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Milwaukee rapper Huey V argues you don't have to leave the city to make it big

Can a Milwaukee rapper find true stardom while still living in the city?

That question remains unresolved. For the last couple of years Lakeyah has given hope to big-dreaming Milwaukee rappers after landing a home on one of the biggest label's in the industry, Quality Control. But Lakeyah only inked that deal after she'd left Milwaukee for Atlanta. Though she still has close ties to the city and kind things to say about it, in a widely circulated interview last fall, she suggested Milwaukee doesn't provide enough opportunity for artists who truly want to reach the next level.

Huey V doesn't see it that way. "You don’t have to leave the city to get your momentum," the rapper tells me, and he points to his own career as proof. In 2020, Huey V signed to veteran rapper Memphis Bleek's label Warehouse Music, and since then he's started to do some real streams of his own. His latest single " After The Deal" was released just two weeks ago but already has more than 320,000 views on YouTube.

There are other Milwaukee rappers doing those kind of numbers, of course. But Huey V's approach is different from theirs. Where the city's biggest rappers tend to lock into a hyper-local sound (affectionately known as slap music) in hopes of growing a regional audience, Huey V is trying to build a mass audience with a sound that has truly wide appeal, a more soulful, pop-adjacent style of contemporary rap. Plenty of others have tried that think-big approach before him and come up short, but in our interview, Huey explains why he thinks he can be the one to buck that trend -- and why Milwaukee should be rooting for him.

Huey V | Courtesy photo

How did your deal with Memphis Bleek come about?

Super long story short, my record was played at a kickback and A&R heard the record and was like, “Yo, who is this kid?” So the person who played the record gave them my information and they reached out to me on Instagram and we chopped it up for a little bit. I sent them a few records. Maybe about a month later I got a call back saying, “Yo, Bleek heard the records, they’re fire, and he thinks you’ve got it.” But, you know, I've been writing since I was a youngin, so I was always waiting for that moment. Soon after that they shipped me out to New York where I met the rest of the team and made it official.

You make it almost sound too easy. I think what you just described is what a lot of rappers think it will be like when they first get started. But it almost never works out that way, of course.

You know, it was a journey. I didn’t start yesterday, so I know the process of shipping some shit out and not getting any response. I’ve felt that before. But time aligned. Time aligned for me.

I think that's a trap a lot of artists get caught in. They get discouraged when they're not the biggest thing in the world immediately.

You gotta keep pushing. If you get discouraged by little Ls, then you’re not cut out for this.

How is it different recording for a label as opposed to being independent?

There’s a lot more backing behind you. You got a lot more resources. Being at the crib, it’s cool, recording out the basement, recording in the closet, that's how I started. But now I got resources. You’ve got major studios, if you’re not recording in house, you’re going to somebody else’s studio and tapping in with another engineer or producer. Or you have your own in-house team, so everything is at your ask. And that helps a lot. If I need to bring a choir in, I get that choir. Or if I need strings or horns, I can acquire them. On my last single, “After The Deal,” we had a horn player on there, so they definitely make it possible.

A lot of artists make it sound like they can do everything they need to from within their own studio, but it sounds like you’ve got a whole world of options at your fingertips.

You know, some people have like that Napoleon complex where they feel like they have to do absolutely everything and take care of it all themselves, like that makes them a better artist. But nobody cares. Nobody cares if you made a beat and rap on it, or if you did the hook and the mix. Nobody cares.

You’re building a following, judging by the streams of some of your recent songs. What’s the secret to getting so many views?

Shoot, because me and my team know the importance of focusing on global. We might not be in Asia, but we’re gonna make sure that we run these streams up wherever we can. We’re talking to the people. Like the U.K. gang goes super hard for us. Everybody in the U.K. gives us mad love. And of course Instagram. I’ve got a P.R. agency behind me and they hit up these blog sites that give us major, major coverage. So we know we can cover it all. The important thing is just making sure your music is seen, and if they like what they hear, they’ll choose it. We don’t do fake streams. We gotta put it in front of real people.

What’s interesting to me about the strategy that you outlined is it’s the opposite of the one that I usually see work for Milwaukee artists. When you look at the Milwaukee rappers who are doing big streams, they tend to be the ones most locked in with an extremely local sound.

Yeah, they’re focused super locally. Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee is kind of a hub. Usually if one artist pops in one spot, the other spots appreciate that artists a little more. Usually that’s how Milwaukee is with Detroit artists. And there was a time with Chicago, with Chief Keef and Herbo, where those artists got a lot of love – sometimes even more than local artists, who had to work for it.

But that’s helped work in my favor because I know I don't make local-sounding music. I don’t know exactly what they call it now, but they used to call it slap music, which was like a mix of Detroit music and Chicago drill music. Me not making that kind of music maybe put me at a disadvantage locally, but helped me catch the ears of people like Bleek. You know, right now Milwaukee at the potential to go big. We could become a huge hub for artists, producers, a whole music community – a huge hub like Atlanta or Chicago. But sometimes you have to work outwardly and bring the resources back. If I can work within the mainstream and bring those eyes back to the city, who knows what the city could turn into?

Obviously you pay attention to what's going on here. Do you feel like you're part of the Milwaukee rap scene?

I don’t feel that I really get the love that I’m supposed to get. Like you know how they’re always making those memes, like Milwaukee’s top 10? I never see myself in the top 10. Like, I’m trying to be the top five of the next decade, to be honest, so I don’t really think about it. You know, it’s like in a lot of hometowns: You have to work around. Sometimes you have to get love outside the city, so people will be like, “OK, we see what you’re doing and we appreciate you.” I want people outside the city to look at me like, “it’s crazy people in the city aren’t going crazier for you, because you’re the hardest kid coming out of the city.” But they’ll come around eventually. We’re putting the numbers up.

Lakeyah has made a big name for herself outside the city. But she's been honest about the fact that she had to leave the city to do that. She had to go to Atlanta to get the attention that she needed.

I heard that interview. I don’t want to say I agree with that statement, because I’ve seen it work already where you don’t have to leave the city to get your momentum. Artists like Lil Chicken, I give him a nod because I enjoy his music. I don’t listen to it too often, but I see his movement, and I see the way that he moves, and I respect it as an independent artist. He’s in that sphere of that style of music, and he’s elevating it. I like to see that sound elevated as well, because it’s still coming out of my city.

I might not make that specific sound because I’m going for a larger crowd, but you’re bringing the hometown with you. So I don’t think you have to leave. I think with having Chicago and Detroit right now, we’ve got a movement here, and you can work within that. I don’t think you have to leave to make a wave. I know there’s a wave in Atlanta, and it’s a city for networking. But I don’t want to discourage people and make them think you can’t get signed from Milwaukee, because I got signed from Milwaukee.

You rap quite a bit about how rough Milwaukee can be. What was your childhood like here?

My childhood was exciting to me! You know, you get into some things. You bump your heads. Thank God I never got a record, you feel me? But it’s been nothing but a blessing for me, even if there were a lot of hardships in the process. You lose a bunch of friends, like the people that I started in a rap group with, a couple of them passed recently. One of them passed due to a shooting in another state, and another due to Covid just now. So it’s always been an uphill battle. But when you’re young, you don’t realize it. You’re living in the moment.

Your “After The Deal” video features a lot of loving shots of the city. It depicts Milwaukee in a very flattering light.

It does! We're a very proud city! That’s why everybody’s rooting for me to do what I am. Earlier you mentioned that Lakeyah interview, and that’s all love – I want her to keep going because she’s from the city. But when you hear people get into positions and they speak down on the city and where they come from, it makes it harder for us because every time we get a win, it always comes with the L right behind it. We never actually get our flowers. So I try to give the city its flowers and show the struggle at the same time.