It’s a time-honored tale: The starving artist drops out of school to pursue his/her musical dream. The majority of hip-hop’s greats ditched the classroom for the studio, but Ogden Payne has chosen a different route.
Story by Quinton Boudwin Photos by Tess Cagle
“I started rapping just because it was something to do, something fun, but then I heard Kanye’s The College Dropout and it changed my mind. It was one of those things, like, hey, I could do that, too,” the Austin Community College sophomore, with plans for transferring to Texas State in the fall, says. After Payne’s high school dreams of playing sports were dashed, creating music went from an afterschool leisure activity to passionate, full-fledged endeavor. Isaac Haze, Payne’s best friend and producer, soon jumped onboard, providing melodic, piano-driven soundscapes, over which Payne spits rhymes. “It’s like that Drake and 40 type of relationship,” Payne says, noting the synergy between chart-topping rapper Drake and his best friend, Noah “40” Shebib. “We always have each other’s backs, and it shows in our music. That’s really what brings the songs to life and what gets messages across. It’s something that isn’t made up or ignorant, it’s something that has purpose,” Haze explains, while he and the rest of the crew saunter out of the Eden House Co-Op after their performance at last month’s West By West Campus festival.
While Isaiah Rashad, another up-and-coming rapper with a poignant something-from-nothing story, blares over the loudspeakers between sets, Payne and Haze express their drive to create positive music that will motivate each other and their fans. “This mixtape took two years to make,” Payne admits about his first, aptly titled release, Late Night Thoughts Vol. 2. “I was trying to figure out who I was as a person. I realized that if music never took off I would want to do mentorship. That is really what it symbolizes — growth as a person and as an artist.”
Payne exercises his passion for mentorship and music through his work with GRAMMY U, a program split into local chapters that gives students between the ages of 17 and 25 the opportunity to network and get hands-on experience in the music industry. A representative for the Texas chapter, Payne organizes events and leads other students, helping to get them in touch with professionals in the field and showing them the ins and outs of the business. He seized the opportunity to be a part of something that would prepare him for a career inside an exclusive industry. “It’s been amazing, it’s one of those things where I can get hands-on experience and get to see the music industry from the inside out, see how things are conducted and talk to managers and publicists,” Payne says.
In his quest for self-discovery, the 21-year-old Austin native has taken cues from several classic neo-soul and R&B artists to create tracks that translate to a younger crowd and can’t be easily pigeonholed. “If I had to classify by genre I would say its generational hip-hop. It’s stuff that will inspire people of our generation to think different, to hold different types of values, to think about their future things before they go and do something,” he says. But Payne’s own current playlist betrays a broader musical palette than just hip-hop. “I’m not ashamed to admit, if I were to pull out my iPod, you would see I’m listening to Corinne Bailey Rae,” he confesses with a smile.
Lyrically, Payne frequently spins stories of heartache and trying relationships. He conveys feelings of loneliness, pain and guilt unabashedly, clearly comfortable expressing tribulations from which most rappers generally shy away. He also explores personal shortcomings and struggles, striving to be the best person possible when society’s pressures dictate otherwise.
Payne puts these trials on display early in the afternoon at West By West Campus, doing everything in his power to get a rise out of the drowsy audience. A small gathering soon shuffles in, hooked by his slick delivery and Haze’s rumbling bass grooves that rattle the thin walls of the Eden House Co-Op. Standing proud in his Converse All-Stars, knees slightly bent and tangled in cables, Payne never misses a beat, pushing through his set with a calm precision. Covers of Kendrick Lamar’s "Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe" and the Notorious B.I.G.’s "Big Poppa" serve as early confidence boosters for the young rapper, who is still finding his footing — not only in this set, but also in a close-knit Austin hip-hop scene.
Payne wraps things up with his most popular track, "Yves St. Laurent," finally striking paydirt and creating the perfect atmosphere, which was conspicuously absent thus far in the 30-minute set. It’s a long way to the top, but Payne plans to stay as doggedly determined as he was throughout his performance, displaying a hunger possessed by all superstars that hints at bigger things on the horizon, provided he keeps his shoulder to the plow and lays the groundwork for a successful future.