After releasing four self-produced mixtapes and playing venues in Chicago, E-Train’s music group EMG relocated to Los Angeles in early 2010. Since that time, E-Train has focused on performing: he opened for Warren G at the Key Club on June 25th, played at the H.Wood July 17th with DJ Spryte, and will be playing at the Airliner July 23rd with Serius Jones and The Entourage, with more dates forthcoming.

This interview from February 2007 takes us back to the origins of an artist, a young performer still learning his craft and defining his goals. We then skip ahead three years to the present day to see what has changed.

E-Train: I had all of Michael Jackson’s CDs. That was the only music I knew of when I was younger. I wasn’t playing anything. (pauses) Well, I did get a piano-guitar for, who knows what birthday. I was like 8 or 10. You know the piano-guitars from the ’80s? Strapped up like a guitar, and then it hangs down. You play it like a piano but you do it with your wrist like (motions playing a piano-guitar). Very awesome toy… not that I could play a note on it because I wasn’t trained on any musical instrument. We had to play the recorder in junior high. That was just bogus. So, there wasn’t any background music there. Hated school music classes always. I would never, never sing. I would never participate in those classes because they were just nonsense to me.

For a long time it was just Michael Jackson. I would watch him on TV, and I would copy his dance moves… ya know, I didn’t really listen to lyrics at that point. The song just kind of grabbed me. Going to a small Catholic school, I wasn’t really exposed to much other music, till we got into, like, junior high, when my friends were listening to alternative rock, and I wasn’t into that kind of stuff. I wasn’t really getting music from anywhere. It was just whatever was around me. And having a twin sister, there was always techno or bad pop music playing, and that was always in my head because I was a room away from it.

I was trying out for freshman year basketball at New Trier, and it was the summer before, and I wasn’t the greatest basketball player in junior high but I wanted to play high school, so I played like four hours a day over the summer and went to the training camp. There was a guy I met there that I’d played one-on-one with every day, and he was really into hip-hop. I knew nothing about it. He had a Master P shirt on, and he was like “Master P’s my favorite rapper,” and I was like “Oh, for sure. I don’t know who that is.” Then the next weekend I went and bought Master P’s CD and I thought it was awesome. It was horrible, but it was awesome. The beats were samples of things I’d heard. It was familiar but eventful. I didn’t even know what he was saying. I was just like, “Yeah!” just going with the beat. I thought hip-hop beats were awesome.

I started freestyling as a senior in high school as a joke. No ability whatsoever. Just partying, being with a bunch of people who couldn’t really rap. We’d all sound bad together. Got to the University of Dayton, Ohio, my freshman year in college, and got into a couple battles there…

It was less than a dedication at first… it was more like I kind of needed it. I was in a really bad place mentally – just a really bad part of my life. My mom passed away, and after that it was kind of a downward spiral into a horrible lifestyle. I went to Madison, Wisconsin to get away from all that and try and start fresh. And when I got there, because I was somewhere new again, and I wasn’t really in the swing of school, I wasn’t able to make friends right away, and I was kind of on my own. I was still following hip-hop, buying mixtapes and listening to stuff, and being able to flow at the time and starting to hear a lot of bad music get promoted… I started thinking I should, ya know – “I’m a little more talented than a lot of these rappers.”

I started making songs. It was fun for me and I had nothing else to do with my time. Before I had a good microphone or really any equipment, the stuff I was recording was lyrically on-point, and the timing was all good and everything – it just sounded like I was rapping into a coffee can because I had horrible equipment and I was in a shitty dorm apartment. {*laughs*} I did probably 38 songs, put ’em on a CD called “Dragon’s Breath,” and after that, all I heard was my lyrics were really sick – that it didn’t sound the greatest but as a rapper I was really good. After I got that feedback, it kind of fueled me to get a better microphone and try again.

Jack: What do you think was the difference between you and your high school friends who rapped?

E: I was just a much more competitive person. I wanted the spotlight. If there were three people rapping, I wanted everyone in the room to know who the best was. When I was rapping, I would tell them who the best was in a way so that they knew it was true. That fueled the fire. It gave me a reason to be known. I was The Guy – everybody knew me as the guy who was the best at that, and I had never really been the best at anything, and I digged it. I was addicted to it. That was my MJ shit. (laughs)

I was a freshman at Dayton, Ohio, and I had a buddy named Logan who started calling me E-Train. I did some rapping there, and I guess – well, E-Train’s me. People are like, “Oh, you’re E-Train the rapper,” and I’m like “No. I’m E-Train. And I rap.” I was just E-Train. And the rapping came along with the package.

When people used to call me Erich, my life was different, and I was definitely a different person. And I’m clearly the same person, but if you didn’t know me really well, if you met me before and then after, I would appear to be two totally different people. And it wasn’t necessarily because I became E-Train. It was because when I first started getting called E-Train, circumstances around me and what happened turned it into that situation. It wasn’t hip-hop, so to speak.

When I think Erich I just think about the past, because before people called me E-Train they called me Erich. And that’s why I see that person. Maybe from right before my mom died… Before she died, things were different for me. My entire life was different. And afterwards, the drastic-ness of everything, I almost did feel like a different person, like I was starting from scratch as someone else, because my life was so good, and then all of a sudden it was so bad, and I had to start from that whole badness this new life where I was expected to be Erich without Erich-resources. So I had to be someone else. I feel like I’ve taken this whole E-Train thing from zero to Erich in sixty seconds. {*laughs*} Right? {*pauses*} Right Erich.

People are entitled to their opinion… if you don’t like hip-hop for some of the reasons that hip-hop isn’t liked for, that’s fine, but some artists, it’s their thing, it’s their life, and the fans eat it up. Some people like country, and that has to happen because if country exists then I can sample the country and make a country rap song. And most people who like country will like that rap song because it has country in it, and you can confuse ’em and get ’em. {*smiles*} The people who haven’t been gotten will get gotten, maybe not by rap but by some other genre of music, because sampling exists, and no one is safe. They will find something you like, and they will make it into rap, and then you’ll be done.

Rap is the ability to get a lot of information really fast, accompanied by music that can create emotional feelings that are attached to those words. It’s very packed. With singing you don’t have enough time to say shit because you’re… (pause) singing. You’re hitting notes, you’re holding that high note – whereas in rap when you’re holding that high note, you just said three sentences. You literally have tons of time to figure out what you want the listener to hear instead of just holding that note. You can really do that, and on a whole song you can get so much through. It’s awesome.

A rap song is a pie, and everyone needs to throw their resources in to make the pie. And in a Lupe Fiasco situation, he’s making 20% of the pie, and he’s got the best pie makers in the world making the other percent. In my situation, I’m making the whole pie. And I don’t really give a shit about eating the whole pie, because I know I can make tons of more pies.

J: But just being the one who makes the whole pie does not mean other people will want to eat your pie.

E: True.

J: What is going to make other people want to eat your pie?

E: It just tastes so good. {*laughter*} It just tastes good. People like pie for certain reasons. Pie has this taste or that taste, and it’s those pie characteristics that make pie good that I really attacked when I made this pie. So if people like pie because it’s sweet, this pie will be the sweetest. If people like pie because it’s got chunks of fruit, this pie’s gonna have the biggest chunks of fruit. That’s why I like hip-hop. Because it’s got big chunks of fruit, and it’s sweet. {*grins*} You listen to a song and a rapper does something you enjoy. Whether it’s how he says things, or it’s what he’s saying, the characteristics that make you enjoy the music I really tried to look at more than anything and replicate. So if you like this kind of stuff, that’s there. And if you like different stuff, that’s there too. I try and please everyone.

There are some people out there who are really susceptible to all kinds of music. Some people can’t help but like good popular music, because it’s scientifically engineered for them to say “Yes.” When they get it on they don’t even know what to do. And when I was growing up, I was that person. And because I was bombarded with so many different kinds of music, it makes me more adept to making all kinds of music.

J: So you’re a hip-hop artist. Are you also a pop artist?

E: Yes. Because there is popular hip-hop music. And it’s popular stuff that usually is fun, and doesn’t really have too many feelings in the red zone. You’re not trying to get a message or portray an intense feeling. It’s more just designed to accommodate sound during fun time. You listen to music when you’re not at work. You can’t listen to music at work, so you want to have fun. Some people don’t want to go home after work and listen to Eminem talk about his wife being in the trunk. Whereas if the music is just about having fun… everybody likes fun.

Pop music is more about getting everybody. It’s popular. It’s instinctual. It means you can’t really say it’s not this or it’s not that. You like it or you don’t. It’s instinct. You like it for instinctual reasons. You play it and it just sounds good, and you don’t really need to say that it’s because of this or because of that. It’s just instinctual. Everyone has the same instincts. That’s why.

J: There’s a big question that we have not touched on, because I think we’re past it in a lost of ways. But the fact remains, you’re white. I would imagine there will be a certain amount of skepticism toward you because of that.

E: I don’t think that there are going to be too many comments about me being white. I don’t think people are going to say “What do you think about there being a white rapper?” or “What do you think about this rapper who’s white?” I think everyone is gonna ask about me being white because everyone’s expecting it to mean something, but I think that I’m so hip-hop and black people are going to think I sound so much like black artists they like listening to, that they’re not going to give a shit, and people who get that question asked to them are going to say “Man, E-Train’s tight!” or “E-Train’s not tight.”

Anyone who doesn’t think that a white person should make hip-hop should question their reasons for listening to music. If the music’s good, who cares what color it is? If an alien made the hottest hip-hop song ever, I would womp that shit in my trunk. It would probably be some crazy alien shit I’d never heard before. I wouldn’t be like “You can’t make hip-hop. You’re an alien.” I’d be, like, “Yo, sick hip-hop.”

J: Do you have a timetable for success or failure, that if you don’t hit this year, or in five years or ten years or whatever, are you going to change your career goals?

E: As long as I continue to do what I think other artists have done, and I do it faster and better and easier than they do, I will continue to do it. It just seemed like too efficient of a path not to take because I love the music so much, and people really enjoyed my music so it just seemed like the right thing to do, to feed the people who need it.

J: What if you don’t hit?

E: Um…there are obviously things that make that happen, and I could be wrong about my music, but if circumstances came together where it didn’t happen, I would, uh, rethink what I was doing… but it just seems impossible. It would be like people saying, “You’re not good at hip-hop.” If you gotta be good to make it, I got that covered. If you need something else, I can work on that. But I think the important thing is being talented. I think knowing people is important, but if you’re a monster it doesn’t really matter. People will get your shit.

I’m very, not just passionate, but knowledgeable. It’s almost like I know something that somebody else doesn’t. People are like “Yeah… we’ll see if E-Train gets famous,” and I’m over here like “Yeah, we will see,” because I know something they don’t know. That’s how I feel about it. They don’t know about me, so why would they assume? Why would they think I’m a really good artist if they’ve never heard about me?

I’ve only been doing this for three years. I know artists who would be doing it for ten before they started their first album. And that first album would be ca-ca. It would be their fourth that would be worth listening to, and it would be their fifth that would make them country-wide stars. Whereas I’m gonna try to hit that fifth-tier quality CD with my first, and when I get to the fifth, people are gonna be eating hands and feet. They’re not going to know what to do.

[courtesy Ashley Klich]J: When you think back to our first interview and compare it to where you are now, what would you say is the biggest difference in your work process?

E: More time on each piece. At that time, when I was in the Skokie house, I was learning to produce, taking one beat/concept each day. They were pieces but they weren’t that strong. Over time I realized that when I put more time into each one, I would end up getting a lot more. I spend more time with the recording and more time with the mixing and sequencing of the sounds to make the beat.

Coming out here has been such a lifestyle change. Not having to work full-time, being able to do full-time music, being able to exercise, losing close to 50 pounds since I got here. It’s been a huge deal for my live act, just feeling better. Naturally, I make better music when I feel better. That’s a huge part of being in California.

When I was in Chicago, I wasn’t really shooting for a Chicago crowd. I was just shooting for music fans. Coming to California, it’s a different place, different environment, and moves me to make a different kind of music. So there’s new material, but it hasn’t changed my process because it’s the same crowd: hip-hop fans.

When this album comes out, as a producer and a songwriter and a recording artist, I will be very consistent. I’ve done a lot of experimenting up until now, and I now know what I want to make, and I can execute it over and over again. Now that I can continue making music as good as these 12 songs that I’m gonna put out on the first album, I feel that now is the time.

J: What’s the story with your haircut?

E: When we first got started with the mixtape recording, I had the Mohawk, a haircut I was rocking there and when I was in Madison, Wisconsin going to college, doing my business school thing and music on the side. But then you’ve got to get a job, you’ve got to cut that off. Because no one wants to hire a guy in a Mohawk. When I’m in full-time music, I’m able to let that shine. I am almost 100% back to the person who used to destroy any beat that was given to me. And now that I know how to create beats, and destroy them, it’s time to bring back the other things that I’ve been hiding. I want to let E-Train back out, because he’s kind of been caged up.

I’ve had to do my Bruce Wayne time. More Bruce Wayne than Batman, unfortunately. You look in the mirror and you see what you do everyday, and you don’t feel like Batman if you’re not saving lives or fighting bad guys. Now that I’m able to really get back into it, it’s time to put the cape on. I had to go away for a while and learn how to fight crime. And now I’m really good at fighting crime. I’m still doing the Bruce Wayne thing a little bit, but it’s full-time Batman.

Because we’re about to become exposed, there are going to be people who have questions, and there are people who are going to want to oppose the campaign. And at that point in time the villains will show their faces.

J: If you and I sit down in three years to do a third interview, where do you think you’ll be?

E: In three years, we’ll probably be on a boat. A big boat, hopefully. With some Mai Tais.

I just think we’ll be very successful. We haven’t brought the envelope in terms of exposure. We’ve just been creating music and trying to figure out what we want to sound like and how we want to put this first CD together and campaign it. And now that we are ready, it’s just going to spiral out of control. Just snowball. The first CD, let’s just get it out there. Start performing everywhere. Do as many shows as possible. I did the rapping for a while. Got into the producing. And now I’m going to get into the performing. I’m just excited for that step. I think it can be as good as my producing or rapping.