People are starting to recognize the name Ray Vaughn. Unsurprising, given that the Long Beach emcee recently joined forces with the esteemed Top Dawg Entertainment, a union that immediately captured the attention of longtime label loyalists. Given the pedigree long associated with TDE and its artists, one might think Ray Vaughn was feeling the pressure — though such thoughts would be unwise.
Having officially wrapped up the so-called “TDE Bootcamp,” Vaughn is ready to introduce himself to a new crop of fans. Rest assured he’s already making a strong impression with the release of his three-song Peer Pressure EP (his first since inking a deal with Top and Punch) as well as his scene-stealing performance freestyling on the L.A Leakers.
We recently had the chance to speak with Vaughn for our new series Rise & Grind, with topics covering his new deal, his upcoming music, his freestyle-heavy origin story, and much more. Read the full transcription of the conversation below, edited for length and clarity. While you’re at it, go stream Peer Pressure right here.
Look for a new installment of Rise & Grind every Monday.
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I’ve really got three places where I call home. My backyard is Long Beach, born and raised. We moved around a lot and the places we kept revisiting were Palm Springs, California, and Phoenix, Arizona, Those three areas probably shaped me the most. We’ve lived in more cities than that, but overall we bounced around. Long Beach, Phoenix, Palm Springs, Phoenix, Long Beach — it just bounced back and forth. But Long Beach molded me in a sense, cause I didn’t leave until I was in middle school.
I’m not into astrology as much as some people, but I’m a Virgo. My birthday is September 15th. The only thing I do believe is when they say Virgos are nonchalant. I’m that person who’s nonchalant. I let everything fly and let it go, navigate through life without a worry about other stuff.
Top 5 DOA:
Snoop is one of my top five. Weezy. Drake. Biggie, and me. Snoop is like my backyard, you know what I’m saying? Being from Long Beach, that’s what we grew up on. Hearing his voice is so distinctive. I pay attention to a person’s voice. Off bat, because you don’t even have to know what they’re saying if their voice is it. Whatever it is, you kind of take to [the voice]. Soon as they start speaking, before they even say a metaphor or before they do anything. So I kind of look for that first. Snoop has that, Weezy definitely has that. Drake has that, Biggie has that. And I feel like I have that. I feel like my voice is what I focus on most. I have lyricism and melodies and all those capabilities, but I feel like the thing that’s gonna get people most is my voice. Once it cuts through, that’s Ray Vaughn.
Man, first and foremost, signing with TDE is a milestone because it’s my dream label. Once again, it’s like backyard. Signing to TDE is like going to the Lakers because they don’t just sign everybody. You have to have that thing about you that is different from everybody. So for me to be able to come over here just solidifies me. And then on top of that, tour coming up — that’s like a career milestone. I’m about to go see the US like I’ve never seen it before. That’s huge to me.
I usually bring five people with me, and they’re helping me with the vibe. I’m more of a vibe person when I go into the studio. So I have my best friends who are always with me. They set the tone and then I just create off of that. I got to get some lifesavers. I got to get a bag of hot fries, some Smart Water and I’m cool. I don’t really need too much or nothing. And I love being in the studio. If I didn’t have kids, I’d probably be in the studio 24/7. But for the most part, the studio is my happy place.
With “Peer Pressure,” people haven’t caught that it’s like a double entendre. It has two meanings. So it’s pure pressure — it’s that heat — and then Peer Pressure. When you listen to those three records, it doesn’t sound like anything TDE. It sounds like the worldly stuff that everybody else is making. But the difference is if you actually listen, I’m actually rapping. I’m actually saying things in there. It’s just the beats are different. So I kind of put it where it’s like the peer pressure of picking the beats of the world, but tricking them — because if the beat sounds like that, I can still rap. You know what I’m saying? I’m being lyrical. And they’ll listen because the beats sound like what they like to listen to. So Peer Pressure. That’s kind of where I came up with that.
It’s funny. [Laughs] It’s funny as hell, man. Hold on, let me dig in my memory bank. I was nine, first of all. I was nine years old when I said this shit. I said — hell nah, I did not say this trash! Hold on, lemme get it. The song was called “Talking Head.” And I said, “Talking head, n*gga you ain’t tight, shoot your brains out the left, they’ll be leaking out the right / So quit talkin your head or we’ll be findin you in the alley dead.” Shit sounds like some Michael Myers rap! It’s poop loops.
Nah, I mean compared to the rappers today…but for my standard of rap, nah, that’s booty pebbles. That ain’t got nothing on nothing. I wasn’t talking about nothing, there was violence, and I was nine. I wasn’t even off the porch. That was my first rap that I wrote in my little handy-dandy notebook.
My first show, I was like 17. It was in Palm Springs somewhere. I don’t remember the exact place, but I know I was 17 and that was my first show. The only thing different about that show is I didn’t get paid. I was up there, but I never paid to perform. Let’s just put that there. I’ve never been one of those people. I’ve had a lot of shows, and you know, people just asked me to perform. And I felt like it was exposure. So I had plenty of shows, and I feel like it created the stage presence that I have now. Knowing how to maneuver to a crowd and work it to my advantage.
Outside Of Music:
My kids, man, I’ll be with these little monsters. I got three girls and that’s usually my downtime for me. If it’s not music, I’ll be on what matters the most.
When my album comes — album, you know, we ain’t talking EP. My expectation for that is to touch people, to make them feel. Whether it’s happy, whether it’s sad. Whether it makes you want to go meet your Grandma. And that the feeling intensifies after listening to it. That’s my only goal, to make people feel. I don’t worry about the accolades that come with it. But there’s pressure — because I’m the rookie, I got to work twice as hard. I have to prove that I belong here. That’s the only pressure. I gotta show the world that I’m capable of being on TDE with a different sound. And I plan on doing that as well. I plan on showing that every song that you drop on TDE doesn’t have to be this seven-layer deep song. We actually have fun. It’s just that it factor — that definitely has to be there.
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HNHH: Can you tell me about what drove you to start writing rap music?
Ray Vaughn: I’ve been rapping since I was nine. And it started at like a Freestyle Friday. My mom used to have all of our friends come over in the neighborhood. Everybody’s rapping — we’d play music off Xbox and people just rapped. Then I went and everybody’s like, go again, go again. Every Friday they’re just like, “Yo tell Ray to rap.” So telling me to rap was that thing that added fuel to it. And I took it seriously since then, but I wasn’t recording my own music until I was 12. That’s when I started recording myself.
You mentioned the importance of voice and cadence, and that’s one of the main things I noticed about your recent L.A. Leakers freestyle. You changed it up and it injected new life into certain schemes. I don’t know what your writing process is, but I could almost picture you color coding each bar that uses a certain voice. Can you tell me about the way you write?
[Laughs] It’s funny. For most of the music, it’s not written. For those freestyles, it’s different cause I have to be prepared. I’m trying to wow you from the first second you press play to the end of the song. On songs, like on Peer Pressure for example, it’s more of whatever comes to my mind — there’s no filter to it. I have two different processes. One is like, I just create the music off of my feeling. So if it’s like a lit, vibey song — like “Top Shottas” or something like that — I’m just literally going off of emotions and how I feel. On the other end, with other music that I write, there’s an intent to do something.
Are you’re someone who really appreciates putting an album together? Song by song, the arrangement process, stuff like that?
Right. It’s different processes for me. It depends on the project. I feel like once people dissect me more, once they get into me more, they’ll be able to understand it better. Because I’m young enough to not give a fuck and old enough to know better, for certain songs, I kind of have ignorance in there on purpose. So for those types of projects, the meaning behind it was more so about creating, having fun, not thinking about it too much. Don’t expect it to be this deep seven-layer piece of art. It’s just what I drew. Look at it exactly as what I drew, don’t manipulate it in your mind to feel like it should have been something else.
Then there are other projects that I’m working on where it’s like, once again, written with intent. So when you play track one and play track two, they flow cohesively into another way you’re like, “Oh, this kind of touches on–” but it sounds like a roller coaster. So it just depends on whatever the project is. Whatever the assignment is, I’ma do it.
There’s a preconception about TDE artists, where fans assume they’re going to be getting bars, you know what I mean? That’s something a lot of people look for from the label.
Definitely, and I feel like I do that. It’s just me being the newest. I’m the youngest. I’m kind of refreshing, because I feel like a contradiction. You know what you’re used to from TDE, but then I come with the trap drums. Then you’re like, what the hell is this? Who is this kid infiltrating our structure that’s rapping like the people that we talk about? Why does he have auto-tune? We don’t like auto-tune. Me being that person that that has to plant the flag. Even though it’s that type of music, I’m still– first of all I’m with TDE. I’m capable with the lyrics. Understand that. But I feel like me being that different person will make me stand out.
I mean, I think anyone who watched the LA Leakers Freestyle will be able to attest to the lyrical capability.
I feel like the LA Leakers Freestyle is gonna make people go back and listen to the project. To Peer Pressure. And they’re like “Okay, he can really rap, so, what was he doing on this?” And then it lets you digest the music differently from your first listen. For the hardcore fans, they’re probably like, “why is he over here? What is he? What is he doing over here?” So I feel like that sends you back to be like, “Wait, let me actually listen, because there’s no way he didn’t miss a beat in that LA Leakers Freestyle, and then comes here and make something that we don’t like.” So if they just take the time to listen and digest it properly, then they’ll understand that there’s the same type of lyricism in there. It’s just that I know how to make a song, which I feel like a lot of people who can rap like I can can’t do.
WATCH: Ray Vaughn bodies the LA Leakers Freestyle
It’s an underrated asset for sure.
Correct. I feel like they put you in a box when you rap like that. Some people want to hear you make songs like that. But those songs don’t sell records. Those songs, they live with you and you grow with them, but they’re not the ones that we gon’ get top 100 on. I want to display that I can rap, but I also know how to make records.
You mentioned Freestyle Friday, the tradition that your family had. How are you off the dome?
So off the dome — if you look on my posts, on like the actual LA Leakers posts where I posted it, you’ll see King Los under there. He’s one of the GOATs of freestyle. I’m probably the second in my opinion. I’m probably the second to him in freestyling, because I can really go off of the top. If you throw words off, I really come up with stuff quickly. They just gotta put me to the test and they’ll see.
Are there any particular radio freestyle that are your favorites?
My favorite freestyle is I-95, and it’s Tsu Surf. That’s probably my favorite radio interview freestyle. I’m gonna give my top three. Second would probably be King Los, he did a LA Leakers. After that, the third one is the Childish Gambino one where he was rapping on “Pound Cake.” He’s just so calm, he’s just like having a conversation. The way I’m interacting in my [Leakers freestyle] it looks like I’m having a conversation, if you mute the video. It just looks like I’m talking to them you know?
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I’ll give a shout-out to Black Thought on Funk Flex, that was incredible. Action Bronson had a good one on Funk Flex too, he had this whole scheme with a parrot.
Oh yeah, Black Thought was crazy too. I didn’t see the Action Bronson one. I just love seeing the freestyles where it’s something different than flexing, because we can get that through the music. I’m a hard person to please when it comes down to shit. I have to be moved, more so.
Nice. You know, when you mentioned Freestyle Friday, the first thing I thought about was the BET series. I remember when I used to watch that on 106 & Park, so I was just wondering if that was an inspiration?
Yeah. That’s what it stems from.
Man, that was so good.
What was that dude’s name, Blind Fury? Yeah, he was blind, he was whooping on everybody. That was crazy. We were very inspired by that.
Are you going to carry on the Freestyle Friday tradition with your own family?
I mean, if they wanna rap, you know…But, I don’t want to be Joe Jackson. If you want to be a firefighter, go be a firefighter. That’s the problem with everybody now is everybody thinks they can rap. And I’m the person to tell them they can’t. So it’s like I don’t want to have my kids out here thinking they can rap just cause I’m good. So go do something else, find something that you really want to do. You know, if you want to go make the little red part on a BIC lighter, go do that. If that makes you happy. You don’t have to be a rapper because I’m a rapper.
Well said. When did everyone start thinking they can be a rapper? When did this happen?
I don’t know! I know it’s irritating. So many SoundCloud links. [Laughs] So many SoundCloud links, I’m sick of it. They need to hang it up. Now it’s a trend to be a rapper. That’s why we have music that doesn’t live. We have great songs, but they don’t live. I feel like TDE, we don’t have no artists that are here to play. That’s why it’s like my dream label, because everybody here has lived. Their music has tested the time. Isaiah’s still here after he took a hiatus. Nobody has been able to do that. When Soulja Boy says he had the biggest comeback? Isaiah just dropped and he’s going crazy. You do stuff like that and disappear and go on hiatus, people get over you. They’re like we’re done with you. But thank God we have loyal fans — and his music is timeless. Some people make music cause it’s a trend versus the people who really put our lives into it.
Definitely. It’s something that people shouldn’t take for granted too — the idea that an artist can take so many years off. If they don’t have a reputation for delivering quality, then their comeback won’t be as successful. You’re gonna see it now with Kendrick. He took five years off and he’s gonna come back like he never left.
And turn every head. It doesn’t matter who’s dropping, it’s gonna turn every head. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’m setting up to be. Studying Drake, he’s in your face always — but not on his music. He drops his music, get out the way, and kind of just floats through the industry so you don’t get sick of him. We set it up and that way you live forever, you’re not over saturating yourself with hundreds of songs every year.
TDE has that mix of music that people can vibe to, but there’s that intellectual touch as well. A lot of those albums will have some heavy concepts.
We smarter than a lot of these n**gas. I’m just confident in us. I’m confident in the way we move and the music that we make. That’s why I came here, and they taught me so much about me. Being over there taught me a lot of patience that I did not have. Taught me how to trust a label from bein an independent artist for so long. Having faith that you’re gonna be where you need to be in God’s timing. So I feel like the music that they’re going to receive from me is going to shock them very much. That’s what I plan to do.
You obviously have a loyal fan base that has been with you since you started. Do you find it’s a challenge to introduce yourself to a whole new group of people while still giving your loyal fans some new perspectives?
I was in boot camp. I was in TDE boot camp for the year, so I didn’t drop any music, which can hurt you. So for the people who still stayed around, those are the people who I cater to most. Because those are the ones who understand. Even though I’m dropping for a new audience, only thing about my music that has changed is it’s gotten better. It’s not like I was just doing one thing and then wasn’t doing the other lanes. For the old fans, I feel like they’ll evolve with me — the ones that stayed.
The ones that fell off when I didn’t drop music, they weren’t here for that, it wasn’t for them to stay. But the ones who did stay, most of them just converted and evolved with me and they’re happy. I see them in the comments. Like yo, I watched this kid from the car freestyles. That makes me happy to see cuz I’m like damn, they really rocking with me and they’re still here, you know? For the ones that are loyal, I’ll give them a little present here and there, dropping freestyles, the types of records like I did on Leakers.
It all comes back to freestyles in the end. It started with the car freestyles. People got to know you with the LA Leakers freestyle. I feel like you gotta have a freestyle on this next album.
I’m telling you, it’s gonna be pressure. That’s all I can say, it’s gonna be pressure. And I’m definitely going to make sure that I give back to those people who are loyal to me while I was going through this period. They didn’t know what was going on, all they know was I’m just off the Internet, so they’re in for a treat. And for the new fans, they’re gonna be in for a treat.