I knew Cantrell was different the moment we met. As I stepped out of the Atlanta heat into the relieving air-conditioned HBUC, I spotted Cantrell on the other end of the building bumping some music. The HBUC is the Historically Black University of Creatives. The team consists of Travis Cochran Cantrell’s manager and principal owner of H.B.U.C. media, Trent Brown, offensive tackle for the New England Patriots, Jamere Jackson, CFO of AutoZone and Caleb Seales, director and producer at Resolve Media Group and co-founder of the production company OPN SZN. Cantrell is the face of the HBUC, the first black owned arts incubator in Atlanta, GA. The space is set to include a media content room, a recording studio, professional training facility, a nutrition hub and car park; a space that can be utilised by multiple facets of the industry and community. The space was still in transition but I could see the groundwork they had laid and its potential. Cantrell dapped me up, dressed in an all black wardrobe and we instantly bonded over our love of music, speaking about some of our favourite artists, like Blxst.
Cantrell is young, but he already has an incredibly healthy resume. He’s worked with numerous talented artists, not to mention collaborating with artists such as Mick Jenkins, Rob Markman, 070 Phi and Deante’ Hitchcock. He’s been named one of Soundcloud’s artists to watch, landed himself a record deal with Nas’ label, Mass Appeal and been mentored by Offset of the Migos. When he decided to leave Mass Appeal, Cantrell knew what he had to do and hit the ground running.
I’ve spoken to and interviewed many different types of artists, but Cantrell was different. I was immediately impressed with how in tune he was with himself, and the world around him. He’s soft spoken but his words speak volumes, I could tell he really had a vision for his career trajectory as well as the HBUC. Hailing from Atlanta and the 229. Cantrell calls Albany, GA home, but Atlanta is the Hub; the mainline. He takes pride in where he’s from. To him the 229 means foundation and roots. Cantrell is ready to bring Atlanta and the state of Georgia together. When I asked him about what the HBUC and community means to him he said, “Who’s going to do anything without a community? Community is people. That’s the most important thing on this planet. Human interaction, general collaboration is community. I think what we’re doing is going to trail blaze a lot of things and spark a lot, even outside of the the facets of the industry that we take up.”
Cantrell recently dropped his EP ‘Beware The Sheep Clothing’. On the five song project, Cantrell reflects on what it means to be Black in America, self awareness and being “woke.” He reminds us on every track that he can hold his own and is a force to be reckoned with. VIPER spoke to Cantrell about foundation, what community means to him and his incredible music videos…
What does Atlanta mean to you? Is Atlanta more your home or do you call Albany home?
That’s a great question. Atlanta to me, being from a smaller city, it’s like the main line; it’s a hub for us. There’s a lot of small cities in Georgia. That’s why I call it the Main Line, because it’s necessary. The things that happen in Atlanta, they don’t happen anywhere else. I call it the Main Line, but Albany’s always home. Albany, Georgia the 229 that’s always going to be home.
What does the 229 mean to you and what does it represent?
Foundation, roots. We take pride in where we from, no matter where we go. I’ll tell you a quick story, I was in Panama City for Spring break. We’re in line to get in to the tiki bar. The way we’re speaking, these guys behind us were like, “Hey, where are you from?” We thought it was a whole different situation, you know? We say we’re from Albany but for what? Why are you asking? They were like “Oh, we heard you say bite. So that’s how we figured you were from the 229.” Those type of things you don’t get anywhere else, nobody else speaks that way. We take a lot of pride in where we’re from. I think it’s the start of everything for us.
Why did you choose to leave Mass Appeal?
Another good question. At the end of the day, it was more advantageous to leave. I was in a situation where I was kind of between a rock and a hard place. You know, I love the family oriented vibe there. Not just at the label, but the building as a whole. I was at a point in my contract, I’d already put out two projects and the next thing was a full length album. So things like making certain budget decisions on both sides kind of put me in a spot where if I was going to agree to stay, I was going to be agreeing to things that weren’t exactly healthy for me or my career for the foreseeable future. As far as, what I felt was next and what I knew they were going to feel like was next. It just wasn’t a smart decision, no matter how long I wanted to stay.
So we are here at the HBUC, How did you get involved with all this? This is something that’s very new to Atlanta and you’re collaborating with people from very different walks of life.
They call me the brain child. It was something I always wanted, a hub for creatives to empower, facilitate and even educate. That was a dream of mine, I just didn’t see it being like this. I didn’t see it being this big, this huge, you know what I mean? Doing things of this magnitude, I think that’s a testament to the partners that we have and how we came together, like you said, from different walks of life. I maybe saw production, maybe a marketing firm in here and maybe offices that we could use and also lease out or rent out. This man? I couldn’t of imagined this. So they call me the brainchild just for wanting the space and sparking an idea. It’s just testament to our partners as far as what we’re doing. I don’t know man, it’s huge, this is a huge deal. As you can see, I’m still soaking it in. I couldn’t have imagined this.
What does community mean to you?
Community is everything, community is Hip Hop. Rap is the genre to me, Hip Hop is the culture. Without community, there is no culture. Without community, there is no nothing. Because who is going to buy the things you sell it, you know what I mean? Like who’s going to buy what you’re selling? Who’s going to do anything without a community? Community is people. That’s the most important thing on this planet. Human interaction, general collaboration is community. I think what we’re doing is going to trail blaze a lot of things and spark a lot, even outside of the facets of the industry that we take up, I think it’s going to be huge. Atlanta is very big on community, that’s why they call it a small city mindset. It’s totally different from the things Atlanta do and the things that people from Atlanta do and embody. It’s like two different ends of the spectrum, Atlanta is all about community so I expect this to be well received and well fuelled.
What are your personal goals and plans for the HBUC?
Personal goals, it’s hard for me to think about myself. To not have to need anybody else for anything, not wanting to need other things and other people to survive. Don’t have to rely on anyone else. So for creatives, creating is like the bloodstream. We need it, we need to create as much as we need to breathe. Other aspects of life, the things that our other partners bring to the table, collaboration for them is that. Our partnership is that. There’s many different facets of it. For me one of the main things is having a central place to be, start, and serve. I’m big on service, I want to be able to serve from here too. I think those are my main things. Not needing anybody to survive and being able to serve. Serve all the people, serve the companies, other communities.
Congratulations on the release of ‘Beware The Sheep Clothing’. What does the title mean to you?
The title, ‘Beware The Sheep Clothing’ means two things to me. One, everything isn’t what it seems. And two, don’t become what you go through. It’s taking from a famous Bible verse, “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” To me that means two things; everything isn’t what is seems, but also don’t become what you call to/go through. When you think about it in context. that’s what the title means to me. Knowing that, I wanted to create the capsule of 2020 and everything that we went through from pandemic/quarantine to revolution, unifying of cultures again… I think we’re on the other side of that. Knowing that’s what I wanted to do and I wanted to capture that. The election was coming up, even with politicians we always think, this person may not be what they seem. Or catch this though, the pandemic in general, it comes with so much loss. But even when you look at loss in your life, it ain’t what it seems, it’s not what it is later, now. So losing someone you don’t want to lose, it feels horrible now. But what it does for you later on in your life, the lessons it teaches you, the memories you can look back on it makes you somebody. You learn from the pain. You don’t become what you go through and I think those two messages go together. When you don’t become when you go through, you’re a stronger person, you’re more fuller person, a more whole person hopefully. I think it just adds to the person that you are.
On ‘Hear Me Now’, you include a Denzel Washington quote, “Is the sheep preaching hate when he says I’m not going to let a wolf eat me anymore?”
Denzel Washington. It’s a powerful quote, I felt like it was perfect to use, not just for the whole sheep bit, but the message. A lot of the ideas sparked during a revolution. I mean, we’re always in revolution right? I just thought it was perfect because we were going through that. I think he was saying, is the sheep violent or is the wolf violent? When the sheep fights back, is he the violent one is the wolf the violent one?
Tell me about these music videos that you’ve been dropping reinterpreting history.
So it started when we were promoting my previous project, ‘So What Now’. We did recreation photos, some of them iconic, some like paparazzi photos. Going into this project, my manager and business partner, Travis Cochran, was like, “we should do it again that was a hit.” I was like, “you’re right, let’s do it.” This time we wanted to take a step further and take on different figures in black history, I think it steamrolled from there. Let’s take it a step further, let’s do it in the visuals. Each figure from the recreation photos we did will be represented and we’re going to explore different aspects of it. We may touch on who would this figure have been if this didn’t happen, would this person’s views have changed, this person was headed that way. So would he have tilted all the way over onto the other side of what he was initially believing? People should be allowed to evolve. I think that’s a silver lining in all the videos that we’re doing, people are allowed to be people and evolve. We just continuing in the storyline at the end of the day.
Of the of the people that you are portraying in these videos, whether it’s Denzel Washington, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, John Lewis; is there anyone that resonates with you the most?
That’s a great question. Out of the ones we recreated, I think my whole life I tried to be Martin but I was always more Malcolm as far as how they’re perceived. How their messages are perceived. I guess I’ll leave it at that, I don’t want to just pick one. People should know Martin and his outlook and his goals. I mean the end goal was always the same, but his outlook started to change a little bit too. Martin and Malcolm started shaking hands more, seeing eye to eye with each other. Malcolm’s ideology he started seeing what Martin was getting at, what he was doing and just started accepting each other, I guess is what I’m trying to say. At essence, I’m trying my hardest to be Martin, but I do think I’m more Malcolm. I try to take a little bit from everybody though.
You’ve come a long way since songs like ‘Keep Yapping’. How do you feel that you have grown or matured since then?
I think personally, dealing with the things I’ve been dealing with in my personal life, I feel like I’m becoming more of who I’m supposed to be and that’s the most important thing. I think musically, they probably have some parallels, really just getting time process. I’ve always been addicted to the process, obsessed with process. But really getting down to realising what my process is, is important. If you don’t have a system, what do you have to stand on? The system is a foundation. As a creative, having a system for yourself is important. People are more creative than they know, some people don’t look at what they do as creativity, but I feel like everyone needs that. Just honing in on my process and what it’s been like and just letting go, letting go and being more my full self. I’m growing into that person personally, but being able to display it and not be afraid to do it musically. Like I said earlier, I tried my whole life to be Martin when I knew I was more Malcom. Embodying that in my music too, being more confident, being more free. It’s liberating, liberating to decide to let go, just be your full self and really allow God to use me. Like God can’t use me if I’m trying to be somebody else or if I’m trying to be a lesser part of myself. There’s a part of me that God needs me to be and that’s my full self. I think that’s the biggest thing for me, becoming confident and comfortable being my full self and walking in that musically and personally.
What is your favorite thing about Issa Rae?
She’s amazing, I would say her mind or her smile. But that’s the first thing we go to how amazing she is or what she does and we go to the smile. I think that the fact that she doesn’t take herself too seriously, just being able to take note of that and be inspired by that. women are inspiring in general, especially Black women. But being able to take note from her and how she’s not afraid and not take herself too seriously, I think that’s huge. That’s a huge intangible. They’re killing it, just looking at how Black women and women in general are killing the industry as a whole. Music, film, there’s a lot of creative directors that are women right now that are murdering everything! They’re breaking the mould, man. Women are breaking the mould as they always do and it’s amazing to see.
I saw that Offset of the Migos mentored you for your song ‘Ice Cold Chilli’. What was your process behind that track?
I was trying to make sure I did my job, as far as just showing up, show and improving. I knew this was an opportunity to show anybody the growth musically and just letting go, being confident in my skills. I just wanted to show up and make sure that I did what I came to do. Especially when it came to the bars and just constructing the song.
How did it feel to be mentored by someone who is as big a figure as he is, especially in Atlanta?
It was amazing, but it was interesting. On the surface, we make so much different music but what I learned is our process is the same. Even down to overthinking. I would have never taken Offset as someone that overthinks. He’s so smart, not just in the sense of how we use the word, but in a creative space; he has a formula for everything. So when he finds himself overthinking, he has a foundation for it. He has a bag for when he’s overthinking and a process for it. I think that was the most interesting thing, to see that I ain’t crazy. He overthinks too and he has bars. So being able to be mentored by someone that I can relate to, but I can also learn from. He has bars but also has hits. Being able to master both and have a formula I learned a lot in that sit down. He didn’t even feel like he was going to be mentoring me, he was like, “man you got it, you just need more eyes [on you], you hard!” At the beginning we didn’t even really speak because he just was like shaking his head saying, “you hard.” He probably said it six times. He didn’t even feel like he was mentoring me, but I definitely picked up a lot of game and I definitely learned a whole lot from that experience. Shout out Genius and HP for that too.
Are there any artists, whether from Atlanta or just in general, that you are excited for?
Yeah a guy named Reggie, I got put on to him recently; amazing music. I’m a big fan of CS Armstrong, he’s from Houston, Texas, he’s referred to as Dr. Dre’s protege. We were talking about Blxst earlier, I’m excited about Blxst. Our people, I’m excited about OG 12, I’m excited about Alex, Alex is a Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter. OG 12, the same way. The term singer-songwriter Pharrell uses all the time, he has his term rapper-songwriter and I think that’s going to change the game too, when people catch up to what he wants to do. Those are the people that came to my mind first and foremost. Rapsody. I’ve been a fan of Rhapsody for the longest. She’s not new but i’m excited every time she drops something. There are so many things and so many people, a lot of creative directors that are women that I’m excited about too. I’m just excited to see so many women taking the helm and directing videos and doing their thing, it’s amazing.
I know you just dropped ‘Beware The Sheep Clothing’, but do you think you’ll come out with a full length album at some point this year?
Man, I’m honored and excited that people are actually bringing that up now, you know what I mean? I did three EPs essentially, it’s time for a project. I’m starting on it now. We’ve already started on it, I’ll say that. That’s the next phase musically, building a full length album. You know, how do we do it, building to that. It’s a moment and it’s a process. Every facet of the team, being locked in on that and just being present in that process, because it’s an amazing process and being able to do it here at HBUC, I’m excited by that.
What can we expect from Cantrell in 2021?
More visuals and more music, I’m always working on new music and creative directing more. Finally stepping out as a creative director publicly. I’ve been doing it behind the scenes for a while and just really working at the craft of it, so being able to step into full force this year, I’m excited about it.
Interview by Calvin Schneider