Emilio Rojas Slams Out Of Touch Label Executives; Advocates Reaching Fans Directly
Exclusive: "Zero Fucks Given," Emilio Rojas' newest release, bends toward storytelling over "turn up" while the emcee reveals his inspirations, and why this is his best work.
Even as his initial incarnation, Raks One, Emilio Rojas revelled in the art of storytelling. It’s what attracted him to the artform; the idea of spinning his life into a yarn that both connected and revealed. Whether he’s weaving the intricacies of his father’s abandonment at the tender age of ten, or the plight of his hometown friends, or even his experiences on the torn sail of modern relationships, the half-White, half-Venezuelan emcee has led a life as sporadic as the raps he delivers. However, despite Rojas’ bare-it-all approach, both listeners and record execs alike still can’t quite put their finger on him.
One reason may be that Rojas intersects with more than a few spaces as an individual and as an artist. He is in many ways running along multiple paths, from his mixed race and his reluctance to being pigeonholed, to his dedication to his brand despite offers from major labels, and his mantra, Zero Fucks Given, while showing empathy for those people and characters his bars give life to. Then, to this he adds a level of keen introspection, revelatory personal details, and sharp tongued societal critique making him just off-center enough to escape categorization.
His latest single, “167,” is another example of this. It’s an ode to his new home, Washington Heights, although he proudly hails from Rochester and began to really make waves living in Brooklyn. It speaks to the stark realities of life in a place where all aspects of society can’t trust each other. He slathers uptown for emphasis, and it might even lead you to believe he grew up above a bodega on 167th and St. Nick, but, as legendary emcee Rakim once flowed, “It ain’t where you from, it's where you at.” And wherever the Rochester emcee calls home, it’s story is one he is always willing and more than able to tell.
Emilio Rojas Clarifies Statements From “Zero Fucks Given (Intro)”
HipHopDX: It’s been about three weeks since you officially dropped Zero Fucks Given. What’s the response been like so far?
Emilio Rojas: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I feel that it’s my best project to date. We’ve been quiet for a minute. So being quiet for that long and then coming back and having the people embrace your release is always a good thing. There were a lot of things that we kind of had to adjust to and now we’re back. People are fucking with us and that’s good..to have the fans still fuck with you even though you been quiet for a minute.
DX: You kind of addressed the fans on the first track off the mixtape, saying, “People with the most opinions are the least invested.” Can you break that down?
Emilio Rojas: That wasn’t really a shot at the fans. I love my fans. That’s more... anybody who’s not involved with this situation is always trying to give input that may or may not be welcome. You know, like if you sitting in the tour bus with somebody and they’re like, “Yo, you should let me do this.” Or you be walking around in the street, and people be like, “Yo, this and this should happen.” Everybody has their own opinion about what they want to see you do with your career and your art. They may not know your end game. They may not [know] your goals, your motivation. They don’t really know anything you put into it to have a right to have that [to] say.
DX: Does that frustrate you?
Emilio Rojas: I feel like it’s a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it shows that people feel that I should be a little bit further in my career, which is a good thing to hear. Because people are like, “Yo, you should be a bigger artist,” and I agree. But, it’s like, I know that [laughs]. You know what I mean? I know that. So saying it to me when you haven’t done anything to help me do that, doesn’t really help me either. You’re kind of just beating a dead horse. That shit just gets kind of annoying. People telling me, “You’re underrated.” I know I’m underrated. I respect it from fans and I respect it from people—but yo, don't give me ideas if you’re not going to help me implement them. It’s one thing to say that I deserve more. It’s another thing to say, “You should be doing this, this, and this,” when you really have no idea what we’re doing.
DX: You seem to be a very patient guy, ‘cause I’ve seen your interviews before. I saw your interview, specifically with DJ Drama, and he was asking you about your signings and everything. But you were more focused on just building the brand. You seem to get this idea of building the brand and these peaking moments.
How Appreciating His Fanbase Has Benefited Emilio Rojas
Emilio Rojas: Yeah, I mean. As far as the labels go… I remember that Drama interview. My motivation, it’s not like a patience thing it’s more like a… The situation has to be right. I’ve been in a lot of scenarios. I’ve been in meetings where you have these label heads try to come up and talk to me and try to put me in a box just because I’m Latino. That’s not even me. They want me to go wave a Venezuelan flag, and I’m half white. That’s what my music reflects more is being biracial, being Latin, being white. Part of this cultural melting pot. For someone to come down, name drop Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias for 30 minutes... That’s how some of these label executives were for a long time in my career. We’ll take these meetings, and we’ll sit down with presidents and vice presidents of labels, and they would be ready to offer contracts. They would sit there and play records and as soon as you press play on a record, all they do is text on their phone. As soon as the record’s over, they look up for two seconds like, “Yeah, I was just with Enrique and we did this.” It’s just like, “Yo, what the fuck you talking to me about Enrique Iglesias for? I don’t care.” Like, I fuck with Enrique Iglesias, but what does that have to do with me? I think that’s reflective of the music industry as a whole. You have these people that are so detached from the culture of Hip Hop and what’s going on with urban culture in America and youth culture. They try to dictate it from these ivory towers, and they really just don’t have any business doing that. The more I sat with these people, the more disenfranchised with that whole system I became. So, it went from being patient to wanting to do something a little different. Right now, we’ve been relevant for a couple years, truly independent artists. We’re not faking independent like a lot of these artists that are signed to major labels are nowadays. They come out independent with major funding. We just recently did a deal with Empire; they’re a part of Warner but we’re not signed to Warner. We’re over at Empire with Ghazi [Shami], and I think Ghazi is super brilliant. He’s very progressive. He understands new media. We want to do cool shit. Now more than ever is a really perfect time where you can really target the fans directly and make a comfortable living doing whatever it is that is satisfying to you and your core without compromising your integrity.
DX: So that is the camp you’re signed with now?
Emilio Rojas: Yeah, we did a deal with Empire. Still the same place. It’s more like a partnership.
DX: What ever happened to you and the MMG camp?
Emilio Rojas: MMG? What happened to me and MMG? No, Ross shouted me out, did a lot of positive things for my career. I think his interest went a little bit further than his ability to influence the people above him and putting things in motion. I’m really appreciative of the things that he did over there, and I still talk with the cats over there so it’s all love. That shit is all cool.
DX: What is some advice you would give to someone maybe a few steps back from where you’re at in your career, in order to get to your point?
Emilio Rojas: Me, just recently I decided I had to start doing what I was doing in the beginning of my career. Just keep doing your work. Like, keep getting your fans. That’s what this is about at the end of the day. The fans are going to put food on your table. You’ve got to appreciate them, you got to interact with them. You got to meet them and treat them. You got to care about your fans. It sucks [that] you see artists nowadays being so dismissive of their fans. I’m not going to name names, but I saw on Twitter today a major artist shitting on one of his fans because the fan had bought something, a physical copy of one of his releases, and asked for MP3s as well. Instead of being decent, like, “Oh, you paid for the physical, cool. Have the MP3s ‘cause you already supported,” you just saw this artist condescend the fan and treat the fan like they were less than he was. Like, we’re in the same boat. The fans put us where we are. It’s a mutually beneficial situation. We help the fans enjoy their day with the music, and they let us enjoy our life so you got to appreciate that shit. You can’t just lose track of that. Shake every hand, talk to everybody that you can ‘cause you want everybody to feel like they’re a part of what you’re building because they are.
Why Emilio Rojas Advocates Putting Your Soul On Wax
DX: It's pretty much a continuation of your brand and the lyricism that you bring. What made you want to tell stories in your music?
Emilio Rojas: Ah shit, I’m from New York, man. I don’t mean that in the cocky way. But I feel that’s very much a part of New York Hip Hop. I think if New York Hip Hop was more about this, we’d have a bigger place. You know who’s doing it very successfully right now, is Kendrick. He’s not from New York but he’s a story teller. J. Cole is a story teller. At the end of the day, that Trap, turn-up shit only lasts for so long. It’s not timeless. You can go to a club, you can get Rosé, you can drink, you can stand on a couch, but you still got to deal with yourself in five years. You still got to look back and remember shit. I want people to remember things that are impactful not just the bullshit. I like my bullshit too. I like to have fun. I like to be well-rounded. Life is about many different things. It’s about having fun, it’s about falling in love, it’s about falling out of love, it’s about trusting people, it’s about people violating your trust, it’s about building relationships, it’s about rebuilding bonds and it’s about learning.
DX: What do you feel makes you so comfortable in revealing some of your personal details? Like, you talk about your father stepping out at age six or seven?
Emilio Rojas: Seven. Yeah, my parents got divorced at seven and then he bounced for good when I was like, 10. He left forever. Deadbeat.
DX: What makes you so comfortable in being able to share that in the platform of music?
Emilio Rojas: It’s not an uncommon story, unfortunately. So I think my responsibility as an artist is to use that platform in a way that helps people get through things that maybe they might need a little help through. I was 10-years old. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. [When] I was eight or nine, I saw my mother get dragged down flights of stairs by her hair. I saw the abuse. I saw the way all that shit impacted a family. I’ve seen the way it affected my sister growing up without a male role model. I personally felt it myself.
DX: You have talked about your sister and her sexual orientation...
Emilio Rojas: I’ve mentioned [it] once. I think, the way that I dealt with it.
DX: Has she said anything about that to you?
Emilio Rojas: Nah, I love my sister. When she first came out, I never had a problem. I’m very supportive of gay rights and all that. I never had a problem with it, but it would be like one of those things, you know, when you and your brother get in a fight and you say fucked up shit? Looking back on the shit that I did as a child dealing with… not even dealing with it, ‘cause it’s not up to me to deal with it. That is very narcissistic. The way I reacted to it was totally inappropriate. My sister is a great person. She’s brilliant. She loves people for who they are. She doesn’t get caught up in gender, and she’s just a very genuine person. If she enjoys you as a person, she enjoys you as a person. I’m supportive of that. I want her to be happy, and I want my mother to be happy. I feel that everybody deserves happiness unless you a piece of shit, [then] you don’t deserve shit. Feel me?
DX: Have you ever gotten called out from any of the women you’ve been with for mentioning them in your songs in either a direct or indirect way? I’m guessing a song like “Bitch Is Crazy” is inspired in some way by real life.
Emilio Rojas: Yo, ‘cause bitches are fucking crazy. I love women, but I love crazy women. Girls know they’re fucking crazy. My girl was back there when I wrote it. She was like, “Oh yeah, I do do that.” She knows. But it’s not a big deal.
DX: You kind of gave two sides. You have the “Bitch Is Crazy” song, and then you have the other track where you mention your girl and you mention the personal struggle of her parents trying to accept you...
Emilio Rojas: Yeah, this is the way I put it when I deal with a girl or women. I tell them at the beginning, “I’m not shit.” I got to let them know. “Look, I’m not shit now, I never have been shit and I probably never will be shit. I just got to warn you. I’m kind of a fuck up. I don’t deal with relationships well. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you, it just means I got to work harder to do right, and I’m working.”
DX: So that they don’t get any misconceptions.
Emilio Rojas: Yeah, you got to let people know what they’re getting themselves into.
DX: In “The Only One,” you say, “Steve Jobs is fucking up the game.” That made me laugh. Can you give your breakdown on social media/phones and how they affect modern relationships?
Emilio Rojas: Alright, so, it makes cheating really hard. It’s so hard to cheat ‘cause these bitches go through your Twitter, go to your Facebook, go to your Instagram. Apple killed the game with the block feature, right? But you block the number and it goes to a block list. So if someone goes to your phone and they see a number’s blocked on your block list, they’re going to be like, “Well, why the fuck is the number on the block list? What are you trying to hide?” It’s just fucking up everything. You got iCloud, you got girls screenshot-ing text messages. The whole player game is just fucked up. [Laughs] It’s better to just do right. I learned, and I’ve been doing right for like a year. It’s much better. Karma is easier when you treat your woman right. When you hold your girl down, things are just ten times more satisfying. Your girl treats you better, food tastes better.
Emilio Rojas On Touring & The Perception Of Latinos In Hip Hop
DX: Speaking of technology, how do you feel about the music industry being so single-driven, like iTunes, instead of focusing on full albums?
Emilio Rojas: I mean, I think it is from a sales perspective, yeah. But you got a lot of these artists who have huge singles who can’t even do a show. You can make the argument that it’s singles-driven, but you can also make the flip argument. If you look at an artist like Flatbush Zombies for example, or a group like Flatbush Zombies or like, Action Bronson, they don’t necessarily have smash hit records but they sell out shows all across the country. That’s amazing. I think the old model, like the people who I would sit down and take those meetings with, that would drop Enrique Iglesias, those are the same people who still focus on singles, but that’s because they’re 50 years old and completely out of touch with what’s going on in the world today.
DX: Let’s talk about “167.” So can you explain your ties to Washington Heights?
Emilio Rojas: I live there, that’s my block.
DX: You moved there from Rochester right?
Emilio Rojas: Yeah, I first moved to Brooklyn. I lived on my block for about five years.
DX: What made you pick Washington Heights as a place to move?
Emilio Rojas: I got into an unfortunate situation in Brooklyn. I caught an assault case. I had roommates at the time. One of my roommates put his hand on a female friend of mine in a physically abusive way. He slammed her arm in the door like five or six times, so I fucked him up because he deserved it. And then he called the cops, got a restraining order and then I had to get out [laughs]. So I just left. That was the only spot I could find in three days notice. It worked out. Yeah, I’d do it again. But they dropped the charge. They gave me an APB or whatever, so it’s all good.
DX: So when you dropped it, there wasn’t any confusion about you being from Rochester and then you doing a song about the Heights right?
Emilio Rojas: I mean, there was. People from home were like, “Yo, you from Rochester, why ain’t you reppin’ Rochester.” I’m like, “I never stopped reppin’ Rochester, but I’ve been in New York almost 10 years.” How long am I going to talk about a place that I haven’t lived in for 10 years? It doesn’t mean I don’t have love for it, or like, it’s not home. It’s always going to be home, but it’s not where I’m at, it’s not where I’ve been.
DX: In Zero Fucks Given, you also take a risky move by covering “Dead Presidents.” What made you want to grab that track and rework it?
Emilio Rojas: Yo, I bodied that record too, by the way. My man Audio, my main producer—this kid Audio Jones from Miami, he’s super dope—he's been sending me a lot of old Hip Hop classics with like, a newer sound. I was like, “Oh, that shit’s hard.” Simple as that [laughs].
But, it was about one of my people’s people’s that got himself into a situation, so I just told that story. He’s from Rochester, actually, for everyone who thinks I forgot. It was an unfortunate situation. True story. Someone we are all acquainted with back home got caught up on some street shit, unfortunately. He got shot by a couple of police officers. It is what it is. I feel like that’s not even, you know... I try to stay away from the dope boy, violent shit in my music. But coming from where I come, and being from where I’m at now, it’s hard to avoid it all the time, especially knowing the people that I know. I’m like a New York J. Cole or Kendrick type of artist where I talk about personal issues, family issues, the more street issues with a conscience to it and relationship issues, life issues. That kind of stuff.
DX: You are definitely the most exposed rapper of Venezuelan descent. How does the narrative of a half Venezuelan kid compare to what’s been covered in Rap so far for Latinos, which is the Mexican-American experience or the Puerto Rican experience?
Emilio Rojas: I think Latinos in Hip Hop in the past have been covered in almost an entirely kingpin standpoint. Such a huge emphasis has [been] placed on the drug culture and cocaine, you know, images like Scarface, being a drug kingpin. I think that shit is just so fucking tired, yo. I’m sick of hearing about poppy heads, sick of hearing about Spanish drug dealers on the fucking block. Like, there’s so much more to Hispanic culture than that. We have a rich culture heritage. Traditionally, Latinos especially, we’re fighters. We’re fighting now. We fight for our freedoms, and we fight for our women. There’s just so much more to it than that, so I think that makes me unique, especially in the realm of being a Latino artist because I don't fall into the drug dealer cliche, which is so tired to me.
I think being a drug dealer in Hip Hop is so tired in general. Alright, cool. I grew up with mad drug dealers. I live on a very heavy drug block right now, okay. Nobody likes looking both ways when they walk out of their building. I think that's why 50 was so dope. 50 talked about being involved in the street shit but not enjoying it. Like I can tell a mothafucker who’s never been caught up in some shit, two bars in. Like, you’re going to talk about drug shit, alright. The way you talk about it, I know you never been caught up in it. All my people, everybody I was around—nobody liked it. Nobody wanted to talk about it in that light. Everybody was reluctantly involved. It was always just a way to make things work that they always wanted to get out of. Like, I got people now who hustle who are just like, “Yo, I got to get a job.” That drug dealer cliche is so tired to me, especially with Spanish artists. We don’t need to be Scarface. What happened to being Don Juan? What happened to being Simón Bolívar? What can’t you be someone who liberates the culture. Why can’t you be Che Guevara?
Emilio Rojas Reflects On Hugo Chavez’s Ideology
DX: What were your thoughts about the former President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez who just passed away in 2013?
Emilio Rojas: I think [like] Chavez from an ideological standpoint. I’m going to say his policies in theory made a lot of sense, just like with Castro or any communist leader. But anytime you have a president or a leader of a country that needs to strengthen his rule with military force, obviously there’s a lot of shit that’s going wrong. I actually was reading his autobiography, [and] they said he ruled Venezuela from under the shadow of a gun. It’s just like a super powerful image. I feel like that’s the easiest way to paint the picture. Like, just imagine that.
DX: The women from Venezuela are known for a high use of plastic surgery. There was a New York Times story about how the mannequins were being altered to reflect extreme proportions on the women there. Have you had any first hand encounter with this?
Emilio Rojas: Shit, you see that in the Heights man [laughs]. That’s not even a lie. Like, plastic surgery is big everywhere. You go to the Heights, you got bitches who walk around with… getting ass injections like the shit was, you know. Shit is crazy. Bitches can float from the ass up. The mannequins in the Heights, they all got the joints in the back. Venezuelan women... like my girl right now is beautiful. She’s from Carracas. She’s from Petare, which is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world. No plastic surgery. Stunning. She’s absolutely beautiful.
DX: So you got a new project already lined up, Life Got In The Way EP with Audio Jones. What can you tell us about this project?
Emilio Rojas: Life Got In The Way, it’s all produced by my man, Audio Jones. He did most of the tracks on this last mixtape. It’s coming out through Empire. We got no definitive release date. I’m waiting for a couple of the features to come back. So far, I have a crazy record with Sebastian Mikael. It's called “No Good.“ We're going to [put] out “Bitch Is Crazy“ on there with Joe [Budden]. Yeah, there’s going to be a bunch of other records on there. The thing about Zero Fucks Given is that it’s 11 tracks, but you’re still able to have that rollercoaster feel that every album kind of needs. You know, from getting to a point and then coming back to it. I really like Zero Fucks Given, bro. I feel like this is my best project ever. Before there were projects where I can definitely say there were filler records. I can say without flinching that there is not one filler record on this project. It deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting. This shit deserves to be in the list, yo. I’m one of the best. Like, literally I’m one of the best. This project is reflective of that. It has records, it has lyrics. It has dope ass production. I feel like the reason it’s getting such a good response from my fans is that we got to all those places. Hopefully it just grows from there. We’re doing everything now that we can.