This time last year, Sam Ahmed was just a Milwaukee kid with some verses and an overriding sense of apprehension. Fortunately, the 21-year-old soon shed his self-doubt and added some flesh and blood to his skeleton songs, creating WebsterX. As 2013 drew to a close, Ahmed released WebsterX’s encouraging debut album, Desperate Youth. The 16-song introduction (which appears on our year-end Best Albums list) spawned an array of live shows – with fellow rappers and indie bands alike – and quickly made this youngster one of the most exciting artists in Milwaukee’s rapidly growing hip-hop scene.
Before the inaugural WebsterX showings of 2014, Music Notes caught up with Ahmed to discuss his origin, highlights from his productive last 12 months, and examine the state of local hip-hop.
How did the project get started?
Around February, I was getting really into recording, and I was going back and forth on whether I wanted to release it to the public. One day, I felt OK with where it was going. I had three songs written and started going with the punches. By August, I got a November release date in my head, so I overshot that stupid hesitation. I didn’t know where it came from. I think it I didn’t know how I wanted to present myself. Over time, I just overcame that and said, “I just want to be me.”
I think the hesitation came from not being able to piece together a full song. Back in the day I used to just write verses over instrumentals – of any genre, not just hip-hop. Then it kind of came together.
With it being a new year, can you recap some of the highlights from WebsterX’s big first year? And what are some hopes for this year?
The whole process last year was the most exciting part. Basically building this skeleton of what I wanted the next couple years to be like, not just through making music, but living life as well. The biggest highlight in 2013 was doing shows. In January, my goal was having one show by the end of the year. Then all the sudden, it was this huge shower of six, seven, eight shows that had a really good vibe and atmosphere. Also, dropping a tape … which I thought I could never do – let alone 16 songs, was kind of impressive for me. There are too many highlights; it was just nuts. 2013 was definitely the craziest year of my entire life.
Not that I’m asking you to be the voice or representative of Milwaukee hip-hop or anything, but where is the local rap scene right now, and is there any opportunity for growth?
I think so. The thing with Milwaukee hip-hop is there’s a whole bunch of different sub-genres. With the way they all kind of come together, [growth] could happen, but nobody has made that full-on effort to bring unity. It really could happen for Milwaukee, but it’s really going to take that breakthrough person. There are a lot of people making really good moves, like Klassik, for instance. You can always tell if someone is doing it from a genuine standpoint. If Milwaukee can keep that genuine standpoint going, we’ll go somewhere for sure.
Do you think that maybe race also plays a part in how long it’s taken Milwaukee hip-hop to get to this point? Do you think the underlying segregation has a hand in it?
I was born in Milwaukee, raised in Milwaukee, but went to school in Wauwatosa. I’ve been very fortunate to have all different cultures around me.
We’re you exposed to any [byproducts of segregation] in your youth?
Hell yeah [laughs]. There was so much of that growing up. Now – and I don’t know if it’s because of music or changes in my own life – all the sudden, it kind of just went away. Up until I was 16 or 17, I wanted to just not be here. Then all the sudden, I kind of had this realization that this place is actually kind of great. There’s a lot of great things here. Especially moving to the East Side of Milwaukee – holy shit, man – that opens your mind up so much. You get to see how integrated this city actually can be. But racism and segregation is still very much alive in Milwaukee, as well as lots of other places.
Even though you recognize the warts and the issues, the love you have for the city shines through in your music. But what are your hopes for improvement in the city, and what role does music play in that, if any?
Milwaukee needs to branch out of its Milwaukee shell. Not a Milwaukee within Milwaukee kind of thing. Milwaukee needs to be brought forth to the nation. That’s going to be up to all the genres. As long as people keep working hard and people keep on doing interesting stuff in music, it’s going to happen.
It’s not just going to be on me. Man, I literally came onto the scene like six months ago. It’s very surreal for me to be doing what I’m doing now.
I think I’ve effectively avoided actually talking about any of your music so far in this music interview. If you had to describe WebsterX to somebody, how would you do that?
It’s experimental. When you present a piece of art, there are going to be a million different interpretations on it. The sounds on that tape, for me at least, come from many different places and my own influences. I grew up on psychedelic rock. I think I got my first A Tribe Called Quest CD from my sister in eighth grade. When I listened to A Tribe Called Quest, I was also listening to jazz, pop, Cat Stevens and Grateful Dead. All those influences make something experimental. That’s all I can describe it as.
WebsterX opens for Rusty Ps (with live band accompaniment by Fresh Cut Collective!) in a free show at Fire On Water, 10:30 p.m. Friday. On Saturday, he shares a bill with Dana Coppa, Speak Easy, Klassik, and Yo Dot at Mad Planet night. WebsterX opens that show, which begins at 9 p.m. and costs $7.