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INTERVIEW: CRAIG XEN

We spoke to the Houston artist about XXXTentacion, Members Only vol. 3, his recent break from releasing music, and the changing relationship between underground and mainstream

With a raw, brutally honest sound, unapologetic delivery, and versatile lyrical ability, it’s no surprise that Houston native CRAIG XEN has emerged as one of the underground’s most exciting rappers in the past few years.

Xen first rose to prominence during 2015, a time which saw him frantically recording and releasing up to three songs a day for months at a time, earning him a strong following and a range of big name co-signs.

His bold, aggressive style and manic work rate quickly drew attention, however it wasn’t until 2016 that he would firmly etch himself in to the fabric of the underground scene.

In early 2016, Xen was invited to be a part of the Pouya and $UICIDEBOY$ ‘South Side Suicide Tour’. This proved to be a fateful event, given that his fellow opening act on the tour was Broward County’s soon-to-be superstar XXXTentacion.

Xen and X quickly became close, bonding over their similar taste in music and philosophy, and it wouldn’t be long before Xen was introduced to X’s Members Only collective, consisting of fellow Florida artists Wifisfuneral and Ski Mask The Slump God.

Xen ended up working with both X and Ski on some of 2016’s most noteworthy releases – X’s since-deleted track ‘I Wonder If Bloods Watch Blues Clues’ and Ski Mask The Slump God’s ‘Unmasked’ featuring Denzel Curry.

On the side of his ever-expanding list of contacts and collaborators, Xen began seeing more and more success with his own tracks as the year progressed, with cuts like ‘Bare Flesh’ and ‘Good Fellas’ ft. Pouya and Shakewell, picking up millions of plays on Soundcloud.

Things got complicated for Xen later in the year, when XXXTentacion was infamously sent to jail facing a number of different charges. No stranger to mental illness, Xen found himself fall in to a downward spiral of depression and disillusionment, taking a prolonged break from social media, as well as a hiatus from releasing music.

However, during the time X was behind bars, the hype surrounding the Florida artist and his hit song ‘Look At Me’ reached fever pitch. And his recent release from jail has positioned both X, and the rest of Members Only to step in to the spotlight like never before.

We caught up with Xen to get the inside word on the craziness surrounding X and Members Only, his thoughts on the changing environment of the underground, and what’s in store for the rest of 2017.

To listen to the full audio of this interview, please visit Soundcloud or YouTube.

So the last few years have been a pretty crazy ride for you, and for people who aren’t familiar with your music or your journey, I was wondering if you could take us back to the beginning, and tell me how all this shit started?

Well as far as releasing music, I’d say it all goes back to me and my cousin at my Uncle’s house. My cousin and Uncle were making a song one day, we had a really shitty set up – an old ass computer, microphone, USB mic, a tube sock over the microphone because we couldn’t afford a pop filter you know. So yeah, my Uncle and my cousin were making a song, and this is back when I smoked weed or whatever, so I was just vibing to the beat, vibing to the song and they were recording. They knew that I always wanted to rap, so while they were recording, my Uncle looked at me and he told me “I know you want to get on a song” and that’s the kind of shit I needed, so I did that, and that’s where everything as far as recording music started.

But music had always been in my blood. I’m an only child, so music was always my best friend, everywhere I was I’d have headphones on, even in school I’d do the work in the first 15 or 20 minutes of class, and most of the teachers knew I had a lot of social issues and shit, so they’d let me have my head phones on and write poetry.

Was there a specific moment that you realised you were going to be able to do this as a career?

Yeah, I still didn’t think of it as a career necessarily, because to me I was just making music with my friends, but around the time my friend Jahseh [XXXTentacion] started getting really, really big, he mentioned the word ‘career’ and I thought about it, I’m in Members Only, so I thought about it, and I was like yeah it is a career – we can’t do the same crazy shit anymore because we have a career on the line, we’re feeding our families, it’s a real thing now.

Would you say the hype around XXXTentacion has been the craziest thing you’ve been involved with so far?

Yeah absolutely, I think the dude got 100,000 followers in a night or some shit. I dunno man, it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I mean I watched Tyler The Creator come up, and I watched him go from like 5,000 to 500,000 over like a matter of months. I thought Tyler’s come up was the craziest, but na X’s is, by far. Craziest shit I’ve ever seen.

How did you come to work with X, as well as Ski Mask The Slump God?

Okay, so I met X on tour. We were both aware of each other’s music, and we had a similar sound with our very aggressive music, so I feel like we both knew we were going to meet one day. It was weird, because we were both aware of each other, and he had like shouted me out, he told me he fucks with one of my songs, and I was fucking with his music too, but I didn’t know him at the time, so like I dunno, I don’t really fuck with people that I don’t know. And then we met each other in person, and it just clicked man. We just dapped each other up and I could just see it in his eyes that he was genuine.

I met Ski through him. Whenever I was chilling with X after our shows, I think we did three Florida dates together, he took me around Miami and brought me to meet everybody in Members Only, and he introduced me to everybody, and Ski was in town, and I felt very much at home with everybody there. I felt most comfortable there, with everyone in Members Only, in comparison to Houston and LA.

And that lead to you eventually becoming a part of Members Only?

Yeah exactly. Basically, I was just around. And X and I, we’re a lot alike, in the sense that when we were hanging around, we were talking a lot about life, and different universal laws, and having a lot of intellectually stimulating conversations.

And plus we were both at the peak of our craziness when we met, so that’s what really made us click. Like when we were on tour, I think we almost slid like two niggas, we were ready for whatever, he was the only person that I knew that was really with the shits on the tour, and I was with the shits too, and so that was like, “Okay so you’re really about the shit that you say in your music, and I am too then”, that’s when we really clicked. And then after the tour, it wasn’t immediate that I was in Members Only, but it was more so like, I met everybody, everybody vibed with me, I fucked with everybody, and then we just kept in touch. Every two or three days we’d just Facetime each other to see what was going on, and we’d talk about a lot of fuck shit in the industry, and we saw eye to eye, and we got close man, and that’s pretty much how I got in to MO.

You’ve obviously linked up with X since he’s been out?

Yeah, I’ve been here since the day he got out. I knew he was coming home so I bought my ticket, and since the day he’s been back I’ve been with him here, I’m staying with him right now.

And how’s he doing? He seems to be handling the newfound fanbase and hype pretty well.

He’s doing great, yeah he’s really happy and positive, and he’s very focused, and he’s also very appreciative and aware of his position, and he’s changed his surroundings. He’s got his shit together mentally now. And it’s a big relief for everybody that’s around him, and everybody that cares about him, because we know that he can’t get in any more trouble. So yeah he came home with his head right and so he’s doing really fucking good man.

Since he’s been out, I’ve heard word that Members Only Volume 3 is on the way?

Members Only Volume Three is on the way! Basically since I’ve touched down in Miami, I linked with Wifi, linked with Trunks and I was like “okay bruh let’s work”. Like the first day that X got home, we were happy and celebrating, but then we were like let’s work. And we took all that excitement around him being home, and the togetherness – all the energy when he came home brought everyone together – not to mention that I flew out and Killstation also flew out.

So right now we’re actually building a workstation/factory for Members Only, but in the meantime we’ve just been linking up with each other everyday and working on the Members Only Volume 3 tape, so like right now I’m working with Wifisfuneral, and Trunks (whose asleep and needs to finish this fucking song), but yeah we’re super stoked on the tape.

What do you think about the current state of underground rap? It’s a pretty interesting world to be involved in right now.

I think it belongs to X right now to be honest. I think it belongs to X and Ski, who I was just with at SXSW.

The underground has now become mainstream. The radio was already turning to shit, I feel like the quality of music went down, because it was more of a popularity contest rather than who could make the best song. Like back in the day before the Internet, you had to make the most fire song in order to be on the radio, it didn’t matter how popular you were on the internet. So I feel like, with everything, all of the free music being available on platforms like Soundcloud… It’s funny that people say you know “Soundcloud rapper this and that”, but you have artists like Lil Yachty or Lil Uzi and shit like that, like they got Soundcloud but dude, they’re big-time artists now and are somewhat mainstream I guess.

So I feel like the underground has become mainstream, and it’s going to continue to break the mainstream until it breaks the radio. I personally don’t know anybody in our generation, like 15 to the 25 year olds right now, I don’t know of anyone who rides around to the fucking radio, it’s always like “where’s the AUX at bruh?” And they’ll open up Soundcloud.

I was listening to X’s interview on 103.5 the other day, and it was surreal hearing ‘Look At Me’ playing on that commercial station

Yeah, it’s crazy. Dude, I was walking back from Walmart right? I was walking back to his crib, and there’s somebody punching in a code at a fucking gate, that’s listening to ‘Look At Me’, and they’re in this convertible with the top down and everything. And I’m like “Bruh!” I ran inside and was like “Jahseh bruh they’re listening to your song outside like right now”, he was like “Wha? No way!”.

So it’s still somewhat surreal for him, it’s just starting to sink in. It’s really cool because he’s super excited, super happy, and super appreciative man, it’s fucking crazy how big he’s getting.

We went to GameStop for fuckin’ five minutes, and somebody took a picture of him.

I saw that, it went super viral right?

Yeah that shit went viral he was like FUCK. It was some old ass dude that took a picture of him, he was like “I thought we were good in GameStop, there were no kids in there.” It was like 9:00am on a fucking Wednesday… Yeah man it was crazy.

Recently, you’ve been lowkey and taken a hiatus of sorts from releasing music, I was wondering what’s been going on with you, and if there’s anything that fans may not know about that you’ve been going through?

Yeah basically I had a really bad mental breakdown. Like I said, around the time that X got locked up, we were both at the height, at the peak of our craziness. We were just really fucking hungry, and we were just doing everything that we could to excel and to manifest our dreams in to reality, so after moving so fast and so hard day in and day out, eventually I just had a mental breakdown and I didn’t really have the people around me that would normally be there to pull me up.

I didn’t have X to talk to, I didn’t have our friends Garrett, I had Killstation, but he wasn’t by me at the time. So, I took that time to go back, and uh, yeah shit got really bad dude.

Like the people I was living with at the time, I kicked in their door, I had a machete in my hand and I was pretty much ready to end their shit. And, I guess everybody in the house that I was staying with were like “You can’t stay here any more”, so I pretty much got kicked out of there, and I ended up going back to Houston and going back to my roots, and when I got there, I was excited to be there, but at the same time, I missed living fast and everything, so it’s a good thing that I went and I cooled down and got my mind right.

And while X was away, he got his mind right, and I feel like, yes, I took a hiatus in a sense, but at the same time I was still making music, but I didn’t want to release anything that wasn’t progressive, so I did somewhat take a hiatus, but I knew in my heart that X would be coming home, and that’s when I knew that things would really, really start. So I was still collecting beats, I was still talking to my people and I was more so waiting on the right time to move, and working on a progressive project, rather than just putting anything out, and I wanted to be excited with what I was working on.

And at the time I was just really fucking depressed and everything was falling apart around me. And so sure enough, now, I come out to Miami, and I’m excited and everyone’s excited, and now the fire, it’s lit. It’s literally lit. Everyone’s on fire out here right now, we’re all working out here, day in and day out, and that’s what I was waiting for. If music isn’t fun for me, it had become a job, and once it became a job, I just couldn’t do it. So that was a huge part of the mental breakdown was that it just felt like work and it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t exciting, I didn’t have my friends around me, and it started to feel like work.

And you know I hate the fucking industry, so that was the time that the industry was trying to grab me by the balls, so I just fell back.

So you’re permanently in Miami from now on?

Yeah I’m here living with X, and yeah I’m pretty much permanently here. We’re creating that Members Only factory/workshop right now, and I just want to be out here with them and work. This is, since I’ve started music, this is been the best experience for me, and I want to capture this. And I want to help everybody succeed as much as I can. And so, I like it out here man it’s nice.

What else can we expect from you for the rest of the year?

You gotta wait and see man… I’m working on my solo project, and then I’m just working with Members Only. And I never really plan things out. I guess it’s a good and a bad thing, but I never plan things.

I just know what it is that I want to achieve, and that’s just to have everybody feel how we’re feeling now for as long as we can, and then pass that feeling on. I just want to grow, every day I just want to grow – I don’t care about a certain number, or this or that, I just think about growing, doing shows, doing tours, and being able to connect and meet our fans and sit down and talk with them, show them that we’re real people and show them how much we appreciate them.

That’s what I’m most excited for. And apart from that it’s just creating. I mean I’ve made four new songs in the past two days. I’m definitely back on fire, I’m working my ass off.

So Members Only Volume 3 tape, that one is my main focus right now, and then I’ve also got my solo project, my first mixtape which I’m working on.

Follow CRAIG XEN on Twitter and Soundcloud to stay up to date with all new music.