I met up with local up-and-comer, Joose the Conqueror, to talk about his latest album, Insomnia and Grand Rapids hip hop. We sat down for some Thai food and talked a lot about his time living (without a home) in Atlanta, Detroit, and where he wants to go from here. Also some of his secret, soon to be released (hopefully), collaborations.
Though he’s lived across the country and travelled all over the world, Joose generally keeps a low profile. He’s unknown in his hometown of Grand Rapids, perhaps that’s how he prefers it. However, due to his internet fame gained via Soundcloud, Spotify, and a recent Sprite sponsorship (shared by the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, and Missy Elliot, as he points out), Joose is much more than a local up-and-comer.
Check out his music, including Insomnia, here.
Can you talk a little bit about AGO?
We all grew up together, developed our sounds together, pretty much started in SANGO’s basement. We’re a collective of seven individuals. We started AGO as a business around 2012.
Did you produce Insomnia completely through AGO?
I was the executive producer, organizing everybody. MOZAIC produced most of it, he’s also part of AGO. I aspire to be like L.A. Reid, as far as producers go. Not necessarily knowing how to play things, but knowing who can get the job done to get the sound I want.
So do you want to move into more of a producer role?
I want to continue to be an artist, but I think it’s important to have that control. Like what Kanye does.
Right. It’s funny that you mention Kanye, cause you have that track, Julian 2, where you say you’re not the next Ye or Jay. Can you explain that song?
That’s just one of those, I wanted to jot down for history purposes, my current situation. People, sometimes family, don’t always understand what you’re doing. If you’re not instantly famous or on TV they don’t understand what’s going on. So I wanted to jot down my emotions.
I understand that. I just graduated from GVSU, and find myself feeling like, if I’m not doing something that’s working towards a career, then what’s the point?
What I’m finding out is a lot of things happen through endurance, doing what your gut says. If you do what you do with a passion, and stick with it for long enough, doors will open. All you need is one door to open, one conversation to happen. The whole reason we’re talking is because I stuck to my ideas, and put them out there.
You’re definitely catching some attention. How’s Insomnia doing so far?
I’m doing phenomenally, I’m just me as an independent artist, and I just got picked up by Sprite. Mayer Hawthorne’s manager just hit me up to set up something. So I don’t know what will happen, but we’ll see.
[Editor side note: Last week, Joose had a track on a front page Spotify playlist, “Urban Poet.” His credibility and reputation keeps growing and growing!]
How do you think they discovered you?
Well, I’ve been sponsored by Soundcloud for a while now, been on the cover for about three years now. And I’ve been travelling a lot, just travelling. I have 2.5 million streams on Soundcloud right now. And I grew up literally down the street, so it’s cool to see I have a global appeal off of stuff I recorded in my basement.
Do you have a prominent local following?
Not really, Grand Rapids is a little different. We don’t have a good hip hop scene. It’s really small and really politics based, and I’m not really into ass-kissing. I just do my thing.
That’s the impression that I got, cause I was surprised to see you weren’t nominated for any Jammies awards, or getting any local recognition.
Yeah, actually nobody really knows who AGO is, even though Sango just got a platinum plaque for working with Bryson Tiller. Nobody knows that. He’s on tour right now, he’s wrapping up in Europe. We don’t get much recognition around the city, I don’t know.
Do you like what’s going on in the city, hip hop wise?
Um, there’s a few people I know, like Shamar Alef, Sincere, Filo, a few people. It’s a growing scene, but we don’t even have a home venue, and it’s all politics. Most people when they think of hip hop, they think of the worst examples. I went to the Chief Keef concert last night, and I was like dude, your music is singlehandedly the most violent music in the US. It’s like, the Intersection will book him, but I can’t even get a show there. I think it’s a money thing. I don’t even know what my fan base is in Grand Rapids, cause I can’t even get a venue here. Which is fine, cause I keep it low key.
So how did you manage to build an audience? Just putting stuff out?
That’s really what it was, yeah man. Sango was the first person to tour. He’s been touring probably four years now, on his own. So from working with him I got more recognition around the world. I dropped my project Cruise Control a few years ago, that got some spins, and then I dropped this, which is like my crème de la crème.
I feel like you and AGO in general have a larger scope. You’re looking higher, and have a way more professional appearance than a lot of local artists who are just trying to dig into the local culture.
We’ve just been around longer, been taking it serious a long time. We come from the area of actually having to get your ass up, go to the radio station, and stand outside for hours, to maybe get in, or maybe get on a phone call. Really makin moves. That’s where we come from.
Tell me about some of those experiences…
The one that paid off the most was getting play at 104 a while ago. Just from being outside and bugging people, they gave me a chance. But when it comes to Grand Rapids, I’m not really fuckin with it yet. I’ll come back when I have some more resources, but right now, it’s too much politic based.
Have you tried the scenes in Detroit or elsewhere?
I used to live in Detroit. Seven Mile and Murray Hill. Actually, they were playing my music in the MOCAD once. Someone who follows me on twitter told me they were playing “Bounce” in there. Crazy man.
So is that what the track on Insomnia references?
Were you working on this album while living in Detroit?
Yeah, I worked on the bulk of this in Detroit. My life is kinda crazy, kinda like a movie. I was travelling around, in Atlanta for a minute, in Florida for a minute, but I finished it in Detroit. I record all my stuff. All the mixing, mastering, artwork, design work. I’m a graphic designer also.
Did you learn how to do that stuff to help your rap career, or were you just into doing that stuff?
That was just other stuff I was into. I’ve been into it since high school. Developed my logo and everything. Top to bottom, did all of it myself.
You’re really a one man band.
You gotta be, otherwise you’re waiting on people.
How was the scene in Atlanta?
You ready for this? This is probably something nobody knows, but I was homeless down there for a little while, for probably about 9 months in 2010. I used to live, are you familiar with Magic City?
Do you frequent any strip clubs?
If you go to Atlanta, you gotta go to Magic City. It’s a whole culture man.
I understand hip hop is centered around the strip clubs in Atlanta.
That’s where they break a lot of records, like six months in advance to it hitting anywhere else in the US. So I used to live in a few clubs, like, crash in the VIP areas after hours. But it was a good experience cause I got to see who the players were, know who was who, and see how the DJs broke major records. See who was breaking through. I used to see a quarter of a million dollars get thrown in the air, any given Friday.
Did you meet any big names when you were down there?
Aw man, you name it bro. Atlanta is like a black LA. Anyone you can imagine has property there.
If you could move anywhere for the hip hop community, where would you go?
Right now, I would say LA. I haven’t been there yet, but a lot of people I know in the industry are there. It seems like a place that’s already geared for that, I would like to spend some time there.
Do you like the music coming out of there? What do you like about LA?
This might sound crazy, but I’m a huge GTA 5 fan. And that whole game is modeled after LA, so I like the culture, and most of my fans are out there. A lot of my listens and streams come out of California. I would love to just go out there and explore, the whole state. I’m into that. I was actually born in Washington. So, I just wanna go out there and explore.
I don’t really know the west at all.
It seems really chill and laid back, and that’s kinda the person I am anyways. Coming from here, you gotta be laid back, cause there’s not really much to do. So you just gotta chill or smoke or whatever. So I wanna go out there and dive into their culture.
That’s interesting, cause I think you have a really quintessential Midwest sound. Your production and flow really remind me of other Midwest projects. So it’s interesting to me that California is picking up on your sound.
Everything seems pretty hype and gangster out there. My fans who reach out say they appreciate me being real.
Your music is definitely really personal, so that’s awesome that people will reach out.
It’s a blessing for sure.
Back to the album, I wanted to talk about the track Bruce Wayne. Do you see yourself as a similar person?
How Bruce Wayne came about…you said you know Detroit?
I used to deliver food for a restaurant in the city, and there are areas I wouldn’t drive through.
I was in those areas, living among the people in those areas, from 2014-2016. And being an outsider in those areas is worse than being from there, cause when people don’t know who you are, there’s a lot of turf related stuff, so I just called Detroit Gotham City, just for the sake of painting a picture to tell someone who hasn’t been there what it’s like. So, I felt like I was Bruce Wayne moving through the city. Just listen to the song, me and my brother were riding around in a stolen car to get around, and that was life for a minute. Blessed to be here today, but that was for two years.
How did you end up in Detroit?
My mom moved down to ATL, and something happened with my car, so I was like fuck this, I’m just gonna go down to ATL and see what I can do with this music stuff. And I was only down there for two weeks because I got into it with my brother, and when I told them what I was trying to do with my music career, they laughed. Literally laughed in my face. And I said fuck it, bought my bus ticket that night, and went to Detroit to stay with a good friend from high school.
That must have been really discouraging, coming from family.
Yeah, but nah not really. Kinda, but fuck ’em, ya know? You just gotta grab life by the balls and do what it is you want to do. So I crashed with him for a minute. The situation with the car was, his dad had come to visit and had a rental car, and he left it with us, and it never got returned. I don’t know what happened with it, but we were driving around in that for two whole years. We kinda had to, cause you don’t want to be ridin the bus or walking around for too long in those areas, it’s just not safe at all. We did what we had to do. I just uprooted and moved there, didn’t even have my clothes or nothing. Spent that winter without a coat, just a crew neck and some chucks.
Do you think you would have put out a similar product if you hadn’t gone through those experiences?
Not at all, it’s only cause of those experiences that I can talk about anything that I talk about. Or have the hustle or the heart I have, and the confidence to do anything else. This is all a choice, and I made a choice to do what I want to do, not what anyone told me to do.
Is it starting to pay off?
For sure, it is, yes. And it’s not management or anything at all, it’s just me.
Do you think you’re gonna need some people to represent you soon?
I’m pretty savvy, and I do all my research, so I’m pretty comfortable, but yeah at some point I will need management, somebody with connections that I don’t have. But I know how to do everything else.
So what are the next moves?
Right now, I’m just waitin on Monday for this phone call. Working with the team, building collaborations. Just kinda waiting to see what’s going on. Two management agencies have already hit me up. The industry is kinda weird, like you got big names like Chance the Rapper and D.R.A.M, but then you got other people smaller than them travelling around the country makin good cheese, but you won’t hear them on the radio. So once I get there, the sky is the limit man.
My official next steps are going out to LA, stepping foot in the actual Soundcoud office, then I gotta go to New York to chop it up with Spotify. I have some fans who work at Spotify who just threw me in some playlists. Next is just tackling the publications.
Do you think that people like Chance being an independent artist has changed the industry or opened new doors for independent artists?
Yes, that’s the light right there. Before, you had the big companies, like your favorite label or whatever, which is good cause they set a standard. Like my favorite was Bad Boy, that’s what I wanted to be, someone working like that. But that shit started with drug money, so when you’re not doing it like that, you gotta find other ways or be really fuckin dope to get out here. Now, anyone can make a following around the world, and being indie is what it is. The fans can carry an artist, which is good cause it gives smaller artists a chance to make revenue. Instead of someone else making an artist, then taking all their revenue. They get kicked off the label, and they’re nobody. So yeah, people like me have a chance to actually be somebody. Excuse the language, but I’m a rapper, bro.
So you’re making money as an artist now. What were you doing for cash before?
Graphic design, freelancing and photography. I’m very much a creative. I was making like 50 bucks a month here and there when working on this album. Doin what I could. I get a stipend from a bar in LA for doing their advertising. That’s how I stayed afloat for a minute.
Are you gonna keep doing that stuff?
Always, always gotta hustle bro. Always gotta have a side hustle, and your side hustle has to have a side hustle. You know what I’m sayin?
Do you want to get to a point as a rapper where you don’t have to side hustle?
No. You always gotta side hustle cause if you’re just steady makin money, that’s straight, but I’m always gonna need money to do something. Vinyl, merch, plane tickets, whatever.
So you don’t want music to be your full time job?
Hmm. I would love to, but I don’t want to have to always worry about it paying me. I don’t do this for the money, I do this cause I love doing it, but if it pays me, word. If I can travel around and touch the people, word, cool. But you always gotta have different streams of revenue, any artist will tell you that. Even Jay Z or anyone we look up to has different streams for revenue. If I can bring in enough money to relax and really focus, that would be cool. That’s what I’m in to.
Do you feel like you’ll be able to make good music once you’re comfortable?
That’s just a matter of being grounded. I think I’ll always be able to make good music because I know where I come from and I never take it for granted. I’m any anywhere per say now, but I’m thankful. I had to starve for a long time to get to where I needed to go. I’ll always have that in my soul. I have a love for good music and I don’t do this selfishly, not for myself, I make music for other people. Not just myself. It’s for the people.
I’m excited for Monday. Once I get some good management and a booking agent, I’m good. That’s big for me. I’m trying to live in the moment here. November is when a new chapter started when I got a big ass check from Sprite. So now I’m just waiting to see what comes of this. They want to do an advertising deal with me. I sent them “The Good Things”. The singer from that song is actually from east London, I found her on Soundcloud. Ideh. Just sent them the song and they loved it, and they’re putting some bread behind it.
I don’t believe you should work if you’re not working hard. The game isn’t hard when you got the talent and the grind. The hardest thing is just believing in yourself. People will fold under self-doubt.
From an early age, I just really loved to do this shit. Started out as writing poetry in the back of the class. I was one of those nerdy kids who got picked on a lot. I’m a small guy who didn’t play sports, I had asthma. Steve Urkel bro, I was that guy. So in order to fit in I was the funny guy, or I was making music or trying to rap.
Do you have any habits when you write?
I don’t have to do this, but it helps: I smoke weed, *leans closer to the mic* and I smoke weed. It helps me cause I live a real life bro, I don’t go to a day job, so I just get high and let my mind go to where it’s supposed to go. How am I going to use words today to help somebody get through something? I really want to touch people. I don’t wanna preach to people, but one little kid can see this and be changed. It could save a life bro. Being young and black, we don’t have a lot of opportunities. You got the eight ball thrown at you when you’re born. I know what kinda people I have in my family, and how people grew up, I just want to be different, and if I can save people in the process, show people that here are other things in the world other than these four blocks, your four corners, then I strive to do that. Cause all we got is the youth, we gotta inspire the youth. And right now we don’t have much good wholesome music. The Lil yachty’s, Uzi Vert, maybe it’s just not my style.
What do you listen to?
Negro Man, German hip hop. These beats are crazy. Robert Glasper. Mainly jazz, R&B, Miike Snow. Oh, I should probably tell you this, I’m doing some stuff with Kaytranada. I got a whole bunch of Kaytranada beats on my computer that no one has ever heard.
I’m on an unreleased Dilla track too. Rosewood 2055, they were working with Slum Village, and they said they needed a singer on this unreleased Dilla beat, so they hit me up. It didn’t get released but I still have it. A lot of stuff that I’m just chillin with. Another crazy thing; Orange Cap, who shot my videos, was with Slum Village when they were converting old Dilla reels to digital, and got to film that process. They were pullin out reels with all kinds of names on them, Black Thought, Pharaohe Monch, Andre 3000…everybody. He got to hear this material in its original form. And these people are out here in this city. We walk among you. And nobody knows. I just wish we had more of a scene here in Grand Rapids.
Just like aliens…
You can listen to Joose the Conqueror’s new album Insomnia and the rest of his music on Bandcamp, on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Pandora, and more.