Heels & Picks: The other side of the mic
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Many of you may know Tantra Grillo from her radio show on Power 104.3, where she co-hosts a fun morning program alongside her partner in crime, KC. Prior to her gig at Power, Tantra was a radio personality at Star 101.9. When I met her, she was a radio personality on Maui at Q103.
Clearly, the woman is a strong radio presence.
Tantra has a great energy and a way of connecting with people. Her sandpaper-meets-honey voice is perfect for radio but she has also set her sights beyond the microphone.
A longtime writer and performer of hip-hop music, Tantra has been quietly recording her debut album, “Love’s Heretic,” over the past two years. As she wraps up the project, she is looking to fans to rally behind her with the launch of her Kickstarter campaign. These funds can be a vital way for artists to achieve the next step and to launch albums. For Tantra, she’s looking to secure the work of a production team in California to mix and master her album, and the Kickstarter is to help make that happen.
I checked in with Tantra via email to hear about her album, the Kickstarter campaign, her writing process, her plans and her thoughts about women in hip-hop music.
HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER: Your album is called “Love’s Heretic.” What does the title mean to you?
TANTRA GRILLO: “Love’s Heretic” was the first song I ever wrote about real love, and rightfully now, the name of my album in creation. It was a defining moment for what I exemplified as a writer and storyteller in hip-hop. It’s where my heart lies.
It’s about taking a stand for love. I “M” Love’s Heretic. I’ll take a stand for love even if I have to stand alone. Because I believe in the purity of it. And the realism of it. And I take a journey as this martyr of love in my music. The theme is evident throughout the album.
SA: How long have you been doing hip-hop?
TG: I’ve been writing poetry since I was 12 years old. Being heavily influenced by hip-hop growing up in Tustin, Calif., I naturally took my poems to beats and started recording hip-hop when I was 16 in Santa Ana, Calif., at Hot Traxx Studios. The song was called “Braintrust.”
Since then I’ve been so blessed to work with producers and engineers rapping out of garages, closets and multimillion dollar studios from Cali to NYC to Hawaii to eventually Egypt.
SA: What is your favorite song on the album and why?
TG: “Love Responsibly.” It just flowed because I was on the brink of exploding at the time. I cried while recording it on the mic on the eve of my 29th birthday at Rawk Solid Productions studio in Wailuku, Maui.
I turned 29 years old during its recording. My heart jumped out of my throat on that track. I’ve never felt so naked on a song. I laid it out and I was a different person once it was completed. It’s just raw and more human that I’ve ever allowed myself to be.
SA: Where will you record and who is producing the album?
TG: Most of the tracks are already recorded and were done with Vince Esquire, my producer in Wailuku, in 2013. My Kickstarter in place right now will enable me to send these tracks to a very credible production team in Southern California that is going to remix and master the album to commercial industry standards. To “Minaj” it, if you will.
I left some space for a few extra special joints that will be added to the album. One with my baby sister Marie (age 13), in which she actually sang the chorus. A few surprise collabs are to be added as well.
SA: You had mentioned a tour in 2016. Where do you plan to go?
TG: To every seedy bar, amazing venue, and anywhere that has a microphone in between!
I actually plan to start in my hometown on the West Coast and then make my way across, up and down North America ending up in NYC. Planning for this is happening soon. I luckily have traveled a lot in my life and have friends all over North America, so I plan to extend myself greatly.
SA: Which artists inspire your writing?
TG: The content of my writing is always inspired by my real life. This may sound wild, but I try not to listen to too much music as a comparison to what I do and express because I don’t want to be influenced subconsciously.
Cadence, delivery and vocal swagger are what I study and my inspirations at the moment; so in that regard, Drake, Wiz Khalifa and of course, Nicki Minaj. Drake is a genius. Wiz doesn’t get enough credit as a recording artist for his mere ability to record hooks, verses and sing. I’m not talking about content, I’m talking about ability.
Nicki’s new album, “The Pinkprint,” blew me away. It’s nice to see vulnerability in an A-grade artist. I appreciate that. I love the Living Legends, 2Pac, Biggie, Foxy Brown, Jean Grae, M83, Kid Ink, Eluvium, Heiro, Kings Of Leon, The Killers, Cassettes Wont Listen, Lana Del Rey, Erin Smith, Kendrick Lamar, Lil’Kim, Three 6 Mafia. Man, the list continues.
SA: What is your writing process like?
TG: I need to be alone. I like to write in the most vulnerable but safest places with candles lit and maybe a needle circling a record on my turntables. It doesn’t even have to be hip-hop music. Most of the “Love’s Heretic” album was written in my bed.
At times, I like to write in studio because the booming musical energy surrounds me. I also tend to formulate thoughts on a track in my head for a while before I put pen to paper. And yes, I said pen to paper. I’m old school. I like to feel myself writing lyrics.
When something pulls at my heart I’ll write down a bar or a verse that tends to come through to me at the most random times. Airplanes have been great places for my writing as well. Because it forces me to shut off technology, hone in and be with my quiet self. Clouds make a great writing atmosphere.
SA: What can Kickstarter backers choose from in your pledge packages?
TG: For a $1,000 pledge, you can be in my “Blue Sky” music video set to film in 2016!
It’s my most listened to joint, and planning for the video has been so intricate, being a major perfectionist, it has been a year in the making and has a Vanilla Sky theme to it. I can’t wait. The song is so deep for me, and I plan to keep the video very true to what its about.
SA: How are things different for a female in hip-hop?
TG: Women in hip-hop have come a long way. And today we are blessed to see so many conscious women out there doing their thing and staying true to who they are and what their story is without having to conform to societal norms.
I think women MCs need to be empowered to know it’s ok to just tell their own story in music. Our personal experiences and stories are actually more excitable to hear because it’s relevant to who a woman actually is, opposed to what a lot of men have deemed women in the rap industry to be. We finally get to hear and see the other side of the story from the mouths of women themselves.
It’s about retraining the masses – period – to know that your story is just as important as the next man or woman. Tell it the way you felt it.
SA: Any collaborations?
TG: Hopefully soon with you, fellow Virgo! I know we have been talking about that for a while. I would love to finally make that happen.
Luckily the collaboration requests are wide right now. I don’t have enough time to work with everyone and I want to work with everyone. I’ve been collaborating with as many people as I can. No matter what they are about, unless they are talking about killing babies or disempowering women. I find it an awesome challenge to work with many different spirits and souls. It forces me to get out of my shell.
Part of the beauty of music is to be able to work together and respect each other’s positions whether we rep it or not. #TANTRAFORAHATERFREEHAWAII, you know! I’m currently working on one now with a successful underground MC who I have idolized my entire life. The collabs are on point right now. I’m feeling the love!
A few recent collabs were with CHALA, an incredible organic Maui group, and a cut with Cory Pak for his mixtape, “Larger Than Life.” I’ve worked with Jazi, Cavi & VDot alongside the incredible Trackbaby Records team a few times and they always put the fire in my belly. I wrote a couple verses for a couple tracks for Jason Tabosa’s “JMT Experiment” album and have performed a few times with them as well.
Jumped on a track with my boy Nando in Maui with singer Sheyla on the chorus. I have a collab with Stef Muzic as well in the works. Wow, I guess I have been a busy bee. I rarely stop to think about how much I’ve done. I’m just always hustlin’ to get these thoughts out of my head and on to paper.
It’s been such a fast and incredible journey since I started getting serious about my album in between the throws of my demanding radio career, but each and every one who has come across my life in this industry and to my supporters as well, I have to thank them for helping me to open up. For that, and with that love, I will continue to make my story in to music.
One thing I’d like to add is that I was given some flack for not releasing a mixtape first. Here’s the deal. If we did everything the same way, nothing would be ingenious. We wouldn’t even have electricity.
I don’t want to be a rap star. I just want to be me. I’m not trying to be famous or something I’m not. I believe in everyone. Let the music speak for itself and reach the right people for the right reasons.
If I can achieve that, then I’ve done my job.
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.