In our first interview with Sam Turpin in half a decade, his depression takes centre stage — but there’s hope yet
Name me the last white rapper you listened to – I’ll wait. And no, Eminem and Mac Miller won’t earn you points here.
Okay, fine. Name me the last white South African rapper you listened to. Seriously, I’ll wait.
The first time I covered Sam Turpin was back in 2013. That also happens to be the year that FDBQ Music came to being (although back then, it was known as Feedback Musiq.) Since then, he has consistently brought new music to the fore as he grows from teenage hip hop fan to a man and hip hop artist in his own right.
Tonight (2 Mar.), he’s seated next to Reason at the Ray-Ban Reinvention sessions in Rosebank, Johannesbrug to talk about his upbringing, career and his thoughts on hip hop. As the brief live interview wraps, he takes to the stage to perform for a number of his most dedicated fans (they knew all the words).
“I actually wanna get more musical because I don’t have any formal music training.” His performance has come to an end I’ve walked him to a couch further inside The Milk Bar for an interview. “I don’t know what an F major chord is. Everything that I’ve done up until now has just been from my heart, then whatever it sounds like, that’s what it is. But I wanna get more musical and really be able to reach more people while still staying true to myself.”
It’s curious to me that he would say something like this about himself. In the five years that I’ve been listening to his music, I have never heard anything quite like what I’ve heard tonight. There was house music. There was more obviously socially conscious work. And there was generally a heightened energy and pace to everything in the latter half of his set.
“A lot of my stuff is about me overcoming depression and it’s cool and it will always be about that,” he tells me. “But sometimes people wanna dance. So you might wanna have one or two that’s just a bit more musical and vibey because emotion is in music as well.”
People change in five years and people certainly grow and I bare witness to that talking to him tonight. If you’re fortunate enough, there’s also people around you seeing the potential in you and pushing you towards avenues you never knew you needed to explore. That’s how “War Neva End” by DJ Spoko came about (which, by Turpin’s account, is his most played song on SoundCloud).
“Basically, [Spoko] followed me on Twitter a few years ago and I grew up listening to his stuff. So it’s like, oh shit, that must be a sign or whatever,” he remembers. “So I hooked up with him at this party and I was like, “Do you wanna produce something for me? Can you make hip hop stuff?” And he was like, “Do you know what? I’m gonna send you house stuff. See what you can do with it.” So I just sent back the verse.”
That experience isn’t too dissimilar to what he has with DJ and producer, Illa N. “He saw I did Eternal Sentiment and he was like let me send this dude some shit because before that my stuff wasn’t crafted yet and he didn’t wanna work with me until I was able to really flow on some beat.”
If anyone has been witness to the growth and progression of Sam Turpin, it’s Illa N himself. “That’s my brother. We grew up together so I didn’t even need to click with him – we already click. When I’m in studio with him and he plays me shit, I just write; it just flows. It’s [a] very organic process so I don’t even think about it.”
So where does this concern to “wanna get more musical and really be able to reach more people while still staying true to myself” even come from? When he spoke to us for the first time back in 2013, his ambition was markedly resolute: “If people judge me before they hear what I can do then they’ll change their minds after they hear me.”
Tonight, he catches me off-guard when he says, “So if it means working with one or two more producers or even just taking time off to really learn the keys or to learn the bass or something like that and put that in my music, people won’t stand at the show with their arms folded.”
I’ve been attending a few Ray-Ban Reinvention sessions and I will say that there is an apparent difference in the size of the crowd tonight as with others. What I won’t say is that they’re standing with their arms folded. Quite the contrary in fact: they’re hanging on and singing along to Turpin’s every word. He himself called it “my favourite show so far.”
Towards the end of the interview, I get him to answer a direct question about progress: does he feel as though after all these years of hard work the dots are finally connecting? “I wouldn’t say that. I would say that I’ve learned a lot,” he admits. “I had to do music when I was depressed even though I wasn’t ready. Musically, I wasn’t ready and in terms of society and the industry, I really wasn’t ready. I was still in school [when I started making music] so I made a lot of mistakes. It’s been a process but I’ve learned from those mistakes. So now it’s about keeping that mentality. I know what to do and what not to do. So we’ll see what the future holds.”
I didn’t open with the white rapper thing for clicks or views or to shake any tables. Five years is long time to keep a career running but he’s done it and, more importantly, he continues to do it in a genre that doesn’t look like him at all. The people in the audience tonight aren’t here because they have nothing better to do with their time – I have seen repeat faces at these sessions and it’s none of these guys. They’re here because an artist who makes work that they care about and resonate with is here to deliver said work.
The depression Sam Turpin speaks so candidly of in our sitdown isn’t surprising at all when you consider the music he puts out. But everything I’ve heard tonight (the music, I mean) has made something pretty apparent to me: Sam Turpin is finally at place where the lived experience (depression included) is becoming less a debilitating resistance and more a driving source of healing inspiration. And if for nothing else, that’s how I know that he’s gon’ be alright.