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When asked about how he’s been handling the last year of pandemic, Sacramento rapper Caleborate paraphrases Bruce Lee: “What I’ve been doing to keep things all together is just being like water.” The quote, which implores the listener to be flexible, malleable, and to go with the flow, aptly describes Caleborate’s music style as well. Although his new album, Light Hit My Skin, is ostensibly a hip-hop album, it’s also a genre-fluid affair that allows Caleborate to transform according to his whims and needs of the lush production. And yet, while water can fill a container or run like a river, it remains water — that’s a lesson Caleborate puts into practice here, as well.
So, while he tackles straightforward, storytelling rap on “Contact” with fellow indie rap stalwart Kota The Friend, he also spends several of the interludes — titled “Light 001,” “Light 002,” and “Light 003” — vocalizing like a praise leader on Sunday morning. He calls these his favorite tracks on the album. He demonstrates his versatility throughout; there’s the house-inspired, synth-pop experiment “Homecoming” with Duckwrth, the soft-rock ballad “Untitled (Hit Record),” and the post-hyphy intro “Cliquot Shower.” Each emanates authenticity — there’s no major label-mandated push for algorithmic ambivalence. Instead, Caleborate is like the titular light on his skin — a full spectrum of wavelengths and colors — all of them are not always visible, but they are the same beam of light.
Over the phone with Uproxx, Caleborate reflects on his unique artistic philosophy, other lessons he’s learned over the past year, and questions why, with such a multifaceted array of lights to choose from, mainstream hip-hop continues to constrain itself to just a few shades of red.
What have you been doing over the last year of quarantine?
I’ve been doing some Caleb work, some Caleborate work, some Mr. Parker work, you know what I mean. All different facets of me. Some work as a brother, as a son, as a businessman.
I’ve had a lot of time to reconnect with my family because before COVID and everything popped off, I was really planning to move to LA. My manager and I were about to move in together, he had found an apartment. We literally had gone to go see it the day before I came back to live in the Bay with my mom.
COVID kicked off right in March, so I ended up staying in the Bay. My manager ended up staying where he was located out in Pennsylvania. My workflow changed drastically. My plans changed drastically. Performances: Gone. And certain things that I had going in process for the album shifted up. So, I just kind of had to adjust my workflow and sort of catch my rhythm in the water. I just had to catch my rhythm.
That’s really what we’re here for is for the album, which has a very interesting title, Light Hit My Skin. Obviously, there’s probably a lot of layers to that. Why don’t you kind of give me a little bit of an overview of what inspired this title and the concept of the album?
It’s so many different types of light. We were listening to “The Madness” and we just keyed in on that line. We’re driving in the car and everybody keyed in on that line. It’s so multi-layered, it has so many different meanings. And I have a lot of different versions of the light that hit my skin, whether it’s on stage or out in the street or whether it’s cop lights cascading over our car or it’s phone flashlights taking pictures with people.
Or even the light in me if you want to get metaphorical. The light that I can shine is who I am and enlightening people. All the different forms of that word really hit me at that moment and it’s something that I referenced a few times in the album. So to me, it’s just all the different situations in which light hits my skin. I’m about to go into the grocery store right now and lights are about to hit my skin, they got fluorescent light in there, and that’s a setting for a story, a moment of life.
I love that you can find so many different ways of looking at such a simple phrase, that really speaks to your gift as a writer, which is one of the things that drew me to you as an artist. Speaking of lines that jump out, one that hit me was about how you used to wear hoop shorts under your jeans on “We Make.” It just sent me right back to my own high school experience.
Oh man, bro, man, that was a thing that we did back in middle school and high school, we stopped sophomore year of high school because we got real lockers. We would hoop before school, you would literally come to school dripped out, shorts on underneath your jeans, come to school a little bit early, take your jeans off.
You might put hoop shoes in your backpack or over your shoulder, the next thing, you’re hooping. And then we hoop for 15 minutes, put your jeans on. We had to buy our jeans a couple of sizes higher. You have to buy thinner shorts.
Those moments help teach you a little bit about who people are. And when you have a confrontation on the court and disagreements or you’re picking teams or you have to take initiative or share with teammates. It was just kind of these young man moments that I had reminisced on that I sometimes see the matured version of them in our culture.
So as an independent artist, you have a lot more control over what you put out and how you put it out. But because it’s coming out of your pocket, you don’t have the budget of a bigger artist. How do you go about executing without really having the same resources as major label artists?
Well, for me, it’s relationships. Keeping those relationships is invaluable because we’re the artists and whether you’re signed to a label or not, real artists can see each other. And so I’m blessed. There are other people that I meet that are blessed to do it that way, musically, whether it’s production or writing or singing or whatever, for the sake of music, I’m keeping them relationships.
I have a very strong core of artists that I’ve been working with and people that support me. And it’s definitely all based on music. Money is secondary, but money has come because of that. As far as reaching out to newer artists like Deante Hitchcock or working with Cantrell or working with Tone Sinatra or working with Duckwrth… I make sure that they’re compensated and make sure that their time is valued.
But first comes first, do they like to record? Do they want to be in this thing? Are they down for the ride of this record? And everybody featured on the project, man, they’re real artists. And so it’s just an honor to work with other people like that.
How have you adapted to not having a tour life over the last year? What’s something that you miss about touring and what something you don’t miss about touring?
Man, touring is this very bittersweet thing, absolutely love and miss traveling in general. The number one aspect of touring is being out with friends — three, four like-minded individuals — experiencing life together at a new point in time. And then when you compound making money and having a reason to be here, it’s amazing.
Traveling is great, but it’s also not great, it’s tiring. Also, “traveling while Black” is a thing, just like “traveling while a woman” is a thing — especially international travel. People look at you, look at what you’re wearing… That could be kind of draining, so that part of travel I don’t miss.
God took it away from all of these artists, all of us for a reason. So we’ll never forget it. That’s how I feel. But, yeah, I miss that and what I’ve been doing to keep things all together is just being like water and learning more to be like water.
The change in sort of workflow for the whole world really has sort of allowed for, I think, me and people like me maybe to focus on what’s in the now. “What can I actually do? What do I need to do? What’s something I need to be doing, what stuff I want to be doing? And how can I get what I need to get done in spite of what’s going on in the world?” And I’ve been learning a lot of stuff through just approaching stuff with that mentality.
As we wrap things up, I always like to ask artists this question because you have to get asked the same questions over and over again. What’s something that you want to talk about that you wish somebody had asked you?
That’s a really good question. I almost want the right person to ask. I want somebody to ask me, or even once someone to have a real, everything-on-the-table conversation about the history of hip-hop and rap music and its impact on the Black community, as far as things that are promoted in the music and how they correlate to health, violence as promoted in the music and how it correlates to crime rates, and trends that occur in the music industry as far as artists who perpetuate certain themes in their music.
Because I believe over time, hip-hop has gotten bloodier and bloodier and there’s been more money put into bloodier and bloodier music. And I don’t have anything against bloody music. It’s not my preferred genre. It’s not my preferred experience. But when something has been systematically controlled by capitalistic entities like major corporations that do billions of dollars in revenue every year and can invest hundreds of millions or 20 to 50 million into the specific genre of music… Maybe you can have conversations. I would just be interested in having that conversation.
Light Hit My Skin is out now on TBKTR. Get it here.