Rob Cave Jr. is a Brooklyn rapper and producer who, with his new mixtape The Sun Tape, has made one of my favorite pieces of music this year. A mushrooms-fueled bar-a-thon with a tight concept about the sun, it's mature without being preachy, grounded while still being interestingly destabilized, and equally well-executed musically and rapwise. A superlative slice of regular-person hip-hop during a time in my life when, for whatever reason, I'm gravitating toward that a lot.
While ostensibly a promo tool for his upcoming Knowledge of the Sun album, The Sun Tape easily stands on its own, 13 songs served as one 23-minute track. Rob breaks down the story of its creation on his bandcamp (and supplies all his sample sources), but basically, he thought of the sun concept, ate some mushrooms, and then created pretty much the whole mixtape in a 12 hour session. Songs were made of samples that Rob looped himself (every sampled song was explicitly sun-related) and raps were both written and freestyled.
We got on the horn for a cool hour and change to talk about The Sun Tape and Rob's unique experience making it. He's far from the first mushrooms-assisted hip-hop artist (I feel like Madlib is king of the shrooms), but maybe one of the first to damn near entirely craft a project in the span of one trip. We also talked about his early years growing up in the church in Brooklyn, then doing cliffhanger story raps in the high school lunch room that had everyone on the edges of their seats, and eventually cyphering with underground rap legends. We touched on the enduring greatness and influence of Redman. We talked about what exactly is a mixtape. We postulated the origin of how the marketer role in hip-hop has by and large supplanted that of the rapper. And we concluded by talking about the darkness that is surely coming as vampire record labels get handy with AI.
Then I had to get off the phone because frankly I was starving and needed and sandwich. If I had not required food so badly, truth be told, I could have talked to Rob for another hour or two. He actually reminded me of a friend of mine, Timmhotep Aku -- also a Brooklyn person, also smart and funny and knows a ton about rap. In fact it was Timm who put me onto The Sun Tape to begin with, which I mentioned at the start of the interview, which shall commence forthwith, lightly edited for clarity.
I got hip to you through the homie Timmhotep Aku, who actually does a drop on The Sun Tape right? How do you know him?
I got to know Timm through mutual friends in Brooklyn. I think I met him at a Mobb Deep show a long time ago. It was the day Ray Charles died. Actually I met him through the radio show, he had a radio show, he took over for Bobbito in Columbia. I guess early to mid aughts.
I notice that you’ve got Dallas Penn on there too, and you have a relationship with him going back a ways. You and him probably go back to the blog era? The Combat Jack era?
Definitely. Before that. Myspace. He was doing a lot of like, secret recipes at the bodega, things like that. I reached out to him, said keep doing what you’re doing, I’m a fan. He hit me back, and we’ve been cool since.
Did you ever have a problem jumping off the internet to real life?
I’m comfortable with it. I’ve always been comfortable with it, but my generation is the first generation to be doing stuff like that. Because I’d tell friends, yeah I’m going to meet this dude off the internet and they’d be like…okayyyy. It wasn’t as normal as it is now. But yeah, not a problem for me.
So let’s talk about The Sun Tape. The sun has been a theme for you for a while right? You have that song Sun God. What does the sun mean to you?
I was raised religious, but I’m not that religious anymore, but I still have a feeling that there’s more to life than what we see. I believe in a higher power. If you look back in human history, the first deities we worshipped was the sun and nature. We all feed off the sun, whether a blade of grass, or a person. Sun and water are universally necessary. So I use the sun as an avatar for god. It’s a good catch-all.
What religion did you grow up with?
I assume you went to church in Brooklyn growing up. Anything about that stick with you, aside from this idea of a higher power?
My mom’s side of the family was preachers, pastors, faith healers…that stuff was around me 24 hours a day. Deeply ingrained. So I try to find a way to translate that… Even though to me organized religion is…it’s a positive thing on an individual level, but there’s a saying, “The more people you have in a group, the less people are thinking.” That’s people listening to the preacher more than their own relationship with the higher power.
What about the relationship between rapping and preaching. Is there one?
Yeah, performing and communicating in a way people respond to. Growing up seeing preachers made me into a good MC. Feeding off the energy of a crowd, and influencing that. I can turn a bad show into a good show, by interacting with the crowd. I’m not just gonna stand there. I’m good at jokes, conversation, it’s more of a hang-out.
I feel like it got flipped in hip hop where it used to be, you started with shows, and then made a record. Now people make recorded songs and have never done a show.
Even further than that, I’ll say it started with me with cyphers. You’d stand in a circle, like 20 rappers, and you have to stand out. I could tell if the crowd was into me or not. And if they weren’t, what was I gonna do differently next time? Before I got on stage, I learned how to work the crowd.
Who did you use to cypher with, anyone I would know?
Oh yeah, I don’t know if you would know, but in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was Pumpkinhead, all the Brooklyn Academy guys, Hydra, Pack FM, Substantial, Vast Aire from Cannibal Ox, 215, those guys, Tonedeff, GMS, lower Manhattan late 90s…
That’s why you’re such a thorough rapper, probably, and why you’re never boring. One of my criteria for stuff to exist is, don’t be boring.
So, The Sun tape has a real tight concept. All the sample sources are sun-related songs. Was it hard to put the music together and get it all looped up?
It wasn’t hard. It was more difficult to narrow it down. When I used to do mixtapes back in the day, it was looping up stuff. And I had to remind myself to stick to that. I have remind myself when I’m making these mixtapes, I’m not making songs, I’m not making beats, I’m keeping it simple. On the mixtapes I’m not trying to hide any samples, I’m trying to loop it up fast, let the rhyme come to me fast.
Is looping strictly for mixtapes?
It depends on what the song is. As far as albums go, a lot of times I’ll find a bunch of different loops and stack em.
What you made as a mixtape is more together than most people’s albums. Do you have rules about what’s a mixtape?
It’s about how it feels to me. It’s less work, less people involved. Albums involve other producers, other MCs, I try to gather a community. For mixtapes it’s more me alone, and how it feels while I’m making it.
I love The Sun Tape, and it’s impressive you did it high on shrooms. Talk to me about that part.
It was the first time I did that. I take mushrooms once a year usually around my birthday, to commune with nature. I never did it to record though. This year, I bought a whole ounce. So I had a lot. I took some on my birthday, which was nice. Then I was gonna hang out with Timm one day, actually, and then I thought, actually I’m gonna stay home and work on this mixtape. So I was like alright, let’s get started. I had these extra mushrooms. So I just took them to see what happened. I’ve recorded on weed, alcohol, and that’s all I really do. I started at 5-6 in the afternoon, and next thing I knew it was 12 hours later and I was finished. I think you can hear it. At the beginning, the first few songs I already had the songs, already wrote the raps. And then I ran out of rhymes and had to make new ones. That was around the time the mushrooms started kicking in, getting wavy. So I’d freestyle, mess up, and then go back. Or rap one rhyme, then another, then stop and go back and add more. I was excited about it, finding a new way to record.
Sounds like it made time go at a different speed. What else did it do for you?
I was less analytical than I would be if I was sober. Recording on shrooms, I would think about what I wanted to say, then I would rap it, and sometimes how I recorded it was nothing like how I intended. But I left it. Think it, record it, move onto the next thing. I wasn’t thinking about it, I was feeling it out. If the flow wasn’t how I intended it, I don’t care, I was moving on. No second guessing, no analyzing. I never gave myself freedom to do that in the past.
Sounds like you gave yourself freedom to be in the moment. And sounds like you gave yourself an opportunity to get more into the orating of rapping, versus the writing.
Sometimes you need to sit with what’s hitting, and not force shit.
Listening back to your discography, I realized concepts are definitely part of your thing. I love "Iron Horse," for example. Where did that voice come from that says the subway stops?
It’s online. The voice that the subway actually uses. There’s a male and a female voice. The male voice is actually a person who's transgender. I just learned that. The immediate influence for that song was Slum Village “I Don’t Know,” how they used James Brown. I looked up if anyone had done that with the train voices, and nobody did it, so I did it as fast as I could. At first it was a very complicated, long and confusing story rap. So I kind of just abandoned it for a little while, then went back and listened to Slum Village. And I realized they were just having fun. So I pretty much just freestyled it, with a list of the trains in front of me. And then I swapped out the numbers of the train with the voice that I looked up online.
Yet again the universe was telling you to simplify.
What do you like about concepts and writing songs around topics rather than just flexing?
It’s more fun for me to write. And it’s simpler for me to write that way, with direction first. Barring out, even then, there’s only so much you can say before you repeat yourself and have to find a new way to do that. Which from some artists I love. It’s a balance. As an artist I like to write about concepts I haven’t done before. Like the sun. The album Knowledge of the Sun isn’t as one-to-one about the sun. But I thought because people know me, and listen to my music, and see that I have this album coming out called Knowledge of the Sun, then this mixtape is maybe more what they expect from me. Where’s the bars about the sun? I’m going to give the people that. Something to be said for rewarding the people who come for a certain reason.
Yes. And for me too, I had fun doing it. All the raps on Knowledge of the Sun are about something, self-esteem, story rap about a drug dealer, song about how to protect your positive energy…it’s not a lot of just barring out.
Maybe more spiritual.
Yeah. So I wanted to make something for people to hear me spit. And I kept it conceptual, too. I used to think when I first started rapping, the only time people wrote raps was story raps. Will Smith definitely wrote Parents Just Don’t Understand, but LL Cool J freestyled I’m Bad. That’s what I thought. So when I first started rapping, I didn’t write down anything but story raps. When I was in high school, I would write down story raps for the lunch time cypher. I would way until the period was about to end, so I was the last person, and I would leave a cliff hanger. If you want to finish the story, come back tomorrow. It would be stories like, Slick Rick, Will Smith, just funny type stuff. I had to chew my arm off because a lady was sleeping on my arm, and then they chased me down the street with my other arm.
Oh word, so it would be episodic like Redman’s “Sooperman Lover.”
Or like EPMD did that.
“Jane.” Yeah. Exactly. “Sooperman Lover” is what did it, actually, cuz that was when Dare Iz a Dark Side came out. “Sooperman Lover” was a very big influence. Good catch.
I love Redman. I grew up in Seattle and Brooklyn and Newark loomed so large to me as a rap fan.
Redman was big to me, because back then, I was trying to figure out what kind of rapper I was. What was my lane? I wasn’t a street dude, but I was street adjacent. My friends carried guns and sold drugs, but I wan’t that guy. I also wasn’t preachy. I didn’t think anything was wrong with that lifestyle. But I didn’t want to talk like that, and then see those guys, and they know I’m lying. When I heard Redman, he wasn’t robbing, shooting, he was a very street dude who was having fun. I was like, I don’t have to be violent, or criminal, or a super thug. I think Tribe was good at that, too. They weren’t like all the way KRS-One, or all the way DMX, but somewhere in the middle. Wu-Tang was big too. Method Man was chilling smoking weed, Ghost and Rae were super thugs, GZA could break down the universe, Deck was super smart, and all these guys were in the same group and it wasn’t weird. I don’t think that exists not. Like now, you have, say, Tyler the Creator, and then you have Lil Uzi Vert, it would be like having those guys in the same group or something. I would love to see stuff like that now. Common and Big Pun, they’re different people, rap about different things, but why can’t they rap together?
I feel like everything now, since Drake has been reigning, it’s been about marketing. Even fans are into talking about marketing. I feel like moreso than ever before. We’re in an era that’s hyper sensitive to marking and “what will people think” instead of being genuinely experimental.
I think it’s a late ‘90s thing. When people started caring about…like when people are sports fans, some people are really into the back office moves. The trades, the business. I don’t care. I want to watch the game. But some people that’s part of their enjoyment. I don’t care, though. I’m the type of person that would rather put it out than work it. It infuriates me when I see independent artists follow major label rules. They’re on a different thing. If you play basketball in the park, you’re not following NBA rules. You’re not calling three in the key. If we’re independent, whey are we following these rules? They have enough money to release an album, spend six months to let people know it’s coming, another six months to let people know it’s here. I’m just going to put it out, see what I can get together as far as listeners, and move on. If I did play by those rules it would be like a shackle, trying to compete with someone who’s in a different game.
The business behind the game. I’ve always been terrible about business, I don’t give a fuck about business.
Same here. You know sometimes you go to play ball, and one guy shows up in all the official gear, kneepads, goggles…and it’s like dude, it’s Sunday morning.
I’m getting older, and I try to optimistically stay up with young rap and not feel like “I know better,” but I will say the game is fucked up in a few ways. Like I hate when rappers go over their own vocals on stage, and I hate this fixation on marketing.
Rapping over your own vocals is the worst. And the marketing thing, getting people’s attention, that’s a specific talent some people have. But now, the artist is supposed to do that themselves. And that might not be your talent, as an artist. Knowing what people want, and knowing how to give people that at exactly the right time. But now the person whose talent is “reaching people” might be more successful than an actually good artist. Sales is a talent, but it’s not music. I don’t want to disparage people who sell records, someone who knows how to galvanize people to their cause, that counts for a lot. But that used to be a specific person’s job. Nowadays it’s easier to be an artist if you’re good at sales. When I was really young I worked for the Roots, for Okayplayer, doing their website. And their manager used to give me gems. And one of the biggest thing is, he saw I had an interest in being a rapper. I was still in high school cyphers. When I started hanging out with them, and had more interest in being a professional rapper, he was like, “Be careful. Right now it’s your passion. But once it becomes your job it will change your relationship to it. So don’t make it your job until you have to, or unless it make sense.” Kind of a don’t quit your day job thing. That stuck with me. And I’ve always had a day job, and actually always had a creative day job. So I didn’t need fulfillment from rapping, financially or creatively. On a positive side, I never went into the studio thinking about how I was gonna sell what I made. On the other end, a couple times I made songs that got popular and could have ridden them harder, maybe missed some opportunities.
Yeah I know I was hating on that business skill set, but I do recognize it as valid. And Dame Dash or Russell Simmons can be just as impactful in rap as artists.
I think Puffy changed a lot of things. Say you have a group of friends in the hood. When I first started rapping, I was in a school, 258 in Brooklyn, bad school. In the middle of going to your next class, classes would just fight. A rumble. Classmates had to have each other’s backs. Someone tried to give me a gun a first day of school. I’m like 12, 13 years old. Anyway, one day, a kid comes in and is like, we’re gonna start a rap group. Back then, one person, friend number one, he’s the rapper. Friend number two, he’s gonna be DJ for the rapper. Friend number three, he’s gonna be the photographer and do the logo. Friend number four, he’s gonna be the manager, organize shows. Now everyone wants to be the rapper. And now the marketer is more important. Now the marketer has taken over for the MC.
That shit sucks, but I hear you.
Like Puffy, originally he was like a Dame Dash at first, like my rapper is the shit. I’m trying to get him opportunities. Biggie is the shit. But when he became an artist, it’s like who cares if I’m nice? I don’t write rhymes, I write checks. And then you have a Jay-Z, who is as good a rapper as Biggie, and as good a business man as Puffy. That’s great for him. But now every artist thinks they need to be that. They feel like they need to be a great business man, instead of finding a great business man. Nobody these days is as interested in being as good at one thing, and using that to help others. You have the ability to do everything now. Before, certain skill sets came with…Puff could get into rooms Big couldn’t. If they had the same computer and same contacts, they wouldn’t need each other.
Puffy had a different computer.
Exactly! Puffy had a different computer. Different Rolodex. Big was a shy artist, he had to rap for people to notice him. But Puff would be like, this is my man, he’s the man! Now if you don’t have that skill set, you’re ass out. I try to avoid saying people’s names, because it’s not even their fault. It’s more people’s perceptions and how they act after that. Like Jay-Z not writing raps, and then a lot of other rappers try to not write down their raps, and they sound bad. It’s not Jay-Z’s fault, I don’t think. Because what Jay-Z was saying was that, he cares so much about writing rhymes, he wrote rhymes 24 hours a day and developed a skill to not have to write anymore. But what people hear is, I don’t write. He doesn’t write on paper, but he writes all the time. He cares so much. The perception became the opposite. I don’t care at all. So I’m not gonna prepare at all, I’m just gonna go into the booth and do whatever. That’s not what he was saying at all, that was how people perceived it. Also “I’m not a rapper, I’m a hustler.” You just rapped that! You’re a rapper. And also the rapper gets paid least and last, so if you’re rapping as a hustle, you’re not that good of a hustler. I’ve been in labels, working on the marketing side, and I know. Rappers get paid least and last. Everyone else gets paid first. In fact, labels barely ever care about rappers as a person. I’ve seen it like, once.
I’ll go further than you. I think it’s actually more profitable for a label to have an artist that dies while they’re signed, so the label can get that bump in streaming, and then position them like Weekend at Bernie’s and do whatever they want catalog wise: greatest hits, weird collabs that never happened, Christmas album, b-sides and bootlegs, demos… I don’t think people see the real extent of how much a hassle it is, on the label side, for the artist to be alive. Artists have creative, money-losing ideas, passions they feel the need to respond to rather than listen to business sense, performances they don’t want to do… They’re risky. They’re a liability, alive.
Yeah and they’re getting close to it, with the AI stuff. I’m talking about, the way they work now, the next phase of the 360 deal is they’ll own your likeness and your voice. Then once they can make you say anything, you’re not worth anything anymore. That’s happening now. Right now some kid is signing that deal. Put money in the face of a kid who grew up poor, he’s not gonna read the deal. They’ll explain it to you afterwards, to justify, why they are screwing you, some 19 year old kid. They know exactly what they’re doing. Now they don’t have to wait for you to record an album. They’ll do it with AI, on the computer. They don’t need you. Killing them off is the easiest thing to do, then they won’t be able to complain. I think it might’ve happened already, honestly. Especially a few years ago, Lil Peep, Mac Miller, every other week a rapper ODed or died. X. And then look, at some point a bunch of lost Mac Miller demos are gonna come out. But they’ll just be AI. New shit from dead rappers, it’s gonna happen. Next year there’s gonna be some new Lil Peep.