The indie rapper from New Orleans tried to be involved in every phase of "Floating While Dreaming."
[Updated] Pell doesn’t sound like a New Orleans rapper. His new album lives up to its title, Floating While Dreaming, with an ethereal defined by airy keyboard textures and spare, comparatively small drums and bass in the mix. He’d like to think his music would have been the same had he gone through his formative years in New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina forced his mom to leave the St. Roch neighborhood he grew up in when Pell was 13. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and attended Mississippi State University until he quit to pursue hip-hop full time. Now he lives in New Orleans East when he’s not on tour, but he’s not happy about it.
“It sucks because all my friends are Uptown,” he says. “I get gas once every couple of days.”
Wednesday, Pell returns to New Orleans to play a CD-release show at Gasa Gasa with Q Dot Davis and Slangston Hughes.
His interest in hip-hop started while Pell lived in New Orleans. He didn’t think of himself a rapper, and instead made beats on a Korg drum machine in emulation of Lupe Fiasco, Gym Class Heroes, Kanye and Pharrell. He played trombone in band, but he could more clearly envision a future in rap. “That’s what inspired me to start making music.”
While in high school, his parents helped him further his interest in beats when they bought him Logic Express, the simplified version of the Logic Pro music production software, and Pell used it to make beats for his friends. He didn’t rap himself at the time, though. “I always had a lot notes, poems, lyrics that I’d never put over tracks,” he says, but he did let his friends hear him, and they encouraged him. He finally cut a demo, but “there are only two left,” he says, and he sounds happy that they’re unlikely to be heard.
While at Mississippi State, Pell began to get serious about rapping and cut a mixtape, Calphonic, with his roommate Staccs producing. “It had more of a southern vibe,” he says with heavier, bass-heavy beats. “I floated over them the same way [that I do now].”
At the time, he also worked in a dollar store - the subject of the first single from Floating While Dreaming. It was a job he took to pay bills, and while he worked there, he learned what he didn’t want. “It taught me that I really didn’t want to work a job that I wasn’t passionate about,” Pell says. He quit the job by phone on the drive to Jackson for a show when the boss called to see if he was coming in. “I thought I’d told him,” Pell says. “I said I wasn’t coming in today or any other day.”
Pell continued to work with Staccs, though. He is just one of the producers on Floating While Dreaming, which has guest spots by P.J. Morton, Boldy James and Dent May, but the album has a very consistent, distinctive sound. “I come with a vision,” Pell says, who participated in the making of most of the beats for the album.
“I like to create from the base with whoever I’m producing with. A lot of the sessions, we had no beat already made. We made the beat there and the song there the same day. I like to have a lot of say in how it flows.” A session with Danish producers Tomas Barfod and Jeppe Kjellberg was scheduled to go three hours, but they ended up going into the night as “Eleven:11” from the album took shape from sound to words to vocals - far more than they planned to do that day.
Pell was always drawn to indie hip-hop, and he’s part of the generation that has used rap to talk about his life and his inner life, not a thug or tough guy life he hasn’t led.
“Not everybody who listens to rap is a tough guy,” he says. “With the Internet, a lot of guys who claim they’re tough have been exposed, people getting chain-snatched, foolishness like that. You’re making yourself vulnerable to people who want to attack you, who want to test you. If you’re a musician doing this full time, you don’t have time for people breathing down your neck. I couldn’t imagine that being fun.”
Updated May 28, 7:48 p.m.
The band name "Gym Class Heroes" has been corrected in the text.