On Our Radar: Johnny Active [Interview]
Calgary, AB – Calgary-born, Toronto-based MC Graydon Welbourn – better known by his stage name Johnny Active – has been rhyming since he was 10 years old. Following the successful August 2012 release The Grady Bunch recorded at Mercury Recording Studios in Calgary, 19-year old Johnny Active is working on making a name for himself in Canadian hip-hop. With lyrical raps and cheeky rhymes Johnny Active uses his prose to speak to the run-of-the-mill ups-and-downs of everyday life. Johnny’s latest track titled “Back to You” dropped on YouTube and iTunes on Feb. 3 as part of a six-week installation of track releases to ring in Johnny’s upcoming 2013 album release. Check out with this kid’s On Our Radar after the jump.
HipHopCanada: What sparked a love of hip-hop in you, and what steps have you taken to be part of the scene?
Johnny Active: My older brother irresponsibly showed me Eminem and Dr. Dre back when I was around nine years old. I fell in love immediately. It was different than anything I had heard before. I was so used to the music played while riding in the car. I connected to the vibe of it even though lyrically I couldn’t exactly relate to what they were saying. From there I studied everything and that’s when I became immersed in the culture. Hip hop is more than music. It’s a lifestyle. Some people don’t get that. I started rhyming when I was 10. Myspace was still poppin’ so I reached out to local rappers and producers in Calgary. I ended up receiving advice and a lot of props and respect from guys such as King Dylan, Planit, Lexington + Whatevski, Virtue, Dragon Fli Empire, Metawon, Ricca Razor Sharp, Mantrakid and Edmonton emcee Touch. These guys were the guys I actually listened to so for them to give me props or do songs with me and actually develop a relationship with some little kid was real cool. From there I’ve just honed my skills, had a few name changes, formed a group, and had the group break up. But I’m still here, now straddling Calgary and Toronto, continuing to network and be involved and supportive of everyone. I’m stronger than ever.
HipHopCanada: What elements of hip-hop culture appeal to you most?
Johnny Active: Initially, it was the overall sense of freedom—people were expressing themselves fully. No limits. I was always sort of a shy introverted kid when I was little. I met hip-hop and she changed me completely. Hip hop allows you to be yourself and do your thing. If you were a little kid, confused as hell about the world, you could express that. Obviously the emceeing is the most important element to me but I’ve always loved everything about it. Hip hop is not just music, it’s a culture—a way of life, really. When you meet someone you know if they really feel hip hop or not. There’s hardly any other genre like hip hop. It brings a real lifestyle with it.
HipHopCanada: Specify your craft – what part of it you are the most talented at, and what do you work the hardest on?
Johnny Active: I’m a songwriter first. But I am an emcee. The most exciting thing about a song is the lyrics and how they can hit people. You need to have an ear for good lyrics too—and I have that. I’m most talented at conveying an emotion and staying on topic within my songs and being able to tell a story from start to finish. A lot of rappers get sort of lost in their subject matter. It ends up being messy. I don’t like that. Sometimes that stifles my writing but I always work through it. I also am particularly proud of coming up with melodies on my own that are catchy and sound nice. It’s just another dimension that I’ve added to my game. When I was younger I thought a song was dope solely if lyrics were solid so I really developed my writing style. But no one ever sat me down and told me, “Look, the words are nothing without the flow.” I was too young to realize it. Now each song is better than the last. And I know emcees take a while to really find their flow. I’m okay with that as long as I’m improving. But my new stuff is finally what I feel like is really my natural cadence and flow.
HipHopCanada: Who do you feel you represent?
Johnny Active: I represent the new school of rappers that understand the old school, respect it and understand the importance of beats, lyrics, and concepts. I represent the kids that don’t get spoken for. There’s a lot of music that graces the surface of things that people go through. I find it’s better to really delve into things. Let’s talk about the nitty gritty of being pushed away. Let’s talk about the nitty gritty of waking up and not knowing what the hell to do with your life. Let’s talk about the effects of a messy break up. Let’s talk about the different sides of people. I represent my city too. I’m the young kid that has grown up and been involved with the scene for a long time.
HipHopCanada: What are some signs of success in your musical career?
Johnny Active: I’ve been featured on a lot of blogs which I’m really pumped about. It’s shocking, though, because most of my online support has been from American sites like BroBible, College of Music, University Hype, Rupture Spot, Fresh Flows and some others. I was on the front of the Entertainment section in the Calgary Herald after I released my free album The Grady Bunch in the summer. I’ve always wanted to be in the newspaper. I’m getting follows on Twitter from some cool people. Yelawolf’s producer WIllPower follows me. My last album The Grady Bunch was a success in itself though. I hardly had any promotion for it other than my Facebook page and Twitter, and I got a ton of downloads from around the world.
HipHopCanada: What have been some of the biggest roadblocks and how have you surpassed them?
Johnny Active: My biggest roadblock was being a white kid that didn’t grow up in a dangerous environment or broken home. People who don’t really understand the whole idea of hip hop assume that you need to be black and from the ghetto to make good music and be admitted into hip-hop. This isn’t true. I hurdled that roadblock by working hard, proving that I wasn’t some joke and by always staying true. It would have been ridiculous if I rhymed about guns, selling drugs or anything like that. I keep it real to myself and I think people see that. When I meet people and tell them I’m a rap artist sometimes they get a puzzled look on their face. I assure them my music is far from what they expect. I’m not a college rapper. I didn’t go to University and think it would be a sweet idea to make YouTube videos about drinking beer and hanging with hot girls purely for the sake of getting hot girls. I’ve been involved in hip-hop for half my life. It isn’t a hobby or a job. It’s what I do. People assume I’m a college rapper because I’m white and I’m in school and I’ve made songs about having a good time. I’m shaking that label though.
HipHopCanada: What is your overall goal for your career in hip-hop?
Johnny Active: I want to go far. I don’t really think it’s fair to put ceilings above yourself. That’s just negative thinking. Bottom line is that hard work can do wonders. I have a ton of great ideas up in my head that the world needs to hear. I don’t want to be a rapper that only Canada knows about. It’s just my goals are higher, bigger than Canada and I think hopefully, because of that, I will eventually bring more attention to Canada. I will always represent Canada until the day I die. I figure you go big or go home.
HipHopCanada: What people or groups do you see as being instrumental in helping you to achieve that goal?
Johnny Active: I’m building a fan base right now. They’re the ones that are instrumental in achieving my goal. Without you, I’m nothing. I love entertaining people. It’s the best feeling. It’d also be sweet if Jay-Z or Kanye tweeted about me—but they’re busy, or so I’ve heard.
HipHopCanada: Where can fans find you? Both in person and online?
Johnny Active: In person you can catch me in downtown Toronto roaming the streets. I like the Redroom and I love coffee. In Calgary you can find me at James Joyce, National, The Ship and Commonwealth. But mostly I’m in the studio—working.
Twitter: @JohnnyActive I tweet a lot.
iTunes: Johnny Active
Any last words for the HipHopCanada community?
Johnny Active: Thanks for reaching out. I’ve been following you guys for years. Shout out to HipHopCanada, Obey the Crooks, Chelsea-Lyne, The Blue, Transit, Tru-Ly, Jay Nova, King Dylan, Brall, OB, Sunny Norway and everyone who has ever downloaded my album or supported me in some form, or inspired me. Look out for my free weekly Sunday releases for the next six weeks up until the release of my new EP. Find me on Bandcamp, and YouTube. Thank you. Peace.
Interview conducted by Sarah Sussman for HipHopCanada