It’s 12:54am on a Wednesday, and I’m sitting down with IAMSU and his cameraman in the front room of their hotel suite. Su was in town for a headlining show in Santa Ana, followed by another one the next night in Los Angeles. I had planned to interview the Bay Area rapper at the LA show, but while I was out and about that evening, I’d received a FaceTime call from him, telling me to come and hang. He was an hour out from my house in the Valley, but I still made the trek. We smoked, we hung out with his mom, walked down a highway to get some gas station snacks and then eventually decided, “What better time than now to do an interview?”
I first met IAMSU in 2014, while he was promoting his first studio album, Sincerely Yours. That year, he’d go on a national tour with Wiz Khalifa, following up three insane years that included back to back to back smash singles: a feature on LoveRance’s “Up” in 2011, a feature on E-40’s “Function” in 2012, and a feature on Sage The Gemini’s “Gas Pedal” in 2013. He’s continued to grow his profile in music every year since, while remaining so independent, that I still get a text and an email directly from him for every new song, video, or even a vlog.
His grassroots approach is something you see during the start of a lot of artists’ careers, but now seven years deep in the game, it’s refreshing to see that it’s still not above him. A shift in management following the release of Sincerely Yours likely helped to shape his approach, as he notes that he had to entirely rebuild relationships and almost start over, after not having a representative to speak for him any longer. The setback nearly caused him to leave the game completely, and his hefty publishing checks had him confident that it wasn’t the worst plan in the world. His mother had a different plan, though.
It’s now three years since that album’s release, and Su has definitely rebuilt his career tenfold. He doesn’t need to send those texts out anymore or do his own email blasts, but yet he does, all while likely hanging out with his mom and the crew he’s had since high school; who all are now successful in their own right. He’s really one of the good guys.
On that Wednesday night in Santa Ana, I talked to Su about getting his start in the game, how his mom kept him going when he wanted to quit and much more. The Bay is in good hands.
Take me back to when you put out your first mixtape. It’s 2010, and you’re in college. I know that you had to start doing some online classes in between your freshman and senior year because of the recognition, then dropped out all together.
I was getting recognized for my rapping and my production, because that’s when Big Von from 106 KMEL in the Bay, and My Emotion and Chuy Gomez—they started playing every single song I released. I got picked for the Bay Area Freshmen 10 in 2011, and then after that, I had a song called “I Know What To Do With It” where I sampled Drake and Omarion’s song off of So Far Gone. Von started playing that on the radio, and that was my sound back then; it was like, Auto-tune songs for girls. I was doing that, and then I came with another couple of songs, and every time I sent a song to Von, he’d just play it. They took me to the club right when “Up” was poppin’ too, and I performed my other songs along with “Up.” That really broke me in the Bay.
What inspired you to initially put out your first mixtape?
I actually put out three mixtapes before they give me credit for my actual first mixtape. I was always rapping, but you know when you’re a producer, they don’t really take your rapping serious? I was in a group in high school called the Go Getters, with Show Banga, P-Lo and my other bro. We performed and did hella shit. We were like The Pack! P-Lo made beats and I made beats too at that time. They took my rapping a little bit more serious than P-Lo, but both of us was still being grouped into it like, “You can rap? Cool. But you can go third.” You feel me? It was shit like that, so I was just like, damn. I would get a little bit of anger because I felt like I could really rap, on some, “I need to be respected as a rapper too!” So I would just go in. I made it my life mission to just get good at rapping, so I was just always writing verses.
I’d go to my boy Push’s, and we’d freestyle for six hours. All we would do is freestyle and rap! We had this thing on the X-Box where you could record yourself, and somehow he figured out that if you turn the bass all the way up, you can’t hear the words. So we’d be rapping over hella songs! He figured out a way where if he turned certain things up and certain things down—like you know the EQ—he would take the words out, so it would just be hella bass! I feel like that damn near made our sound, by just having stupid ass bass and everything else is hella low. So it’s just funny how it played out.
You should do a Lost Tapes project or something.
That would be fire because I know I said three, but it’s actually five mixtapes before that time. One was 3, 2, 1 and that was my No Ceilings vibe. No Ceilings hella inspired that. I was chopping my vocals and making it stutter. You remember how Wayne and Nicki’s shit used to do that? I was doing that. I hella wanted to be Wayne, you feel me? So that’s where my head was at. He was music. He super inspired me.
In 2011, you produced and appeared on LoveRance’s “Up,” which would go on to be a national hit. The story goes that it was originally your song and the process didn’t go smoothly. I would say, on a national level, you didn’t get as much credit for that song. Do you think if that situation had been handled better, things would have went differently for you at that point?
I think it worked out for the best. Originally, I was scared of that song because my whole angle that I was pushing when I was making all those mixtapes back in the day wasn’t that. I would rap about sex and all that stuff, but “beat the pussy up” was just a little bit too outspoken for me at that time. So I was scared of it. I was only 20, and my mom heard all my songs. So I was just not comfortable putting myself out like that, so I told ‘Rance like, “Bro, this is your vibe. Go crazy.” Really, that whole situation came about because me and him went to school together. We went out that day, and he had two girls with him, and those two girls came with us back to Chief’s house and instantly started talking shit about sex. We come up with that song in front of them, saying what’s gonna happen. And that’s where that came from.
Was it that song that caught E-40’s attention and led to your guest spot on “Function,” or was that relationship already ongoing?
It definitely came from the attention from that time. It was “Up” and like I said, I was putting out a lot of music. So during that Bay Area Freshmen time, me and Chief would record a song and put it out every day for months. Maybe it was like two or three months while the voting process was going on. We would spam online too. So E-40 saw my work ethic at that time, and he came at me! A number called me and I just didn’t know who it was, and he’s like, “It’s E-40.” At that time, that was the biggest thing that ever happened to me. He’s a legend! It was like wow, I just met 50 Cent but E-40 is literally the president of the Bay Area, culturally. He was like, “I wanna get you on this song, nephew! I see you doing yo’ thang.” I’m like, “Daaamn!” So I do the song, and that’s when I noticed my stock rose as Iamsu! “Up” was kind of like, I’m poppin’, it’s cool, but THAT moment was when everything really changed. It was big for all three of us on the song—myself, Problem, and YG. That was mine and YG’s first time performing on national TV. We were on 106 & Park.
After two big hits in 2011 and 2012, the following year you got another hit with Sage The Gemini for “Gas Pedal.” Did it ever bother you that you were seeing your most success as features and not as the main artist, or did you feel this was only building you up for your next win?
Honestly, it did bother me, but I had to realize that my situation is hella different. All of those situations were major label-signed artists. I’ve never been signed to a major label. I was signed to Warner for my album process, but it wasn’t like I’m an artist on their roster. It was just a straight distribution deal. So, I’ve had to take everything with a grain of salt. Like, I’m seeing hella shit, but it’s not me that’s the front guy and you’ll never feel what it’s like to be the front guy until you’re the front guy. So being a supporting cast but really playing a big ass role while shit is happening, it kind of made my vision different. I don’t know. I see things differently now. I think it just makes me work harder.
Has there ever been a point in your career when you were considering getting a regular job?
Ooh, a regular job? Nah, but I’ve had one way back, but that was when I was like 19. So before all the “Up” stuff, I was really hustling hard with beats and verses and shit, so I was cool. I dropped out of college before any of that shit happened. So I didn’t have a point where I wanted to get a regular job, but I had a point where I wanted to quit rapping. At that point, I thought I was just good for life and didn’t see how far I could go. I was looking at my publishing checks like, “I’m straight! If I just stop right here, I’m good forever!” I was producing hella shit and at that time, I was on the biggest songs in the country back to back to back. So I’m like, fuck it. It was a point after my first album that I was really gonna quit and just be like, “I’m good. I did what I was supposed to do.”
So what re-motivated you?
I just got thrown in a crazy situation over the course of a year. I had some family members that passed away, I went on a tour and it got really stressful on the tour. Some of my closest people had to go home. It was weird shit going on. My mom came in the picture as management, and she really just helped me get my head together and my life together. So that’s what re-motivated me. It reminded me why I love music and why I even wanted to rap, and that’s where I’m at right now.
Why did you decide to leave Warner?
I just decided to stop because the management team I’d been with, I stopped working with them, and my deal came by way of them. I had tried to re-approach the distribution team, but it was just too much complication. So I wasn’t able to put music out for about 11 months, and you know 11 months in rap is an eternity! I’m an artist that’s always putting shit out. I was able to put shit out for free, but it doesn’t have the same impact. People were like, “Why aren’t you selling this? I just bought your first album! Shit’s not adding up.” I didn’t have the same access, I had to rebuild relationships on my own because I’m not having people doing it for me. I’m not having management calls every day, or a digital marketing team or any of that kind of stuff. So it was a setback, but it made me learn. I had to work ten times harder, and I think I needed that at the time. Now every success is so much bigger because I made it happen myself.
A lot of young artists don’t set up their money right, especially in the beginning. Did you get a financial planner that helped you with all of that?
My mom! I’m telling you, my mom is like Cookie, bruh. My mom can do everything. She gets all my shit straight. Before I had my mom in the picture, I was spending a lot of money a month, honestly. Even when I was signed, I was spending like 30 bands a month on marketing and publicists and stuff. I was paying that myself. Well I guess I was really independent if you really think about it! I was paying for the whole team and everything and still having money, so I was earning a lot. But once my mom came in the picture, I still had a lot of money just tucked. I hadn’t been buying hella cars and chains or anything. So I invested a lot of money. I bought a house, I got a retirement fund, I started my companies. I did a lot of shit. Now I’m in just a bit of a different position, so if I went to a label, they would have to really make some shit shake. I need like a Jay Z deal, like a life-changing situation. Fun fact: I almost signed to 300, before it even was 300. I had a breakfast meeting with Lyor [Cohen] and he was talking about starting 300, but I didn’t do it for whatever reason. My manager just told me we weren’t going to do it. It probably wasn’t enough money or something.
How’s 2017 looking for you?
So I released two mixtapes this year, Boss Up 1 and 2. I’m very proud of them. It’s just fun music. I make a majority of my beats, and I put them both out on my record label, Eyes On Me LLC. So I’m pumped about that. That’s four releases in one year! I’m about to put out another mixtape called You Can’t Ban The Sudi Man. And then I got my I Am Summer show I do every year in the Bay. It’s been getting bigger every year. I’m doing a full week this time, so it’s gonna be poppin’.