Local Spotlight: HAAWWS

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The Roxbury-based hip-hop artist and his closest collaborators discuss NOTFORSALE, organic features, and the contemporary landscape of Boston music.

HAAWWS is no stranger to the hustle and bustle of the Curry Student Center on Northeastern’s campus, as he stakes out a table replete with natural sunlight from window walls screening a sparse Saturday snowfall. Whether delving into research on movies or gaining inspiration for new music, the Roxbury-based hip-hop artist and self-proclaimed cinephile frequents this space to channel his productive side.

“During rush hour and in between classes when people are here, there’s a certain energy,” he explains. “You may have a paper that would normally take you five or six hours that will take you two and a half just by being around this.” 

There’s a deliberate multimodality through which HAAWWS maneuvers, transmitting a broad swath of sources into eclectic yet focused output. On one end of the spectrum, the 90s films directed by the late John Singleton inspire an “attention to detail” he finds particularly efficacious in evoking nostalgia. HAAWWS especially admires Singleton’s intentionality behind camera work—an infectious level of care that HAAWWS has a harder time finding in the present. On the other end of the spectrum, the unimaginable sights and sounds of his own life (the freshest (and likely bizarrest) example being a woman kissing her cat on the mouth on his walk to Northeastern) stoke refreshing brushstrokes to his self-portrait.

“I definitely don’t want to be a shock value artist where I’m just doing stuff for the attention, but rather to be thought-provoking,” HAAWWS articulates. “I understand if that comes across as an autobiographical approach, but you gotta add some bounce and flavor to it to not make it sound as gray or dull-sounding.”

Enter NOTFORSALE—HAAWWS’s latest 13-track mosaic with the concise directness of an off-hour I-95 and the swerving verve of dim-lit backroads (the former shining in the lyrics, the latter shining in the production). HAAWWS pinpoints both his ear for production and his aphoristic delivery of his thoughts as two areas of artistic growth while composing this project, citing the first and second verses of “Chances Are” as manifestations.

“In the first verse, I give you the bite-sized version of me that can play on the radio and will probably be cut off after the second hook,” he analyzes, “but on the second hook, I’m gonna get off everything I want to say.” The result is a seamless blend of a marketable snippet with a bounce reminiscent of Vince Staples’ “Norf Norf” and the breathing room for what HAAWWS refers to as the “nostalgic hip-hop essence.”

This essence comes naturally to HAAWWS, but the ability to step in front of a mic and smoothly translate thoughts into verses without the middleman of writing is a skill he hopes to sharpen: “I need to grow and experience things a little more to be able to unlock that skill.” His desire to hone that aspect of his craft stems from the story behind “Process of Elimination”—the outro of NOTFORSALE (the closing track “WESSIDEDRILL” serves as a bonus track) stitched together without picking up the pad in the aftermath of an inspirational open aux night. “As I’m rapping, I’m getting goosebumps, because I’m like ‘Damn, this is all rhyming, I’m on cadence, and this is really my life story given in a capsule-sized way,’” he recalls with a sense of pride. Unless it’s journaling—a habit recently incorporated into his daily routine—HAAWWS hopes to gradually stray away from penning his lyrics in an effort to recapture those goosebumps.

HAAWWS’ verses were not the only organically constructed aspects of NOTFORSALE, as the collaborations spanning the project all arose from meaningful dialogues with a splash of “divine intervention.” One such stroke of serendipity surfaced when HAAWWS and $ean Wire—the Dorchester-raised hip-hop artist behind the lightning bolt of “$ean Wire Interlude”—missed the bus departing from South Station to New York City. In this brief moment of misfortune, a shamrock sprouted through the cracks when they bumped into Roxbury-based hip-hop artist Milkshaw Benedict. “The universe is telling me something,” HAAWWS reflects, revisiting his mental state at that time. “What is it saying? It’s saying, ‘Put Milk on your album.’”

One rejuvenating bus ride to the Empire City and one studio session later, “CLASSICS ONLY” quickly came to fruition. “As soon as Milk gets to the studio, I send him the record and he immediately starts writing,” HAAWWS recounts. “He shocked the studio, because while everyone was still settling in, he took the opportunity to be like, ‘I’m about to body this verse.’”

BoriRock, as his feature on “Process of Elimination” materialized out of thin air. “He’s writing his verse in his head, pacing back and forth in the room… and then just went directly to the microphone and spit his verse,” HAAWWS reveals with just as much astonishment as he had then. 

Preceding the BoriRock mic drop occurred a conversation on the state of music in New England, in which Bori expressed that if he were a major label, he would not sign any rappers because of his belief that Boston artists could be working harder. HAAWWS agrees to an extent with this sentiment, yet acknowledges the emergence of local bands that would have been deemed basement acts pre-2020: “Because of all the different resources we now have available in the DIY space, the opportunities are limitless and you can do as much as you want.”

Highlighting the shortcomings of Boston as a launchpad for artists, however, the topic of conversation shifts from local acts striving to make a career out of music, to those who have made it. “I’ve never really felt like we’ve had a megastar who focused on their own story,” HAAWWS assesses. “It’s not that they forget where they came from, but their focus is on making hits for the radio, not on returning to their old neighborhood.”

At separate moments of this Boston music landscape evaluation, producer/NOTFORSALE executive producer Kieh and talent manager/creative executive Maia Rose snag chairs. Caught up to speed with the BoriRock studio conversation, Kieh chimes in to draw a connection between the late regional hip-hop legend Jefe Replay and budding superstar Coi Leray: as they moved out of Boston, members of their teams from Boston moved with them. HAAWWS points out the rarity of artists continuing to cultivate the team they started with, yet notes that those individuals often rise to the top… and that certainly does not go unnoticed by him.

“These artists we see on big stages down the line will give insight about how they had the same manager, same photographer, same producer, recording in the same studio because the intentionality is there from the beginning,” HAAWWS dishes. “I’m very intentional in that way, but I can’t expect for all my artist peers to be the same.”

be afraid.”: “Labels on my line, corporate on my line, y’all ain’t coming close.” HAAWWS was approached by a few labels before having Maia in his corner, with one attempting to sign him for $25,000 after he traveled down to meet them in Philadelphia. “I know how the veil can be tossed over your eyes,” he reflects, “and in those situations you have to know what to do: do you want to be a rapper, or do you want to be an artist?” NOTFORSALE marks the turning point for HAAWWS, as the creation of the album revealed to him that his inner artist is more apparent than his inner rapper.

Currently one of the leads over at the Dorchester Art Project, HAAWWS strives to remove the corporate lens in all facets of his life: “I don’t want to fall into that space because it’ll make the work mundane and less fun, which will not only impact that sense of community, but will also impact our connections to community when we start thinking metrically.” In that sense, the aforementioned “y’all ain’t coming close” from “be afraid.” poses a double entendre—a cheers to thriving independently, as well as a reflection of the backburner arts and culture still occupies in boardrooms. Regardless of its treatment behind closed doors, as Rose puts it all into perspective, “Whether you believe it or not, art is all around us. It’s synonymous with life, and it’s not siloed.”

While HAAWWS, Kieh, and Rose will continue to prioritize quality over quantity in their processes—succinctly represented by Kieh’s statement that he would rather “put his life into ten albums than work on 1,000 different albums”—HAAWWS has already hit the ground running with his next chapter behind the curtain. “It took some time to get everything off my chest on NOTFORSALE, and now I want to continue to build off of that narrative, show the different layers of my artistry, and bring more people into Boston,” HAAWWS gleams with one eye on the rear-view and the other on the road. 

NOTFORSALE, or subscribe to the Dorchester Art Project newsletter.

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