I arrived at a home in Hudson, Wisconsin, just a few miles away from the Minnesota border, to meet with a man who goes by the name of Realistic. I rolled into the driveway and shot him a text, “Orange house?” He responded, “I think it’s salmon.”
The door opened and I was welcomed by him and his girlfriend. Wasting no time, we headed upstairs where the magic happens. Realistic had converted the attic of his home into quite an impressive home studio.
He showed me around as he explained the acoustic improvements he had made over the years. I stood there, soaking in the comforting environment created by low lighting, a glowing salt rock, plant life, and other positive aesthetics.
Realistic sat down at his desk and began playing some of his new material that would soon be released under his debut album, Did My Time. I stood in the middle of the room not only because it’s the best place to stand when listening to a mix on studio monitors, but because it was the only place I can stand without having to duck under the low ceiling.
Much like a project from DJ Khaled, Metro Boomin’, or Calvin Harris, each of Realistic’s songs feature different singers, rappers, and musicians collaborating crafty, contrasting styles and blending several genres together to create mesmerizing melodies and head bopping beats.
A few tracks in, one might assume Realistic’s focal instrumentation style is trap, hip hop, and pop. And you would be right. However, I was happily caught off guard when he played the jazz-influenced track “Ari Gold,” showcasing his dynamic production capabilities. In other songs, Realistic also blends his punchy drum machine rhythms & new wave driven synths with live instrumentation ranging from string quartets & saxophones to guitars & ukuleles.
The heaviest of vocal collaborators you’ll hear on this record is Minneapolis rapper, Love Of Pharaoh — certainly an up-and-comer in his own right. The album also includes guest appearances by Hailey Ward, Marlowe, Chanel, Cymba, Kyle Skye, Jamere Lewis, Trevor DeVine & several others.
Realistic gave me a brief education on his Apollo Twin interface, the high-end plugins he uses to achieve a professional sound, and technique he uses to ensure the delay on a vocal mic is authentic during a live show. It became clear that whether he is mixing an 808 drum or describing the color of his home, Realistic is precise.
This isn’t just any project release. Did My Time drops on the 10 year anniversary of Realistic’s arrest and sentence to the state penitentiary, where he served four and a half years. The album’s subject matter isn’t dedicated to his time in prison, but rather everything that he has work towards to change his life since his sentence and being released in July 2013.
The album is a celebration of his post-prison accomplishments, ranging from graduating with honors in music production and 10 years of alcohol sobriety to running his own successful mixing and mastering business full-time. Talk about an impressive turn around. In our interview with Realistic, we dive deep to learn more about his past and, more importantly, where his music is taking him.
Music in Minnesota: Where are you from originally?
Realistic: I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, about 20 minutes from Green Bay.
MIM: Who got you interested in music?
R: For the first part of my life, my mother was a traveling musician, so I grew up with it in the house. When I entered into middle school, I was considered different, and so I didn’t have a lot of friends. I would spend my free time after school listening to the radio and picking apart different melodies and chords. All we had was Top 40 radio, so I fell in love with a mix of mainstream hip-hop and cheesy sounding pop music. I would say that both of those genres influenced this album a lot.
MIM: You and Love Of Pharaoh have been putting out a lot of material together. Explain how you met and the working relationship you have with him.
R: Pharaoh & I actually both attended McNally Smith College of Music at the same time. We both practically lived in the studio while we attended there, and we would always see each other working on music. Towards the end of 2015, Pharaoh lost his brother Jakob to leukemia, and he started to work on an album in honor of him.
He asked me to be part of the creative process, and we both connected emotionally and musically with each other during the making of that album. We haven’t stopped working together since then. Pharaoh and I both share an incredible work ethic and similar yet contrasting tastes in music. It makes the music making process a lot of fun.
MIM: You created all the sounds on the record?
R: I produced every song on the album. I can’t take credit for all of it though. I would invite different musicians like guitarists, violinist, pianists, flutists to the studio, and I’d start playing my drum machine. And they would start coming up with melodies. We would record those parts that same session. So lots of credit has to go to people like Cymba, Marlowe, and Vladimir for the records that have the live instrumentation.
My good friend Hailey Ward played a huge part in the composing, songwriting, and arranging throughout the album, too. Pharaoh did an incredible job writing the songs he’s on, too, and I feel like it’s some of his best work. Shoutout to Chanel Dela Cruz, J’mere, and Kyle Skye for their songwriting on this project, too!
MIM: What’s your favorite part about creating music?
R: Collaboration! Making music by myself is cool, but my best stuff comes from working with other talented people. Even when it comes to the mixing end of things, I love to collaborate. One of my friends, Drew Meyer, played a huge part in all of the mixing critiques and helped finalize a lot of the bigger songs with me.
MIM: Do you mind if we ask what you went to prison for?
R: Yeah, I don’t mind at all. My charges were one count of robbery with threat of force and one count of attempted robbery. The album is called Did My Time, and rather than an album about my time in prison, the album is dedicated to everything I’ve accomplished to change my life around in the six years since my release.
MIM: What was it that caused you to go down that path?
R: Throughout 2008 and the early part of 2009, I struggled with alcohol abuse. I was drinking non-stop from morning until night. At the time I was engaged to get married, and around Christmas 2008, our engagement ended. When we broke up, I ended up not only drinking more, but I started to mix Xanax, Vicodin and other medications while drinking.
I started hanging out with people that shared those same values, and eventually, the group of people I was with started committing a string of robberies. I’m definitely not shying away from my involvement, and I take full responsibility for my actions; I had no right to do any of those things. At the time I had so much alcohol and drugs in my system that I was consistently making terrible decisions. So, after a while I started breaking the law with them. It wasn’t until I was arrested and was forced to sober up that I started to realize what an awful person I was being and how I was damaging lives around me.
MIM: What helped you make a change for the better?
Realistic: Honestly prison itself played a big role in changing my life. It’s weird to say, but being sentenced to prison was the best thing that has ever happened to me. Prison was the biggest reality check of my life, and it was absolute rock bottom for me. Once I sobered up and reality sunk in, I reflected on what an awful person I had been.
I decided to enroll in a culinary arts program t(hat) the prison provided so I could get a job upon my release. The academic structure allowed me to have something in my life that required discipline and hard work. I avoided the day room on the (prison) block.
It was filled with gambling, drug dealing, and gang banging, so after about 18 months into my sentence, I decided to stay in my cell most of time and taught myself music theory, how to read sheet music, and played on a small piano that my mother bought for me on commissary. I was sentenced to five and a half years, and I served four and a half years in total. I was released one year early for a six-month inpatient drug treatment program, which the prison granted me to take due to good behavior.
This is where I started to fully understand accountability, complacency, and how to communicate with people. The entire prison experience made me a better person and I found a whole new determination in life. I promised myself that when I got released I would spend every single day bettering myself and doing good. Almost six years later, I’ve kept that promise. Oh, and I’m 10 years clean of alcohol and prescription drugs as of March 18, 2019!
MIM: What advice do you have to the youth that might encourage them not to follow the path you were on?
R: It’s really important who you surround yourself with. Anytime I got into trouble, it was because I was hanging out with bad people. I just wanted to fit in at the time. It’s also important to have goals in life. When you have something to work for – you know, something important, something to lose – it impacts your decision making a lot.
MIM: What made you decide to go to McNally Smith?
R: When I was in prison I knew that school would be a great option to better myself and keep me focused on positive things. I used to sit on my bunk in my cell and read the McNally course catalog every day. I’d read the description of the classes I planned on taking & visualize myself in those classes.
McNally Smith College of Music ended up denying my application twice due to my criminal background. I appealed the denial and eventually won my appeal. I went on to graduate with a degree in music production from McNally Smith with honors on May 6, 2017.
MIM: Explain the work you did as a tech in the studios at McNally.
R: When I was a student at McNally Smith, I received a job in the school’s recording studio. I was eventually promoted to senior worker. I would troubleshoot for students that were having issues with Pro Tools, Logic, the patch bay, and the mixing consoles. If any gear had issues, I would be assigned to fix it.
MIM: If you could work with any famous artist, who would it be?
R: Kanye West. Early on in my life, his music and albums played a big role in shaping my creative approach with collaborations and how I think of arranging a song. I would also seriously die if I could work with Camila Cabello, too!
MIM: Explain the work that you do with Sound Oracle.
R: Working with Oracle has been a dream come true. Sound Oracle is Timbaland’s sound designer, and he made a lot of the sounds for Jay Z’s Magna Carta album and Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience. I started out recording live instruments for his sample packs. That led to him hiring me to do due mixing and mastering tutorials on his YouTube page. Eventually, he hired me to be his chief engineer, and I oversee all of the mixing and mastering for all of his sounds currently.
MIM: Are you looking to book studio time or collaborate with other artists?
R: Collaboration is a big part of my creative process, but I’m very selective on who I work with, though. I’m the rare producer/beat maker that doesn’t lease beats, and I won’t just make a beat for anyone just because they’re willing to pay me. I have to really rock with someone’s music. I have to be able to vibe with them musically and feel a strong connection with them on a personal level. They also have to be hardworking and reliable. Talent alone isn’t enough for me.
MIM: Anything else you’d like to share?
R: There’s so many talented artists and musicians on this project, and I believe they’re worth giving a listen to! Pharaoh, Hailey Ward, Cymba, Chanel, Marco Cirigliano, Marlowe, J’mere, illWin, Kazem, Kyle Syke, Alexis Krystine, Jemma Heigis, Trevor DeVine, RM, Jeff Gavin, Nate Tyler, Beth Albertson, Lucia Sarmiento, Vladimir Garrido Biagetti, Maejoy Dot Dot, Caleb Hakala, Charles Puskas, & Asia DiVine. Every one of them has an incredible gift.