HXLT is the self-proclaimed king of DIY. Raised in Chicago, the rapper-turned-punk star (real name Nigel Holt) explored various career paths — B-boy, rhymer, clothing designer — thanks to a diverse group of friends and wide range of musical interests.
“I’ve lived a pretty insane life — I’ve lived several lives,” he recently told Billboard. “I was in the punk scene, I was in the hip-hop scene, I used to throw parties, I used to design [clothing]. I have the craziest backstory where you can look up anything from me 10 to 12 years ago and be like, ‘Yo, he been doing this.’ There’s no new image thing. I’ve been the punk rock dude for 15, 16 years. I couldn’t help it.”
Reared in a household listening to iconic acts like Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Prince and Wu-Tang Clan, HXLT (f.k.a. Hollywood Holt) blended his genre-hopping influences and turned to punk as an outlet. He was personally signed by Kanye West to the G.O.O.D. Music roster last year and has been manning his own rollout solo. Directing and producing the visuals for tracks like “Sick” and “Live to Death,” HXLT also got Kathleen Hanna — whom he calls “the triple OG of OGs” — on his album.
Below, he reflects on his Chi-town roots, his current situation with Kanye West’s label G.O.O.D. Music and his self-titled debut, which arrives today (Feb. 26).
What were you listening to when you were younger?
I was just very influenced by all music at a really young age. But where I’m from, the people around me, my social circle, I always liked all music or any of the different stuff like Daft Punk. I couldn’t bump Daft Punk in the hood, they weren’t hearing that. So I always listened to those things in those areas. When I was at home, I was listening to Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. When I’m out in the street, I’m bumping Pac, Onyx and DMX. I think it shows in my music because not only did I enjoy this music but I also am authentic in my joy of this music. It’s not like I’m liking this music because it’s cool. I can recite Big Pun lyrics word for word or I can name every single punk band that I love and sing all their songs and tell you the year it was made. I actually lived this and really enjoyed this regardless of any look or scene. It’s no gimmick with me.
When did you write your first rap?
I was 13 or 14, listening to Pete Rock and CL Smooth “T.R.O.Y.” and I just came up with this rap — “It’s me, the little NG, master of disaster, four foot three.”
What was growing up in Chicago like?
When I was coming up, me and my cousin [DJ/ producer] Mano started the whole diversity in the music scene in Chicago. I knew all the punk kids. I knew all the skate kids. I knew all the hip-hop kids. I used to live in a crazy party house on Diversey and Western and we had a six-foot half-pipe in the backyard. It was a three-story building — I lived on the top. We had this giant basement so I could throw a party and have dudes with 2-foot mohawks, dudes with triple XL white tees on and they chillin’ and talkin’ in the club. So a lot of clubs around Chicago would come to our house parties and be like, ‘Yo we want this in our club.’ We was like, ‘Aight, but you gotta let us pick the DJs, can’t be no dress code, can’t be no cover. There can’t be any of those wack things that make people not want to go to the club.’ It became a normal thing in the club scene in Chicago to have a diverse crowd because you would have diverse music and it would bring way more people than just a hip-hop club.
On one of your earlier projects These Are the Songs That Didn’t Make The Album But Are Still Cold As Hell So Shut The Fuck Up, you collaborated with Rockie Fresh. Do you guys still talk to this day?
Yeah, I’ve always helped the younger guys in Chicago come up. I would get [Rockie] set up with somebody in L.A. to go work on music or I’d get him booked on a show. If I thought you were dope, I wanted [your music] out because I thought there was so much whack stuff out so I would do anything in my power to help them out. Everybody should do that and hopefully they all pay it forward. I’ve never been one to be like, ‘Yeah, dawg, I put you on.’ Not saying that I put him on solely, but I definitely played a role in helping him get bigger. I get a lot of respect from the older crowd, the younger crowd because I’ve always just tried to be a solid guy. Rockie Fresh, Chance [The Rapper], Vic [Mensa], all of those dudes were the little homies coming up and now that they’re killing it, I’m just super proud.
Recall how you met Kanye West.
It was one of those right-place at the right-time situations. I’ve always known him — it wasn’t like I randomly met him. Coming from Chicago, Don C, GLC and Virgil were like the homies always around. I used to hold G.O.O.D. Music signs up for the street teams. Then I got myself signed as Hollywood Holt on the rap side. When I got myself crackin’, they took notice. Kanye posted my video on his blog back in the day which really helped a lot. So you know, I was in New York at some cool guy bar then I find out it’s a big deal afterward. I was actually hanging with the Madden brothers [Benjie and Joel of Good Charlotte] then Kanye walks in and was like, ‘Yo what up?’ So we just chattin’ and he’s like, ‘Yo, I’m about to go to the studio up the block. You guys want to come?’ So we go to the studio and he plays me [his joint album with Jay Z] Watch the Throne and I was like, ‘Fuck.’ And I told him that “N—as in Paris” is going to be the one. I was like, “Dude, that’s the song.”
He was like, ‘Yo, what have you been working on?’ Joe had just finished [Good Charlotte’s] record Cardiology, so everybody’s playing their records. I was like, ‘Oh, actually I’ve been working on this singing project.’ So I played [Kanye] the Amy Winehouse “Back to Black” cover that I did. He was like, ‘Yo, this is so dope.’ Just totally spazzed. That was the first time getting legit confirmation that the stuff I was making was dope.
Then he told me not to do nothing with the song. After that, I didn’t hear anything from him. I used to talk to Don C or Virgil all the time, and Don was like “Sit on that song, I think Kanye wants to do something with it.” This was like a span of five years or something. So somebody hit me like, ‘Yo, Kanye wants to cop that “Back to Black” joint from you.’ I was like, “Go ahead.” So he gets it and I don’t hear from it from another year or something but I just keep hearing things like it’s in the studio with Jay Z or gonna be on the Cruel Summer album. All of it was dope to me. Me and Mano were in L.A. and Mano was like, ‘Yo, Billboard said Beyonce to do “Back to Black” cover.’ And I was like, “Oh shit.” So I emailed Kanye like, “Yo, is Beyonce on the record?” And he was like, “Oh yeah, fam. I forgot to tell you.”
What has dealing with Pusha T as president of G.O.O.D. Music been like?
I don’t know. Nobody calls me. You know as much as I do. I don’t know if I’m not on their radar. I’m good. Like Pusha T is the realest — he’s super cool, super down. I know he’s gonna do incredible things for this label but I don’t get any calls from anybody, I guess it’s not like they need to call me about anything. I’m kinda solo out here.
How did you land a release date for your album?
We ran up in the Def Jam building like, ‘We should put the album out this day.’ Like I’m very, very DIY like that. You can’t really stop me but you don’t really want to stop me because I don’t do anything that will hinder you. If I’m saying, hey, I wanna put this album out and it doesn’t cost you anything to put the album out and I got all the videos, the timeline and everything set and all you gotta say is OK, I’m sure they are gonna give me my second album ASAP because I’m already making the album and they haven’t given me my bread for the second album deal. I just can’t stop making things. G.O.O.D. Music is interesting but it works. I love it because nobody bothers me.
How did you get punk icon Kathleen Hanna on your album?
I didn’t want anybody on my album at all then I made the “Together” record and then I was like, ‘I need somebody to body this. Ooh, Kathleen Hanna is the triple OG of OGs. Let’s just try it.’ And my manager just hit her up and she was the coolest. She loved it. We got an email the same day [from her team that read] ‘Yeah, this is amazing. I’m totally down.’ Two days later, she sends the track back done already. Then didn’t even charge me nothing. She just liked the record and wanted to be a part of it. I just split the song with her 50/50. I had that much respect for her.
What are you hoping new fans will take away from your music?
Just that they really like it. All I want to do is make great music that is genuine to them. I want to make music that they can really believe in and I want to put on the best live show ever. And I do. No one can step to my live shows. When I step to the stage, you know you are going to be entertained.