Interview 4080 - HXLT Talks New Name, New Album & Sense of Comfort

Interview conducted 5/7/15
Words by Steven Goldstein

Chicago has seen many iterations of Nigel Holt. There’s the chest-beating Hollywood Holt, the mysterious Scott Holt, and now, simply Holt (since changed to HXLT. The Treated Crew veteran is set to finally release a genre-bending album that’s five years in the making, and after inking with Kanye’s GOOD Music imprint, Holt’s stylistic changes appear to be paying off. His influences and experiences are wide-ranging, and the music reflects a man embracing his own fluidity.

Holt came through the Closed Sessions office to chop it up and discuss his eclectic upcoming project, an energized live show and the progression of Chicago hip-hop. He also dropped off a pair of tickets to his concert May 9th at the Mid. Keep reading for your chance to win.

Closed Sessions: What have you been on the past few months?

HXLT: Since I signed, I’ve been getting the album ready and prepared for a release date. I’m putting together my first big show at The Mid so that Chicago can see it before everyone else. Then it’s just a lot of festivals and shit. 

CS: What does the show entail?

HXLT: I’ve always had a very good live show because I care about the show itself. You’re not just gonna see me standing there. I used to go to punk shows all the time, and those kind of shows are very interactive. Crowd surfing; moshing; people screaming the words back at you. People are sweating. I want people to have high energy and enjoy the actual show, not just the music. Nowadays, hip-hop shows have big production, but there’s no real interaction with the crowd. Motherfuckers just stand there.

CS: What inspired the change from Hollywood Holt the rapper to Holt the multi-instrumentalist? Have there been any roadblocks along the way?

HXL: What’s crazy is that there’s been no complications. To me, this is what I was supposed to be doing forever. What I was doing before was just a piece of what I can do. I didn’t have the foresight or the creative confidence to just do what I want. Not to say I wasn’t confident, just more in the sense of seeing everyone around me rap, so I had to rap. I’ve always been eclectic. I’ve always been into tons of different styles of music. I’ve always had these songs in my head. But I figured that because I didn’t know how to use Logic or make beats, I couldn’t do it. Now, I’m the composer. I didn’t know that people had engineers for these things. I thought that if you wanted to make something, you had to do it yourself. I am creating this music, and I physically hit the instruments, but I don’t know how to break things into files and whatnot. 

When I started making this project, I realized that this is what I was supposed to be doing this whole time. There have been no hiccups. Once I stopped caring what genre was or what structure was when I really found myself as an artist. I just make noise. I’ll be making a song that sounds like hip-hop, then say, “maybe this needs a violin, or an organ, or 808 drums.” No matter how left field I go when I’m creating, it all sounds cohesive and like me. So I just have to be myself. I don’t need an image. Hollywood Holt is this crazy, flashy rapper. Now this is just me. I don’t need to dress a certain way. I’m just fresh. People will look at me and enjoy that I’m authentic and real. There’s nothing pre-conceived behind what I do. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t care about making a hit song. I just make songs. I just make art, and I love it, and I’m gucci because of it.

CS: The concept of authenticity in hip-hop is so exaggerated and confining. If you do anything different from your original sound, it gets hyperanalyzed and isn’t seen as real.

HXL: Right! I didn’t quit rap to make this, I just made this when I didn’t like rapping. Well, I do like rapping, but I didn’t like pursuing my rap career anymore because the style of rap that I enjoy isn’t popular anymore. I’m not waiting for it to become popular again. When I rap, I like to really rap. I love trap music, I love gangsta ass shit, but that’s not where I excel as an artist. I can make those songs, but real talk, that ain’t me. I’m the dude that goes to punk shows, listens to Led Zeppelin and what not. There’s so many motherfucking rappers. There’s a billion rappers, and a lot of their songs sound the same. It’s luck of the draw to see who’s popular at the time. You can blow up off an Instagram post or a joke. There’s no structure to it. No diss to Bobby Shmurda, because he had a hot song, but that came out overnight and it was so random. LEP had a song with the same beat, and just through timing, it wasn’t them. If they released that shit when there was a demand for it, it would’ve been LEP, you know what I’m saying?

Because of the Internet, the lifespan of music is like a fucking month, dog. We run through rap artists so quick. Half of these artists out now, if they dropped in the 80s, they’d be classics. But because they’re out today, they exist for a few months. That’s why I’m not stressed. I don’t have any competition, because I’m making my own genre and structure of music.

CS: What kind of fan listens to the genre that is “Holt?”

HXL: Not to sound arrogant, but in my personal experience, I’ve played this album for any and everybody secretly. Over the past five years, I’ve probably played it for more than 2,000 people and every single person has liked it. From executives to hood dudes to punk kids. I like so much stuff, and that bleeds out into my music. Everybody likes different things from this album. A lot of people say it’s festival music because it’s just tunes; there’s no genre. If I look at my crowd, it will be a dude in Dockers next to a dude with a mohawk, next to a dude with a fucking fitted hat. I’ve got a song on the album with a hard ass gangsta beat, I’ve got a straight punk song, and I’ve got some Red Hot Chilli Peppers shit. It’s all over the place because I’m all over the place. My fan base is the world.

CS: It’s been five years and you still haven’t been able to get this album out. What’s your experience with the industry been like?

HXL: It’s all been a positive thing, actually. I made the project just fucking around, and I spent a year and a half making a good amount of records. Then I had a chance meeting with Kanye, and he lost his shit and said, “hold this. You need to sit on it.” I was about to put shit out just to put it out, but he basically told me that it’s too good to just give it out. Then over the span of two-to-three years, I had to get out of my old label, get onto his label; them accepting the album, me making more songs. It just happened to be a five-year process. But I’m already working on my second album now. The legal process has taken time, but now that it’s done, everything is in fast forward.

CS: How did that chance meeting with Kanye go down?

HXL: On some random ass shit. I’m good friends with Joel, Benji and Josh Madden from Good Charlotte. I was in New York when they were in New York. And I also knew Kanye and the whole team just on some Chicago shit. But I was at this random bar with the Maddens, just chillin and having a drink. Then Ye walks in and we start talking shit. I go to the studio with them, and then he played me Watch The Throne like two years before it came out, and obviously I was like, “what the fuck!” Then he asked what I was working on, and I told him I was fucking around with this singing shit. I played him an Amy Winehouse cover that I did and he told me it was fire. He bought it from me, put it in the Great Gatsby movie, threw Beyoncé and André 3000 on it and helped me out like a motherfucker. Once that relationship got bigger, then I started showing him the other songs and some videos. Then he signed me. He said he wanted to sign me in 2010, 2011, but it’s a fucking process. I finally signed February 2014. When I did the GOOD Music showcase in Austin, I was already signed. But then this past March, we were ready to drop the bomb.

CS: You’ve been in this for a while now. How are the industry resources changing in Chicago? Obviously GOOD Music isn’t the locality it originally looked like.

Holt: I’ve been very instrumental in the Chicago music scene for like 10 years. I can say that because it’s just a fact. Me and Mano were the ones that got everyone to come to SXSW. We opened up a lot of avenues. Before Treated Crew is what it is, we were the middle men of Chicago, because everyone respected us and showed us love and were comfortable with us. I could get an indie rock artist from Chicago to work with a super hard rapper. In Chicago, there’s always been a dope scene, but the haterville shit stopped in like 2008. Now, that’s the norm. Now, it’s popular for Chicago artists to fuck with each other. That’s what Closed Sessions did -- take random artists and put them together. That became the popular science in Chicago. It was cool finally for me to get on a track with Parkay randomly because we fucked with each other as people. Chicago’s been tight as fuck forever, and there’s always been a bit of an eye on Chicago, but you really had to snap to pop off. What really opened the eye to Chicago was the drill scene. The one thing people really love is to be down with some real shit. You want to witness this piece of the world. It’s almost documentarian. They wanna see this. They finally have real footage of real shit. It’s a real thug in HD! And the tracks were hot, of course. So that opened up everything.

Now it’s cool to have a bird’s eye view in Chicago. Now, because Chicago is such a hustlin’ city, people will always look to Chicago for talent. It might not ever be a staple for the industry here; we’ll never have Def Jam Chicago offices, but there will always be scouts. Before, saying you’re an artist from Chicago was like saying you’re an artist from Denver. Now, when you say you’re from Chicago, people want to hear what you have to say. It’s always been here, but just now, people are noticing it. All we needed was people to notice it. We’ve been cold: Crucial Conflict, Do Or Die. It blows my mind to see videos like Bobby Shmurda where they’re acting like drill dudes from Chicago! Everybody says “thot,” everybody says all these things. The Chicago lifestyle is the general hood shit now. Our influence has reached a point of popularity where it’s sustainable forever. Hell yeah.

CS: I know back in the day, RTC interviewed you and you went by Scott Holt to express your other side. Tell me about that.

HXL: That wasn’t really a confidence thing, it was just a tool to differentiate. I made Scott up to give people another entity to compare. It was mainly for people who already kind of knew me. That way, the transition was easier. I did a photoshoot of Hollywood Holt and Scott Holt together. I tried to show people a different part of my personality. It did what it was supposed to do. It showed that Hollywood was a character. It’s 100 percent me, none of it is a gimmick, but I need differentiation. If I went from the old Holt shit to something like the “Drive” record we put out, people would have had culture shock. The Scott shit helped ease people in. It worked really well. It was never a confidence thing, because I really don’t give a fuck what people think. Not in a mean way. But I love this music. If I put this record out and it fucking flopped, at this point in my life, I would still go to my grave listening to it saying, “this shit’s cold.” I love it. It sounds good to me.

Because I feel that way, I have all the confidence in the world. I know this is dope. I’ve never felt insecure about anything. I know I can whoop a motherfucker’s ass, so I was never afraid of what people thought of me. Once I realized that, I never had any stress ever again. I always dressed different, but now I don’t look crazy. In 2006 or 08, it was like, “what the fuck? This dude isn’t wearing a T-shirt and Jordans?” But people embrace you once you outwardly show that confidence. If someone says my clothes are wack, and I say, “nah this is cold as fuck!,” they’ll believe it. They’ll wonder why I like it so much. Then they’ll eventually understand it.

CS: One word to describe this album?

HXL: Hmmm. New. But there isn’t one word because it’s too complicated. It’s new, it’s real, it’s authentic. Whatever word encompasses all that.