In the summer of 2013, I met up with Ceschi Ramos, the immensely creative and inspiring singer-songwriter-rapper-producer at the center of Fake Four Records. We hung out at an Ecuadorian bakery on the edge of New Haven, CT, his hometown, and talked about the underground rap scene, the potential for music to catalyze bottom-up social change and what it takes to be successful in this world.
R: Hey man, thanks for meeting with us. So, what’s new at Fake Four?
C: Haha, Fake Four’s become my biggest art project, but also my biggest pain in the ass. We’re going really strong and building a lot right now. Trying hard to stick to the schedules as much as we can. We have some of the bigger records of our history coming out this year. Grayskul. So, yeah, we’re staying strong.
R: Can you talk a bit about what your creative process is like?
C: Well, it starts at a really personal, honest place, but it becomes a communal thing in the end. At first, when I have some new music, I’m embarrassed to show people. Every time I do one of these records, I’m embarrassed to put myself out there to some extent.
But then some kid who’s trying to commit suicide writes to me online and is like, you inspire me to live. That’s happened to me five or six times! I think a lot of artists don’t give themselves up to people in a really personal way.
R: Right on. American young people need your kind of honesty now more than ever.
C: Haha, yeah, we’re all kind of broke and depressed, and we’re apathetic at the same time, so we don’t want to admit it. It’s not cool right now, especially in rap, to voice how you feel about things.
R: So many people feel they aren’t allowed to be depressed. I know lots of people working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, and there’s tons of stuff about their lives that makes them depressed, but they can’t really show it.
C: Yeah, I’ve been there, man. I was an elementary school teacher for a year in New Haven. I had to go in there every day with a smile on my face when I didn’t really feel that way. It was really tough. I was holding a lot in.
That was the era that I made that album, “They Hate Fransisco False.” I was a teacher, and I’d come home with all these things to say. I was going through the first really bad break up of my life. I think those records are like a timeline. I can say, oh that’s the person I was then. They’re sort of like pictures of that time.
R: That’s cool to look back on your career like that. You’ve been involved in underground music for decades now.
C: Yeah, as a fan for a really long time, but now I’ve got over a decade of releasing music in different bands in different scenes. Underground rap. Fusion. A political hardcore metal band. I’m still in my first band, with my brother, Anonymous Inc. So almost ten years. My first solo album came out in 2004.
R: How would you describe the current state of underground rap?
C: It’s crazy. I just came back from Minneapolis. It’s this crazy Mecca of underground rap to the point where it’s not underground any more. It’s pretty much the norm out there. The average person on the street will know who Atmosphere or Doomtree is. I can’t ask people walking down the street in my neighborhood who that is – they’d have no fucking idea, haha! Out there, they’re just running shit.
I just went to a festival there that was mainly underground hip-hop. There were some mainstream acts as well, but there were 25,000 people there. I go there, and I’m just like, wow, this is incredible.
R: What’s the scene like where you live in Connecticut?
C: I live in New Haven, downtown, in an area that has close to no scene. It’s not super hip over here, but I like that. It gives me a lot of perspective. I feel like when people move to Brooklyn they get really wrapped up in a certain scene and the sounds that are happening over there. Not everybody – I have friends in Brooklyn that are making really unique music, but socially, they want certain sounds.
It’s kind of based on what the media wants, and the media gets to everything late. What Pitchfork wants or whatever – I don’t have much of that influence. The Internet is always the biggest influence world-wide with musical trends, but at least my local scene doesn’t have much of that.
I try to go to any show I can out here. There’s a promoter out here, Manic Productions, and he brings a lot of acts. I actually went to two shows last night – the Mountain Goats and a local hip-hop show. So even here, we do have options.
R: So, how long have you been here? Are you really connected to the community?
Ceschi: I moved out here when I was 13 years old, and my mother’s really active in the neighborhood. She puts on a Latino film fest every year and is really tied in with the Ecuadorian Consulate. My aunt was a public school teacher who retired after 45 years.
I was touring for a while, playing 200 plus shows a year, but I’ve been around a lot this year. That’s made my financial situation tough – that was my job. I’ve tried a few things. I was dog walking for a little bit, but it’s always been short-lived so I can go on tour. The lady actually found out about my criminal past and fired me, haha. I was kind of just doing it to get outside more.
R: You talked about those kids who email you, what do you think your number one motivator is to keep doing this stuff?
C: Obviously, it comes from a, you know, there’s a selfish aspect to it. All art has a selfish aspect to it. But there’s two sides of it – you start from a personal place of wanting to release some thoughts and some words, but I think the more enjoyable part is the communal part when it creates some joy as it gets put out into the world, and we get to share it. Shows are my number one. I really prefer presenting my music in a live format. I just feel that I express it better. That’s when it becomes everyone’s music. In the studio, it’s just yours.
A lot of my new music is talking about how, damn it, we could actually change things. It’s not even idealism. If we actually realize that we’re humans instead of just puppets. I want to challenge people’s beliefs about what common sense is. We’re not going to get things done if we rely on the government to do it – especially this government.
Music’s a great way of celebrating life but also organizing people. I think a lot of us at Fake Four come from a background of radical politics and organizing. Sole is a big part of the label who’s helped the label grow a lot, and he’s way more interested in politics than music. Even if your music is not political lyrically, at the end of the day, you are organizing people. You could have ten fans or a hundred fans. People actually pay attention when we’re in a group and there’s a musical leader – a uniter.
R: In other countries, underground music plays a central role in building radical social movements – what have you seen when you’ve toured outside the US?
C: I’ve been to Europe a bunch of times. Out there it’s the next level. A lot of the venues are squats, and if the police try to break it down, they just fight.
It’s something that seems impossible here because of how militarized our police are. Denver, where Sole is from, they’re on the next level. There are cameras on every corner. Police are given so much power!
And, often, the people here who claim to be “against government” are the worst. They’re the first to pass all these regulations and call in the cops to get the poor people out of their neighborhoods. They’ll complain all day about the number of people who are on disability and social security, but at the same time, the government really loves those programs. All these people who have injuries or mental health problems basically sign up to be poor for the rest of their lives. Republicans might complain about it, but they’re never going to do anything about it.
Capitalism has failed time and again, but because it’s been imposed so strongly, instead of thinking, why don’t we end this idea and move things in a different direction, they try to save it with these little pieces of socialism. If you actually want to be rich, you have to be a capitalist. There’s no other way.
R: But you’re finding another way – if not to be rich, than at least to have an impact. Let’s talk more about what you see happening right now in the underground hip-hop scene.
Ceschi: I think it’s still very vibrant, but at the same time, I’m seeing less and less innovation within our scene. I listen to so much – I listen to demos and new artists every week.
It’s strange because of the Internet and the way that major labels have affected media. They now take DIY aesthetic and put major label budgets behind it, like Odd Future, or Lana Delray. They say, “Look at this video she made on her own!” The next day it has 4 million views! They say it came out of nowhere, but that’s the gimmick major labels are using right now. They’re using our own things, homemade looking things, DIY looking art and stuff.
I think that for our scene, when it comes to underground rap, it’s such a small incestuous scene. Everybody knows each other. Other scenes aren’t necessarily too open to what we’re doing, but we don’t try hard enough to connect with other scenes. I’m very close with the underground punk scene, in part because we’re so close to the DIY Bandits. I’m working on a collaboration right now with Pat the Bunny from Ramshackle Glory. Spreading our sound into a different scene. I would like hip-hop heads to listen to Ramshackle Glory – I think they have a lot of great stuff to say, and I’d like their fans to listen to me. I think we’re pretty closed off to each other.
R: It seems like a lot of performers these days don’t try that hard to entertain people anymore.
Ceschi: I agree. I’ve seen probably a thousand hip-hop shows in my life, and most of the time there’s not a good performance aspect. I just came from a huge hip-hop festival where I didn’t feel that 90% of the artists could perform very well or entertain me, and I’m a huge hip-hop fan! I was bored by almost everybody.
I think a lot of this stems from corporate racism. I think there’s this idea that major labels have built over the years of what a rapper is supposed to look like and sound like and what class he’s supposed to come from. They don’t really stray form that too far. They haven’t since the beginning of hip-hop. White kids in the suburbs expect that, so that’s what major labels are still pushing at them. There’s a genuinely accepted sexist undertone. Like, it’s okay that these rappers are sexist because that’s just what rap looks like.
If underground rappers are talking about certain things, the major labels constrain them from passing a certain bar. At the end of the day, it’s all about making money. Like, Mackelmore is one of the biggest acts in the country right now. He’s a middle-class white kid from Seattle. He’s broken through that. I’ve been reading a lot of articles criticizing what he’s doing to rap, but he found a way through managers and record label deals to get his music to alternative rock stations that are playing it, like they did the Beastie Boys.
I kind of don’t like using the term “white” – it’s so vague. Underground rappers in general have been influenced by a generation of black nationalist rappers, black power guys like Freestyle Fellowship, Pharoahe Monch, De La Soul. They all have elements of this righteous empowered black dude thing, but a white guy in the suburbs doesn’t necessarily have that voice.
R: Truth. One of the things that I really like about underground hip-hop is the way that rappers, regardless of where they come from, are breaking the mold and getting out to see so much of the world.
Ceschi: I think every underground rapper is willing to do that, but a lot of people feel uncomfortable straying from what mainstream society tells them rap should sound like.
There aren’t as many underground rap fans. It’s a money game. The people controlling the money are racist record labels. They’re deciding that this guy is ignorant and is going to keep people ignorant, so let’s put a lot of money behind him because this is what people are going to want.
I truly believe that talent has very little to do with it. Jay-Z and Little Wayne have abilities, but there are other people with the same or very similar abilities, and they don’t break into the same markets.
Let’s talk about Two Chainz or Trinidad James, these guys are some of the worst rappers of all time. But they’re some of the biggest rappers right now. You know it’s not talent. And the songs, there’s not even much to it – you could pretty much put a beat out, and it’d be pretty close to the same thing. That’s when it’s like, okay, this thing got co-signed. Some taste maker or A & R or whatever thinks this is what the money should go to, not only in the hood but in the suburbs.
R: So it all comes down to capitalism?
Ceschi: Exactly, and capitalism is a classist system. There’s no way around it. A true capitalist is going to think about how to make money from every class, no matter if he offends somebody or not.
It’s like this juice is only going to go to Latino bakeries, but if you change the graphics behind it, it could go big everywhere.
The truth is, if Two Chainz approached me with a demo, I’d be like if this had ten million dollars behind it, this would sell. But with ten thousand dollars behind it, it would do nothing. I don’t have those outlets for it to shine.
A guy like that has to bring it to the mainstream because they’re the only ones who’d buy it. I’m confidant that you could sell anything if you put enough money behind it.