“It was insane – insane!”
I’m two minutes deep into a cross-continental chat with Russ and I can hear his grin through the phone. With the amount of success the 26-year-old self-made rapper has under his belt, you might think he’d be talking a career high. Nope – we’re reliving his teenage studio: a cramped closet in his parents home. And apparently these are some good memories.
“It was pretty bootleg,” he chuckles. The speaker was an old guitar amp and his pop filter a McGuyvered wire clothes hanger and a pair of pantyhose. “It was amazing because at that time it was just crazy to be able to record,” he adds. “Any quality was good quality.”
Russ has been fiercely DIY from the start. He writes, records, engineers, produces and performs all his own tracks. And has done so since he was 14 and laying down bars in his parents basement. These days he’s a multi-platinum artist and one of rap’s most prolific forces right now. But he built this empire from the ground up and he’s quick to remind me.
He’s easy-going and effortlessly engaging. Face-to-face (or rather voice-to-voice in our case) he’s down to earth, yet hyper aware of his successes. He doesn’t care much for opening artists, or for backing bands. His is a solo act through and through. It’s a punch-drunk confidence at times but he’s earned every bit of it.
In 2015 he penned a track titled “Forbes List”. Three years down the line and Russ’s name was slotted into the list itself. But it didn’t come as a surprise. “I expected to accomplish,” he explains. “When you work super hard for something, you’re not surprised when you get there. I still feel in awe of everything, and I’m still super grateful,” he adds. “But I’m not surprised.”
The Forbes List isn’t the only thing he foresaw. From verses about buying his mom a beach house, to far-distant tweets about a Rick Ross collab – he’s crossing things off his list at a rapid rate.
Something that may not have been on his list, yet a personal interest point for me, is the music programme he is currently developing with his former High School. He’s surprised when I bring it up: he didn’t know it was common knowledge yet. “I want to give people options,” he explains. The option from an early age to explore music; give teens the chance to figure out their passions from within a school environment. Russ never had that. “Trial and error was my mentor,” he says. “You appreciate it a lot when you teach yourself.”
He’s taught himself a lot and signed up for even more – and consequentially he pretty much can never hit an off switch. “I just kicked off at an island for 6 days,” he adds. “That was the first time I ever took a vacation for myself.”
He’s adamant in turning his break-neck touring life into vacation whenever he can though – tired of seeing the world from the fleeting lens of a hotel window. “So I’ve stopped [booking back-to-back shows] because I realised that this is my opportunity to travel the world,” he says and I can sense his grin through the phone again.
I turn the conversation to his South Africa trip and he admits, a little regretfully, his time here is limited.
I hope you catch some Camps Bay sunshine then, Russ. I really do.