Florida hip-hop artist The Unknown has created an album perfect for the brashness of winter. Almost 20% of Americans deal with some type of mental health issue (according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness) and with The Unknown’s debut album “Healthy” he talks the dark recesses of his mind and the process of becoming “Healthy”. I had the chance to sit down with the Florida standout to really pick his brain and see what the motivation behind this project was. And honestly in one of my favorite interviews of this year, we talk about how the system handles mental health and its consequences, the process of making “Healthy” and much more.
Dead End Hip Hop: For those who don’t know, who is The Unknown and how did that name come about?
The Unknown: I’m a 21 year old rapper/producer, originally from Pittsburgh, but I moved to South Florida when I was 13. At first, I went by “anunknownartist”, funnily enough just because I couldn’t think of an actual name, then I decided to shorten it to “Unknown”, but that name got rejected by Tunecore for being too generic, so I slapped a “The” in front of that shit and called it a day. Ended up using Distrokid to distribute the album anyway, but I already changed my name on Twitter and shit, so I guess I’m stuck with it. It kinda makes it sound a little more like a force of nature or something, which I dig.
DEHH: Tell me a bit about your start in hip-hop and how you went from being a fan to deciding to create in the hip-hop space?
The Unknown: I started listening to hip-hop when I was like 11 or 12, didn’t really think much of music before that, but then something just clicked. I started listening to Kanye West around that time, and I can still remember almost being brought to tears by “Gone” off Late Registration. Soon after that, Odd Future was starting to pop off and I rode that wave super hard. I torrented FL Studio (I use Logic now) and began writing like super outlandish, vulgar shit just to impress my friends and make them laugh. I’ve always been a writer, originally wanted to write screenplays, but hip-hop very quickly became the main way I expressed myself. Later getting into artists like El-P, Cage, Eyedea, and Camu Tao, kind of that mixture of more abstract and precise writing had a lot of influence on my style. I didn’t really figure out production until a lot more recently, but it was always in the back of my mind, and, evidently, I’ve always been more attracted to artists who both rapped and produced, so it was something I just kept pushing at as well. It was like the more the music connected with me, the more I wanted to connect with the music.
DEHH: “Healthy” is easily one of the trippiest, darkest releases I’ve heard this year, but I love it and it works, how did the concept for “Healthy” come about?
The Unknown: I started working on what became “Healthy” in the fall of 2016. It didn’t really turn into what it is today until much later. I was dealing with a very serious bout of depression at the time I started it, it was my first year of college, and I’d been dealing with this type of shit for a while, but just like I guess the ability to make my own terrible choices kind of exacerbated the situation and by the spring I had every intention of killing myself, but fortunately I’d made very close friends at school who convinced me to go to counseling and from there, I was sent back home for treatment. It was during that time that the album really started to take shape. I was misdiagnosed with major depression (I have bipolar disorder), and given Prozac which chemically does not work in treating bipolar, so that was a whole fiasco, with going to the hospital because of someone else’s mistake and what not. The mistrust for my treatment that led to and the experiences there ended up contributing to the bulk of my writing for the album. And even once I got the right meds, I barely took them and wasn’t on them at all when most of the writing and production took place. A lot of what I ended up trying to do was articulate these experiences, this side of the battle with mental health, into music I could’ve used while dealing with all of this.
DEHH: I think sometimes in hip-hop we have a tendency to pin down one sound and anything that varies outside of it is weird, but on “Healthy” you use all types of sounds and samples to get the point across, can you talk about how you crafted your own sound and how it fits into the puzzle of “Healthy”?
The Unknown: So much of that shit was trial and error honestly, I’m only just now, after the album’s done, starting to find a real stride in my work and like know what to do and when. I think the big thing I took away from all those years listening to hip-hop, and all those years of hip-hop to listen to, is just exactly how broad the tools are at a producer’s disposal. Sure, there were some things I might’ve pulled more from other genres, but the bulk of my influences are based in hip-hop. There were five or so albums that played a major role in influencing my sound for “Healthy”, Danny Brown’s “Atrocity Exhibition”, Kanye West’s “Yeezus”, Earl Sweatshirt’s “I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside”, Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral”, and El-P’s “Fantastic Damage”. But working in a genre where you have Death Grips on one end, and Lil Pump on the other gives you a whole lot of options, or at least it should. So my main goal, knowing I had these options, was to use anything I could to fully create the atmosphere I meant for the songs to suggest. The world in Healthy is just as much the one in the lyrics as it is the sonic landscape of it all, and I needed the music to reflect that fear and anger and sadness and, at times, hope, in every way. I’d also like to say that this sound, this aesthetic, isn’t really one I’m sticking to for future projects. I don’t like artists who make the same shit over and over again, I don’t think that does anything to further music, and that really should be the goal when you approach life as an artist.
DEHH: Talk to me about the visuals you used for the album and the inspiration behind them, this isn’t your usual rap at the camera and stroke your own ego, there’s a lot going on.
The Unknown: That was all the directors of their respective videos. I wanted their interpretations of the music to be what was seen in the visuals, not mine, and I think they did a wonderful job. I talked to them about this question because I figured they’d give a better answer about their work than I could. Kye Saunders, who did Medicine, said “I wanted the pills to be presented in way that seems idyllic and then with time the meds become an all consuming thought which is ironic because that is what they are supposed to prevent. It doesn’t solve the feelings of anxiety but it does do something and that something is what I wanted to be left up to interpretation” and Yugi, who did Story, said “I hate the saying that for a movie to be good, you’re suppose to be able to follow a plot while the movies on mute. With the Story visuals, I wasn’t very interested in trying to connect a story. I just wanted to lay everything out, lay shit on top of each other, have things pull and push out of each other. If you watched it on mute, you’d probably think: “damn, if someone gave these guys money they’d be big.”
DEHH: You created your own world in “Healthy” and with it came a number of guest appearance can you talk about the people you worked with on this album?
The Unknown: We all lived in the same apartment during most of the work of the album. One of them, Mr. Shellfish, has been a very dear friend of mine since high school, and the rest we met in college at Florida State. We did our best to create our own little community of artists in the area and work closely with one another on all of our projects. Every single one of them was there for most, if not all, of the steps taken to make the album, and so not only did I trust them completely with each of their respective verses to fit the themes and deliver some great work, I also don’t think “Healthy” would be “Healthy” without their input and general presence.
DEHH: Crafting something this heavy and focused is no easy task, what was creating all of this like and what was the most challenging part of making “Healthy”.
The Unknown: Honestly, a lot of it was fucking miserable. I was so in my head during much of this, that my whole world was what ended up on that album. I mean, of course, I loved it, but I can say it took a pretty obvious toll on my psyche all the way up until when I sent it in to Distrokid. As for the focused part, I have primarily obsessional-OCD, so being obsessive comes pretty naturally for me. I think really the most challenging part was it getting to a point where I was so in the thick of working on this thing, I kind of began to only think of myself as the issues I talk about on the record. Getting out of that headspace has made my life a lot easier. I also have the obligatory “laptop broke and I lost all the early drafts from the album” story, but honestly, those were all trash, so I’m not even mad about that.
DEHH: When people are done with “Healthy” what do you want them to walk away with?
The Unknown: Well, it’s not a hopeful album, maybe at times it is, but overall, the biggest tones are sadness, anger, and then kind of a denial and despondency, so I really would like for people to understand that these feelings on the album are not cool, they are not an aesthetic, if you need help get help. Hopefully those things are articulated on the project. Because the mindset I was in while making it was undeniably a toxic one. If you’re dealing with the things I talk about, I’d like it to provide some solace, and if you aren’t, then I’d like a “daaaamn” or a “that was…uhh…creative I guess”.
DEHH: A new year is right around corner, will we be seeing The Unknown on tour, will we be getting more music?
The Unknown: A tour, unfortunately, is not really in our budget. Hopefully by 2020 we’ll be able to have the money saved to do something like that, but for now, we’re trying to get shows around Florida. As for music, I was already working on a second album while I was still making “Healthy”, something a little different, leaning more toward the fun end of things, really just to even out a set list for live shows, because a straight “Healthy” performance would be kind of a downer. I’m also working on a number of projects as a producer for people in the couple groups I’m in and will probably be doing a good number of features. Hopefully group projects too, but a lot of what we’ve been doing is finding our individual sounds before fully coming together as a group. All of the artists featured on “Healthy” (Kamoi, Yugi, Mr. Shellfish, and Atlas) and have projects lined up for the coming year. So in an ideal world, you should be hearing a lot from us.
YOU CAN STREAM THE UNKNOWN’S ALBUM “HEALTHY” ON YOUR PLATFORM OF CHOICE: HERE