Sam Lao is a vision of flowing hair as she stands outside Club Dada on a Friday night. The rapper-singer wears a baseball cap that trains her curly mane away from her face. She’s quick to smile, exposing gleaming teeth from behind her trademark coif. On stage, her set makes short work of her hat. It quickly becomes collateral damage to her bouncing, boisterous stage presence.
For this performance, her hat topped a khaki-colored dress-and-coat ensemble, and the juxtaposition of baseball cap and dress, traditionally masculine and feminine, is a fitting metaphor for the juxtaposition of Lao’s aesthetics. She’s both hard and soft. Both in-your-face and demure. She either rages through the mic with biting lyrics or purrs at her audience depending on what the song calls for.
This sort of versatility turned Lao into an accidental musician back in 2012. She ran out of money and was forced to leave college in her final semester studying graphic design. Depression followed, making her walk away from her creative outlets: painting, drawing, and sculpting. Lao’s friends and long-time collaborators from the now-defunct Brain Gang, 88 Killa and Ish D, invited her to the recording studio and gave her a beat to see what she could cook up. The experiment proved successful and would eventually lead to her first album, West Pantego, in 2013.
She fell into critical success after its release much like she fell into making music: very unexpectedly. Lao quickly became one of Dallas’ musical darlings, and was named “Best Music Act” in 2014 by D Magazine. She soon began collaborating with the likes of Sarah Jaffe, Zhora, and Picnictyme, all of whom she performed with recently. Lao’s follow-up album, SPCTRM, is out this month, roughly two and a half years after her debut. We talked with Lao ahead of her March 4 album release show at RBC.
Give me a rundown of how your new album came about.
I really wanted the project to show how diverse I could be, the spectrum of me as an artist. I don’t only do music. I paint, I do graphic design. I’ve never been the type to want to be boxed in to one thing.
That range is really evident. I’m just amazed that you sound as good singing as you do rapping. That’s rare, is it not?
Yeah, it is. I’m happy to be part of that club. As far as Dallas artists, I don’t know of anyone who does both.
Where did you get your vocal training?
I have not had any vocal training other than like three lessons a year ago. I took choir in the 6th grade and the 9th grade. I was always singing to myself or singing along to the radio. I never felt like I was strong enough to pursue a career in music, I just sort of fell into a career in music. It just happened to work in my favor that I could sing.
I’m fascinated how you fell into a career in music. You went from laying down some lyrics on a beat to a professional musician.
My first project was more of a personal project to help get me out of depression. When I released my first single, I didn’t even tell people it was me because I was already known as a painter, a graphic designer, I had ties with a small clothing company, and I didn’t want people to think of that when they thought of my music. I didn’t expect people to like it. Suddenly Central Track, the Dallas Observer, and D Magazine are covering my little 6-song EP, and I’m getting booked for shows. I just loved it and ran with it.
So that day the Brain Gang gave you a beat, was that all freestyle or had you been working on stuff?
I hadn’t been working on stuff. They gave it to me and there was no pressure. A week later I came back with material. I still have the lyrics, and I still really like them, I just haven’t gotten around to using them.
Speaking of lyrics, they’re quite poetic. How do you do it?
I write all of my own lyrics. I really enjoy the process of pen and paper. I used to do spoken word during high school, so the ability to pen down lyrics stems from that. Normally I find a beat first that really resonates with me, that puts me in a specific emotion or mindset, and I go from there. I know pretty immediately after I hear a beat whether or not it will work for me.
“I don’t only do music. I paint, I do graphic design. I’ve never been the type to want to be boxed in to one thing.”
On the album, you’re so versatile, you go from “bad bitch” to angelic. Where does that range come from?
I happen to be a Gemini, so I can go from being like, really hard and firm to being that sort of softer, more demure angelic person. Women especially deal with that sort of duality. I don’t believe that anybody is one way all the time. Everyone has different facets of themselves, and it all depends on the situation and who you’re around as to which version of you you’re going to be that day. To me each song on this album is a different version of Sam. It all goes back to the spectrum of Sam.
What is your baseline Sam?
I’m probably more of a bad bitch (laughs). When people first come across me, I can be a little hard or intimidating. I have the resting bitch face.
One of my bad bitch examples on the album is “Pineapple.” What does it refer to?
So a pineapple is a type of hairstyle. It’s a way of piling your hair on top of your head. At night when you lay down, you’d normally wrap a scarf around it and the curls spill out the top. The idea is you want to see me at home in my most relaxed state, you want to lay up in bed with me. It’s about curving a guy, turning him down. You know when you turn down a guy and suddenly you’re a bitch? It’s like, “You were just trying to hit on me, so what’s the deal here?”
You sound like a feminist.
Oh yeah, absolutely. My husband calls me his budding feminist. Rap music especially is very much the boys’ club. So me being a woman and getting in the ring with these guys, sometimes it’s really frustrating. When people hear the name Sam they think of a boy. I don’t really fault people who are coming to shows blind for thinking I’m a guy. I’ll come in with my DJ, and they immediately start speaking to him and are asking questions and trying to make decisions, and I’m like, “Um no, you need to be speaking to me right now, this is my set.” The people that I do fault are the people who know that it’s me and will still not speak directly to me because they think I’m not the decision maker.
Wow. So that actually happens here in Dallas? What’s it like being a female rapper in this city?
Absolutely, I’ve only worked here in Dallas (laughs). Despite the sexist undertones that sometimes occur, it’s still, for the most part, really great. The music scene in Dallas is really thriving right now. There are a lot of really incredible artists across the board and in the realm of hip hop, so I love being a part of that.
I can’t tell you how many people will come up to me after a show like, “Oh my gosh, I normally don’t like female rappers, but I love you.” It’s like, “Okay, I’ll take that. I’m not just a female rapper, I’m still a rapper.” Occasionally playing up the female rapper will work in my favor. At that point it comes to visuals. I always make sure my appearance is on point. Even if they don’t want to listen to a female rapper, they do want to see a girl jump around on stage.
So it’s been about two and a half years since your first album, what were you doing between then and now?
2014 got super busy because I was just performing all of the time. I had so many shows that year. After West Pantego came out, I recorded a handful more songs pretty quickly because I was getting booked 30 to 45-minute sets, and West Pantego was 20 minutes long. I didn’t start really working on a new project until 2015, and SPCTRM didn’t start coming together until the last 4 or 5 months when I linked up with Picnictyme and Blue, the Misfit to do tracks.
What’s the first single?
“Reminder (Bitch I’m Me)”
Tell me about the inspiration for that song. I could see it being a Dallas anthem, or maybe even bigger than Dallas.
I would love that. Despite how in-your-face it is, it’s the first song on the project because it’s a reminder that no matter what perceptions you have of me, I’m not trying to deal with what you think I’m supposed to be doing or what you think I should be. I think a lot of people can identify with that. There’s so much outside social pressure.
So last question, what are you most looking to in 2016?
Releasing this project. I was super excited and anxious and nervous at the same time. I’m doing a release party the following Friday, March 4 at RBC. Blue, the Misfit is doing a DJ set, 88 Killa is doing a set, and I’m headlining. It should be a very fun night. And ultimately I’d really like to tour this year. Most of my performances have been in Dallas, so I really want to do a Texas-Oklahoma-Louisiana tour and really just get out and see if other places also accept Sam Lao. I want to find fans as far out as possible. That’s the goal.