Culture

The Ottawa-raised rapper on his long road back to stardom.

Belly: “I Learned Your Absence Is As Important As Your Presence”

For Canadian hip-hop fans of a certain vintage, seeing Belly thrive in 2018 will always feel a little surreal. Way back in 2007, the Palestine-born, Ottawa-raised rapper burst onto the scene with his debut record The Revolution. Its first single, “Pressure,” was a Ginuwine-assisted banger that got heavy airplay on radio and racked up both a MuchMusic Video Award and a Juno. Belly was going places. Then, just as quickly, he all but disappeared—becoming, for hip-hop archaeologists, a literal missing link between Kardinal Offishall and Drake in the Canuck rap lineage.

Which is why those of us north of the border were doubly surprised when he resurfaced in 2015, signed to both The Weeknd’s XO label and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. To everyone else, he was an unknown quantity making sudden moves; to us, he was a near-forgotten “What if?” made good. Belly’s stayed in the spotlight ever since with a steady wave of mixtapes and singles, including the recently-dropped smash “What You Want.” It’s all leading to an as-yet-untitled LP, his first since The Revolution 11 years prior. This time out, though, Belly seems ready for the moment.

TITLE: A couple of weeks ago, you dropped “What You Want,” the latest in a long run of collaborations with The Weeknd. You guys have worked together super closely for years. What is it about the chemistry between you two that works so well, creatively or otherwise?

BELLY: It starts on a personal level. It starts with the fact that we have the utmost respect for each other as artists. But more importantly, we have a great relationship as brothers. We’ve maintained that for more than five or six years now. Being comfortable with the person you’re working with is only going to create that chemistry, that vibe, especially when you’re around family.

You called the video shoot “the most fun [you’ve] ever had shooting a video.” What went down on set? 

Everything just ran so smooth, man. It was the smoothest video shoot I’ve ever been to.  I didn’t really have to wait on anything—as soon as I was done shooting one scene, the next scene was reading. Everything was so iconic. I was just, like, wow. Obviously I’d read the treatment, but to actually show up and see it in real life was pretty amazing.

You are notoriously one of the hardest-working cats in the rap game. Your studio sessions are legendary, sometimes lasting days with no sleep. What does a Belly studio session look and feel like? Paint me a picture.  

Oh, man. [Laughs.] It’s hard to paint a picture of that, my brother. That’s a vibe in itself, man. That’s a whole different frequency, to be honest. The music just carries us. It transcends time. Time doesn’t even matter any more at certain points. The music carries you—that’s the only way I can put it.

On that same tip, you have a song with YG where you talk about not sleeping for four days. I’ve heard you say you went six days without sleeping to meet a label deadline. When you’re grinding like that, what do you do to wind down and recuperate?

It’s pretty tough sometimes. I get sleep in spurts. My body won’t be used to long sleeps anymore, so I’ll only be able to sleep three or four hours at a time. Then I’ll wake up and not be able to sleep again for a little while. Readjusting to the systematic clock we’ve been taught to follow our whole life is the biggest struggle. It takes time. 

You once said your house in LA was designed specifically for tripping—that each room was designed to accommodate a different drug. Can you walk me through that floor plan a little bit? What do a couple of the rooms in there look like?

I like to make every room feel like a different world. For example, my living room is all black and white. When you walk into the family room—the vibe room—it’s all colours. There’s pinks and reds and blues. It’s completely offset from the room you just walked through. On the other side of that is my Moroccan room, which is a whole other spectrum of colours you’re going to see. No matter where you are in the house, you’re going to find a place that feels like your very own world. That’s how I want my house to feel, because that’s how my life feels.

A few months back, I did a story on “Northern Touch” and talked to a lot of Canadian OGs like Rascalz and Choclair. They all expressed this feeling that, early in their careers, there was a real stigma against Canadian artists in the rap game. When you first broke into the industry in the late 2000s, did you feel like you came up against that at all?

 I was part of the first generation of Canadian artists that got to see what it was like on both sides [of the border]. I think that stigma was there, but I think rightfully so. There was a lot of work for us to do. For a lot of the earlier artists, it was early in the game for them and they were still learning the ropes. Over here [in the U.S.], it was already a pro game. We had to come into our own, and once we did, people recognized us and rightfully so.

After some early success with your first album, you stepped back and retreated from the limelight for a number of years, working mainly as a producer and songwriter. What did that period teach you about yourself and your artistry?  

I learned nothing, honestly. What I learned was darkness. I learned that your absence is just as important as your presence, as long as you make the right type of moves. I had to work in the darkness before I could adjust to the limelight.

Was that a long process?

It was a natural process. It was like photosynthesis, you know what I mean?

This could be wrong, but from watching your interviews I sometimes get the sense that making music, creating art, is your number-one priority, and that performing and doing media like this is more of just something that comes with it. Do you sometimes feel like an introvert in an extrovert’s game?

Definitely, man. I do love to perform. When I perform, I feel possessed. But as far as media goes, I just hate being asked the same questions. I think it’s important when you’re talking to media that somebody’s researched you and they know a lot about you—like yourself.1 That can lead to a good conversation, as opposed to something you feel like you’ve sat through a thousand times already.

What are some of those questions that you get all the time?

Oh, man. Honestly, I think my brain just blocks them out. I’m traumatized by them at this point. I have automated responses to those questions that my brain just spits out, like an out-of-office email. But that also makes me appreciate a real conversation, you know what I mean? So it goes both ways. 

More than a lot of artists of your stature, you’ve been outspoken about the political situation in the States from the get-go through your music and your actions

Let me just make something clear: I’m not outspoken about anything political. I’m outspoken about human issues. It has nothing to do with politics. I think politicians are liars, but that’s beside the point. I’ll never get political—that’s when I’d be lying to the people for my own gain. I’m speaking on the human issues that exist in all of our lives. That we all need to speak out on. That we all need to highlight, and all need to fix. That’s what I speak out on.

That’s fair, and sort of answers my question. I was going to ask: As a first-generation Palestinian-Canadian, do you feel a responsibility to make your voice and your perspective heard in this climate more than ever before?

Of course. I’ve always been outspoken. And I’ll never shy away from that.

Do you think other artists have a responsibility to speak out?

Nobody has a responsibility to do nothing. But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t speak out on certain things.

You’ve been giving all these little tastes of your next album, but there are still very few details about that project or when it’s going to drop. What should people expect from you this year?

Honestly, I don’t want to tell them what to expect, because I try to exceed expectations with everything I do. I think on this project—this is cliché as fuck, but I really feel like this is my best body of work. This is music that I sit there, when I’m listening to it, and I daze off and think about all the crazy shit I went through just to make a project like this. It’s something beautiful to me, so I hope the fans dig it the same way.

Before I let you go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the biggest conversation in hip-hop right now: the Drake and Pusha beef. Do you have a take on it? Is this kind of thing good for hip-hop?

I don’t really have a take on it, to be honest with you. As a fan of hip-hop, you always enjoy the jabs and the give and takes, but I’m really not picking sides. I’m just watching it unfold like everybody else.

References   [ + ]

1. I understand that that addendum might seem like a really self-serving, masturbatory thing to leave in the transcript. But in the moment, I was honestly just relieved he didn’t think my questions were trash.