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Russ to Fellow White Artists: ‘If You’ve Benefitted Financially Off of Black Culture, You Need to Put Money Back In’

The outspoken rapper and newly independent artist riffs on the music industry, raves over Rihanna and implores his peers to do more.

Russ
'Donte' Maurice

New Jersey-born, Atlanta-bred artist Russ first came onto the scene in 2015 with the track “What They Want,” an underground hit that led him a major label deal with Columbia Records and the release of his platinum-certified debut, “There’s Really a Wolf.”

But it was a major cosign from Rihanna, who shouted out his “Best On Earth” — with the lyrics: “She knows what the f– is up / I don’t gotta dumb it down / Tatted like Rihanna / P–y singing like it’s Run The Town” — as her “new fav song” to more than 80 million Instagram followers, that truly launched him into the Zeitgeist.

A prolific writer who hails from a musical household, Russ’ rap and R&B-flavored tracks have contributed in no small part to his ever-growing fanbase, but the 27-year-old born Russell James Vitale is also a published author, community activist and philanthropist. He’s also newly independent, having fulfilled his contract with the Sony Music label, and releasing new music, like the just-released “Live From the Villa,” as Russ revealed in an interview with Variety.

How has your creativity adapted to COVID-19?

Nothing’s changed. I always had the studio in my house so I can roll out of bed, feel creative, walk downstairs and go to the studio. I’m fortunate because I learned early on that it’s important to have a home studio setup. … I will say that, earlier on, it felt a little tone-deaf to me to be dropping certain songs. I noticed people right in the thick of this s–t dropping club songs, and they weren’t resonating. Then you see somebody like Lil Baby drop “The Bigger Picture” and it goes crazy. Look what it’s about. “I know the world’s burning to the ground, does anyone want some tequila?” It’s crazy.

Tell us about the genesis of your new single, “Live From The Villa.”

I actually made it last summer so I’ve been sitting on it for a bit. We were in Jordan on the way to the Dead Sea, it was a three-hour drive. I wrote it on the way [as] a compilation of notes in my phone — periodic, random lines and just bars — put them all together and turn it into a rap song.

What was the thinking behind gassing through the verse and not adding a hook?

As a fan, I always enjoy those songs where it’s just you blowing up. Me and my friends call them rant tracks: two or three minutes of bars. That’s it. I don’t need to hear a hook. If you want to hear a hook, go listen to my other s–t. As far as this song’s concerned, I’m getting these raps off to remind people. Update raps is what I call them too.

The lyrics reference Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer and former Epic Records A&R executive Sickamore  — “In the meeting with Epic / I sat in Sickamore’s seat / That was 2016, though, now I need Rob Stringer’s job /  CEO of the whole s–t / I’m on some boss s–t” — what’s the story behind it?

That’s a true story. I f–k with Sickamore. We were doing the meeting in Epic, in [a] little room. It was me, Sickamore, my manager, and I was sitting in his seat in his office.  I’m just a f–ing asshole. I’m wild now, but I was way wild back then. I was abrasive. I felt like the s–t; I feel like the shit. I was setting a boss tone, CEO vibes.

You’re no longer with Columbia, what happened?

The deal’s over. Nothing terrible happened. I f–k with Columbia.

What do you hope to obtain going independent?

A refreshment of a catalog. I have an extensive independent catalog, but now it’s 2020. It’s a new decade, I’m trying to have a new batch of 20 to 30 songs my fans are crazy about. It’s all independent and I own it.

Some of your fans were critical of your signing with a major in the first place. How would you address that view?

I partnered because it was time to experience that side of the game, I’m glad I did because I got a good deal. I had leverage, I still maintained and owned my independent catalog throughout the whole deal. It’s a good experience. I got to meet a lot of people in high places. It was a different time then: Apple Music didn’t even come out till 2015; Spotify wasn’t booming like that. Would I sign again now? No. But if you get a good deal and you keep your masters, and it’s not a long crazy, insane violation of your time — you’re not signed to 10 albums, and if you can be in and out and still be relevant and maintain your ownership — it’s not a terrible idea.

Why wouldn’t you sign again?

Because I don’t need to. Social media and my fans are all I need. I can post directly to my fans, I can shoot videos myself. I got my own team. Radio’s easy, you hire an independent radio promoter. Now that I have money because of my independent catalog, I am the label.

NBA YoungBoy recently posted that he tried to give his label four free albums in exchange for his masters.

I saw that. See, that’s the game. At the end of the day, When you don’t own your stuff, people can say no. It’s a business, they don’t have to give you back shit. It’s sad but my advice to him would be to not renegotiate the deal, don’t sign off for more albums. Whatever albums you have left, put them out ASAP and get out of the f–ing deal, then go indie and flood with three or fours albums on a Tunecore-type service or any digital distributor. Build up that independent catalog. Someone like NBA YoungBoy will make a million in a month.

You recently posted about buying your mom a Bentley. How did that feel?

Super awesome. I went and bought myself a Bentley, I pulled up to her house and she says “oh my God, it’s so beautiful. I need one.” I’ve been meaning to buy her a new car anyway so f–k it, I surprised her with a Bentley. Now, me and my mama have matching Bentleys.

You’ve been helping amplify POC voices and grassroots organizations. Why is this important to you?

Because I benefit off of Black culture on the daily. To not give back to the same culture that’s provided me a life and a living, is the definition of thievery, vulture, robbing. If you’re a white artist who’s benefited off of Black culture financially, you need to put money back into Black culture. Your screenshot with your feelings typed on them is not enough. F–k off. Put some money down. We don’t care that “I recognize my privilege and I’ma do better, praying for y’all.” What the f–k is that? That’s basically, “Yeah that sucks for y’all, anyway back to what I was doing.” Nah, y’all have to put some money up. I realized a long time ago, you can mobilize your audience to generate capital. I don’t have the most followers in the world, but I got enough to generate some money.

You’ve also donated to organizations like Big Dave’s Cheesecake and Apt. 4B. How do you decide which to initiatives to back?

I talk to educated Black people around me, like Karen Civil and Tamika Mallory who I’ve had the pleasure of getting connected with — she’s a legend. I made sure I’m getting educated on the right things … so I make the right decisions.

Mental health is something you allude to on this record. What do you do to stay grounded?

I live right around the corner from my mom — literally a minute away — and I’m over at her house all the time. My brother lives right around the corner. I have the same friends since I was 12, so it all still feels the same. I’m around the same people, we’re along on this crazy ass ride. With that mental health line, it’s really interesting that fans oftentimes want artists, whether they realize it or not, to constantly go through f–ed up shit. Fans say, “We need some more s–t like this.” They might be referencing a song you’re only able to make because it’s a super depressing moment in your life, a really low point or a breakup. Like, damn, y’all want me to constantly be f–ed up, huh? So I can make a song that makes y’all say, “Oh, I feel that.” At the cost of my mental health? It’s a tricky balance.

You’ve been grinding for over a decade. Would you do anything differently?

Everything that happened — the good, bad, and ugly — it got me where I am. I’m cool with where I’m today. I know that if I was quiet, I’d be bigger. [Laughs] 100%. There’s those artists who play it safe. They don’t talk about s–t in their music or in their interviews. They don’t even do interviews. You don’t even really know them. They’re probably f–ked up on the low. They probably have f–ed-up opinions on shit. That’s why they don’t talk. If they talk, they play themselves. If all I did was make music and put out videos, and never did interviews or was outspoken, I’d be way bigger. But it’d be a lie.

What was your reaction when you saw Rihanna’s Instagram post?

I was f–ing losing it. That’s Rihanna, where the f–k did this come from? The idea of dropping a song and within 24 hours, Rihanna posting it saying it’s her favorite song? That’s one of those wild, obviously unrealistic things you’d joke about with your friends. “Yo, what if we drop a song and the next day Rihanna posts it and says it’s her favorite song?” That’s like saying Michael Jordan’s randomly coming over to your house. [Laughs] It’s the most nuts thing ever.

What was the inspiration behind your book, “It’s All In Your Head?”

I’ve always read self-help books, they helped me out a lot. I know music isn’t the only medium to reach people. A book has no music in it, it’s sheer message. That book’s the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s really my whole belief system, written down. I narrated the audiobook. I think 50 or 100 years from now, the fact that kids will be able to listen to a 25- or 26-year-old me giving my belief system in my voice. Especially when I’m dead, that siit’s fire. If Nipsey [Hussle] had a book that he narrated, how ill would that be? I’d be listening to that s–t everyday.

What can we expect music-wise?

Tons of it. It’s fire. A lot. As an independent, you can f–k around. I can drop 20 songs tonight if I wanted and an album tomorrow. I’m super excited for the rest of this year and the future. No matter how hard you try, it happens one second at a time. You can’t fast forward, which is dope because you get to enjoy it. I’m so excited for it to be December and look back and be, like, “Damn, look at what all this s–t did.”