17 On The Frontline: 6LACK

“I take my hardest times and turn them into something”

6LACK’s not the loudest artist in the world – he’d rather let his music do the talking. For artists like 6LACK, focusing on this avenue of expression isn’t just useful, it’s necessary; it can offer more emotionally than it does financially, and that statement is by no means trivial. Luckily for me, however, I was able to hear the other side of the story.

Recently, 6LACK and I chopped it up, speaking primarily on his arduous journey to musical freedom, Atlanta’s thriving music scene and – perhaps the logical culmination of both of those things – his triumphant and hypnotic debut, ‘Free 6LACK’. So, let’s start at the beginning. Back in 2011, just having turned 19, 6LACK got the opportunity to sign to an independent label; the advance was small, he was still at college – but he took the risk. Interested by this leap of faith, I asked 6LACK if this decision was a difficult one, or whether it was simply a gut thing. “Initially, yeah”, he replied. “I kinda went to college because, growing up, when you already know what you wanna do, your parents put that thing in your head where it’s like, “Get a backup plan.” So, going into it, I didn’t really wanna be there – I just went because I figured I should. And then, it wasn’t really that hard of a decision when music started to change. Once I heard a couple of R&B projects that came out in those years, I was just like, “Why am I still in school – when I could be out there making music like this.”

It’s not difficult to see why 6LACK felt this way – the 2000s offered a sound that was transitional and, at times, awkward when it came to hip-hop and R&B. The 2010s, however, ushered in something brand new, the lines between the two genres were blurring and exciting things awaited artists who were diving in. And college, well, college just wasn’t cutting it. If you know what you want to do from the jump, then sitting around cultivating plan B can just seem futile, especially when you know you’ve got the potential.

I would be in that studio for hours and hours making the perfect pop song for their ears, when I already knew how to make the perfect song for people who wanted to listen – I just had to listen to myself.

So, 6LACK signed the deal. Unfortunately, however, things didn’t quite go to plan. In the years that followed, once his advance had ran out, 6lack was left with very little money and very little creative freedom. That is, for five years, he was forced to make ‘hits’ that conformed to the label’s vision, yet, sadly, this didn’t quite fit with 6LACK’s personal conception of ‘good music’. In 6LACK’s words, “they had a formula, and I respected the formula because – for them – it worked, but that’s just not the formula I saw myself following. I can do it because I like to write all kinds of music; I’ll write anything. In terms of my own career, though, we just didn’t share the same vision. I would be in that studio for hours and hours making the perfect pop song for their ears, when I already knew how to make the perfect song for people who wanted to listen – I just had to listen to myself.”

6LACK seemed extremely calm. In fact, despite what he went through, he didn’t seem to harbour any disdain for his former label at all. He simply understood that their differences were creative – not personal. Wanting to know more about how 6LACK coped with this artistic claustrophobia, I asked him about his subsequent moves. He had the following to say. “My label always knew I was talented, they just didn’t know how to move me – but that’s not enough for somebody that has got to make a living. I was constantly making music and they just didn’t know how to push it. So, after a couple of years, I just fell back, stopped doing shows, stopped posting as much music and just made people aware that I was off the radar.”

6LACK didn’t follow the formula, then. You only have to listen to ‘Alone’ from his debut to understand why: “I’m not gonna conform. I’m not gonna settle for that shit, because if I do it once and it pops, I’m gonna have to keep doing that shit – over and over again. You can’t build up a fan base like that – you become a song instead of a person.” 6LACK makes his thinking fairly clear, here. He has his own vision, his own sound and his own formula – and would be manifesting these things on wax by himself. Since 6LACK wasn’t making as much music for the label anymore, he began to release music on his terms in secret. His SoundCloud feed built up – and so did the numbers. Despite the fact that releasing music in this manner went against the wishes of his current label, you might think that the initiative itself – and its success – would be intrinsically worthy of praise. Well, apparently not.

“Once it started to grab attention and do numbers, I would show them. I’d be like, “Look, I shot this video and this blog picked it up – people are gravitating towards it.” But they would still just shrug it off.” A little surprised, I asked 6LACK if they were even mad. “Nah, because at that point – especially after all the years that went by before I started taking stuff into my own hands – they knew they had me out here, they knew they’d never put a dollar in my pocket. I’d been waiting on their approval for years. You can’t stop me from making music, and you can’t stop me from trying to do something for myself if you’re not gonna help me.”

That was the longest five years of my life – but I wouldn’t take or change any of it.

It should be noted, here, that during this period – alongside managing himself, curating two distinct bodies of music and handling all of the digital requisites that come with being an artist in this era alone – 6LACK was barely making ends meet financially. “From the minute I left college and didn’t have any kind of financial aid check – it was on from then on. 2011 to 2015 was like – sometimes I don’t even know how I got through all of those years, you know, even simple shit like eating and transportation. When you have a vision, though, you figure out ways to stay afloat. That was the longest five years of my life – but I wouldn’t take or change any of it.”

6LACK came across as having a sort of love/hate relationship with those years spent in label captivity. The music that he tirelessly churned out during that period would always denote a very emotionally volatile time, and consequently, it’s unsurprising that that body of music would always remain important to him, regardless of whether it is in circulation or not. What’s more, though, everything he endured in those five years, the ups, the downs, they all manifest themselves on ‘Free 6LACK’ – whether that be in his attitude, his lyrical content, or even his ominous beat selection – they all go some way to making that debut project very special. 6LACK knows this too, just listen to ‘Rules’: “I take my hardest times and turn them into something”.

As the conversation meandered away from his old label, we began to talk about his new one: LoveRenaissance. “When I met them initially, my attitude was, “I’ve done all this stuff on my own so far – so what can you do for me.” So, off the bat there was just a mutual understanding; they knew, more than anything, to let me have creative reign and to trust me, and to just deliver my music in the best possible way to the public… Once I got in their house, that’s when I started fresh. Every day I woke up, sat at the computer, and I would sit there sun up till sun down – every single day – and just record, record, record, until I finally found a sound that I was comfortable with.”

You don’t have to talk to 6LACK for long to realise how hard he works. He doesn’t even labour this point, it is simply a fact about his musical career. 6LACK’s the sort of artist that doesn’t have time to tell you how hard he’s working – because he’s too busy fucking working. However, this can be said of many Atlantans; work ethic is ingrained into their music scene. Gucci Mane, Future and Young Thug are all known for firing off tape-after-tape without skimping on quality – it’s just what they do, and 6LACK’s no different.

Upon speaking about the situation with his new label, I eagerly shifted the conversation to ‘Free 6LACK’, asking how it came together. “When I went into the project, I didn’t want to sit down and figure out anything super thematic or intricate – I just wanted to summarise what I’ve been through over the past five years. There are people who’ve been waiting on music for five years, and people who’ve been waiting on music a couple of years. So, I just wanted to summarise and let you know, “Hey, this is what’s been going on, this is why it took so long, and now you have something to figure out your own situations with.”’

I don’t talk about situations and feeling finished – I talk about situations and coming out of them, learning something new about myself and growing in confidence.

I go on to ask 6LACK about the beat selection on the project, more specifically, about how the dark, ambient production reflected the nature of the story he was telling. “It was definitely reflective of what I was feeling and what I was going through. I mean, more than anything, the production for this project, and the writing in general, was meant to be moody and reflective – but it’s not depressing; it’s more hopeful than anything. I don’t talk about situations and feeling finished – I talk about situations and coming out of them, learning something new about myself and growing in confidence. It’s definitely hazy, but the melodies give you a sense of hope.”

I thought this was rather eye-opening. The amazing thing about music is that the English language, especially adjectives like ‘dark’, can never provide an exhaustive account of the way music actually makes us feel – that’s why it’s so compelling. ‘Free 6LACK’ is a prime example of this. You could run through hundreds of descriptive words and they would all fit loosely; it is dark, but it’s also empowering, triumphant, and as 6LACK says himself –‘hopeful’. It’s the projects that can span the emotional spectrum that touch you the most.

We continued to talk more about the album. Noting how he flips a future track with ‘Ex Calling’ and provides a tribute to Atlanta on ‘EA6’, I asked 6LACK about the importance of the Atlanta music scene to him as an artist and as an individual. “I feel like right now and for a while, in the States, Atlanta has been the centre of everything. If it’s not coming from here, it kinda has to pass through here to be super relevant in the hip-hop industry right now. So, being from here gives you that extra pride, no matter what side of town you’re from. It’s just like, “I’m from Atlanta, and you might not like this kind of music in Atlanta, but there’s also this kind of music.” There’s just always a million different things going on at once, and that’s what excites me the most.”

6LACK continued to speak passionately about Atlanta. He outlined the city’s collaborative spirit, adding that he never was one to ask for features, preferring instead to earn the respect of his contemporaries in a manner that avoiding things like that. This got me thinking: ‘Free 6LACK’ has no features. I asked him why. “When I was making the project, obviously management have ideas for features and stuff like that. But I just kinda felt like me telling the story I was telling, and being reflective of my life, especially at that moment, features – that just wasn’t where I was. I didn’t want to have to take that extra step in making my project be something; I just wanted it to be whatever it was supposed to be at that time… And then, it also gives you an extra push to switch it up, ‘cause I gotta make sure I don’t do the same hook ten times, you know?”

As the interview winded down, after 6LACK explained what it was like to spend forty-eight hours on set with a titanic bear for the album cover shoot, I asked him what’s in store for the future. “I don’t plan on taking any breaks, or slowing, or falling off the radar and becoming mysterious. I thought I was taking a break for a second, but a couple of weeks after dropping the project I was back in the studio. So, at this point, I’m just back recording and working on whatever’s next, whatever that might be. I’m just making sure I have the music for it… I don’t think I’m the kind of person who just wants to hold people over; I wanna make sure that I’ve got another body of work ready. Whether it’s dropping soon, or a couple of months from now, I just wanna make sure that I’ve got something in the chamber.”

Closing words from 6LACK: “Free 6LACK was a project that demonstrated how I was free from my old contract, my old relationships and my old ways of thinking. But when you listen to the songs, you can apply the lyrics to anything. I feel like, the way I put it together is so that it can be applied to anybody’s life and what anybody’s going through. With music right now, we have more than enough music that we can just have fun to and not worry about the words, and I love it all – but I wanted people to take something from this, and to learn something from it. I just wanted to create that direct line from me to the listener… At the end of the day, this is my job, and music is just my tool, so, I’ve just gotta make sure I’m giving people food.”

‘Free 6Lack’ is out now