"I like to make music that I feel like it’s going to touch somebody," Sweat$ tells Billboard. "I got the streams and some money, but I didn’t do that shit for that, I did it because I want to touch people and I want them to listen to my shit and want to cry. I can’t wait to see that shit, like them being like 'Damn, this shit hit me.' That’s what it’s about."
Besides his masterful abilities in the booth, Sweat$'s grueling battle with Achalasia -- a rare disorder that makes it hard for food and liquid to pass through the stomach -- served as a catalyst in his decision to be a singer. Sweats refused to succumb to the disease and after three years, survived his bout, pushing him to pursue his dream of music with even more focus. "All this time, I’ve been chasing money, girls and material things. I still like those things but that’s not my fuel anymore," he says. "My fuel is helping my culture."
Billboard spoke to Sweat$ about his budding career as a R&B singer, his decision to become an artist, his debut project, Volume 1, the status of Volume 2 and his fight for survival.
Tell me what song or album made you fall in love with music?
That’s a great question. I’ll just give you a little history. I grew up in church all my life. Super, super Christian. No R&B, no rap, none of that shit. I ain’t really listen to different styles of music until I was like 17 or 18. I guess I would say it’s a mixture of things. Maroon 5 was one of them. Avril Lavigne was one. Kanye West was huge for me on the rap side. The first rap album I listened to was 50 Cent, then it was Kanye.
50 was on his gangster shit, and I’m from the hood, so naturally I was drawn to that. When you’re in the hood, everyone’s trying to be like a gangster and shit. My homies would be tryna do that shit, and it wasn’t cool to me, so when Kanye came out, it was a different vibe. He wasn’t trying to be hard or nothing, and he was talking about women, dressing fresh, you know what I mean?
Originally, you began as a songwriter. Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I don’t. Honestly man, my memory is very bad. That’s why I can’t write songs. I gotta get on the mic and say it right then. I can’t lie and say I remember, but I remember the experience, though. I remember that more clearly than the first time I hooked up with a chick. Music really was my first actual love. Since I was a kid, I played drums and always sang around the crib. I ain’t know I could sing. It was just in me to be like, loud.
Since you don’t necessarily write your lyrics down, hypothetically speaking, let’s say you’re coming from the gym and a melody just came into your head, would you record it on your phone?
Man, it gets lost [laughs].
You don’t even record it. You’re just like, “Fuck it.”
My brain is just going all day. I used to get upset, but now I don’t even get upset because I know I just got so many melodies and shit coming all day.
So you know it’s just going to come back to you anyway.
It’s going to come back, and at the end of the day, when I hit the studio and I’m with the proper people, it’s the energy. I know it’s trendy to say it’s a freestyle, but I really be making that shit up on the spot when I post freestyles. At my shows, I do this thing where I invite people up. I’ll be like, “Yo, come up on stage and tell me about your day. What do you wanna hear?” And I’ll make it up on the spot.
With you having such a crazy 2018, what song would you say you’d use to describe your 2018?
I’m like in this weird place, I’m not gonna lie. Everything I’ve always wanted, I’m starting to get. At the same time, I’m looking around and I see my people and everybody is not growing up at the same time. It’s kind of happy and sad at the same time. I don’t know what song could express that.
I was reading your interview with DJBooth and I read that your name came about with you rocking pink sweats in the studio and your engineer just started calling you that. What made you even want to rock pink sweats in the first place?
Honestly, I’d say Cam’ron. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to listen to a lot of types of music. But you see visuals, and when I seen Cam’ron and I seen the pink joint, I’m like, 'Damn, that’s fresh as shit.' Then, I was living in New York and I had just moved there. I was like, 'Fuck that shit, I wanna wear pink.' It was just the energy. I was bummin’ on top of that and I didn’t really care what I had on. I’d wear the same raggedy ass sweatpants all the time, and I’d just be in the studio.
Shout-out to Cam. So your wardrobe right now, everything is pink?
I’ll say everything is pink and purple leaning. Everything is in that same vein, where you have like the light purples. I don’t like to wear solid pink all the time so I like to switch it up. Right now, I have a very light purple hoodie, pink shorts because I’m in LA, pink socks and purple shoes. A nice little blend.
You brought up the fact that you spent time in New York. You’re from Philly and you spent some time in LA. Talk about each city and what they did for you as a man and as an artist.
Philly taught me how to navigate people. It’s a big city, but it’s small at the same time, especially if you’re in the music scene. Everybody knows everybody. It taught me how to navigate human beings. Coming from the church, ain’t nobody perfect, but you just feel sheltered. Philly is a hard city, man. A lot of shit is happening. I made a lot of good decisions and bad ones, but they were always the right ones at the time. It taught me how to be a man and stand on my own feet. You don’t have to be a follower. Easily, I could have ended up doing shit that my homies wound up doing. We had choices and some of us made the wrong ones. You lose your freedom and you lose your life. That’s what you’re surrounded by and you’re heavily influenced by that. Making it from there with the mentality that I had, I’ma always be me. I’ma stick to what I do and I’ma rock hard. I had a lot of hard times there so it just helped me as a man and be able to navigate people and obstacles.
In New York, it was like, 'Okay, welcome to the big league.' New York is way bigger than Philly and you have all these different boroughs and you see all the pride that people have being from New York. I felt a sense of community from New York even if I’m not from there. In Philly, we got that, but the city is so small and the hood ain’t that big in Philly. Brooklyn is huge so when you go there, you still feel that small vibe but it’s so fucking big. You feel that real sense of community.
I would say L.A. was the testing ground. All the shit that you learn -- you learned how to build relationships in New York and you learned from Philly how to be a man and stand on your own and not be a follower. I always say it’s like the dude at the basketball court on the block, and he’s like, 'Nah, man. I’ll bust Kobe’s ass.' And you tell him, 'Go try out for the league.' He’s like, 'Nah, I’m chillin’.' I feel like L.A. has become the spot where people are like, 'Go try out for the league.' You get in the circle, see the traction, and see if the coaches are paying attention to you. They’re like, 'Who’s that on that team over there?' L.A. helped me navigate being in a league. I feel like I wanna be Kobe in this shit and coming to L.A. is like coming to the NBA tryouts.
I know you worked with acts from different genres like Florida Georgia Line and Tierra Whack. How do you think working with different genres made you a better songwriter in contrast to some of your peers?
Honestly, it just gave me freedom. When I first started writing, I was writing raps. I always had other ideas and I felt limited. I’d make this dope song like some country shit or I’d produce some country shit, and nobody really gets that. Then, I’d just stop doing it for a while. So it made me feel more free. Creatively, I feel like Thanos [laughs]. That’s how I feel as far as being able to do all the genres and connect the dots. Growing up, I don’t have a bias in music, I just like music. I’m not leaning one way towards anything and I feel like people feel that in my music. It’s R&B but it doesn’t feel like all the R&B that’s on the radio right now.
That’s crazy you used to dabble in rap a little bit. Is that something you'd still consider messing around with even though you’re creating your lane and sound as an R&B artist?
I feel like topic-wise sometimes I do. I’m a singer and I like to mess around late nights sometimes with my manager and a couple friends and we’ll just be freestyling. But I’m not a rapper and I don’t feel like I got the energy to be a rapper. I can come up with some bars, but I feel like I’m in the D league. Why would I keep playing if I can’t be at the top?
I’ve spoken to a lot of songwriters and in our conversations, they’d talk about how they struggled in terms of being an artist and a songwriter. Talk about that tug of war you may have had with yourself and why you decided to go the artist route.
For me, I say this with the most humility, but I never had a dream to be an artist. Once I discovered writing songs, that’s all I ever really wanted to do. Coming from the hood, my mentality was different. It was like you don’t want everybody to know what’s happening in your life. I got some friends and I don’t even know their real name. You have like a secretive mentality. When I became an artist, I felt like it was the universe because I had a voice and something to sing. Some people want to become an artist because they think it’s cool or the money and the flashy things.
For me, I was looking at my community and the culture and the things that are out, and a lot of people judge the music. I don’t judge the music because I love that shit, but I felt like there wasn’t enough balance. Rap is dope, but that shouldn’t be the only thing that you listen to. I listen to that and I listen to this. Younger people especially, they just want to turn up, turn up, turn up. That shit ain’t real. You don’t got the kind of money they got and you don’t got access to those things they got. Why you gonna go fall out and spend all that money when that’s not you? Wait your turn ‘till you get there.
Also, the way people treat women. My mom was a singer. You just get to see things differently. I saw how men objectify and use women in the music industry. It’s not cool. I feel like right now is the time where people are speaking out against it. I’m not saying I’m perfect and I ain’t ever did anything, but I notice. Instead of complaining about it, since I have a voice, let me put that in my music. Who a person actually is, is in your music. I’m talking about love and the loss of love in my music. It’s real shit that people don’t really touch in a vulnerable way. Like, oh, it’s some cool shit, you hype, but how do you really feel?
As a writer, you go from room-to-room and you hear things that those artists don’t hear because they’re only working with their team. I could be in a room with 10 artists and they could all be saying the same thing while thinking that they’re being different. 'We gotta add this new flow to this song to make it urban and cooler.' Like, what?
I like to make music that I feel like it’s going to touch somebody. I got the streams and some money, but I didn’t do that shit for that, I did it because I want to touch people and I want them to listen to my shit and want to cry. I can’t wait to see that shit, like them being like 'Damn, this shit hit me.' That’s what it’s about. I can’t take the money with me, but I can leave an impression on somebody who can have a child and then play my music for their children and then leave an impression on them. Music is one way you can live forever, but if it’s quality though. I’m pretty sure there were people in Michael Jackson’s era that were making certain songs where they felt like, 'Yo, this is gonna kill ‘em right now.' But Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, them dudes made timeless shit. It ain’t ever going away.
I wanna jump into the tape now, Volume 1. I read in that same interview with DJ Booth that all of the records that you originally wrote were for artists and you called and took those records back. Can you talk about the sense of attachment you had to those records? Normally, for songwriters, I feel like it’s easy to let go of records they’ve previously written.
I’ll clarify that. It wasn’t written for other artists, but I was writing songs and I send them to my manager and he would be like, 'You want us to pitch them?' They would pitch them and they would start getting traction, but I hadn’t specifically written them for anyone. I wrote them, people started gravitating towards them, and then, I had to kind of pull the plug. I don’t know, it kind of pulled on my heartstrings. I never really had this long term dream of being an artist, so when it happened, I just kind of had to follow my gut.
I was like, 'Nah, nobody’s going to kill these joints with the conviction of me because this is me.' These particular songs, it’s me. It’s my story. I wanted to take a risk and bet on myself. People didn’t want to buy the whole EP, and I felt like it’s a body of work. I just knew what was going to happen. Somebody would say they want the song, then try to get some producer to make some corny ass beat over it. Nah, fuck that. I feel like we’re in an era where that’s all people do. It’s all about the beat. Nah, I’m about to prove you wrong and I’m ‘bout to do something with no beat. I’m a drummer so that’s what makes it even weirder. For me to not put drums on it, it is kind of strange. But I had a point to be made as far as songwriting and vocals. I’m not dissing nobody, but there’s a lot of artists who hid behind a beat. So when you strip everything back from a songwriting standpoint, every lyric and every melody hits you in a different way. At the end of the day, my job is done.
One of my favorite songs from the tape is “Drama.” You sing about chasing your dreams and having the support of your day ones. When you decided to pursue the artist route, who would you say gave you the most support in telling you to chase those dreams?
I would say my manager. When I came to him about it, he hadn’t even heard it. I was like, 'We need to pull all the songs.' He was like, 'Alright, well let’s pull all the songs.' It wasn’t like a 'let’s think about it.' It was just like, 'Let’s do it.' It means a lot to have someone on your team who’s 100 percent with whatever you’re trying to do. My manager was ready.
Your EP is under 15 minutes. Was that intentional?
Very intentional. I feel like music is like a history piece. There’s certain points in music history where you can look, like when jazz was super popular. Songs were like five minutes. Songs would go for 10 minutes. Progressively, with time, it changes. I feel like we’re in a time where I want to make quality in the format, if that makes sense. It’s a challenge because you want to do a bridge and you want to do that and do the extra shit, but I feel like it’s a timepiece.
Music from this period, I want them to play mine. It’ll be like, 'Why is is so short?' And they’ll be like, 'Well, little Johnny or whatever, at this time streaming was popular and people used to make songs shorter' and blah, blah, blah. It was a timepiece for me. It was a challenge to try fit into the format of streaming and still make something dope and make people want more. It was under 15 minutes but I feel like it hit so hard.That’s what you want to give people to make them crave Volume 2. And I know you’re going to ask, and yes that’s on the way.
How’s it looking?
It’s done. I finished it. I’m just trying to figure out the right timing. Literally when I dropped Volume 1, a couple days later people were like 'Where’s Volume 2?' I’m like, 'Damn, live with that shit.' I got Volume 2, but I don’t know if I want to let that thing off yet. People DM like, 'Ugh. I’m late to the party.' I’m like, 'It’s been six months. You’re early.' I want to let it breathe a little bit and let new people find it and have it passed around. Then, we’ll drop Volume 2, which is fire.
If you could pick one word to describe this chapter of your life, what word would that be and why?
Blessed. I finally got to start a new dream. Everything I ever wanted as a kid, I got. Now, I gotta start dreaming bigger. I feel blessed in that sense. Now, the things I wasn’t dreaming about, I’m in a position where I’m like what other boundaries can I push? I feel blessed that I’m in this position now where I have to start dreaming again. It’s a beautiful thing.
I’ma give you a nugget. The reason I started being an artist, I got sick. I had this rare disease called Achalasia. It affected my esophagus and I couldn’t keep my food down or anything. It was crazy as fuck. It’s like the strangest disease. It’s kind of light, but it’s kind of crazy. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t drink. It was for three years and it progressively got worse, but in the beginning, it was like every now and then I just got this weird feeling where I couldn’t swallow. By year three, I couldn’t keep nothing down, bro. After that, I thought I was going to die. If you could just imagine, you open a bottle of water and you take a sip, immediately you gotta run to the bathroom. Just for fucking water. I lost like 40 pounds in like three weeks. I’m a big dude. I finally got checked out and they told me I got this rare situation. I ended up getting that straightened out and I got surgery and everything.
After that, that’s what made me slow down and look at the world around me. All this time, I’ve been chasing money, girls and material things. I still like those things, but that’s not my fuel anymore. My fuel is helping my culture. The person I was before wasn’t this person as far as morals and everything. I was swayed to believing shit I was hearing in these songs, and I was a songwriter. I was swayed. Your interest becomes what you’re listening to. 'I’m trying to get this Benz.' That shit don’t fucking matter. It about changing people’s lives as far as music goes, and this shit goes deeper than you think. I grew up in church all my life. Why would I be having these kinds of desires? It’s because I started listening to these types of music all the time. Even when I would listen to certain R&B, it would be like, 'Fuck that bitch' or 'Fuck that hoe.' It’s like, damn, you don’t love nobody?
We all desire that love and that connection. I always tell people, the hardest dudes I know, n---a could be on the block doing whatever, but he’s scared to go home. He’s like, 'Damn, my girl gonna be buggin’.' Yeah, you care what she thinks ‘cause you’re in love my n---a and you don’t want her to leave. You’ll put in a song 'fuck these bitches' but that’s not how you’re living. You got a whole wife at the crib. You got two kids that you really love and take care of. I love rap, but I’m here to offer balance. You should have a balance, yin and yang, [with] whatever you do.