Rah Zen’s ‘Upon The Apex’ // Classic hip-hop meets futuristic motion
Upon the Apex
Dome of Doom
To celebrate the release of Rah Zen’s sophomore album, Upon The Apex, and the rich culture of music he is bringing to the world, PulpLab is presenting an exclusive interview with the Boston artist about his new album and the voyage that brought its finality. Order a limited edition tape of Upon The Apex from Dome of Doom via Bandcamp and stream the album’s single second “New Beginnings feat. Kadeem” during the read.
Boston’s Rah Zen has added a unique blend of hip-hop to the region, dedicating himself to a path that has seen a level of fruition only the pure at heart can achieve. Collecting like-minded artists under the roof known as Nightworks and releasing original music with Los Angeles-based label Dome of Doom, Rah Zen is carrying the torch for raw and unfiltered hip-hop from Boston. Upon The Apex is his new work, created while traveling through the deserts of Arizona, the cities and landscapes of Israel, and a cross-country road trip from Boston to Los Angeles. A sonic journal of music that encompasses the growth he made during the trip as an artist and human being. Recordings began in 2017 during a series of travels, months before the release of his debut album for Dome of Doom, Midnight Satori.
Upon The Apex has a classic hip-hop feel in some respects and a futuristic motion in others. The drum breaks are heavy and weighted in presence, with the bass always crushing into the low end with grit. Samples are also a defining element, slicing in film interludes, vocal chops, instrument loops, and more. The album cover was shot in New Mexico at the White Sands National Monument, capturing Rah Zen in the spacious setting during his travels along the United States’ southern region. From west to east coast influences, the rawness of the music across Upon The Apex always stays front and center, banging out of the speakers with influences as wide-ranging as Pete Rock, RZA, J Dilla, Hi-Tek, El-P, Madlib, Dibia$e, and Ras G.
Before presenting himself to the public as Rah Zen and reaching a road of success with his music, Jacob Gilman was absorbing himself heavily into ’80s and ’90s era hip-hop during high school, already freestyling and creating mixes with vinyl by the age of fourteen. It was with these critical years of creative expansion that his identity would form as an artist and a desire to change the landscape of music around him began. From cyphers as a teenager to performing a beat set at Low End Theory offshoot Beat Cinema, Rah Zen has always kept his intentions and presentation at a grounded level, building on a loved sound rather than chasing trending sub-genres. He is an artist built for the preservation of pure music within a hectic and transitional phase in the industry.
PulpLab: Hi Rah. To start, we would like to know more about your background as an artist and what paths you walked with music before making records?
Rah Zen: I date my origin as a hip-hop artist to three specific first time listening experiences that all stemmed from trips to UGHH’s former Boston storefront: hearing Pete Rock “Take the D Train”, El-P “Dr. Hellno and the Praying Mantis” and Quasimoto “Come on Feet” and “Put a Curse on You” – Pete was like, you can do this with grooves, El-P was like you can be grimey and raw as hell, and Quasimoto was like there’s no limit to your imagination. That was all when I was fourteen in my basement, freestyling and mixing vinyl records with my friends in our free time. I was an athlete, and it took up a lot of my time, but I’d also go on the couch, shut the lights off and listen to Bjork and Radiohead. Emotional music like that, my family history with jazz and classic rock, combined with my enthusiasm for artists like J Dilla, Madlib, and Flylo, was what formulated my taste. I was a studious listener of the artists I was fans of and enjoyed learning about their lives, so I credit that period of self-education as the reason I eventually felt capable to begin making beats on an MPC 500 in 2010. Since then, my life has gone through a lot of ups and downs, as life does, but making beats has remained a constant. I had some bad experiences with substances, and mental health, so a lot of my music is inspired by pulling through to the other side of those trials and tribulation. There are certain things I experienced that words can never fully express, so music provides me with a medium to channel those intangible parts of my saga and identity. Around 2011, I became interested in Zen Buddhist teachings, but I was raised Jewish and still identify as such, so the name Rah Zen is a combination of the ideology I was raised with, the ToRah, and Zen. It describes my sound. It’s raw, but soulful – intense, and peaceful – rough and clean at the same time – aiming to embody duality through sound.
PulpLab: What led you to selecting the title Upon The Apex?
Rah Zen: When I listened back to the album, and thought about my experiences that inspired the beats on it, they were really moments of heightened connection with my life force, paired with a sense of purpose amidst adventure and the unknown. The sounds on Upon the Apex give me that feeling of elevation when the power in your breath is visceral and your energy is full. Everything seems possible and at your fingertips. It’s walking on the highest point, living the most alive you can be, seizing the shit that’s meant for you. To me, that’s what it means to be Upon the Apex.
PulpLab: The aesthetic of your beats on this album are a lot more east coast influenced and pull from a more soulful and less trap-influenced form. What planted the seeds that led you to this world? Is there a particular set of albums or any producers that come to mind when you think of the influenced behind the beats?
Rah Zen: That’s tight because many of my biggest influences are West Coasters, but Pete Rock and DJ Premier will always be apart of my inspirational foundation, and I live on the east coast, and feel connected to the east coast, so I’m glad it expresses and represents that sound. ‘Soulful’ is a pretty wide category, but I always gravitate towards sounds and samples that hit beneath the surface. The sounds and motifs on this album are inspired by all the obscure international records I dig, the lessons I learned from listening to Shabazz Palaces, Radiohead, Gonjasufi, and Gnarls Barkley, and beat pioneers like Madlib, Ras G, and FlyLo. All that stuff, mixed with my east coast roots is why I think I end up with a unique sound. My influences are clear, but I think I’m carving out my own thing.
PulpLab: What type of feelings are you looking to evoke when people listen to this record?
Rah Zen: Intense feelings of connection to a greater power or your higher self… and courage, humanity, mortality, perseverance, vitality. I want it to affirm that you can break through whatever holds you back, and then I want it to inspire adventure and risk. The album is mostly gritty and hard-hitting until the last track, “Magnetism,” which starts with a vocal clip that says, “Don’t, you like me?” “Why, I think you’re you’re wonderful baby” — to me that represents finding the beauty in yourself after going through a lot. It’s the moment of self-realization, that everything you’ve done up to now brought you to, and without all your past experiences, your self-love wouldn’t hold the same weight.
PulpLab: When and where did you record the productions behind Upon The Apex?
Rah Zen: I started the album in Israel in summer 2017, then continued on it shortly before I drove from Boston to Los Angeles in early 2018, created some pivotal tracks on it while in LA, and then completed it over the past 10 or so months in Boston. It was sometime in April that I made the album’s first and last tracks, “Ritual” and “Magnetism,” in the same sitting, on a Bose speaker. I made “Angels,” “Earthbound,” and “Moonraker” on the couch. And then the rest were made in my home studio, which is kind of like a cabin in a city alleyway. More tweaks and additions were
PulpLab: I love the vocal samples scattered through out. Who did you sample there and what do you feel sampling these elements does for the album?
Rah Zen: Thanks. Unlike Midnight Satori, on which most of the vocal samples were from a single source (Waking Life), the vocal clips on Upon the Apex range from Alfred Hitchcock, to James Bond, to stuff that friends and I recorded while in the studio. For example, the end of “Incandescent” has a bunch of my Israeli homies bantering, because they were all in the studio drinking while 3Deity was recording. The tag I use often is ODB saying “Rawwww” but in the context of my music it’s “Rahhhh.” Plus there’s a brief a capella flip from Mos Def on “Earthbound.” Sampling these elements allows me to highlight a message I’m sending through the sounds of a given track. For example, the Alfred Hitchcock sample on “Godspeed” says, “You we brave, there is nothing that can scare you” and that’s a significant theme at the beginning of the album. It also aids in expressing the atmosphere of my world while paying homage to my inspirations. Repurposing vocal clips is one of my favorite elements of sampling, and I’m intentional about how I do it.
PulpLab: What went into the artwork and as the doorway to the album for some, what exactly did you want to visually capture?
Rah Zen: The artwork is all from photos of my friend Cesar and I in White Sands, New Mexico during our road trip to LA via the southern route. The night before, we played this show in Las Cruces, and Cesar painted on stage during my set. We energetically synced up during the performance, and it felt powerful, so when we ventured into the White Sand Dunes the next day, we were in already in an exhilarated and liberated mindset. White Sands feels like a foreign planet, and if you walk out far enough, it’s just you and miles and miles of desert hills. That feeling of freedom and elevation is what the album is about, no reservations, fully embracing the now. The album feels super intertwined with our experiences on the road, and these images represent the pinnacle of the trip’s essence, so that’s why I chose them.
PulpLab: Most important aspects of making a record like this?
Rah Zen: The sequencing has to flow and tell the story. And the mix needs to bump. I have thousands of beats, but I’m selective when creating an instrumental album because it can only include the beats that cut through and express my truest self. I want to make music that leaves an impression, that stands out as something special because that’s the kind of music that inspires me. It’s crucial for me to create an album that embodies a cohesive concept and theme. That means the album has to have a range of sentiments to explore the full scope of what it’s portraying.
PulpLab: What do you think the album contributes to hip-hop?
Rah Zen: I think there’s a density, and heaviness that’s not super common in instrumental hip-hop right now. The beats have spirit, they’re like life force via sound, in my mind. It’s boom-bap after traveling the world through records.
PulpLab: Anything else you want to touch on when looking at the album and its release this year?
Rah Zen: Yeah, there are subtle moments in the album where I pay respect to my ancestors and my lineage. The concept of continuing their work, and living in a way that would make them proud is important to me. With that in mind, this album is a testament to remaining patient while continuing to work hard, pursues goals and improve. It’s trusting the process through times of uncertainty and feeling every step of the path. The release of Upon the Apex signifies the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one. it’s the second major piece in the puzzle of my artistic journey. It means a lot to me, so releasing it into the universe is personally thrilling.
PulpLab: Thank you for the chance to chat and enjoy your summer.