PHOTOS BY VAN SARKI.
In hip-hop, to boast is to breathe—and some fare better than others. The genre’s become so synonymous with braggadocio, it’s practically a no-holds-barred palace of self-inflated “triple beam dreams,” most times so extreme, listeners can never be too sure what, or rather, who to believe. For New York (by way of D.C.) newcomer, Njena Reddd Foxxx, one doesn’t have to listen to deem her top-notch at anything (although it helps)—just look to her credentials. The emcee beat out more than 93% of the competition to be accepted into America’s most revered design institution, The Cooper Union, only a few years before taking a chance with rap. “It had to be luck… but it also had to be talent,” she claims. “I worked my ass off. I’ve always been one to give my all no matter what I’m doing at the time. And now, I’m honing my skills as a rapper.”
Her debut came as a feature on last year’s voguing-tinged, web-cum-fashion runway hit, “Ima Read” with Zebra Katz (released under Diplo’s Mad Decent label). Surprisingly, it was her first time rapping. Now, she’s upping the ante and taking the art form as seriously as she did her college admissions. “‘Ima Read’ was really just the beginning of the beginning for me. I didn’t take it seriously at all when we were doing it. But when it finally came out, I saw people’s reaction and knew I had to do this for real, for real. I mean, it’s kind of like, how couldn’t I?”
Here, Interview speaks with this one to watch in 2013 and “Jill of all trades,” about her menacing sound, artistic upbringing, future plans, and why those three D’s and three X’s are more than just a misspelling.
MARCUS HOLMLUND: How did you get the name Njena Reddd Foxxx?
NJENA REDDD FOXXX: Njena is the name my parents gave me. It’s my first name and the Reddd Foxxx portion was given to me by Ojay [Morgan, aka Zebra Katz] on the night we recorded “Ima Read” four years ago. It kind of just stuck. It was super in the moment. And there was no point in going back after that, you know. I think I loved it so much because I really love the comedian Redd Foxx a lot… There’s a lot of what I love about his comedy in my work. That sort of crude humor is very similar to my own.
MARCUS HOLMLUND: Tell me about the spelling, because I know people always get it wrong.
FOXXX: I spelled it that way because I like everything to be symmetrical in groups of three. So, each name has five letters… and it’s kind of important to me, actually. When I see it spelled wrong, it just looks funny. I went on a mini Twitter rant about it recently. It’s sort of problematic, because from the start people have been spelling it wrong when posting my music so they’ll only find certain things, when in fact, if you search it spelled correctly you’ll get a ton more music. It’s funny that way… I know it’ll get worked out over time.
MARCUS HOLMLUND: Of course. You mentioned “Ima Read” being recorded in one night, four years ago…
FOXXX: Yes, people are always shocked when I tell them that. It was also my first time rapping. I had met Ojay through some friends and we really hit it off. He was throwing parties at Happy Ending at the time. We started chilling and realized we had similar tastes in music. One night, we were just hanging out at his house, drinking and smoking and whatnot, having fun, and started fooling around on this beat he’d made. He laid down his vocals and there was a space for me to do a verse. It was very in the moment—we recorded it and never re-recorded it. The version that you hear is the one we made that night. I think there was some magic there because when we listened to it, we decided it really didn’t need to be re-recorded. I think that’s, in a way, what people love so much about the record. I mean, like some places where I hear myself stumbling in the flow, I could totally have re-recorded it, but honestly that’s the magic of it. It’s the first time I’m rapping on a record, so, it’s super natural and super genuine. I assume that’s what people are feeling when they hear it.
HOLMLUND: This was four years ago, so, after this was said and done, did you go on recording?
FOXXX: I didn’t, and I really regret that to this day. Everything I’ve recorded since has really been in the public eye due to “Ima Read.” I’ll record something and, you know, post it online the next day, so, I always go back and think, damn, I could’ve been writing, perfecting my flow since then, but, that’s just the way it happened, you know. I think it was something I just didn’t realize I could do until I saw people’s response to it.
HOLMLUND: How did Diplo get ahold of it?
FOXXX: It was sent to him by DJ Teenwolf, who also goes by Wolf Couture. He had made a lot of music with Ojay before. We got a call from Mad Decent saying they wanted to release it and obviously we were down. They said they wanted to release a video, so, me and Ojay literally made one on the spot and sent it to them and they were like, “Um… yeah…” [laughs] It was that low-budget, like, we had done it on our laptops. It was pretty funny. So amateur.
HOLMLUND: That wasn’t the one they released…
FOXXX: [laughs] No, no. We hooked up later with a brilliant director named Ruben Sznajderman, whom we met at one of our first live performances, to do the one you see today. [laughs] The two videos are nothing alike. One is super simple and stupid. The other one is cinematic. It’s inspired by The Shining and that whole aesthetic, and that’s of course what introduced me and Zebra Katz to the public. Literally what I was wearing the night we met Ruben, I’m wearing in the “Ima Read” video. [laughs] That schoolgirl, high-socks look kind of just stuck with me and the whole concept.
HOLMLUND: Why do you think the track was so successful in fashion circles? I mean, Rick Owens used it for his runway show in Paris.
FOXXX: That’s a tough one. I think it had to do with fashion’s interest in ball culture and voguing, because the song definitely has that sound and feel. It’s about throwing shade, you know, talking shit. Plus, it’s not like Ojay and I aren’t artists. We’re always around other artists and designers and whatnot. It rubs off on us, and we rub off on them. Especially in New York. It can be a small world, even in such a big city.
HOLMLUND: Where does the artist in you come from?
FOXXX: Boy, I’ve got to say it’s always been in me because of my family and my upbringing. My mom is an artist, so, art was always encouraged in our house. It was always looked at as a productive activity instead of a hobby. I went to an art high school in Washington D.C., and I majored in visual art. When I started there… oh my gosh, I was so terrible. [laughs] I was horrible— couldn’t draw, couldn’t sketch, couldn’t do anything. I mean, I had enough skill to get into the school, but that was about it. [laughs] I would cry on the bus home from school every day. I was getting such bad grades. All the other kids were so good compared to me! I remember at one point I came to terms with the fact that I had to work my ass off to do well and that’s exactly what I did. I drew and drew and drew, and it worked—I ended up getting the award for best artist and went on to apply to design school because I loved it so much. I think it really speaks to the idea that you can in fact excel at whatever you put your mind and your heart to.
HOLMLUND: Where did you go for college?
FOXXX: I applied to Cooper Union in New York and was really hoping I would get in, but knew it was pretty much the best art school in the world and that they had the craziest acceptance rate next to Harvard, so, I wasn’t getting too attached to the idea—and then I got in.
HOLMLUND: Super crazy. They accept, what? 10 kids a year or something?
FOXXX: [laughs] Something like that! I was so shocked. I mean, it must have been luck. It had to be luck… but it also had to be talent.
HOLMLUND: Of course.
FOXXX: I really excelled in their curriculum because it was so free. It was great for me because it allowed me to be all over the place, which is where I flourish. I’ve been a freelancer my whole life. It’s sort of been my ethos that wherever something takes me, it takes me, so, that was really the start of me trying my hand at whatever it was at the time. I’ve gone from doing sculpture to videos to being a set builder and working for a general contractor to jewelry maker to now, a rapper… I just love to create. I’ve had a stint doing pretty much everything! It sort of doesn’t matter what it is, as long as I’m doing it. I love to see something from conception to final product. I love trying new things and seeing them through.
HOLMLUND: What’s the craziest project you did at Cooper [Union]?
FOXXX: [laughs] I did a lot of video work during college and I’d use my sculptures and artwork as props in the videos, so pretty much everything in the visuals would be by me. I’d remake old-school hip-hop videos with these weird paper backgrounds that sort of resembled South Park in their simplicity, and I’d dress up in this full-body crochet suit thing. [laughs]
HOLMLUND: And where are these videos now?
FOXXX: Saddest story ever. I lost them in a storage unit in Philadelphia. I don’t even want to talk about it. [laughs] I lost everything. The storage unit, which was the size of a whole city block, was turned into condos. No one ever called me to tell me anything. Devastating.
HOLMLUND: Harsh. That’s insane.
FOXXX: The only thing I still have is a still from one of those video projects I did in college. And that’s now the “Silly Bitch” single cover. I had to pull it from the New York Underground Film Festival’s website because I didn’t have it for myself. So sad…
HOLMLUND: Moral of the story… back up your shit in more than one place.
HOLMLUND: You mentioned these remade hip-hop videos you’d do… Were you always a hip-hop head?
FOXXX: Totally. I have two sisters and one brother, and when I was younger, my music was my sister’s music. It was kind of like her music was my hand-me-downs in a way. I still remember when my older sister brought home a Roxanne Chante tape and my mom took one listen and was like, “Hell no…” and confiscated it. [laughs] Little did she know, that was the least of her hip-hop worries. Years later, when my sister turned into a Rasta [laughs], my brother and I would pump Wu-Tang [Clan] and my mom couldn’t do a thing because, truthfully, hip-hop had infiltrated everything—every part of pop culture—you know, time’s change and I think my parents just sort of gave up at that point. [laughs]
HOLMLUND: Who’s inspired you most in hip-hop?
FOXXX: I’ve always loved Wu-Tang. I love Redman’s playful humor and his joking delivery. I mean, he could rap about shooting up a block and everyone’d know his ass ain’t serious. It’s dark comedy. Totally sarcastic, and I love that. That’s influenced me a lot. And I’ve got to give love to Ghostface [Killah], whom at first, I wasn’t so into, but now I think is one of the best rappers in the game. He’s consistent. Also love Outkast, Big L, and of course, Jay-Z. I think what’s inspired me most about hip-hop in general was actually going to live freestyle battles at coffee shops in high school. I’d see people get laughed at, and I think that may have been why I didn’t try rap sooner. It took me awhile to get over my shyness.
HOLMLUND: Tell me about your process. Do you write? Do you freestyle? Is it one-take?
FOXXX: I do really well when a challenge is put in front of me. I don’t just wake up and write. I like being forced to make decisions on the spot. I think that’s why I’ve done so many things as a freelancer. I like being put in a studio and having that “ready, set, go” aspect to it. I do write, but, I’m way too indecisive when the options are limitless, so, the more stripped down things are, the swifter the process is for me. Like for “Flex,” I got in the studio, felt the beat, wrote the shit and then spit it. For “Silly Bitch,” I had written some verses to a Soulja Boy song called “Get Silly” as a kind of remix thing and then ended up recording it later atop a different beat that fit and it became an entirely different song. So, I guess, my process is wherever things take me at the moment. Which is a lot like my college experience and working as a freelancer afterward… it’s very trial-by-fire.
HOLMLUND: Tell me what’s to come for you this coming year…
FOXXX: I have an EP with my producer, JEPORDISE, that’s coming out in the next year that’ll have both “Dominos” and “Evil Things” on it, along with two other tracks. The sound for the EP is very old-school Memphis but also sort of eerie. I haven’t named it yet, but look out for news on that. Then I’m gonna be releasing a mixtape that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s based on the movie musical The Wiz, and it takes you on a journey as if I were Dorothy. It samples all the Wiz songs. I’ve always been obsessed with that movie. It’s so dirty and grimy and deals with social issues in a visual way. In between the two projects, I’ll be releasing visuals for tracks from the EP, also.
HOLMLUND: I know you’re not signed, but people are still patiently waiting for an album. What would be your dream label to sign with?
FOXXX: I’d love to be signed to G.O.O.D. Music. I love what’s coming out from them. I like the movement. I haven’t heard any bad shit from them yet. Plus, ‘Ye’s got Pusha now. I love indie music that teeters on mainstream sounds. I like something challenging that can still further major-label music.
HOLMLUND: I know you and Zebra Katz toured this summer opening for Azealia Banks. How do you feel about the comparisons made to her music?
FOXXX: Honestly, it bugs me at times, because we’re not the same artist at all. Yet I can understand why people group us into one because we’re both making music at the same time, in the same place, and we’re around the same group of people. This sort of thing has happened to so many different artists before me that come out with a new sound and things end up ironing themselves out. I mean, look at grunge, for example… it wasn’t just Nirvana.
HOLMLUND: Very true. Speaking of touring with Ms. Banks, how was it?
FOXXX: Can you put a confused looking emoji sign for my response to that? ‘Cause that’s what it’d have to be. [laughs]
To see more of our 13 Faces of 2013, click here.