The OnMilwaukee.com Summer Festivals Guide is presented by Pick 'n Save, Where Wisconsin Saves on Groceries. Pick 'n Save is Wisconsin proud, and excited to help promote and feed the great Milwaukee summer that includes festivals and fun nearly every day. Click to save here!
Milwaukee-based rapper WebsterX (birth name Sam Ahmed) is a big movie buff. His list of favorite movies includes eclectic picks ranging from the "Rush Hour" series to "Bronson" to "Rubber" – a bizarre indie movie about a killer tire that rolls around on a rampage exploding people’s minds with telekinesis. In fact, he tells me to ditch writing up this interview and just head overseas to see a big Hollywood blockbuster in a foreign country.
"Do it!" he implores. "Remember this exact moment; f*ck the whole interview, and remember this exact moment. I saw ‘The Dark Knight’ in Ethiopia, which was the coolest sh*t, with, like, Arab subtitles and everything. I was infatuated with it; it was just a crazy experience."
It makes sense why movies, these trips into fiction and non-fiction, would speak to WebsterX. Throughout his childhood and early into his rap career, he’s had his own little movie – a kind of "imaginary world," in his words, with made-up roles for himself and his dreams and aspirations – playing inside of his mind.
"I used to make up a whole bunch of imaginary things in my entire life growing up," he recalled. "I used to think I was a basketball player for a little bit. I made up this rap name for myself, which was really weird. I actually stole Just Blaze’s name, the producer from Roc-A-Fella, and actually just made it mine. I didn’t even have some cool name or some moniker I made up; I was just like, ‘I’m Just Blaze, and that’s it; this is my story.’"
As it turns out, barely two years after his first show in 2013, WebsterX is now living that dream world he created of being a rap star (minus the plagiarized name part). The 22-year-old rapper has risen to become one of the Milwaukee music scene’s biggest stars, grabbing local and national headlines and, most recently, opening for global superstar Lupe Fiasco at the Miller Lite Oasis on Friday, July 3 at 8 p.m.
Raised on the North Side of the city, WebsterX remembers growing up coping with some "low-key bullying" from some at school, often because of his Muslim Ethiopian immigrant parents. According to the young rapper, the experience "made me into a hard shell, a tough cookie," but at the same time, his parents, family and culturally diverse upbringing would play a crucial role in helping to set the groundwork and aid his journey into music.
Many of his earliest musical influences come from his father, who was a musician over in Ethiopia, playing ethnic music as well as covers of popular American songs. Hearing all of these seemingly disparate types of music under one roof, the rapper gained an early appreciation for different genres – especially classic and psychedelic rock, like Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and The Grateful Dead. It wasn’t until he was about 13 years old that, thanks to his sister, he began to dip into hip-hop music.
"She gave me this Tribe Called Quest CD, ‘Midnight Marauders,’ and I listened to that," WebsterX recalled. "I noticed how they incorporated different sounds from other genres, that it wasn’t just hip-hop. Because this was about 2003 or 2004, when hip-hop was a little different. It was more street-oriented, but to start off with the boom bap was way better because then I could make the easy transition into the new stuff."
From there, WebsterX’s appreciation for the genre grew and grew, eventually reaching the point in 2013 that he began loosely rapping and performing with a bunch of his friends in a now defunct group called the Roo$evelt Collective. He admits, however, that he "didn’t take things that seriously yet."
"It was more just me rapping over Lil Wayne instrumentals or random instrumentals that were already pre-made – nothing too musical," he said. "My entire musical journey happened very quick, and I learned how to become musical and understand certain sounds. My timeline was very fast."
He quickly shifted directions away from the collective and toward his own solo work, starting off with his first EP in 2013, "Stoop Kid Sessions." From there, he released three main tracks: "Old Betsy," "Tuesday" and "Desperate Youth," all growing into significant hits on a later mixtape – also called "Desperate Youth" – that same year and getting the attention of Milwaukee music fans, as well as fans outside the city. It would seem WebsterX achieved his breakthrough, but shortly after, the young musician instead found himself falling into a depression after the mixtape’s rapturous reception.
"It kind of set me off, because I was like, ‘What’s next for me? How am I going to follow this up?’" he admitted. "It did numbers that I really wasn’t expecting, and that’s new for me, man. For a lot of artists, that’s nothing, but for a newcomer, it blew my mind, and I couldn’t believe people were embracing what I had. For me, I thought I was going to be doing the typical nine-to-five thing … I just felt a lot of weird pressure."
At the time, he was also studying marketing at UWM, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his successful coffee-exporting grandfather. After two years, he switched over to creative writing, but he still found himself skipping classes – even the ones he enjoyed – and felt himself no longer in place there, even with his own feelings of pressure about finishing school for his family and for the Ethiopian community.
"It made me feel very weird and insular, and I was like, ‘Dude, am I making the right decision?’" he recalled. "So I just talked to my parents about it a lot, and I just dropped out. I said, ‘F*ck it.’ With that, that’s when I was like, alright, I have to turn this up 10 notches and make sure I make this a life path."
From there, that’s exactly what WebsterX did. Soon, he was performing "Desperate Youth" at Klassik’s Summerfest gig opening for Ludacris at the Miller Lite Oasis, seeing the crowd react to his music – and himself.
"Afterwards, I allowed my socialness to show," he said. "I was like climbing poles, and security had to tell me to chill out. Damn near almost crowd-dived too. I just soaked in the moment, and after that, it just felt so good that I was like, ‘This is real right now. I was just on a huge stage in front of a lot of people – and they actually liked me.’ From that, I think a lot people began to see my energy, and everything began to grow."
After that breakout Summerfest performance – as well as the visual for his release "Doomsday" – WebsterX began to click into high gear, further erupting into the Milwaukee music spotlight – and there’s been little sign of stopping either. He’s been working and performing with a new collective of rappers and artists – including Q the Sun, Siren, Christopher Gilbert, Lex Allen and others – called New Age Narcissism, not a band but a group of individuals positioned under one roof and all showing off their skills.
"It’s this new form of being narcissistic, but not in a negative thing because narcissism obviously has that negative connotation with it," WebsterX explained. "All in all, it’s us trying to reflect and show ourselves to the public – literally, bare bones, be transparent to everyone and not being afraid to be judged. Because a lot of hip-hop is a lot of cats hiding behind gold chains."
In addition to his time spent with the group, WebsterX also has his highly anticipated sophomore effort coming down the line, which he’s currently developing and working on with fellow New Age Narcissism compatriot Q the Sun.
"We’ve been knocking out tracks so quickly," he said. "It’s a quick process, which I like because then the revise takes longer. You’d rather make it super quick, record it super quick and everything feels right in the moment, because you don’t want to overthink it. That’s how albums take forever. With Q the Sun, if it takes us too long to make something, we’ll just stop and start on over again."
While that’s looking at possibly a fall arrival, WebsterX still has new music in the form of "Queen," a new track from Truancy featuring the Milwaukee rapper that premiered on Complex’s website. And, of course, there’s the upcoming Lupe Fiasco opening show – according to WebsterX, his "biggest show yet" – which he says they’ve been practicing two-a-days over the last month to prepare for and perfect. That doesn’t mean they won’t be having fun, however. The rapper says to expect show antics, weird stuff and some covers.
"There might even be some Super Soakers," he playfully adds.
It’s all moving upward and forward very quickly for WebsterX – and, he hopes, in the process taking his fellow local rappers and the rest of Milwaukee music scene up along with him. After all, according to WebsterX, New Age Narcissism is in part created to "a whole new outlook on how Milwaukee hip-hop can be interpreted." So far, it seems to be working.
"(The Milwaukee music scene) is a whole bunch of streamers and party poppers and a whole bunch of color and random antics and people really getting creative," he noted. "From bands like GGOOLLDD to Canopies to Klassik, whether it’s hip-hop or indie rock or synth pop, it’s all really good right now. Which took a while. In the past, there were a lot of good bands, but it was just a couple of good bands doing well. Which was cool, but you’d rather see a entire ground full of beautiful dandelions rather than just one popping out with a whole bunch of f*cking dirt around it.
"Right now," he added, "I think it’s at its best point possible."
And he only imagines it growing from there. After all, he has big aspirations. In a previous interview, he noted that he wants to reach "revolutionary" heights, like Bob Marley or John Lennon. He still does – and he sees no reason why Milwaukee, not traditionally thought of by the coasts as a massive pop culture hot spot, can’t be the place where something like that can happen.
"I’ve always been this, like, demon-like person who likes to prove people wrong," he said. "I’m just super-driven to live out this crazy, crazy dream that nobody really thinks that some people can really do."
And in just two years, that dream has evolved and gone a long way since his imaginary worlds of basketball stardom and rapping as Just Blaze.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.