Former Claritas Editor-in-Chief Zachary Lee interviewed Paul, inquiring about his upcoming album, his biggest musical influences, and how being a Cornell student and a Christian shapes his music.
Zachary Lee (Z): Congratulations on the signing with Kings Dream Entertainment! That’s an amazing accomplishment. What was that whole process like? I know you’re friends with Jet Trouble, who was signed right before you; was that a connection at all?
Paul Russell (P): Thanks Zach! It’s been a wild ride. Jet and I went to church together in high school, and when I came to Cornell, he moved out to San Diego and lived with Ruslan and his family for a bit. While he was there, he played a couple of my songs for Ruslan, and eventually we met over FaceTime. Over the next year, I did a few features for Jet and Ruslan, and eventually when I came out to Southern California, we started working together more closely.
Z: That’s awesome to hear. Man, I’ve been listening to Kings Dream music for a while—way back when Beleaf and John Givez were still signed—which admittedly is not that long ago haha. I really think Kings Dream Entertainment is full of pioneers, not just in the Christian hip-hop world but with music in general. Their roster is also stacked! It’s so awesome that you get to interact with people like Ruslan, Jon Keith, and Jet Trouble on a daily basis. What has it been like to be in that creative space? Was there a pressure to live up to any expectations, or did everyone feel like family from Day 1?
P: They definitely made it feel like family. All of the guys are some of the nicest people I know, and they’ve always been really encouraging. It’s also awesome to be around them because they know so much about music and have an amazing network. I’ve been able to meet other musicians and creatives, people who work in the music industry, and people who just love to support musicians like me.
Z: One of the editors at the magazine I work for said that “Anyone who has the passion, focus, and perseverance to write a book is either crazy or called.” Haha so if we were to apply that to music, which would it be for you? Crazy? Called? Or somewhere in the middle? In that vein, how did you first get into music?
P: Haha that’s a great quote. I think I’d have to go with called. For most of my life, I had absolutely no intention to pursue music, but I kept meeting people who encourage me and help me to continue doing it. I started making music in middle school, going to little rap battles in the hallways and eventually writing songs with my friends in our free time. Then, in high school, I had an assignment where I had to take on any independent project I wanted and write about my experience. Since I remembered how much I enjoyed making music in high school, I used that opportunity to write an album. Once I got to Cornell, I told a friend about the album, and she sent the link to some guys who were trying to start a student-run record label at Cornell. From then on, I just always had people egging me on.
Z: Speaking of called—and I do not want to embarrass you, but— there WAS that time when you went by the name Paulitics. You’re no stranger to making music, as you’ve mentioned, and you’ve been killing the feature game lately too. You definitely elevate a track to a whole ‘nother level when you’re on it. That being said, how would you describe this next project? Is it the culmination of all the styles you’ve worked on before or a complete reinvention of yourself musically?
P: Thanks, man! I appreciate the love. I’m coming out with a joint project with Ruslan before my solo album comes out, and the two are pretty different. For my solo project, I’d describe it as melodic hip hop with a lot of unique sounds and vocal layers. I got a lot of my influence from a wide range of musicians, from Kendrick to Sting. The joint project is more organic, and it’s really the result of us sending verses and beats back and forth for a year, so the styles vary a lot more.
Z: Who have been your biggest influences musically and in your life?
P: For music, I’d say my biggest influences are Isaiah Rashad and Chance the Rapper, who ironically were both in the 2014 XXL freshman class. For life, I’d have to go with Judah Smith. I think he’s a really insightful guy, and God’s definitely used him to alter my perception of the world.
Z: A big buzzword in our culture is “authenticity”; people want transparency and honesty in their relationships, and this certainly applies to music as well. It is an interesting paradox because as you listen to mainstream radio and have emcees like 2 Chainz or Rick Ross rapping “honestly” about their lavish lifestyles, while they’re being truthful, their music can still be hard to relate to. I think it’s great that as a student, you’re creating music from your daily experiences which anyone on campus can understand. How has being a student, and more specifically being one at Cornell, shaped your music?
P: I think Cornell has put me in a lot of really unique communities that have played played big roles in shaping my music. For instance, a lot of my taste in music has been influenced by what I’ve heard at small basement shows in Ithaca that my friends have invited me to. I also think my experience as a student at Cornell is important to the narrative in a lot of my songs, because I often talk about my lack of money (which is a big part of college life) and fashion. When it comes to fashion, I think people often wear clothes to identify with their geographic location, and you can see that in my music. For example, when I listen to the songs I wrote in Ithaca some of them mention jackets and boots while the songs I’ve written in California mention streetwear and Vans.
Z: At Claritas, we believe that our faith intersects with every part of our daily life and that every act we do, whether we are going on a missions trip or being a diligent student, can be an act of worship towards God. How do you see your music as worship?
P: A lot of my forthcoming songs really go deep into my walk with God as I talk about how my experience from making music in high school to signing with Kings Dream has been as much a faith journey as a musical one. I see music as my opportunity to tell stories like that about how much God has done.
Z: For you, what do you think is God’s (the King’s) dream on campus? How does your music play a role in that, if any?
P: I think God just wants to be glorified, and if my music gives at least one person the opportunity to hear about how real God is and how much he is in control, I’ll count it as a success.
Z: What do you hope listeners will get out of your album?
P: I hope they’ll be able to relate to my life and be inspired to do what they love!
Z: Thanks so much for talking with me!
Paul’s collab album with Ruslan (title TBA!) will drop later this Summer! Meanwhile, follow him on his Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/paulrussellmusic/, and watch the music videos for his latest songs “Meet Me Outside” here and “Get Back” here.
About Paul Russell
Paul Russell is a 21-year-old musician and during his early life, Paul’s family moved around the Atlanta area — from Decatur to Stone Mountain to John’s Creek — before settling down in Allen, Texas, a small Dallas suburb. To Paul, the ‘where’ of his story is critical because each town has helped to develop his understanding of the racial and socioeconomic differences that shape our world. These differences are major themes he often explores in his music. Known for his melodic style and gruff voice, Paul considers jazz and blues to be the genres from which he pulls many of his influences. He hopes to synthesize a variety of styles in his music to discuss topics such as faith, culture, and success.
About Kings Dream Entertainment
Kings Dream Entertainment (Kings Dream) “creates music and content that blends together inspiration and information while empowering youth and young adults to live out the King’s dream.” The label is home to a diverse array of talented musicians who, while seeing both critical and commercial success, keep the Gospel message at the forefront of their work. Paul’s infectious, catchy, and unique style fits right in with their catalogue.