He sits in a brightly lit room, looking like every guy named Sully you’ve ever met. He speaks about his work and industry in deceptively unaffected tones. He’s 5′-8″ of gleeful stoner from a town five miles and a world away from Kennebunkport, and he’s one of the best rappers you should have heard already.
He’s Spose. Don’t like him because record companies invited him to be the Next Great White Rapper—love him because he turned them down.
Next week Ryan “Spose” Peters releases his third album, The Audacity!, and we’re not going to lie — the first single went straight from our inbox to our jukebox, where it’s spun on repeat. You can hear “Gee Willikers!” exclusive to Man Cave Daily at the end of this article. It touches keenly on everything that’s happened to the artist since public awareness found him two years ago, so we thought we’d ask him about the past as well as his future.
“My musicianship’s finally caught up with my ambition,” he says. “At the root if it is some of the best writing I’ve ever done, both songwriting-wise and lyrically. I touch on a lot of topics that a lot of cats are either scared to touch or they won’t go to.”
Ride the right train in any major city in this country, and a kid with hip-hop dreams will sell you his home-mixed album. Some aspiring rappers do pretty well with underground sales, but try peddling your CD in a 9,000-citizen town so high up the eastern seaboard the longitude lines get nosebleeds. When the going gets cold, the cold get creative, and that’s how Spose, a.k.a. Spizzy Spose, a.k.a. Peter Sparker, a.k.a. Who’s Spose? ended up smashing his way to #37 on the Billboard Hot 100 with a pan pipe-powered rap song called “I’m Awesome.”
The 2010 video sat the kid in a throne straight out of any Fresh Prince video ca. Nineteen Eighty-Whatever, echoing Will Smith’s admissions that he lacked enough game to even stand up to his parents, let alone take home girls. The wink-and-grin humor of the song’s boast is that by copping to his shortcomings but insisting on his awesomeness, the speaker actually employs enough scrappy spirit to force his lie into the realm of truth.
To recap: An awesome rapper wrote and produced an awesome song about being awesome, that told the story of a guy who sucks, in order to illustrate how much talking about how awesome you are sucks. The video ends with a swell of support from fellow crushed souls banding together in frustration. It’s part revival meeting, part climax of 8 Mile.
And that’s the problem–not for Spose, but for listeners. When you’re a white rapper, Eminem comparisons are inevitable–even without the propensity for self-deprecation. Have an infant daughter, and a stint in a motor home, and label execs start salivating.
The cosmetic similarities, however, lead the gaze away from the differences at the core: not only is their sound completely different, but Spose has none of Em’s rage. He’s not exhausting his rancor; he’s exploring his inner landscape. “I always wanted to make rap songs that were social satire, commenting on how f__ked up the world is, even if it’s a positive or happy-sounding song, I still wanted to touch on dark details of society.”
While Eminem may have beaten his detractors to the punch with self-deprecating lyrics, it was only to clear a path for his credentials. Proving them culminated in the almost-but-not-quite non-biographic film 8 Mile, which asserted his right to be angry about life’s boot on his neck. Spose, by contrast, isn’t trying to prove anything. No flash here. He’s seen mostly in the flannel and t-shirt garb of a summer on the lake. Yeah, he grew up in a motor home for a few years, but he brings it up to undermine his own impact. Mocking his own height, looks and odor, he succinctly describes himself as having “The swagger of a cripple.” About the only connection he has to a too-simple Eminem comparison is he kills it on the mic.
In fact, if you ask its author, “I’m Awesome” owes more to Notorious B.I.G. than Slim Shady: “You might not consider it, but ‘Juicy,’ when Biggie put that out, was like the first song where someone broke down how lame their s__t was growing up, and now he’s doing great, but…”
Spose can relate. Two years, a contract, and several tours later, he’s doing this rap game full time, with a fervent fanbase that goes all the way to New Zealand and tilts mid-to-late teen if YouTube comments are any indication. He hasn’t tapped into suburban fury but a desire to be an alright dude. He’s got the easy cool (but not too much cool) of your high school friend’s older brother. He also spits wordplay like he gave the devil public speaking tips.
But when he got to Los Angeles, Universal Records hadn’t much clue what to do with him. Few, if any, had listened to any of his songs except the one that made him (moderately) famous. It probably didn’t help that 2010 was a bumper year for white rappers from the Northeast — Asher Roth had by now established himself as more than a laconic, frat-party one-off. Mac Miller was making moves and impressions. Sam Adams debuted a half-second after Spose broke through, offering his preppy (and clearly salable, since so much of it was a mix of pre-existing hits) take on New England party-down hip-pop.
Meanwhile, the kid from Wells found himself explaining in amicable terms to the Universal folks that he was first and foremost concerned with producing something new, creative and honest, not mimicking the current spate of popular beats and hooks. The artist-label relationship ended, but with detente.
“I knew what I was getting into when I signed the deal,” he clarifies. “I don’t have any regrets. I learned a lot about the industry I think they were just afraid to pull the trigger. I’m thankful for the opportunity, and I’m still cool with them. If I do sign another deal, I know enough to only go into it if they know my s__t.”
Still, what might have hurt his wallet may have invigorated his career. In rap, above all else, it’s key to keep it real—and though that sentiment was born of not softening to fit the mainstream, it’s equally true that no one loves a poser. Coasting from unknown to smash single (no marketing other than the rapper himself and associates) to a predetermined slot on some A&R man’s production calendar would have tagged a wonder onto that one hit.
His audience, peers, & sales figures all mark him as the best rapper in Maine, which he likens to “being the best stripper in church.” But in the two years since his breakout single “I’m Awesome” pried open the door to mainstream success, Spose has been touring, writing, and seeking his stride creatively and productively. Growth reared its head again on his most recent free mix release, We Smoked It All, Vol. 2, with radio-ready tracks like “Popular” and “Party Foul.” Hell, he even made Girlicious bearable for half a minute.
Underlying it all is that mulish Yankee work ethic: bend your back to the task and seek no more credit than honest disclosure allows. It is, he admits, that New England sort of thing: “You’ll never change me. I’d rather go down in flames making what I want to make than succeed making what they want me to make.”
Spose is good, and he knows he’s good, but even when he’s boasting about it in a song, it’s sounds more like honest assessment than bragging. That’s because he’s also smart — he’s been writing not only music but newspaper articles and prose since he was a top-tier English student in high school. It shows; you have to either have a profound sense of irony or no hope of one to wring “Drugs, Girls, Money & Liquor”–a poor young man’s lament–out of samples from Weezer’s anti-alcoholic “Say It Ain’t So.” Spose has the former.
That irony isn’t going anywhere, even though the humorous songs can obscure the serious ones. “The one joke song I ever made became the one people knew me for the most. As much as it brought people to be fans of me, it really turned off people to think I was just that, just a joke rapper. It’s an uphill battle to fight against that perception. It sucks in a way—there are kids who would like me a lot. I might be their favorite rapper, but they don’t know that because they didn’t hear the serious songs. But I’ll always have humor in it because what I think is cornier than making funny songs is being a super-serious rapper who, in person, tells jokes all the time.
“If all your songs are dead serious about how thugging or great you are, but then you’re always making jokes [...] There’s no point to that to me. It’s a lie. [...] There’s humorous observations in life. Who doesn’t laugh in a day?”
He speaks emphatically about not wanting to settle. “As much as I’m driven to get my message out or have fun making hip hop I feel like if I do fail, it’s not that I didn’t put enough effort in musically, it ‘s that I didn’t know the right people. I didn’t meet the right rich dude. I won’t have failed as an artist, but as a businessman.”
And if The Audacity! does sell a billion copies? Then what?
“Sell two billion is the goal. I want it to be triple-diamond ruby. [laughs] It’s my favorite album I’ve ever made, easily. It marries my rock interests and my rap interests finally and perfectly. [...] It’s maybe the best rap album for people who don’t even like rap. It’s really an album for every person on earth ever, period.”
Click below to listen to “Gee Willikers”!
Brendan McGinley wore a Red Sox hat to conduct this interview.
Need more? Check out a photo gallery of Spose performing at the 2011 CMJ Portland showcase.