A year ago, Pell didn’t know how to dance. But now? The Los Angeles-via-New Orleans independent rapper is smoother than Pharrell.
“I always wanted to do a video where I did some type of real movement,” he says, referring to his “Almighty Dollar” music video. Naturally, he asked for help. One of Kehlani’s backup dancers—whom he met after touring with the R&B singer—created the dance and sent it to him via email, but he couldn’t learn the moves. Two days before the shoot, he got a crash course in how to dance. Somehow he figured it all out. “Some parts that I butchered, I tried to make them my own,” he laughs. “It still kinda worked because I did the majority of what she told me to do. At least I wasn’t doing the stanky legg, because then it could’ve gotten ugly.”
All jokes aside, Pell is had to peel your eyes off of. Talent like his is rare to come across in the rap world, though social stats and name-drop claims fool many into thinking otherwise. Pell got his grounding in Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina relocated him to Mississippi. It was there that he began cranking out songs, first in 2012 with Feel Good Summer EP, then came his smash mixtape Floating While Dreaming in 2014, and finally his proper debut full-length, LIMBO, hit shelves in the fall of 2015.
Lyrically, his album is full of nods to his past and present self. “Almighty Dollar” just happens to zone in on his college self. “I was literally living paycheck to paycheck working at the dollar store,” he recalls. “Sometimes money doesn’t come to you but you have to grind every day because closed mouths don’t get fed. If you believe in your vision, it can start to fix itself. Some days you’re not living your dream; you’re living your nightmare – and your check hasn’t come.”
For Pell, those days don’t seem as far away as fame makes them seem. “This whole industry is a roller coaster,” he says. “There’s days where you feel like ten million bucks and days where you feel like absolute crap. Because I’m independent, I feel the weight of every decision every day because it plays such a big role in my life three months down the line.”
Even if Pell shies away from discussing his recent rise in the industry, the path he’s beginning to form speaks for him. After all, what he’s done—tour with a hotshot, gain a cult following, get TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek to produce his record—speaks volumes.
Then again, leaving the south for a place as starry-eyed and star-filled as Los Angeles leaves a lot to be found. He lost friends, he lost his community, and, most importantly, he lost his daily grind. “When I was left with the tiniest bit of alone time, I remember feeling like that’s where I wanted my music to come from, from a place where I can listen alone when isolated,” he recalls. “It was tough because sometimes I didn’t realize, on the personal side of my life, how much my work was driving my life, but when I woke up from that, everything was beautiful again. ”
When Pell works, he works hard. As easy as it is to focus on the cleanliness of his music—the hooks and his singing team up for a sound not too distant from that of the ever nimble Chance the Rapper—and how that separates him from today’s trap and dark vibe trends, instead, hone in on his lyrics. Pell’s meticulous in both his storytelling and his word choice, not just the delivery. “It’s hilarious to me that people appreciate my singing,” he laughs. “People used to tell me not to sing on the tracks, that someone else should be brought on to do it, but I trusted my gut. Sometimes singing goes where rapping can’t. If I can’t articulate myself in melody, I lose a chunk of what makes the music special.” Looking for a place to start? Clean your ears and put on “Vanilla Sky”, “Monday Morning”, or “Fresh Produce”. Pell works his way through a series of wordy verses and universal themes, all of which fall prey to his own talent as a performer.
Part of that sound is a direct result of Dave Sitek’s role as producer – a surprising collaboration, albeit a fitting one. It all began after a mutual friend played him some of Pell’s songs. Sitek invited him out to LA in 2014 to perform a show, Pell reached out after to ask him if he could produce, and Sitek jumped right on it. “He was actually excited which surprised me,” says Pell. “You know, someone of that fame is generally allowed to be uptight. They’re established in the industry, but he treated me like I was already important.”
Back then, Pell was writing more in prose than actually writing songs. He tossed nearly a dozen songs. After working with Sitek, I realized the importance of collaboration and how deeply it resolves invisible conflicts on the page. “Rap artists don’t always work together,” he says. “Sure, you may get a verse on someone’s song, but that can all be done over email, not in the same studio. The thing about being in LA is that you’re able to bump heads with Dave Sitek and people who are great at what they do and can offer you advice on what you’re working on.”
Beyond that, Sitek taught him two tricks that artists wish they learned earlier. “He stressed how important it is to trust your gut and, even more than that, to be willing to disrupt what’s already there,” says Pell. “If you’re in this creative field not to be creative, what are you in it for? Expand your sound. Go against the grain. People like to hear things a certain way, but you have to remember you’re the artist: you change the way people feel.”
Pell incites feeling. One listen to LIMBO gets the pulse up and the feet shaking. So yeah, he’s already got the moves. Wait a few more months and he’ll have the chart-topping numbers to match.
PELL, DAYE JACK, CHAZZ FRENCH. SAT 2.6. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 472 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 6:30PM/ALL AGES/$13. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM.