Photos by Matt Seger
Montana of 300 is famous. Maybe not, like, Kanye famous, but he has a reach that goes way beyond many rappers you've probably heard a lot more about, rappers you've heard on the radio. He is an online celebrity, an artist who has figured out how to leverage YouTube into a massive fan base outside any traditional music industry structure. It's cool that he came through our offices recently to talk to us, but Montana is a star for a post-media era. He doesn't need blogs or radio stations or record labels.
Maybe that sounds hyperbolic, but consider this: His freestyle over Dej Loaf's song "Try Me" has 16 million views on YouTube, a third as many as the actual, highly charting, song. His freestyle over Rowdy Rebel and Bobby Shmurda's "Computers" has 9 million views, just shy of the original. And his video for his own song "Ice Cream Truck" has 14 million views as well. For any other artist, those numbers would be enough to have them all over the biggest media outlets in the world. Montana routinely gets overshadowed. But once again, as far as having fans, it really doesn't matter.
Something about the Chicago rapper speaks to people. He has lyrics that connect. His bars are funny. They are smart. They are often a little more complex than you first realize. His style isn't catchy in a way that appeals to radio, and it's not groundbreaking in a way that appeals to critics. Sonically, there's little new happening in his music: He raps, often in heavy Auto-Tune, over either hit beats or beats that would fit in comfortably on any Chicago or Atlanta rapper's mixtape. But lyrically, it's full of a never-ending stream of imagery and punchlines worthy of just about any other rapper you can think of. And there's something about listening to a dude spit flames for five minutes in a style that sounds more 2016 than 1996 that's incredibly appealing, that, as Montana explained to me, makes you tap your friend on the arm and ask if they got the punchline.
Montana's workmanlike approach has been drawing people in since 2006, but it's really in the last few years, since his remix of Nicki Minaj and Lil Herb's "Chiraq" went viral, that things have taken off. Still, to most people he remains best known as a peddler of hot freestyles over other people's tracks, even though he makes music of his own at a fairly prodigious rate. That's probably because Montana's lyrics overshadow everything else, and, frankly, songs like "Try Me" were hits for a reason. Nonetheless, his solo music is capable of attracting attention for the same reasons, and with his upcoming album, Fire in the Church, out May 6, Montana hopes to keep that going. You can watch the first video from that project, "Land of the Dark," below. Plus, Montana recently stopped by the VICE offices in Brooklyn for an in-depth conversation and to explain what it is that makes his music so damn popular.
Noisey: I remember seeing your videos online for the first time maybe like two or three years ago. How did the whole freestyling video thing come about?
Montana of 300: Really how I built my early buzz without having producers and stuff, just rapping over industry beats. I grew my respect from people hearing, like, OK, he rapped over this person beat, this person's famous, this person has a deal, and let's see him either matching it or surpassing it. And then I rapped about things that they know. I wasn’t rapping about Lamborghinis and Bugattis and stuff, I was rapping about old school Chevys on 24s, like real stuff that they seen me with.
Some people hop on beats just to do their version. But my objective is to outshine. So I've been doing that probably like since 2006. In 2014, I did the “Chiraq” remix, and that was the one that went viral. It's a great body of work, you know, the lyrics, but, like, the videographer I shot it with, he had a lot of subscribers, plus it was a popular remix at the time, and mine was like, it had so much rage and passion, and you really just don't get that from just anybody. So it was like, OK he did it, one song, but can he do it again? And I prove it time, time, time again. When I put a remix out along with other famous artists putting remixes out, my numbers are blowing theirs all out of the water. I don't have a record label behind me, not any radio. I can either sit here and argue with you about me being better than somebody, or I can get on the same canvas as that person and paint a better picture and prove it.
So that's basically my strategy like to help really build my fan base, and then work on my own music too. Original stuff. I do my remixes strictly for my fans. Like they request it, like, do this beat, do this beat, do this beat. I’ma please ‘em, give ‘em something to hold ‘em over.
It's interesting too because I feel like there was a time period around when you said you were first sort of starting out, like, especially when Lil Wayne was doing his mixtapes and rapping over everybody's beats, and it was the same kind of concept of like, I'm gonna take this beat, and I'm gonna rap over it, and I'm gonna prove that I'm a better rapper by rapping over it. And that's like the root of the whole mixtape thing. But now people put out mixtape and it's all—
Yeah. So why keep doing these?
I think just about the sport. A certain song is a trending song, and that's when we consider like oh, this is a hit. So it's a special beat, if you ask me. So people always say, ‘if Montana was on this I could just picture him on there, and I think you would kill that.’ I will kill any fucking thing. Like if you look at 2Pac, he didn’t always have some of the best beats—I’m just saying the beats, there's not really like no heavy 808s or anything, like just kinda real subtle—and it's like, what he's saying out of his mouth is what is making this shit. So I just feel like it's always good to go back and show your appreciation. It's hip-hop.
And that's not the majority of my songs. I haven't done a remix since June until I just did another one in January. I dropped a whole album in December. There's some people that's only heard my remixes, say, ‘oh, tell the nigga to get some of his own beats. He always stealing somebody else beats.’ I’ve got whole fuckin albums out! And somebody will be like ‘I wanna hear you kill your own fucking beat!’
Fans miss those type of freestyles, though. I've made myself my competition. I have to try to outdo—I have a certain level of expectation that I need to perform on when I'm doing these remixes. I can't half ass and slouch, ‘cause that's when they're gonna be like oh, he fell off. He finally fucked up. I'm just picky, and I'm clutch, and I know how to be my own worst critic. And I don't settle, like ‘oh that's a nice line, and it makes sense, and it rhymes, I'ma go with that.’ Like, that's not enough for me. I want people to have to participate. Like, tap somebody next to them ‘hey, do you get it? He said like such and such.’ Like have to break it down. You don't get that with too many artists. Some people you could just listen to them, and everything is, like, you don't really have to scratch on the surface. Just ‘oh, I lost my dead homie, and such and such, such and such.’ We all got dead homies. We all will lose people in life. A lot of these newer rappers is like, that's their pain, I lost my dead homie. And it's like, that's not original. Some of these rappers, they don't know about shit. Like when I rap about, 'takin' turns with plates and forks because there wasn't no dishes. Talked to share with all my siblings if I got it they can get it. I remember watching my OG getting high up in the kitchen.' You know. 'Finding pipes inside the oven that she hid inside the oven mitten. Throwing it out the ninth floor window like I was pitching with hopes that that'd make her quit it.' Shit like that.
And it's like you don't, these young kids don't know about that type of pain. Or sacrificing type of pain. They just know about the after-effect of how all this happened. I think that's really how I am as a rapper, and then I want my listeners to participate. You watch a good movie, and you’re like, ‘damn, every time I watch the movie I notice something I didn't notice before.’ And it kind of makes you appreciate it even more. And that's how it kinda is with my raps. Like, one time a fan said, 'man, I've been listening to this song, “Slaughterhouse,” for three months, and I just noticed that when he said, ‘we gon make it home safe cuz I got hitters on my team,’ he means like baseball. He put baseball emojis. He said, ‘man this guy got hidden bars.’
That's interesting what you were saying about kids only channeling one kind of sadness or emotional struggle.
And then it's like, the typical Chicago rapper is like—OK what's your name?
Kyle, OK. Now if you was from where, we were from the same block, and let's say you die, this is what we would do in Chicago. Now, the block that we from, let's say our street was called Long Street. And we gonna call it Kyle Block now, because this was our block, so this is what we called it. And then me, I'm gonna name my album Kyle Block. Because, you know, this is dedicated to my dead homie. So that's the trend, that's the big circle in Chicago. So you got a dead homie to name your album after. And then your album, like I ask you what your album's gonna be about, it's like, oh, I'm just showing people how it is on my block, in my neighborhood in Chicago. Like, what does the world need to know?
You don't think that that's relevant though? I just did an interview with G Herbo, you know, Lil Herb, and he does that. But his music is pretty thoughtful.
He's not the only one, though. Like I got a artist who's coming out with a project, and he's calling it Quillyville. His friend Quilly's dead, you know. But it's nothing but him following what he's seeing in Chicago. And he's younger, like he's 23. It's just like, it's no true substance to your album. It's like, ‘oh, another dead nigger’—to some people. You know what I'm saying. My album name is like, Cursed with a Blessing or Fire in the Church. Somebody can interview and ask me about that, and I can tell you what it means. But if you say, oh, what is Quillyville about? Oh, it's my dead homie, you know, that's our block. And it's just, it's not that much surface to scratch. Oh, what did your, so what was so great about your friend? Like what did your friend do with his lifetime? He was just a good friend. I loved him. Oh ok, so that guy did nothing special or nothing so great? No, he just died at the age of 19. Next question. You know what I'm saying? There's really no substance to what this album is as a whole. If another one of your homies died you could replace the name with him, and your album still would have had the same songs on it, so it's not about matching the songs.
So your album Fire in the Church, what's that about to you?
Fire in the Church is basically the bad within the good. A church is supposed to be holy. That's what it was built for. And while it's the church and no one is in there, it's good. Once the people go into the church, they're a fire. They come in with their sins and everything like that. They try to be on their best behavior and try to be mindful of what they do. Even while some people are looking at other people in the church and judging them in their head, or leave right after church, and be like, 'did you see what such and such had on?' Or 'did you see how such and such came here with her kids, looking like this?' Like, you wanted to say that while you was in the church, but you waited until you got out, as if that really made a difference. And you still thinking it while you in there, so it's like: No sugar coating, the good within the bad, and it also kind of represents my following and how I built my fanbase, was just word of mouth. If it's a fire in the church, somebody's running out of the church saying, 'it's a fire in the church!' People that hear me, is like, you gotta listen to this dude. It's something urgent in that extreme.
I was telling one of my cousins—he rap a little bit—and he was like, cuz, I want you to do the song with me. And I was like, OK, I charge 5,000 dollars. Since you're my cousin, I'm gonna do one song with you for free. And after that, if you want another song, I'm gonna charge you half-price. But make sure this one song is the song that you are sure you want me to get on. Make sure this is the one. ‘Cause you gotta also know, even with record labels, they want to know, they would probably ask you, like why should we sign you? What makes you so unique? And you should have an answer for that. You should know yourself before the world does, and you need something more than 'oh I'm just hot. I'm hot. I'm raw. The Migos played my song, they fuck with my shit.' You need something more than that.
I tell artists you need to have a thorn about yourself. Like if I poke you right now with a branch and it's a thorn, and afterwards you still feel it. When music has a thorn about it, after you've already heard it, it's still on they mind, it still affects them afterwards. So now they sitting down with they friend 'hey, you heard this dude Montana of 300?’ When people don't have that thorn it's like you poke me with a stick and I don't even feel that shit. You didn't give me nothing to remember. I heard your rap, that was nice, and I never, it never crossed my mind again later on in the day.
What do you think it was that kind of made you think of music in that way? A lot of people just want to make something that sounds cool. Or even if they are a very lyrical rapper, say, or a lyrical folk singer, or whatever, it's like, ‘I'm gonna tell this really good story, or I'm gonna have a really funny punchline.’ It's not necessarily like, ‘I want to make people think about it.’
I feel like it's a time for everything. I have those times when I'm like, this sounds like it's catching a lot of swag if I say it this way. Like, this line wasn't necessarily made for them to dig and think, this line right here was for them to be like, oh it laid on my ear just perfectly, like it felt good when I heard it, and when I repeated it. A lot of people probably don't ask theyselves when they making music or making a hook, like, would somebody want to repeat this shit? Would somebody feel cool, if somebody was walking down the street saying this shit, would somebody tap them and be like, hey, what's that song you singing? These are the types of things that I think about.
You don't approach every opponent the same, so you don't approach every beat exactly the same. It's the greatest thing in the world when you see LeBron James jump in the air, get his head to the rim, slamming the ball down. But if that was all he did, all he tried to do—you gotta know how to pass, you gotta know how to rebound, you gotta play some defense, you gotta block people's shit off the backboard, you know what I'm saying, you gotta learn to shoot. So when you’re able to do all these different things, you’re unpredictable. Because every game, you come see Michael Jordan, or Kobe and LeBron, you don't know how they’re gonna give it to you, but you know they’re gonna give it to you. Once you're predictable you become boring.
What's your music background? How did you get into rapping?
I remember being young with my dad, and he would listen to rap a lot. We used to do push ups together and stuff like that, and I remember him playing stuff like Geto Boyz, and 2Pac, and Biggie. 2Pac was the man. He was like kind of like my first favorite rapper.
How old are you?
I'm 27. So it was 2Pac, then it was, as I got older, DMX. That's my top three rappers: 2Pac, DMX, and Wayne. All three of them for different reasons. Wayne, his metaphors and his creativity and thinking outside of the box. DMX, he was the one who got the rage. It's just that passion, that street shit. And then 2Pac is the motherfucker that actually gave a fuck about the message, or the community. He gave a fuck about giving somebody something positive or something that they can use. I feel like a mixture of all those things.
What was your childhood like? You grew up in Chicago’s Low End?
Yeah, on the Low End. In the projects. They tore our projects down probably like 2005. I've seen a lot. I witnessed murder at the age of nine.
I think our apartment was 909. I think we was in like, down the ramp, like 9—probably like 912 with some other kids. And the front door was just open. You know, everybody's doors be open in the summertime. There were some grownups, a few grownups, and there these kids in there too. Some guy ran in the house and blew another dude brains out and ran out of the house. And we just hear screaming, and some lady just told us all to go home, you know, go back to our houses. And I was kind of excited to share I’d seen something, not really focusing on how sad the shit is, or how bad it is. That was growing up for me, and then I had this shit, like my mom, she was a crack addict and shit like that, so seeing her struggle with that.
Yeah, what was that like?
It was crazy, it was a big cycle that I didn't really realize till I got a little bit older, seeing like, she would get her check at the first of the month. Everything's going good in the day, she would take us shopping, we'd get a little stuff. Then at night, that's when it would start getting weird. Now she's running in and out of the house a little bit. Now she's probably in the bathroom getting high. Beating on the door, ‘ ma, what you doing, what you doing?’ Banging on the door, trying to interrupt her, like it's gonna make her stop. Being threatened that she gonna whoop my ass, whoop our ass if we don't sit down. She's so much into it. So, yeah, just playing nice man, just crying and praying. It wasn't a good feeling. And as a kid you’re not really paying attention to the days of the week, or, you know, what day of the month it is, so it was so unpredictable. I’m not thinking, like, ‘mama got a check again.’ Your guard is down. It's like oh we having fun, she bought me this toy, she bought me this, got a new outfit, times is good, you know, we smiling, she smiling, everybody looking good and stuff like that, you know. Then just as it gets darker, it's just seeing the change of ‘oh I gotta run and go do this real fast, I'll be right back.’ And then she gets more and more quiet. So yeah, growing up and just seeing that, I’ve been through a lot, I've seen a lot. We didn't really have a lot at all, so I kinda learned how to appreciate having stuff. And wanting to work, wanting to have things, feeling like, I'm gonna get it, I'ma earn it one day, you know. Or I don't want this for my kids, you know. That's really the big part of why I don't smoke and drink shit. I’ve seen the effects that it has on families.
Have you always been that way?
Yeah, I haven't smoked since I was 14 years old, and I never been drunk in my life.
How many siblings do you have?
I have two brothers and three sisters. I had custody of him, and I already had a son of my own, you know, so it was like I was taking care of him, you know, and making sure he was good, and got ready for school, was on teams and shit like that, and, you know, keeping it positive so he don't have to hustle or you know, go down the road that I had to go through.
So I invested my money a lot in music and I start finding out what's effective and what's not so effective. Where to put your money. ‘Til I found out that groove for me, you know, social media, you know, how to attack it, how to use YouTube. So just attacking the videos, and it's like OK, now this is working. This is saving me some money, actually. Like OK, let me ride this out, and just building and rolling.It works for me. Everything don't work for everybody. What works for Lil Wayne might not work for Jay Z. What works for Jay Z might not work for Rich Homie Quan. What works for Rich Homie Quan might not work for Kanye West. Just ‘cause Montana yelled on a track with a whole bunch of rage and said a whole bunch of metaphors don't mean that Rich Homie Quan should start yelling on tracks, and he'll get a million views.
For me, as far as really building a fan base, I would say it was probably like MySpace. It's not a following compared to what I have now, but just seeing, man, I got 18,000 friends. And then Facebook kind of took over. Then it's like, OK, YouTube, let me try to use this. I was doing digital video on digital cameras, like one take of me rapping over a beat, no messing up, just straight going through. I remember the first two YouTube videos I put up was like a day apart from each other. And it was like the end of 2009. And I'm like dang, they got a hundred views in one day! I was happy about the shit. And sseeing that shit grow to—I just posted my “White Iverson” video on Facebook and it got a million views in one day.
Any other goals or general sort of thoughts for the future?
I'm planning to see a million dollars this year. I just want to make this year the best year of my life, man. You know. And you know, just inspire people. I talk to God a lot, you know. He doesn't talk back, but I'm saying, I talk to him, I pray a lot, that's what I mean. And I don't really ask for much. A lot of the times when I talk to him I'm mostly just telling him thank you. Like I even find myself sometimes even thanking him for the brain that I have, how my brain works, you know. I really feel like I got a weapon that nobody else has. There's nothing I can't do as long as I got him, you know. As long as I got him in my corner, you know, talking to him like that, you know. Checking in with him.
Matt Seger is a staff shooter and camera operator for VICE. Follow him on Instagram.
Kyle Kramer is an editor for Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.