Rapper PHOR’s name and face are most synonymous with VH1’s hit Black Ink Crew: Chicago–an entertaining documentation of the city’s storied 9Mag tattoo shop.
However, unknown to many, Phor’s artistry also lies within the realms of something that has long preceded his reputation as a tattoo artist. Equipped with a career in Hip-Hop that spans almost half of his life, the rising emcee has long put in the time and effort into an industry where the former and the latter are quickly making way for spur-of-the-moment artists.
While his career as an accomplished tattoo artist is well-documented in the series, Phor’s music career has managed to secure its place in front of the cameras recently, lending viewers a closer glimpse into the artist’s balance of both worlds.
Fresh off of the release of his Lightning Bug album in August of this year, Phor was able to sit down with us a short while ago as he opened up about that balance, his origins as an emcee, and the roles that tattooing and Chicago have both played in it all.
The Source: When was the first time you ever did anything musically?
PHOR: As far as anything, when I was in grammar school, I used to do plays as artists. At one point, I was Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong. I used to always be a performing type of dude, but just never had my own material.
I’ve always been a fan of music. Just the fact of how you can express yourself. So then, at probably14 or 15 I started trying to make my own, write music, and take it more serious. I formed a group in high school. We were 4 or 5 years strong. Then, I started doing my solo thing after the group broke up.
You first started writing when you were 14 or 15, when was the first time you got into the studio?
Right around that time. I was in the studio at about 15 years old for sure.
What was that like the first time, just standing up behind the mic?
What’s crazy is how people record now, recording at home, I was always introduced to a professional studio. That’s how I still do it because I don’t know that side yet. It has its pros and cons. I’ve learned that you can’t record with everybody. They’ve got to know your sound.
How influential has Chicago itself been in the way that you’ve come up with your sound?
Chicago definitely helps. It brings out the ambition, the drive, the story. The way our city is—it’s a hating city. It’s a city full of hopes and dreams, also. Looking at all of that, I have to take in the aspect of being able to turn the hate into the love, and put so much energy into what I’m doing so that it over powers. So, I won’t get shadowed in. No one wants to see you bigger than them.
Everyone wants to localize you. They want to keep you centered and reachable. The minute you try and do your own thing and go further, it’s, ‘Oh, you Hollywood’. It’s not that. You’re trying to build. I don’t make music just for Chicago. Just the environment, where I’m from, it just motivates me.
You’ve cited Nas, Jay-Z has you influences. How would you say that you’ve taken those influences, including other artists, and put that influence into the music?
I definitely grew up on Jay-Z and Nas. I’m glad that I got that air of music because now it’s a little watered down. By me being an artist right now I use both formulas. I pay attention to what’s going on now, and I always keep where I came from, what made me a fan of music.
Now, I don’t listen to too much rap right now. I’ve heard the hottest stuff and I’ve heard the weakest sh*t. Now, I know where I belong. I listen to music as a whole—it could be anything. I try to find different formulas from different genres of music. So, I can put them into mine. I’m trying to make music that’s more for the universe—for everybody. It’s not just one lane, you know what I mean? I don’t ever want to take away from any audience.
You’re an artist in more ways than one, clearly. So, in what ways would you say that being a tattoo artist and a Hip-Hop artist go hand in hand?
They definitely go hand in hand. I was rapping first. Tattooing came along a few years ago. But, I was afraid to mix the two because at one point it turned into, ‘The guy that does tattoos raps,’ when it was the other way around. But tattooing it brought to light what I’m doing. It brought the attention.
So, I had to kill two birds with one stone. But, I had stopped tattooing before because I didn’t have time for the music. I didn’t have time to write, none of that. So, I was really going through it. I moved away to New York to just get focused. Then, I moved back to figure out how to balance the two. I just needed some space to figure things out.
So, how exactly do you find that balance now?
The way it works is that I tattoo in the day, and I’m in the studio at night. I barely sleep. It’s a program that I go about. So, I’m just set to that routine now. In the day, I’m so busy. But, come midnight until about 4 or 5 in the morning that’s my time.
Now, tracing back to when you were making Lightning Bug, is there a different element or vibe that you picked up and surround yourself in now?
Definitely. It’s mentally. Before I used to write so much that I got tired of my sound because I knew what I was going to say already. So now, the formula is that I go in with a fresh beat. I don’t like hearing beats unless I’m in the studio. I go in there and I go with my first mind. I just vibe and surprise myself. I end becoming a fan of my own song because I don’t know what it’s going to come out to.
Do you think you could ever get tired of music at this point?
If I get tired of music, it wouldn’t be because of me. Music is my battery. That’s my way of getting things off my chest. That’s my drug right now. It’s the only thing that makes me happy. I remember one time, I had a free day. I had a good week of work and had enough money to go do whatever, and
I was just sitting there in deep thought trying to figure what do I want to do that makes me happy, and all I kept think about was the music. It ain’t about going nowhere, or doing anything. I just want to make music. It’s the energy it brings out of me. I’m super chill, but when the music gets around, it’s a different energy that comes up out of me.
At this point, what would you say is next?
I just dropped my album, I’m pushing it further. I have a lot of new music that I’m about to start dropping. In the meantime, I’m promoting Lightning Bug.
I’ve got some features coming up, some more shows. I just did A3C. I’ll be doing SXSW at the top of next year. I’m thinking about dropping a mixtape. I just thought about it yesterday.
What could sway that decision?
The culture of music. It’s always good having new music. I’m just seeing the response that I’m getting. They need more. I just kind of need to feed the streets.
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