Just less than three years ago I received an email from a young Boston rapper going by the name of Ed Balloon. It contained a link to his Yellow 20-Somethings EP, for which the promo treadmill was still spinning, but it was the content of the email itself that caught my attention first. Far from the usual “hey, check out my EP” malarkey, it came over as a kind of cry for help. Something about it made me reach out to the artist, as much to check in as to congratulate him on what transpired to be a powerful piece of slinkily sarcastic and defiant modern R&B, and we had a conversation about the state of America in the wake of Donald Trump’s election that ended up published by Decoder Magazine (you’d be able to read it if Decoder still existed). Back then, Balloon – real name Edmund Oribhabor – was in a state of despair at the country he’d woken up in. He sounded lost and genuinely confused, unsure as to whether he could carry on creating and wondering how the music he’d already released could remain relevant in a world in which his voice had seemingly been taken from him overnight. His self-professed ability to “float over B.S.” was under serious threat. Ed Balloon was losing air.
Until now, that is. Following the release of The Dubs in July, through LA’s Deathbomb Arc, Balloon is ascending rapidly again – the album has been heralded across the board and it finds the artist sounding freer and more sure of himself than ever before. Happily, when I emailed to suggest we catch up, I found an artist now fully prepared to use his position to reactivate the people who need him most, and, as he will later tell me, “fuck whoever is in power.”
U_: The first time I spoke to you I believe was the day after Donald Trump’s election. At the time, you told me you were feeling pretty hopeless and there was real despair in the initial email you sent about Yellow 20-Somethings. It’s taken you a while to follow it up, but The Dubs is out now and it’s great. What was the process of creating the album like – as difficult as you expected being creative under Trump might be?
Ed Balloon: It wasn’t difficult making the album [but] I unfortunately had to numb myself to Trump being president. I am still numb and hopefully I can “un-numb” myself down the road. The process was hard though; it was difficult, but very fulfilling by the end. We wrote a good 23 songs before cutting the album down to 14 tracks, and ultimately 12. It’s really the longest we’ve ever spent on a body of work. And it was just a different writing experience. My producers, Dave Chapman and Sam Creager, ended up coming fully on board at the start of this project making Ed Balloon a whole band versus just me as a solo artist.
So on the subject of the band, is that something you’re all planning on taking forward? It seems really lucky to have you guys all on the same page and working so well together.
We originally met at Ugly Duck Recording Studios in Boston, which Dave and Sam own, and we started making music together shortly afterwards. The track “Lost Boys” is about us as a band and dealing with not always being accepted by people – it’s not so much that we are lost, but everyone else. In the world of today it seems like everyone is always saying ”we’re the real ones”, but when it actually comes to it, people back down. We will continue to be a band – we’ve made a whole album together now!
You also told me last time that you thought black music would rise up against Trump’s reign. Is that something you feel has been happening and do you feel a part of it?
Definitely. I definitely feel like ever since Trump has been president there has been a surge of artists, particularly of colour, who have purposely been putting music out there to encourage other people of colour to love themselves and recognise their own self-worth. I feel like we try to be a part of that conversation. In numbing myself to Trump’s presidency I am making sure that we are putting out music that helps people in marginalised communities feel like they have voices. It doesn’t have to be a voice directly speaking out against people like Trump, but it is this voice that says “fuck whoever is in power.” Know your own self-worth and that you are somebody.
“Trap Karaoke” and “Bounce Back” both dealt with racism and police brutality against minorities – they really seemed pertinent in the political climate Yellow 20-Somethings was born into. I don’t find The Dubs to be quite as focused on those kinds of issues, is that fair to say?
Yeah. It’s fair to say, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not talking about the struggles of someone of colour. The music is still heavily focused on the black experience. We all go through struggles [and] we shouldn’t allow these struggles to stop us from achieving that one thing that we consider to be success. That goal. I want to say happiness, but I think that’s something that we are always trying to attain. “The Dubs” is a slang term that means “that’s a loss.” In writing the album I wanted to focus on the many losses that you may take in life and how you take those losses and turn them into little wins; how you continue to navigate through life. “Hero” [for example] deals with the fact that the world is continuously trying to sell perfection. The expectation that we can attain perfection is honestly a lie – you really can’t ever achieve perfection, but we still have this tendency of believing that it is possible to attain. That is a loss that we often fail to notice, because we don’t want to be truthful with ourselves.
Weirdly, only yesterday the UK had a new buffoon of a Prime Minister forced upon it. It seems like we only ever talk during political turmoil! You may or may not have heard of Boris Johnson – Trump has compared him to himself, which isn’t too far off. Like Trump he has a history of racism, anti-immigration viewpoints, outright lies, hypocrisy and shameless self-promotion. Having suffered 3+ years of Trump as a young black artist, what’s your advice to people here as we plunge into our own nightmare?
I don’t know much about Boris Johnson but if he is like Donald Trump, that is a problem. This is the time where people in marginalised communities need to come together and show love to each other. It sounds like a cliché [but] we need to promote self-love. We need to try to break these barriers. I’m all about peaceful protests, but I’m also someone who doesn’t think protests are enough. I think it’s about education; it’s about getting yourself in through the door. People with money are able to get in the door, get a seat at the table and make decisions. That’s very difficult for people in marginalised communities, but you have to do it. You have to get through and get jobs that enable you to make a difference and realise the changes that you want to see.“[T]hat’s a win, knowing and acknowledging that you have people that are willing to help you be your best self, because life isn’t smooth sailing.” – Ed Balloon
In the years since we last spoke, how have you personally and artistically changed? Back then it seemed like there was a fair amount of soul-searching going on, with lonely walks with headphones on. Talking with you now, I immediately sense a lot more self-confidence.
I still like my walks. I think confidence comes with growth, but I don’t think I’m fully there. I still have the same views I had with Yellow 20-Somethings, but when it comes to talking about it I’m just not going out of my way to say “hey it’s crazy all of this is happening.” I’m numb to all that now; it’s not that I’m not still dealing with the problems that I was trying to bring light to. Artistically I have grown, and [as a band] we are always searching for ways to challenge ourselves musically. We’re always working to create something that we haven’t heard before.
Please can you tell me a little bit about how all the collaborations on the album came about and what it was like bringing it all together?
I think we really made sure we had artists that really cared and are consistently genuine about their art. We were careful that if we were going to present tracks to a potential feature that they would be able to add to the stories and concepts of the songs as themselves. We gave them very little direction on the verses aside from explaining the meanings and themes of the respective songs. Really all of them came through in a big way on the project.
Open Mike Eagle in particular is a real eye-catcher.
I like Open Mike because he is someone who’s really supportive of us and our music, but he also has this way of delivering his raps. On “Missed Call” his verse is almost spoken word. He’s very calm and composed. He lures you in, but still holds an aggressive edge at the same time. This all collectively makes him truly a captivating artist. He’s got this thing in the tone of his voice that just catches you.
“M’aider” ends the album on quite a poignant note.
“M’aider” is an apology to my father. Before I went into the studio that day, he actually got upset because I don’t ever incorporate him into the music that we do. I honestly thought that he didn’t care so much [so] it shows that there can be a disconnect that wasn’t really there. I love my father, but based on past experiences I sometimes assume people don’t care about certain things. But he actually did care, so I wrote this song really to him and my friends saying that you always do need that support – especially when shit hits the fan. The song talks about flying, which is to symbolise that life is good. “M’aider” is a call for help when shit starts to get tough and when that happens you have to find support to get back. You can’t always do that by yourself; you need friends, you need people. Sometimes we come off to these friends as if they’re not as important as they really are, so this song is an apology to everyone in my life that may have felt that and to show them that they really are that important. That’s how we tie back into the “Dubs”, because that’s a win, knowing and acknowledging that you have people that are willing to help you be your best self, because life isn’t smooth sailing. “M’aider” showcases that, yes you have had struggles, but you have the support system and the strength to get back up off the floor.