Work is play for rapper Hoodie Allen. If he’s not creating or performing music, he’s likely responding to messages from his loyal fanbase (the Hoodie Mob) on Facebook and Twitter — or on his personal cell phone.
Prior to hopping on the phone with Billboard, he took photos with the (60) fans already lined up outside San Francisco’s Fillmore for the evening’s sold-out performance (which would begin eight hours later). He’s hardly had time to hook his computer up to the Internet at venues or on his tour bus, but for Hoodie, the pressure of pushing music out is a privilege that makes him truly happy.
Currently on tour with Blackbear and SuperDuperKyle to support his latest LP Happy Camper, the 27-year-old dream chaser has been catching up for some time now. Happy Camper hit No. 1 on both the Rap Albums and Independent Albums charts, surpassing People Keep Talking’s No. 2 peak on Rap Albums. That last project included an Ed Sheeran collab and would be showcased when Hoodie opened for Wiz Khalifa and Fall Out Boy on the Boys of Zummer tour.
The humble hustler has been pursuing his passion since he was an Ivy student at Penn. A full-time gig at Google and simultaneous demand for his tracks resulted in a side hustle that came to the forefront when the fresh graduate moved back home to Long Island to make music full-time. While that “do-what-you-love” mentality resonates full force in Hoodie’s anthemic rhymes, his latest release reveals the anxiety-inducing side of taking leaps.
Hoodie circled up with Billboard to discuss Happy Camper, Macklemore and why his dedication to his growing fanbase (and vice versa) shows no sign of stopping.
What was your reaction to Happy Camper going No. 1 on the Rap and Independent Albums charts?
When I released it, I’d also released it for free on my website and on YouTube and SoundCloud as well, so I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of how many people would still buy it regardless of that. When I saw it peak at No. 2 on iTunes and [top] the Billboard charts, I was sort of like, “Oh, maybe we’ve got something here.”
James Corden shouted you out on Twitter. How did that feel?
He did! That’s my homie. I love James. He did a hosting thing on the Grammys last year and the walk-up music he used was “No Interruption.” I found out afterwards that that was his choice. I got in touch with him and from there it was mutual fanship-slash-friendship. I’m hoping we get to turn our Internet friendship into real-life friendship sometime soon.
What would you do if you ever got the chance to be on “Carpool Karaoke”?
[Laughs] I don’t think I’m quite at that Carpool Karaoke level yet. I think that’s reserved for the Justin Biebers of the world right now. I would love to be on the show. Maybe I’ll be the driver in the carpool! I’ll be their chauffeur.
Why is the record called Happy Camper?
I wanted to make something that was truly reflective of what was going on in my mind. The title is partially sarcastic because I’m not always a happy camper. We put on a smiling face to the world at all times, especially on social media. But the truth is, everyone goes through a variety of emotions. We just decide what we want to show. I wanted to make songs that were reflective of a variety of emotions, whether it’s being super excited about something — dream chasing, but also about the anxiety that comes with not knowing if your next step is the right one or if certain situations haven’t worked out in your life.
I was on my own headlining tour for People Keep Talking in December of 2014 and just tweeted out how cool would it be if I got a chance to go on tour with Fall Out Boy. I was like, “Screw it. I’m just gonna put this out there into the world,” and didn’t really expect anything. I was interested to see if the fans would think that that was something that was cool, and I guess it got enough of a fan reaction that the next day from Pete Wentz that was like “Let’s make this happen.” That set the wheels in motion. Before I knew it, I was actually being considered for this opening role for a Wiz Khalifa-Fall Out Boy tour that I didn’t even know existed at the time. These things get planned so far in advance! So the timing was actually really good and they ended up thinking that I was a good fit for the tour. That was such an amazing experience.
What’s with the bra jump rope thing at your live shows?
[Laughs] People were throwing bras enough onstage so that we were able to tie them all together and make a jump rope at the beginning of the show. My old tour manager was really good at tying them together quickly. It’s a pretty fun little thing, but I’m not trying to force it. I honestly think it’s a little creepy, especially when I don’t know the ages of the people throwing them. I’d rather put on a good show, and if it happens, it happens.
How did you come up with the idea for the “Are You Having Any Fun?” music video?
I just saw this video game-esque world. I was like, “OK, let’s take the most clichéd scenario where people are on their best behavior and insecure about what the other person would be thinking about them.” A first date was that perfect scenario. You’re like, “OK, how do I make this person have fun with me? I want them to have a good time.” So that’s where that concept came from. The director Jackson Adams and myself went back and forth on all these ideas. He’s such an incredible director. What was in my head would have never have been able to be what you see on YouTube.
Do you, in fact, have every Will Smith CD, as you say in the song?
I can’t lie. I don’t have the ones with DJ Jazzy Jeff. But we got to have all of them for the music video, and I kinda stole a few. My collection is way better now. [Laughs]
Who choreographed the dance you do at the end?
My friend Laura Quinn. She’s really dope. She does a lot of choreography and dancing for music videos and other things. She’s actually in a couple of the Fall Out Boy videos. I reached out to her and told her, “Hey, I envision this DDR break dancer thing in my video. Can you do something to help me not look so stupid?” She worked with me for six hours to make sure it looked good. When it came time for the video, it all worked out. Now I have to do it onstage, otherwise people get mad at me.
Tell me about working with Blackbear on “Surprise Party.”
I’ve been a fan of his for a while. He has a really great ear for melodies and a really unique, cool voice. We did a couple studio sessions, and “Surprise Party” was actually the one that came out of the first session. The writing process was cool, but some of the words that came out — I was like “I can’t say that! I’m not gonna say that.” [Laughs] “That’s not coming out of my mouth. Why don’t you sing it?” When he sings it, it sounds completely correct.
Do you remember the first rap you ever made?
I do. I was like 12 years old, and I made it with my friend Justin. He brought this like DJ beat system from Toys R Us or something — I don’t even know what it was. And we made a beat, and I made a rap. And it was so bad.
When did you realize you wanted to take pursuing music seriously?
I was a college student making music and putting stuff up on the Internet. It was obviously too small to really be considered more than a hobby, but it was definitely something that I was really passionate about. I did what a lot of college kids do and started looking for a job during my senior year. Companies come on campus and started recruiting. And early on in my senior year of college, I was asked to work at Google. The senioritis started kicking in like “I got a job! Doesn’t matter what I do now! I just can’t fail out!”
That created this awesome opportunity for me to really focus in on music with extra time, so I released “You Are Not a Robot,” which was a flip on Marina and the Diamonds‘ “I Am Not a Robot.” It was the first song that I got a million views on, and it started climbing and climbing. I was like “Oh crap. OK so this is great. Let me create a whole project inspired by this sound that we have here.”
I got that project out in the first month of me moving to California to work at Google. So I was at Google training, starting, working, but at the same time college offers to play small shows started coming in. I was trying to balance traveling to like Tennessee to play a show on Saturday and being back in San Francisco Monday morning for work. After about 6 or 7 months, it just seemed like I was stretching myself too thin, and I asked myself “Are you going to fully invest yourself in this thing that you’ve wanted to do since you were 13? Or are you going to take a more traditional route?” It was really an incredible opportunity to work at Google in the first place. It was a tough decision, but I knew within myself what I wanted to do. I moved back home and pursued music full time.
Your early music puts a lot of emphasis on dream chasing. What kept you going during that time?
It was sort of was like a test year for me. That’s how I saw it. I was like “OK, you have 12 months to this day to evaluate your decision. Make sure to make every day count. Go for it whole-heartedly.” That became the theme behind Leap Year. There were people in my life at the time that were like “Really? You’re doing that?” It’s funny. I’ll still get people that come up to me, like the random guy from high school who’s like “You still doing that music thing?” I’m like, “Yeah man! Still doing the music thing!”
What is your advice to people with a side hustle?
If that side hustle is what makes you do everything else, if it’s why you work so hard to get those two hours, a weekend, whatever it is to pursue it, then my advice is to out-work everybody around you so you can really make that side hustle your life. Because it’s very fulfilling once it happens.
You recently posted a pic of Bernie Sanders sporting the Happy Camper bandana. Is he your 2016 presidential pick?
I haven’t committed to what I’m doing in terms of the election, as I’m really starting to truly learn about the candidates. I feel a bond to Bernie cause I feel like he could be my great uncle at Passover. [Laughs] He seems to be the best human. I don’t know if I’d vote for him for president yet, but I do think he is the most decent person up there.
What do you think of Macklemore’s White Privilege II?
I’ve known Macklemore for a while. We did a lot of shows together at South By Southwest in 2011, and our paths have crossed a bunch since then. He’s always been super, super gracious to me. I admire what he’s created for himself. I honestly haven’t listened to White Privilege II, almost out of the fact that I’ve been asked about it a few times. [Laughs] No matter what side you fall on or whether you feel it’s his responsibility to talk about it, I think the fact that he can stir up conversations this country needs to have is important. If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t ask about it.
What do you think of the Grammy nominees for Best Rap Album?
Really early on when I was a sophomore or freshman at UPenn, I went to see Chester French. I was a big fan of everything they were doing, and I remember reaching out to D.A. Wallach over email. I wanted to share my music with him, and he actually wrote back to me and was very nice and clearly spent time to think about what he wanted to write back. I thought that that was really incredible, and it molded how I wanted to treat people once I got to the position he was in.
With every new year, every new project or milestone, people are like, “Well, you can’t respond forever.” I don’t subscribe to that mentality. There’s no reason for it to stop. I want to reward people for helping me get to this place and keeping me here. They’re why I can work as a musician.
Has that type of dedication presented challenges to you?
There are times when someone might be depressed or suicidal, and they’ll direct message me on Twitter about it. I’m not a professional, so that can put an enormous amount of weight on me. But what I’ve learned is that in a lot of these situations, people are looking for someone to show that they care. I feel like one of the things I always try to do is create a synergy — there are fans that can go to each other and talk about things in their life. That’s one of the things I love most about this fan base. They’ll travel all around the country and go to shows to meet each other. And yeah, they’re coming to my show, but it’s not just about me. They’ve built bonds with each other through my music. I know that exists in other places too, but for me, that’s one of the things that I’m most proud about.
Will you be making music while on the road, per us?
Yeah! I’m trying to keep very busy. I announced Happy Camper a week before I put it out, and it hit basically everyone that I was hoping to hit. It makes me want to shorten the album cycle process and just continue to release good bodies of music. I’m hoping to release another project this summer that I can start working on during this tour into early spring. That’s my plan. I’m very much in Happy Camper mode, and I’m so glad that it’s done really well. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that you can never make enough new music.