The Portland-based emcee discusses motivation, perseverance, and following your passion.
Article and Interview by: William Mohaupt
Waking up to 7 inches of snow in Portland, Oregon is an auspicious phenomenon. The refracted rays of the sun illuminate all corners of the city, giving off the impression that everything is glowing. It’s only fitting then that this is the day I sit down with an unusual man that writes unusual raps over unusual beats. Keegan Baurer, Portland’s self-proclaimed “apathetic academic turned rapper,” is on a string of local shows with no plans to stop any time soon. To capture a more organic conversation, Keegan agreed to host the meeting at his house that he shares with 2 of his closest friends. After braving icy streets and ill-equipped Portland drivers, Keegan warmly welcomes me into the house with a hug and directs me to get comfortable in the living room. Wounded soldiers and other assorted libations proudly adorn the living room furniture. Keegan promises he only leaves a beer unfinished about 10% of the time and that the full Pabst on the table is an unusual occurrence. He coolly brushes off my suggestions to finish the Pabst before the interview. While setting up some equipment, Keegan eagerly shares some of his favorite songs at the moment. As he jumps through 3 or 4 songs without letting them play through an entire verse, he passionately articulates his thoughts on each track, seamlessly shifting from one to the next – a testament to the neurosis stained confidence of his first solo effort, The Rorschach Test. However, over time Keegan has grown in artistic skill. Young Mammoth Tusk, his most recent project with local producer, Chuckie Buckets, is an unapologetic snapshot of the post-grad millennial making his way. It’s quite evident that he has spent time at the whetstone sharpening his tongue and wit when you hear him recount anecdotes of being baptized in a bath full of Pabst by an ordained minister or conducting questionable activities in a lobby that might be frowned upon by management. While many of his lyrics tend to be fun, and sometimes battle oriented, Keegan brings an energy that allows him to stand out amongst Portland’s burgeoning Hip-Hop scene. Sitting down with Keegan to discuss his path reveals candid insight to the influences of this fresh and unique energy.
Make sure you catch Keegan on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp to stay up to date with the artist himself.
First and foremost, thank you for doing the interview with me. Definitely helps and means a lot. And I want to get into just talking a little bit about what Me. Now. is and what it does or what it’s aiming to do. It’s looking to be a platform to inspire and motivate creatives, entrepreneurs, whatever, just individuals who are fed up with the status quo and want to start doing things for themselves and for those around them. Essentially, motivating them to find their passion and their little bit of happiness in this world. So with that, the idea is to go around and find people who are on their own path and start talking to them about whatever it is that inspires them and motivates them. Get some insight from them. So I thought of you because I’ve been to a lot of your shows and you definitely bring a very positive energy. A lot of different people think a lot of different things about Hip-Hop and I think that you are, in this area, at the forefront of spreading a positive image about it.
I appreciate that.
Let’s start a little bit about the history. Lets talk about your start in music.
Oh shit, okay. So I’ve always been a big fan of Hip-Hop – a student of Hip-Hop really. My parents grew up listening to it and shit. So when I was young I would hear a lot of dope shit from the 90’s from my parents. Whether it be my dad showing me Ice Cube or my mom showing me early Eminem… Whether she should have done that or not. I really fell in love with that shit early on – like grade school, probably. And then continued to be a fan up until my senior year in high school. Basically I was getting into a bunch of shit, doing a bunch of stuff I shouldn’t have been doing. Narrowly avoiding getting in trouble and I decided to cut that shit out and kind of focus up. And at that point, I had seen a couple local cats from my hometown make Hip-Hop music. Do big shows. So I was like, “Shit I could do that too.” So I spent the first half of my senior year in high school doing an independent class where I made the curriculum and I just studied Hip-Hop. I did research papers on different sub-genres, different regions, shit like that. And then the second half of the year, I made my own independent class where I got credit to just record music and I started recording my first raps then. At the end of senior year, for my big senior project, I organized and headlined my first Hip-Hop show right outside of town and we sold that venue out with like 170 people and then turned around and donated that money right back to my school. So that was like the real start.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you didn’t start writing raps until you were a senior in high school?
Yeah. I was 17.
Did you have any musical experience before then?
I played the recorder in 6th grade. [Laughs]. Nah, I played trumpet a little bit in 6th grade too. I just couldn’t really focus enough in the class cause I always felt like the songs were super corny. And so I bailed out on that.
Let me first preface this by saying, to make the decision to do this independent class, get deep into the history and the study of Hip-Hop and then to turn around and organize a show. That takes a lot of commitment, am I right?
Yeah. I think that’s a safe assumption.
Do you remember the moment that you decided to take on that commitment, or some would say that burden, of having to organize all of those things to get that done?
For the show in particular?
For taking it more seriously your senior year.
The reason I kinda focused up senior year was basically… I got arrested when I was like 14 for being drunk at a varsity basketball game at my high school. Proceeded to get into other forms of trouble over the next couple of years. And I had a few close calls right before my senior year. And so at that point I figured like, “Yo, you got too much potential to be fuckin’ around like that.” And so I just kind of buckled down and I didn’t just focus on music. I focused on school too. I had been a straight A student all through high school. But senior year I just tried to focus up more. Think about what the next step was – like college and shit like that. So I was just kind of focusing up in general at that point.
From this moment of doing the show in high school and starting to get into Hip-Hop a lot more seriously, where did it go from there?
So from there it was kind of a weird turn. I moved out to NE Portland to go to college. And I kinda got caught up in the experience of going to college and being more independent. At the same time trying to stay on top of my studies and shit. So music was kind of on the backburner for a little bit. I wrote a few songs here and there. Didn’t really record much. Did a show out in Estacada (Keegan’s hometown) again, that went pretty well. There was like a hundred plus people there. But school was kind of in the front seat. I was still struggling to balance those things. But then, circumstantially, I guess the next step from high school to making music in college was when I met this guy who lived at this house that was like a block from Concordia’s campus. The house this guy lived in was like the low key kickback spot. People would go there in between classes to smoke, hang out and drink, whatever. And one of the guys who lived there, he didn’t even go to Concordia, he went to PCC. His name was Nick. But he went by Fungus. And he was kind of a weird, artsy guy. But we’d always get drunk and he would freestyle. And I always thought he was like a crazy freestyler. And he never recorded music before. And so we freestyled a whole bunch, got to know each other. And one day it just kind of clicked like, “Yo, we should work together. Make an album or something.” And so the Stoop Kids were born. Cause the house was called The Stoop. So I bought a microphone, I bought all the supplies we needed. We soundproofed a closet and we recorded this first project, my freshman year. It was called Stoop Livin. It was like 10 tracks. It was pretty bad. It was totally unmixed. All we did was fuck around with the volumes on it. We stole all the beats.
Back when you could do that.
Back when you could do that, yeah. It was a little less frowned upon back then. We recorded that project and started pushing it. Pushing it super hard. Trying to break into the local scene. Trying to connect with people and stuff. And at that point I just networked. And connected with a lot of good people. Mike Bars, Karess, Aviel Ben Yamin. Just a bunch of good people and at that point things kind of picked up.
How long after that did you release the Rorschach Test?
That was probably another two years. Cause that was in my junior year of college at that point. And basically, in the meantime, I did a lot of writing ahead of times. Didn’t know what I was gonna use it for, but just capitalized on whenever inspiration hit. And so in the meantime I was doing features for Karess’s projects, Smoov Ass Gorilla and Wicked Giraffe. Doing features for Mike Bars projects, 16 Bars. And just kind of writing a lot, trying to hone my craft a little bit. And so then in 2014, at the top of the year, I was getting ready to graduate college. I just started a real job, working as a counselor and so I just kind of got inspired again and got in the studio as often as I could and knocked out The Rorschach Test.
So before we continue talking about The Rorschach Test, I want to make a quick distinction here. You mentioned something that kind of tickled my brain a bit. You mentioned having a real job as a counselor. So the amount of work that goes into recording your music. Not just recording your music, writing your music, recording it, editing it, mixing it, whatever, and then playing shows, is that not a real job?
For me, ever since I first started doing music I always thought that it would be an amazing thing to get to do as a profession. If it was lucrative enough that I could live comfortable. I see a lot of independent artists who may make 40k a year, 50k a year off their music but they live off their music. And something like that always sounded appealing to me but I had other skill sets, other talents, so I tried not to put all my eggs in one basket, and just kind of pursued multiple paths and passions in that sense. Cause I am ultimately passionate about psychology, that’s what I got my degree in, and counseling, which I did for an extended period of time. But I feel like no matter how busy I got with a regular job, music always keeps calling me back.
Lets note those hand quotes like Dr. Evil over here. The “regular job.”
Bunny ears on the regular job [laughs] If it could be a full time job, that would be the ultimate goal, right? Is to make this a career. A music career.
It’s just something that I’ve always ran into when I’m talking about things that I’m passionate about which might not be finance, or working in an office, or whatever, which are historically credited as “regular jobs,” or “real jobs.” And for me, kind of turning around and working more on these passionate things, these passion projects, it’s a lot, a lot of work and you definitely have to be a self starter, you have find your own motivation and push through a lot of resistance to get there and to me, that’s more work than a lot of jobs that I’ve held.
Oh, definitely. And there’s more risk, you know? I don’t want to say that you’re settling if you’re doing a “regular job” but I think if you’re willing to put yourself out there at risk of failing, of being broke. It takes a lot to persevere and to pursue a passion like that.
How many times have you failed on your path through your passion?
Countless times. Stoop Livin, at the time, we though it was the greatest project ever. We were so proud of it. And then pushed it and it didn’t take off the way we wanted it to. I don’t think we necessarily garnered the respect in the community that we wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, it did a lot of good things for us. Connected us with a lot of good people and maybe it was good for us relatively on our path at the time. But that didn’t really pan out the way I wanted it to. There have been shows where I’ve performed and we were really trying to get it to sell out and barely anyone would show up. Performing for like, 8 or 10 people.
What did those failures do for you? How did you approach them? What did you think about them?
What I tried to learn the most is that there’s just so much to understand about this field, if you want to call it that. So I was just trying to observe and take note and try to better understand. Ultimately It’s the music business is what I’m talking about and trying to navigate that. Cause I feel like the music’s pretty solid and there’s always room to grow and develop. But it’s becoming more savvy about the music business as well. So I just try to flip those failures into learning moments – as corny as that sounds. “Why didn’t that show sell out?” “Did we book ourselves at a bogus show and waste our time with that?” “What could we have done differently to make it sell out?”
So pushing self pity aside and taking a more logical approach to it.
Yeah, just trying to learn from it.
So let’s get back on track. I want to hear just a little bit about The Rorschach Test and then your newest project out right now – Young Mammoth Tusk. So lets talk about some of the inspiration behind The Rorschach Test. It’s pretty cohesive, no?
Yeah it’s probably my most cohesive project yet.
So where did you find inspiration? I hear a lot of psychology influence and you had just said that you’re pretty passionate about psychology.
I don’t even know how I initially made the connection. But first of all, I had been writing a lot in college like I was talking about. Not really sure what I was gonna use it for. I had a basic idea of what I wanted to do: a darker themed EP. Talked about a lot of the shit that I had dealt with and struggled with in High School. Avoiding the pitfalls of substance abuse and depression. So I had all this materiel written. But I wasn’t quite sure what I was gonna do with it. And then my guy, Aviel, who I mentioned earlier, connected me with this guy named Bryce Trost, who owns Green Luck Media Group, which is a recording studio and a business beyond that. I started booking sessions there and I must have knocked out The Rorschach Test recording session in 6 or 7 sessions. Just going in there with all this material that I knew really well and was inspired to knock it all out at once.
You had been kicking that materiel around for a while, then?
Yeah, I’d been kicking it around for a while. Trying to fine-tune it. Taking bits and pieces from this verse and putting it with that verse and kind of making it all cohesive. And so I recorded that at Green Luck. And the psychology inspiration is pretty evident. Calling it The Rorschach Test which is like an outdated assessment tool for psychologists was just kind of like a nod to my background. I got a bachelors degree in psychology so why not incorporate that at some level. More so than just psychology but my education kind of reflects in that music. The music’s pretty explicit at times and dark at times. But I feel like I did a pretty good job of articulating myself and what I’m going through.
Was there any message, specifically, that you were trying to get across during that time in your music?
way I always thought of it is, when I first started making music, the songs kind of a reflected the dumb shit that I was trying to stop doing. The music was replacing it. I guess those songs were a good outlet. Up until the Rorschach test I didn’t feel like I had done justice to that chapter of my life. Like I feel like I could depict it better. And do it a better service.
Like, closure in a sense?
Yeah, yeah, like closing the books on it but also creating some solid art out of it. Cause those are pretty unique experiences. There was a lot I learned from that period of my life so it seemed like the right decision to reflect that in some art. And so ultimately that music didn’t necessarily reflect my values at the time I recorded it, but it told the story of a kid going through some shit.
A theme that I’m kind of seeing pop up in what we’re talking about here is flipping something not so great to make it into something better. So we talked about mistakes and flipping them. Not thinking of it in a self-pity sense, but what you can learn from it. And that is flipping that mistake around into some way that you can grow. Or taking these difficult experiences from your past and flipping it into a beautiful piece of art. Speaking of art: Young Mammoth Tusk, lets talk about that.
Young Mammoth Tusk, okay.
What is that title?
[laughs] As with all these stories it seems, I need to tell backstory to tell the story itself. But I meant to mention earlier that I started working as a counselor at a boy’s home for about 3 years. I met this coworker, this guy I ended up becoming good friends with and moved in with him. And as he got to know me and know that I was into Hip-Hop and shit. He said, “You should meet my friend, Nolan. He’s a producer. I think you guys would get along well.” So I meet this guy, Nolan, that’s never produced for anybody ever in his life. He just made beats by himself for the sake of liking to make beats. And they were really good. Some of the best beats I’ve ever heard – especially from someone that wasn’t in the scene at all. And so we started vibin’, recording some scratch tracks and all that to some of his beats. And as far as the name, Young Mammoth Tusk. We have a habit of going downtown. Going to 90s night at the clubs and getting drunk. And we were drunk at some food carts downtown and I was just on one, being obnoxious. And people were saying shit and I was just starting to play off it in some rhyme scheme. And for some reason, and I don’t know why cause of how drunk I was, Nolan said, “Young Mammoth Tusk.” So I just started rhyming that with, like, “Young mammoth tusk, Camel crush, cannabis,” Which are incidentally some of the opening bars of Majora, the first song on the project. The project in its entirety was the result of two creative guys meeting for the first time and learning to work together and mashing their sensibilities and creative directions together.
Yeah, if Rorschach Test has that dark, introspective kind of aura about it, Young Mammoth Tusk is definitely a lot more fun. More in your face, I suppose.
Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment, which I definitely consciously wanted cause The Rorschach Test is a great project in and of itself. But I wanted to make music that still kind of stuck to my sensibilities but was more bouncy. Translated more to people who weren’t hardcore Hip-Hop heads.
So how did you achieve that for these people that maybe weren’t Hip-Hop heads or anything. Did you incorporate anything into your music to appeal to them?
I’d say there were a couple things. The type of production that Nolan makes is a little trappier – like, unconventional trap cause its not super dark or heavy all the time. If left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have heard that beat and wrote to it. Making music with him, in particular, forced me to make different kinds of songs because he made different kinds of beats. But I would say something that I consciously tried to do was to not rap so much. In the sense of not trying to cram crazy amounts of syllables into one bar because I can do that. And I really enjoy that and I kind of wanted to branch out. And I learned from that process, between The Rorschach Test and Young Mammoth Tusk, is that you can rap well but it doesn’t mean you make good songs. Or that the songs are enjoyable to listen to.
Or that you always have to cram as many syllables into one bar that you can.
You don’t want to alienate 90% of listeners because you want to show how many syllables you can cram into a bar. I grew up on that kind of Hip-Hop like Boom Bap, Backpack type Hip-Hop. And I love it and that’s some of my biggest influences, but I’m a strong believer too, you gotta kind of branch out. There’s other aspects of Hip-Hop that you gotta explore too.
Did you feel like you were exploring uncharted territory with the kind of production Nolan was doing?
I think his production is pretty unconventional and pretty weird which reflects – he’s definitely a really unique guy. The production reflects that. But then I think the blending of my Boom Bap origins with his trappy production, which is in its early forms cause, you know, he’s still trying to find his sound and stuff – I think it was kind of a unique blend. I don’t think it sounds like too much other shit. For better or for worse I don’t think it sounds like anything else.
Let’s talk about some of the impediments to making Young Mammoth Tusk. Was there anything that got in your way? Anything that could have ended the project?
I’d say there’s a bunch. Something that I know as a person that I need to work on is just focusing. And I think I’m a pretty focused guy but focusing more and more. Cause I think that one of the first roadblocks that we hit was just not focusing in. and so we would just make like 15 to 17 rough tracks that were poorly recorded and we just go in there and make a new song everyday kinda thing. And so I think that kind of got in our way a little bit cause we weren’t going in there with like a desired outcome. So that was a thing in and of itself. I know I constantly deal with writers block. Its crazy to me. I’d say that’s my biggest roadblock most of the time. Because I feel like I’ll be on a hot streak. I’ll write a bunch of dope shit and then eventually writers block will hit. The kind of artist I feel I am is that I’m super critical of myself, over analytical of myself I would say, so when that writers block hits I can get super down on myself. Like, “Dude maybe you’re not meant to do this shit. Your shit’s not that tight.” Things like that. Little voices in the back of your head nagging a little bit. And so for me I always feel like that is the biggest struggle to work through, is to affirm yourself.
How do you get over that?
For me it’s tough. Its kind of reflecting on the dope shit we’ve done. Just kind of, like, affirming things. “Hey, dude, you’re on the right track. You’re doing what you need to be doing. The shit may not be happening as fast as you want it to or the way that you thought it would unfold. But shit is going well. You’re doing these sold out shows.”
Kind of like that positive self-talk. Self-affirmations and what not.
Definitely. Cause its super easy, music or otherwise, to focus on what you don’t have going on. Negative things about your life or yourself. So just trying to remind yourself like, “Nah, dude, you got a lot of good shit going on. Chill out.”
You deal with naysayers much at all?
Not really. I actually haven’t ran into much, being booed off stage or had people boo at me while I was on stage. I always feel like the people around me have been super supportive for the most part. As far as friends and family are concerned. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who don’t fuck with my shit, cause the scenes pretty small. And everyone more or less knows everyone. So I’m sure there’s plenty of people that I know in the scene who don’t really fuck with my shit but they’re not like… they just don’t fuck with it. Its not like they’re actively hating or anything.
Are you happy with Young Mammoth Tusk in the end?
I am. I think it’s perfectly imperfect, as corny as that sounds. Cause, like I said, I think that project’s just a representation of us figuring out what we need to do to work effectively with each other to make the best music. And then I think that progress will reflect more on the next project.
Would you say that was your biggest lesson from the whole thing?
Working with Nolan. It’s the first time I’ve actively worked with someone to build the songs up from scratch. So I learned a lot about like what his lane is, production-wise, and how much input I can provide and then me kind of writing differently to work with those. It’s just a lot of collaboration and learning to work together. It’s the first time I’ve done that with a producer.
Let’s have a conversation about perseverance real quick. What role has it played in your endeavors?
I would say it’s everything really. I think for… no matter what dream it is that you’re trying to chase perseverance is the most important thing because perseverance to me means pushing forward even when things get dark or discouraging and recognizing you having enough faith in yourself in your talents, your abilities, your potential to push forward and keep going. And I think that speaking from what I know with music in particular there’s a lot of discouraging moments you know if the songs are getting the plays that you want or the love that you want you’re not getting the shows that you want or the recognition that you think you deserve. You just gotta kind of push through that. Persevere through that. Work harder. I think perseverance is everything.
So then, what’s the motivation to fuel that perseverance?
For me my biggest motivation is just I think I’m the most inspired and the most motivated when I really take a minute to visualize what my life could look like if I succeed at this. And success is always relative and depends on who you’re talking to. And to me it’s this image of touring. Even the concrete image of like traveling on a tour bus with some of my closest friends. Performing music across the world, across the country, whatever. To me that’s super inspiring. And motivating. Or thinking about the type of shows I could be doing. The type of artists I could be working with. That shit is super motivating to me.
So do you meditate on those projections pretty often then?
Not as much as I should. But I think when I get super down or discouraged or unmotivated that that. I often find myself thinking about shit like that to get moving again.
What did perseverance look like within the context of young mammoth tusk for you?
Perseverance really had to do a lot with. Before we started officially recording the project. I had quit my job as a counselor where I had worked for three years and I was sitting on a little but of money so I was living fine while I didn’t have a job. I was working through kind of persevering through trying figure out the whole. Trying to figure out finding another job things. Persevering through dealing with the stress of not knowing if and when I was gonna get another job and all that. So that was a lot to work through during that process. I put my last dollar into recording and getting Young Mammoth Tusk mixed and mastered. Preserving was a lot of having faith in my self and the project and our abilities and that things would get better.
We’ve talked about motivation and perseverance and we’ve talked about the support system. But these lessons don’t come cheap and I know you’ve put in your time into this endeavor. What’s something else that you’ve learned along the way that you can pass onto the next generation of would be artists?
There’s a few things I’ve learned. I’ve been doing this for 5 years. And there’s things I wish people told me early on. First things I would say is don’t put music out until you’re ready. Finding your voice, finding your craft, finding your lane. Cause you only get one first impression. I would say, recognize that overnight success takes 10 years. If you really want to make it on a national framework, realistically, it’s going to take a lot of grinding. Doing a lot of shows. Paying your dues. It’s a grind. It takes a long time. We aren’t close to where we want to be. Doing consistent shows. Thousands of streams. Even to get here has just been a lot of work. Be ready to tackle that undertaking of work if you’re really interested in pursuing music like this.
If perseverance and motivation are the fuel that you give yourself to help yourself when you are on your path then what’s something that someone else can do, whether its your parents, your friends, supporters, or say a motivational company – What is something they can do to help you achieve your dreams on your passion path?
I just think support. In its many various forms goes a long way and that can differ depending on the situation you know. A big thing for support to me is if you come out to one of my shows. If you come out buy a ticket and rock with us just to have a good time but you know at the same time not everyone willing to do that or can do that. If you share something we put out online or drop a message saying hey you guys are doing good things. I just think support goes a long way. Encouragement goes a long way. You never know when people like that who are chasing their passions they are often prone to feeling discouraged and so I think little things like that can go a long way.
Make sure you catch Keegan on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp to stay up to date with the artist himself.