If his music is any indication, Cities Aviv might be hard to talk to. The Memphis-based rapper isn’t just lyrical, self-aware, and hyper-smart on the mic – he’s combative. In his most-recent releases – the full album Digital Lows and the “Coastin” single – he evaluates his own talent (“I’m not the best/but I’m coming for the next spot”) and takes aim at his competitors (“In a city full of fake Rick Rosses/I rock Cuban link chains with inverted crosses”). He’s good, he knows it, and he’s anxious to prove it.
But in person, Cities Aviv is laid-back, affable, self-deprecating, and generous in his praise for other artists. We talked for an hour about Memphis, New York, what people mean when they say “Memphis rap,” being bad at Twitter, and a lot more.
During our conversation, one thing became clear: Cities Aviv takes his music seriously, but not himself. Don’t let the t-shirt fool you: the guy’s having a blast.
Enjoy Another Cup of Coffee with Cities Aviv!
I saw you perform last week at the CMYK show. That was a really fun night.
Yeah, my friend Royal T played that. He’s sick as hell. I think he’s an awesome artist. A lot of nights we’ll lock ourselves in the studio and vibe out.
Let’s get some bio information down. Where’d you grow up?
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. Twenty-two years old. I went to Overton High. Went to Cordova one year. Senior year, actually. My parents moved. After that, I just moved back into the city and been running crazy ever since.
I had a band a few years ago with some friends, playing shitty hardcore. After that, it was “I guess I’ll pursue this hip hop thing.” But I didn’t want it just to be beats and rhymes. I hate that more than anything. To me, honestly, hip hop is boring as hell. When people just leave it at that – beats and rhymes – it’s really hollow. Or, the guys who rap about how lyrical they are. I don’t give a fuck. I can read the dictionary, too.
So, when I started, I never wanted to be thrown into that “emcee/rapper person” category. I wanted to make it a project, a music project.
I’ve noticed that lyrically. Your lyrics are smart, but accessible. What’s that old quote, “intelligence unites, cleverness divides”? I know a ton of singer/songwriters who try to be clever and alienate people.
Exactly. And then there are the people who…every song is them telling me they’re a great rapper. “I’m so lyrical, I’m such a great rapper.” If every song you’re telling me that, but you’re never showing me that, what is that? Why would I want to listen to that?
Who are the producers you’ve been working with? Is it the same guys every time?
I do some of the production. A lot of my friends do some production. Sometimes I’ll work with people over the internet, do some collaborating. But there are a few songs I do the beats on. I did the beat on “Die Young.” That was a pretty easy sample. I never want to take all the credit for the productions because the other people I work with put a ton of thought and effort and work into it.
Who did “Coastin‘”?
This guy named DECiPHA, I can’t even remember where he’s from. That was actually one of the first tracks I ever did. I was getting my stuff started, had a ton of stuff written. And I knew that I really wanted to do this one song where…I just came across this guy over the internet, and knew that I needed that beat. So I contacted him and hooked it up.
I saw that “Lisbon” demo you put up today. Just following your releases, the stuff you put on Tumblr, it seems like you’re pretty prolific.
If I’m putting something up, though, I want it to be for a reason. People throw the word “prolific” around for some artists who just put out a bunch of shit. That whole, “we’ve released fifteen different mixtapes with all the same songs” thing. Sometimes I hear “this person’s so prolific” and I think, “no, it’s just the ultimate rehash of stuff that’s already been done.” I try to put stuff when it’s time. I put the demo up this morning because I was just in that mood.
I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I don’t tour again until September, so I’ve just been writing a ton, putting up half-baked songs on YouTube, trying out new stuff. Creating.
Exactly. You just get in that mode sometimes, you want to be creative, and you want to put stuff out there.
You’re making another video soon, right?
It’s up in the air. I have a few videos I want to do. The guy who did the “Float On” video wants to do one for “Voyeurs.” That’s on the Digital Lows album. I’m on the fence about it. I don’t want to do a video that looks just like “Float On,” but I trust him and his vision. I totally want to do a “Coastin” video.
You just got back from some time in New York. How was that?
New York was the shit.
Was that your first time up there?
Nah, I think it was my fifth or sixth time up there. First time staying for a while. I was there for like a month and a half. Usually, I just go for a few days at a time–blow tons of money and then come back. I always come back with a stack of records.
We’d just played the Digital Lows release May 6 in Memphis, which was probably my favorite show ever. And it was cool to play that and just be like, “okay, I’m out. I’m going to rest.” But New York really isn’t the place you go to rest!
I was about to say… but it’s a good change of pace from Memphis.
Right, it’s a good place to get away. It’s a change.
I love my time in both because they’re so different. I get something different out of each place when I’m there.
Where’d you live in New York?
East Village. Second Ave and 6th Street.
That’s sick, that’s sick as hell. That’s an awesome neighborhood. Great record stores around there. A place called Big City Records. They specialize in all these rare funk and soul records. It’s going to come across like I’m some vinyl expert – I don’t know shit.
Were you performing in New York?
I wasn’t performing at all, just hanging out. The dopest show I saw up there was this band called Light Asylum. They flipped my wig. When I see bands like that, that’s what makes me want to keep making music. Makes me want to go hide for like eight months and just write a bunch of new songs.
What made the May 6 show at the Hi-Tone your favorite that you’ve played?
Just that we did it. Memphis is full of these self-proclaimed promoters. We don’t need any of these people around. We’re the ones making the music, we can book the shows if we want to. I feel like it needs to go back to that direction where the artists are running everything.
Plus, the dudes at the Hi-Tone are sick as hell. That’s just my favorite place to play anyway. It was fun just to see that many people come out, and the only way they knew about it was because we were hustling our asses off. Flyers, write-ups, all sanctioned by us. No middle men.
(His phone rings.)
That’s funny, that’s Cameron [Mann, past Another Cup guest].
You know Cameron’s the one who told me about you. Several months ago.
That’s awesome! Cameron’s the shit. Sometimes I’ll just go to his office and kick it for like two hours, just talk shit.
When I moved back to Memphis last fall, I met him my first week back. He’s been great. Are you glad to be back home now?
I am glad to be back. It’s a weird feeling. I’ve just been kicking it with friends. I hadn’t seen my dad in a while, so I’ve been with him. Today’s actually the first day I’ve been kind of productive.
Besides the Hi-Tone, where else do you play in town?
I’ve done Escape Alley before. I’ve done the P&H before.
I’m wondering if there’s another whole group of venues for hip hop that I might not even know about.
One of the funniest shows I’ve ever played was at DBo’s on Elvis Presley Boulevard. That was crazy. It was a hip hop show. They “closed” at 10, and they moved all the chairs, and turntables came out, and some dude was spinning and shit. People were buying wings and going, “wait – dudes are rapping over there.”
I was probably there that night, eating. It’s interesting to me, the different modes of operating for a singer/songwriter versus a hip hop artist. For example, you mentioned mixtapes. That culture is totally alien to me.
The whole mixtape thing has gotten really redundant lately. I don’t want to hear someone rap over the same beats that fifty other dudes have rapped over. One of the best ones I’ve heard recently was an Odd Future mixtape called Radical. It was dope because it wasn’t done with the attitude of, “I’ll rap over a beat everyone likes, so they’ll have to listen to me.” It was, “hey, here are the beats we like, here’s the shit we listen to.”
I don’t know. Hip hop is weird. It’s a weird monster.
Listening to your songs, you talk about who you are as an artist, but you also talk about who you aren’t. You speak openly about types of rappers you don’t want to be like. Which is great, but it’s something singer/songwriters don’t do. I wish we did, actually. It’s more honest.
Yeah, I just want to be completely honest. And sometimes when I’m writing, I’ll look back and go, “I wrote that?” I feel like with a lot of rappers, there’s a lot of bickering going on: who’s better than who, who’s been around longer than who, etc. To me, none of that matters.
Not to say anyone should pay special attention to what I do. When I first started doing this, I thought, “no one’s going to care.” But I’m still going to do it.
I think that’s something that every artist feels. For me, it seems like the songs that end up being most popular are the ones that I only wrote for myself. I’m always surprised by what people relate to.
Dude, the same thing is happening to me! Just recently, a lot of people have been hitting me up, saying they like a certain track. And I don’t even listen to myself hardly. It’s weird listening to my voice. A few songs, here and there, but rarely will you catch me just bumping to my own album.
I was going to ask you about your Twitter description: “I hate your favorite rapper.” Which goes back to my point earlier. I’d love to adopt that (“I hate your favorite singer/songwriter”), but it would be taken very differently.
Oh yeah, people would probably freak out if you did.
But it reads more casual with you. It’s real, but it’s not so serious. Do you ever get any blowback when you draw lines in the sand like that publicly?
Never. Never gotten any blowblack. I’ve heard people talk out the side of their mouth and say something like, “we do real hip hop, we don’t rock skinny jeans.” But they never come to me with that. Probably because they know I just don’t care.
When people hear the phrase “Memphis rap,” there’s a stereotypical sound that comes to mind. But a Three-6 fan who finds you as another Memphis rapper is in for a surprise. How deliberate are you in terms of distancing yourself from that stereotype?
Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like the term “Memphis rap” has a negative connotation behind it. Because if it’s “Memphis rap,” it might not have an audience beyond Memphis. So, not being a typical “Memphis rapper” could be good. But then some people say “oh, it’s not typical Memphis rap,” then they might want to put it on some other pedestal.
I listen to old Three-6 Mafia. Just last week, I was listening to this old Memphis rap group called Crucifix. It’s sick as fuck. What’s funny now is that, in 2011, people are just catching on to the influence Memphis has had on rap.
When groups like Three-6 and 8ball & MJG came out, the Memphis sound was its own sound. Because Memphis is just a weird place in general. So, the music reflected that. It was these weird, demented, dark beats, telling these stories of riding through town.
The Three-6 stuff was so good because, at the time, it was outside of the box. The content, the production, the samplings, were all out of the box. But now a lot of guys just copycat.
It’s darker. That’s the biggest difference I’ve always heard. It’s just darker.
Oh yeah, it is. So, if someone hears my stuff, they might not think, “oh, this sounds like Memphis rap,” but I’m still going to rep Memphis. People say now, “you remember when this Three-6 came out?” If I ever go anywhere with this, I want people to say, “remember when that Cities Aviv shit came out?”
That’s how Cameron introduced your music to me. He said, if you’re tired of “stereotypical Memphis rap,” Cities Aviv and Skewby are doing something new.
If I told you I didn’t try to do something new, I’d be lying my ass off. I always want to push the boundaries.
Who’s influencing you right now? Or who were your biggest influences growing up?
To be honest, I have no idea. There’s just way too many. I could tell you who I’m listening to right now, though. There’s this dude Rimar. This dude’s pretty sick. He dropped a record called Higher Ground I’ve been bumping.
Also, Lil B. I kind of love seeing the backlash against him. I think what he’s doing in music right now is genius. He’s clowning everybody. People don’t understand: “why would he put an album out called I’m Gay?” Cause that’s fucking awesome, that’s why you do that.
There’s a lot of good music coming out right now. What else influences me? Joy Division. Deftones. I rarely listen to hip hop during the week. There’s stuff I love, for all-time: Big Pun, older Fat Joe, of course Wu Tang. All that stuff is dope. But I don’t dive into the tunnel of, “I’m going to listen to rap all day and write a song.” If you do that, none of your stuff comes out sounding like you.
Honestly, we don’t even have a publicist. All of the contact info just goes straight to my GMail. It was funny, because I put Digital Lows out May 6, and I was saying to myself, “this album’s been out for a minute, and I still haven’t seen anything about it.” And then two days later, the dude hits me up for the Pitchfork thing.
That’s great. I’m the same way–everything just goes to my personal email. I’m big on DIY.
That’s the best way to do it, man. Better believe I’m on the internet, throwing out messages to a million different people. I’ve sent messages to a ton of people who never write me back. Some do and are like, “this is awesome.” So, if some publicist is going to do that with your money, why don’t you just do it? Are you on Bandcamp?
Yeah, I try to keep a streamlined set of links that I frequent. I have a stupid-ass Twitter.
I don’t tweet in general. But I have my own guilty reasons for getting on there. I lurk and see what people have said about me. I feel awkward on there because I never do anything worth tweeting about. If I wrote about what I actually do all day, people would just delete me.
Exactly. My instinct is either to say something informative (like show details) or something entertaining (make a joke, post a picture). I read other artists’ feeds and it’s all, “I need coffee” or “walking the dog” or “Life is amazing!” For the life of me, I can’t be That Guy.
Right, right. “This is a great Jones soda!” I don’t want people to know what I’m doing every two seconds.
And Foursquare is my worst nightmare.
No. I’m not on that, I don’t even want to be on that. I don’t want people to know where I am.
That’s hell to me.
People being able to track you down? Fuck that.
Someone’s making a Memphis music mix. You get to add one song to the playlist. Name that song.
Sweet Pearl, “You Mean Everything To Me.” That is the shit. Lately I’ve been listening to a ton of soul music. That gets me hyped to make music.
I can hear the soul influence in “Coastin,” for sure.
Totally. I wanted it to flow out like a soul track.
You’ve got one meal left in Memphis. What is it?
Pho Hoa Binh. I would kill that.
Favorite bar, or most frequented bar?
The Hi-Tone’s my favorite bar. That P&H show a while back was really cool because everyone was so into it. Thirty people freaking out is better than 200 people going, “this is okay.”
Definitely. If the crowd likes a singer/songwriter, they stand still and get quiet. They “shh” friends. “The singer/songwriter is singing, shut up!” Which is nice, it’s polite. But sometimes you don’t want it to be so reverent–you want people to get up and have a good time, too. Dance if you wanna.
Exactly. I played a hip hop show and everyone was sitting down! Come on.
Ha, there you go. Thanks a lot, I’ll see you soon.
Yeah man, thanks.
The Another Cup playlist so far:
1) “Loose Diamond,” Jack-O & the Tennesssee Tearjerkers (Jeremy Stanfill’s pick)
2) “Happy” by Snowglobe (Cindy Cogbill’s pick)
3) “My Shadow,” by Jay Reatard (Cameron Mann’s pick)
4) “As Long,” by Reigning Sound (Will Odom’s pick)
5) To Be Determined Song off Andy Grooms’ solo record (Cory Branan’s pick)
6) “Even If It Takes a Lifetime,” Susan Marshall (Jeff Powell’s pick)
7) “You Mean Everything To Me,” Sweet Pearl (Cities Aviv’s pick)]