Welcome to the ultimate Meta Interview Thunderdome, where we actually get to talk to an artist whose feelings we hurt by an article we posted. Warning: There are many existential questions involved.
Here’s the back story. It begins with Kevin Rudolf, a Cash Money-signed artist who had a huge hit with the 2008 song “Let It Rock.” Listen to it here. Yep, that song – you remember it. It enjoys a very long tail in clubs, gyms, arenas, and anywhere a good pump-it-up anthem is ever needed.
Earlier this month, Rudolf appeared on the Fusion show DNA, for a segment we call “Freestyle Fridays,” in which artists perform acoustically or otherwise on set. The performance and studio vibe was the very definition of chill. Rudolf and a buddy appeared to perform a song he co-wrote for Keith Urban, “Little Bit of Everything,” as well as a new single for himself, “Here’s To Us.”
It was all very mellow, pleasant guitar, lighter-in-the-air type stuff – but it was super different in sound and aesthetic than the material that made Rudolf popular in the mainstream. That’s fact. I pointed out that fact in this short text post I wrote to accompany one of the video clips from the show. It was written to be pretty neutral-to-complimentary.
Apparently, not to someone in Rudolf’s camp. In came a barrage of emails from publicists demanding we take the article down, rewrite it and submit it to them for approval before re-publishing (lol).
That didn’t happen, so Rudolf himself started tweeting me around 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. Many tweets and DMs later, I found myself on the phone with Kevin himself, hearing him out. Again, it was a pretty chill exchange.
Here’s the thing – Kevin Rudolf feels he has been misunderstood as an artist from the very beginning, even during the “Let It Rock” days. He wanted me – and, you, the reader – to know that he’s not a manufactured guy controlled by secret Cash Money handlers or anything. This is all him.
So, I proposed a deal. We would do an interview where we would talk about what, specifically, hurt his feelings, and we would hash it all out, with the full transcript published and no publicists involved.
Here’s what went down. The whole thing is long, so here are some highlight quotes:
• “What bugged me about it was that I felt that it really didn’t portray me as the artist that I am. Then it went on to say that I found my soul in Nashville, which kind of says that I had no soul on 'Let it Rock,' which is not the truth."
• “I haven’t reached out in the past. I let it go, and I go back to work. I go back to the studio and back to the music. I also wouldn’t want fans of mine to think that I am some fabricated artist or idea from a label like Cash Money, which was never the case.”
• “Maybe it was easy to hate because I had a huge hit out of the gate, and it had Lil Wayne on it. People tend to think it’s not real when you succeed in the beginning.”
• “’Let it Rock’ had a lot of biblical references, but it was really about being yourself.”
• “’Do I try to do that again? Do I do something else? Does it matter what anyone else thinks? Does it not matter?’ A lot of internal questioning goes on as an artist.”
• "Being an artist, you can write anything. It’s so much fun. You should try it some time."
Now listen to “Here’s to Us” below, and then read the full interview under that. Enjoy.
Let’s go through this line by line. So what about this specific post, which was short, and which, frankly, not that many people even read by the stats, really bothered you?
Well, really what bugged me about it was that I felt that it really didn’t portray me as the artist that I am. Then it went on to say that I found my soul in Nashville, which kind of says that I had no soul on “Let it Rock,” which is not the truth.
That’s actually not what it said. It said you found your soul in Nashville, which does not imply that you never had a soul, and I did not actually directly reference “Let it Rock” in that sentence.
Right, I know.
We can agree that you interpreted it that way, but that’s not how it was written. But I get why that bothers you, if you interpreted it that way.
Well, yeah. That mixed with the fact that I had handlers and seemed to be, you know, propped up by other people in the beginning of my career when my first album came out, and when “Let it Rock” came out on Cash Money. It just paints a picture. If we’re going to court, obviously, you can defend it that way, but it really paints a picture that I’m not a true artist.
Then it goes on at the end to say I found my soul in Nasvhille, which implies that I had no soul in the beginning.
Okay. That’s not a criticism I’ve ever made. I don’t think I’ve ever written directly about you before. Is that a criticism you feel like you’ve gotten from other people, that is leading you to be sensitive about this?
It’s not a criticism, and I’m not really sensitive. I can go on about my life, and make records, and do my art, and have a lot of fun and not care what anyone says. But at the same time, if what I’m doing is put out, I put a lot of heart and soul into my music. Obviously there are fans that love it and appreciate it, but I don’t feel it’s being represented correctly in this article or in many other articles.
What made you want to reach out to me, specifically? Or do you often reach out to writers?
No, I haven’t reached out in the past. I let it go, and I go back to work. I go back to the studio and back to the music. I also wouldn’t want fans of mine to think that I am some fabricated artist or idea from a label like Cash Money, which was never the case.
They signed me as an artist, and they never even pointed me in any direction or told me what to do or how to be or how to dress or how to sound or talk or anything. That was genuinely me, and still genuinely me.
I think it’s time that people start really taking my work seriously. I know people do, but in the world of journalism/reviews, I feel that they’re not taking me seriously as an artist. I have to stand up for myself at a certain point and set the record straight and correct the story.
People are writing the wrong story. Most journalists are really lazy. They lift things from other places and they’re telling the wrong story. So I think this is – I’m not here to attack the article.
I actually appreciate the opportunity that we have to really set the record straight, and for me to express myself and say what I’m really about, which is writing great songs and expressing myself and trying to connect people and empower people, and make people feel good at the end of the day.
That’s what I try to put into the music. I try to make people feel better.
What do you think has been the biggest hurdle, or the biggest reason the music press has not taken your work seriously on its own terms, like you said?
It’s a really good question. I was actually kind of blown away that they didn’t in the beginning. It could have been because they were going back to that white boy on Cash Money thing you mentioned, where it sounds like, “Oh, we have Lil Wayne, so let’s sign a white guy now.” Or, “We have this artist, the ‘Let It Rock’ guy, that’ll be great for our brand.”
Maybe they took it as that, or maybe it was easy to hate because I had a huge hit out of the gate, and it had Lil Wayne on it. People tend to think it’s not real when you succeed in the beginning. Maybe it would have been easier if they know a little bit of my back story.
There was no foundation being laid or no story being told. Whose fault that is, I don’t know. But at the end of the day, I’ve been struggling my whole life to get where I am and I’m not done yet. I’m not finished. I’ve just started. And I don’t think people understood the story.
They don’t understand what it’s like to struggle as a musician. I mean, you’re a freelance writer, so you know what it’s like –
Well I was; I’m not any more.
You were. And I’m sure you can relate to me in a lot of ways. You don’t know when your next paycheck is going to come, and you have to fight for everything you get. And in the music business, you really have to fight for everything you get. Like I said, I just don’t think people have the correct perception of me from the beginning. It just turned into “white rock guy on Cash Money.” Now the story is “white rock guy goes country.”
I don’t pay attention to genres. I’ve always written country songs. I’ve always written rock records, pop records. I’ve always been in the hip-hop world. I played guitar with Timbaland for three years. IT was the same thing where I was the musician in the room where I was trying to get into the world. I was trying to get into the hip-hop game as well.
So I’ve been an outside form the beginning, and it helps me thrive. It makes me strive to break down the door and be successful.
Why does it bother you when people mention the country thing? That’s something to be really proud of, right? You co-wrote the number one country song –
—Oh no, don’t get me wrong. I am super proud of the country record that I did. And I’m not ashamed, by the way, of anything. I love the hip hop associations, and Cash Money. I love being in the country world, and I’ve had great experiences with Keith Urban and everyone else I’ve dealt with in that world.
What I’m just saying is that I guess I don’t like to be labeled, you know what I mean? Everyone’s looking for a story. “White guy on hip-hop label!” Then “white guy on hip-hop label does country!” I’m just trying to break down barriers, really, with my music.
“Let it Rock” was one of the first records to put rap and rock together in an inverse way. Limp Bizkit and Korn and all these other acts that I had heard were rapping over rock music. I grew up in the hip-hop game under Timbaland as far as making beats and production, and I was able to put more of a hip-hop beat on a rock song, and there have been people who have followed that.
Now I’m doing different things in country. I’ve always been mixing genres. I don’t really see them as different genres, they’re just different colors in my palette that I paint with, know what I mean?
So what made you want to focus on this specific color in your palette, rather than what you were doing before?
Because I’ve evolved, and music is in a different place. When I made “Let It Rock,” it was 2008, and music was in a different place. I’ve also evolved as an artist. It’s both things, but I’m still being true to myself.
That’s what’s behind “Here’s to Us.” It’s a narrative of life’s moments-—perseverance, and joy, and pain, and triumph, and everything in between. That’s what we all go through.
“Let it Rock” was about that. People thought it was a club anthem, just getting up like, “Let it Rock!”
It was not that. “Let it Rock” had a lot of biblical references, but it was really about being yourself. When I say, “Let it rock,” I say, “Be yourself. Don’t give a f*ck. That’s what it means.”
What were some of those biblical references people missed?
First of all, in the chorus, it says, “Because when I arrive, I bring the fire/I make you come alive/I can take you higher.” And then it says, if you read these lyrics websites, it says, “What is this forgot, I must now remind you, let it rock.”
That’s not what I said. I said, “What the saints forgot, I must now remind you.” So what I’m saying is, for those who came before you and they had the message, and you believed them, I’m gonna remind you, do the same thing, let it rock, be yourself, trust yourself.
Let’s clear up this “gangsta emo” thing. Where did that come from, and what went wrong there?
“Gangsta emo” came from the first thing that ever came out on me or “Let it Rock,” in Rolling Stone. It was in this piece called The Hot List, where they name their five favorite songs. It said something like “studio musician invents new style: gangsta emo.” Or maybe “gangsta emo rock?” I don’t know, whatever they said, that’s where that came from.
That’s their interpretation of the song. They didn’t know me; they didn’t know the record. There’s nothing wrong with it. I certainly wasn’t whining on it, but I guess the gangsta part’s pretty cool. So that’s where that really came from. I never said it again.
So you never repeated that phrase again, so anyone who ever used it again was taking it second- or third- or fourth-hand?
It’s like the game “telephone.”
That’s what it is now with the internet. People read your Wikipedia, then write a review, and then someone else reprints it. And there you go, there’s your story.
So at that point in the game when you saw stuff you felt was incorrect, were you addressing it with people like you’re doing now, or did you just let it go?
I never addressed it because I didn’t want to fuel the fire. Sometimes when you focus on something and draw attention to it, then they go, “Oh, he said it’s not gangsta emo.” So when things aren’t really correct, I usually let them go and try to not focus attention on them.
But at a certain point, I have to stand up and say, “You’re not understanding what I’m about.” No one is understanding what I’m about. That’s why we’re on the phone right now.
My one blog post, if you didn’t agree with it, why would you draw more attention to it by tweeting it, for instance?
Why did I draw more attention to it?
Yeah. And was that you, or your publicist?
I drew attention to it because I wanted to stand up and tell the truth. Like I said, there’s only so much you can let go.
Why were these particular 200-ish words the straw that broke the camel’s back for you?
It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back because I felt, by reading the article, you had a brain, and that I would be able to have a decent conversation with you. As opposed to most things, which are people not really paying attention, and they’re just sort of throwing something together and getting it off Wikipedia or Google or copying someone else’s article.
I’m at a point where I’m putting out my new music, and I don’t want to have the same stuff that’s been written five years ago be repeated.
Obviously the whole thing with genres, right, is that every artist thinks – and every writer thinks this too, so it’s fine – they’re doing something that’s never been done before. But the fact of the matter is that’s not true. Parts of my writing style come from people I’ve read who I liked.
And parts of a musician’s style come from different things that came before. So part of the usefulness of genre tags is that it allows fans of a certain sound to find you. It allows radio programmers to find you, and it allows whoever else to find you.
Absolutely, and we need categories, you know? We need categories, because it needs to go in a section of a record store, even though we don’t have sections any more. It needs to go in a section of iTunes. But when iTunes says, “Oh, you bought this record, you might like this” – you know, those suggestion things? – I don’t ever like the suggestions, because I don’t ever feel that if I like one thing in a genre, that I’ll like another.
If I like Lil Wayne, it doesn’t mean I’m gonna like 2 Chainz. If I like 2 Chainz, it doesn’t mean I’m gonna like whatever else is working in hip-hop at the moment.
But I understand. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be put in a category. I’m just saying people do it so flippantly, and they don’t understand that music comes from the soul, and the heart, and we put it in boxes. The artist doesn’t put it in boxes; or they shouldn’t if they do.
We’ve heard some stuff from your new record. When is the full-length coming out?
It’s coming on it, I’d say, February. We’re finding a date in February right now. We’re still mixing right now.
So “Here’s to Us” is the first single, right?
So that’s people’s first encounter with your music, maybe, since “Let it Rock.”
Well, let’s say a casual music fan who only listens to Top 40 radio.
“I Made It” didn’t do too bad. It did a million-five.
Sure. I’m not saying that did badly. But there are these two discrete periods in your artistic output, right?
So how do you think fans from that period would react to this music? Or how do you hope they would react?
I hope that they hear I my music that I’m telling the truth about my reality and what I’m writing and that I’m always coming from the heart. Sometimes artists evolve. The Beatles evolved. They were not in the same place on Rubber Soul as they were in She Loves You, which was only in a few years’ span, and people forget that.
The people I like the most are the ones who are constantly evolving. So I would say, “Wow, this is evolving. There’s something fresh here. I like what you’re saying and I’m excited to see someone not afraid to take a chance.”
When you played acoustically the studio the other day, I really thought that some of the songs sounded straight-up like old-school Dashboard Confessional, which I wrote as a compliment.
But you didn’t seem to think so. So where do you think that comparison went wrong?
I don’t think it – I actually do like Dashboard Confessional. I think we did a few shows with them a few years ago. I don’t dislike Dashboard Confessional. You know what, I’ll take the part I think you meant, which is that it was earnest and genuine.
That's exactly what I meant, which is why I didn’t understand why you took offense.
I didn’t take offense. I like Dashboard Confessional.
Okay, cool. The material you have not released yet, how much of that is done, and how much of that is along the same lines of the couple things you played on the show the other day?
The couple things I played on the show, one was “Here’s to Us” and one was Keith Urban’s song, which we’ve just been jamming out to at some of these shows and having a lot of fun with. We just did that song for fun, really. Obviously that Keith Urban song is not on my album.
The album is, I’d say, 90 percent done, just still mixing right now. The material’s already written, and it definitely leans more organic than some of the past stuff I’ve done, as far as In the City, where it’s a little more centered around the production.
I would say that the lyrics are telling much more of a story, and much more upfront, using less metaphors and just speaking more directly and conversationally. But all the romantic, big themes are all there. But I think it’s more up-front, more honest, more heartfelt.
Sometimes as a producer, you have that in your tool kit, so you tend to use it more. I wanted to show people what I could do as a producer also on the first record. Now that I’m successful as a prodcuer for other artists as well as myself, I felt more comfortable letting my guard down in that area, and letting the song shine through.
Do you think part of that is why you had a tough time getting positive press reception? People might think, “Oh, he’s a producer, he’s got an in already.”
I try not to let anyone’s opinion influence where I might go as an artist. I think that would be short-sighted of me and not really the strongest approach. The critics are definitely a funny animal. You go left, and they don’t like it; you go right, they don’t like it; you go down the middle, it’s too safe.
I don’t really try to please them, because you can’t win when you even try to factor them into the equation. At the end of the day, they won’t be remembered. The music is what will be remembered. Nobody will remember what someone’s review of Sgt. Pepper said.
Lester Bangs is pretty remembered.
Yeah, but one of the few. Do you remember – did Led Zeppelin IV get a great review? I don’t know; I wasn’t there.
Neither was I.
Did a lot of my favorite albums get bad reviews? I’m absolutely sure they did. Sometimes things get reviewed a little differently later on in the arc of an artist’s career. They’re seen differently. Maybe a certain record or song influences another artist, and they slap their approval on it, because suddenly it’s justified.
Then you have your critics where most of them are just trying to pick things that make them sound cool. And that really isn’t what it’s about for me.
You have this sort of producer/songwriter side where you work with other artists, and you have the side where you’re the artist. Which one of these do you think is more representative of you creatively?
Absolutely my stuff as an artist is more representative of me. When you write for someone else, it depends. Sometimes I’m writing for someone else, sometimes I’m producing, sometimes I’m doing both. Sometimes I’m acting as a sounding board for someone else’s writing, and I try to help them get their vision across.
And when I’m writing for myself as an artist, there are no limits. You’re not thinking of what someone’s gonna say. You’re not thinking, “Oh this will work, this won’t. This fits them; this won’t.” You have a blank canvas and you can say anything you want.
That’s what’s so much fun about being an artist. You can paint any picture you want. People can like it; people can not like it. Maybe I’ll put it out; maybe I’ll keep it for myself. But it’s an exploration of yourself.
Being an artist, you can write anything. It’s so much fun. You should try it some time. Anyone can write a song. That’s what’s so fun about it. It may not be good, but you can say anything you want. It’s a very exciting platform to have, to be a songwriter.
Have we covered all the stuff you thought was incorrect or misinterpreted in the original story?
I think so, and I appreciate the opportunity to do this with you, because I think it’s interesting, and I guess I’m just striving to be understood in a certain way, through the music, through everything I do. It’s very difficult to be an artist and be misunderstood. Know what I mean?
And when you get some success, it’s very fun and exciting, but it’s also a little bit daunting, because all of a sudden people know you as that sound, that song, that thing, and then you’re sort of faced with, “Do I try to do that again? Do I do something else? Does it matter what anyone else thinks? Does it not matter?”
A lot of internal questioning goes on as an artist. So I always try to be honest with myself and put forth the most truthful work. Obviously we live in a time where trying to mix art with commerce, and you do “Let it Rock,” and everyone says, “Yeah, do that again! The stuff that’s making us money; that’s good.”
But really, at the end of the day, it doesn’t work like that. If it was that easy, then everyone would write the same song over and over. I try to make something that connects with people, whether it’s slow or fast or acoustic, or has beats or whatever it is. You’re trying to connect with people. It’s really an amazing thing when you can write a song that connects with someone.
It becomes part of their life. It’s their first kiss, or a fight with their significant other, or the time when they started school or graduated, or got their first job, or had sex for the first time, or whatever. It’s woven into people’s lives. That’s what I’ve always loved about the music I grew up on – it was always woven into my life and others’.
That’s what “Here’s to Us” is about. It’s a tribute to that.
My final question is, how are you going to deal with this for the rest of the album press cycle, which is only just beginning? I mean, I was pretty nice to you –
I’m gonna call everyone personally and make sure they write the right fuckin’ article! [Ed. Note – this was said with obvious sarcasm; he wasn’t serious.]
That’s what I’m saying. You’re gonna get exhausted if you keep reading your own press. So what’s your strategy here? And what are you hoping will happen?
What am I hoping will happen?
Are you going to keep reaching out directly? How are you going to handle people making the natural comparison between this single and your other biggest singles?
I am going to be in the studio. I’m going to be working. I’m going to be on the road. I’m going to be doing everything I can to get my message out and connect with fans and have a great time being Kevin Rudolf. That’s what I’m going to do. I can’t control anyone, but if I find someone I can talk to, then I am going to talk to them, because I think it’s important to stand up for yourself, and correct something.
If someone wrote something that wasn’t really representative of you, or your boss published an article with your name on it that you didn’t really write, you’d feel like, “Hey,” right? It feels a little funny, it feels a little weird.
That comparison doesn’t really work. I wrote about you, I didn’t put it in your name. The analogy to the scenario you’re proposing would be if someone released a song actually under your name. Although I appreciate what you’re trying to do.
You’re absolutely right, but the feeling is the same, when you make something, and it’s twisted or distorted or not understood. It feels uncomfortable and you feel like it’s not really you. And when something isn’t really you, you want to tell the world who you are.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.