While the world is divided by different languages and cultures, music can be felt and understood no matter where you’re from. Whether it’s the beat, melody, or energy of a performer, music has the ability to travel far beyond its source. St. Louis-born rapper Smino experienced this recently while on tour with producer Monte Booker, performing in places such as Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia for the first time.
Fittingly, Smino describes his sound as “limitless,” with no borders. He takes inspiration from hip-hop, soul, R&B, and gospel among other genres. Through releases such as 2016 EP blkjuptr and 2017 debut album blkswn, he has used his voice and eclectic influences to start a dialog on universal topics such as love, everyday struggles, identity, and rising above a social-media driven world. He has also collaborated with OGs such as T-Pain and toured with SZA.
Despite a packed schedule filled with studio sessions, press, and sold-out shows, Smino took the time to sit down with Highsnobiety in Tokyo and reflect on his experiences away from home, from new audiences to his own personal realizations on the road.
Smino is no stranger to taking risks and stepping outside his comfort zone, having moved to Chicago for college after high school, only to drop out and pursue music full time. And, in light of his recent experiences in East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, it would seem to have paid off. “I was in South Korea, and it’s super crazy to hear people scream a song that they damn near don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he says. “They feel that it was written for them, or they feel like it was something that they were supposed to enjoy, take in, and live with, and they actually appreciate that shit. Over here, people like music more. Especially in Asia.”
Now he wants to take his sound even further. He shared his recent adventure abroad with booker, manager and engineer Chris “Classick” Inumerable and DJ Nosidam, all of whom he met in Chicago. For Smino, it felt right to tour with Booker, the Soulection-signed producer who has played a key role in shaping Smino’s sound and that of other artists such as R&B singer-songwriter Ravyn Lenae.
He credits much of his success to Inumerable for believing in his vision before much of the world did, allowing Smino and Booker to use Classick Studios in Chicago. Smino explains the group dynamic: “Classick taught us all to just work as a family, you know what I’m saying? It’s never a competition thing. If your family is moving forward and winning, the best thing you can do is help and assist them in winning until you’re winning.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he continues. “Everybody falls behind each other and that’s how we do it. They are all rocking with me, bruh, and I appreciate it. But, it’s the same for them. If they need me to go anywhere in the world with them, I’ll go. So it’s like our relationship is just straight up — we family.”
On tour, Smino kept a journal of his thoughts to better understand his feelings and experiences abroad. “I’m a lot more aware of how I feel at times — I’ll even write the date on my notes so I can remember the time,” he says. “It’s been helping me kinda put my mind in front of me. You can’t fuckin’ see what’s in your head, but I’ve been putting it on paper and it’s, like, coming back and reading through it and reading up. I’ve been learning a lot about myself and it’s been inspiring a lot of crazy and different music. So, yeah man, shit, it’s all about self-growth on this tour.”
While in Australia, Smino got the chance to see real black swans for the first time, a big deal for someone who named an album (blkswn) after the bird. The rapper feels people back home are fascinated by the things African-American culture creates, but rarely try to understand the black experience and where African-American art comes from. “I was just observing the swans and peeping how they’re known as an aggressive bird, an aggressive species,” he says. “But it’s really that they’re so rare that everybody wants to flock to them, everybody just keeps trying to see them. So they get this whole ‘I’m aggressive’ thing and I’m like, damn, that just ruined it. They remind me of us.”
While Smino is still early in his career after wrapping his first ever world tour, he believes his work ethic, his Chicago family, and mentors such as his musician father have allowed him to get this far. “I waited my turn man,” he says. “I definitely deserve this. I worked my ass off, bro. Like, I can confidently say that, you know what I’m saying? People who are from where I’m from, they know me. In high school, I won ‘Most Likely to Be Famous’ and ‘Best Rapper.’”
“I was always on that shit with the music,” he continues, “so I’m not trying to say that I’ve always been a great artist, but I was always practicing. I was always trying to make up a song. All my songs weren’t tight. I was making wack-ass music for so long. But the more you work, the more you do something bigger than you imagine.”
On this subject, we imagine Smino is right. Watch this swan fly.
For more of our interviews, read our chat with production duo DJDS right here.