The line outside of Brooklyn Bazaar is loud and tie-dyed. The harsh frigidity of the night is broken by joints being lit, raucous laughter, and the recitation of mantra-like rap verses. Inside the venue, girls weather the long bathroom lines by passing vapes and compliments and fetching water for dehydrated new friends. Touring crew members mingle with fans, relaying stories from the road and checking that everyone is okay. This place feels approachable, warm from the lights and bodies crowding the stage. And then the music starts, and this positive energy becomes a physical sensation– the bass hits deep in my chest as the fans move in unison, shouting “I’m so fucking happy baby” up to the rafters. This feeling is rare at a tiny concert. But it’s trademark Mod Sun.
Mod Sun is a creative powerhouse with personality to spare. Since 2009, he’s released six mixtapes, three EPs, and three studio albums, as well as a book (and audiobook!) and a collection of poetry. The Minnesota rapper has made a name for himself through his ceaselessly happy rhymes and outlook on life. If his unruly hair and vocal affinity for marijuana weren’t a tip-off, he’s a self-identified hippie (his moniker is an acronym for “Movement On Dreams, Stand Under None,” for God’s sake). His freewheeling verses about love and the universe are a guaranteed mood booster. His sound is eclectic to say the least, as he incorporates horn sections, vintage doo-wop, lofty organs, and even barking (courtesy of his puppy, Chuko). Think Jim Morrison, mid-acid trip. Last year’s full-length release “Movie” veered into new territory, exploring the rapper’s innermost anger and doubts with a darker, trap-inspired sound. But “BB,” released in November, sees a return to his sonic roots.
Mod boasts an incredibly welcoming legion of fans, affectionately referred to as his “friendbase,” and boy, has he got a lot of friends — he’s had multiple successful runs on the Vans Warped Tour, he’s hosted well-attended workshops about positive thinking, and the majority of the dates on this tour sold out. As his mainstream acclaim grows, the self-made rapper is at a turning point in his career: he’s continuing to experiment with new sounds and emotions beyond all-consuming happiness.
As I sat down with Mod Sun, he perched on the green room couch and rolled a joint. His Beetlejuice-esque pinstripe trench coat only highlighted his larger-than-life persona. But once the interview began, it felt like catching up with an old friend (albeit a very trippy one). Through the smoke, he discussed his sonic evolution, new relationship with actress Bella Thorne, and views on the universe.
Both “Movie” and “BB” were released in 2017. And while “BB” is like one continuous high, “Movie” covers a lot of complicated emotions. How were you able to put out two full albums in one year, especially two albums whose vibes are so different?
“Movie” was really based off of creating a story with a start and an end. The last track being “The End or Start Again?” was the basis of that project. I really wanted to make something slightly conceptual, but that wasn’t try-hard. I was trying to make it a ride though, for real. And I worked really hard on that one, just doing the things you’re supposed to do for an album. But I went into it with the idea that I wanted to be very vulnerable, right? Cause I haven’t really let people into a lot of the vulnerability. I mean, in “Make Something of Yourself,” I talk about religion, I talk about my parents being divorced… I wanted to take parts of my book [Did I Ever Wake Up?] that I haven’t shared in my music and bring it into that spectrum. And it was fun, but it didn’t fulfill me as much as I wanted it to. I was trying to put out singles and campaigns and I just feel like that shit kills the art. I can’t fucking stand branding and all this bullshit! I hate it! So I thought, “I’m gonna make a piece of music that reminds me of exactly when I started. I’m gonna come back, I’m gonna make all the beats for this new one (with the exception of one) and I’m not gonna second guess myself at all.” I didn’t want to think, “Is this good enough, is this what they want?” Fuck it, man, this is what I want! So that’s the basis of “BB.” My girl Bella [Thorne] also had a lot to do with “BB”. Before we were dating, I would send her all the songs I was making and she told me which ones were the best.
I’ve noticed a lot of different textures in your beats, from guitar to bells to vintage recordings. What do you look for in a good beat?
I have a sound inside my head, the “Mod Sun sound”. I like to really make the music a part of the song, not just some loop over and over, where it’s only cool because your voice is on it. I really like the music to take you on a ride. I’m musical as fuck, and just to be honest, hip hop usually isn’t. I don’t wanna be rude, but you don’t hear drum fills in hip-hop beats. Let’s just start there! You’re missing a whole element of buildup. You don’t hear more than a fucking riff over and over. It’s built off of an old formula. Obviously, there are extremely talented hip-hop artists who can just work a sound like no one else. That’s awesome. But I like musicality. Like there’s a song on my new album called “trippyBB” where it goes from minor to major. To find a way to make the music go from minor to major, in the same song, is a fucking huge challenge. I just pride myself on doing stuff that I feel like I can’t hear anywhere else. All my favorite artists died before I was born. I start everything by making sure that my idols, at least one of them, would enjoy what I’m making.
Your sound has definitely evolved since the days of “Stoner Girl” and “Happy as Fuck.” On “Movie” especially, you have more of a trap-influenced sound, and your lyrics are a bit more confessional and nuanced. How did this evolution come about?
I know what people like from me, you know? Songs like “Happy as Fuck,” “happyBB,” “Stoner Girl,” “#noshirton,” I understand why people like that. And I understand that no one can do that happy rap shit like me. That’s kind of my thing. But that being said, Bob Dylan is my favorite artist of all time, and he tried every genre in the game. He made gospel music and shit for ten years! [laughs] So I don’t like to be one-sided, and I like to be ahead of the game. I don’t like people to think they know what I’m gonna do next. If I was gonna try to cash in off of what works for me, I would just make happy music all the time. [laughs] That’s not enjoyable for me to make the same thing over and over, I like to be honest, I like to be unapologetic. I also don’t like to be preachy. I don’t want people to say, “Oh, Mod Sun, he’s the happy rapper.” I want to be more than that. Those are my goals, to be a step ahead and not do things to please people.
Instead of fans, you use the word “friendbase,” and it is like being your friend because you are confessional and they do feel like they know certain aspects of your life.
Thank you, thank you. I think that’s all coming around now because I have so many roots beneath what’s going on right now. There’s so much that you can look into and find out about. Like, it’s very easy for people to hate on me. Because outwardly it’s like, “Who is this wild motherfucker?” [laughs] I’m so self-aware, I understand. But then it’s nice because when you Wikipedia me, it’s like, “rapper, author, poet, rock musician.” It’s always been so important to me to have that.
And over the past year or so you’ve gained considerable mainstream attention! What has that been like?
That’s all thanks to my girl, 100%. She’s helped me out so much and she’s always so supportive. She’s not shy about being down to help me out. The other day, the show was almost sold out in Cleveland, and she tweets, “My boyfriend’s show is almost sold out, go get tickets” and it sells out! [laughs] She’s fucking badass. She’s got my back. She’s honestly very important to me, and a superstar, and in my eyes, a total genius, and I want to make sure that her story gets told. So I’m trying to be good with all this media shit because I don’t wanna look like a fucking wild asshole! [laughs] I’m just trying to find the balance. I don’t want us to get in trouble for getting kicked out for smoking weed, [laughs] I don’t want that to be the thing they’re talking about. There’s a little bit of a bad boy image going on. And I’m down with the media getting it twisted because I will totally take the fall for my girl, anytime. If we get in trouble, I’m the one that’s gonna get in trouble. It’s kind of nice being there for her because she is a wild child, she’s a rockstar, she really is like that! It’s nice that I’m there with her to be like, “I got you baby.”
What is your typical songwriting process? Is it mostly born out of freestyling, or do you sit down with a notebook and write it out beforehand?
I used to do that, and I think it’s important for artists to have a really good pen game. I used to sit down and write everything down before I went to the mic. That being said, I record myself. I hit the spacebar, walk up to the mic, and hit the spacebar when I’m done. So I can be free with it now. The first thing I try to do is find a melody to the beat. It sounds so funny, if you were sitting in the room when I’m writing a song, you would laugh so hard. It’s just me in there like “Oooeeeeaaahhh!” Literally, there will be times when I’m just like “AAAAAHHHH!” because I like to test the beat, test the mic, and see what I can do with it.
Does it usually happen in one sitting?
Lately, I don’t like to end until I’m done. I do this thing I call “eat the beat”: from the start to the end of the beat, fill it up. Then you can go back and take stuff away. You never wanna add more. Give everything you got while you’re in that studio, while you’re in that channeling process. I can’t stand doing something great and then trying to go back and match the sound or the vibe. No, give it all you got right there, and you can go back and take away.
More and more of your songs feature you singing. How does your experience of rapping vs. singing differ, in terms of expressing emotions on songs?
When I sing, I get this amazing feeling in my body. This feeling that I’ve longed for my whole life. And when I rap, I get to say things I’ve longed to say my whole life. But when I’m onstage and I have to sing, it’s more of a challenge for me. I have to actually think about it. Whereas rapping is like… we’re rapping right now. [laughs] I just don’t like to be stagnant, I don’t like to be sitting still. I try to challenge myself, whether it be picking up instruments or doing this or that. I want to make sure that I have to be there when I’m doing it. I don’t want to be this blackout rock star, where I can just get up on stage and fucking “blah blah blah” you know? When you sing you gotta be there, man. If you’re not there, you’re gonna sound like shit.
And Bob Dylan basically rapped! So you’re following in his footsteps.
To me, the highest level of artistry is Bob Dylan. I think he proved to everyone that you don’t have to be some whack famous person that has to play by the rules. You can let the art speak for itself if you don’t try to half-step it. If you don’t say, “What can I do to get rich?” If you never go that route, you can let the art speak for itself. His art says everything.
You have inspired so many fans with your views on the Law of Attraction and positivity in general. Is this still something that plays a big part in your life?
Yes. I’m still working on it. I think that I’ve accepted the biggest challenge in the world, which is to force yourself to be happy. I don’t think to force yourself is whack, I don’t think it’s fake. It’s important as fuck. I’m working on it every day. I’ve done so well with this mindset stuff that it’s become muscle memory, but everyone slips up. And when I slip up to the point where I make it verbal, I recognize it almost immediately. It feels awful. It still presents itself as a challenge in some cases, but it’s really not either because it’s so easy to choose the high road. The opinion that matters in any situation is your opinion inside. It’s wonderful if you want to let us hear it, but if it’s going to cause turmoil in any way, is it worth it? I will always choose to make someone feel good rather than bad. So I work on it every day. You still get hit with big challenges, because once things start going well for you, you need to prove that you’re worthy of more. Things could be going better than ever, and then you could get hit with the biggest challenge of your entire life. It’s all part of proving that you’re worthy. And it’s 100% worth it. Going through the struggle will always lead to greatness. Without it, the greatness won’t feel great.
Have you had a lot of meaningful interactions with fans whose lives you’ve impacted?
Oh man, so many. So many about Did I Ever Wake Up?. People of all ages have talked to me about my book, about how it’s done wonders. It’s very surreal because it’s an age where books don’t exist. People don’t understand the power of holding what you believe in, in your hands. Being able to look at it and find something new. It’s just been accepted by old and young. I think the coolest thing about literature is that it has no face to it. Some random older person could pick up the book and read it, and they’re not gonna go, “This is some young kid.” One time a mom ordered it for her child, and read it before she gave it to her. She and her husband were about to get divorced, she handed it to her husband, her husband read it, and it saved their marriage.
If you’re known for anything other than your music and your positivity, it would have to be your fashion sense. What’s your inspiration for your super colorful, funky outfits?
Thank you! I’m a student of fashion, 100%. Because I’m forced to wear clothing. [laughs] Like, I have to! So when I wake up, I dress how I feel. It makes me feel brand new every day. I look at this like my canvas, and I don’t paint plain pictures, you know? I cover my body in tattoos and show those as much as I can. And I feel like, with clothes, I can channel a different time. A different era. A different feeling. And man, if I’m listening to Frank Sinatra and I put on a cool jacket and hat, and smoke a cigar, I feel like I’m in the 50’s, sipping on a dirty martini. If I’m listening to Jim Morrison, I’m gonna put on some leather pants, and wear an unbuttoned shirt wide open. If I’m listening to Bob Dylan, I’m gonna put on some slacks and some suspenders and shit. [laughs] I try to dress how I feel, try to go somewhere, try to be something different. It’s just a way to escape reality, I guess. The way I dress makes me feel like I’m in a different reality.
You recently were mentioned in a tweet that applauded you for your female-friendly shows. Do you intentionally go out there with a pro-woman stance?
Into the world, yeah. I was raised by my mom and my sister. I think women are goddesses, and I think all men kind of suck. [laughs] I feel like the fact that I was raised by two women made me feminine, made me in touch with feelings, and made me able to put myself in other people’s positions. I think men lack the ability to put themselves in other people’s positions. It makes them very cold-hearted and cutthroat, and they go to bed at night not thinking about how they hurt someone. I think women are able to feel the pain of someone else. And I have that. There’s no way for me to hide it. I care about women a lot. If I was raised by my dad, I would be a piece of shit. [laughs] There’s no doubt about it. I’m lucky as fuck because I was raised by angels.
At the moment, what are your main goals as a musician?
Straight up, for everything I’m doing right now, I’m trying to have fewer plans. Trying to really let people see a caterpillar grow to a butterfly right in front of their eyes. I’m not a preacher, I’m not trying to be a role model. I’m literally trying to be an example of someone like me, honest as fuck with the world and cool as shit. I am “the secret” in a cool motherfucker. [laughs] I’m not some old scientist, I’m a cool motherfucker, smoking, drinking, partying, dancing. I want to be an example of creativity and believing in art over reality.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’ve got my studio out here, so I’ve been recording pretty much every day. I’ve got 5 or 6 songs that I’m already comfortable putting out. I’m excited about the next chapter. I’m gonna keep it in the same vein as “BB”, but I’m totally going next level.