(AllHipHop Breeding Ground)
It’s not everyday you get someone as excited about hip-hop as Conor Michael Smith, and he’s out here using that excitement to fuel his own rap career. Growing up religiously listening to the likes of Jay Z, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and inspired mostly by King Los and Mos Def on the freestyling tip, the Cleveland native has big dreams.
The 21-year-old states, “I try my best to play the long game. I want to rap, play violin, sing. I want to compose soundtracks for movies, there’s so many things.”
You may have seen Conor on the ABC show Boy Band, in which legendary producer Timbaland was a judge. While he began rapping prior, Conor found himself harmonizing and singing on the show — which was fun and exciting, but ultimately resulted in doubt.
“If I join this band, am I selling out? Is this something that’ll ultimately diminish my worth as an artist and take away the soul of what I do? What if it becomes big and I’m stuck doing the pop thing forever?”
Spending the last few years fine tuning his sound and musical vision, which includes separating himself from his former pop band days as a member of In Real Life, Conor’s main focus is to create fearlessly honest music with a positive and powerful impact. With his debut release titled “With You In Mind,” he does just that. A modern-day call to arms, Conor is seeing spitfire rapping about the state of our country, urging listeners to remember the ones we’ve lost to violence while emphasizing the importance in voting.
Paired with an equally powerful visual, “With You In Mind” was shot in front of a beautiful mural at LA’s #FAMEYARD on Melrose Ave, reminding the masses that they have the power to change the narrative for generations to come.
AllHipHop: What was the household like growing up in Cleveland?
Conor Michael Smith: We’re a family of 7. I have 4 younger siblings: 2 sisters, 2 brothers. Being the oldest child, I carried this responsibility whether it was validated or not. I had to do something significant with my life because I have so many younger siblings. 4 of them, they all look up to their older brother. I always had to reallY do something and do it better than everybody. Always had that mentality. Whether it’s violin, basketball, anything, I knew I had to be the best at it. At 15, I knew music is what I was going to do. I’m not there yet, but I’m going to spend every day of my life working to get there. Sacrifice everything to get there.
AllHipHop: What happened at 15 that made you decide that?
Conor Michael Smith: I had a really tough time in school. They’d put me in these stupid classes. They had me on pills, had me going to therapy. I was so frustrated, felt like the school system was dissing me my whole life. I always had friends. I was always doing well in the things I love to do so I never considered myself as a problem, but teachers and staff are quick to make you think that. You’re seeing the principal everyday, it’s annoying. It kept getting worse and worse.
Eventually, my parents took me to this hospital in Baltimore where they diagnosed me with autism. I was so over it because I felt like they won, they got their label on me. They’re putting me in all these classes, I was so ashamed of it to be honest. There was nothing I could do. I was constantly fighting against everybody around me trying to give me this label or trying to put me in this box with these other kids. Fast forward a couple years later, a fan comes up to me at a Meet & Greet. His mom’s crying, she comes up to me and says, “my son just got diagnosed with autism and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.” I’d never told anyone, I kept it so secret.
AllHipHop: I have chills!
Conor Michael Smith: This kid was a huge fan of mine, knew all my SoundCloud stuff. I decided to get the puzzle piece that represents autism tatted on me [points to arm tattoo], and I posted about it. Ever since, There have been so many people who come up to me like “hey I struggle with this.” It may not be autism, may be something totally different. It was a weight I had to carry around with me and almost hide from people, to then allowing it to become a superpower, almost- it’s the coolest thing.
AllHipHop: How is music a coping mechanism for you?
Conor Michael Smith: Honestly, I got a lot to say. There’s a lot of stuff I want to say that I don’t because I’m a very honest person. If we’re friends, I’ll say a bunch of stuff and you’re like “damn, that was kind of mean.”
AllHipHop: I can’t picture you being mean.
Conor Michael Smith: It’s not mean, more “dang he really said that?” I like telling people how I feel, a lot of times it doesn’t get out the right way. When I’m writing, I can try saying things a certain way, but ultimately I get to choose what people hear. When I’m speaking, they get it all at once and it’s too much. When I can center and organize a thought of mine or an emotion, that’s why I love music. The new song “With You In Mind” came out the way it was, it was so targeted and focused. Every single line was a compilation of conversations and things I felt, not the last couple months but my whole life. Growing up in Cleveland my whole life where I’m from, seeing all these different things. All that built up, I packed it all into this one song.
AllHipHop: When did you record it?
Conor Michael Smith: I’d been recording it the last couple months. I don’t go in there and freestyle in the booth, I really take a lot of time writing. The writing took about 3 days. Alright I’ma get 64, and that’ll be the whole thing. I’ma do the string section at the end. I recorded it, then went back in because I needed to do some lines. The last 2 minutes was one take. I get all this anxiety when I go in to record because I have so much love for the words. I write it and think “oh this is so great.” I go to record it and hope it sounds like how I hear it in my head. This one did, incredible.
Conor Michael Smith: First of all, it was an honor to work with Slim and Base. Kels (MGK) went to the same school I went to in Cleveland. He’s the best, he’s always shown me so much love. He has this concert in the winter during Christmas called XXMAS. I’d go there every year and see him, he’d say “bro, you gotta keep going!” He’d give me some advice. Slim was always supportive, I’d see him like “we gotta work!” Years of that, eventually for it to finally happen with this one is so sick. Honestly the process was super quick too, because I’d made the beat already.
AllHipHop: You produce everything too?
Conor Michael Smith: I went into Logic, I did the chords and the drums. I never made beats, ever. This day, I decided to sit down and make a beat.” [starts beatboxing] It was crazy, I program it. I get the progression, write the whole song. I was sitting and it happened.
AllHipHop: How does it feel to be so honest? You make music to make a positive impact, which I really respect.
Conor Michael Smith: It feels good. That’s what I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to be honest. The rappers and artists I love were always so brutally honest that it almost felt you were their best friend and they’re telling you something. Tupac, Eminem, Biggie, Kendrick, they paint these vivid stories like you’re talking to them. You really know them. I was always a writer, I’d always write stories. When I fell in love with hip-hop, it matched up perfectly. I can also sound cool while telling something I really feel. People love it and connect with it. They get my lyrics tattooed on them, my name. It keeps me going. I want to be even more honest, even more vulnerable.
AllHipHop: How does King Los inspire you on the freestyling tip?
Conor Michael Smith: Los really inspired me so much to go and rap for people. Even before he did Sway, I was hip to his music when he was just Los. The Crown Ain’t Safe mixtape, Zero Gravity 2, all that. I really studied his lyricism: the way he’d put together words, the rhyme schemes, all the syllables, the nerdy stuff. [laughs] Seeing him freestyle was inspiration. I used to go up to people on the street in high school and be a pest. “Let me rap for you, I’ma freestyle!” I’d talk about what they’re wearing, incorporate their name. He taught me that. ‘
J Cole was actually the first show I went to. 2014 Forest Hill Drive, my first ever concert. Seeing him perform that whole album, I’m like “yeah, this is what I’m doing.” That was the deciding factor for me. Him, Kanye, Logic was a big one in high school. Jay-Z was a big one too, the person he is outside of being able to rap. I really pay close attention to what he does because it’s so much bigger than making an album that sells well. You’re setting an example for the next generation and your family. His kids are going to grow up: “wow, my dad’s Jay-Z!” He’s setting that standard. It may be intimidating, but to set that standard of excellence is so sick. That’s what I want to do.
AllHipHop: How was shooting the visual during COVID-19? I know you did it on Melrose.
It was wild because people were walking by on Melrose, you see some kid rapping his a## off in front of the mural. I definitely had to tune everything out and focus. We ended up reshooting it a bunch of times, the one we landed on was the one take. The song’s so important to me that I didn’t want the video to take away from what the song was. You can easily go wrong with a subject matter like that, you can easily make it corny. That’s why I didn’t include any protest footage because I thought it was too on the nose. Listen to what I have to say, that’s all I really care about.
AllHipHop: What do you like to do for fun?
Conor Michael Smith: I like to play basketball. I’ve been teaching myself how to sing during quarantine, that’s been the most fun. I like to hang out with friends. I like to rap. I rap all the time, I rap a lot. My friends will tell you if you throw any song on, any beat on, I’m going in. At least out in LA, there’s a lot of places you can go to. We were out in Malibu today at this place called God’s Seat, this huge view on top of a mountain.
AllHipHop: It’s a hiking spot?
Conor Michael Smith: It’s not too much of a hike. You can go on top of this rock and see the whole thing, it’s wild.
AllHipHop: 3 things you need in the studio?
Conor Michael Smith: Water, my violin, sometimes a ukulele. Usually a piano. An ideal studio would have a piano, I’d bring my violin, and water. I’m a simple guy. I’m about my business.
AllHipHop: What can we expect from your forthcoming mixtape?
Conor Michael Smith: I’m trying to play this the long way. The way I look at artists, I’m more likely to check you out if I feel you need my support. I’m not the biggest thing in the world, I need y’all help. I need fans. I’m hungry, that’s what I want to see. When people try to come out the gate with a big video and a big single, they got the hottest producer, I’d rather do it my own way and have someone feel like they can be a part of my growth. I want people to feel like they’re on the journey with me, rather than they’re watching this guy who’s got it all figured out and they’re lucky to be listening to him.
For real, I need my fans. I need people to listen if I’m saying something. It’s very important. The mixtape, I want to really take it back to the old school s### because no one’s doing that today. Everyone’s got Spotify or Apple Music, it’s all on streaming services. I want to drop it on my website and I can rap on any beat. Old school, new school, throw in some originals in there. It’s almost my resume to the rap game in general, in a cohesive story. You’ll see I don’t just rap. It’s like my college resume: I do this, I do this, I do this.
AllHipHop: Are you still independent?
Conor Michael Smith: Yeah, I plan on it too. The only way I’d sign is if… you mentioned DJ Drama. How he signed Jack Harlow, that’s smart. It’s smart to sign to somebody who’s going to elevate you as an artist and want to develop you, get you in the studio to try new things. I don’t want an advance, I don’t want any of that s###. I want to make my s###, I know I don’t need somebody’s handout money-wise. I want to make cool stuff and get better as a musician.
AllHipHop: Anything else you want to let us know?
Conor Michael Smith: I’m very grateful because this is my first ever song I put out. It feels surreal to put something out finally of my own. I can search my name on iTunes, that’s insane to me. My 15-year-old self is freaking out right now, he can’t believe I’m even doing this. I’m excited for the journey. Stay tuned, I got a lot coming. I don’t plan on stopping until I’m the biggest. The best. I’m trying to get GOAT status. I’m playing the long game. I don’t want anything quick. I only want a boost if I’ve got a foundation on it.