19th In-Edit Festival 2021
American Rapstar chronicles the rise of a subculture of young rappers who utilized the SoundCloud streaming platform to disrupt the traditional norms of the music industry with their distinct self-expression and rebellious approach.
Hi Justin thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
Thanks for having me. I’m holding up well, I’m in a garage in North Hollywood where I just finished editing a new Hyperpop video for Midwxst and Ericdoa. It’s a crisp 22ºC, the sun is shining, and my Cavoodle puppy Nugget is laying at my feet. So it could be worse.
Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
It absolutely has. I never imagined I’d see something like a deadly global pandemic in my lifetime. So as someone who studies mental health, economics, and culture I have been fascinated in observing all the shifts and changes society has undergone. Power struggles, societal unrest, economic inequality, sickness, despair, it’s all so much!
With all the pain in the world, the role of Art is far more important now. Art can be used to inspire, to show people new things from far away places, and to bring new perspectives and empathy to situations one may have heard of before. So I am super inspired now to just tell new stories, use new mediums, connect with new young people (as I grow older and older), and also enjoy all these awesome new Art young people are making.
As far as new opportunities…with the crypto boom my production company launched its own cryptocurrency, launched the FIRST music video NFT (with Smokepurpp from “American Rapstar”), and just traded those weird-ass low volume DeFi alt-coins all year. So with boredom came new ideas, new visions, and tons of new opportunities.
American Rapstar is the opening film at the In-Edit Festival in Barcelona, what does it mean for you to have your film part of such a prestigious festival?
It is a great, great honour to be the Opening Film at the In-Edit Festival in Barcelona. We have screened in the Netherlands and Germany with In-Edit and I’ve popped in for a few Q&A’s via Zoom. It’s amazing to see how such a uniquely weird American story plays in different countries.
The kids in my film had to contend with 4 years of Trump, the opioid epidemic, and the deadly rise of gun violence that has plagued our country. And through it all, they somehow became superstar millionaires who sell-out show around the world and make more money than I ever will. So their individual stories really shock these foreign audiences. I think a lot of other countries think Americans are somewhat silly and materialistic (to put it lightly). And they’re right sometimes, but what I try to do with my films is show some of the beauty in that. And “American Rapstar” achieves that at its best moments, showing the world how these kids made it out of tough situations to make something of their lights.
I hope the Spanish get it and don’t hate me if they get a little offended.
What was it about the SoundCloud rap phenomenon scene that interested you as a filmmaker?
I have been documenting music scenes for 15 years, from Southside Chicago Rap in my teen years, to rappers all around the world in my VICE Media days, to 90’s Chicago Emo in my last film “Your War: I’m One Of You”. So when SoundCloud rap exploded in 2016 I was immediately drawn to its punk aesthetics, its crazy distorted bass, its glorifying of dangerous drugs and violence, and the artists’ wild hair and facial tats. I had covered trap music with Noisey, but this was way more interesting. And the artists were always offending the journalists and getting banned from venues and DSP playlists, and I’m always attracted to that kind of controversy.
It’s a completely nuts scene and felt very punk to me. The music is amazing too, I’m a super-mega-fan of Smokepurpp and Lil Pump, every time I hear their music I get fired up. And Matt Ox and Lil Xan are really musical prodigies, Matt was making certified bangers at age 9! Super crazy. And Lil Peep, XXXtentacion, and Bhad Bhabie are undeniably legends now. These are young people who conquered things that no other young people ever have before. This scene rules.
Can you tell me a little bit about American Rapstar, how did this film come about?
My creative partners Tyler Benz, Albert Lago and I had been filming these young rappers as they started to begin their careers. The music quickly stuck out to me and most music journalists and critics wrote them off as a big joke and not to be taken seriously. “Oh God, here comes another ‘Soundcloud Rapper’… please spare me”, type of stuff. When bloggers are hating on young kids from the inner-city, that’s when I know it’s my time to step in and try to uncover the real story. So we started filming all of them as often as we could, partying with them, shooting music videos with them, going to music festivals with them, all of that. It was a really fun and organic vibe.
The multi-million dollar record deals hit and it was all over the news all the time. A million for Lil Xan, millions for Bhad Bhabie, Lil Pump, $5+ for XXX, more for Lil Peep! It was mania and I loved every second of it. But then the record deals needed to be recouped. The labels put the artists on long tours, X got knocked out on stage in San Diego, Peep OD’d on the tour bus in Arizona, it was terrible, just terrible. X ended up getting murdered in his hometown at point-blank in broad daylight. I was super upset about the deaths, all my friends were upset, the fans were upset, it sucked. So I wanted to tell their stories and make sure their legacy carried on for the fans and for adults who knew nothing about them.
And then, with a little help from Jon Caramanica from The New York Times and other music journalists, “American Rapstar” was born!
Did your background in music video help prepare you for making American Rapstar and what would you say have been the most valuable lesson you have taken from making this film?
It absolutely did. I shoot a lot of our music videos myself and we shot this movie ourselves. Just pick up the camera, find a mic, and go follow your subject around. That’s how a good documentary is born. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on the film and wanted it to have an authentic, DIY feel to it. And we edited the entire film ourselves as we do with our music videos. So putting in hundreds of hours on that took patience that I learned from music videos and my VICE work.
The most valuable lesson I learned is that really good movies have a long, long lifespan. Despite the rise of TikTok, Youtube, Netflix, Instagram and more there is still a huge ravenous audience for feature-length films. And thank God, because I love them too. There are tons of people out there from all walks of life that want the experience of watching and absorbing your feature film, and will be affected by it and want to tell their friends and maybe even write a review online. Sometimes with the rise of streamers and social media, we forget that, but the feature film is alive and well.
SO, when the pandemic shut down all our film festival premieres and even shut down movie theatres altogether for a long, long time, the film still survived. And it’s still finding new audiences every day and will for years to come. That’s the power of movies, I’ll never forget it.
"My approach has changed in that: I try not to rush anything, if it feels right it will be right. Always put yourself and your well-being first before work."
Have you always had a passion for music and filmmaking?
Yes, I have! I got my passion from growing up watching Harmony Korine and David Gordon Green movies. And listening to Tim Kinsella, Cap’n Jazz, Madlib, Flying Lotus. And I thought to myself, “self, Art is pretty awesome. You should do this with your life instead of doing something boring”.
How much has your approach to your work changed a lot since you started out?
I started my professional media career pretty young, I was 20 years old working at VICE Media (which was called VBS.tv then), so I had over a decade to learn a ton of lessons. My approach has changed in that: I try not to rush anything, if it feels right it will be right. Always put yourself and your well-being first before work. If you lose a project or something doesn’t work out, another one is waiting for you right around the corner. Never get mad at people or be rude to people, it’s creative work so it should feel fun. And just be thankful you get to have this career, filmmakers are so lucky.
Do you have any advice or tips you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
I think great films take a few years and don’t happen overnight. So find a story you love and that feels universal (that a lot of people will love) and follow it for a few years. See where that takes you. Watch as many movies as you can and go to as many Film Festivals as you can, that really helped me. I try to watch all the digital film festivals too and attend a bunch in LA. Just absorb the scene, meet your fellow filmmakers, stay for the Q&A’s and hear the stories about how films get made. Listen to podcasts, read books, absorb as much knowledge as you can.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from American Rapstar?
I hope they are moved by the stories of these young people. I hope they see the genius of Lil Peep and XXXtentacion who are no longer with us. And I hope they understand the incredibly harsh realities of the fentanyl and opioid epidemics sweeping the world and the rise of gun violence and depression in young people. There are a lot of issues to tackle in this film and I hope that it will start a conversation about what we can do to help address them.