What comes to mind when you think of Jack White? That’s right – things like vinyl, blues-rock and battered old furniture come to mind. Old stuff, basically. Definitely not cutting-edge, underground hip-hop. But that’s all about to change, because the White Stripe’s just signed his first rapper to Nashville-based record label Third Man.
Born in Queens, New York, to art-obsessed parents, SHIRT started creating from a young age. First he’d rap on home videos, then he tried to emulate his hero Jackson Pollock in abstract paintings. Later he’d get into fashion, crafting t-shirts and hoodies to sell at gigs. It was always clear he’d become an artist.
Predictably, school wasn’t for him. He dropped out in senior year and rooted himself in the underground – playing gigs, making art and selling clothes to a growing fanbase. Thanks to a huge catalogue of impressive work, he earned a place at art school in Switzerland and is balancing a burgeoning music career with his studies. To call SHIRT multi-talented is a massive understatement. We called him up to talk his debut album Pure Beauty, Jay-Z, and why – shock horror! – he really doesn’t like Lorde.
How did you get signed to Third Man?
“The album was actually done and I was just gonna drop it myself. But then the night before I was to release it, someone from Third Man reached out. It was the perfect time. I think they’d been watching me for a while.”
Did you get to meet Jack White?
“I haven’t actually met him face-to-face yet. But I’ve loved The White Stripes and everything he’s been doing for so long. I’ve been in a bunch of meetings over the past few years with big labels. But I was hearing things from Third Man that I’d never heard from music people before. Every time I’ve gone into meetings and talked about art and conceptual practices, they’ve looked at me like I have three heads. Third Man is very art-minded. Jack himself is a conceptual artist, which is a completely different thing. These guys are definitely the best fit for me.”
Why did you decide to call yourself SHIRT?
“I used to be called T-shirt, because I like to express myself through fashion and I was making t-shirts and hoodies. I thought it was funky – I forget why – but people instantly liked the name. Then I had a friend who called me Shirt for short. I liked that better so I stuck with it. But at first, it came from me making shirts. I still make shirts. I’ll probably always make shirts.”
Are you aware how hard it is to google?
[Laughs] “I’ve heard this story for years. It’s funny, it makes me laugh. The thing is, the minute you put in Shirt rapper, everything comes up. So it’s not really an accurate thing. It’s a funny thing to say, but if you know how to use Google, it’s really not that hard.”
Can I ask what your real name is?
“George, just George. You don’t need to know my last name. The public doesn’t need to know yet. It’s not a secret or anything, there’s just no need. Right now, I’m not going by my real name.”
Did you make music from an early age?
“I was literally a kid. There’s old family videos of me rapping in my living room like, ‘Yo, yo, yo, I’m here!’ My mother was a writer, my father was a DJ and both loved music, so that must have had something to do with it. I remember being 15-years-old, rapping at a party and someone telling me, ‘Yo, you got a crazy voice, you got the voice for it.'”
We heard you like to paint too…
“I discovered Jackson Pollock and I was super hooked. My early paintings look like Pollock. I was trying to take it further and put glass, dirt, pebbles and stuff in my paintings – very abstract. I was always working on stuff like that.”
What about music – who were your early influences?
“I always say this and I probably will until the day I die: it was always Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas. In New York I loved what Puff was doing, but then my friends from the Marcy Projects [a housing project in Brooklyn] put me onto young Jay-Z. It feels a bit clichéd because I’m from there, but to me, those guys didn’t just rap well and make great rap records – they carried themselves properly. There wasn’t this cool ass dude on the record and then someone completely different in real life. That always stuck out to me – how to be a solid dude.”
In 2015, you released a song called ‘I Don’t Like Lorde’… Why don’t you like Lorde?
“A lot of times, my songs start from a really small feeling. Then they grow into what that feeling may produce in me. I might not be able to tell you the exact lyrics off the top of my head, but basically, it went: ‘I don’t like Lorde/ I don’t like her face/ I don’t like the song/ I don’t like she tries to play us’.
“I felt like that [her acclaimed 2013 ‘Royals’] was playing rap. It’s not that I don’t like her personally; I’ve never met her. She could be the coolest girl in the world. But when she came out [with that track, it] used a hip-hop beat and the lyrics were very like, ‘Gold chain and all this.’ I felt like she was using the hip-hop tropes and it didn’t feel like she was talking about it in a beautiful and important way. It felt like she was just using it for the concept of her record. It’s not about her specifically; it’s a much bigger thing that I’m talking about. I just don’t like the fact that she got to play us.”
The artwork for ‘Pure Beauty’ is a block of luminous green – what’s that all about?
“The official colour is ‘chartreuse’, but it’s basically a neon green. This might sound silly, but I regularly have epiphanies. I was with my 97-year-old grandmother and we saw that colour and I thought it was so beautiful. It stayed in my mind for several years. I could’ve made 20 paintings with that colour. It’s also the colour of energy. I thought, ‘What if the music is emanating this energy and when you see it on a webpage or iTunes, the energy from the music takes over that cover? What if it’s all neon and you can’t see the original cover anymore – it’s just neon?’ There’s a lot more that I’ll expand on in the future, but that’s the basic idea of it.
– SHIRT’S Pure Beauty is out now on Third Man Records