The New Orleans rapper has been to the Planet of the Apes. Now he's working out his musical life here.
Rapper Baron Ahmon had a very New Orleans experience shortly after he moved here. He relocated from his native Mobile, Alabama in 2012 as a film student eager to be a part of the Hollywood South scene. At first, New Orleans opened up for him as it does sometimes and he got all the acting work he could handle, but when the Louisiana legislature restructured the state’s tax credits program to make it less lucrative, the city turned cold. The industry that came to town like a circus folded its tents and took off for Atlanta, and now Ahmon has three or so jobs on the go at any point where he once had 30.
His greatest adventure came while working on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where he parlayed a gig as a background extra into three months of work. “I moved from a background extra to a stand-in position,” he says. “They had 300 people for three months, then they didn’t need all those people so they moved me to a smaller group of 16 or so people who were the only background extras on set. I was a background ape so I got to do ape stuff.”
That kind of low-drama pragmatism shows in other parts of creative life. His lightened film load left him with time on his hands, which Ahmon—born LeBaron Thornton—used to dig deeper his music. He’ll perform Friday at Three Keys in the Ace Hotel as part of its Dilla Day celebration—a nationwide tribute the hip-hop producer J. Dilla—along with EF Cuttin, Slangston Hughes, Nesby Phips, and more. Then on Saturday at The Hut Studios he’ll perform as part of Slangston Hughes’ Uniquity with Mad Love, THP, Infinite I and Herus. Ahmon has a small studio in the back of a Seventh Ward warehouse someone partitioned off like a plywood Habitrail to create a suite of offices for creative types on a budget. His studio houses his computer, a couch, and a closet-like enclosure to perform in. Nothing opulent, but it’s a space that invites you to zero in on a project without the brightening and fading sunlight to cue you as to the passing of time. It’s in this space that Ahmon recorded his second album, Oh The Places You’ll Go. The title references the children’s book written by Dr. Seuss in 1990, but the album’s not kids’ stuff. Instead, it’s the work of a young man processing his world through the narrative framework of a trip to space.
“It’s about moving forward in your life,” Ahmon says. He conceived of the album with a friend from Mobile who moved to New York City at the same time that Ahmon came to New Orleans, and the verses spoke directly to them: Once you start this, this is what you need to remember. “It’s a good manuscript for young black boys who don’t have nobody to tell them that things like that,” he says. “We were essentially talking to ourselves.” The album also includes space travel-themed skits because he wanted to lighten the load. “It’s wordy,” he says of the album. “I wanted people to know that we’re not that wordy in real life and kind of goofy.”
The title Oh The Places You’ll Go points the theme of journeys, and its one Ahmon is conscious of. He concedes that he had role models and people to tell him the things he needed to know, but he didn’t always notice them. His father had retired by the time Ahmon entered his teenage years, so at a time when he started to become conscious of ambition and drive, his father had already pursued his dreams. It wasn’t until Ahmon graduated from college and looked beyond himself that he noticed the example he was looking for in his brother, who set up and runs a studio in Seattle.
Shortly before the release of the album, Ahmon changed his stage name. He had performed as Baron Amato since high school, but he took the name “Amato” while in high school because it sounded cool. He changed to “Ahmon” in honor of one of his brothers who passed away 18 months ago. “I watched this guy on two separate occasions take a motor out of a car by himself, hitch it up on a scaffold he built, put the other one on a chain, put the other one in the same day on each occasion, then drive off in the car at night,” he says. “It’s that kind of shit I’m trying to live up to in my own craft and carry that with me as I move forward.”
Rapping was simply a thing Ahmon did when he was young, and some of his first raps featured him and his friends spitting about being X-Men. It wasn’t just fun though. He worked at it. He made a few labor-intensive pause tapes and figured out how to loop a one-minute sample on a Windows 98 computer then record his raps on the computer’s microphone. He released his first album, Au Natural, in 2015, and he considers it more of a collection of songs that he had rather than a coherent thought. When he talks about it, the thought utmost in his mind about it is that “it’s mixed terribly.” He taught himself everything he thought he needed to know to make it, then took the lessons he learned on Au Natural and applied them to Oh The Places You’ll Go.
“I mixed this project terribly about 150 times,” Ahmon says, but eventually he got close enough—the 80/20 point, he says. “Once you receive 80 percent satisfaction, stop bothering because you’re never going to reach 100 percent satisfaction.”
The rapper who motivated him to rap is CeeLo Green, and without stopping to remember, Ahmon breaks off a verse of “Big Ole World”:
I am internally evolving entirely
Extensive eclectic expression eloquently
Instantly innovative, Courageously creative
I'm driven, this God given gift it comes naturally to the native
Not a need for the dramatics or the systematic
Simplicities, strictly science and mathematics
And metaphors manifests masterpieces
“If you listen to his solo stuff, his introspection is unmatched and untouched,” Ahmon says. “It’s mind food rap. It’s something everybody can understand if you give it the time of day.”
Meaning is clearly important to Ahmon. His other icon is Marvin Gaye, who didn’t suffer from a lack of ambition, and when Ahmon moved to New Orleans, he quickly found his community at Word Connections—an open mic for actors, comedians, rappers and poets at The Juju Bag Cafe. “I was performing every weekend,” he says, and the quality and drive of those around him forced him to be creative and stay creative. “From what I can see, everybody’s focused on their end goal, and that keeps you sharp,” he says.
It’s tempting to think of Oh The Places You’ll Go as conscious rap, and its a label that has been dropped on him in the past. He recognizes its commercial value, but he doesn’t connect with the premise that “conscious” is a special type of rapper. You’re conscious. No, I’m a human being, he says.
It’s clearly something he’s thought about and questioned. If you’ve got a mic, shouldn’t you use it to make the world better? If others use their time on the mic frivolously, does that diminish what they do? Recently, he and the rapper Eugenius talked about Rae Sremmurd, Lil’ Yachty, and others whose music is more about the party and the good times than anything else. Some tsk at their lack of purpose, and Ahmon might have been one of them. He remembers Eugenius saying, I don’t expect a cat who’s 19 to tell me how to change the world, and that struck a chord. “He’s right. I’m 27 and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t know how to change the world.”