Tyler Gartzman is a skinny, twenty-one-year-old, bespectacled white Jewish kid studying business at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He’s also a surprisingly talented and dexterous rapper, a comer in hip-hop, with a confident, quirky flow and sound all his own, even if it does have a distinct South coast vibe.
I said “surprisingly” good in reference to Gartzman’s rapping skills because I guess I felt like I had to, since he’s a “white rapper,” and we’re all supposed to think that apart from Eminem (and maybe the Beastie Boys—maybe), “white rapper” needs be uttered in a nerdy, news anchor voice, a punch line that evokes poseurs in backpacks and baggy jeans skulking around the suburbs and grabbing their barely-dropped adolescent balls because they saw it on MTV.
Bucking the trajectory of most trends, hip-hop came along four decades ago, refashioned the world in its image, and now—firmly in middle age—is as relevant and influential as it’s ever been. Arguably more. So why wouldn’t a goofy little Jewish triplet from East Atlanta fall madly in love with the sounds, and then want to spend every waking hour, dollar, and breath on becoming a legitimate part of it?
Not that race can—or should—be unyoked from hip-hop (the title of white Tyler Gartzman’s forthcoming collaboration with black producer Chris Fre$h of 808 Mafia is “Contrasting Colors,” and the video for the EP’s first single “Since ’06” features footage from last year’s Ferguson, Missouri protests), but the crew collaborating with Gartzman doesn’t seem to give a fleck of shit about his race. Chris Fresh has collaborated with Gartzman on every track on the Contrasting Colors EP. Fresh is the youngest of the prolific, Atlanta-based hip-hop production team 808 Mafia, members of which have produced songs with everybody from Wiz Khalifa to Kanye, Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z, and 2 Chainz to Gucci Mane.
And it is no small thing that fellow ATL rapper Trinidad James—who scored a giant hit (not to mention a lucrative deal at Def Jam) with “All Gold Everything” in 2012—has leant his skills and sizable buzz to Gartzman’s debut single and video, making a smooth, heartfelt featured appearance on “Since ’06.”
On a recent weekday at Castle Hill Studio just southwest of downtown Atlanta, Gartzman and Contrasting Colors‘s engineer J. Padron laid down the Outro for the EP, part of another song, as well as a hook for local rapper Tuki Carter (a frequent Wiz Khalifa collaborator, in addition to being a gifted tattooer and visual artist). Gartzman stepped into the dark, triangular booth at Castle Hill—dim blue light flashing in the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses—and nailed his first verse in one take. He did it again, for good measure, Padron periodically offering directions for ad libs, ins and outs, all of which Gartzman nimbly supplied. Padron stacked vocals three and four deep as he fiddled with the mix at the console, adding in the trademark growly “808 Mafia” tag, and telling Gartzman to go back into the booth and give a vehement “Unh” at a certain point during the last hook. “Feel that shit, get into it.” (In the end, he did.)
I spent the afternoon at Castle Hill with Gartzman, his manager CJ Hood, CJ’s friends J.B. and Shar, Padron, and later, another local producer Trey Bo wandered in with his Mac laptop, and itemized his day thus far: “smoked weed, watched Gumby, then came here.” Everybody slowly nodded heads while listening to the mixes of Gartzman’s tracks, smoke thick as Greek yogurt, pint Dos Equis bottles scattered asunder, the young dreadlocked studio-hand periodically wading through to empty ashtrays.
As his studio time wound down, the affable, nothing-if-not-authentic Gartzman assured me, “When I’m not high as shit, I can talk more articulate.” Thus, the following conversation took place a few days later, at the coffee shop in Northeast Atlanta where CJ works when not managing Gartzman’s budding career. It was a blindingly sunny, warmish winter day, with MARTA subways and CSX freight trains trundling by every five minutes or so across DeKalb Avenue from where we sat.
The Rumpus: You were really high the last time we talked, so some of this might be a little repetitive.
Tyler Gartzman: I’m pretty high right now, too.
Rumpus: Seemingly a little less though. That was kind of a big day in the studio. I think I still have a contact.
Gartzman: [Laughing] Okay, that’s probably true.
Rumpus: Alright, so tell me your beginnings, where you started.
Gartzman: Rapping? I started in my freshman year in high school, but I didn’t really take it seriously until my senior year, when I was voted best new music act in [the Atlanta weekly] Creative Loafing, and from there I started doing a bunch of local shows, and then I met CJ, and he became my manager. After that, I linked up with Chris Fresh from 808 Mafia.
Rumpus: How’d that come about?
Gartzman: He and CJ were friends from high school. Fresh had a lot going on then, and I was still discovering myself as an artist, so we put our EP on hold, and then we just picked back up on it this year, and now it’s over halfway done.
Rumpus: And how’d the track with Trinidad come about? That is a serious coup.
Gartzman: CJ used to work for Trinidad, doing his social media. So I was at the studio recording, and when I came out of the booth he was there and I met him. I guess [Trinidad] liked me, because we continued to stay in touch, and we had been meaning to do a song together forever, but it was never the right song for him, until I recorded “Since ‘06,” and then I sent it to him, and he really liked it. He recorded his verse really quick, and then we dropped the song, and now we just finished the music video.
Rumpus: Trinidad’s verse on that song is so good, it’s like, one of his best. Did you give him any direction?
Gartzman: I didn’t tell him anything. I just sent him my verse and the hook and an open second verse, and I didn’t even know he was going to record on it. J. Padron texted me a week before my 21st birthday, and he was like, “I have a surprise, call it an early birthday present.” It was a huge compliment, really, that [Trinidad] had hopped on and really put some thought into it and shit.
Rumpus: What was the inspiration for the song?
Gartzman: My parents got divorced in 2006. You know how I say in the song, My mom left/ drinking Jameson to fill the void. She didn’t like, completely leave, I still talk to her. We’re still very cool, she’s my mom, you know. But I felt it made a good song because people can relate to it on a larger scheme. And Trinidad’s dad left in ‘06, and I guess that’s how he really connected with it.
Rumpus: So where’s your mom now?
Gartzman: We have a family farm in Virginia. She lives there.
Rumpus: Jews don’t have farms.
Gartzman: [Laughing] Well, my mom was Christian, but she converted when she married my dad.
Rumpus: Coming from Texas Jews, I know that Jews aren’t trying to have farms.
Gartzman: Especially not in Alabama. But we got guns, and my mom’s got like seven dogs. I love it out there; it’s where I get some of my best writing done.
Rumpus: Did she get remarried?
Gartzman: No, hell no.
Rumpus: Did your dad?
Gartzman: No. I mean, he has a girlfriend, but I don’t think he’s going to get remarried. My dad’s pretty chill. And my mom’s very chill. My mom’s a boss. She used to jump out of airplanes and climb mountains and instruct in that shit.
Gartzman: She’s the most supportive.
Rumpus: So it was not a match, your mom and dad.
Gartzman: They met at Emory when they were both in law school, and they were married for like 25 years. I guess they just grew apart, and it had to happen for our sake, because you know, they were fighting and all that.
Rumpus: So it’s just you three triplets?
Gartzman: Yeah, my mom was like, “I’m not pushing out any more.” We were two months premature, and we were in the hospital for a while after we were born.
Rumpus: You were a tiny little ugly shriveled thing.
Gartzman: Dude, like two pounds.
Rumpus: Are you different from your other twins, or what are they called, your triplets?
Gartzman: Yeah, hell yeah. I’m the middle child, so I’m like the crazy, trying-to-push-boundaries one. My sister’s the youngest, and my brother’s oldest. We were all a minute apart. My brother’s really into baseball, and really into school. And I’m really into music and hanging out with friends and partying and shit. And my sister’s a sorority girl. She’s a fashion major at ’Bama.
Rumpus: What are you studying at GSU?
Gartzman: I’m a business major. It’s a back-up plan, you know?
Rumpus: Are your parents trying to encourage you to stay in school?
Gartzman: Yeah, I couldn’t live with my dad if I didn’t go to school and have a job. He’s supportive of the music, but only if I’m in school, working, and not spending all my money on drugs.
Rumpus: But you kind of do spend all your money on drugs, so how’s that working out?
Gartzman: Because I don’t spend all of it! I’ve been putting a bunch of money aside for a car.
Rumpus: So your dad didn’t understand the whole music thing?
Gartzman: Yeah, it was completely out of left field. My whole family, all the kids have gone to college at good schools and shit, and I was just like, “I want to do music.” Back in high school, I was voted “Most Likely to be Famous.” I was hustling t-shirts, it was crazy.
Rumpus: T-shirts? What was on them?
Gartzman: They had joints on the back, with my name spelled in smoke, and they had my face on the front, but I guess [the administration] didn’t know, because teachers were wearing them. Half the school was wearing them. I was making a steady hundred dollars a day.
Rumpus: I kind of want one now.
Gartzman: They’re all gone. Then I moved up to sweatshirts—my homie designed them for me—I got like 400 sweatshirts, a hundred in each size. The back had a picture of me inside a frame made of joints, with smoke coming up. By fifth period, I’d made $500, twenty dollars a sweatshirt. People would be in the hallway yelling into class, “Yo, lemme get a shirt real quick!” I didn’t give a fuck. I’d straight up walk into people’s classes, sell a shirt, dip out.
Gartzman: Me as an artist. I mean, back then I wasn’t taking music as seriously as I am now. I didn’t have a manager or a direction I was going in like I do now.
Rumpus: So how are you making money now?
Gartzman: I work at Barcelona wine bar, three nights a week. I’m a busboy. I’m really the foundation, the core of the restaurant.
Rumpus: If people are like, “Hey, excuse me sir, can we have two waters?,” do you remember?
Gartzman: Yeah, I’m pretty hands-on and active. But we had this work party last week, and everybody voted me “Most Likely to Piss off the Managers.” I won a flask.
Rumpus: What do you do to piss them off?
Gartzman: I’m the youngest person there. I’m a fucking rapper, and I go to school. I’m obviously not banking on this job for anything. It’s just to stack up for a car, pay for studio time, smoke weed in the back, and get out of there. Everyone calls me “8-Mile” there.
Rumpus: Wait, are you the only white guy there?
Gartzman: Hell no. I’m probably the only one out of ten guys who is straight though.
Rumpus: What do you want for your future?
Gartzman: I’m really hoping something’s going to pick up after the EP and the video come out.
I want to go on tour with a bigger artist, and open up for them. This time next year? I hope to be out in LA and shit. New York, Dubai. I want to go everywhere.
Gartzman: Nah, I want to stay independent. Maybe sign a deal if the money’s right later in life. I’m only 21, so I’m not in a rush or anything.
Rumpus: Who are your influences?
Gartzman: OutKast. And I don’t want to sound cliché, but I’m a big Eminem fan.
Rumpus: No shame in that.
Gartzman: The first rap album I ever got was “The Eminem Show.”
Rumpus: How old were you?
Gartzman: Sixth grade. The first three rap albums I ever had, my mom got me. They were 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” Ludacris’s “Chicken-n- Beer,” and “The Eminem Show.” I got the clean versions of all of them for Hanukkah one year.
Rumpus: Wait, was each one each for a different night of Hanukkah, or all on one night?
Gartzman: One gift. After 6th grade, we didn’t do the whole present-every-night thing.
Rumpus: Does your mom still consider herself Jewish after getting divorced?
Gartzman: Yeah, she’s still Jewish.
Rumpus: What was her religion before?
Rumpus: What kind?
Gartzman: I have no idea. [Laughing]
Rumpus: Is your dad pretty religious?
Gartzman: Um, no. I mean, for high holidays he’ll go to temple.
Rumpus: Do you go to temple?
Gartzman: I’ll go sometimes. In high school I loved to get a day off of school, but in college, it’s like, you don’t want to miss that class time. Anyway, after confirmation, you don’t go to temple every Sunday anymore.
Rumpus: Did you have a bar mitzvah?
Gartzman: Yeah, I had my bar mitzvah in St. Thomas.
Rumpus: The hell?
Gartzman: In the Virgin Islands. My parents didn’t want to do the whole traditional have-your-bar-mitzvah-at-the-temple thing, and our temple [in Atlanta] was pretty mad about it, but my parents were like, you know, fuck that, we’re going to make a vacation out of it, so we went to St. Thomas.
Rumpus: You and your brother and sister all at once?
Gartzman: They wrote an article about us out there, because it was so rare to have [triplets].
Rumpus: Why St. Thomas?
Gartzman: Believe it or not, it’s a big bar mitzvah destination. So our close family went, and we stayed there for a week, jet skiing and parasailing.
Rumpus: And there’s a temple there, or—
Gartzman: Yeah, there was sand on the floor of the temple. It was fucking awesome.
Rumpus: But since confirmation, you don’t really practice religion as much.
Gartzman: I’ll go to my grandparents’ house for Rosh Hashanah and shit like that.
Rumpus: Do they get what you do?
Gartzman: They’re pretty stoked on it now. My grandma kind of gets it. I guess it was a different time back then, but she didn’t get to go to college after high school—she went when she was like 30. She was a single mom, supported my dad and his sister, because my dad’s dad split. I mean we still talk to him, and he lives in Florida. But they’re supportive, they think it’s pretty cool, but they don’t really understand it.
Rumpus: Do you burn them CDs with your music?
Gartzman: Nah, I don’t really want them to hear it.
Rumpus: What about your dad?
Gartzman: He came to a couple shows when I was performing in high school, but I don’t really want my dad coming to shows now, you know?
Rumpus: It’s not like he’s so old he totally doesn’t understand hip-hop.
Gartzman: He gets it as much as any father who’s a tax attorney would. He’s more into Jimmy Buffet and that type of music. My mom was into Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd.
Rumpus: Do you send your mom your music?
Gartzman: Yeah, I’ll play her some music. I haven’t played her “Since ‘06.” I don’t think I want her to hear it.
Rumpus: But she’s going to.
Gartzman: Yeah. I told her what it’s about and she was like, “As long as you’re not like, bad-mouthing me completely.”
Rumpus: So long as you’re not saying she stole drugs from you?
Gartzman: That’s exactly what she said! “Don’t make me out to be like Eminem’s mom.” I was like, “Mom, you’re nothing like Eminem’s mom.”
Rumpus: So what do you think about the whole “white rapper” thing? I mean, do you think of yourself as a “white rapper”?
Gartzman: Well, I am white. But I don’t think about it as anything really. I just make music, and if people like it then they like it, and if they don’t, they don’t. But everybody’s got haters, and that makes for better music sometimes.
Rumpus: Do people have beef with what you do?
Gartzman: Yeah, some people of course have problems with it, but you can’t as an artist get lost in that. I mean, I’m not from the hood, and I don’t trap, so that’s out of the question. And that’s like 90% of rap nowadays. So, I don’t know man, I just want to be a different voice, a different sound completely. I want to make music with substance, rather than music for the club, and be taken seriously as an artist. We’re trying to bring in this new wave; I’m finding it as I go.
Rumpus: How do you write? What’s your process?
Gartzman: As an artist, when you get a beat, it’s like your canvas, and the words are the paint, so really it’s a whole different song for every beat. Everything brings a different vibe and a different feel. That’s what’s so cool about music, because if you’re creative, you really can’t ever stop creating something new, I guess, unless you hit a wall. There’s inspiration everywhere.
Rumpus: Do you start on a note pad?
Gartzman: Yeah, or I write on my phone.
Rumpus: How does it come when you get a beat? Does it come right away?
Gartzman: Usually I’ll just write words at the top of the page, different words that I know I want in my verses, or words that I know are going to fit the concept for the song and shit. And then I’ll listen to other music, too, to get inspired.
Rumpus: Like who?
Gartzman: EDM shit, the Doors, J. Cole, or maybe some OutKast, ‘Pac, anything really.
Rumpus: Do you listen to Eminem anymore?
Gartzman: Yeah, for sure, but I don’t really like the new Eminem. I guess it’s the point he was at in his life where he wanted to make positive music, and he was sober and off pills and all that.
Rumpus: Not to mention supposedly newly-Christian.
Gartzman: Really? I guess that explains where “Not Afraid” comes from. But I didn’t really dig that kind of music, I want the old Slim Shady back. But I guess everyone’s got to grow up.
Rumpus: Do you believe in God?
Rumpus: So the stuff you were raised in, you don’t just buy it all anymore?
Gartzman: Nah. But I wasn’t brought up in a strict “We believe in God” household.
Rumpus: What do you think happens when we die?
Gartzman: I feel like you probably get reincarnated into an animal, something like that.
Rumpus: Do you have a moral code, like, do you try to treat people a certain way?
Gartzman: Yeah, I believe in karma. I’m nice to everybody. That’s sometimes a weakness of mine.
Rumpus: What about dating? Are you in a relationship?
Gartzman: Not right now. I want to focus on music. Music is like having a girlfriend. All the money that goes into paying for studio time I would invest in having a girlfriend. All the time and emotions and everything, I don’t even want to get caught up in it.
Rumpus: Have you had a girlfriend?
Gartzman: My last girlfriend was freshman year in high school, and that was like a couple months. I’m a free spirit; I can’t be tied down to anything. I’m all over the place.
Rumpus: When’s the last time you had sex?
Gartzman: High school.
Rumpus: No way.
Gartzman: Yeah, I haven’t hooked up with a girl in like a year.
Rumpus: Last time you had sex was in high school?
Gartzman: Yeah. I’m focused. I mean, most dudes are like, “I’m trying fuck this girl, I’m trying to fuck that girl.” Me? I’m just trying to party. I’m just trying to get drunk, turn up, and make music. All that’s going to come. There’s going to be groupies, people in your face.
Rumpus: You’re kind of like an Olympic swimmer, except with a lot more drinking and drugs. No sex, no distractions, eyes on the gold medal.
Gartzman: I mean, I’m not saying that if we were at a party, and a girl came at me, I wouldn’t—I mean, yeah, I’m talking to girls, hella, but I’m more about making connections, getting my name out there.
Rumpus: Okay, who is your top five?
Gartzman: Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Jay Z. Um, Lupe Fiasco, his old stuff. And maybe, like Kanye. No, OutKast.
Rumpus: No Nas?
Gartzman: I was a big Nas fan. I kind of went through a Nas stage.
Rumpus: But Jay Z over Nas?
Gartzman: Yeah. I had to do my homework on Jay Z, but I like Jay Z more.
Rumpus: So wait, if OutKast is in there, who gets pushed out?
Gartzman: Um, Lupe… God, I might throw up.
Rumpus: What, right now?
Gartzman: Not right now, but maybe at some point.
Rumpus: What, why?
Gartzman: I’m so hungover, dude. I woke up still drunk. We were drinking pitchers and pitchers of beer, and then my homies had a bottle of Four Roses, so I took some shots.
Rumpus: You should get that out of you. There are some bushes right over there.
Gartzman: [Burping] I’m going to hit the toilet in a minute.
Rumpus: Are you okay? You want to—
Gartzman: Yeah, I’m good.
Rumpus: Okay, only a couple more questions. First, would you rather be paralyzed from the waist down or deaf?
Gartzman: Deaf. Because it’s like with rapping, if you’re like sitting down, it doesn’t bring the same energy, and I want to stage dive and shit at shows.
Rumpus: But if you couldn’t hear, you wouldn’t be a very good rapper. You’d really rather be deaf than paralyzed?
Gartzman: Oh, deaf? I thought you said death! I’d rather be paralyzed. [Laughing] For sure, no question.
Rumpus: Alright then, what if you had to make out with either George Bush, or that bum that just crossed under the bridge over there?
Gartzman: [Laughing] George Bush? I guess.
Rumpus: Like open mouth and full-on tongue.
Gartzman: Oh man, no.
Rumpus: If some baby is sitting right there, and someone’s going to stab it to death, and it’s going to bleed out unless you make out with George Bush or that hobo right there, who are you going to pick?
Gartzman: [Laughing] Okay, George Bush, because he would’ve brushed his teeth that morning. But he’s still an asshole.
Rumpus: You’d be his bitch. But you just saved an innocent little baby’s life.
Gartzman: It’d be all over the news and shit. “And—he’s a rapper!”
After our conversation wrapped up, Gartzman vomited in the coffee shop bathroom. He felt much better after that, and then hopped on a MARTA train “to get home, get high, and do some homework.”
All photos excepting album cover and featured image by T Cooper.