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RATHER BE FISHING :: How Zacari Went From Alaskan Bear Guide to Rising Music Star

RATHER BE FISHING :: How Zacari Went From Alaskan Bear Guide to Rising Music Star

By Ben Shenassafar

If Zacari never learned to play the saxophone, we may have never heard him sing. In fact, he may still be guiding fly fishing tours in Alaska. But shout out to Moosa and TDE, who heard the talented young artist play sax in a studio session and let him hang around, eventually learning he could really sing. Like really sing. 

When I first heard his debut single “Don’t Trip,” I was immediately swooned by the smooth, sultry vibes — energy I treasure in this generation of ignorance and clout-chasing. In addition, Zacari’s lyrics were so authentic and relatable. We all trip over stupid shit in life, this record serves as a reminder to keep moving on.

A few months later, I ran into Zacari at Jay Rock’s birthday party in downtown Los Angeles, with his girlfriend by his side. I asked if she was what inspired his music, and he responded yes with a smile. By then, his debut EP Run Wild Run Free had been out for two weeks — but anyone who’s a fan of TDE knows this is just a teaser for the real full-length project to come.

Zacari could give a fuck less about fame, money, and attention. In fact, he’s only focused on his two main passions: music and nature. As we sat inside the conference room at The Hundreds office in Vernon, a captivating snapshot of a bear catching a fish popped up on the TV screen. He commented with excitement, “I used to work there!”

I asked how he knew the location based solely on the bear photo, as it was just a slideshow of nature photography. He explained how there is only one lodge where people are able to snap such beautiful photos of bears catching fish like that. They installed a special platform under the river to give people a better view of the hunt. In fact, Zacari was even featured in The New York Times as a fishing guide at Katmai National Park in Alaska. He explained how the platform resides right by the waterfall, commenting “I want to go back this summer one more time.” 

I chatted with Zacari about his journey from saxophone player to singer, signing with TDE, and his undeniable love for nature.

SHIRLEY JU: What was growing up in Bakersfield like?
ZACARI: It was awesome, I’m really thankful for growing up there actually. It’s not a super huge city, but it’s not small, either. Still, a lot to do out there. It gets a bad rep, but Bakersfield’s really cool. 

What’s the bad rep it gets?
People think it’s a small desert shit town because a lot of times when people pass Bakersfield on the freeway, they think that’s what it is.

What the music like out there?
There’s a really big hardcore scene in Bakersfield. I remember I used to be into that freshman year. I went back home and went drinking downtown not too long ago, they had Emo Night at this one venue called Jerry’s Pizza. They’ve been doing that for years and it’s still popping. There’s a lot of rappers starting to come out of Bakersfield, too. Being from there, people send me stuff. I never saw that before but it’s getting bigger. 

Moosa played a big part in your journey with TDE. Bring us back to the days of playing saxophone for Zay.
I was actually with J-Louis because he was working with Bryson Tiller. Bryson had this big studio house. I remember he left town and left me and Jay there. Tunji set it up to where Zay was coming to record there, so I met Isaiah randomly, just being at the studio. I was playing saxophone with J so Zay started asking me to play. When Isaiah would come over to that studio, Moosa would be with him. Moosa originally just took my phone number as a saxophone player. 

I did read that. Talk about working with Soul, too.
Me and Soul spent a lot of time together. At one point, I was staying in this apartment with this guy Craig. He let us live there, it was like an artist house. We had a studio in the basement, Soul stayed there a lot on and off. Me and Soul were locked in the basement for a long time, we made a lot of music man. His mind is crazy. I learned a lot from him, he’s very intelligent.

I honestly feel Zay’s talents get overlooked on the label. What’s your perspective as an insider?
Isaiah is one of my favorites off the label, I’ll be completely honest. His albums are so fucking good. You can go back to any of his music and press play on it. His writing, his flows, the way he sings  — it stands out a lot. It’s like nostalgic music. His writing is really dope, I like how personal he gets.

What’s the dynamic in the studio playing sax with him?
It was cool because he was one of the first people I met from TDE. It was dope hearing his music that’s not out yet, being able to work with him on it and watching his process. You’d watch him fall asleep on the couch, wake up, then literally just start writing immediately. We bounced a lot of ideas back and forth. 

Were you able to give your advice on things too?
I wasn’t that outspoken then. I needed more experience to get to that point.

At that point did you see yourself signing to TDE?
No, not at all. I’d barely known about TDE. Zay and Moosa were the first people I met from there. Me and Moosa worked a lot before I even got brought around the other TDE people. Being with Moosa always come with it, you’re around everybody all the time. I had no idea at that point. When I met Zay and was playing saxophone, I had no idea.

At what point did you hear yourself and say “I want to be an artist too?”
I always wanted to be an artist. Me playing the saxophone that day was just because I was doing it. We were still singing too, still doing all the same shit. When Moosa took my phone number thinking I just played the sax, I had tracks out on SoundCloud already with J-Louis, Soulection, etc. I eventually got him to play my actual songs and that’s when I asked him to manage me. [Laughs] 

That’s bold!
Because I knew that’s what I came out here to do. I had the music, just needed a manager. I believe everything happens for a reason. The fact that I met him randomly at that house was confirmation for me. I met so many people at that house. I met Teddy [Walton] at that house, everybody.

What was it like seeing his career blow?
He’s going crazy! He doesn’t stop, man. His sound’s just so unique and fresh. He’ll never lose with that. Most of my whole album — all the music I make is with Me, Teddy, J, and Aaron Bow. My last EP, J-Louis and Teddy Walton are all over that. We start most of our stuff from scratch. We’re all friends, too. We hang out, it makes it way easier. It’s never any pressure or anything.

You mention you wanted to create a new sound. Do you feel like the Run Wild Run Free EP succeeded in that mission?
Yeah, definitely. Even the “LOVE” track coming out was an introduction to that sound of the EP. It’s just a lot of different elements mixed together; the folk, blues, hip-hop, the South from Teddy Walton. Those hard-hitting drums and bass, then J-Louis with the soulful keys. It’s me blending all those different sounds I grew up with.

Do you feel pressure to top “LOVE.”?
I never felt that pressure of topping “LOVE” to be honest. Just keep it going and stayed focused.

What does it mean to you to be a part of DAMN.?
That’s history right there. I’m literally gonna go down in history for being on that album. The first song that really came out for me, that wasn’t a free SoundCloud song. I had that song out — it’s a Grammy-nominated album, breaking records, fucking going Platinum — and I don’t even have a project out.  That’s literally the first real song that really came out after “Wats Wrong” with Zay.

What’s your relationship with Kendrick?
Man, it’s good. Kendrick is dope because he always gets back to me on things. Even the process of making my music, anything I make I can send to him and be like “yo what do you think about this?” He’ll be like “Nah this isn’t it.” Or “yeah this is it, keep going with this sound.” We bounce ideas back and forth. He’s always giving me advice on everything.

What advice has he given you?
The main advice Kendrick’s given me is definitely on patience. When “LOVE.” came out, I wasn’t so much worried about topping it, I was just getting impatient. “I wanna drop, I wanna release.” I’d talk to him about that. He always told me to stay patient and keep hustling like you’re broke. That’s our whole thing: hustle like you’re broke. He’d tell me how he’d do the same thing with his projects, how he sat on stuff. It’s about trusting the team and the process.

I chatted with Reason and he said for every artist, you guys have to sit down with Top and go through the project. Did you have to do that?
Yeah, I played Top the project a few times. It was dope, I always love playing my music for people. It was cool doing it for Top because I had these original songs for so long for the EP, but I also had super new stuff too. He’s the one who at the end of the day decided “let’s stick with these first originals ones and let it build up.” Because a lot of those songs are one or two years old. This was me introducing myself and this sound I’m working on.

TDE likes to intro the world to their new artists with an EP before the album. What are you working on next?
I’m working on my first official debut album. I can tell you the energy from the EP to this album is turnt up a lot. It’s really epic sounding, along with the soft R&B writing. We’re blending a lot of 80s-type sounds, like the keys and synths with big anthem hooks. 

Is there a name at all yet?
I don’t have a name yet. I’ve been working with some people. I’ve worked with Ty Dolla $ign, we have a really good song. Recently, I worked with Cordae. We made a really good song, he’s dope as fuck.

How’d you two link?
I met him at a Grammy party, actually. He was working with Jay Rock, so Jay Rock would talk to me about him. I got Cordae’s number at the party. He hit me up recently and we linked up.

I know Cordae has his album coming. Are you gonna make an appearance on there?
I hope so. I want to. You never know with anything with music. I’m not making things and pressing people, I’m just making music. But we made a really good song.

Cordae can spit. What’s it like working with rappers who actually can rap?
I love it. It’s a difference between just making songs and being an artist. With rap, it’s a real art to write verses and have the flows. It’s something you can’t do real quick. You have to really work on the craft. Any rapper who comes like that is definitely respected.

How does TDE groom artists?
Man, they put them in the studio. They always had studio time for me, that’s the main thing. If I have a studio, I’ll be there. I was in there every day for years. It was when Interscope had No Excuses Studios across the street, we had artists in every room. We’d be able to bounce ideas. I’d be able to sit in Q’s shit, try some shit if he needed my help. Kendrick’s over here working on DAMN. and Black Panther, so I could go help him. We could all bounce ideas and play each other shit. That’s definitely a big part of the process, being put in that studio with everybody else. Seeing how they work, then working on that.

What was it like being a part of the squad during Black Panther and all that hype?
That shit was wild. They got us all plaques for it, too. Gave it to us backstage at the Forum on Championship Tour. That’s the only plaque I have. 

Is it hanging in your apartment in K-Town?
Yeah, it definitely is. [Smiles] It’s beautiful.

Pitchfork went in on your last EP. What are your immediate thoughts on the criticism?

Oh, they gave me a bad rating huh? It’s not really about one blogger’s review to me. [Chuckles] I see kids DMing me about how this EP has helped them. You see people proposing to my music. That’s something a blogger review could never take from me. That’s what sucks about these blog websites. Pitchfork has always shown love but all it takes is for one blogger who doesn’t like it for it to be put out all over the website. I try not to pay attention to that, I focus on the positive at all times. I’m not making this music for that person, and that’s fine.

What are some of the obstacles you face today when it comes to growing your own artistry?
One of the things I’m struggling with most is all the other stuff aside from music. Social media, the clout, all that shit works for a lot of people right now. I’m working on mostly trying to increase my presence with social media. Trying to show people more of me personally.

What does that entail, posting more?
Posting more, interacting more with fans. Trying to find new ways to interact with them, show them who I am aside from just being the artist. But doing it genuinely in a way that’s not fake, that’s the hard part for me. 

What does being outside in nature do for you?
I feel like a whole new person. LA feels like a cave sometimes, I always need to get out and refresh. If I’m staying in LA in my apartment or in the studio for too long, I start to get angry or edgy. I have to go out every now and then. This weekend, I’m going up to Zion National Park. Nature’s a reset for me.

Bring us back to Alaska and seeing all the beauty.
It gets me excited because I’m going back. This place is literally the most magical place in the whole world. There’s bears everywhere and they don’t give a fuck about you. You’re fishing with bears. There’s a bear across the water, a bear down there. You’re so secluded and away from everything. It’s not in a town, it’s just a lodge. You take a float plane, you land on the water, and you’re at the lodge. That’s all there is. It’s really exclusive, booked years in advance. I still have some friends who work there, but they’re going to quit after this year. I did summer season, I’d go for the summer and come home. Did that 3 times.

Work-wise, what were you doing there?
I dishwashed for the first summer. I washed dishes and cooked the second summer. Then the third year, I was a bear viewing and fly fishing guide.

Did they have to train you and all that?
Yeah. The boss I worked for dishwashing and cooking, I’m like “yo I’m trying to guide.” He’s like “alright just go to this school.” You don’t have to, but he’s like “I want you to go do this.” It’s a week-long guide school in Montana. Then I had to get my Coast Guard license.

Well, that was fun for you right?
I loved it! Some of the best memories for sure. I got that done, came back. That was the sickest job. If it weren’t for music, I’d probably still be out there. Literally, your job is to take people fishing or looking at bears. [Chuckles] That shit was fun as fuck. 

What are you doing during your nature escapades?
Usually, whenever I go somewhere new, it starts with fly fishing.

You have to get up early for that right?
You can, it’s better. Or late evening. Any time of the day for fishing is good. There’s a difference between fly fishing and regular fishing. A lot of people don’t like fishing because you just sit there. But fly fishing, you get out there. You put on waders, you’re in the water. You’re walking up and down the river. Whenever I get somewhere new, it’s always a good place to start to go out there and see shit.

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