Hailing from Cincinnati, rapper Speed Walton (formerly Buggs Tha Rocka) follows in the footsteps of Ohio’s long list of musical innovators. In hip-hop alone, from Camu Tao and RJD2 to Kid Cudi and Stalley, the Buckeye State is a veritable hotbed for the kind of artists who refuse to be boxed-in by convention. True to that tradition, Speed has made a name for himself through several different projects—each with its own unique style and sound. Whether with his group the Space Invadaz (alongside Cincinnati hometown hero Donte from MOOD), with his old experimental fusion band Gold Shoes or as a solo artist, Speed has become a local celebrity in his own right—even earning him recognition at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards for multiple consecutive years.
Speed and Donte joined Talib Kweli on the road for his Radio Silence Tour this year. MOOD, of course, helped launch Kweli’s career by featuring him on their underground classic Doom in 1997 (which was partially produced by fellow Cincinnati native and Kweli’s Reflection Eternal group-mate Hi-Tek). Now, the Space Invadaz are signed to Kweli’s Javotti Media platform and are working on their debut album for the indie label. Speed is also recording his own solo studio debut, Real Name Speed, and recently dropped some luminous visuals for its first single, “Black Mozart”—then hit the beach for its second, “Night Fall,” and finally took it home with the laid-back, hazy “Purple Flowers” video.
UGHH chopped it up with the Cincinnati emcee to talk about his new projects, touring with Talib Kweli and working with his childhood heroes, as well as making music that attempts to bridge the gap between different schools and styles of hip-hop.
I understand Speed is your birth name, and that you’ve been spittin’ since age six. Tell me about your family. Do you come from a musical household?
Speed Walton Bey is my name. My family mostly played in jazz bands or in church—so yes, music has always been part of our household.
You used to go by Buggs Tha Rocka. Why the change?
Just felt I evolved and wanted to be as transparent as possible, so [I] wanted to just go by my actual name. It’s who I am—and as far as my music goes, it’s the same… Just me telling my story or things I seen, giving the listener all of me in [my] pure essence—good or bad.
Real Name Speed drops later this year. What can you tell us about the project?
I think this album embodies who I am as a person and artist—a great introduction into my mind and world. It’s just different musical elements I am inspired by and stories and emotions I have experienced. It’s mellow and chill, lyrical stoner vibes, for sure.
Who’s involved, in terms of features and production?
Mostly, it’s in-house producers from my city that I love working with. [I] wanted to be as authentic … [to] what I, as an artist, and Cincinnati, Ohio represent—at least on my side. I thought that was very important for this album, so I have my fam Hop Trax, Ill Poetic, Sal Dali, JRDN, J. Rawls, Homage (CVG)… I think that’s it. Hope I ain’t missing anyone.
I peeped the video for “Black Mozart” and was wondering: why Mozart? Why not, say, “Black Chopin” or “Black Bach?” Do you have any personal connection to Mozart’s music?
Yo, that’s a good question [laughs]. Honestly, I knew that Mozart published his first works at the early age of eight, so I kinda had that in mind—seeing [as] I started really composing at six, and my family and people in the neighborhood always felt I was a prodigy because of that. I just think it was because I was [in an] environment that allowed me the freedom to be creative, and it was just a part of me—and the other half of me … just thought it was a fly way to start off a verse [laughs].
In the song’s second verse, you say, “My budget right now won’t let me get my ideas out.” If you had unlimited resources, what would you like to be doing that you currently can’t?
I would have symphonies doing live instrumentation, a crazy Kanye West stage show, all types of crazy ideas for features… It just takes a wild budget for this creative imagination. I have to take things to the next level, trying to push the culture forward.
I feel like when an artist rocks over sample-driven boom bap beats, they are often pigeon-holed as some sort of Golden Era nostalgia act—no matter how groundbreaking or forward-thinking their music actually is. How would you describe the music you make, and where do you think the future of hip-hop is headed?
I agree with you, with that statement. I tell people all the time, I [just] love music. I’m not in a lane or any box people may try to group me in [just] because I’m one of the [last few] artists spitting at a certain type skill level that purists resonate with. I love bars and stories. That’s just me, but I love music and I think that reflects in my beat selection. I’m hands on with everything, so that’s all calculated. I wanna be an artist the Golden Era can dig, and the now and future generations can always dig [too]… At the end of the day, it’s just about if it’s good or bad, when it comes to music—no matter the lane [or] style.
Ohio seems to breed a lot of hip-hop artists who think outside the box and sort of fuse genres and styles. Do you think that’s indicative of anything unique about the scene?
I think it’s in the middle of the world—the heart of the U.S.—so it’s a melting pot of different people [and] different musical styles. From funk bands to indie [and] experimental bands, Ohio breeds unique styles. Something in the water, I guess.
Your group the Space Invadaz is dropping an album on Talib Kweli’s Javotti Media platform later this year, as well. I know you and Donte have each worked with Kweli in different capacities in the past, but how’d y’all link up? Can you elaborate on your relationship?
I always was a fan of MOOD and the Doom album. I grew up [on] it, and Donte had a certain style and voice that was unique to me. Always thought he was one of the most underrated, but greatest emcees alive—and he is from my city, Cincinnati, so it made sense to link up once I knew he was a fan of me. We met [at] a hip-hop panel at the University of Cincinnati. We talked and recorded the same week, and we been down ever since. When the opportunity came about to put out music with Talib Kweli and his label, it only made sense [that] me and Donte drop a project together. The chemistry was there, and Kweli and him have a long history, so [it] was [an] organic move.
What’s it like touring with Kweli?
It’s great touring with a hip-hop legend. I learn so much game. To have his respect is love. He showed me how to grind independently. He took Kanye West on his first tour and gave him a shot. Same for me. Kweli took me on my first tour, so him telling me that story … kinda just fueled me even more to go harder—’cause Kanye West is one of my biggest inspirations. It just let me know the end goal to be global is in close reach.
Have you guys been working with Kweli in the studio at all, lately?
Yeah, we just recorded a record with D.R.A.M., and another one off the Space Invadaz album—a crew record joint. Hip-hop needs more of those. [They] used to be the thing, back in the day. But [working with him is] awesome. Talib is a vet. Donte is a vet. It’s a whole crew of real lyricists, so everybody gotta go hard—every verse, every song, every performance. Steel sharpen steel.
You’ve cited Kweli and MOOD as some of your influences, coming up. Do you ever sit back and think, “Damn, I’m working with my idols?”
All the time. I always make sure I give the people who show me love and whom I respect the flowers while they can smell ’em. Don’t cost nothin’ to show humility and spread love, so I always let them know [that] I know I’m blessed and thankful for their guidance on my journey—and a seat at the table with rap’s elite.
“Beneath The Surface” is UGHH’s column designed to unearth the underground’s deepest and brightest gems—exposing and celebrating some of the best emerging emcees, producers and DJs on the scene.