Boston-based hip-hop artist and producer Cam Meekins is ambitious and humble, with an eye toward improving how his generation approaches producing and consuming music. He’s the farm-to-table movement of hip hop — his approach to making music and doing business is organic and uncomplicated. He’s locally sourced, popular with the young folk, and on the cusp of something much larger than himself.
Coming off his debut album Lamp City and his latest mixtape 1993, Vol. 2, Cam just completed a national tour that included a stop at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge last month. I sat down with Cam at a Starbucks on the Boston University campus to talk hip-hop, his creative process, and the Boston music scene.
Caroline: What inspired you to become a musician?
Cam: Well, a lot of things. When I was probably five years old, I got a drum set for Christmas one year — so I started getting into music like that. And as I was growing up, my brother was in a band, so in our basement they had a bunch of instruments. I would always just go down there and learn instruments like guitar, and things like that… Once I was in middle school, I started to use the computer to make beats and stuff. And then I started taking it really seriously in high school. I kind of started to make my own music and put it out and build a brand.
CH: Nice. So, you’ve definitely made a point of distinguishing your music from the “frat rap” genre that a lot of people think of when they hear Sammy Adams and Mac Miller. What do you think sets your sound apart?
CM: I think that, for me, what makes me unique is the production style and the fact that I do produce most of the music. Also, I think the content is really personal, and you know, no one else can talk about my own personal things. The honesty in the music is really what I try to embody in most of my work… But, I think that, you know, we all coexist in this group of artists and everyone does their own thing, and I respect it.
CH: So, what’s it like being a hip-hop artist in Boston? How’s the scene?
CM: Well, you know recently it’s actually been a really cool scene. I mean, the climate is changing a lot. I think that’s partly because of what we’ve been able to do with my music — has, I think inspired a new generation of artists to really start to take things seriously. A lot of my close friends are really starting to make their own brands and really start to do it at a higher level than, just like, regionally. And that’s really cool to see. So I think that in the next couple years Boston is going to be a pretty serious music scene… it’s cool to see the transition in the past three or four years.
CH: For sure. Lots more stuff cropping up these days. So along those same lines, do you see yourself continuing to develop your career in the Boston area? Or do you see yourself going to a place like New York, which has a more developed scene?
CM: Well, the thing is, I’ve lived in LA for a year. I lived in New York City for six months last year, so I’ve been-there-done-that, kind of. So, I used to be signed with Atlantic Records for a while… I left them to start my own label basically. And so the reason I’m back in Boston is because I want to run everything through my label, and I think that in Boston is a much better place to start a company than LA or NY because there are a lot of people trying to start record labels there and it’s too crowded for me. I think that I wanna be a pioneer in my city more so than I want to be one of many in LA.
CH: Could you talk a little more about Lamp City [his record label]?
CM: So Lamp City started off as kind of a branding thing… And then it transitioned into actually being my company that I run everything through. As I transitioned out of my Atlantic deal, we were gonna put out music under Lamp City Records, which was started. So the last year or so I’ve been basically building the backend, or the business behind Lamp City Records and figuring out the distribution channels for the music and all the different revenue streams that come into running a label — merchandise, touring, all these different things. So for me, that was always the goal — to get to a point where I could run my own company with this. And so I’m happy that through everything we’ve done, we’ve been able to get this opportunity.
CH: So, how is that transition from focusing more on music to the entire brand? Has that been a lot more work?
CM: Well, it’s just different work. I don’t have to waste my time now going through the politics of the huge major-label system, so I have a lot more time to work on running the label. So I don’t really think it is more work — I think it is more efficient work in a lot of ways. And that was my biggest frustration with labels right now… is that there’s too much going on in the corporate hierarchy to keep up with the rate of peoples’ attention spans on digital media right now. Like, the labels are just 10 years behind (snapping) where people need to be… like artists need to be quick nowadays because of the Internet, and spending too much time on a marketing campaign or conceptualizing a marketing campaign, you miss your chance.
CH: So, it seems like some of your work has a political undertone. I think of that Mitt Romney mask in your video for “Cut Me Off,” and you also have a song called “Kitt Romney.” And then there’s a line from one of your songs where you talk about how education is sort of a marketing tactic. Could you talk a little about that and why you include those sort of themes in your music? That’s not something that everyone is doing.
CM: Sure! I think that my interests might not be aligned with the typical rapper I guess, so like I consider myself pretty socially involved as far as politics and current issues and things like that — I like to keep up with the news. My references a lot of times will be based upon those interests that I have. You know, and if it’s an election year or something, then that type of stuff is in your head a lot. So that’s probably why I do it. And then just the other thing is I like to use satire in some ways to make certain points with current affairs. I think that that’s a fun way to do things. A lot of artists that I look up to have been able to do that really effectively, and I think that if I can have a little bit of that in my music, then it keeps things interesting. That’s what’s cool about hip-hop — it’s like reading a 500-word essay and taking the bits and pieces that you like and applying it to your life.
CH: So, you mentioned that some of the people you look up to use satire. Who would some of those artists be?
CM: Well, I mean I guess like big picture, some politically driven artists were like Bob Dylan and a lot of the artists from the 60s, honestly. But more recently, I think that I look up to artists like Atmosphere. I like Kanye a lot. And I like J Cole, honestly too. I’m trying to think of what else I listen to… MF Doom.
CH: Cool. So, some parts of your song “Up” almost sound more like spoken word poetry than rap. What’s your approach to writing?
CM: My general approach is to just wait until I’m inspired to write something. So it could come from something that happens in my life, like something happens in a friendship that I have or a family thing or just some random thing I see walking down the street… I think of a line and then that line becomes a whole 16-bar verse. And so what I do as an artist is, I just observe. I move around in life. Like, for instance, I’ll go and I’ll take trips to Canada or something and I’ll stay there for two weeks just to get inspired. For “Up” specifically, I was just thinking about friendships that I had and it kind of just came to me, that first line: “Why can’t I ever find enough time?” And as far as the rhyme flow, and the style with its kind of spoken word, I like playing around with stuff like that. Because I’m definitely interested in some more abstract hip-hop artists like MF Doom… that’s a big inspiration for me. I really like that I’m able to have a more mainstream-feeling song but then incorporate some more complicated rhyme patterns.