As if the music world wasn’t already confusing enough, hippy-hop artist Mod Sun released an album called Movie and a movie called Album earlier this month. But while the titles of the releases may seem like a prank, they’re actually signs of the Minnesota-born, L.A.-based rapper’s growth and maturity from goofy hippie rapper to legitimate lyrical wordsmith.
Released by Rostrum Records on March 10 — Mod Sun’s 30th birthday — Movie takes a look at the singular theme that inspires all art on one level or another: death. “I feel like at the end of your days, the last thing that’s going to happen is that you’re going to watch the movie of your life,” the rapper says. “It’s very important to make sure that you love your movie and that you want to watch your movie, so I try to always make sure that I’m doing something fun and interesting.”
Anyone who’s listened to Mod Sun before can probably guess that, despite its subject matter, Movie isn’t a dark or depressing record by any means. As part of his “hippy-hop” subgenre, which combines the rhymes and rhythms of hip-hop with friendly, uplifting and often beachy vibes, Mod values positivity and love as much as wordplay and flow. Still, its visual companion, Album, has some dark twists and turns you might not expect. Mod Sun had worked behind and in front of the camera for both his own music videos and those of others in the past, so the dramatic, 15-minute short film seemed like the next logical step.
Beyond expanding his visual horizons with Album, Mod Sun also conquered new ground for himself on Movie. Although he’s had nearly a decade of success selling out small venues and developing a core “friendbase,” as he calls his fans, the rapper’s latest effort is the first time he’s really stepped out of his comfort zone and into the hip-hop’s mainstream. Movie is Mod Sun’s first time working with outside producers like Mike Dupree and features like D.R.A.M. and Rich the Kid, rather than sticking with his usual, self-produced, sunshine-and-rainbows sound.
“All of my other music prior to this was me making my own music — beats and everything,” Mod Sun says. “If you take the duality of things — like sunny-sounding music with weird lyrics on it — it makes this dichotomy. I’ve never had that because when I make music, I make major chords, happy-sounding stuff, and my lyrics are positive. When I put those two things together, it creates one vision. It works for me, but I’d never experienced making a song over something that I wouldn’t normally make a song over.”
Before he got into rapping, Mod Sun was Derek Smith, a drummer for emo and post-hardcore bands including Four Letter Lie and Scary Kids Scaring Kids. He launched his rap career out of the tail end of those bands — he’d routinely get booed while doing a hip-hop opening set for Scary Kids’ final tour in 2010 before returning to the stage to play drums — but his full-time switch from rock to rap caught the world (and his former bandmates) by surprise.
The transition [from drumming to rapping]was very, very easy for me to do, but that the same time, it was like being a martyr in a way,” Mod Sun says. “I had success as a drummer and was doing very well — I could send my mom to Best Buy and she could go buy my album, you know? I felt good about it, and then to just go back to zero and leave comfort completely has to be a choice on your own. I made that choice, but then I also had all those people being like, ‘Why the fuck are you doing that? You’ve never rapped before. Now all of a sudden you’re a hippie rapper? What the fuck?’ It was a lot of me walking through the flames.”
These days, Mod Sun has left any negativity, anger or sorrow from his former life well in the past. From his music to his relaxed daily life with his middle-aged neighbors in Topanga Canyon (he moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles a few years ago to take his music career to the next level), L.A.’s resident hippie rapper is more focused on positivity than ever. As Mod Sun sees it, keeping a smile on your face is the most noble thing you can do in modern society, particularly since he’s already left his mark on a less optimistic style of music. (“I made the genre of tweeting, ‘I’m so depressed, I want to kill myself.’ I was a part of that motherfucking scene.”)
“I think that the only pure thing we have in life is to try to be happy,” Mod Sun says. “If you look around, anything and everything is going to try to tell you not to be.”