Era Hardaway is a twenty-seven year old rapper, producer, and entrepreneur continuing the honored lineage of innovative thinkers and musicians from Virginia. Following the release of the emcee’s latest EP, “Undeniable,” I had the opportunity to get better acquainted with Hardaway’s journey and vision.
Era and I met up at his studio in Norfolk, VA, where he develops the bulk of his material. As an artist who is always working, you always have something new and crazy sounding to play, and today I was the lucky guest. Displaying his range as a more than capable producer that’s laced countless other artists with beats, such as Young Crazy, he began to demonstrate a number of styles from trap and drill to cinematic soundscapes that belong in the next Final Fantasy.
How did you get into music, was there something else you wanted to do before that?
I learned the turntables early on, but it wasn’t something I really had my heart set on. Before the music shit, I really wanted to be a street ball player. My mom bought me a basketball, and I’d be in my room rolling the ball between my legs acting like I’m shaking defenders off. I had all the And1 mixtapes, even the joints where they went overseas. I used to always watch the marathons on ESPN. I started getting into other leagues that started up like YPA and a few others in the street ball community. So that’s what I wanted to be, then I decided I wanted to go to the NBA, but I was ass at basketball. I had handles but my shot was wack. I mean, now I’m alright but back then? Yeah, nah.
What got me into music at first was when I started DJing parties with my pops. This was probably like age 7 or 8; my pops would get a party and let me do half the set and keep half the bread. When I started doing that, I thought, ‘This might be it,’ because I started buying kicks and shit. But I still just wasn’t ready to step into rapping yet. One day when my dad was teaching me how to blend, I said, ‘Man, who is making these beats?’ When you listen to a beat without the lyrics, you just wonder how they put it together. So around the age of 13, I did my research and found out about Fruity Loops, and once I started making beats, I knew this is what I was going to do.
It kind of started from there. For Christmas, my dad bought me the little M Audio package with two small studio monitors and a dynamic mic with the desk stand. You could only do input or output on that M Audio interface; you couldn’t do both. It sucked, but I made it work. I stacked shoe boxes on top of each other in my closet, put my mic on top, and made a make-shift pop filter with a stocking cap—and that was my studio.
Would it be correct to say your parents were supportive of your creative exploration?
Yeah, they were. Both my dad and my mom, although [my] [mom] didn’t really understand it and still doesn’t to a degree. They were always supportive. My dad was one of those people who, no matter what I wanted to do, would support me even if he didn’t understand it. I know as I got older and more mature, they didn’t approve of some of what I was saying about gas, smoking weed, and pulling different girls. I know they don’t want to hear all of that, but this is what’s going on. I’m not capping on anything.
At first, my mom didn’t even know I was rapping. She knew I was DJing, and she didn’t really like that because she was worried about me getting caught up in the party scene. I’m actually glad my dad introduced it to me early on because now when I’m in the club, I don’t even want to be there unless I’m celebrating or I’m paid to be there. It’s old to me now.
I really started rapping in 2009, when I was 16. My mom didn’t know, even though her office was right next to my room. I’m cranking music, but she had her speakers as well, so don’t get me wrong…she was cranking in there too, but I know she can hear me through the walls because I can hear her. The funny thing is, she didn’t realize I rapped until I handed her my first mixtape, “Yeah I Rap.” I spent all my money making about 100 CDs to take to school to give out for free, and they were gone before the first period. People from the Burg hit me up to this day like, ‘Yo, I still got that CD.’ After that, I go home and hand the CD to my mom, and she says, ‘Oh, that’s what you’ve been doing locked inside your room all quiet for long periods of time.’ I was surprised when she said she couldn’t hear me there.
You’re self-taught as a musician, was your process always this DIY? If not, when did that change?
I’m an Internet baby. As computers were being developed, I was around it. I mean, we didn’t always have that, but since maybe around the time I was fourteen, [we] started having iPhones and computers. Even before that, I always asked questions when seeking the source was just asking somebody. When I found out that seeking the source could be a simple search online, I began to look it up first before asking somebody…especially with simple stuff like “how to tie a tie.”
After hearing some of the beats you have, I’m compelled to ask, have you ever thought of composing for video games?
Hell yeah. I’ve also thought about scoring for movies. That’s really the main goal aside from rap. I want to be able to build suspense in a situation with music…really learn the process of that, even the mixing and mastering style of it.
Who were some of your early influences?
Dilla. Definitely Dilla. He was a heavy influence towards my junior & senior year (of highschool). Madlib, of course. And other people I used to watch on YouTube growing up, like Lex Luger and Southside.
I used to always watch everyone’s come up stories because you feel like you’re right there with them. I remember watching Lex Luger talk about how he used to have the computer with the full CPU, monitor, and a keyboard in a bag, and he’d just pull up. The side plate was gone, so you could see all of the computer chips and everything on the inside, and the power button was gone, so he had to hit it a certain way to make it power on. Lex Luger was making beats on that, and that’s when I knew I could be successful wherever I was at as long as I had the tools to make music. As long as I got a computer, I’m good.
When I recall some of your earlier work, like “Slightly Hyped,” many of those earlier influences like Dilla and Madlib shine through. But, there seem to be followers that saw your progression into The Juug Tape as an abandonment of the earlier, more “boom-bappy” sound. To what do you attribute the change in your music?
On “Undeniable,” I rap, ‘The whole juug won’t to dumb it down, just give y’all another sound to show you that across the board I don’t fuck around.’ That was the juug, and that’s why I was making the The Juug Tape. I was giving people bars, and it was cool but I was also like, ‘Let me have fun.’ There are still bars, you know what I’m saying? If you listen, there are still bars in there. A lot of people were telling me, ‘Aww you’re doing the trap sound now?’ and really there’s just a difference between what you make and what you put out because I’ve been making beats like that, and I’ve been making songs like that, but they never heard it until I put out a concentrated version.
Plus, it was just my environment at the time. I always tell people Fredericksburg was cool; that’s where I learned. But being down here in Norfolk really made me a man. I really saw things that I was taught about back home but never got to embrace. So going through all of that, seeing all of that, and growing as a man was what made that music as well.
So now, when I give people the bars, they’re like, ‘Oh shit, he can spit!” Yeah…I’ve been doing that. It’s about having fun. The only thing you can do in this life is take a craft and have fun. The world will try to rob you of all of that, your peace, love, and happiness. So you got to keep yourself excited, do it for yourself first at all times.
You mentioned the difference in experiences you had growing up in Fredericksburg as opposed to Norfolk. Tell me about your upbringing in your hometown compared to what you came to find in your second home?
Fredericksburg is a bit country, my mom is from there, and my dad is from Jersey. My cultural retrospect was very universal. I’d always be out there at my grandparents’ house riding four-wheelers, playing in the dirt, and things of that nature. We’d try to help my uncle work on cars and clean up the shop, my cousin Nick and I. If we weren’t there, we’d be at his house playing ball. It was very wholesome. Fredericksburg is like a commuter town, so there’s not much for the youth to do, but it can get wild out there. There are still hoods out there, and everybody from the Burg knew about the VFW before it got shut down. There used to be parties, but it’d always get shut down when people got to wrecking and shooting. That was the only thing out there until we got Jay’s, and that got shut down too, but by that time, I was in Norfolk. There wasn’t much for the youth, so we’d just hang out at the mall or go to the movies, typical middle-class childhood shit.
When I came down to Norfolk, that’s when I started to see things. Like I was saying, my dad is from Jersey, so he and my uncle used to tell me about certain street shit. They would always be like, ‘Watch out for that,” or ‘Look out for this.’ Before I was ever smoking, my uncle told me the difference between “mid” and “loud,” just so I would know. When they taught me things up there in Fredericksburg, it was never really applied until I came down here to Norfolk. I came down here to go to college, but the environment surrounding it is really gritty, and you have to know how to navigate. With certain people I came to be around, even with some of the things that I got into…I had to dabble in those environments and know how to move. That’s when all that I’d learned in Fredericksburg became applied and I could see, ‘Oh, this is what pops or unc was talking about.’ I’ve seen some wild shit being down here, and that’s why I say it made me a man, the experience. Experience is the best teacher.
There are six songs on “Undeniable,” but as we know, you have plenty more in the tuck. Tell me about the selection and arrangement process for the songs that made the cut.
Initially, I wanted there to be more, but I decided to give a more concentrated body of work. With the arrangement of the tape, I was talking with my manager, and he was like, ‘Bro, I rock with it, and I see what you’re doing, but I think you should take “Step” off or rearrange it.’
I believe sometimes you’ve got to humble yourself with your art, and if it’s someone that you consider very close to you and have respect for their musical ear, you’re going to take that into consideration. That night I rearranged it, and as I was sitting there with my shorty listening to it, I was like, ‘Yeah, he was right.’ Once I made that change, the whole tape flowed differently.
What was your mindset going into the new project, and why the title “Undeniable”?
At this point in my rap career, that’s just how I feel. I can do anything, and you could put me in the studio with damn near anybody, and I’ll make it happen. There’s a high percentage I might body you on your own track.
Featured Image Courtesy of Malik Emmanuel (@Foreva.suave).
Thank you to Era Hardaway for the interview. Listen to “Undeniable” here!