Teaholics Anonymous: An Interview With Issue

Issue is the 17 year-old rapper/producer making hazy, evocative music that can vaguely be classified as hip hop and is regularly referred to as ‘cloud rap’. Although he’s the son of Bay Area hip hop legend E-40 and brother of rapper Droop-E, his work is a distinctly different breed – aligning closer to the likes of Lil B, Main Attrakionz and Asap Rocky, but with peculiarities possibly borne from tea addiction. Sam Davies investigates.

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Issue isn’t easy to pin down. He lives on Twitter, he’ll email you straight back; but carving out time to do an interview, and juggling intercontinental time differences? That’s another matter. With some rappers it would be about be ego, entourage and waiting games. With Issue, it’s about finding the time to take out from work. He’s dropped four album-length mixtapes in short order since 2010. He’s got collaborations extending way beyond his native Bay Area to Manchester (Big War), London (Akira The Don) and Paris (a possible future home), and a stack of new releases – EPs and a possible double album – in the pipeline.

“I’ve always been around music all my life, my whole family is talented,” he explains. “Most of my cousins and aunties can sing, it’s been in my blood. It was natural for me to start at some point. At first, I started making beats age 11. I worked with Reason first and made about 250 beats on it. Slowly but surely I went to GarageBand and started to rap on there… I loved hearing myself on a track, so I had to keep making songs. I’m up to 800 or 900 beats now.”

Eight or nine hundred: a number that takes on extra significance when you realise Issue is just 17 years old, and then realise his age when he produced The E, a hectic slalom from raw idea to raw idea, opening up weird angles on contemporary hip hop. “I’m A Pirate” takes fat synth hits and finds micro-rhythms in their decay. “Chlorophyll” sounds like equipment – and possibly Issue – recording to warped tape. “Cold Blooded” could have fallen off Royal Trux’s Live Singles Unreleased. A screwed-down voice murmurs, “I’m on this tea/I gotta take a pee,” and makes it sound like a threat. Final track “When I Was 14” meanwhile was clearly no deep dive into nostalgia.

Through it all, and its follow-ups – The E2, The E3 and most recently PIG – run Issue’s vocals: a style that takes in 30-odd years of hip hop history, shrugs and does its own thing. Issue’s lines might trail out, left to hang unrhymed, turn in circles or drift just off the beat. At times he veers into a sing-song lilt that almost recalls Slick Rick; much of the time he sounds like no-one else. When his older brother, Droop-E drops guest verses, his sheer punchiness makes Issue’s nonchalance sound practically horizontal. How did his style develop? “No idea,” he laughs. “Sort of just came to me as I grew older and wiser. Singing is fun because it sounds good and rapping can be annoying and boring at times.”

If you didn’t know Issue was the son of Bay Area legend E-40, you wouldn’t guess from his flow. Nor does he trade on it, though he associates himself with Sick Wid It Records (and theoretically his mixtapes could reach The E40). His filters-off style has more in common with the BasedGod himself, Lil B, and at the mention of his fellow Bay Area resident Issue lights up and expands on his frustrations with rap’s horizons. “For sure, brother, that’s my dude. Yeah, people have been comparing me to him for a while now. My music isn’t Based though, no disrespect at all. I call my genre, ‘no genre’. It’s a combination of world sounds, Based and a jazzy feel. I think what me and Lil B are doing is making a new era of music. In the 1920s, African Americans made jazz and I think that’s what we’re doing right now. Making something that’s ‘free living’.”

“I call my genre, ‘no genre’. In the 1920s, African Americans made jazz and I think that’s what we’re doing right now. Making something that’s ‘free living’.”

If that suggests a kind of throwback to mellow-yellow Daisy Aged vibes, Issue’s sound actually swerves much more into sharp-edged electronics. The E3 has him rhyming over Aphex Twin’s “4”. PIG’s “With The Pipes” smears thick detuned synths over a bed of acid bubbling. “I’ve always loved Kraftwerk and Daft Punk – the legends,” Issue adds.

Issue’s free-associating streams of consciousness hit new peaks on his recent PIG tape, circling round his twin obsessions (iced tea and sports cars), making a song about making a song called “Yaaaaa” and running through a series of spacier production styles. “PIG was originally supposed to be my first album; something told me to put it out for free,” he says. “It was one of the strangest projects I’ve released and people respected it. I genuinely felt like I made a five-star mixtape. Too many slappers on that tape! Schwarz made you amped, Giorgio Momurda took you on a ride to space and Babe Rainbow put you in a trance. It was the perfect tape.”

Issue’s list of collaborators and connections is vast. A possible move to France comes up at one point: “I know a couple people out there in France! Soufien3000, Feadz, Tekilatex, Sidisid, Pure Baking Soda, Frootylooty, the list goes on! Shout out to France.” His hometown, Vallejo, he descries as “hard to explain. In the 90s I remember a little but the city was very dreamy. I did my research a while back and it was supposed to be the capital of California. Unfortunately, it’s not the same at all. Lots of killings, robberies and so on. I still love it but it’s definitely not the same. Where I’m looking at now is either LA or France. Euro is the way to go during these crazy times.”

You could compare his online super-network to Lil B again, but there are plenty of differences to note: none of the drug allusions in ‘Based’ hold good here, with Issue living straight-edge as DC hardcore. Issue’s poison is iced tea, or his own invention, Viper Tea, a concoction of iced tea and blue sports drink. “I LOVE tea. It gives me so much wisdom mentally,” he says. “I feel like a sensei, I feel like a king. I can’t explain why I love it so much but it’s strong.”

His other great love apart from tea is sports cars, as spelled out in current track “Ferrari (Italian Love)”, featuring MURS, from his forthcoming Waves Of Italy mixtape. He must be the only hip hop artist on Twitter to have used a vintage pic of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson as his avatar (“He always gives you so much information about the car!”). But that’s also part of Issue’s careful control of his image: photos are scarce and generally show him masked-up like Doom or Jason Vorhees. He’s even masked for his brief cameo in E-40’s recent video for “Function”.

The longer you talk to Issue, the clearer it seems that while there’s some shyness and some deliberate mystery-making going on – sample tweet: “Compare Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ to ISSUE’s mask. It’s very similar if you know what I’m talking about.” – it’s also a preference to play the background and stay in the lab, a preference that comes out in answer to whether he sees himself more as a rapper or a producer. “I love doing both but I feel more of a producer… Producing-wise, I think I can go far. [Collaborator] Avispado is doing his whole electronic/world type of music. I’m going to stick with him and that sound. My beats are all over the place. [I feel like] if I really want to make a mobbed-out beat I could, something really serious I could, something electronic I could. It’s just how I feel during that time.”

 Listen on SoundCloud

You can download all of Issue’s mixtapes from iheardissue.com.

By Sam Davies on September 4, 2012

On a different note