When this cat Charles Vann stepped onto Detroit's rap scene last winter, newly dubbed as SelfSays, he arrived as a new face and a fresh voice. For some vet local emcees, DJs, promoters and hip-hop heads who've kept track of important and upcoming names and faces over the years, Vann's move to Detroit was inevitability — especially given Detroit's recent rap revival, with such acts as Black Milk, Guilty Simpson and Danny Brown breaking out of here. In other words, there was no better time to make the move — and Detroit welcomed SelfSays into the city with open arms. Funny thing is, though, during the last year, Vann's music hasn't received the most attention in Detroit or even Michigan but rather in London, England.
To dispel any rumors you may have heard about this much-talked-about rapper, no, Vann is not from London. (To confirm another: The man is seriously funny.) Vann's mother fulfilled a lifelong dream four years ago when she moved to England. Her roots however, like those of her son, can be traced back to our working-class state capital of Lansing. A few months ago, Vann flew out to London for the first time since his mother had made the move. What happened while he was there was one of those "chance of a lifetime" moments.
"You never know who's listening to your music," he explains. "And you never know who they might know or where they work or what they could be connected to."
Up until then, Vann had tracked his growing popularity in London via downloads on blog posts; soon thereafter, he began receiving countless e-mails from genuinely loyal hip-hop fans, and has only continued to get more over the last few years. One fan was a chap named Tom. Tom knew his good mate Alex would also dig the recently released SelfSays EP, Something Out of Nothing. Well, it turns out Alex did dig it — and it turns out Alex also works at Browns-wood Recordings, the record label of iconic British radio DJ Gilles Peterson. And it turned out that during what was originally planned as a visit to see Mom ended up with Vann visiting BBC Studios and making an appearance on the disc jockey's weekly show.
"The way I heard it, they were working in the [label] office one day and Alex had [the SelfSays track] 'Little Things' playing in the background. Gilles was like, 'Oh, who's this? This is kinda sweet.' Well, Alex told him a bit about me and that I was coming over soon.
"So I get to London and meet up with Tom and Alex, who asked, 'You want to go to the radio station?' I couldn't believe it! We get to BBC and Gilles is there doing his show. He quietly invites us in while a song is playing, fades the song out and softly leans into the mic: 'We got SelfSays in the studio — Detroit — oh, yeah!"
At that point, Vann says he pretty much "lost it." But a little later on in the show, as the now-comfortable rapper was lounging on the couch, watching Peterson pluck records to spin, he hears the intro to "Little Things."
"Alex told me that he didn't know it was going to happen. I definitely didn't think that was going to happen," Vann recalls. "I'm still tripping over that shit."
Even more hits to his website — and taps on the "click here to download" button — immediately followed. The opportunity wasn't lost on Vann.
"It's hard to explain to some people who don't follow music culture just how big that moment was. There's no American equivalent for Gilles Peterson."
Of course, it's a pivotal moment in any musician's career to be played on the radio — but Peterson's internationally aired show is, for many, the portal to Western urban music, from acid jazz to afrobeat, rap and R&B. So here was a kid who wrote his first raps in middle school — but didn't let anyone hear them — witnessing firsthand a song of his being played, quite literally, around the world.
Growing up in Lansing, Vann was not your typical hip-hop runt. "I was a nerdy kid — I did well in school," he recalls. "This whole rap thing is one of the only extroverted sides I have."
Becoming a rapper wasn't about trying to invent a hip alter ego, though: "I never wanted to be cool. I just wanted to not suck."
During those formative years, when the innocence of cartoons still has some sway on the soul, Vann was also being seduced by music he heard from his cousins and uncles as well as from the trendsetting video show, Yo! MTV Raps.
"Early on it was Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD and stuff like that. Later, it was Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep — super East Coast and super lyrical. If it wasn't super lyrical, I wasn't with it."
Yes, Vann had found exactly what it was he "didn't want to suck" doing. First, he took the name XCel, "but then I found out that there was a guy named Chief XL from the Bay Area group Blackalicious." So he changed it to MI-Self, an ode to his home state and his solitary nature, before sticking with SelfSays.
In Lansing, he found the music scene was just a party; its focus was on getting fucked-up, not cultivating music. "I wanted to be heard. I wanted to find any place I could rap, and in Lansing there weren't any," says Vann, who took off to Ann Arbor in the mid-2000s. "I saw Athletic Mic League [which spawned 14K, Buff 1 and Mayer Hawthorne] and OneBeLo doing some big things, so I thought I should head out to A2. It sounded cool, but it wasn't my time."
Although he didn't blossom, fame-wise, in Ann Arbor, he did succeed in beginning to build a rep for SelfSays. He won over crowds at open-mic nights and collaborated with some of the best rappers in the area, including work on Lawless Element's 2005 release, Soundvision: In Stereo, which features such rap royalty as J Dilla, Madlib, Melanie Rutherford, Phat Kat and Big Tone — all big-shots alongside a young upstart named SelfSays.
Though the allure of hip hop took the man from Lansing to Ann Arbor, Detroit's rich music community was only a fraction of his motive for a second move to the D. Musically, he already had some allies before moving here, including rapper-producer Nick Speed and the United States of Mind crew. Unemployed and surrounded by creative and musically inclined acquaintances, Vann made the decision to "give it a go more than ever."
But he discovered that that it's a city that's thick with rap cliques. It's a hard town for nomadic rappers that way. "At times, I felt very alone," he affirms. "I thought people weren't getting it and that the people who did get it weren't digging it. But I had to stop thinking about all that stuff and just make music. Once I took control and shed the bullshit, things started happening — fast. All of a sudden, I put a record and, all of a sudden, people were listening to it."
Discuss local music with Vann and you can see that he gets agitated, even frustrated, because there is so much Detroit-bred talent he wants to work with but so little time and money to make it happen. It's not just about rap music, either. Vann says he wants to collaborate with the city's indie music elite, including electro-pop sensation Deastro and deep groove melody makers Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. just as much as he does such pedigreed rap acts as Nick Speed, Black Milk, Danny Brown and ElzHi.
But turn the focus to what he could bring to the table, musically, and Vann's social insecurities flare with his defense mechanisms taking over. That is, turn the spotlight on Vann and he tries to downplay what rap music — clearly his life passion — means to him.
"I never wanted to be one of those dudes who are like, 'Yeah, man — watch the fuck out, son! I got my record coming out and you can't even comprehend how dope it is,'" he laughs. "I'm just not that guy. It's just rap. It's just rap."
Yeah, Charles. Keep trying to tell yourself that. You ain't foolin' no one!Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org