Droppin’ Knowledge: New York MC Rouge Releases His Sonically Dense, Lyrically Rich Debut – War! – A Review & Conversation

Staten Island, New York emcee Rouge recently released his debut album, War!, a sonically dense collection of music, with crisp writing and a rich, full sound. On the album, Rouge grapples with the responsibilities of adulthood, the future of the planet, love, death, creativity, identity, and dreams, as well as the more mundane concerns of a twenty-something artist living in New York.

There is music in the mundane, too, a beauty to the ordinary and a universality to which we can all relate, especially when it’s told with candor and heart, characteristics of Rouge’s best writing. Alienation and despair are themes and there is also some clever bragging, although it is not clear if the boasts are an attempt to boost the artist in his own mind, or in ours.

War! embraces a variety of influences in its auditory palette, including Radiohead, CAN, My Bloody Valentine and Def Jux, and while he mostly raps over the beats, Rouge describes his music as “hip hop-ish,” alluding to the broad array of artists and writers who helped him develop his aesthetic.

Rouge possesses the sensibility of a poet in his writing, which is sometimes cryptic and difficult to parse, but always intriguing. On the album’s second track, “Bomb,” Rouge raps: “Please don’t call this lofi/My box is strained, the folds fight/Curtains form my eyelids but I see better through these closed eyes/Found years inside my worn heart like gold inside my wallet/Some blue inside my pigment where your harsher tones had dotted/My mirror for self-reflection is broken.” A Biggie sample lurks in the background and, there’s a thump on the down beat and a G-funk lilt, slowed down and dystopian, as if it were a cut from the soundtrack of Blade Runner.

On the atmospheric “In Bloom,” Rouge drops these bars, his voice sluggish and processed in places, the beat ominous and syrupy: “Slipknots never made for pretty wires but this tangle was made for hope/My heart is built for undone magic, so this sun won’t burn me whole/This soil built me dry, under reddened skies I rise and prize my growth/I shake a weighty cloud for floods but all I catch is drops of gold/The world is at its end, I stood for nothing and I died for everything.”

In many ways, Radiohead is the template here; you can hear that band’s (and Thom Yorke’s) influence seeping out of the songs and their subject matter, and the way that Rouge bends his voice until it becomes a brittle ache, the way he does in the song “Shame.,” where his only accompaniment is a mournful piano. In that song, Rouge raps: “Rub these stains in my hide, I got a long ways ’till subside/I got a long list of some shames that I never cared to reprise/I throw myself in the dirt and squirm ’til the sun hits the eyes/I’m only myself to my other, I’m only a man in the hide.”

War! is a beautiful album, with one foot in New York’s boom bap traditions, the other in the more left field edges of hip hop. There’s a harshness in its beauty, “a rose growing from a crack in the concrete,” and ultimately, promise in its despair, a resurgent, spring song of hope. In Rouge’s words, an “un-becoming and becoming again.”

This week, Rouge and I spoke about the album and its creation.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for publication.

You graduated from New York University with a degree in Computer Science. What’s the connection between your academic discipline and hip hop, and/or music in general? Do they share attributes that appeal to you? Do they augment/supplement each other/share qualities that are consistent with how you think or approach the world?

Interestingly, the strongest connection is how much room my profession affords me as an artist. Having stable income means a lot more room and time to fail and explore. I spent so much time creating music last year – I don’t know if that would have been possible if I was stressing over money like so many others are, or getting paid by the hour.

But there also exists a detail of creation behind computers / computer programming that parallels how we perceive music. Really esoteric assembly language, and at an even lower level machine code, are building blocks of communication between human and machine. The same chords and keys we’ve always known shape every piece of music, with universal harmonics / frequencies that create our perception of sound. Music is then like programming feelings, so the best engineers learn where and how to shift the blocks. I guess there’s a deep science behind music that I think anyone in a hard science / engineering field can appreciate.

Do you perform with the welding helmet on, a la DOOM?

For this project, I wanted to wear some kind of mask or helmet, and in workwear attire, in all my visual media. It’s less like DOOM where I am the character, and more like Tyler’s Igor character or with 3k [Andre 3000 of Outkast] wearing wigs. Something that would complete the atmosphere of the project. My government is Rouge, and I have no problem showing my face, and I always want to present myself and not have some kind of barrier where people feel like they can’t connect with me. If I could perform with a helmet on, I would, but I think that’d be super impractical.

Photos courtesy of Rouge

In the press release announcing the album, it says: “Rouge was always ‘the Asian kid who makes rap music.'” Does your identity inform your art? In what ways? Explain a little bit about this and why it was important to include this piece of biographical information in the release.

My identity does inform my art a lot but not in the way you might think. Maybe in like 2009, people would have looked at an Asian artist doing hip-hop as “not marketable” or too weird, but that kind of thinking is outdated. Now more than ever, people are embracing alternative subcultures / subgenres (as long as you’re not just vulturing your way to an audience), and artists who look different or come from different places have the biggest fanbases. So that’s why I felt it was important to highlight that aspect of my identity that’s followed me around most of my life, because not fitting in with other people is, ironically, about as ordinary as it gets in music nowadays, and that kind of normality makes me more comfortable in sharing myself.

I’ve also been emphasizing vulnerability more and more as of late, because I think they’ve really corporatized personalities and somehow turned organic into an aesthetic. But it’s really easy to tell when someone is genuinely being open and vulnerable, versus when they’re shallowly presenting a “real” version of themselves.

“They’ve,” meaning the music industry?

Yeah so “they”, as in the music industry, the tastemakers, the institutions, the people who run marketing or social media pages, etc. and subsequently the artists who are influenced by them. It’s rare that you get to see artists for who they really are nowadays because “they” have tried more and more to market personalities. 

Your debut album is called War! Why? Does the album have an overall theme?

The album is honestly about a lot of things, but I’d say the overarching theme is about un-becoming and becoming again. I named it War!, because everybody nowadays is at war with something, someone, or themselves. The idea behind the project was about who you become on the other side of that. We fight in the spirit of survival, so what exactly are we fighting, to keep alive or, alternatively, kill off? And post-mortem, what does that afterlife look like?

How long did it take to create the album? Where was it recorded? Mix, mastered? Who did the production?

So I’ve been trying to make a full-length project for like 3 years. It really came together over 2020 because I had finally gotten good enough as an artist, vocalist, and writer, to make something that I felt would resonate with a lot of people. Most of the songs were recorded over the pandemic in my parents’ house or in my apartment, where they were also entirely mixed and mastered.

This shit took a long ass time to make though, because I was learning how to properly mix and master records myself. It’s the age of the multi-disciplinary artist; every interesting artist is handling at least 2 or 3 steps of the creative process, because you need that level of executive control in order to truly flesh out your vision. I thought it was important, as someone who likes to experiment, that I learn how to mix & master songs because that was the smoothest and practically only way to protect my vision. My mantra throughout the whole process was “no compromises”.

For production, I really went down rabbit holes on Soundcloud and SP-404 forum to find interesting sounds. I’ve always had the biggest imposter syndrome about this, because I know nobody else really does it like that, or they just produce their own beats. And doing stuff like messaging people (who sometimes disappear), emailing split sheets so that everyone is properly credited, etc. etc. takes a lot of energy, honestly.

During the time you created the album, were there other artists, in any medium, who influenced the album’s creation? Inspired your own creative process? 

For this project, I had a couple “layers” of influences. On a surface level, I really went with contemporary musical influences, because I still wanted to make something that appealed to people and was fairly accessible, and the best notes I could take were from popular, contemporary artists, which informed me from how I structured the album (12 tracks, songs with the most bass come first) to how I engineered the songs.

After that, I was really influenced from a songwriting and conceptual perspective by artists like Radiohead, Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple, Young Fathers, Kanye West, Outkast. I’m also a fan of Claudia Rankine and her prose, I think she really influenced me in terms of how to make writing feel impactful and gut-punching. And while not a direct influence, listening to older, “avant-garde” rock artists like Can, Brian Eno, King Crimson, My Bloody Valentine, Built to Spill, The Microphones, etc. really opened my mind in terms of how I can bring something different to the table.

I also really can’t create without being in a headspace where it feels like I’m connected to something bigger than myself – to help with that, I sometimes write lyrics to pretty movies on mute. I love Wong Kar-wai movies, Christopher Nolan. Terrence Malick makes really, really nice looking movies.

You have two features on the album. “Dead Men Pilfer My Silence,” with Rodney Chrome, and “God Send God Speed” with st.ary. How did those collaborations come about?

I knew / met both Rodney Chrome and st.ary through NYU. NYU’s arts programs are small worlds where everybody knows each other, so networking through mutuals comes pretty naturally. The only thing is, since I wasn’t in the Tisch or Clive programs, I kinda had to work a little harder or find myself in the right situations in order to create that network. I’ve known Rodney Chrome for a few years now, and st.ary was an IG hit-up.

The album has a crisp and cohesive sound, kind of dystopian, but warm, too. A little bit Def Jux, a little bit Radiohead, a little bit bedroom pop electronica. The album sounds great. Before you went to work, did you envision how you wanted the record to sound? How did the sonic theme of the record come about?

As far as the sonic quality / fidelity, I was really focused on getting the mixes to sound clean and professional. Getting mixes to translate across all systems can be a nightmare and requires a lot of give and take, trial and error. So it was an extremely tough balancing act trying to make something that sounds “dystopian” and dusty but only in atmosphere and not in actual fidelity. Double that when you want to maintain cohesion but have other songs on the album that are meant to sound bright and expensive, and triple that when you’re a beginner engineer like me who was learning on the fly.

A lot of analog warmth, a lot of EQing vocals so that they sit kind of shy in the mix, but then knowing when to bring the vocals forward so they feel powerful during powerful sections or powerful songs. And above all, a lot of thinking in terms of how you want to approach producing a song’s vocals. You don’t always have a vision in the back of your mind, so extracting a direction is a major part of the process.

The sound of the album really came together on the fly, as I discovered more and more instrumentals and began to pull inspirations from different places. I’m like a master curator in that sense, but like I mentioned before, I have huge imposter syndrome knowing that I’m just a curator in the beginning, and that I need to learn more production aspects and become heavily involved on the ground floor before I can consider myself a real artist.

Is there one song on the album that is particularly meaningful or important to you?

All of them mean so much to me, but the centerpiece of the album is the first song [“Closest Thing to God in the Flesh”]. I always remember exactly where I was, at what time of year, and what I was going through when I made a particular song. That song was kind of a nightmare to even make and engineer, but it was an encapsulation of a lot of misgivings I had at the time about life and music. Chris Bruno’s production was also very dynamic and cutting.

Can you explain a little bit about your lyrical process? Do you keep a notebook (virtual or otherwise) and jot down ideas? Do you free style over beats and let the sound inspire the lyrics?

My handwriting is ass and I’m horrible at organizing written notes, so typing lyrics on my laptop has always been the way to go for me. But, I rarely write hooks / choruses, those are always freestyled first and then tweaked lyrically after, and whenever I’m making a song where flow comes first, I lay down skeletons first and put in lyrics after. It’s just important that I lead with feeling and off-the-cuff ideas when rhythm and attitude are the most essential flavors to a song vocally.

“Closest Thing to God In The Flesh” is one of my favorite songs on the record. In the song, you rap: “They blame us for the stiffened dirt/The sun on fire and swollen earth/My tongue is tired from sunken words, I lift it higher to keep my worth/A fist to sky to grab at birds/I tug on one and down comes bursts/ I try my best but it gets worse, I’m not cut out for warring turfs.” What inspired those lyrics?

This particular song deals with growing up – I had originally envisioned it as an entire lifespan, from birth to death, compressed into a 3-minute song. This was inspired by my misgivings entering my 20’s for real, where the pressure goes from how can I take care of myself to how can I create the best future for everyone around me. Basically boy-trying-to-be-a man type complex. As an artist, I’m always concerned with narrative and post-processing saturation, a/k/a how do I share my truth and what is the prettiest or most profound way to do it. These particular lyrics were really about that – “they”, as in the older generation, are passing down a scorched Earth where tomorrow feels lost, and a lot of us are struggling to fight to make a better future. It’s a lot of pressure for our generation to deal with; our tongues are tired, and it feels like we’re not strong enough to keep the sky from falling.

“Heroes.Never.Die.” is another highlight for me. What inspired these lyrics? In the song, you rap: I’ve always had a dream about what it’d be like to lay on subway tracks/Would people yell and scream or watch and wait for tunnel rats/My hair in wires while I stand with hands on cap, I don’t remember words but I can hum and clap/ American hymns for gutter gnats?They send parades down now for quarter rains/I yell mayday now for shorter pains/Shake off my stripes and I just let them hang/If I’m brave enough to find air for planes/I’m a shuttered bird stomping around my hooded cage/All I know is three meals a day and wooden panes, Don’t sing my sobs, just sing my prayers.

The song title is a play on [Outkast’s] Aquemini’s chorus where André 3000 goes “even the sun goes down, heroes eventually die”, which is him trying to basically say that nothing is certain and all things eventually end. Instead, I’m trying to force certainty out of uncertain times, and convey that even though everything is mortal, legacies are not, and that what we do on this Earth matters. So heroes never do die.

I was inspired to make this song feel like an actual dream. It’s disjointed, frightening, and surreal, but it subconsciously and maybe even deeply emulates something you’re going through in real life, just expressed through images that don’t really make sense at first. In this opening verse, I’m trying to convey a feeling of being immobilized and imprisoned, stuck in a position where nothing I can do, sing, or say matters. The song then goes through a transformation, and I say something like “still I rise on the hope that there’s tomorrow, I never rise, never fall”.

Shout out to the artist who designed the album cover?

Cover art is by Darian Eldridge (@howyouwhatforreal on Instagram). He’s extremely talented and this project wouldn’t be as great as it was without his artwork. [It] catches people’s attention and gives a lot of visual context.

You’re from Staten Island, “Shaolin Land,” a sometimes marginalized borough of NYC. How/in what ways did Staten Island make you the person you are today?

I love the fact that Staten Island is shitted on so hard. The conservatives and crazy white people can go somewhere else, but we have this middle child, underdog complex that some people are ashamed of, but personally it gives me some ambition. I think it might even be a more boring origin story if I was from Brooklyn or Queens or something.

Especially being from the North Shore, you get this small-town overlooking the big-city vibe. Depending on where you’re at, you can literally see the Manhattan skyline. We’re not like Long Island where we’re so deeply hidden, because we’re just a 30-minute boat ride from all the action, so it’s still as New York as New York gets. It’s also such a segregated and economically [and] ethnically diverse borough, and I think having that experience taught me a lot about people.

Favorite place in SI for…?

The Halal cart on Victory in front of the CVS, he blesses with big portions. There’s all the pizza and Italian food places but everybody knows those. TRI Lounge on Clove is a vegan spot, Black-owned. Beso near the Ferry is a staple, so is Egger’s but I think I saw somewhere they got cancelled for something.

Also have to mention the people I know who are running studios on the Island. Luz runs Deadlife Studios near CSI, and Snoop / his Demonlow collective run Demonlow Studios on Van Duzer.

In terms of your art, what’s next?

I wasn’t heading into War! with any expectations or real plan outside of what I originally had, but given the positive reception, I definitely want to squeeze as much content and exposure from it as possible. More videos, more supporting content, virtual performance, etc. I might put out a DISKTWO in about a year which would be a short, unfinished project I had in the tuck, following the trend of artists dropping “Deluxe” versions of their projects a year after release. I also have a collaboration project in the works.

For my next big artistic journey though, I’m really interested in creating a poppier album that still stays true to my brand of experimenting. I’m a big Angèle fan, and I want to tap into that beautiful, ethereal, sound, the stuff that might play at a runway show. This is going to be a huge challenge though because I also want to lean more into the production side as I mentioned, while also getting better at singing (which I’ve tried and failed at before). Artists like Tyler, Frank, and 3k can then kind of guide me in terms of how to mix flows into it all.

Independent artists need our support, now more than ever. Purchase a digital version of Rouge’s debut album War!

Connect with Rouge here.

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