Twelve’Len, like many of 2017’s most popular artists, stubbornly defies classification.
He’s got the look of a rapper: thick dreads, gaudy jewelry, a body wrapped in an intricate black weave of tattoos. But turn on his debut album, Fri(end)s, and you’ll hear something different: love songs crooned sweetly over everything from acoustic guitar to electric boogie funk.
The contrast is jarring, but there’s something magnetic about it, something that turns whatever discomfort his contradiction engenders into charm. After speaking to him, it seems like that’s kind of his point.
Twelve — who away from the stage goes by Lavares Joseph — grew up in the depressed Miami Gardens neighborhood of Carol City, infamous along with Overtown and Liberty City for its high rates of poverty and gang violence. This community, which has given rise in recent years to a slew of young rap and trap artists like Denzel Curry and Kodak Black, helped shape Joseph’s musical identity, both as an artist and, in his own words, as an “influencer.”
He began rapping at a young age, only to become disillusioned with the medium as Carol City’s underground scene overflowed with unpolished hopefuls. There was little attention paid to craft and too many artists with whom to compete, so Joseph resigned quietly to the immediacy of real life, to a job working security at Miami’s Sound and Engineering technical school. As he tells it, an anxious young producer approached him one day about making music, later upsetting Joseph’s low expectations at an impromptu recording session.
From then on, Twelve’Len has been a force in underground music, with a handful of EPs and his first full length LP finally boosting him from obscurity. I spoke with him over the phone recently, and our conversation revealed a duality as clear as that between his appearance and his music: a gentle confidence, at once evocative of a rapper’s bravado and a singer’s vulnerability. We spoke about his music, his inspiration, and where he sees his career heading next:
I appreciate you making the time. So I guess to start I’m curious: what is your process like? What comes first for you, the music or the lyrics?
When I’m creating, I’m focused on the production — melodies first. I wanna catch the vibes before I direct myself into some sort of substance and trap myself.
I know you started out a rapper while Raider Klan was gaining popularity — how did you transition your sound from that lo-fi trap scene to what you’ve got now? Did you always have that music in you or did it take a producer like Zach Fogarty to sorta put a beat in front of you for you to say, “hey, shit, this is me.”?
Nobody really put it in front of me. It was always there. I grew up in the church with my grandmother and she would put us all in purity class and Sunshine Band and kids choir and the like. I use a lot of those elements now and allow them to evolve my sound.
I know you’re pretty committed to making “feel good” music — that whole idea behind Star Dust as saying “I know it’s rough, but we can still dance, there’s still a silver lining to be found.” Do you feel a responsibility to your community to make that sort of music? Do you think of your music as providing a positive outlet that runs parallel to the angrier, more frustrated expression that rap gives voice to?
Yeah, some creators feel like it’s not their responsibility and some feel like it is. I feel like it is because we are the influencers — we didn’t choose to be influencers, we were chosen. You can practice a craft and get good at it, but to be gifted at it is a different thing. I feel like you are responsible in the sense of what you present, because you help determine what direction people go in. Everybody doesn’t have that same function; some people are here to work and be that muscle in the body — not everybody’s meant to be the brain. [As an artist,] you’re responsible for what happens to the people who decide to follow you.
Who were your inspirations in that regard? Or was it a lack of inspiration that told you there was a void you could fill?
Nah, I don’t think anyone really opened me up to put me in that position. Ever since I was younger I found myself making those decisions for my friends. I didn’t look at things as they were — I always questioned the things that people weren’t questioning, like why do we need to have this mentality, you know? Instead of just being down with this mentality and accepting it. And people looked at me weird because of that because I wasn’t finding myself falling 100% into the positions they were in. Like I was surrounded by a lot of — I guess you could call it gang violence. I found myself in a lot of really fucked up positions in shootouts with a lot of people or with juvenile delinquents. But I didn’t let myself fall victim 100% to it. I kind of played the game for fun, but then I realized I could be the one to change, so I just started doing that.
Did you have a rough time growing up? I know Carol City can be pretty rough. Did you particularly have it rough or were you just surrounded by it?
No I actually went through it. A lot of these rappers rap about this stuff but never went through it. I know, cause I was there. Everybody in Carol City can vouch for me. I’ve seen it; I’ve done it; I’ve been there. My whole body is covered in tattoos cause that is me.
That reminds me: I was first introduced to your music through the Stardust video, and listening to the album after that kind of caught me by surprise. Part of it is that idea of a guy with dreads and tattoos singing on top of acoustic guitars, but the other half of it was sort of a softness. Even a lot of great R&B singers, older cats like Bobby Brown and newer guys like Miguel, sing R&B from sort of an overconfident space. Your music is more vulnerable than that — lyrically and sonically. Is that intentional, or is that just who you are and what comes through when you’re being honest?
100%. That’s really all it is. I was inspired musically by Al Green, Frankie Beverly, a lot of that feel good music. As a person, I was really inspired by Goodie Mob because he came from the hood and managed to do something different with it. Now my sound is 20 trillion times different from that, but it’s the same concept in the sense of coming from the ghetto and creating something that is far left from it, but that is needed.
What was the process of making Fri(end)s like? It’s not really a concept album, but it does have a consistent theme. Were you planning to make this album from the jump, or were all these songs puzzle pieces you had lying around that you eventually pieced together?
I planned it in advance. I told myself fans don’t do what I want them to do which was give me a little more attention. So I decided to focus on other things like creative directing videos. Like Denzel’s video just released today and I co-directed that whole entire video. Just stuff like that, so this is one of the first videos that I kind of stand behind and put my name on. There’s a lot of South Florida artists who I creative direct for, but I don’t put that type of information out. But I’m really trying to step all the way into that, like directing videos. But I told myself when creating Friends that I wanted to create an album that would get me a lot more recognition and that would have a cohesive style that was kind of away from the live instrumental element. Like what I did before Friends, Pink, was all live. And that was cool — people hear it and they’re like ah that’s different and cool and they like it, but they don’t really support it because they don’t really understand it. It’s cool to be different, but at the same time different doesn’t get you support if it’s not regular. So you still have to mask the work to a certain extent in which people can still be receptive to it. So with Friends I tried to step out of the live instrumental element. But I added a lot of synth bass that people were kind of used to hearing so they can say “oh hey we’re having the same conversation” — while being pure to the contemporary form of creating music which to me is all organic and natural sound. My new project is almost the same way, but with a lot of trap drums with my man Nell. We sorta came up at the same time.
Segueing from that: Where do you see your sound growing to next? Pink leaned harder into your rock and alternative sensibilities (it sort of reminded me of Kenna). Fri(end)s felt like a big departure from that. Should your fans expect as stark a contrast between your next project and Fri(end)s, or are you not yet finished exploring the sound you found here?
Well I’m not done exploring new sounds. So the next project isn’t gonna sound anything like Friends, but I have a lot of help with this project and a lot of features as well.
Who are some of the producers you’re working with now?
On this project I have a record produced by DJ Dahi, I have DJ Dodger Stadium, who produced a lot of Kanye. I have Nick Leon, John Falco, FNZ, Fanatic, and Walshy Fire from major lazer.
Dahi does a lot of work for people like Schoolboy and Kendrick, right? He’s a west coast guy? Do you see that influencing this project in any way?
Yeah he’s a west coast guy. This definitely is not west coast at all, but I’ve spent a lot of time on the West Coast helping Denzel Curry out with this project and working on my own stuff as well.
As your career starts to pick up steam, how do you balance that desire to pop off with a commitment not to compromise your sound? I know you’ve seen close friends of yours like Denzel Curry sort of break into that mainstream w/ a song like Ultimate. What keeps you confident that you’ll find similar traction?
I’m good. When you look at Odd Future, you have Frank Ocean and you have Tyler the Creator, so it’s really no pressure because music is large, you know what I mean? There’s a million different avenues we could take. It goes vice versa cause a lot of people who listen to my music don’t know who Denzel is. So I don’t feel any pressure at all because I can crossover at anytime and play in his playground and he can crossover at any time and play in mine. We recently released a record with Little Dragon, a remix of High and you’re talking about a demographic who nine times out of ten doesn’t know who I am. Doesn’t know who Denzel is. But you know, through marketing and all those different things we were able to cross into something that was, you know, very different from what we’re used to creating. So I don’t feel any pressure. It’s just about controlling what you create, controlling your crowd and your demographic.
To walk that back a bit, then: Did you ever feel that kind of pressure starting out? Just because that rap and trap scene was so vibrant in South Florida?
I didn’t feel pressure, I just felt like it was becoming oversaturated and regardless of whether I was in it or not I wouldn’t wanna be in it not really feeling 100% comfortable business wise trying to explore [that space]. I wanted to try something that was a little more experimental where I could reverse and it would be ok.
Were you ever worried there wouldn’t be an audience for you? Were you ever unwilling to try this sound?
I was definitely unwilling when I was younger because there was a big push to create that kind of sound what with the church and the gospel. But as I grew older, I found myself really liking that stuff — not that I didn’t really like it before, but I didn’t really have the mentality of choice because someone was telling me what to do.
I’m always interested: artists are always trying to improve and expand, meaning there’s things they don’t do as well as they’d like to — what are the areas where you want to grow in the future, the sounds you want to explore?
Songwriting. When I die, I wanna be considered one of the premier writers. Songwriting is something I’m always fighting with myself to get better at.
Do you produce any or all of your own music? I know you have producers, but how involved are you with that process?
I executive produce every record that I’m on.
Lastly, what does it mean to you that you have a fan base at a school like UF, with kids from all over the country and a really vibrant music scene of its own?
It’s dope, man. I love colleges, I love performing around colleges cause it’s fun. You know, I’m still young. It means a lot because youth is the future — we all determine where [the future’s headed]. So having a lot of support among young people lets me know my value and where I’ll be standing at in the next 5/10 years.
Photo by Devin Christopher