Raydar Ellis: Off the Radar

Brick Records has forged a reputation for building Boston’s independent Hip-Hop market. Having put out cult-followed records for MF Doom, D-Tension, and 7L & Esoteric, the presence goes beyond Beantown too. But after over a decade of grinding, Brick brought it back home with an unlikely newcomer, Raydar Ellis.

Ellis, a Berklee School of Music graduate, has been a fan of Hip-Hop since seeing graffiti in his travels growing up in northern New Jersey. Since getting his knowledge in New England, the dorm room student moved to the mic, and in doing so, won over the respect of everybody from Ed O.G. on down. His debut album, The Late Pass is a dynamic album that looks at Hip-Hop’s origins, its future, and everything that’s been funny along the way. Raydar spoke with AllHipHop.com about his development from fan to MC, and his academic approach to the music. Tardy or not, here Raydar comes.

AllHipHop.com: What’s up with the Raydar part of the name? Is that a M.A.S.H. reference or what?

Raydar Ellis: Raydar came from a bunch of my friends in high school. They’d go out and party and stuff, and I’d pretty much be at home, working on music or researching things. I was always thinkin’ ‘bout stuff. I could be sittin’ around, watchin’ Hollywood Squares [on TV], and all of a sudden, I’d start looking for information on the history of [the show]. They said, “Yo, you’re like a Raydar, you’re always lookin’ for stuff.” It stuck.

AllHipHop.com: Where’d you grow up?

Raydar Ellis: I was born in White Plains, New York. Then I moved to New Jersey for 13 years, and on to Connecticut for high school. I was always in the tri-state area.

AllHipHop.com: What kind of research did you have to do to make a record like “Graffiti Rock”?

Raydar Ellis: A lot of came from my homies and stuff, ‘cause I’m not a writer myself. My homies are writers. Just kickin’ it with them and really wantin’ to be a student of the culture [inspired me]. The thing about Hip-Hop that separates it from so many other genres is that you can never play a note and still be Hip-Hop. It always struck me like, “Where does this come from?” I understand what hieroglyphics are, and I understand what Sanskrit is, and what graffiti is, but how does that all come together? “Graffiti Rock” gave me that opportunity.

AllHipHop.com: New Jersey has more graffiti today than a lot of places. Was it prevalent in your growing up?

Raydar Ellis: I was always seein’ it and everything. My first real understanding of it was when my mom would go to get her done. I came from a mostly white, middle-class neighborhood. There weren’t a lot of kids throwin’ stuff up on walls. When my mom got her hair done, she went to black neighborhoods – that’s where the salon had custom graffiti stuff on the side of the building, just ridin’ around the city. When we went into New York, as well, in Harlem, I was always on the lookout for it. Before I made music, I was painting. So from a color perspective, [it interested me too].

AllHipHop.com: Does one writer really resonate with you?

Raydar Ellis: Hmmm. My boy, Broma. I shouted him out on the beginning of the song too. He was the catalyst for that. The kid, he’s an all-around great dude and such. He pulled me aside and [taught me everything]. He opened me up to the individualism that graffiti can bring.

AllHipHop.com: You’ve got another interesting record in “Sambo Song.” Last year, that was a hot topic with Little Brother’s Minstrel Show album. From an independent situation on Brick Records, not being forced into the cookie-cutter role, do you see that syndrome playing into your career?

Raydar Ellis: Oh yeah, definitely – in life. Growing up in a mostly white, New Jersey neighborhood, [I went] to an all-black college, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. When I first got down there, kickin’ it with MCs and all that, they were like, “Why you talk like that?” – things of that nature. “Can you send a lil’ bit more urban?” It was like actors on casting-calls. It’s funny that you brought up the minstrel thing and Little Brother, because I didn’t really wanna compare myself as an MC doing it, I wanted to talk about the actor’s element. A lot of people equate “sambo” as slang for sellout.

AllHipHop.com: In underground Hip-Hop right now, there is a sense that it’s largely white audiences buying these albums. Approaching your audience right now, what element does race play to you?

Raydar Ellis: I’m not really gonna sit there and be like, “Man, he’s not black, so he shouldn’t be buyin’ my record!” That doesn’t make any sense. I’m just happy…ears are ears. Shoot, the human race is the only race I’m tryin’ to reach. I don’t segregate. Berklee [School of Music] definitely taught me a lot about different cultures, and different ways to connect to people.

AllHipHop.com: I interviewed Edan before, a Berklee dropout. He said that it’s hard for Hip-Hop to be taught in a higher education system. Would you agree?

Raydar Ellis: No. [Berklee] taught me a lot about the other side. I wasn’t born inside Hip-Hop. I came up first on Rock & Roll and Jazz. I got into Hip-Hop in the mid-‘90s and then had to backtrack and learn a whole bunch of stuff. When I came to Berklee, I tried to build up as much understanding as a student of the culture, and one thing that it taught me was the other side. I’d be sitting there playing a De La Soul Stakes is High record and the kid to the next of me, maybe two years younger, would have no clue. I was in eighth grade when that record came out. But this kid next to me, wasn’t. That taught me a lot about the life-span and the gaps, as what happens with the culture. My parents have siblings that are all spaced out in years, but they all know Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? The time gaps for there weren’t as significant as they are now. Berklee taught me that. Hip-Hop is like a candy bar. You [consume] it and you’re still hungry. You forget that you ate it after a while.

AllHipHop.com: MCs complain about the diminishing following from female fans, especially in independent Hip-Hop. With a song like “Fat Chicks,” do you think that encourages women or chases them away from the record?

Raydar Ellis: The weirdest thing… and I didn’t expect this at all, is skinnier girls are like, “Where’s my record?” I’m not kidding. I’ve played [“Fat Chicks”] for fat chicks, I’ve played it for skinny girls, and the impression that I’ve gotten the most is, “Why do fat chicks get a song?” [Laughs] We were just havin’ fun one day in a rehearsal, and we made the song from there.

AllHipHop.com: When you’ve got a crew called Short Bus, people know it’s a lighthearted experience. But when you’ve also got records on Late Pass like “Sambo Song” that mean something to you, is it hard to be taken seriously?

Raydar Ellis: That was a battle at one point. On one hand, it’s part of being human. No one’s gonna feel the same all the time. We’re gonna wanna party sometimes, others, we’re gonna wanna be serious and everything. Where would I be if I only tried to make one side of myself? I was really feelin’ a certain mood when I wrote “Sambo Song.” Especially since this is my first record, I really wanted people to have a clear understanding of who I am, and not just a one-sided view. To show the 360 degree perspective, I said, “Shoot, I wrote a song about it, I’m puttin’ it on there. ‘Cause, s**t, I felt that way.”

AllHipHop.com: I’m really starting to appreciate what Ed O.G. means to Hip-Hop. You’ve got him, 7L & Esoteric and different pillars of Boston Hip-Hop on the album. What does that veteran presence mean to you?

Raydar Ellis: Aw man, let me tell you! I think it was Ed O.G.’s “Sayin’ Something,” around ’99. There was one line he spit, the opening line…

AllHipHop.com: “If the opportunity were to present itself, I might just have to go and reinvent myself.” …

Raydar Ellis: Yeah! We all know “I Gotta Have It” and we all know “Be a Father” and stuff, but like, that line struck me. I was a freshman in college. That was a turning point for me. That was one of the first times I started looking at [Ed O.G.] like that, and started digging at where he was coming from as a writer. The same thing with 7L and Esoteric – I first found out about them online. I was bumping “Word Association” in my dorm and stuff. The writing and rhythmic patterns that Eso was using, it really struck me. I studied that. At that time, Brick [Records] was still distributed by Landspeed. Looking at the Landspeed catalog which was like The Beatnuts, Freddie Foxxx, 7L and Eso, I was like, “Damn!” That brought me towards the Boston Hip-Hop stuff, and then the Mr. Lifs and others, it helped me deal with what was going on at the time. Most of my campus was coming into the Crunk era at the time – the “Bia’ Bia’” and Cash Money and all of that.

AllHipHop.com: Five years ago, you were in a dorm room discovering your present-day peers. Today, you’ve got a premier record on a respected independent label. For those closet-MC dreamers out there, got a word of advice?

Raydar Ellis: You have to live it, but living is learning. For people trying to get into this industry, one thing that is key is to immerse yourself in it. There’s kids out there that write 16 bars, write a hook, and get a beat, and think that’s it. There’s kids out there that do a flare [scratch], do some stabs, and think, “I’m a DJ.” There’s kids [relying] on Serato. It won’t be long ‘til some kids have no clue of what vinyl is. You gotta love this culture! When you’re worried about your single charting, your show booking, your distribution, that’s all you’ve got to look to, like “I love this.” br>

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