RAFF ALPHA: YOUR FAVORITE RAPPER WHO HASN’T MADE IT AND BALTIMORE’S QUIET HERO
BALTIMORE’S QUIET HERO
Raff Alpha (Tyrese Coleman to his family) is, in his own words, “your favorite rapper who hasn’t made it,” which is better than any description that I could provide. If he’s not on your radar, he absolutely should be: you’ll fall in love with Coleman’s lightning-fast flow and boom bap influences minutes into browsing his Bandcamp.
The Baltimore emcee and producer has a distinctly indie vibe — though he is wary of comparisons to other artists — which lends itself well to chilling and self-reflection. While he sometimes borrows beats from other producers, the best tracks on his projects are the originals. If you’re skeptical, go bump his 2013 mixtape Alpha’s Rhyme Book, the classic tale of a young emcee’s genesis. You should also look into 2015’s Never Surrender, which grapples with life’s many roadblocks.
Coleman is the kind of everyman that makes hip hop beautiful. Think, as cliche as it sounds, Kanye on The College Dropout — an unknown intellectual looking to rhyme his way to the top. I was fortunate enough to get a window into this world and subsequently understand why Coleman chooses to do what he does.
RAFF ALPHA INTERVIEW
PETER (Highlark): Baltimore isn’t known for having a rap scene the way New York or L.A. is. What’s it like being an artist there?
RAFF ALPHA:We don’t really have staple artists that put Baltimore on the map. The scene here is pretty big locally, but it’s really a crabs-in-a-barrel-type mentality. A lot of people try to bring each other down to achieve their own success. But it’s all interesting and if you were to come here you’d see that it’s very cool. We’ve got boom bap and trap and really everything.
PETER: Your music is different from a lot of the stuff coming out of Baltimore today. Why is that?
RAFF:Trap has a lot of influence in hip hop right now, and a lot of artists here are just trying to follow trends. I take pride in being myself and I get offended when someone says I sound like someone else. I don’t like that: I want to stand out. Here, a lot of people don’t want to stand out: they want to fit in and sound like everybody else because that’s what they think is the formula to success. For me, I like sounding like myself.
PETER: You released an emotional mixtape, Never Surrender, in late 2015. What’s the story behind it?
RAFF:Never Surrender is a project that I created when I was in a really depressed state. I felt like my music wasn’t being appreciated and I really needed to write that project, write what I felt and then put it out. The songs are rough and don’t have the best mixing, but I needed to put them out. It was what I was feeling at the moment, which is why I have the cover with me wearing my [Walgreens] uniform. It’s to show my realness, to show that there’s no facade. This is me, 100% me. I’m trying to make it out.
PETER: Why do you think your music hasn’t blown up in the way you want it to?
RAFF:Sometimes you always look for the next thing, and then you don’t look back and see what you’ve accomplished. I think [in 2015] I wasn’t looking at what I’d done and being grateful for people listening to my music … Now I sit back and look in the mirror and know that it’s a process, that you’ve got to work hard and have faith in God.
PETER: You mention God. Could you talk about your spirituality?
RAFF: I’m a very spiritual person; I grew up in a Christian household and I went to church when I was a kid. As I got older I started getting into things like Buddhism, peace of mind, meditation. Things like that really came to aid me when I was depressed. I have a song called “Young Buddha” on the Never Surrender project where I talk about my spiritual beliefs and what I try and do on a daily basis.
PETER: On your SoundCloud it says that you’re “Baltimore’s only hope.” Could you explain what you mean by that?
RAFF: Yeah a lot of people ask about that. I feel like a superhero sometimes. I’m like the city’s only hope. I’m here to write music and save the city, to talk about the ills and problems of the city and to take the Baltimore music scene to the next level. That’s how I see it.
PETER: What’s on the horizon for you?
RAFF: I’m actually writing a project now, not sure of the name for it yet. A few months ago I opened up a show for Method Man and Redman and that was a cool experience. Right now I’m in the process of opening up for more acts, creating more music, and working on this new project … I’ve been having fun and going back to the basics of what I first fell in love with from hip hop.