Straight Outta Valley Stream, It’s the Swoosh God

Photographer Aidan Cullen


It’s 2PM on a dusty April afternoon and according to my cell phone clock, I’m running really late. The wide, sun-soaked streets of Brooklyn stretch ahead of me, my pace sticky yet my breath hurried with anticipation. I’m on my way to meet Little Air Max aka the Swoosh God. But despite my panic and hurry, the rising rapper runs on his own time.

 

When the 22-year old artist will arrive is not the only wonder I have about him. He has an internet life, but he certainly doesn’t live there; his name, catalog and a few images are all that exists, especially for those outside the “if you know, you know” crowd. Who is he? Where’s his music come from? What’s it like as a kid to run with one of the most famous – and most hyped (yes, we’re talking about Rocky here) – rappers of our time? I chalk up the mystery surrounding Swoosh to the fact that I’m just not cool enough, letting the depths of the unknown and this unseasonably tepid spring day take me in.

 

And just like that, he arrives punctually late, hopping out of an Uber all arms, legs, velvety skin and let’s not forget the kicks – Nike, of course. We exchange names, pleasantries at which point in a typical interview I suss out which of us will assume the role of master and who will play student. The Swoosh God is present but he ain’t here to school me, and it’s clear as day that I’ve gotta figure out who he is on my own.

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First things first. Where’d the name come from?

It was a coworker of mine [while working at Nike] – I was responsible for bringing the shoes from the stockroom to the floor – I used to do that really fast, so they named me the Swoosh God. I liked the name and the ring of it. I liked the way it sounded; it fits me. I changed my Instagram handle and the first person to call me that was Ken Rebel. After that, it was all I needed to confirm it.

 

When did you start making music?

I recorded my first song when was 13 years old. Middle school. It was 7th, 8th grade. It was a T-Pain ‘Outta My System’ remix.

 

And what inspired you to start making it?

“A lot of people don’t listen when you talk – especially at a young age – you can’t even hold a serious conversation with somebody older than you. My dad always had me surrounded by the reggae scene; that’s where I fell in love with music, like dancin’ and stuff. And once I noticed how good I felt expressing myself with a microphone, it was like ‘yeah, I don’t wanna talk to nobody. They’re gonna hear me though.’”  

 

Do you feel like you’re being heard?

“I’ve always been heard. But now the amount of people that are hearing me is getting bigger. Certain people aren’t gonna gravitate towards the message as quick as others because this is a serious message. I like the slow grind though, so I’ll be patient.”

Straight Outta Valley Stream, It's the Swoosh God 1

What is that message?

“My message is that a lot of stuff can get done on your own. Don’t get me wrong, [life’s] a group effort, but you ain’t gonna get nowhere without being real with yourself first. And don’t let reality hold you down. Just ‘cus you see something every day, doesn’t mean that the next day can’t change for life. I’ve seen that happen to me before. I’m living the same lifestyle continuously and then, boom, I got a new different outcome and look on life. Work on yourself as best as possible. That’s the only way you’re gonna be able to help others.”  

 

At 22, do you feel you’ve been real with yourself?

“Yea, I’ve always been myself. There are just multiple sides to me – like anyone else. And I have different feelings too. But like I said, I’ve always been myself, I’ve always known myself. I know what I want out of life.”

 

What’s that?

“I want to design for Nike, I want to be able to bring my dad back to Jamaica without having to stay there, and I want to give my family what they deserve. They’ve been through a lot, they deserve a lot.”

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What were some of your inspirations as a kid?

“My older friends, like my brother and his friends. Their bond – my brother has this group of friends that he’s had since middle school – they haven’t changed. You don’t really see loyalty in this generation expressed in the same way. Like people only being loyal to people that do things for them.”

 

You think so?

“You kidding me? You don’t see it? Listen, there’s nobody being loyal to anyone because they knew them in first grade. Every time I see classmates, I be so happy. Just to be like, man glad that God gave us the memories. The fact that we both still here. People losing their lives so anonymously these days. So loyalty is not what it used to be. People hanging out with certain people because the benefit they think they can get out of them. They’re using them.

 

“Those people didn’t work on themselves. So they’re out here lookin’ for other people’s stuff to work off of. Because they didn’t get all the mechanics right with themselves, they didn’t fix themselves, they wasn’t real with themselves.”

 

I also think that social media skews our vision of success, of who people are.

“Definitely. Social media makes people feel like they’re friends, so quickly, just ‘cus they see one thing in common. Don’t get me wrong, I love the people that support me, love the people that like my music, but I do a lot of stuff on my downtime, I do a lot of stuff when I’m chillin’ – I like to make the most out of my life – and not everything I do they might agree with. But the one thing they do see, they think you and me are best friends. Let’s hang out. They see one thing through the internet and they say, ‘yeah this my best friend.’ You don’t know me like that, you know. I understand you see a lot of stuff like me and Swoosh are similar, but we’re not hanging out just like that.”  

 

With Instagram and everything, your generation has a lot more potential to be heard. Things have changed. Even five years back, I don’t feel that we were as active or vocal as kids are now.

“Don’t say that. Believe it or not, five years back you had way less than us and were doing way more. The way I look at it is that we have a lot, and we still complaining and we still wonder why we not here. You had less and still made it happen. The trickery of the internet is that it’s such a big place it makes you feel like you’re being heard, being seen. But you don’t know who’s watching, who’s coming to view what you’re saying, who’s listening. So other people can take [your words] and use it for what they want. You don’t know.”

 

How do you hope for your music to be heard?

“I want [people] to be in a mood. I want them to be in need of it. I don’t want any force in it, you know. Early days, I would see a lot of people [force their music] and that kinda drove me away from like understanding what art is really about. You know what I’m sayin’? Because there’s art all over the street, but I’m pretty sure none of the artists who do the [graffiti] around here are like, “yo come around and look at this, tell me what you think.” They know people are gonna walk by and they know somebody gonna have an opinion on what they see when they see it. That’s just life.”

 

“Music is supposed to be picked up from people who are like, ‘ok this is relatable, this is maybe in this mood, this helps me get out of this mood.’ That’s how I want my music to go about being found. I don’t want anyone telling people I’m the next big deal or telling people that I’m the big shit ‘cus you’re setting expectations for you, you’re setting expectations for me – and without even going through it with me. So just let my music, for the art, do what it’s doing.”  

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Are there any other artists who have been influential?

“Growin’ up, my dad had me around the reggae scene. Like Vybes Kartel, he’s been a huge inspiration to me, just for his versatility and his catalog. He’s got an album of 64 songs. Like to be able to have such a deep catalog for just one project – the work ethic is nonstop.”

 

“Hip-hop artists like Lil Wayne, of course. His music is wonderful, but his attitude was more inspiring. Like ‘fuck you, you know you love me, don’t listen to critics. Critics are just mad they’re not you and they’re trying to lead you [away from] accepting yourself and being free.’ I like that about him. And Wiz Khalifa that ol’ stoner like leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone, I’m not bothering you, all peaceful like, don’t you wanna enjoy everything that life has to give? Those two, I love Nas lyrics and his wordplay, his storytelling. Same goes for Tupac.”

 

How would you describe your musical style?

“My music is like one big journal that’s out loud. It’s like my brain in audio version. Like if somebody could take my brain out my head and plug it into an aux cord – that’s my music.”

 

Your personal style?

“I have so many different styles. If I had all the clothes that I really want – it would be crazy – I’d have like 10 outfits in one day. Use one to go to the store, come back. Use one to go see my aunt, come back. One outfit to hang out with my friends. It’s like that. I have so many different things I wanna do when it comes to clothes. My personal style comes from what I was brought up on. Things from my dad, like reggae, 70s, 80s, 90s style dude, I love that. I love the old school Nike dressing. I love this generation’s [way of] dressing. Sometimes I wanna dress up like a basketball player from the early 2000s. Sometimes I wanna go and dress like – I modeled before for runway – so sometimes I wanna feel like that again. I have tattoos, so sometimes I wanna be that one tattooed person with no shirt. My personal style is just ever-evolving. Even as a kid, me and my mother had the same shoe size and jacket size. So I’d wear her jackets. It’s just how I feel.”

 

You’re still tight with your parents?

“Of course. Those are my two best friends, honestly.”

 

I bet they’re super proud of you. 

“They are. My dad’s been to a show, I don’t think my mom’s been to one yet. They don’t really – they’re both from Jamaica so – they know it’s like a thing I’m doing like it’s progressive, it’s not something anybody in the family has done. But I don’t think they understand yet how big it is. They’re definitely proud of me. But they love me so much that none of this even matters to them. Just being their son, that’s it. So that’s the cool thing.”

 

What does your ideal future look like?

“Married, kids, pets, house.”

 

What about social change?

“I don’t like the fact that people don’t want to take certain people serious ‘til they’re next to the right person. That’s not cool. And that’s all I really want for this world socially, to take that person seriously. That’s it. If that would happen, this would be such a better place.”

 

Anything else to add?

“Handsome men don’t need face tattoos.”

 

Are you hinting at the album? When’s that dropping?

“Someday. Someday.”

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