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Lizzo on party rap stereotypes, feminism, and her favorite GRRRLs

by Andrea Swensson

January 24, 2014

It's been an especially busy week for Lizzo, who celebrated the end to a successful 2013 and popped the cork on the New Year by having a song placed on the popular HBO show Girls, flying to London to perform at BBC 1's Future Fest, and reconnecting with producer Ryan Olson and beatmaker Lazerbeak to begin working on the follow-up to her breakout album Lizzobangers. And she'll cap it all off by returning home tonight to play a sold-out show at First Avenue along with Har Mar Superstar, Actual Wolf, and Strange Names in honor of the Current's birthday.

But first things first, she had to take a break from it all to get her nails done.

While Lizzo instructed her favorite beautician at Ten Perfect Nails to "go H.A.M." on her fingertips, I sat alongside her and picked her brain about everything from her musical influences to her thoughts on feminism to where she fits in the Twin Cities hip-hop scene. What follows is an edited version of an hour-long conversation that we had last weekend.

Local Current: So, you have a couple of things going on this week. Catch us up. What's the latest?

Lizzo: Where do I even begin? I started off last week at a cabin in Detroit Lakes with Ryan Olson and Lazerbeak, Jeremy Nutzman, and Isaac Gale. We were conceptualizing and demoing songs for the next record, which was really fun. I felt, once again, like I was stuck in a rut, but this time it wasn’t writing—it was just wack song block. I was like, I’m writing all these wack songs about love, and that’s not me. I don’t know what’d gotten into me, maybe it was seasonal depression.

So we did that for a week, and then went to Madison and played with Caroline Smith, which was awesome, and then got two days off, and then Monday we’re going to London to play the BBC 1 Future Fest, which is really exciting because BBC 1 has been really, really supportive of “Batches and Cookies,” and Lizzobangers in general. Last year Future Fest had A$AP Rocky and King Krule, and this year it’s going to be featuring me, Jhene Aiko—I like her a lot, she’s on Drake’s album—and Sampha, who was also on Drake’s album. We’re gonna do that, get back into town on the 23rd, and then the 24th I’m playing the birthday party! I’m so excited. And then the next day Caroline Smith is playing, which I’m excited for and I will be in the building for.

Are you going to play with her, too?

I dunno! We’ll see what she allows, she is the boss. After that, GRRRL PRTY is playing Best New Bands on the 30th in the Mainroom. And then I’m going to New York after that to be in Paper Magazine’s “Beautiful People” issue, which is going to be cool, because last year's featured [Russell] Westbrook, one of the characters from Girls, and Dev Hynes from Blood Orange. So that’s a big honor, because those are very beautiful people. And THEN, after that, I’m going on tour back in England until SXSW, and then touring SXSW. And then I believe in April there is a very small break. And I’m excited about all of it, because it just basically feels like I’m finally upgraded from part-time to full-time work at my job.

Were you holding down a part-time job before, to supplement the music?

I quit a day job and was able to pursue music and financially stabilize myself [the week of] Soundset—not last year, but the year before. I got fired because I wanted to go to Soundset 2012.

I want to talk about your relationship with Sophia Eris, who you've collaborated with in the Chalice, GRRRL PRTY, and had as a guest on your solo album. It seems like you have a really special connection.

We got really close, and also at the same time we wisened up and learned how to maintain healthy relationships. I’ve always had a best friend, or best friend groups—I’m always in a group of like three women; the Chalice and GRRRL PRTY both have this trinity thing to it. But for the first time I got to focus on a relationship with just one person, and it’s probably my healthiest relationship I have right now. Boys included. [laughs] She’s helped support me in a lot of ways I need, because I’m crazy and I try to take everything on at once, and sometimes I’ll be like, 'This is a decision I’m trying to make, but I can’t make it. Let me talk to you real quick and realize if it’s rational or not, or if I’m tripping.' She’s a great friend and a soul mate of sorts.

I feel like from being a mature adult, maturing, and the things I’ve experienced in the world, and also from this friendship I’ve acquired, I know how to deal with all my other relationships—compromise, and understanding, putting yourself in the person’s shoes—it’s been humbling and awesome, and she’s a great person to know. I’m glad to have her in my life. And she’s extremely talented, too. I can’t wait for her solo record. She’s going to do great things. Her new sound is crazy.

When you’re on the road is it just you and Sophia Eris?


Right now. The team is about to expand, because it must expand. Ryan McMann is a drummer who drums with Har Mar Superstar, and he was like, "I want to try out some of your songs, I really like what you’re doing." He’s playing with me at the birthday party. So he’s a new addition that I’m excited about. Also, bringing in some tour management and some merchandise management.

What do you think it about your music that resonates with the U.K. audiences?

I don’t know! When we were making Lizzobangers, Beak was like, "I feel like we’re making a futuristic record." And I realized that there was a blend of rock and old-school West Coast, and my style was definitely a throwback, you know what I’m saying? And they’re like [in British accent], "Oh, it reminds me of Missy Elliot! And all of the things I really liked about the ‘90s!" And I think the throwback feel is what gravitated [U.K. audiences] toward it. But you know, I’m not always going to be making throwback records, and hopefully people fall in love with the music and the artist and Lazerbeak’s production, all the different elements that make up that package.

I think Har Mar helped out a lot. They LOVE Har Mar Superstar. Love. Har Mar Superstar can’t go nowhere out there without hearing "Har Mar!" He’s a big deal out there. He helped me so much, I’m so appreciative of that. And I think “Batches and Cookies”—the BBC 6 loved it, and then BBC 4 loved it, and then it eventually got to BBC 1. Which is crazy. Because they’re playing Beyoncé, Kanye West, “Batches and Cookies,” Miley Cyrus. It’s crazy to get in there like that. The music business there is different. Here, America is built on corporations. To get on radio here is way more difficult than anywhere else. And that’s why—hey, more power to America, we make it difficult—but I think over there it’s just easier. If you have a good song and you have a good team behind you, you’ll get out there.

So how did this whole Girls thing happen?

Zync Music is our licensing company out in Los Angeles, and they made the sync—shout out to Melissa there and the whole team. It’s funny because they don’t do hip-hop, really. So the fact that they wanted to do a hip-hop record was amazing. I was like Girls. Girls? That’s just one of the many, many good things that has happened. I was happy about it. We had to get the song ready, because the song [“Paris”] wasn’t even on the record, and we submitted it, and it made it! So now we’re putting it on the next record.

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I have some more philosophical questions for you.

Nice, let’s go.

I was reading the coverage of the last GRRRL PRTY show, and I thought it was really interesting that some people say, oh, it’s so against the Twin Cities stereotype of “conscious” hip-hop. I think it’s strange that people need to make that distinction, and figure out where to categorize your music. Do you have any thoughts on where you fit in on that spectrum of “thinking music” and "party music," and where you fit in alongside other acts in the Cities?

I think GRRRL PRTY came from—you know, the name came from the [Icehouse] residencies first, because we didn’t know what we were going to be called. I was like, let’s have these girl parties. And our management was like, you should just go as GRRRL PRTY. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, it’s ironic, almost, that we’re going by that, because we make people get down. And it became this throwback to riot grrl, it became this anti-what-people-think movement. So, when people listen to a song they’ll hear all types of things. Everyone’s going to take a line and say, "It’s deep," "It’s not deep," "It’s disrespectful"—there’s a spectrum of thought that humans have, and I’m so glad that we’re alive and able to do that.

Honestly, [La Manchita’s] music isn’t party music. Chita’s music is dark, she talks about a lot of her struggles that she’s dealt with. Sophia Eris’s music is anything but party music, once you hear it. Like “Rest Your Head Up”—it’s slow, it’s poetic, she has so many metaphors and she tells stories. And my music, people party to it because I’m like ‘You better f***ing party,’ but listen to the lyrics—there are metaphors. The only reason that people think we aren’t of Twin Cities hip-hop is because we’re not literal. When we’re rapping, it’ll be all these metaphors that mean so much to us. Like one of the songs that we perform is all about Lauren’s family; she recently lost her grandmother and that was really, really hard for her, and she wrote that song about her. But everyone’s turnt up when she’s performing it. Chita performed that song about ashes—her house burned down a year ago, and she lost her cat, and that’s what the song’s about—and people are turnt up about that. You know, we’re shaking our butts, "Ash everywhere," but I don’t think people have any clue what we’re actually saying. Because the music isn’t even available yet. So how could you classify or put us into a group of conscious or non-conscious music when you don’t even know what we’re saying?

You just see us having fun, because that’s what music is about. Even if it’s struggle music, conscious rap, or trap, you know what I’m saying? It’s about having a good time. And I think that’s where people get it twisted here. I think when I first came here, a lot of audiences liked to stand around, and I’m like, "You’re not going to stand and stare at me at my shows." Hopefully and gladly people now are like, "If I’m going to a Lizzo show I’m going to get drunk and shake my butt," or "If I go to a GRRRL PRTY show I’m going to shake my butt." That’s what you’re supposed to do! You’re supposed to have fun. Why are you paying at the door to stand there and stare at somebody? Go and see a comedian. It’s music. Music, since the beginning of time, is created from movement.

Do you think that’s a Minnesotan thing?

Girl, I don’t know. You know I’m not from here, so I can’t even be like "That’s Midwest." I could say what’s Texan, I could say what’s Detroit, because I was raised there, it’s a part of me. I don’t think there’s anything Midwestern yet that’s a part of me, so I can’t classify something as Midwestern. Right now, it’s just alien. Things are really foreign to me. What do you mean you don’t want to dance? Or what do you mean I’m "party" so I’m not good? It is what it is. I think, to sum it all up, people are going to either take us for face value and see that we’re three strong women making them dance, and making people feel good, or they can take the time and listen to our lyrics and decide for themselves whether we’re conscious or party—or, you can just not care. And chill out. Because we’re all of it.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I never thought about it, until this past year. “Batches and Cookies” was Bust Magazine’s top feminist video, along with Beyoncé. I’m like, Beyoncé put a feminist in her song, I was just at a gay rights rally and rubbing butter on a sexy man. Why does this make me feminist? So I had to sit back and think about it. I’ve had discussions with people, mainly Chita and Sophia, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I think feminism is about equality of the sexes, equality in the races, and the creeds, and cultures. Early feminism was about freeing the slaves, and then once the slaves were free it was about freeing the women. And I’m all about that. I’m all about equality. So I gladly claim feminism. Haha. Yeah. I classify as a feminist.

One thing that strikes me about that “Batches and Cookies” video is that you’re reversing the traditional gender roles; it’s the guy that’s being objectified, and you ladies have all the power.

Cliff is so sexy, too. He was late to the shoot at Glam Doll, so I was like, “You were late, take off your shirt.” Because I always do that to him—”Take off your shirt now.” And he was like, “Ok.” And I’m like, “I’m buttering him up.” They were like, “We’ve got some lard in the back!” So I took the lard out and I was like, let’s go. He was so mad. I was like, “This is your punishment for being late. Look at the camera, and look cute.”

So you had that idea on the spot?

Yeah, and those are normally the best ones. I’m not objectifying men purposely, but men are fine, and I think it’s about time that somebody was like, “Well I’ve got this fine dude in my video, watch what I do to him now—and he’s going to do it, I bet.” You know what I mean? People want to look at other people with their shirts off.

You give Prince a shout-out in your “Paris” song, and say that he admires your work. Care to expand on that?

Let’s just say, Prince has his plans, and when Prince wants something to be known, it will be known. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

I wanted to ask about your many voices, because one of the things that I love about your record is that you’re going through different octaves, and phrasings, and characters. Do you think about that as you’re writing a song?

No. I don’t. At all. With Ryan Olson—and this happened at the cabin last week, too—but I’ll write a verse, and maybe a chorus. And he’ll be like, “Alright, this is the beat, GO.” And I’ll spit the verse, spit the chorus I have, and he’ll be like, “Bridge!” He does this with Marijuana Deathsquads, too. He’s a composer. And a lot of stuff I’ll just freestyle out—he’ll get me drunk first—and then we go back and listen to it. At the cabin this time he would play a track that we would literally sit there and create, and then once it’s done he’ll sequence it for 30 seconds and I’ll freestyle over it. A lot of the stuff, I would listen back and be like, “I like the way I did that!” But it’s very much just whatever comes out of my mouth.

Do you remember the first time you ever rapped?

I remember the first rap I wrote was for a girl group that I tried to form. I’ve been forming girl groups since the 6th grade. The first rap I wrote was for this girl J.D., and I was like, “And you’re going to do the rap like this!” It was horrible. It wasn’t good. But yeah, that was it. I wasn’t rapping myself, I was writing for other people. I was afraid of my voice, I guess. Because I was like, “I’m not a very good singer or rapper.”

Really, you didn’t think so?

No, because my sister can sing. My mama can sing. I could play the flute, and I was the smart one. Even when we go to Detroit now to see my family, they’re like, “And you are the smart one.” Vanessa’s the talented one, she’s the singer, and I’m smart. “You’ve just got the Lord in your brain.” And I’m like, hello, I’m the professional musician. [laughs] So I don’t know. When we were kids, I was conditioned to be the smart one. And I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be an astronaut; I had all these scientific, nerdy goals. Never music, until about fifth grade, with the whole Destiny’s Child thing. Then I was like, “I gotta make this stuff.” But yeah, the first rap that I spit was in Cornrow Clique, and we found it. And it was good! I was killing it! My sister found it over Christmas break, it’s on her old iPad. We’ve gotta rip it off of there.

Yeah, you need to get that.

Yeah. It’s rough. We were some hoodrats, but we’re great. It was good. I told Ryan about it, he was like “We must get that recording.”

It’s so funny that we are just a product, even when we don’t realize it, of what we listen to. It’s what comes out. And I feel like with Sophia, too, we’re such a product of the ‘90s—born in the ‘80s, but raised in the ‘90s. I remember being so excited about Michael Jackson, and Missy Elliot. I can only describe what influenced me in hindsight, but when Sophia listened to the record she was like, “Kanye. I hear Kanye.” We’re a Kanye-influenced generation, and he definitely influenced a lot of the way I rap. And if you think about it, some of his older records, he was definitely giving nods to A Tribe Called Quest. So Kanye, Missy, obviously Destiny’s Child, all the syncopation and the harmonies. Influenced a lot by S.U.C., Screwed Up Clicque, down in Houston. Rest in peace, all of them. Who else? Lauryn Hill. I remember wanting to make a record like Lauryn Hill, but you can never make a record like Lauryn Hill because The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was perfect. She can’t even top that. Can’t nobody top that record. If God made it, he’d have a hard time. Ludacris. There was some really good music in the early 2000s. Happy to be from that era.

Do you think the popularity of Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill helped pave the way for more women to become well known in hip-hop? Or to even start trying to rap?

Yeah. Definitely, when you see somebody like you doing something in any way, you’re like, I can do that too. A lot of people wanted to “Be Like Mike" because Michael Jordan was just a kid, not well-off, and he became the greatest basketball player of all time. So that’s where all these kids got the hoop dreams. And I think Missy, especially, for weird girls. Missy was not typical. She did not look like SWV, she didn’t look like Aaliyah—and not because of her size, it was just her. She could be any size. She was just weird. She was wearing baggy sweatpants with fingerwaves. And I think she paved the way for a lot of the girls in the ‘90s who were weird. And then we have Lil Kim. Lil Kim is out there. She made it possible for anybody to be like, "Let’s go, I can be a bad b*tch if I want to." You look up to people who look like you, or are like you in any way, who are killing it.

Anything else that's been on your mind lately?

You know, I’m extremely excited about being able to have a career in music. I’m excited about this year. So. Many. Things. Have happened. In 18 days. I’m just a little emoji of a monkey with his hand over his mouth. It’s crazy. I’m excited.

I feel like I couldn’t have done this without the support of Minneapolis. There’s so many elements that make a person who they are, and if I’d never met Sophia Eris, what would have happened? If I had never started being in girl groups, would this have happened? If I had never seen Destiny’s Child sing at Wal-Mart? There’s so many elements, so many people that you need in your life to be successful, and to be who you are. So I feel humbled and honored by this city. I feel humbled and blessed to have the support of the Twin Cities, and down for the continued support.

But I am trying to be an international artist. And I never want to lose support, because a part of me belongs to Minneapolis, always. I have this fear of people being upset and thinking that somebody’s changed and being hurt by it. I can’t promise that I’m not going to change, I can’t promise that GRRRL PRTY’s not going to change. Everybody changes. But realizing that change is a good thing, and that growth is a good thing, and appreciate it, and knowing that I always love Minneapolis for what they’ve done, is the most important thing that I always want to put out there. No matter what happens. Just like Har Mar. Har Mar loves Minneapolis, and I feel the exact same way. Because there is no city in the world like it, that puts on people and has this support for people. And I’m really happy about it.

Catch Lizzo tonight at First Avenue and broadcasting live on the Current as she plays the station's 9th Birthday Party with Har Mar Superstar, Strange Names, and Actual Wolf.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.