All photos by Jess Lehrman
The first thing Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire does is show me a painting. It’s the first he’s ever done, and frankly, it looks like shit. I ask him why he brought it with him to the VICE offices, and he explains that he’d done it that morning while a painter friend was making him breakfast. It features a purple blob that kind of looks like a tree in the center, with a yellow stick figure to its right. The whole shebang is accented by a rash of formless squiggles. “I’m King Cosmic,” he explains, pointing to the stick figure holding a shield and a spear. “This is me depicted as a Zulu warrior. I’ve got feathers in my head. I’m golden.” The purple thing? “This is the vortex of my emotions. I’m gonna give it to my mother.” He smiles.
My interview with the linebacker-esque eXquire has been set up with the express purpose of talking about his sense of fashion, so I ask him why he wears the clothes he does. “I don’t know if I choose clothes. Clothes choose me. I feel like clothing should be an extension of your philosophy on life—I should be able to look at you and tell what type of person you are based off your clothing.” This leads away from sartorial matters and into more broad, philosophical ones. “I feel like life and the universe itself, is like a ripple. You might not feel it, you might not see it, but as small as your idea or thought might be, it’s going to affect somebody. There’s no direct correlation between people, but I feel like we all exist in this pool. The universe just is. It is and it isn’t.” I ask him if he considers himself a hippie. “Nah, not really. Hippies are more peaceful than me. I just say I’m cosmic.” This is not the same dude you’d associate with that one song about drunk driving on a Wednesday. That’s the thing, though. He’s not that guy at all.
Later that week, eXquire and I are in a Lower Manhattan studio, talking about his life and the events that led to his upcoming mixtape Kismet. We’re eating cookies—Chips Ahoy Chewy, his favorite—and I notice that a picture of the painting he showed me days ago is now the background of his iPhone. Equal parts spacey, soulful, paranoid, isolated, and insular, Kismet’s sound reflects the circumstances under which it was created. The majority of the record was recorded on a farm in Woodstock, New York, while eXquire was under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms, which he took in order to view the music from a different angle. He speaks fondly of the sessions, describing them as such: “Get up, cook, do drugs, make songs, go play with the llama.” The record’s cover pretty much says it all—standing in front of some sort of galactic formulation, eXquire stares at the camera, almost into your soul, while in the act of fucking somebody.
Meticulously assembled, Kismet seems designed for the exact type of kid that eXquire once was, and very much still is: lonely, smart, deceptively deep, confused, and looking for peace. eXquire fits in with the New York rap scene much in the way he did in high school, which is to say, he doesn’t. He scoffs at the very idea of “New New York,” a term often used to describe the new wave of hip-hop talent in the city. He barely even listens to new rap, let alone entertain the thought of working with new rappers. He’s the same person he’s always been—introverted, antisocial, and cripplingly nerdy—largely eschewing the streetwear-clad, networking-happy world of New York hip-hop for the one in his own head.
Serving simultaneously as the next logical step in his career as well as a hard restart on it, it’s the truest reflection of eXquire that he’s released to this date, showcasing a profound thinker with deep ties to New York hip-hop of yore, who can be funny at times, melancholy or aggressive at others, always highly sexual, and deeply invested in the intricacies of human relationships. He describes the tape as a “retcon”—short for “retroactive continuity,” a term commonly used in comic books to signal a reconfiguration of a universe’s greater canon. Which is to say, a large swath of Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s audience wouldn’t expect him to know what a retcon is, and that’s a problem.
Thanks to his tape Lost in Translation, the wildly popular single “Huzzah,” and its even more wildly popular remix which found eXquire rapping alongside Das Racist, Danny Brown, El-P, and Despot, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire's first brush with popularity came with a price. He was quickly saddled with the label of “alt-rapper,” garnering the adulation of an audience that he never particularly asked for, demanding the type of booze-soaked, lecherous songs that he didn’t particularly enjoy making. Of his popularity, he says, “It was a double-edged sword,” pronouncing the “w” sound in the word much in the same way that Method Man might have in 1994. “Every artist feels misunderstood, but I feel overtly misunderstood,” he says.
“Lost in Translation was written during a point in my life when I was drinking because I was fucked up,” he says. “It was about being depressed, but it wasn’t like I loved that life of depression.” Now 28, he’d never seriously drank in his life until he was 23 or so. It was that version of himself, created at an extreme low, that became eXquire’s public face. He found himself playing along in spite of himself. “I started out with certain intentions, and broke every promise I made to myself,” he says of the time. This unenviable situation led to the glum Power and Passion, his EP from last fall, which failed to win him many new fans and pleased few of those he already had.
eXquire is still dealing with the fallout from those days, describing his current situation thusly: “People like me for shit I don’t do. If I make music my way, it’s a change to be myself.” But despite the false starts and missteps that have characterized his career up to this point, there’s something about the way that Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire talks—in koans, discrete and layered, consistently profound but always offered casually—that really makes you believe in him. No matter what anyone tells you, it is his innate aura of greatness—as well as his intelligence, prodigious mic talents and once-in-a-lifetime writing abilities—that earned him his deal with Universal Records. Those same qualities have kept his label’s loyalty and support, regardless of whether or not they’ve seen a return on their investment yet.
eXquire lives life intuitively: “I do everything based off of energy. If I get on a charter bus, I’ll sit in the seat that has the best energy. If I’m getting doughnuts, I’ll be like, ‘Give me the one in the back.’ If I don’t feel good about shit, I don’t fuck with it.” It is fitting, then, that Kismet derives its title from an Arabic word meaning “destiny.”
Born Hugh Anthony Allison to a pair of musically inclined parents, eXquire grew up poor and nerdy in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. His parents separated at an early age, which led him to spend his weekdays with his mother and weekends with his father, which while a nontraditional situation, proved to be non-traumatic. Deeply interested in comic books, toys, and reading, eXquire never quite fit in, and grew up with very few friends. Though he describes himself as having been an “amazing student,” he dropped out of high school at the age of 15, citing a fixation on becoming a rapper. It’s around this time that eXquire’s father moved to Florida. “I ain’t nothin’ like him,” he says of his dad’s personality, admitting that their relationship is tepid but unhostile. A reconciliation seems possible; however, nothing’s happening right now. “Nobody wants to make the first move.”
A high school drop-out living with his mom, the 15 year-old eXquire’s hip-hop dreams manifested themselves nearly not at all, and eXquire spent his days reading, working a series of dead-end jobs that he never quite managed to stick with. eXquire—then calling himself Tru-Gizzy Da Great and operating largely before the Internet mixtape boom—did whatever he could to get recognized, from working the open mic circuit to handing CDs out on the train to cold-calling executives and asking them to give him a shot. Eventually, his tactics caught the ear of a label, who showed interest but ultimately passed on him. “They called me and were like, ‘Well, we’d like to sign you, but the stuff you’re rapping about… people wanna hear more gangster shit.’” The year was 2006, and in New York, the ice-cold street-rap of 50 Cent ruled the hip-hop landscape. Discouraged, Tru-Gizzy Da Great gave up on rap.
It was his lack of real-life prospects that compelled him to keep going, however. I ask if he ever wishes he’d stayed in school and gone to college. “Yeah, big time. I’d have been a ‘Black Professional,’” he says in the studio. He pauses. “I’d have been miserable. Had I went that way I’d wish I was in this room right now.”
Ultimately, his failed early flirtation with the spotlight proved to be the best thing that could have happened to him. When he picked up the microphone again, he did so with a renewed energy and clearer sense of purpose. He picked the name Esquire, replacing the S with an X due to his adoration of both Malcolm X and DMX, and threw the “Muthafuckin’” in there so that announcers at the open mics he frequented would have a little something extra to lean into when he took the stage.
It was during a particularly dark, dead-end, and alcohol-soaked period that he recorded “Huzzah,” the song that would eventually prove to be his way out. Recorded in 2009, eXquire remembers emailing the song to a friend the very night he recorded it. “Shit’s gonna be poppin. I’m telling you,” he told his friend. He was right, just not on the sort of timetable that a patient or sane person could have imagined. While the track did prove to be a massive success, it took nearly two years for the song to gain any sort of traction. “I did that shit at open mics for a year and a half,” he says, before he and his team got the idea to film a music video for it. Even then, it took another six months for the song to build steam, slowly finding its way onto indie music blogs and helping eXquire finally find an audience. Buzzing off of the popularity of “Huzzah” and Lost in Translation, the Mishka-released album in mixtape’s clothing it was attached to, eXquire caught the ear of an A&R at Universal Records, who signed him after hearing his track “The Gold Watch.” Before he knew it, he was on tour with El-P and Killer Mike, rapping to an indie-skewing audience who, often only familiar with the stylistic outlier that was “Huzzah,” didn’t quite understand who he was or what he was about. Soon thereafter, eXquire started feeling the same way.
Because of the success of “Huzzah,” he felt pressured to comply to the image that he’d fallen into. “I would be out on tour, and kids would be like, ‘Get drunk with me!’” Despite a generous share of misgivings, he played along. “I said, ‘Fuck it, they’re payin’ me money.’ But that’s not really what I wanted to be or do.” During this point, he and his girlfriend grew distant, which led to him leaving her. Never one particularly drawn towards partying, he suddenly found himself smoking, drinking, and delving into other drugs, particularly Adderall. He moved into a large, luxurious apartment and brought his friends with him, partying constantly but never quite getting around to buying furniture.
eXquire’s life quickly fell into a holding pattern, a creative stagnation that led to the release of Power and Passion, a stopgap EP that he speaks of glumly, if at all. “It felt demonic. But I learned from it, and you can never be mad at information.” After returning from a post-Power and Passion tour, his mother abruptly informed him that she had cancer. Though she’s making a full recovery, the news shook him to his core. “After my mom got sick I had a moment of clarity. I said, ‘Perhaps I’m not being who I want to be.’”
In the past few months, eXquire has been working to figure out who he truly is, or rather, remembered who he’s been all along. Though he stresses that he was never an addict, he’s quit drinking and drugs wholesale. “It’s not a big deal to me,” he says. “The way people ask, it’s like they all thought I was an alcoholic. I just needed to focus.” He’s ditched the crew and the crib in favor of an apartment in Long Island, each day putting up with a two-hour commute into the city. His circle is smaller and nearly closed now—he calls his mother his best friend, and he confesses he feels much more comfortable around women than men. He’s found himself a new manager, one who serves as a de facto spiritual advisor to the emotionally wobbly eX. It seems that the newest eXquire is the most self-actualized one to date. “Not everybody’s happy with the changes I made to my life,” he says, “but I don’t care. You can’t please everybody all the time. I’m way happier. I prefer things the way they are. They’re more peaceful.”
We get to talking about film, and he tells me about Kumare, a documentary that he describes as the last good movie he watched. He says, “It’s about an Indian cat. His parents are Indian, but he’s raised in America. He doesn’t believe in gurus. He notices people like Jim Jones had cult followings, and gets interested in that. He grows a beard and pretends to be this well-traveled ass nigga. He gets a cult following; he tells them to believe in themselves. At the end, he cuts his hair and reveals to them that the power was in them all along, but their lives changed for having met him. Some people were mad, some people thought it was dope, and some people still believed he was a guru.”
My recorder isn’t on, so I jot his quote down, asking him to verify it. Reading it back to him, I start to wonder if it was kismet that brought eXquire to the place he is now, and he just needed someone or something to reveal to him that he’d been the artist he was meant to be all along. His face contorts. He can tell what I’m trying to do. There’s no motherfucking metaphor here, his face seems to say. It’s just a fucking movie. As I ask him the question he’s surely anticipating—how what he gleaned from Kumare might apply to him, he forces a laugh. “I couldn’t tell you,” he says. “You tell me.”
Drew Millard is an editor at Noisey. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard
Find Jess Lehrman is a freelance photographer living in Brooklyn. She's on Twitter - @Jessierocks