A Talk with 95Smokey
Updated: Jun 17
Originally born in Tamil Nadu in South India, 95Smokey is an American-Indian MC who fell in love with hip hop growing up in New Jersey. Part of the trio 95UGLY along with high school friends TheArbiter and RushBeats, together they dropped BACKLIT earlier this year, followed by Smokey’s solo debut EP, Fresh Air. Months on, he’s ready to drop his next solo release, Shava Sadhana.
Before getting into the music, Smokey touched on his eclectic style as an artist. He said: “I would say that I try to put as much of the different parts of myself into the music as possible. I have some pretty deep and varied interests – whether its left-wing politics, my experiences growing up as an Indian-American, philosophy, literature, video games, sports – and I love letting all those aspects of me shine through in my lyricism.
“I try to keep my tone when rapping conversational and casual – Curren$y is one of my favourite rappers and what I love is how, when listening to any of his songs, it feels very unfiltered and often comes across like he’s just sitting across the table from you, telling you about his day and how he feels about things. ‘Lifestyle rap’ is a term I’ve heard referring to his music and similar artists – I really fuck with that descriptor and I try to hit a similar note.
“Rapping over varied production helps me tap into different emotions and topics more effectively. Right now, I’m working on several different projects, each with a completely different production style – so you’ll be able to hear me across a lot of eclectic sounds in the near future.”
After releasing Fresh Air earlier this year, Smokey is preparing to drop Shava Sadhana, a collaborative EP with Indian-American producer mayahanabeats. Regarding the project, he said: “An important part of my motivation with music is building out a community to platform Indian-American creatives. Which is why after finishing Fresh Air, I wanted to seek out other talented brown producers and rappers to connect with and build together. Mahayanabeats was one of the first Indian producers I linked with beyond 95UGLY, and after discussing our goals with music, we were both thrilled to do this project together.
“The EP is called Shava Sadhana, referencing a left-hand Tantric Hindu ritual which refers to the practice of meditating while sitting on a dead body. This ritual is often done by the Aghori sect of Hinduism, and the EP cover art depicts one such Aghori sadhu meditating in a forest. Mahayanabeats and I are both interested in Indian philosophy and spirituality, so it felt natural that our collaboration would platform that. Expect to hear lyrics referencing Hindu and Buddhist concepts most prominently, as well as more of the Indian-American culture and left-wing politics references you can always expect from a 95Smokey project. Sonically, the EP will be a mix of the soulful, sample-based production Mahayanabeats has been known for thus far, with some more Indian flair thrown in for the special occasion.”
Smokey already has plans after the release of Shava Sadhana. “I’ve also pretty much finished a whole EP with this great producer from the Philippines named Mister Salmon. Just waiting on features to come in for that project – expect that project to be the next one I announce … I won’t divulge too much information but I did do a song with the prolific Blank Thought, so keep an eye for that one!”
Moving on, Smokey discussed the making of his last project, Fresh Air. The EP marks his first release as a solo artist, produced entirely by beatmaker Garmoney. He spoke on the change working alone compared to his work in 95UGLY:
“With the 95UGLY process, I never know what kind of brand-new sound RushBeats or TheArbiter would bring, so the next beat could pull something entirely new out of me – a more unpredictable process but more dynamic as well. I think with the single-producer project with Garmoney, being able to pick from a library of beats meant I could quickly translate my vision into a project … With Fresh Air, all the production was already completed, and I went through and selected beats that would go well together sonically. This paired with Garmoney already having a signature sound meant that the album was pretty much destined to sound cohesive from the start. We had all the beats picked out for the project before any recording began, and already knew what the sound and vibe for the project would be based on that.”
He went on: “Working with RushBeats and TheArbiter for the entirety of two albums has been amazing. It lets us craft a sound together that equally expresses each of our musical tastes and our aspirations within a single project. That being said, a group project is a very refined product in the sense that having three brains picking and choosing what they felt to be the best work means a lot of stuff gets filtered out. To give you a picture, we had about 100 beats to work with, from which we made about 35 songs, of which eight ended up on the second album, BACKLIT.
“That’s pretty much the first reason why I decided to branch out from 95UGLY a little: just how many pages and pages of unused lyrics and songs I had by the time we released BACKLIT. These were songs and lyrics that I felt just didn’t fit as perfectly with the sound of the first two albums, so I wanted to seek out some other avenues to get those songs out. In 95UGLY, we generally have a very modern and experimental sound, incorporating synth-based trap production, lots of melodies, and Indian musical influence. As a child of boom bap/jazz rap though, I always wanted to do some work in that lane, and that was one more reason I wanted to get my feet wet with some solo work.”
With production handled by Garmoney, Fresh Air is the first of many projects from 95Smokey to be produced entirely by a single collaborator, with Shava Sadhana being the second. Smokey talked about how the first collaboration came about:
“I shopped around on the internet seeing who would be down to work, and provided our song ‘The Money, The Show’ as a ‘resume’ of sorts, and Garmoney was one of the producers to respond. I checked out his most recent beat tape at the time, Soul Searching, and fell in love. The first beat I heard from him was the beat that ended up as the first song on our EP, ‘Moonlight’, and I remember thinking, ‘This is exactly the sound I’ve always been searching for.’ Not even as an artist, but just as a music listener in general. From that moment, I knew I had to do a project with him.
“I went through all of the beats he had on his Soundcloud and started talking with him on our ideas for the project, and within a month, we pretty much had the whole EP written and recorded. The whole process was super smooth and it was great collaborating with Garmoney – I had never until that point put together a whole project so quickly. I think that productivity was due to a mix of Garmoney already having a very cohesive and distinct sound across his production, and me having had a surge of productivity after having just released the BACKLIT album with 95UGLY a week prior.”
Speaking more on Fresh Air, Smokey touched on the tracks that resonated with him most. He said: “For me, ‘Moonlight’ feels like the song I’ve always wanted to make. I love boom bap, and I especially love it when there’s super lush instrumentation to go with the boom bap drums. The production on that song, as I mentioned before, was pretty much what I’d describe my ‘dream beat’ to sound like, and a lot of those lyrics were lyrics I’ve been holding onto for a long time, since the beginning of my musical career, just waiting for the right instrumentation to lay them on. So making that song was definitely an invigorating process for me.
“’IFRAMES’ is similar. I’ve always loved the jazzier side of rap so that beat let me indulge in that part of my taste. I’m a huge fan of the FromSoftware/Dark Souls series, so making a song themed after invincibility frames and Sekiro was inevitable for me … I felt particularly proud being able to tie lyrics about politics, the gentrification enabled by the tech industry, basketball, YuGiOh, and Sekiro all into a single song while still managing to keep the vibe of the song flowing smoothly.”
Aside from his solo work, 95Smokey released BACKLIT this year as part of 95UGLY. Two years after the group’s debut, DRIVEWAY, Smokey discussed how the creative process has improved since the group’s beginnings. He said:
“I think the first album was a very experimental and free-form situation for us. We were all just starting with making music seriously and thus were still finding our styles and strengths. By the second album, we started settling into our respective grooves, I feel. Something we found is that I largely preferred being a songwriter/lyricist while TheArbiter and RushBeats definitely found producing to be where their hearts were truly at. So while the first album had a lot more tracks where all of us were rapping or all of us took part in producing, the second album was a more traditional workflow, where RushBeats and TheArbiter would craft a whole instrumental, and then I’d create the song with it.”
Despite having dropped BACKLIT this past January, Smokey has alluded to another 95UGLY record being in the works already. Regarding the new project, he said:
“So far, the third album has taken on a more organic sound, with sampling, instrumentation etc. more so than the futuristic, synthy sound of the previous projects. Of course, we’ll still have a dose of that classic 95UGLY sound, but we’re all enjoying exploring new corners of our musical style. We’re hoping to deliver something that sonically sounds very different from previous projects while keeping the same energy and subject matter our listeners come to our albums for. RushBeats and TheArbiter have been keeping up the high-quality production as always, but are definitely branching further and further out with their production styles, so it’s been very exciting to hear the new sounds and match that with new energy in the writing and lyricism.”
Smokey discussed the reasoning behind the swift return to the studio: “I think the biggest reason why the third album is likely coming a lot quicker is because of how much we’ve all improved with our respective crafts, and how much music we’ve accumulated over the last few years.
“Most of the songs for ‘95UGLY Album #3’ have already been written and are pretty much just pending recording and polishing. The three of us are all going through some major life events so it’s a matter of getting together and finding the time to follow through and finish the third album. But, that being said, we work a lot quicker these days and have gotten past a lot of the hurdles that made previous work take longer. Once we are all ready to commit to completing the third project, I have no doubt we’ll knock it out the park … We are aiming to release the third album by the end of the year, but it all comes down to our availability to plan and complete the project.”
Outside of his confirmed projects, Smokey has a number of collaborations in the works behind the scenes. He said:
“There’s a handful of producers I’m already in talks with to do full projects together with and I’m super excited to see what we can cook up by fusing our talents together. These are unannounced, but for now I’ll just leave some hints of people I’m planning to do projects with:
1. An Indian producer from the Toronto area
2. A producer from the Las Vegas area who does some amazing Memphis-style darkwave beats
3. A Cali producer who recently did a dope EP with Clu.”
Regarding future collaborations, he said: “Off the top of my head, some producers who I think are doing some really cool stuff are Televangel, klwn cat, Nick Miles, and Owlkast. I’ve been enjoying their productions a lot recently – check them out if you haven’t yet! Would love to do something with those guys down the road.”
Finishing off, Smokey said: “Overall, my primary goal is to create great music with great people. Collaboration might be my favourite part of the creative process – being able to see what we can pull out of each other is a beautiful thing. I hope people enjoy the music I’ll be putting out, and I’d love for anyone interested to reach out if they think we can make something dope together!”
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