THOUGH MANY have claimed that the era of SoundCloud rap has reached peak saturation with artists like Lil Pump or SmokePurrp creating songs with little to no meaningful content, there are still many creatives constantly seeking to demystify that claim. Gabe Townsell, who goes by the moniker ‘VII’ (pronounced seven), is one of them.
Living outside the box and constantly setting new boundaries for himself, Gabe is not your typical Stanford student. A sophomore, Gabe is both a political science major and a competitive wrestler, balancing his time between academics and athletics. Yet beyond this student-athlete shell, Gabe is also a talented rapper, who spends much of his free time writing raps, producing beats, and listening to those who inspire him.
Growing up in Chicago and witnessing the rise of local rappers rise to fame, like Chance the Rapper or Vic Mensa, Gabe draws inspiration from their narratives. In 2016, VII dropped his first album, 18th Year EP, a collection of ten songs that draw on his life experiences. One year later, VII released an ambitious twenty-song project titled As God as My Witness, which was broken up into two different albums named Babylon and Eden. With a strong support system of producers and like-minded creatives at his side, VII has several new songs and another project he is eager to release in the near future.
PULSE: WHO IS VII?
VII: So the reason I came up with the name VII… well, there’s a lot of reasons for it. But the first reason is because I can’t use my real name. I’m an athlete. I had to come up with a name that didn’t sound incredibly corny and didn’t sound like my actual name. There’s seven letters in my first and middle names. I grew up on a street called 16th street. People called it “one-six.” One plus six is seven. Seven is also just my favorite number; it was my first jersey number and it’s the number of completion in the bible.
I’m originally from the West side of Chicago and I didn’t really start rapping until just before I came to Stanford. When I had dropped my EP, 18th Year, I had been rapping and recording music for about 3 months. I haven’t been rapping for a long time, but I’ve written poetry for a while. I also did spoken word poetry competitively. The spoken word world interacts with the rap world in a lot of ways.
P: There are a lot of rap influencers that have come out of Chicago like Common, Chance, Kanye… How did growing up in Chicago influence your style of music?
VII: I actually know a lot of the people in the Chicago music scene pretty well. I went to grade school with Chance’s little brother. I went to school with Vic Mensa and Joey Purp too. Everybody knows each other. I met Saba through my poetry teacher, who had him come in and do some of his raps from the Bucket List project. Chicago is one of two cities that I can think of that you can be walking down the street and see your favorite artist. That music world, the art world… there’s a Renaissance happening in Chicago right now. All of those things interact. It’s easy to pick up influences, not just from listening to music, but from actually interacting with people in a tangible way. That’s how I would say most of the people in the city influenced me. Also, Kanye being a producer inspired me to produce. He’s also a synesthete, like me.
P: WHAT'S A SYNESTHETE?
VII: Basically, I associate sounds with different colors and it helps me to break up and organize certain songs, cadences, and key signatures. There’s a bunch of different kinds of synesthetes. Some people literally see colors. Some people hear things and say “Oh! That sounds like orange.” For me, I hear things and associate them with colors, but I don’t actually see the colors.
P: I listened to your latest albums, Babylon and Eden. Can you tell more about those projects?
VII: I identify different parts of music in different ways. I usually organize playlists by colors. For albums, I organize them by ideas. So, my last project is called “As God as My Witness,” and I had to break it up into two parts, “Babylon” and “Eden”, so that people would actually listen to it. It’s twenty songs long and that’s a lot of music to drop on people and be like “This is an album I’ve been working on for a year. Please listen to all twenty songs.” It almost never happens that way. So for “Eden,” the way I structured it is that the whole thing is in biblical progression. It’s supposed to be perfection until it’s not anymore, and even then Eden wasn’t perfect because people had the leeway to make their own decisions. Satan had already separated himself from heaven at that point. Nothing really was perfect, but there was this semblance of perfection that I wanted to convey through the music in the first few songs. I wanted to illustrate that progression from where things seemed perfect for me and were perfect in the Bible to where things started to fall apart. That was Eden. Then, the transition from Eden to Babylon happened. Babylon was more about perspective shifts and embracing the vices that were out in the world or even in me. It was also very introspective in the sense that it was tackling issues that I had either with myself or other people, like my struggles with anxiety and depression. They were things I found difficult to write about and that not many people talk about. I wanted to make sure there was a dichotomy that things in the rap world can seem to be perfect and when that happens it’s easy for us to consume that whole idea of perfection or even living the lifestyle that the typical artist would. And in the second half, I wanted to convey that things aren’t perfect. They rarely even are with people who seem perfect. The project was ambitious. It took lots and lots of hours of recording and rerecording.
P: What does your production process look like?
VII: It depends. I am lucky enough to be acquainted with a bunch of different producers, or producers who know producers. I’ll usually have an idea about what kind of beat I want for a song. I’ll go find that beat or I know a producer who can make a beat like that. I always record though with my main producer. His name is Mitch Lemke. If I’m not recording with Mitch, I’m recording with Antwon Billups, another friend of mine. So Antwon did the “Welcome to Babylon” track, Mitch did three different beats on the project. One of which was the limbo transition at the end of the “Fall of Eden.” We work together that way. If I can’t find any beat that I want, I’ll usually do it myself if I’m confident enough. I did part of “Welcome to Babylon,” did the beginning of “The Fall of Eden,” all of “Canaan,” just because sometimes it’s hard to explain what you want in the way that you want it. It basically just depends. There isn’t a hard process for it. It usually comes down to where I’m at conceptually. For the next project that I’m making, I have all the beats already organized and I’ve made a couple of them. Mitch was in a creative space where he could just drop a bunch of beats on me and I could choose the beats that I really liked. He probably has about a thousand beats that he’s sitting on right now. It’s a combination between beat selection, and the writing process.
P: You spoke about doing spoken word poetry when you were younger. Did that help a lot in your writing process when you wrote your raps?
VII: It depends on what kind of song I want to make. If I want to make a song that makes people want to dance, or if I’m trying to make a song that’s hard, absolutely not. It helps me organize my cadences, structure the things that I want. Of course I understand rhetorical devices better. I understand which words go well and how to juxtapose images, but the best way to understand how to rap a certain way is to basically listen to people who do what you’re trying to do. Spoken word probably helped me with 75 percent of my music and the other 25 comes from either understanding music or having an influence in my art.
P: I know some rappers just freestyle and rap at the top of their heads when they’re writing songs and other rappers actually write out what they will rap beforehand. What is your writing process like?
VII: Again, it varies. It just depends on how I’m feeling. Sometimes I’ll just freestyle, but most of the time I’ll have it all written. Like for 18th Year EP, the part where I go fast, that was all freestyle, but the rest of the song was written. I actually wrote it on the way to the recording studio. But when I got to the recording studio I was like, “No. This is too slow. I want to double time it.” So I started thinking about what to write, and then I decided to forget about it and rap from the top of my head.
P: A lot of your songs also feature singing vocals, which I assume are also from you. Do you have any experience singing?
VII: Not really. I never was trained at singing. I sang in choir as a kid, but never anywhere near what I’m doing right now. I just learned things from my sister and watching her. She sings really well and she was in show choir. So, I just picked things up here and there and I also knew that I could carry a tune. I taught myself to sing and play the piano at the same time. From there, I started to be more confident in my ability to make vocal driven songs. My last project was the first time though that I introduced a lot of my vocals and singing. Some of the songs had to have a certain genre so I could fully express what I wanted out of that song. I felt that sonic diversity was critical to the project.
P: What are your thoughts on today’s style of rap?
VII: I think rap is in a place that it's never been before. It’s more accessible than it/s ever been. With the SoundCloud era, people can just drop anything they want. You can drop music instantly wherever you are and no one can stop you from doing that. I think it’s good and bad in that rap is becoming saturated with a lot of people who do the same things.
There’s so much good music out right now. Everyone is pushing other artists to do better things. We’re in a place where even some of the greatest artists of all time will be inspired by people who are just starting out. That’s really cool to see. There’s a level of collaboration that hasn’t been seen before too. There is a lot of music circulating right now and I can’t remember another time that I’ve been as satisfied with the volume of music that’s been coming out. There are also a lot of people who are trying to bend genres and experiment with other sounds, like Young Thug, who made a country song. Who would have thought that in 2017 Young Thug was going to make a country song? The amount of music right now is overwhelming to be honest, but it’s good from a creative standpoint because it inspires me to create whatever I want to create. I’m really happy with the state of rap right now, even if many people aren’t. I’m not a huge Lil Pump fan, but it’s cool that a 17 year old can do something like that. It’s cool that people are 12 years old signing record contracts. That’s unprecedented pretty much.
P: How would you describe your own sound?
VII: I wouldn’t. I’ve been experimenting with a lot of genres. I don’t want my sound to be something that can be easily defined. I want every project that I have to sound different and to demonstrate a level of versatility that people didn’t know that I could reach. I don’t want it to be described other than for it to be described as versatile. I want to keep making music without worrying about what it should be categorized as.
By: Justin Kang
Photography by: Caroline Moon