Taaj Hudson found himself performing on stage for the second time ever on Thursday, October 11th. This stage, however, was far from an open mic stage where many college musicians can be found honing their craft. Taaj—who raps and produces under his first name alone—was on stage at the Hawthorne Theater, opening for Jay Rock—a formidable California-based rapper and Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate of Kendrick Lamar, and REASON, the label’s most recent signee.
The PSU Sophomore, a Sonic Arts and Music Production Major, went on stage around 9 p.m. He emerged to a sold-out venue; many in the crowd were unaware that a local rapper was even opening, others were shouting his name enthusiastically. He didn’t hold back, diving into technically challenging verses and bouncing around the stage energetically, winning over some of the more ambivalent crowd members in the process. As his set went on, his nerves got to him and he messed up a few lyrics. He freestyled instead. The crowd didn’t notice.
Taaj’s music is an eclectic mix of sounds and ideas. His Dawn EP, released earlier this year opens with a boasty banger called “All Taaj,” and later finds Taaj reflecting over a strumming guitar on “Communicate”: “I want things to be great / and I’m feeling all this angst / now my mind’s in my way / now my mind’s in my way.” An unreleased song debuted at the Hawthorne Theater featured a hypnotic flute-like melody over which Taaj croons, “I keep it lowkey / need that whip with no keys / need my wrists on freeze / need that crib overseas.”
Back in the world of PSU, I sat down with Taaj outside the Chipotle on campus the day after his show. As we talked about the concert, his music and his ambitions, he was calm and thoughtful in his responses, cracking the occasional joke but thinking seriously about his answers.
On a few occasions during the interview he interrupted himself when he saw a passerby he recognized, greeting them with a warm smile, immediately chatting them up. “Hey how’re you doing? You wanna see my show? You done with class for the day? What you ‘bout to do?”
I dubbed him a “man of the people” after the third or fourth time this happened. “Yeah you have to be,” he responded, “you can’t be not for the people, if you’re doing this. ‘Cause you are the people.”
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
“Longer term, I want to be the greatest musician of all time. Something like that. I want to be an artist that transcends genres. I do want to be compared to the great hip hop artists, but I also want to be compared to Michael Jackson, The Beatles. I don’t want to be a ‘regular’ rapper.” -Taaj Hudson
Shane Johnson: How are you feeling after the show and what was the experience of performing like?
Taaj Hudson: It was a good lesson, I learned a lot from it. It was very fun and the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me in my life probably.
It’s crazy to explain it, but every once in a while for the past two days, for like a second, I’d get super nervous and then it’d go away. The same thing happened right before I got on stage, intensified a little bit. And I took the first step on stage and that feeling just went away, and it felt super natural. That’s why I was freestyling, the energy just fed me and the crowd fed my performance. I’m very about living in the moments, because even though last night didn’t go perfectly, it was still a good show, good experience, good everything. I learned a lot, it opened doors. Y’know what I’m saying?
SJ: What went into the decision-making of the songs you chose to perform?
TH: Energy. I wanted to keep changing the vibe up. We started with the harder music, then we had a catchy song, went back into the harder music, just faster paced. Then we ended with [Travis Scott’s hit single] “Sicko Mode,” because we had to bring the energy back up for REASON, especially cuz I messed up on the last song—which is okay because you want to mess up to learn.
SJ: How long has music been in your life, and when did you start pursuing it seriously?
TH: Music’s been in my life pretty much my whole life, as long as I can remember. I played guitar when I was twelve, but before that me and my brother always would be messing around with music. My dad made beats, I watched him.
I started practicing rapping first. I started producing because I didn’t want to have to spend money on beats but then I fell in love with that. I started recording the same time I started producing. I didn’t learn from anyone, I just said I’m gonna figure this out myself, don’t watch YouTube videos, because I just wanted to be creative with it.
I started really pursuing music seriously, really going after it, finding other avenues and getting deep into it, spending time—that started happening this year or last year. I was working just as hard the past couple years but now I’m working smarter, and accomplishing objectives, setting goals and getting it done. Every goal I’ve set, I’ve got it done just by setting the goal.
SJ: What is your creative process like?
TH: It really depends on the situation—I just like to be creative with what I’m doing. Most of the time if I’m making a beat, I start with the melody of the beat—most people start with the drums and the rhythm—but that’s my strong suit [the melody]. I start with the melody because that’s my favorite part and also the hardest part for me.
With lyrics it tends to depend on what type of song I make. Sometimes I freestyle, sometimes I write. It’s just about getting energy on the track. I think about everything the same, just at different points in the song’s life; it’s really song to song, day to day, letting the pen control what happens and not me.
SJ: What has your experience in the Sonic Arts & Music Production (SAMP) program at PSU been like?
TH: I’ve learned a lot this year, even the first day of class. I joined late, I wasn’t in SAMP last year. I’m learning all the technical stuff behind things I already do by ear. I’m hoping to increase my connections and knowledge and learn a way to navigate music better.
SJ: Looking forward, what goals have you set for yourself, short and long term?
TH: Short term, within the next year, I want to have a song that charts. Not even top any charts, just one that makes the charts. That’s just like what I want, but my actual goal I’m working towards is trying to build a different culture of hip hop in Portland, ‘cause a lot of people move selfishly when it comes to the music industry here. If they can find a way to benefit off of it short term they’ll do it, but a lot of people don’t think about the long term. The music scene is dope but the hip hop scene is lacking. There’s a lot of talent but I want to build a different culture around here.
Longer term, I want to be the greatest musician of all time. Something like that. I want to be an artist that transcends genres. I do want to be compared to the great hip hop artists, but I also want to be compared to Michael Jackson, The Beatles. I don’t want to be a “regular” rapper.
SJ: What do you want listeners to take away from your music?
TH: Follow your dreams. Be yourself. The best way to be unique or original is to be yourself, because no one’s like you. Someone may be similar, but then you’re connecting with them, that’s the point of any type of experience. That’s pretty much the point of human existence, is to connect with people. All anybody wants is a connection
You can find Taaj’s music on SoundCloud or streaming services such as Spotify, and keep up to date with him on Instagram @justtaaj