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Angel Haze on 'Dirty Gold' and Her Hippie Aspirations

'I've always wanted to make the music that you'd go into a coffee shop and hear,' she says

November 18, 2013 12:00 PM ET
Angel Haze
Angel Haze
Matthieu Young

Angel Haze first broke onto the scene last year, with her excellent mixtape Classick, which included an unabashedly raw and honest cover of Eminem's "Cleanin' Out My Closet." Haze's version detailed the harrowing story of her repeated rape and abuse when she was a child and a few weeks ago, she opened up further with a cover of Macklemore's "Same Love" where she laments about her struggles with family over her own sexuality. This January, however, she'll stop with the mixtapes and cover songs and finally release her long-awaited debut, Dirty Gold. Earlier this year, she dropped the U.K. single "Echelon (It's My Way)" and the fast-paced track features more of the lyrical fire we've come to expect from Haze at this point. Rolling Stone spoke with the 22-year-old rapper about her new album, her aspirations of becomign a coffee-shop artist and why she'll never be apart of the "rap club." 

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How excited are you for Dirty Gold to come out?
I am in Stoked City. This morning, I woke up and got a link to the final, sterling masters and I freaked out. I'm so excited because it's actually happening and that's surreal for me. Fuck, I don't even feel it completely until the day the album comes out and I just die. It'll be an overload of emotions.

What does "dirty gold" mean anyways?
It's how I view people in particular and, specifically, myself. Gold comes from the dirt. It's underground and you mine it and make it better. That's how I view people. You go through your dirt and your tough stuff and you deal and you get better. Once you come out of it, you're fucking worth something. That's how I saw myself in regards to the album. I looked back at where I was before I started making the album. I was obviously very dark and, when you hear this album, there's an exponential amount of growth in every single thing that I've done. And I'm only saying that because it's something that I'm very proud of.

Is that you singing on the U.K. single "Echelon (It's My Way)" as well as rapping?
Yeah, I sing everything on the album aside from the Sia vocals and one on "Black Synagogue." I worked overtime to get my vocal skills up. Marcus [Dravs] would trap me in rooms and make me sing for hours on end until he felt like it was good enough for him. Not just good enough for life, but good enough for him.

You've talked before about doing other types of music as well.
I'm gearing up for the crossover, man. [Laughs.]

After one album?
Yeah, totally. After one album. If I make two, then I'm going to be stuck.

What genre are you going to tackle?
I don't want to say that I want to be a new Tracy Chapman, but I want to make music in the same vein. I've been taking guitar lessons and writing songs. I have a song on my album called "Planes Fly," which is like an alternative version of "Fast Car". I fucking love her. I love Jason Mraz. I've always wanted to make the music that you'd go into a fucking coffee shop and hear. You'd sit there and you'd feel good. I want to be a hippy basically. [Laughs.]

What's Dirty Gold's sound like?
I think it's a melting pot of a ton of different genres. I worked with a bunch of people who were able to take what I wanted it to be and make it all very cohesive. With their help, I feel like I created my own genre.

You didn't even start listening to secular music until you were 16 and in Brooklyn, right?
When I was 16, yeah. I'm an autodidact so everything that I learn, I learn by reading. Rap wasn't something I learned because I wanted to be like anyone. It was something I wanted to master because I wanted to challenge myself. After reading and going on all these stupid forums for rap battles and stuff, I was amazed. It was reading and memorizing all this terminology. Like multiples or wordplay and understanding what it meant to do all this stuff, and then putting it into fruition and trying and trying and trying. Obviously, I failed for the first two years, but I think I'm getting there now.

You've knocked off a bunch of huge hits already with the freestyles. What's next?
I'm doing OneRepublic's "Counting Stars." It's going to be amazing.

Your cover of "Same Love" blew up online. Did you plan to drop that poem in at the end all along?
No, I actually did it spur of the moment. I didn't want to leave that space open at the end so, being an OCD freak, I just decided to write a poem then and there.

That's crazy. You realize that, right?
The first few lines actually come from an Andrea Gibson poem called "Andrew" and then, afterwards, I said, "Let's keep going. Why not?" So I freestyled it and it came out pretty cool.

People online have been begging for you to do a collaboration with Snow Tha Product. Are you a fan?
Really? I didn't even realize that. Yes, I'm a fan. I think she's amazing. Of female lyricists, she's definitely in my top five. I had no clue that anyone was calling for that.

You have to start reading your YouTube comments.
I can't read my YouTube comments because every other one is like, "I hate this bitch." [Laughs.]

Being from Detroit, when did you first hear about Eminem?
I didn't hear about Eminem until I was around fourteen when 8 Mile was out on VHS or something. It was insane. I was like, "Who is this guy?" At first I thought he was really, really hot and I used to watch the movie over and over. I still know all of his freestyle rap verses from that movie. I'm a little embarrassed about that, but who cares. Once I learned about that, all of my knowledge of music came from remembering it from movies. Soundtracks saved my life.

Was moving to Brooklyn a huge culture shock?
Yes! It's like the most interesting amalgamation of things in life. I sat there saying, "Woah. There's bluegrass. There's country. There's jazz. There's rock. There's pop. There's pop rock. There's alternative-rock. There's alternative-rap. There's goth-rap. There's punk-rap!" There's all this shit, so where do you start? I had no clue and I didn't know how to go back. I didn't understand the Biggies and the Tupacs.

You had no basis of knowledge for that.
Yeah, I had none. I still didn't until like last week. One of my DJ friends came over to my house and she loaded up all of this music on my laptop and said, "You have to listen to Gang Starr, De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan." I was like, "Woah, woah, woah. What's the significance?" So she opened up all their Wikipedia pages as well and told me, "Read about them. Learn about them. Know this. This is your hip-hop lesson." It still effects me to this day because I got more interested in developing my own influence and being influenced in my own way rather than saying, "This is my favorite rapper. I want to be just like them." I wanted to figure out the point and put it into motion on my own shit.

Everyone knows Wu-Tang Clan, but what's it like for someone like you to hear that for the very first time?
To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed. I felt like I didn't understand the significance of everything, and when I want to know something, I have to know everything so I suppose I should have read their Wikipedia first. My friend played me "C.R.E.A.M" and I was like, "Oh, am I missing out on something because I don't get it?" And then she explained it to me and I got it, so I listened again and I loved it. She made me watch a movie called Brown Sugar as well. She's trying to get me to understand hip-hop and why everyone thinks it's so important for me to know these things. I don't see anything from a purely genre-specific stance. When I liked Christina Aguilera when I was younger, I liked her because her fucking passion in her voice when she sings is crazy and I'd feel something. I've only ever respected the artists who are capable of making me feel. So I don't get the trendiness of all the genre-specific shit.

Do you worry about what people will say about your lack of historical knowledge?
I feel like I got the brunt of that right at the beginning when I signed. There were so many hip-hop articles about how, "She doesn't know anything. She doesn't deserve to be signed. She doesn't know any of the history. Who the fuck is this? She's not a hip-hop artist." To this day, I still have that stain within the hip-hop community where they don't view me as a hip-hop artist, and that's fine. I don't think I'll be any more crushed than I was when I first heard it. I'm over it now. I'm just like, "Well, that's fine. I'm still going to continue to make this fucking music and move on with my life."

You don't feel like you need to be a part of the "club."
No. I don't think I'm a part of any club and that's what makes everything better. To be a voice for the voiceless means to be an exclusive to everything. That's your own club.

Have you heard from any of the people whose songs you've covered, like Eminem or Macklemore?
Oh, yeah. Macklemore wrote me after I put out "Same Love" and he told me that he really respects it and that powerful writing is the reason they started doing what they do. I've been a Macklemore fan since the first time I heard his music, so that was amazing.

How about Eminem?
I know that he's heard it. I'm not interested in feedback at all.

It wasn't written for him or anyone else.
Yeah. I love him though. I'm just really scared to ever talk to him.

Is Dirty Gold as raw as what's on those covers?
Of course. I think even more so. I do this thing where I try not to impose my own point of view on other people, but I'm really excited for everyone to hear my perspective. It's not as dark as the previous music has been because I'm just past the phase of sulking in my grittiness, but it's still very lesson-bound. I reveal sides of myself that I've never shown.

Do you think so many people were moved by those songs because they can relate to them?
Yeah, totally. There's no other reason, unless you're a pill-popping whore who wants to dance all night, to relate to music other than the fact that it makes you feel something. It makes you feel connected. It makes you feel less alone. And that's what I'm always looking to achieve with my music.

Do people feel like they can open up to you since you're so open?
There's a song on my album called "Angels & Airwaves" that's completely derived from this guy telling me that he wanted to kill himself. He told me that he feels lost and alone in the world and nothing helps him but my music (and even sometimes that doesn't help him). He told me all these things about his life and his struggles. I took that and I turned it into a song for him on my album.

Some people message me things like, "I really need you right now." I'll wake up in the middle of the night with a Direct Message notification from my Twitter and I'll be up all night talking to them and telling them, "It's alright. You're going to feel trapped and lost and all these things, but the most important thing to remember is that the only way out of the labyrinth is straight and fast. That is the way through. That's it."

What are you scared of?
I'm absolutely terrified of the dark. Terrified. There has to be noise and there has to be light coming from somewhere or I can't sleep at all. I just think that darkness is so symbolic of the evils of life that I get so nervous about all of my demons that I can't sleep. I feel like they're breathing down my neck. Like Kanye West says, "So scared of my demons, I go to sleep with a nightlight." Light scares off the darkness. It makes it go away.

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“Try a Little Tenderness”

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This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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