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Russell! On Touring With J. Cole, Reuniting With His Filipino Roots, and Never Growing Up

Image via @three.0.six.clicks, @russellislovely and @figuersss on Instagram, Art by James Francisco

It was a worthwhile Philippine homecoming for Russell! (formerly D-Pryde), a reunion with his mother’s homeland of over 20 years in the making.

However, it wasn’t the country’s coastal waters that courted the Brampton, Ontario native. It was through his curiosity to uncover his roots, connect with the local music scene, and intertwine his Western upbringing with his Filipino heritage. The 30-year-old compares the trip to a “clean slate,” as he steps onto uncharted territory and adds to his two-decade-long narrative as a creative.

“One thing that I’ve tried to do is come here and try to take away that “American superiority complex” and unlearn some of these things that I learned as an American kid and restart and soak in more culture to find my roots,” Russell! tells Complex Philippines. As a Trinidadian-Filipino who has never set foot in the country, he realizes the importance of earning the “Pinoy” title rather than just blindly representing a nation. “Touching every part out here,” in his words.

With his three-week-turned-one-month immersion, “productive” may be an understatement for everything he has experienced. Russell! has shared the booth with the industry’s brightest stars in Al James, Skusta, and DENY, among others, filmed a music video along Pasay City's historical streets, and placed himself among the people, in which they extended a warm embrace. 

While he may come off with a playful-Golden Retriever-like demeanor, Russell!'s all business in enacting his vision of “bridging the gap,” hoping to bring the Philippines to the front and center of the world stage.

Russell! continues his lifelong dedication, defining and re-defining his sound purposefully and with unconditional love, as he talks to us about touring Canada with one of the greats, the long-awaited reunion with his roots, and his unwavering optimism that doesn’t appear to falter.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are your early recollections of the rap/hip-hop culture?

My earliest was when my mom bought me Eminem’s “The Eminem Show” when I was seven or eight [years old]. Getting introduced to 50 Cent, Eminem, Dipset (The Diplomats), and artists of a similar nature just blew my mind. When my mother saw how much I loved hip-hop and everything about the subject matter, she was always supportive.

Are there other influences? How about Drake,  seeing as you grew up in Canada?

Of course, living in Toronto, Drake was a huge influence on me, especially his singing. When I was younger, I would deny his influence and try to be individual about it, but eventually, I understood that he was really the guy who kicked down the door for all of us

As a Filipino kid, I also grew up singing karaoke. Karaoke got me over stage fright because I would always sing in front of my titas and shit, being like a full-on showman at 10 years old. I would also say Usher, I mean that Confessions album. I didn’t even know the subject matter fully until I grew up, but it was just so cool to me.

Speaking of Drake, what’s your take on the Drake/Kendrick Lamar beef? Do Canadians have a consensus?

I’m always going to have my city bias when it comes to Drake. Adie, my homie, said it best: “I’m against anything that takes the light off the city,” because Toronto is beautiful. 

A lot of people got it twisted when they called Drake a colonizer. If you came to Toronto, you would know that it’s a hotbed of culture and we’re not taking culture or appropriating it in any way. If anything, we’re lending it to each other kindly. A lot of Americans criticize (Drake) for using different “accents” and stuff like that, but again, if you’re from Toronto, that’s just normal for us. 

That’s how I am—I’m raised around a lot of different cultures. I’m a Filipino kid, but my stepdad is Trinidadian, so I grew up around a lot of island stuff—a lot of Soca and Dancehall. With the beef, I have such a bias, though I believe (Drake) was a “loser” in the battle to begin with. He was killing the game for 15 years as this half-Jewish-Canadian-guy. Of course, Americans are going to be incredibly mad that he came through and did their job a little better for a decade and a half. 

Of course, they’ll have their opinions, but he’ll always be the G.O.A.T to me and everybody else. Give it a little time for the smoke to clear and people will tell you the same thing.

So is it safe to say that you don’t like “Not Like Us”?

Oh hell no. I’m a fan of Kendrick and everything he did in that battle was incredible and when you put it all together, it’s two guys rapping against each other. All the music that came out of it, I’m happy with. I’m happy to have gotten Kendrick's (Lamar) music after five years of waiting, and on top of that, I love Mustard Beats and the Alchemist. 

I’m not coming from a place of like: “Fuck Kendrick,” you know? It was such an amazing thing to live through it. At the end of the day, it’s just a battle, which got people to rap again. If anything, hip-hop won.

How was it like joining J. Cole during his Canadian Tour more than a decade ago? Did you get to perform with him?

Yeah, my first-ever tour was J. Cole’s “Cole World” Tour. I was 18 years old and I got to open up every night in Canada, which was nerve-wracking at that age.

I remember sitting with Cole’s DJ, DJ Dummy, one night and he gave me incredible advice. He said: “When you get on that stage and open for him (J. Cole) every night, he’s your friend, he’s cool and you guys shook hands and everything, but you have got to give him a run for his money. It’s not a competition, but when you’re on that stage, treat it like it is because people gotta know you. You may be going on stage and you’re ego-ed out thinking that all you have to do is perform and everybody will think you’re cool, but you got to think of their night. You want them to have a great night.”

Ever since then, it has always been embedded in my head to just put on a great show. I think that tour taught me my chops, but I didn’t realize how big of an accomplishment that was until I got older. I was like: “Damn, I was 18 [years old] on the road with one of the greats.”

Do you think more opportunities are open for Asian artists nowadays?

When it comes to being Asian in the industry, little progress has happened. Social media has opened a lot of minds to diverse acts and we’ve experienced them through different markets. We still have a lot of polishing up to do, but the music is all good.

There’s a wave of Filipino-R&B and Hip-hop that is breaking the airwaves, especially being in the country. I’ve seen how awesome it is and I want to be the guy to bridge that gap with North America. I’m starting to see it blossom and I want to be a part of it.

How different is D-Pryde from Russell? Was there a big shift in the music you decided to pursue?

Yeah, it’s way different. I had a huge identity crisis being D-Pryde. I didn’t know if I wanted to be Drake one day, Kendrick another, and Eminem the next, you know? I was modeling a lot after my influences a little too much to the point where it was like I didn’t really know what I did. 

I think a lot of the appeal was because I was a kid, but then I turned 30 and I can’t use “17-year-old rapper” anymore. Now as Russell!, I have found my own identity. R&B allows me to be more in touch with my roots as a Filipino, growing up listening and singing to the genre, and that was my calling in music. It’s all about finding your groove and evolution. I do consider D-Pryde as my 10,000 hours to become and learn to be an artist.

What made you decide to come to the Philippines now?

There is no better time than now. Guys like Skusta, Al James, Hev (Abi), and even DENY coming out, there are so many acts that are versatile and they all have different identities. 
I think as a North American act, I have a responsibility to come here and bridge that gap so that the whole world can see what we’re doing. Like how Al James can layer his vocals and how he raps and sings everything in his baritone. How is the whole world not fucking with this? When it comes to Skusta and his versatility when he can switch up his singing and rapping, I think it’s so cool and something that needs to be showcased.

One thing I’ve also tried to take away is that “American superiority complex”. I want to soak in more culture as a means of finding my roots. I need to know what I’m representing, instead of just blindly coming out. On top of that, I love the unity. Everybody has been showing me love.

What are your future plans in the Philippines? 

We shot a music video but I don’t want to speak too much about it because I want people to see it as a whole. It’s a compilation of everything I’ve done here aesthetically.

Other than that, I’ve been tapping a lot of the artists who have shown me love. I got into the studio with Al James, Supafly, and yeah, I’m here with DENY getting a record in. 

I’m really just exploring, getting to know the people more, and soaking in the culture so I can come here for the next trip with a bunch of knowledge that I didn’t have already.

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