Q&A with Zenden Lavon

by Paige Ardill

Q&A with Zenden Lavon

WRBB’s Paige Ardill had the chance to speak to Zenden Lavon, an up-and-coming hip hop enigma who has already taken on the international stage at the age of 17.

Name: Zenden Lavon

Nickname: My real name is Zenden Tripp but I thought my middle name, Lavon, had a little more swag to it.

Age: 17

Location: Born: Houston, Lived: Texas, Virginia, Germany, Libya, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Home: California

Favourite Food: Chicken and waffles.

Hidden Talent: Impressions, lately I’ve been doing a lot of T’Chaka from Black Panther.

Quote to live by: “Hustle like you’re broke”, that’s something that my dad told me when I was about 12 and first started making music.

Role Model: In music, Bob Marley. In life, Barack Obama.

Favourite Song: Right now, my favourite song is “Motivate” by J. Cole, of all time, “Is This Love” by Bob Marley.

Favourite Album: To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar.

How long have you been making music?

I’ve been surrounded by music since I was walking, since I could talk. My parents both love music, though my mom has always been more musically inclined. She was a singer in college. One of the lullabies she sang to me when I was a kid was “Cry Me A River” by Justin Timberlake. I was actually a singer at first, up until I was about 11…and then puberty happened and I couldn’t sing as well as I used to. It got under my skin and I was devastated, thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m still gonna make music’, but then I found rap. I taught myself how to write lyrics, how to produce music. I’m completely self taught and have studied every rapper I’ve ever looked up to. I still sing when I can, but rapping is my thing now, no regrets at all. I’ve been making my own songs for about 4 years, now.

Who were your initial inspirations, have they changed at all as you’ve developed as an artist or did they stick with you?

My early stuff sounds like an Eminem wannabe mixtape. Most of my early stuff, honestly, sounds like a wannabe version of all the early hard rappers I listened to at the time; Migos, G-Eazy, but then I listened to To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, which is really the point in time where all my inspiration was flipped and I became more socially aware and conscious of my impact on the culture. This is also when I really started studying rappers I looked up to. Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Andre 3000, early Lil Wayne, Nas… you could just go down the list of legends, I’ve studied them all, but of course I’m still learning. Every day I hear tracks and I’m always trying to out-rap the biggest ones out there. But answering your question, my influences have definitely changed as I’ve matured. I still listen to mumble rappers, but they don’t influence me in the creation of my music. And honestly, a lot of my inspiration comes from other genres, especially jazz, reggae, rock… I listen to a band called Beach House that makes a lot of wavy music. It’s a wide variety of things, not just hip hop.

How do you feel as though your international experience, if at all, has cultivated or come out in your music?

I would definitely say it positively impacts my sound. Growing up abroad, you get to experience different cultures in a way that most people aren’t able to. Living overseas, especially in the Middle East, you start to hear music in a different way and start to understand how other people and cultures make their music. I almost see the music visually, process it visually, and when you hear music from other cultures that you’re not usually exposed to, you start to understand how deep this music thing really goes. Not many people think, “hey, I think I’m going to sample some traditional Japanese music and try and implement that into hip hop”. Being abroad jumpstarted that creativity, but at the same time sometimes I do feel cut off from the whole culture, being so far. I am only 17, though, and am going back [to the US] soon anyways, so soon enough I’ll be able to bring this experience with me. I’m grateful.

I understand that you were discovered by one of Kendrick Lamar’s producers? Could you explain that interaction a bit?

Yea! One of the producers from To Pimp A Butterfly who did “How Much A Dollar Cost” and “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”, hit me up and we Skype called and just chopped it up about music. When I get a little more money I’ll hopefully hit him up for some production.

Before we get into your more recent ventures, let’s talk about Dawn’s Paradise, your debut album. How old were you when you began this project?

Dawn’s Paradise was something that I conceptually started when I had just turned 16. It was something I really wanted to get out into the public, but I really wanted to take my time on it. I had been working on it for about a year and I finally released it on my birthday, March 22. I was in this place where my music was shifting into a different level of skill and social commentary. The presence I had in that album is definitely noticeably different than “Old Soul” Zenden which was the last mixtape I released. The fact I had been working on it for so long created a sense of completeness, I felt like I had really accomplished something that I had been thinking about and had been putting my mind to. However, about two days before it’s release, my computer crashed and a lot of the songs got completely ruined. I couldn’t fix them, they were broken, all but two. “Watercolors” and “Fly” were the only ones that were preserved. The rest of the songs I had to remake in two days. The concepts were there, I didn’t need to make completely new songs, but I did have to rewrite them. The beats were completely different, the lyrics were different, the original Dawn’s Paradise was much different in its original creation than the way it is now, but I’m really happy with it nonetheless. If you want to think about it positively, it was just revising something that wasn’t meant to be.

What changed after it’s release? What kind of doors did you see opening up, professionally?

After Dawn’s Paradise I actually got a gig in Sweden at a music festival called “We Are Stockholm”, the largest youth festival in Scandinavia and Europe which was an amazing experience. It was crazy because I had released the album and landed the gig a month later. It gave me a little taste for what I wanted to do in the future; I started getting recognition from other rappers. It was a really amazing experience I will never forget. My first festival, my first concert that I’ve ever performed for any music I’ve made. It was really cool.

Your new album BE, Vol. 1 dropped on March 27th of this year and, as I understand, has an incredibly positive reception. How did the creation of this album differ from that of Dawn’s Paradise?

As soon as Dawn’s Paradise released, even though I was proud of it, I immediately wanted to redeem myself. That’s when I started working on BE, conceptually. The amount of planning I did on Dawn’s Paradise was quadrupled for BE. Things were constantly being revised, I felt like I was writing a book. I like making concept albums, they’re a lot more meaningful and really fun to see it all unravel in front of you, as a listener. I had a notepad in my room that I constantly scribbled all over saying “this is how this needs to be, this is how you need to transition this song into this song so it’ll segway properly into this and at the end be all resolved by this”, it really is like a book. It’s very purposefully created. I’ve told people, there’s very little in this album that’s been done just to do it. Everything I’ve written, said, the production, it’s all very purposeful. I’m still waiting for someone to figure out what BE means. The title, the songs, they’re all multifaceted. It was also much more emotionally draining. I’m very shy, I like to keep to myself, but when I make music I’m really opening myself up, all my thoughts and fears are being put out into the public. I drain myself when I make music so when it’s all over I’m just so exhausted, emotionally and physically, but it’s all for that exhale when you finish. I’m done. I got it all out.

Could you explain what “BE” means?

I don’t wanna give anything away because I think it’s something cool that people still haven’t figured it out. But around the time of it’s creation, everything was happening with the culture; Black Panther had just been released and was breaking records, we had Diddy out here making moves. The black community was doing a lot of really exciting things, but at the same time we still have a lot of issues and racial injustice even within our own community that we need to solve and the juxtaposition of the good and the bad was something I wanted to convey. So, I guess BE, on surface level, as there are a lot of meanings behind the title that I want people to figure out, is simply just to be. When it’s all said and done we can’t change everything, but as long as we stay true to ourselves it’s all gonna be okay. Don’t try to impress anybody, don’t act like someone you’re not, do you, be you, and just BE. Maybe one day if more people figure it out I’ll reveal the other meanings *chuckles*.

You have described your style in the past as “jazz and funk infused 80’s west coast hip-hop”. Does this carry over into BE, Vol 1.? How would you describe this sound in comparison?

I definitely tried to embody that exact description into BE. “The Movement”, “Blu3s”, those really have that West Coast sound, the G-funk. The Jazzy influence came in with “Good (Interlude)” “Just Woke Up”, “Excellent (Interlude)”, “Rich In Spirit, Pt. 1”… you can pick apart what kind of elements are embedded when you listen out for it. That’s my most comfortable genre to stay in, but I’m also trying to break out into other sub genres of hip hop to expand my sound a little bit, keep it creative.

You mentioned that you recently booked a show in Shibuya, Japan this September. Is this your first big show?

This past spring break, my family and I went on a trip to Japan and it was…amazing. The hip hop scene there is insane. You could walk into any store, doesn’t matter what they’re selling and 90% of them were playing hip hop R&B. You could be in a store selling traditional teapots and they were playing Migos. So I did a little scouting, a little calling around and I found a little gig for me in Japan in September. It’s crazy that it’s all happening so fast, opportunities are just pouring in. I’m looking for more gigs in Sweden this summer, some in the US, some festivals in Brooklyn, South Africa, we just gotta keep moving off of the momentum I’m on and I’m pushing everything I got.

Is there a BE, Vol. 2 in our futures?

BE is part of a series I’m doing which will basically represent everything I stand for, everything that makes me, me. That being said, they may not come in that order. I may release three more albums before volume 2 that are completely different and unrelated. I’m just rolling with it, letting it accumulate until it is what I really want, something that can really represent myself as an artist, and as a human being.

Listen to Zenden Lavon: