. VanGogh: There is no match to the wordsmiths that come out of Chicago. LIKE, NONE. The experience of crowd control, using just words and body language, no outstanding singing voice, just your BARS and the people. If you do it well, that stage confidence can transfer so many places. Not only to be spitting some dope techniques, but to be informative as well. The open mic scene has shown tremendous vulnerability as well as strength to be engaged communally.
RNGLDR: To this day, you run open mic nights, helping young talent throughout Chicago’s South Side explore their musicality and grow. How has transforming from being a performer at open mic nights to a host changed your perspective on music?
L.A. VanGogh: It hasn’t really.
RNGLDR: And who are some names that you’ve come across through Chicago’s open mic scene that you think we should be on the lookout for?
L.A. VanGogh: My boy A. Leon is tight. Brandon Alexander Williams (f.k.a. Real T@lk) is a literary savant. Defcee - monster. Harold Green - Chicago legend. A lot of folks you may already know about: Kembe X, Alex Wiley, Chance of course, Saba, PIVOT Gang, Jean Deaux, Raych Jackson, Noname, Add-2, Jamila Woods, femdot., we all come from that same era of open mics across Chicago.
RNGLDR: Beyond being a catalyst for young local artists to explore their creativity and flourish as performers, you’ve also put a lot of time and effort into working as an advocate in the realm of mental health. Why is the mental health sphere so important to you?
L.A. VanGogh: In school, we weren’t taught about emotional intelligence formally. A lot of us have a hard time dealing with our emotions. I wish I had learned some of the things I’m learning now earlier in life, like recognizing self-shame, codependency, family trauma, etc. It’s had an adverse effect on how I’ve developed as a human. My lack of dealing with it is a good starting point for what I deal with personally. In short, I just pass along info that has been helpful for me. I think more people need that than I can account for.
RNGLDR: Hip-hop, though traditionally so staunch in its braggadocio and materialism, has been making some necessary directional steps to become vulnerable; steps to becoming an outlet for artists who may be struggling with mental health issues as well as a common voice for listeners who may need something more tangible to relate to. What do you think is to thank for the recent changes in hip-hop’s view of mental health? And what would you like to see continue in order to keep a train of positivity moving?
L.A. VanGogh: I think it’s always been there. It’s just always been tucked away under different tones. “My Mind Is Playing Tricks On Me” is a good example. I think the topics of mental health bode well over moody music, and over the past 10 years, hip-hop has come to embrace moody over male bravado. I would like to see more strategic partnerships between artists and mental health resources at large. The conversation is being had, but only the tip of the iceberg is being scraped on a mass level. Have we ever stopped to think why we’re so anxious? So depressed? Shoutout to my country, but there sure is a lot to be worried about within the past 20 years (and honestly longer than that if you’re of color in this country). There’s a huge personal element to everyone’s trauma, and there’s also a social element, a collective trauma, that we endure, some more than others. Listeners over the years have gravitated towards those things that speak to our collective traumas and hopefully, triumphs. I’m still figuring out what I’d really like to see moving this forward. The vulnerability is a tremendous start though.
RNGLDR: As an artist and an advocate for those struggling with mental health, what would be the ultimate outcome for you merging the lanes you’re so passionate about to change both music and our world’s understanding of mental health for the better?
L.A. VanGogh: Let’s just say I’ve got things in the works with regard to that. I’m not ready to speak on them, yet, but I think they’re wonderful!
RNGLDR: With so much on your plate at all times, what’s next musically, communally, and socially for L.A. VanGogh?
L.A. VanGogh: Musically, there is music coming. So much great music coming. Communally, I’m open to ways to enmesh my passion for political and social change. I’m still defining my purpose in my purpose, and uncovering it. I think more importantly than art right now. Our world needs a change. Our system, capitalism is bound to make some changes. I’m ready to rethink all of this. That’s been on my mind more than music these days. I want to make some real change in the world with music just being a catalyst that helps me build resources to do that.