Battle Rapper FRAK Gives us a View into the Culture

Alex Fraknoi – Frak – is a San Francisco native and recent graduate of Pitzer College who is shaking up the Bay area rap scene in many ways. Frak, a seasoned battle rapper, already has one mixtape out and is deep in the process of finishing his second. In the meantime he is teaching music and performing at a youth center to spread his love of music to the younger generation. Frak was gracious enough to sit down for an interview and this is what he had to say:

So let’s start basic and from the very beginning – how did you get into rap?

I got into rap honestly during the bar mitzvah days when I was like 13 and a bunch of my friends were having bar mitzvah. And I was like this artform is fire and when I was a first year in high school me and these two dudes started a hip-hop group called 4-real. And it was pretty much a hip-hop conscious boy band. There were three of us, and it was the number four, like 4real, and the fourth member was the music. It was super corny but you know my school loved us, and you know I uh that’s how I got started. You know just collaborating and that group eventually disbanded. But i took a little hiatus and got back into it when I was 17/18 and since then it’s been my passion

Honestly, I got into rap during the bar mitzvah days when I was like 13 because a bunch of my friends were having them, and I was like “this artform is fire!” So when I was a freshman in highschool, me and these two dudes started a hip-hop group called 4 Real. It was pretty much a hip-hop conscious boy band – there were three of us, and we used the number four. You know like 4real, and the fourth member was the music. It was super corny but my school loved us, and I guess that’s how I got started. You know we just kept collaborating and that eventually that group disbanded. And then I took a little hiatus, and then got back into it when I was like 17 or 18; since then it’s been my passion.

How’d you get into the battle rap?

That came a lot later… I’d been making music for a minute, and then the battle rap came kind of accidentally. I’d always been a fan of battle rap, but the positive, corny, hip-hop head in me was like “nah.” I couldn’t get myself to be that negative. Then I did this thing called the MC olympics. It’s this national competition, which I won. Someone in the crowd was named Jamie DeWolf, and he runs this event called Tourettes Without Regrets, which is pretty much a cultural epicenter in Oakland. It’s basically a lesbian, burlesque, strip/variety show with a ton of comedy and you know… crazy shit. So at the end there’s a freestyle battle, and he introduced himself to me and was like, “Yo! You gotta come freestyle battle at Tourettes!” And I was like “Okay, I’ll try the freestyle battles before I get into the written battles.” ‘Cause the freestyles are spontaneous, you know? For the written ones you gotta investigate someone, and you gotta Facebook stalk them, and then you gotta diss them. So the freestyle battles were great, and I did that for about year or two, and got pretty good at it – thinking in the moment and stuff. But then I was thinking about how much time I waste watching the written battles, so I figured I might as well join. So I started that about a year ago, and it’s taken me to a height that I didn’t really expect. So it’s been cool.

How do you bring yourself to come up with such aggressive things to say about people who you’ve never met before?

So I had a realization that really countered the negativity of the battles. You’re insulting someone, so in that aspect is negative, but the feeling and the vibe of the culture is really positive. From the outside looking in it seems negative, but it’s actually a really positive community. Everyone is very supportive, and the adrenaline of battling someone is a positive feeling. But in terms of bringing myself to diss people… I don’t know, my style isn’t really all that aggressive. I like to clown on people, and it’s been a good platform for me to both use my sense of humor, but also to prove my skill. I can just be myself, you know? I don’t have to pretend I’m some fuckin’ street dude or some type of pro wrestler. I can just be my humorous pale self and it works. So it’s been cool.

Is each battle different and authentic or do you have a toolbox of lyrics?

Nah each battle is different… you really get called out for recycling. I kind of try to tailor make all of my bars for each round and make them very specific to the person, so yeah. Gotta be original.

What is your best memory from all the battles that you’ve been in?

The one I’m most famous for is the third battle I ever did against this one guy named Coma. He’s this kinda racist dude with a fohawk, and he was coming at me real hard with some anti-semitic, anglo stuff. At one point he blows smoke from his vape in my face, and everyone was like “Oh shit, what’s Frak gonna do!?” So I whipped out my asthma inhaler and took a hit of my asthma inhaler and the crowd went nuts! So that’s a moment I’m pretty known for, but that battle as a whole was a big moment for me and it started my come up.

Another one, I just traveled up to Canada to battle this guy named Step Easy, and at that one the Canadian police came in and shut us down at the third round. But I got to get off my bars outside in an ally, so that was another heavy moment.

A lot of people have come up out of battle rap like Em and Meek. So do you think battle rap has helped you in writing songs, and created a platform for you to show people that you can actually rap and kind of command respect?

Good question. Ha, it’s funny because the stereotype is that battle rappers can’t make music. And for a lot of them it’s true because a lot of battle rappers… their music isn’t about anything. They are just battling their invisible haters on a track. They are just talking to their haters who they don’t even have yet ‘cause they have like 100 listens on Soundcloud. I understand the stereotype, but at the same time I think I’m breaking it. And there are a few battle rappers who are breaking it, but I’m trying my best to separate the battles from my music. You asked me if it helps me writing, and it helps my writing in the sense that it makes me focus on the craft of rap. ‘Cause when you battle it’s a capella, so you really need to focus on the words and your delivery. But when I’m in battle mode, I try not to write songs. But it’s helped me cause… Every white rapper has this urge to show people and to prove that they can rap. Like, “Look I’m skilled. I fit into this culture,” and this is a common white rapper feeling. Battle rap kind of allows me to do that, so in my music I’ve found that I can be more melodic, and focus less on proving myself. I can now focus on making music that is lyrical, but also catchy and emotional. So yeah. But also the platform is crazy. The battle fans are now my music fans, and my music fans are now my battle fans; it’s all coming together.

Who is your inspiration in the rap game?

Kanye… it all started with kanye. I really started rapping – to answer your first question in a better way – there’s a Kanye West forum called Kanye Talk, and rappers made songs with each other, and we could all give each other feedback and shit. And a few of those rappers are like big names now in this industry, which is hilarious. But yeah, Kanye is one of my big inspirations musically. In terms of lyrics, MF Doom is a big one. Lupe Fiasco is always a big one for me. Mos Def and Talib Kweli are big influences on me. I wouldn’t say those are my greatest of all time, but those are kind of the ones that have influenced my style the most. Nas as well.

Bagels was 2014, and you just released a new video for “Small Talk,” so is that a part of a new project or just a single?

Yeah so that’s actually the third single from my upcoming project, which doesn’t have a title yet, and isn’t done yet. But I released 3 videos along with the songs. One is “5AM” featuring Harry P., one is “Spine” featuring Nafets, and now this new one “Small Talk,” Watsky. So I’m Just tryin’ to finish recording. I also direct all my own music videos, so I’m just tryna keep grinding on both of those ends.

What is the overall message in “Small Talk” because it seems deeper than the rap?

Wow, yeah I appreciate that! At first I was writing a song about my own obsession and addiction tp technology. Then it turned into something a lot bigger than that. I’m from the Bay area and right now there is a big technology crisis happening. There’s a bunch of techies who are moving here, and unfortunately they are gentrifying out a lot of the culture. They are gentrifying out a lot of the brown and black people who are natives, and are now being forced to leave their homes. A lot of the good cultural spots are being turned into luxurious condos and cafes and stuff. So I really wanted to make a song about my city and these two topics – my own addiction with tech, and the way tech is moving beyond the virtual world, and impacting the real world. You know, like how it’s affecting our actual streets and communities. It’s all intertwined, and that’s why in the video I wear this emoji mask. It’s almost like a social experiment. I walk the streets of the Mission District of the Bay area, which is getting gentrified, with this emoji mask on. I was trying to represent how technology isn’t just on our phones and screens anymore, but how it’s entered the real world. Like what would it be like if an emoji really did walk the streets, and in a way it was a metaphor for the hipster techies who get their chai lattes and wear fedoras. It was all a metaphor for technology manifesting itself into the physical world.

So one scene in the vid where you’re walking and a woman grabs at the mask… was that scripted or did it just happen?

Haha! Dude you’re asking all the right questions. It wasn’t scripted. That part really was a social experiment ‘cause you could see the native people of the neighborhood, the Mission District, growing very skeptical of me and like looking at the emoji funny. Seeing at the emoji as technology kind of pissed them off. So this lady literally walks up to me and she’s like, “Gimmie that mask!” And that was my genuine reaction of fear, and trying to protect myself that you see in the video. And you see it in slow motion! All those homeless people who were kind of like goffing at me, all those things were real, candid moments of the community kind of rejecting this emoji figure, which I thought was a good way to portray the issue. It was sad, but good.

To wrap it up: have you been able to, or even wanted to reach out to big shots in the game right now and ask them for advice, or ar you just trying to chart your own path?

Yeah I’m kinda having this dilemma right now ‘cause this “Small Talk” video is doing a lot for me. It has 15000 views in a day, so it’s like I’m on the road to something, but I’m still trying to define what that something is. On Bagels my first track was called “A Dozen Cosigns,” and it has people like Watsky, and Kendrick Lamar, and a few other people like cosigning me. Since then I’ve also made more connections in the game which has been cool, but I’m starting to try and figure out what is this all leading to. Is the goal to get cosigned by famous people? Is the goal to get signed by a smaller label? Is the goal to go on an American tour at some point? I don’t know… I’m still figuring it out. And with the whole battle thing it’s like a double come up. I’m trying to balance both of those worlds, and trying to figure out the journey exactly how I want it to be. But you know it’s still undefined and I’m okay with that. So we’ll see what happens. This song “Small Talk” is featuring Watsky who is a pretty big artist, and has been a friend of mine for a while now, so… we’re slowly workin’ on it.

Jelani Arthur Williamson

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