Trapo on storytelling and finding his own voice
The young Madison MC talks with us as his new Black Beverly Hills EP picks up steam.
Trapo, a 17-year-old singer, rapper, and songwriter from Madison, kind of came out of nowhere this year, or at least attracted attention from outlets like Complex and Pigeons And Planes before almost anyone in his hometown caught on. On early tracks like “Remy,” “Cards And Conversation,” and “Modelo,” Trapo, real name Davon Prather, painted bleak images of alcoholism, strained relationships, and loneliness, showcasing a rugged but sympathetic voice that switches easily between rapping and singing. His first proper release, The Black Beverly Hills EP, came out in November. In one of the few interviews he’s done so far, Prather, currently a senior in high school, he described awkwardly uploading the EP in the middle of a class lecture.
The nine-track project draws some of its thematic inspiration from Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin In The Sun (a track with the same title features a verse from up-and-coming Twin Cities rapper Allan Kingdom), and suggests that Prather has a narrative ambition and a complex perspective to back up the weathered-beyond-his-years voice. On “Ease My Soul,” he evokes not the typical stress of being a teenager, but a more unwieldy mix of long-term aspiration and short-term conflict. Trapo also uses shorter tracks to incorporate expansive, nuanced themes into the EP’s brief running time: “Tree” is an angry, fearful burst tackling racism, while “Magic” provides one of the EP’s few loose and lighthearted moments. Sure, there’s a sense here that Trapo is still developing his own voice, but the point is he’s actively trying to do that, rather than just mixing precocious skill with familiar archetypes. Prather met up with me recently to discuss his development as an artist so far and what he plans for future projects.
Tone Madison: When did you first get interested in making music?
Davon Prather: When I was real young, my uncles would be just rapping and shit and I'd be just listening to them. Sometimes they'd be like, "Oh, you want to get on something?" At the time, I wasn't rapping but I was singing and stuff, in church, in the choir. I would go in there when they were in the studio and sing a hook or something like that. I just liked it ever since then. Ever since I heard myself on the beat, I was like, "Damn, I could do that myself." Ever since, like, third grade, I've just been writing and recording and recording on my own—mixing and everything, too—in third grade, mixing shit! I don't know how I learned it, but I learned it somehow. I started on Audacity, and from there I just kept going up.
Tone Madison: Do you make a lot of your own beats too, then? I wasn't sure on this latest one, because you don't have producer credits listed for most of the tracks.
Davon Prather: I've made beats before, but the Black Beverly Hills project, I didn't make any of those beats. I'm still practicing with that.
Tone Madison: When did you start doing stuff under the name Trapo?
Davon Prather: My junior year. I have other names. When I decided to run with Trapo, my junior year, that's when I started taking everything seriously—this past year, basically. From there, it just went up, just because I decided to take it seriously.
Tone Madison: How do you think you've changed as a musician since then? How has your approach evolved as you've put out all these one-off tracks on SoundCloud and then completed the EP?
Davon Prather: In the beginning—I'm trying to be strategic about everything—so in the beginning, I used to just rap over other artists' beats like Mick Jenkins, I would listen to one of his songs and I'd just go find the beat and rap over it, basically freestyle, to people that, alright, look, I can rap. But then over time—and I'm still young—and I was 16 when I started, and I was still doing pretty good shit, but I was just mimicking other artists and stuff, and I don't want to be mimicking everybody else. When I found out that I don't have to just rap and be considered just a rapper, I can just make good music—once that clicked, I started making the best music I could. Now I feel like I've got my own sound.
Tone Madison: You do go very fluidly between rapping and singing, and not just in a hook and verse sense.
Davon Prather: Yeah, because I noticed that's OK. What people think, none of that shit matters. As long as the music is good, that's all that matters.
Tone Madison: That said, as you were trying to develop a style, what were some of the things that influenced you—whether other artists or just other musical factors?
Davon Prather: Storytelling-wise, if I tell a story in a song, a big influence is Isaiah Rashad. I listened to the Cilvia Demo EP, that's like my favorite artist and project, too. He's not even the best singer, and neither am I, but he still does it, hits the notes that he can hit, and everything. That's where a lot of my influence comes from, is Isaiah Rashad, and just throwing people off, because my name is Trapo, and they might expect some drill music or some shit like that. It ain't drill music at all, but I'm talking about the same stuff on some of the songs, just incorporating what everybody likes—the drill artists, neo-soul artists, R&B artists. I feel like they can listen to my music and it all comes together.
Tone Madison: Having those different styles in the mix kind of gives the EP an episodic feel. Was that deliberate, or did things just shake out that way?
Davon Prather: I mean, I didn't try to do that. That's just how the music's coming out. But I am purposely doing the songs I'm doing, like for that project. My next project is going to sound totally different.
Tone Madison: There's definitely a lot of sadness in your music. Where does that come from and how do you feel about putting it out there in a fairly raw way?
Davon Prather: If the song sounds sad, it's probably because I was going through something when I made the song, and I'm not talking about teen mood-swing type shit. It's real.
Tone Madison: Right, it doesn't come off as teenager-ish necessarily. The alcohol stuff that comes up a lot, for instance.
Davon Prather: Yeah, I just feel that for me to have a fan base, I need to be personal like that. They need to know stuff like that about me. When people know that, they feel like they know you. People in other countries, they might play my music, but they don't know me. But when I rap about this stuff, now they know personal information about me. I'm sculpting my whole thing about music around personal information, because people like that. They like to feel like they know you.
Tone Madison: "Sobriety" sticks out as the most upbeat track on the EP. What were some of the things that went into that song, and did you want to have a more lighthearted song on there?
Davon Prather: I just needed that. I'm surrounded by just dark music. When I made that—again, everything that I made was through events that happened. "Sobriety" was inspired by, I went to a party and, you know what a typical party's like, alcohol and all that stuff, and I just basically wrote it about how people usually go to a party who usually aren't involved in that life, meaning they don't usually party and drink in all that. But they feel like because they're at that party, in front of these cool people, they have to drink and smoke and stuff like that. "Sobriety" is basically about you not having to do that to have a good time. That's why the chorus is "she ain't gotta hit the weed" and all that. It's very literal. You don't have to do what the quote-unquote cool kids are doing to have a good time. You can just do what you want to do. Not saying I don't do that, just saying that you don't have to do it. And then with just random lyrics, like the Starbucks lines I use—"baby this the block, ain't no Starbucks"—that has really nothing to do with the song. I don't know. Saying that, it just sounds so true, especially where I live at. You have to live with me or be one of my friends to really understand a lot of that shit.
Tone Madison: You call the EP a project about black prosperity. Can you elaborate on how you wanted to approach that idea?
Davon Prather: I was really relating that to all the Raisin In The Sun references I was using from track to track. In fact, that movie is about black prosperity to me, in my opinion, because they start off in a rough position and they get a house and all that shit. And the EP itself, it sounds like that to me. On "Ease My Soul," when I'm like "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, why can't I live in the hills?", I'm saying that I don't live in this glamorous-ass place, but I know I can. The song "Raisin In The Sun," [the line] "this might be the projects"—very literal—"but I do believe in skydiving," meaning "I do believe I can go farther." Prosperity, that's what the whole feel of the EP is about.
Tone Madison: You've mentioned recently that you're now working on a new project. What do you want to do differently with the things you're making now?
Davon Prather: I want to just change it, the way the whole process is. People release an album, and it's just a bunch of songs, just thrown together. The songs might be good but it's still just a bunch of songs. For me, with this next project, I want to make it like a script almost. It's all gonna make sense, even the little skits I do. And these skits on this album will be much more people, not just movie clips, it will be stuff I wrote. I don't know if i want to call it an EP or an album yet, but the whole next project is going to be very detailed—scripts, sound effects, all that. I just want it to feel like not just an album or EP but like a story. You know if you listen to an audiobook? But with music. It's hard to explain. It's different from traditional releases.
Tone Madison: And you've worked a little of that narrative aspect into this EP as well. What got you interested in albums or EPs as more cohesive things, as opposed to, as you said, just a bunch of songs?
Davon Prather: You shouldn't call it a project when it's just a bunch of different songs on there. It just don't make sense to me. I feel like anything you release has to make sense. It has to fit together. I'm not going to put a bunch of dance songs and a bunch of weird slow music on the same thing. It just don't sound right. It would have be—I don't know, the pace would all have to sound the same. It's got to make sense to me.
Tone Madison: You tweeted something recently to the effect that "the city will prosper," I guess referring to Madison. What gives you that optimism?
Davon Prather: Not to even sound conceited, but really when I say the city will prosper, honestly I'm talking about me.
Tone Madison: As you're saying you are putting it on the map?
Davon Prather: Yeah. I feel like if I'm at the forefront—I don't like to say it like "I'm in the lead," because it's not about that, but if I was to make it out to a real hot platform, I would make sure other artists in the city, I would make sure it was 10 times easier for them. I would try my best to put the artists that I feel deserve that spotlight on. Not like I'm putting people on, but I just want to help people. But I feel like me, when I was younger and I used to look up to dudes who were rappers in the city, and I used to think they were just the best thing in the world. And now fast forward a couple years later, and they're not even in the same position as me. I mean, I didn't have their help. They refused to help me. But I'm not gonna be like them. I would still help them. That's what I mean by "the city will prosper."
Tone Madison: So do you want to stay here or do you think you'll eventually leave?
Davon Prather: I do. I'm for sure going to leave Madison. Not that I hate it here, but I just feel you can't get the most out of life if you're in the same damn spot your whole life. You gotta get out there and see stuff. Definitely.
Tone Madison: Are there any particular artists in town you've particularly enjoyed collaborating with or getting to know?
Davon Prather: I'm close with a rapper named Ra'Shaun, and 3rd Dimension. They're in college and stuff, though. Not too long ago I met this group Red8idence, they're with First Wave. I like them. I've never made songs with any of these people except 3rd Dimension and Ra'Shaun, but those three, I like them the most.
Tone Madison: If things keep picking up for you, how do you want to make that work for you? What's your plan?
Davon Prather: I mean, I see myself just keeping performing and making music. But my ideal, what I would want to happen, I want to just get picked up. And this doesn't have to happen, but I would want to get picked up by an independent label. I've met with major labels... and that's cool and all, and I'm not saying no to them, because that's still on the table, but I just feel like I want to be on a label with other artists that I can relate to and that make good music at that level. Not just some local—and ain't nothing wrong with local, because I'm still in that lane, but once I get there, I want to associate myself with people that are up there with me. I just see myself maybe on a tour and having fun with it mostly, having fun making music.
Tone Madison: When you got Allan Kingdom to do a verse on "Raisin In The Sun," what was it like collaborating with him? Did you go back and forth with him about the ideas that you were putting into the EP?
Davon Prather: I didn't tell him the vision of the EP, because that song itself is the vision of the EP. The verse that I originally had on "Raisin In The Sun" is not the verse I released. I had a whole different verse, so he wrote his verse based off that. But his verse still fit on the song. We weren't in the studio together. He just came to Madison, and I don't know if you know the story, but he was doing a show here, at the Sett, and he told me to come to the show. So I spoke with him, and I don't really ever know what to expect from dudes like that, that have a lot of popularity and stuff, because most of them just be acting like, you know, bougie and stuff, but he ain't like that at all. He's hella normal, so I just talked to him about making music. I just talked to him about making music. He said "Send me some music," and usually when people say "send me something," it's not real. They're just saying that. So I actually sent him it, and then five minutes later he was like, "Oh yeah, I'm gonna lay a verse on this tonight." So that was cool. But it wasn't a face-to-face studio thing.
Tone Madison: How has growing up in Madison influenced your music?
Davon Prather: I don't think it's a terrible place to grow up. It's actually pretty peaceful. I mean, sometimes in my music I touch base on racial shit. Most people can't relate to it because they're not in my shoes, they don't look like me. It's just certain stuff that happens that other people don't pick up on, but you know is happening. You know when certain stuff is a certain way that it's not supposed to be, when shit's not fair. It sounds like just somebody complaining, like "Oh, this is not fair," but you would have to be me to actually know certain shit is not fair. I mean, the city doesn't influence the music, but my family will influence the music, because my family's a different way. If you think of Madison and think of the typical family that lives here, my family's far from that. We're way different. It's more my surroundings that influence the music, not the city.
Tone Madison: When you say surroundings, what things specifically do you mean?
Davon Prather: I don't want to put too much out there, but regular just dramatic stuff. I don't want to say like a black family, because that sounds bad, but I dunno. Alright, you ever seen, like, the movies where you see a family in the projects or some shit like that, and they go through ups and downs but it's super serious shit they're going through? It's like that. I mean, you can hear it in the music. If I say something that's dark, or sounds stereotypical, out of a movie or something, that's not fake, that's just real. My surroundings are like that.
Tone Madison: Was there any song on this EP that was particularly hard to write, or maybe that you felt you wouldn't have been able to write a year ago?
Davon Prather: Probably "Ease My Soul" and the last part of "Cards And Conversation," even though I wrote that a while go. "Ease My Soul" because on that song, I'm talking about my friends, how they got problems with drugs and shit, and it was hard to write it because I know they're gonna listen to it and go, "Damn, we didn't know you thought that about us." I'm not a very social person. Even though these are my friends that I grew up with, I'm not a very talkative person. This is probably the most I've talked in a long time. Everything I feel is gonna come out in the music and they're gonna hear it. In the song I'm like, "I watch my brothers get faded / them niggas ain't got no purpose / them nigga so so worthless / I'm losing patience." That sounds harsh—for me to say, "oh my god, my friends are worthless"—but that's how I'm feeling as I watch them not do anything. That's what I want to say, "Y'all are being worthless right now." Not that they can't change it, but that's just how I'm feeling. It was hard to write because it was like, "Damn, this is what I honestly think, and they're gonna know what I honestly think." How do you move on from that and still be friends? It works out. They know it's the truth, it's just that people don't always like facing the truth. But yeah, that was a hard one to write just because it's so serious.
Tone Madison: What else are you interested in? If you don't end up having a music career, what would you do?
Davon Prather: I like writing. I always bring it back to third grade. That's when I started really doing shit. But even when I was rapping, I used to write, draw comic books, do little scripts, and then I would try to write books, but in a notebook though, write full-out books and stories and shit. I used to like writing a lot, like not even about music, just, if you went and bought a book from the library. I used to try to write books. I never finished any of them. If I wasn't rapping, that's probably what I would do, try to be a writer.
Tone Madison: And it sounds like that aspiration works its way into the way you approach records.
Davon Prather: Exactly. I still try to put it in there.