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"Drenched in Sweat, Tweeting from the Club" - An Interview with Ian Isiah

Hood By Air hype magnet and rising R&B chanteuse Ian Isiah talks gender, nightlife and sex with Will Smith.

If you drew a Venn Diagram of cutting-edge music and fashion scenes in NYC you'd likely find Ian Isiah in the center, drinking tea with a coy smile and a next-level fit. At least, that's how I found him last Friday, when we met up in advance of his Northside Festival showcase at 285 Kent. Ian's both a creative consultant to hype-drenched streetwear brand Hood By Air and a recent addition to lightyears-ahead underground label UNO NYC—his handful of singles indicate a fully-formed presence, marked by the genderless sexuality characteristic of the city's legendary Ghe20 G0th1k crew. He's futuristic Future, voice digitally warped into the tender mating-call of a banjee android. In person, Ian's as charismatic, effusive and as stylish as you'd expect—think head-to-toe murdered-out leather and technical fabrics. This is his story.


Noisey: What were your first musical experiences?
Ian Isiah: I’m from the church. My mother is Pentecostal, so the whole family is theatrical and dramatic, music this, music that. Everyone is a singer and everyone can play everything. And my father is Rastafarian, so there's this Trinidadian, West Indian lifestyle. I’m caught in the middle, in this Third Ward situation. My father is also a musician. He plays the steel pans, a West Indian instrument that's crazy to me. I think I got my rhythm from them. And on my mother's side, everyone is a singer. I’ve been playing the drums since I was three years old, and I started singing at five years old and just never stopped singing.

When did you start singing outside of the church?
Eghteen and under I was singing for the church. I’m from here, so there were Brooklyn churches all over. But when I was coming up it was also the 90's, so it wasn’t really what people would think of as church. It was really bumpin' in there, via Kirk Franklin. That kind of shit was happening. That was all I knew. And then at seventeen, eighteen years old I started going to the Village Underground right here in West Village and fell in love, because I saw everyone that I wanted to be, like Jazmine Sullivan and Musiq Soulchild. All of these soul artists would come and sing. And the more I went, I began singing background. It became a gig and I just kept going and then I was also growing up and getting older, sexually-wise as well. So I was like, okay, let me take this back to the girls and do what I know. The girls meaning the gays, of course.


When did you first perform on your own, as Ian Isiah?
I’ve been performing on my own my whole life. Even when I was younger it was like, "You are going to sing the solo," or "You are going to direct or curate this sound," because I was very big on sound and ear. But I'd say the Opening Ceremony ten-year anniversary party last year. That was my first experience singing on my own, as Ian Isiah, writing every song. Me. And it just so happened that Lil' Kim was upstairs performing that same night, so I got the best of both worlds. It was great. I was freaked out at the response. I didn’t expect screaming. I knew my friends were there but we weren’t even drunk yet. I was really excited. I was like, "Oh shit." That show was crazy.

What artists have most influenced you over the years?
The thing with R&B is that it's so theatrical as a genre. You can tell the vibe on everything with R&B. Like Tank. Oh my fucking god Tank. Like, Tank is what I want to be in the gay world, the genderless world. I want to be Tank. It's unfortunate that he's not getting what he deserves. The way his mindset is towards singing and knowing how to be that girl, or how to be that boy. Chris Brown. He's another favorite. You know, he needs a little slap on the wrist. But I really enjoy top 40, what’s on TV, what’s happening, 'cause that is really where my head is and that is where my goal is. I appreciate independent artists. I am an independent artist. I will probably always be an independent artist. My goal in life is to be more than that, and hopefully break gender boundaries through actual music, not just conceptual music. I get it, we are different. We are cool. That doesn’t mean that we aren't regular people too.


The Mindfvck video it is clearly charged with gender, but not in the way that I feel like people normally discuss gender as an "issue."
I try to keep my music genderless. I keep it genderless because I want everyone to relate to it. I hang out with straight boys. My life is straight boys. Not even in a homosexual way, these are my friends. So those are the minds that I know. I know how they tick. I want to keep it genderless forever.

What kind of conscious decisions do you make to create genderless music?
Just emotions and the music. Emotions through riffs. Emotions through words. Just sound, different sounds. Different emotions, different adlibs. I just add things to what you are trying to say. My vocal coach always says that everyone can talk, but no-one can sing. Michael Jackson made a whole career mumbling and saying whatever he wanted in his songs. It's definitely about the words, but it's more about the emotion.

One thing I was thinking about with Blindfolded is how Auto-Tune relates to the identity of the song's protagonist.
I’m using Auto-Tune a lot in my EP, because I do want to get kind of futuristic. It's time for the future. And I’m using auto tune because it's weird. I sing very jazzy and soul-y, but very full, from what I’ve been told. And it's weird to get that in Auto-Tune. People use Auto-Tune because they can't sing. But singing in Auto-Tune is crazy to me.

What do you think is missing from R&B right now?
Expression. Maybe just talking more darker subjects in R&B. Men need to start talking about their dick size in R&B. Men need to start talking about how to eat the coochie in R&B.


Yeah, they're being too "me and my nigga," which is kind of corny and I’m not into that. It's a free thing, R&B is totally a free thing. This is your talent, you can sing. You can do this without instruments. You know? You're blessed with singing, you’ve got emotions. Which I’m learning everyday. It's definitely not like I have it all. It's like, you learn it everyday.

So you're working on charting new emotional territory through R&B?
With R&B and myself. Like, "Blindfolded" wasn’t even about a situation I was dealing with, it was a situation in front of me that just registered in my head, and I was like "Oh god, this is great." You know, when I listen to "Blindfolded" now I think of Spiderman. I would love to see that song in a new Spiderman Goes to the Hood film. The scene where he is upside-down and kisses Jane, then "Blindfolded" comes on. I'm thinking it's animated. I don’t know why. It’s a sexy superhuman. I want a sexy superhuman planet. That might be the name of my EP. Sexy Human or Sexy Planet.

Backtracking, tell me a little about your involvement with Hood By Air.
Hood By Air. That’s Shayne. He is one of my best friends ever. I met Shayne senior year of high school. We were just friends. It was like a kiki. I'd see him at the club. And then years later we got closer and closer and I was like, okay, we are best friends. Then I started working with him as well, because we were always talking about it. As far as roles or titles I’ve been more of a consultant. Which is, I think, the best thing for me to be, because I can focus on my life and still support Hood By Air. That's our culture. It's just us.


Do you think that the cultural territory Hood By Air explores overlaps with your music?
Of course. I mean, Hood By Air is a person that’s ready for the world and Hood By Air is a person that knows what they want. It's just like me because that is me. It's just us. It ties in all of us together.

What about some of the ideas in that scene regarding technological mediation of modern experience?
The future is changing our life, and you need music to cover this situation. You need music that not only covers the situation, but that makes you feel good. Because in the end you need to be like, "Oh, okay." I can put headphones on and just chill out. You could turn up with my music, but after the club you are definitely going to turn up with my music. I really want an after hour vibe. You can definitely get dressed to it. It's definitely something you can fuck to. It is definitely something you can wake up and feel yourself to on weekends. It's definitely that. It is part of that. That whole d’Angelo-in-the-future vibe.

How would you describe a weekend in the life of the EP's protagonist?
He smokes weed. He is on the block during the day. He is smoking weed with the boys. He leaves the boys to go find the girls to hang out with the girls. And then he meets up with the real girls at night, and they go out. That's my whole day. I wake up, chill. Smoke and think. I write, and then it's night time.


What do you think about the state of New York nightlife nowadays?
It's really bad right now. It's unfortunate, because I've been coming downtown since I was like 16. Like old school things when we were all young, when me and Venus X were like 18 years old with no hair. Well, she had hair. Also, I just came from L.A. I went to this club called Graystone. Oh my fucking god, this club Graystone is the best club in the world. It is a straight club, first of all. And it was bumpin' the music that we bump to, but even more. There were females like rising from the ground and levitating and doing gymnastics things in the air while four smoke machines created a cube in the middle of the club. So, New York is not ready. New York needs to get it back together.

Things were stronger back in the day?
No, it just needs to be a little more chill nowadays. Just like, come out and really party. Like, sweat. They are not doing that anymore. That's why Ghe20 G0th1k kept that thing going for me. It needs to be more rap. It needs to be more like a sweat box. That's what I know. Drenched at six in the morning, tweeting from the club. But venues are not having the kids right now, which made it difficult for us to find places for us to go party. They knew what we were about and they weren’t having it.

Where do you hope to see this scene going over the next five years?
Just for it to leave the world of conceptualism and become just as real as everything else. It's a lifestyle already and I want other people to understand it as a lifestyle. If you are going to wear the clothes, be the love.

If you could change something small but significant about New York what would it be?
Legalize marijuana. And more music. More music, more venues. There are so many talented people that people don’t know about, it's really crazy. Legalize weed and more music. More conceptual R&B.

If you could perform in any setting, what would it be?
Don’t do this to me. Are you kidding me right now? I want candles and barefoot and everyone is sitting down with a band and just being serenaded for twelve hours. That is what I need. Barefoot with candles. Dim the lights.

If you could score an episode of any TV show and give yourself a cameo, what would it be?
Martin. It would definitely be a singing cameo. I'd be Shenehneh’s friend. Actually scratch that. I don’t want to be on that show anymore. I want to be on Fresh Prince. I want to be the cousin who comes to visit, who is not related to the family but somehow I'm there. I’m just down with them, just hanging out at the piano, singing. Will Smith comes over and there's a sex scene. The show goes off the air. Shocking. I actually am Willow Smith.