Polo Perks, on his own

Art by Tyler Farmer. Photos of Polo Perks by Vanessa Ramirez.

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The Billionaire Boys Club / ICECREAM flagship in Miami is typically a discreet fixture on the corner of Third Avenue and 26th Street, made known by the iconic astronaut head logo emblazoned above the double-door entrance. On any other day, you could walk right into Pharrell and Nigo’s classic streetwear spot at your leisure and sift through racks of denim and outerwear, no problem.

This was not any other day.

It was December 1, 2022, the first night of Art Basel, and a line of people snaked out of BBC Ice Cream’s store entrance and meandered for blocks: socialites in their 20s, middle-aged Pharrell superfans, and the occasional celebrity with enough influence to brush past security at the front. They were here for a free-flowing, free-to-enter art gala, hosted by contemporary painter Todd James and Billionaire Boys Club.

One of the people in attendance was Harlem rapper Polo Perks. When I ran into him inside the store, it felt like a moment I should’ve expected. Pulling up to this event was so obviously on-brand for the 28-year-old who keeps an eye to the past.

At the beginning of 2022, a friend posted a link to Polo Perks’ “MAPS + YEAH YEAH YEAH,” a track marked by heavy drill percussion over a chipmunked sample of “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, one of my favorite rock songs ever. The first listen threw me for a fucking loop, bringing worlds together that I’d always considered to be mutually exclusive. I spent the next few months binging his Punk Goes Drill project and I.C.F.M. mixtape series, unearthing one gem after the other, falling in love with the juxtaposition between effervescent synth melodies and cyclopean vocal cadences (see “Don’t Go In There”).

Polo Perks treats his catalog like a sonic lookbook for the pop culture zeitgeist of the 2000s, sprinkling references to Bape and Ice Cream in his lyrics and making a habit of sampling shit he probably shouldn’t be getting away with sampling. As a former member of the New York-based syndicate Surf Gang, Polo has sculpted a cutting-edge sound alongside the architects of the self-described “post-apocalyptic” rap scene, whose beats, ironically, feel lucid and utopian.

These architects, Evilgiane, Goner, Tommytohotty, Harrison and Eera, have turned post-punk revival and synth pop samples into rapturous soundscapes catered to Polo’s husky, adlib-heavy delivery. His 2021 track “Snowpatrol,” produced by Goner, samples the heart of a soft rock ballad I used to hear in the backseat of my mom’s car as a child. Through lyrics referencing Mortal Kombat and Baby Milo over pitched-up chops from “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, Polo Perks finds a home in syrupy nostalgia.

Dressed in a bright yellow BBC Ice Cream Running Dogs zip-up, a white t-shirt with a silver bedazzled Ice Cream logo, and green knee-length shorts, Polo Perks towered over nearly everybody in the BBC Ice Cream store. The warmth he emanated once we met almost caught me off guard, and within minutes, he invited me to his Airbnb so we could conduct an interview the next morning.

That morning, my girlfriend and I drove 45 minutes to Miami Beach’s Treasure Island, arriving at a one-story flat tucked behind some greenery that lined the streets of an affluent neighborhood. Inside the bedroom of the Bnb, Polo was chopping it up on FaceTime with Surf, a longtime friend of his. The yellow zip-up from the night before was spread out neatly on his bed. “You know I don’t talk to labels bro!” he bellowed, alluding to an encounter with a rep who was wasting his time. 

Polo’s energy was infectious and welcoming. He introduced us to a few friends hanging in the living room before we stepped outside to a spacious patio space with fresh grass and lawn chairs shaded under palm trees. As we got acclimated, he broke down some weed with his fingers before slowly rolling it into a joint with grabba sprinkled in.

We spent a little less than two hours in the backyard speaking at length about his youth, the making of Punk Goes Drill, his latest tape There’s More to Life than This Pt. 2 and his decision to part ways with Surf Gang.

Photo by Vanessa Ramirez.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Olivier Lafontant: What was your upbringing like? I know you moved to Connecticut for a little bit? 

Polo Perks: Pops was on the run so we moved to CT really quick. In between that time, that’s when I got put on to everything else out of my culture, out my demographic, so like rock music, skateboarding, scootering, Ripsticks, allat. Fuckin’ Vans Warped Tour, a lot of shit I didn’t even know about beforehand. Also, on top of that, it’s where I started picking up on––I wanna say skateboarding, but I wouldn’t really classify Ice Cream and Bape and all that shit [as] skateboarding––I’ll just say like, “urban.” I hate using that word though, that shit’s fuckin annoying.

Obviously you had a love for music when you were young, but at what point did you start to think you should start making it yourself?

It was multiple different phases ‘cause in 2009 I remember hearing Z100 and I was like, Damn, I actually kinda wanna be on the radio. It wasn’t so aggressive like Hot 97 and everything. Z100 would play all the poppin’ pop shit and alternative shit, everything else in between outside of hip-hop and R&B type shit. 

And then in early 2011, late 2010 I had got up with my homie that we all had grew up with in the hood, and we had got up at the movie theater where we used to all kick it as kids. He was telling one of my friends, “Man I’m really getting nice with this rapping shit.” I was just overhearing it, I was also the youngest out of everybody in my friend group, and two days later he had dropped this freestyle to “Niggas in Paris” on Facebook. Me being an annoying ass kid, I was like, “Nigga your shit trash, I’m better than you,” (no songs, no videos, no nothing) and then I posted my freestyle. He was like “Damn, you actually are spitting, you’re better than niggas I be with.” Once we became cool, [we’d] skip school every day. Sophomore year, junior year, senior year, skipped school every day and we would just record, record, record, record in his crib.  

From 2012 to 2014, I was fighting this case, going in and out of jail back and forth, came home, got my GED and everything like that. In 2014, I signed up for college. I was slowly steering away from music, but I was going to college for music at Dutchess Community College. Went up there, shit was cool, kicked it, did my evaluation testing, everything like that. Semester starts, I’m there for like ten days and I dipped.  

It’s just not for you?

You know what killed me the most? It was this kid that was acting like that, that I had to room with, and he wanted his mom to come up there, he was just not feeling the vibes and shit. He was tweakin’. I couldn’t even call my parents. I literally had to travel with all of my shit from the train stop, took a 40-minute walk with bags in a shopping cart to get to college. I said “Nigga, nobody in this building is going to be where I want to be, so I’m the fuck outta here.”

Dominique Evans [Olivier’s girlfriend]: Would you say you’re fully in control of your creative process beyond music?

One hundred percent. This year, as far as my rollout [of] More to Life Than This Pt. 2, I was more involved cause I wanted to see how you work through things. Really sitting down and seeing how the fuck like, Ight have your shit done by this day, have artwork and shit done by this day, get it handed in on all platforms and everything like that. Really, that’s why you need so much time. I never give people time. More to Life Than This Pt. 2 got turned in the Monday before it got released. I didn’t have the artwork done probably til Thursday right before the album dropped. 

On More to Life Than This Pt. 2, it really feels like you make it a point to get out of your comfort zone. “Carousel” has a lil R&B intro and I wasn’t expecting that.

Ellei is a singer from New York City that I just been onto for a minute. She had dropped a song named “Sometimes” and I thought it was fire. She has a huge background of jazz singing, so that’s why she’s so nice with her voice. Met up with her and I heard “Carousel” and I was like, “I fuck with this!”

So it was her song originally?

It still is her song originally. I was like, “What you bout to do with this? Lemme get on it!” I showed my manager, he was like, “What the fuck, this shit is crazy!” Every time I promote the tape, I promote that song the most ‘cause she dead deserves it, she shitted crazy.

“Htmlrulezdude” stood out with the sample from Shrimp’s “This Body Means Nothing to Me,” that was something I was bumping in quarantine.

I kid you not, I probably heard that song two or three times before we sampled it. I really moved to Atlanta to work with Hanzo. We was in my crib and we was making a lot of rap, rap, rap, but I wanted to do some me shit. He was like, “We could sample some shit. You fuck with Shrimp?” He played it and was like, “Yeah that’s my homie, he from Atlanta, I feel like he’ll fuck with it.” I kinda didn’t know how it’d be reciprocated. Did the song, showed my manager, he was like “Eh, I fuck with ‘Readysetgo’ more.” I was like, “Nah, this song is really it.”

It’s good to know that yourself.

We were going through singles for the album, and right before we was bout to decide everything, [my manager] was like, “Let’s try to do the Shrimp song.” I said “Punk Goes Drill dropped almost two years ago bro, and I haven’t dropped anything in that same realm. This is what everybody wants, so lemme give everybody what they want.” Dropped the snippet, good response, everybody fucked with it. I was happy that people were into [Shrimp’s] music too. Once I started going through his catalog, I said, “Our music make our fans feel the same way.” We bout to get the video shot and I want him to be fully involved with the creative process, too.

As part of Surf Gang were you part of a publishing deal? You were just talking about how you don’t talk to labels.

Yeah, I don’t talk to labels. Surf Gang just got their own distro deal through Orchard, which is amazing. Orchard distributes everybody’s shit, but it’s just not for me. And it sucks because I really didn’t wanna do anything with a distro or anything like that, and whatever price they put on your deal is the price that you set for yourself. That’s kinda what started making me feel like I wanna separate myself. They know me, but they wanna grow in their own way and I ain’t gon’ hold that up. I’ll contribute ‘cause I been doing it. But I wish them the best.

What was that reaction like when you first brought up that you wanted to distance yourself and be independent?

Everybody got they own choices, man. And honestly at the end of the day, it’s gonna be reciprocated as growth, or it’s gonna be reciprocated as “He thinks he’s too good for the group,” or it’s gonna be reciprocated as “He is too good for the group.” I don’t care.

With Punk Goes Drill, the samples were what caught my attention. My homie posted “MAPS + YEAH YEAH YEAH” on his story and I knew the original song. Hearing 808s and hi-hats over the guitars on songs like that and “Mr. Brightside” really changed the way I listened to music.

That whole process was all a joke. The project came about because me and Tommytohotty was always chillin’ together, and Tommy is the alternative punk kid in the group. Constantly singing rock music and everything. It started off with Tommy singing something, humming, and I’d be like “Oh I know that shit!” And then we’ll be in conversation and I’ll say something that’s close to a rock lyric and he’ll just sing the whole song! We was at his crib, and he was like, “Imagine a whole entire alternative, drill [project].” I was like, “That would be hard, it just depends on how it’s done. And it would take somebody who really knows this shit. Really knows this shit.” Two, three days later, I was in Connecticut and Giane sent me a beat by him and Tommy. It was “Who Killed Kenny.” I was like, “Oh shit, this is crazy hard. Yeah I gotta get back to New York.”

At the time, I ain’t have a studio, but I was recording with this kid Nick [Goner] for a little bit. When I came to him to record, the first question I asked him was, “What kinda music you listen to?” And of course I’m a rapper, so he’s like, “Yeah I like this rapper, I like this rapper.” I was like, “That’s cool, but what do you listen to? You fuck with rock? Like you fuck with bands and shit?” He was like, “Yeah.”

What bands?

My favorite bands is like Fall Out Boy, Nirvana, shit like that, but we also had other [ones in common] like Alex G and shit. The next week, he had graduated and he was like, “Yo, I just got this studio in Downtown Manhattan, it’s right next to BBC Ice Cream, come through.” I pushed up, and within like deadass thirty minutes bro, I’ll never forget this shit, my phone just blings. It’s fuckin’ unemployment: “You got $12,000 sitting on your bank account.” I said, “What?!” Went to the bank, took out $400, came back, gave it to Goner, bought mad weed, and sat in that studio for so long, bro. Dead serious. Recorded “Who Killed Kenny” and “SomethingThatMatters.”

After those two songs, I get a fuckin’ join my [Instagram] live request from Tommy. He’s just sitting there on his computer, he’s like. “I’m goin’ to hell.” Clicks it, and it’s “Not Another Teen Movie.”

Bro, that’s my favorite one!

I’m like, “OHHHHH nigga what!” The whole live just start going dumb! From that point on I was like, “Nah, I gotta do this whole tape!” We had a sit-down session at Giane crib. It was me, Tommy, and Giane. Straight alternative. Boom, “Everlong” gets made right there. Then I had [Giane] sample “Manhattan” by Cat Power which turned into “Manhattan Transfer” by Moh Baretta. It was like 20 beats that got made that day.

It was off the top of your head like, “Oh can you do this? Can you do this?”

Yeah! That same day we had did this one Ginuwine song and then I was like, “Yo bro sample this Destiny’s Child song.” That’s the Rocky [and Playboi Carti] shit [“Our Destiny”].

Ohhhhhh shit!

I don’t never wanna be known as a drill artist, but a lot of shit that did get noticed was drill shit. And it was just because we was in a room able to sit down like, “You know this song? Ight do this. You know this song? Ight do this.” Me, Giane, Tommy just sitting in the room. We did that shit for like five hours. And then “Maps” came. I just searched “Maps” and I was like, “I remember this song. It’s either her or we gon’ have to go with Paramore.” And we sampled “Maps,” and I was like, “This shit is too crazy.” “Snowpatrol” was the last song we did on that project.

I was a big Cash Carti fan, and I’m still a big Carti fan now, but just having that plugg-type presence over an alternative rock song my mom could listen to is a crazy crossover.

I got a funny story, it’s actually crazy as hell. The week before he dropped “Broke Boi” I had this show at Webster Hall in New York City with Aston Matthews, Maxo Kream, A$AP Nast. And in the crowd was Carti. That shit kinda threw me off a lil bit. 

You knew him at the time?

No, no. When “Broke Boi” dropped, it was this picture of him and Maxo Kream they kept using cause “Fetti” was bout to slide. I was like, “Nigga, that’s the fuckin’ kid from the show? Like what the fuck bro, no way!” I’m just watching the views go up like, “This is wild, bruh.”

Small world, bro. SoundCloud’s a completely different animal than other streaming services.

Hell yeah. It does not keep you motivated at all.

In what sense, though?

In the sense of being an artist.

So you feel like you would’ve grown earlier if you went to other streaming services?

Hell yeah. ‘Cause I’m so competitive. What keeps me going right now is that I’m on the platform with the biggest artists. Like I have an equal opportunity to be as big as them. 

You gotta get compensated, especially if you have the following that you have.

It’s not even really about the compensation, bro, it’s really about the competition. That’s what it really is, it’s really about the competition. I’m on the same platform as Beyonce and Jay-Z and all these other people, and I have the opportunity to actually gain their fanbase. ‘Cause we’re all on the same platform. And one day, maybe ten years from now, my song’ll get played after them niggas. 

Is it a big goal for you to be one of the best rappers, one of the biggest rappers alive?

I wanna be the realest rapper. Of course be successful, but I wanna be the realest rapper. You come from somewhere where you got the odds against you, there’s a lot of bad shit going on in your life. Music’s the only thing I never did anything bad with. 

What do you envision coming up next at this point in your career?

Right now, at this point in my life, I have everything I ever wanted in my life. Everything single thing I ever wanted in my fucking life. So right now, I am so uncomfortable. I’m going manic now, going crazy. I’m so tired of looking at the shit I have now. It’s a refresh point now. I was literally just living in a room last year in the project apartment. Roaches, no fucking door on my fucking hinges. And I have two houses now. I have an apartment in downtown Atlanta and I have a house in the countryside of Atlanta.

1 thought on “Polo Perks, on his own”

  1. I love how absolutely ecstatic and filled with wonder Polo Perks seems in this interview, and it does a great job of exposing how joyous and experimental the process of making the Punk Goes Drill tape was.