The Renaissance Man: Melo-X On 'CURATE,' Working With Beyoncé And Multimedia Artistry
"Yaaaoow!" On a balmy August afternoon, Melo-X is pedaling around his East Flatbush, Brooklyn neighborhood on a black-and-white Schwinn Drifter, greeting every fourth person that his bicycle approaches, then passes. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he's well-known in this Caribbean-American community — so well-known that even a "What's up?" is too formal. He's a proud resident of his 'hood, playing tour guide as we ride through its streets and rattling off bits of hip-hop trivia about the blocks he grew up on: "Spliff Starr [Busta Rhymes' longtime hype man] used to live around here," he recalls as we whiz past Church Avenue. "He was like our 'hood hero. We'd see him on the block on a Harley, then see him in videos next to Bus'." "Bobby Shmurda is from around here," he adds a few streets later.
When the impromptu tour is done, Melo (a.k.a. Sean Rhoden) parks his wheels in a shed behind his childhood home. He's in the early stages of renovating the house and transforming it into his own full-fledged creative space, but until that vision is realized, his main office is one flight up inside in a cozy makeshift studio. Melo works in here while his elders whip up traditional Jamaican dishes. His Auntie Blossom just plated ackee and saltfish with fried plantains, and the enticing aroma is still wafting up from the kitchen below.
Melo-X is an independent multimedia artist whose varied talents include, but are not limited to, producing, rapping, singing, DJing, film and photography — he even made the lemonade he's drinking. He has long been a well-known downtown New York City artist, but over the last year, his fame in art and music circles has grown dramatically. Credit that to his film on contemporary artist Hugo McCloud, McCloud In Process, and his electric performance at the Museum of Modern Art in the spring. Then there's that little thing he did with music's biggest couple — producing music for Beyoncé and Jay Z's On The Run tour last fall. Next on his to-do list is to release his CURATE EP, a set of groovy and thought-provoking songs, this fall. "The music is just one part of what I want to do," Melo-X says, suggesting that fans ought to expect elaborate events connecting to the project's audio. "I'm going to curate experiences involving it when the time is right." Between playing a few nearly completed songs — including "Baby Eye," which we're premiering below — Melo talked to NPR about CURATE, working with Queen Bey, and how he became so self-sufficient.
You're someone that's been releasing solid music for years now in various forms — remixes, raps, sung songs. What kept you motivated when you weren't receiving the kind of attention you wanted?
My family. They've seen me sacrifice and be in here forever instead of outside playing or every single night DJing and hosting. They've seen the grind of it all. They want me to get the Grammys and the MTV awards. I want to achieve those things for my family. For me, though, I want the notoriety, not the fame. I want respect. Twenty years from now, I hope people saw how I moved and say to a current creative, "Oh, you're on that Melo-X s***." Like, if you're doing everything, "you're on that Melo-X s***."
Who inspired you to start rapping and producing?
Big Pun, DMX and the Hot Boyz. When I started rapping, I was rapping like I was from New Orleans. My best friend that lived across the street from me was from the South. We'd be in his house and I'd pick up his family's slang. They used to have Mannie Fresh mixtapes, which had all the instrumentals from Hot Boyz stuff. I'd write all my raps to that. It was with that or DMX, because I loved [producer] Swizz Beatz.
First it was poetry, when I was a little kid. I have some in my yearbooks from elementary and junior-high school. And then it was rap. From rap, I wanted original beats. There were these older cats that made beats. They would always give me beats that I'd write to, and then I would hear the stuff they'd give to other people and be like, "Those beats are hot! You're not giving me the hot beats!" So I said, "F*** that shit, I'm going to make my own." So I taught myself how to make beats. Then, when it was time to make my first mixtape, I had to learn how to make a cover. OK, I went online and learned Photoshop and photography. I just wanted to create s*** on my own.
What's your goal as an artist?
I just want to survive off of my creations. That was always a goal. The first mixtape I put out was called Mustafa's Renaissance. I didn't know I was doing it at the time, but I was branding myself as the Renaissance man. People always used to call me that, so I looked it up and was like, "Oh, I am the Renaissance man." [Laughs.] The tape had my beats, raps, me singing on it, I did the cover art. In a video for it, I was solving a Rubik's Cube.
Did you ever feel like quitting when you weren't as successful?
Every artist has that moment when they're pursuing their dream when they think to themselves, "Yo, why am I doing this?" And then I'll go online and read a, "You changed my life with this song" comment and I'll think, "OK, there you go." But there's always that point where either you release something and it doesn't get as much traction as you thought it would or you're hustling and you still can't pay your phone bill that month. Or your mom tells you you need to help her with the bills. I always had those points. But I can say now, these last two years have been the ones where I've thought, "I've got it." I know why I'm doing it.
What's been your "I've made it" moment so far?
Beyoncé reaching out to me was a big moment. My mom bragged about me to her friends for the first time when that happened. Like, "You know he's working on the Beyoncé tour..." I was listening to her and thinking, "Oh, you're bragging on me now? You're telling your friends? Okay! You're proud of me? All right!" It used to be, "Him not help me wit' no bills! Him not make no money, talkin' 'bout him DJ!" I'm like, "Oh my God." Now she comes to my exhibits and shows. Now she knows this is going somewhere.
With the YONCE-X project, I didn't have any a cappellas. I just sampled it. I filtered out the bass. I did tricks to the vocals. I just took it and sampled her s*** like I was making beats for myself. I loved the original, but I could still dismantle it, disrespect it and take it somewhere else.
Did you get the Beyoncé album on that unexpected night it came out?
I bought the album the night it came out, and within a week, I had the whole project done. Yeah, then I did a video for "Drunk In Love," and that's what made her reach out to me to do work on the tour. Kwasi [Fordjour, Associate Art Director at Beyonce's Parkwood Entertainment] put her on to the video, and she kept me in mind. Months later, I got that call to work on the tour. That experience was crazy. Just being around her and her team, I saw that on that level, it doesn't get any easier. It's not easier when you're famous. It's, "You're famous and it's crunch time."
What's your regular process when you remix an artist's songs? Typically, your new mixes are a bit darker in tone.
I like to hang out with artists before I work with them, just so I can catch their vibe. See how they react to drinking, or my two hood-ass friends from down the block. See how they react to walking down Church Avenue. And then when I finally do their music, I try to attack it like a whole new song. And in some cases, if it's a popular song, I'll try not to listen to it for a while. I'll find the a cappella and treat it like a new track. F*** it. I'll act like I'm in the studio with that person and I'm making something that has nothing to do with the original.
The reason most of my stuff sounds darker is because when I first learned the keys, I was playing a lot of Beethoven. Like "Moonlight Sonata." I just like those kinds of chords.
You just played "Baby Eye" from CURATE. It feels like a club song until your lyrics come in and things quickly get serious.
I wrote that song last year in L.A., around the time when the cop that killed Eric Garner was acquitted. I say in the song, "If 'Pac were alive / these dirty cops would die." That's harsh. If 'Pac was alive, he'd probably start a revolt. That's kind of how I see Kendrick [Lamar] now. I've seen kids protest and use chant lyrics to his song "Alright." I see the momentum he's building, and people are latching on to something that's feeding them.
"Baby Eye" feels like a happy song. The chorus is, "Baby, I want to see your body next to mine." You think we're in bed or something. But then I say, "Baby, I want to see you move your mind." I wrote it thinking about being together while revolting and having her by my side. I want to see her move the people and move souls. Then I say, "Laying here with my head on the pillow / The youth would be free with new music from Willow / Smith and Wesson / We're sitting here shooting the s***..." People think Willow [Smith, daughter of actors Will and Jada] is weird, but if you get to the core or what her or her brother Jaden are talking about, it's an amazing message. If we had more kids like that trying to think outside of the box, we'll be better years from now.
What separates this CURATE EP from your past work?
I hate when an artist promotes their album and they go, "This is the most illest s*** ever! I never have written like this!" And then a year later, that same artist goes, "Yo, that last album was shit compared to this album!" Come on, man. This project is just where I'm at now. I feel free.
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