ANTHM Talks Duke University, Wall Street, Blu, 2Pac & 50 Cent


Three years ago, Anteneh Addisu left a promising career on Wall Street to pursue his dream of becoming an MC. But what would possess the Duke grad to leave a cushy gig as a trader, change his name to ANTHM and join the masses of struggling rappers trying to get on?

Rap was always just a dream for ANTHM, a Virginia native whose roots go back to Ethiopia. It wasn't until the 2008 financial crisis, when he saw his Wall Street co-workers losing millions of dollars they'd spent their lives working for, that he truly reconsidered his path.

Given a new perspective, it wasn't long before the 26-year-old left the corporate grind behind and began working to master his craft under the guidance of a former co-worker. After spending the past two years building his sound from the ground up, ANTHM emerged last April with When We Were Kings, his debut mixtape and a declaration of his polished, singular sound. Now, the sharp-witted wordsmith is picking up momentum. With Joy & Pain, a free EP he released online in June, ANTHM established himself as an artist to watch moving forward. Featuring appearances by Freddie Gibbs and Blu, the project showcases his skill for creating music that transcends genre and sets high expectations for future work.

With more big moves on the horizon, including a collaborative project with Blu, XXL spoke with the MC about everything from his time at Duke to his belief that 50 Cent is hip-hop’s most respectable mogul. Without further ado, meet ANTHM. —Calvin Stovall (@CalvinStovall)

On His New EP, Joy & Pain:

1. Anthm

It’s an EP, and I’m extremely excited about it because, though I loved the last project we put out, I want to really focus on branching out artistically. It’s going to introduce me to a new listenership. I’m very excited about the features—Blu and Freddie Gibbs. So me as an up-and-coming artist, to put my foot forward with what I believe is a strong project and to have those two artists attached, who I have heavy respect for as artists and MCs, without one download, it’s already an accomplishment for me.

On Attending Duke:

2. Anthm

I didn’t want to go to Duke, I actually wanted to go to UNC, but financial aid at Duke is what really influenced my decision. ‘Cause I knew my mom didn’t have any money to put towards college, so schools like that—those “prestigious” universities that have big funds—they’re able to extend themselves.

Duke was a transformative experience for me. Because the world that you know growing up, doesn’t really go beyond [your home]. Unless you’re fortunate enough to travel with your family or go to boarding school or something like that, you’re limited to that. So Duke opened my world. I made some of my best friends, life friends, at Duke. One of my best friends ‘til today, plays for the Bulls, went to Duke with me—Luol [Deng].

What Duke was, more so than an education—because I’m really proud of my school, but it’s not really the curriculum that sets the school apart—it’s the life experience. For me, being exposed to people—my roommate of my sophomore year, his dad was owner of the Celtics. People whose parents were CEOs of banks or famous directors. The average student just came from a privileged background. So, what that brings to the table is a wealth of life experiences. I remember the first day of school and meeting the people in your dorm like, “Wow, these people been all these places, I haven’t been to anything.” But why I’m so grateful for Duke is that that can easily be a situation where you feel you don’t stack up. But they’re so generous with the financial aid and shit. I never felt like I was different. They bring you to the school and make sure that you can have a good experience. Duke is great because I wouldn’t have gotten into Wall Street without it. And even my exposure to hip-hop at Duke. I used to go to 9th Wonder’s class. He taught a class over at NC Central and then he started teaching at Duke.

On Wall Street:

3. Anthm

When I was an intern [on Wall Street], I met a gentleman who was my assigned mentor. Someone I built a relationship with, he helped me, he schooled me on the game. He really helped me get the full-time gig. So when I came back, we built a relationship. So after my first year [working], I was like, “Yo, I think that I’m gonna pursue music.” Now mind you, I wanted to do this right after school. I wanted to pursue music, but at the time my mom had been unemployed my whole senior year. [Wall Street] was an opportunity—they gave a signing bonus, an opportunity for me to make an immediate impact. I was like, “You know what? If I really love music, I’ma still do it in addition to working.”

First year, I didn’t do shit [with music]. But it wasn’t even like, “Aw man, I really want to go to the studio, I’m too tired.” Nah, I came here [to New York], I got caught up. Spending, having fun—I just rewarded myself. I felt like, I work hard during the day, client entertainment or whatever then go see my friends, and you know what? Being able to work, my mom doesn’t have a job, being able to send money home—and also making three times more money than my mom. It’s crazy; it’s a culture shock, each stage.

On The 2008 Financial Crisis:

4. Anthm

The crisis started happening, but it didn’t affect me. I wasn’t making like millions, so it’s not like I’m going from X million to this million or getting slashed a couple hundred grand off my bonus. So it wasn’t really affecting people just starting out. But I saw people that had been in the game for so long just get blown out. And once you took money away, the happiness [was gone]. So it really allowed me to reflect. In hindsight, that type of stressful environment helped me to understand I had to be true to what I really wanted to do.

But the thing is, I was enjoying my time. I liked the intensity, I liked how intense it was—trading is a phenomenal experience. But after the first year I was like, “Yo.” And if I had to list reasons, [the financial crisis] wasn’t it. There was a moment I saw the XXL Freshmen cover in 2009.

On The 2009 XXL Freshmen Cover:

5. Anthm

I’m at work, looking at NahRight. And I just started seeing the faces of hip-hop evolve. When Kanye came out I was like, “Maybe I could be like him,” but he knew Jay and everybody. But then Lupe came out. I was like, “Oh shit.” I always label it the honesty era. Basically, you can be who the fuck you are and be viable. But still, I was coming from Wall Street. When I saw the XXL cover, and it’s crazy because I was watching Asher come up at that time. He was living with my boy who played ball at Duke. Not Luol, my other friend. So I heard of Asher when he had his EP—early ‘06…He was living with my boy and I was like, “Aw man, as soon as I leave [school] I should just go move in with my homie and focus [on music].” But I ended up going to New York to focus on work.

I went to my mom’s, I flew back home—I think it was either Thanksgiving or Christmas, one of the holidays—and I had checked the cover. I said, “Yo, I want to be on this. I really want to be on this.” And that was around the time I was telling my mentor, “Yo, I think after next year, I’m going to wait for my next bonus and then I’m out.” He’s like, “What do you mean? Let me hear your music?” I was like, “I ain’t got none.” He was, “Yo, you’re an asshole.”

On His Mentor, DG:

6. Anthm

[My mentor] was like, “If you had music or you put something together and it’s good, maybe I can have some contacts, just put you in the right place.” Anyways, he helped me out, got me some studio time, financed a little. We made a little demo, recorded a couple tracks. I remember I sent him this track; I had freestyled over Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear.” The thing was, he didn’t ask me to send him a song with a hook and a bridge and stuff. I was just rapping. He was like, “Woah. Yo, I can’t front.” At first he was just trying to look out, like shepherd me. But we just started working together and I started developing as an artist. And I owe my artistic development to him. The same way you would never look at me on Wall Street like, “He can rap?” No one would ever look at him like—why is he qualified [to develop an artist]?

His name’s DG. He’s from L.A., South Central. He epitomizes self-made man. He came from nothing, made his way, got a full ride, and he worked in finance. And he started the independent label I’m signed to. He is 100% responsible—he made me. He deconstructed my understanding of hip-hop. ‘Cause at that time, I imagine if I had a manager my age, maybe I would have been on some auto-tune shit. Maybe I just would have been with the times. What he saw in me was that you couldn’t teach lyricism. But you need to grow as an artist. I sound nothing like I did then, but what you could hear then is there were bars. But don’t nobody want to hear bars. So I really came from that school of MCing from the ‘90s.

On Becoming an Artist:

7. Anthm

I would spend all my time—weekends, weeknights—I was making as much music as I could get in; go in the studio and just take notes on them. It was just mad academic like, “Yo, we got to improve in this.” Trying to learn what made greats, great, you know? That’s what the past couple years have been.

When people hear me now, I get very favorable comments because people feel like it’s polished or the lyricism is strong, the content is strong, it’s not scattered. I just attribute that to the thought put into the growth. In this day and age, people want to push you to have a gimmick. Some people you can just look at one picture and you already know what the content is, what their angle is. For me, the approach is leading with the music, and that’s a very challenging thing to do. Because I feel like I can make a broad range of music and relate to like a wide audience, but you really have to prove yourself musically to do that. But in this day and age, the trade-off is, yeah [you need a gimmick], especially in the era where labels ran shit because they’re not going to just put you in front of an audience. They got to put posters up of you and people got to know who you are.

On Blu:

8. Anthm

I think he’s incredibly underrated. I remember when I heard his debut, Below the Heavens. I was like, “Yo, what is this?” Talking about that XXL Freshmen cover, I didn’t know who that West Coast rapper was. And then when I’m thinking about West Coast, I’m not really thinking about that type of MCing [he displayed].

When I transitioned into being an artist, we reached out to him because I hadn’t worked with any other artists. I had no features; everything was just focused on myself and just developing as a solo artist. So when it came to making Joy & Pain, I had a simple list. Like, it would be nice to get somebody I really respect. Top of the list I was like, “I want Blu.” I got connected to him because I went to college with someone who went to high school with his manager. I was like, “Yo, I want Blu to hear this record.” He was like, “Ah, if he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t like it.” I was like, “Look, I think it’s a good song. And that’s the only person I talked about [for a feature].” I wouldn’t have been offended—again, I’m not entitled. He has a catalog of music and I don’t.

He heard it, rocked with it, sent the feature back. Damn, he blessed me with that 16! I wasn’t hype as an artist; I was hype as a hip-hop listener. Because I felt like what I loved so much about that “Polaris” track is that song is a great representation of who I am as an artist. Why? It’s an eclectic sample, The James Vincent McMorrow. It reaches across an audience. I had that song getting posted in an indie blog space that’s not posting [hip-hop]. You can reach across and have diverse sounds without compromising MCing. It just takes artistic thinking outside of the box. So I was so excited about that record. It was an accomplishment for me.

I was going down to SXSW because we were invited by S.O.B.’s to be a part of that 30th anniversary. So, I wanted to premiere that song and I asked if he’d be down to come out. So he came out, and that was ill. Meka from 2DopeBoyz is spinning and I was like, “Yo, I got a guest.” And it was cool to see people recognize him.

So we talked down there [at SXSW], chopped it up and he was down to do a project—a little collaboration. So, he’s going to be working on the production and a couple features for me. To earn the respect as an MC of someone who’s more accomplished is great. The easiest way for me to sum up Blu is, in every sense of the word, he is a pure artist. I was just with him yesterday. He’s in the hotel room; he’s got some beats playing with a pad full of shit. When people describe certain painters or whatever, that’s what I think of him.

There are some people who just have ill fan bases that as an artist you just have to respect. His fan base, the people that came over and started fucking with me because I worked with him, I was like, “Yo, these fans are crazy—” Below the Heavens tattoos and shit. That’s incredible. Artists dream of that type of connection.

On His Rap Ambitions:

9. Anthm

I want to reach a high level, the mainstream. I’m definitely aiming for that. And I say that because people look at stardom or reaching a broad platform for different reasons. For me, I have conviction, that’s why I left a certain life for this and I believe. The reason why I want that stage is because I want that opportunity to connect. I think I’m going to be able to create that for myself by making music that resonates. I’ve got the lyricism there, so the people that are the core hip-hop protectionists of the culture, I can invite them to a broader sonic landscape. And then just reaching people in college, whether they’re attracted to the story about chasing the dream or whether they feel like the content is intelligent.

Vashtie made a comment about my music that I really appreciated. She was like, “It’s subtly intelligent.” I don’t strive to make music that you need to rewind four times. I look at Jay as the embodiment of how to distil wisdom down into like bites that people can understand. Why does the average American like Obama? Why do they marvel and think he’s so intelligent? If he wants, he could talk at a Harvard level and go over your head, but he’s able to distil it down.

For me, being in a position to make thoughtful music, enjoyable music, I want that platform to reach a wide audience. There’s such a misconception. People make it so all or nothing. Like, you either want to make good music and you’re really passionate about the music, or you have commercial aspirations. I have a range of things I’d like to accomplish in life, and being able to leverage your celebrity capital to make other opportunities—look at what Donald Glover is doing for himself. There is no conventional route in hip-hop anymore. There are other interests that I have that I know, provided I can reach a higher level, those opportunities are going to open.

On Tupac:

10. Anthm

I fell in love with hip-hop because of Pac. I grew up in a household where I wasn’t allowed to have rap music. It was strictly gospel music. My mom is conservative about that so I used to take my music from my uncle. First three albums I heard were Pac, Me Against the World, Big Mike, Somethin Serious, and Scarface, The Diary.

I loved Pac and I remember being so young when he died—My auntie was in tears, my uncle was like blown. I just remember I had his music, I was listening to it and I was like, “He’s gone?” I didn’t understand it. I’m not going to front like at that age I understood the complexities of the music, not at all. I grew into it, though. I had a connection. It’s a reflection of how his soul and passion just resonated; you just know you’re listening to a dude who really means it. But Pac is who really made me love hip-hop in a space where I couldn’t really consume all I wanted to.

On His Early Influences:

11. Anthm

As far as why I grabbed a rhyme book? It was because of Eminem’s Infinite EP and Slim Shady LP. When I heard this dude rapping, like the structure or whatever—when I first started making music, I sounded similar to that. When I was younger I didn’t have an appreciation for content. Not knocking his early content, I’m just saying that genre that people like to call “rappity rap,” it’s like lyrical stunting. Just listening to him and Royce trade back and forth, it’s like, “Wow.” And it’s like the science of rap, not the art side. I used to just grab a rhyme book and just start writing. I just wanted to be technically nice like that.

On Kanye and Andre:

12. Anthm

The two people that always come to my mind are Kanye and Andre 3000. I think those guys are artists, but they walk this line of making music that can be consumed by a lot of people. But they’ve travelled through sounds and they’ve done it very well. So those are the people I look to as the template for artistry.

If you know you want to be an iceberg with so much mass under the surface, you can’t show people all at once. But like the same dude who made “All Falls Down,” made “Stronger,” made “Love Lockdown.” I love that. And I felt like their policy is very similar to the policy we employ. If it doesn’t sound good, I’m not putting it out. We don’t experiment to experiment. Some people, “Oh, I’m going to do this because this is what the current vanguard is. I’m just going to experiment to experiment, just say I’m eclectic.” That’s the thing about art. It can never be forced. You can tell when it’s contrived. So I think the more work I put into being an artist, the more latitude I earn to experiment.

On 50 Cent:

13. Anthm

50 is my favorite mogul because of what he’s done in such a limited amount of time. His trajectory was like skyward. I still believe 50’s career is the last time it’s been done organically. Just taking over a fucking city without a machine. I think after 50, the best it’s been done is Wiz. In this Internet age, it had not been done, in my opinion, outside of Wiz.

It’s not like there’s that many moguls. A lot of the reasons why I respect Jay—like Jay’s intellectual curiosity or Jay’s ambitions have taken him further than you would expect if you looked at his formal experience. Dude’s a high school dropout. 50, I believe, there’s an added layer that people probably wouldn’t [see] just because of the image that he projects. If you’ve ever heard him in interviews? He’s really smart. Obviously finding opportunities like Vitamin Water and being able to make money quickly in the game. His rise was quick. And also being free from having to be musically relevant. He has other ventures, like the shit he’s doing in film. People don’t really understand it. He’s doing like 10-movie deals, it’s crazy [how] he’s pumping movies out.

And the latest thing with the Street King and his project The World Food Program where he’s creating this dual bottom line venture. It’s a capitalist venture; he’s competing with 5-hour Energy’s advertising. It is a business, but it creates good. And it’s a very tangible good. It’s something that’s publically stated and I think it’s cool [that] he basically leveraged his success with Vitamin Water. He was like, “Hey, they promoted a flavor for me. It’s a success, it blew up, and I benefited.” So this was kind of like a no-brainer for him. And he’s had so much success that people will pay him just to promote his shit and just to be able to participate.

He’s a global citizen. For me, I’m Ethiopian. So having an identity that extends—I mean, I was raised here and [identify] with hip-hop culture and the Black American experience, but also just a broader understanding and awareness as a global citizen. So, I really appreciate that because that’s daring, in a sense. Not that like he’s going to get shit for trying to feed people, but like, it’s crazy how Diddy came up on that Ciroc shit, that was a phenomenal opportunity. Jay’s come up in a million ways. But it says something to branch out somewhat out of normal convention of how to make your coin and think of a way that he can broaden his legacy. Because it’s usually very binary. Philanthropy and capitalism or commerce.