Interview: YONAS, His Upcoming Album, and His Creation Process

Yonas Mellesse, or more commonly known as YONAS, is an independent hip-hop artist from East Harlem who over the past 3 years has been able to sell over 150,000 songs, 20,000 albums and accumulated over 250 million streams.

photograph courtesy of YONAS

Nora Hones: I know you have a new album coming out, About Time on June 29th, and I was wondering how long have you been working on this album?

Yonas Mellesse: So this album I’ve been working on for probably like a year. From start to finish it usually takes about a year for me to put together a project, and in that time span, I usually record like, 50, 60, 70 tracks to find the best 10 to 15. So yeah, about a year.

NH: What were some of the main themes, and motives behind the creation of your new album? Basically, what were the focuses of it?

YM: So on this album it’s pretty much to kind of go back to the essence of everything starting for me. You know, I’ve been making music professionally for the last 7 years, so it comes to a point, where sometimes you’re making music just to make music. There comes a point where you make music to continue financial prosperity. And then there is a time in life where you are making music just cuz you love it. So I kinda wanted to go back to making music I just love to make regardless of how people will necessarily receive it. So yeah that was pretty much this album here, it’s going back to making music, enjoying the process, and making music for the love of it. That was kind of what my mind frame was during the project.

NH: Is there any particular track on it you’re most excited to drop? If so, which one and why? That is if you can tell me, if you can’t I understand.

YM: I love them all! I love them all! But I would say, “Keep Up” which is the title of one of the songs on the project that I really just lets me talk my shit and go back to the lyrical side of myself. And then the production on the track is just crazy. So I really like that one and “Through The Fire” is another track I’m excited about. It just has a lot of sole and a lot of meaning to it. Those two tracks right there I’m super excited for people to hear.

NH: What are the difference can we expect from this album compared to your previous EPs and mix tapes?

YM: I think it’s still the same me, I think I’ve done a good job just being consistent and being myself and telling my story throughout this past 7 years, but I think with this one you can expect more maturity in the lyrics and in the production selection. It sounds more like a grown album but at the same time it doesn’t take away from the fact I love to have fun, I love rap for the sport, I just feel it’s a more mature project and I think people will be able to tell I’m pretty seasoned now when it comes to making music. This is the beginning of that next phase.

NH: So, sort of off of that note, what is your writing process like?

YM: I just listen to the music a lot. I get all my inspiration from how the music sounds. The production is telling a story itself and it’s my job to communicate that. It’s a lot of listening, a lot of being in tuned with music almost like a spiritual connection, as crazy as the sounds, and than slowly but surely the words start to just appear. And I just try to capture them and put them down and record it. A lot of listening, a lot of vibing, a lot of time spent by myself to be honest with you. I don’t like too many people being in the studio while I’m working.

NH: So I heard you had training on violin at an early age and I was wondering it the effects how you write and create music?

YM: Yeah, I think that’s why I have such a connection to the music part of it and not just the rap part, the hip hop part, because I studied classical violin for 13 years and it taught me the discipline on making music. It’s not supposed to be easy all the time. Sometimes I come up with a song in 30 minutes with a beat, something that people love, but you know for the most part it’s going to take a couple hours, a couple days, a couple weeks, a couple months to really find and make the best music and put all the pieces together. I think studying any classical instrument for anybody really teaches you that discipline, like okay it’s not going to be easy but if you put the work in you’ll get best result at the end.

NH: That definitely make sense. So I was wondering what are some of the freedom being an independent hip hop artist has given you? And on the flip side, what challenges has it brought you?

YM: The freedom is that I can do whatever I want whenever I want and I think that’s also a challenge to. It’s knowing when to tell yourself, “No this isn’t a good idea” or “You should be working now instead of going out and having a good time.” The gift and the curse of it is the freedom part of it. You’re your own boss, you’re the artist, you’re the marketing person, you’re the video director sometimes, there’s a lot of freedom but at the same time if you don’t know how to manage that correctly, which no one does at first, it’s something you’ve got to learn, but if you don’t learn how to manage that correctly you could end up steering yourself in the wrong direction and working with people who aren’t necessarily good for the future of your craft. Being able to navigate those waters is probably the toughest part. It’s definitely not easy and I think it would actually be a lot easier being on a major label because you’ve got someone telling you what to do 24-7 and them giving you advice on how the music should sound, they are doing advertising and marketing for you and hiring people for you. It’s a gift and a curse to be independent but I think it’s definitely a gift to be a major label artist which is why I’ll probably be heading in that direction sometime soon.

NH: Do you have any notable memories either from performing by yourself or, I know you’ve performed with some notable acts like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis an an example?

YM: Yeah, so, my favorite is actually two memories. It’s the first time I played with Macklemore and it’s the second time and it kind of showed me that anything is possible. And Kendrick was on that first bill as well, it was probably one of my first shows ever, it was myself, it was Macklemore, it was Kendrick Lamar, it was ScHoolboy Q and a few other artists on the line up. It was a venue, South by Southwest, and there was maybe 75 to 100 maybe 150 people crammed into this little venue and it was a great show. I gained a lot of experience from that show. And then you fast forward too 3 ½ years later and I got invited to perform with Macklemore again, to open up for one of his sets, the difference is goes from three artists, three notable artists, fill up a 100-150 cap room to Macklemore performing by himself in an arena of maybe 10,000. And I was like wow at that second show, just remembering we had just performed 3 years prior at this small intimate venue cuz that’s where we were at at the time to filling up an arena of maybe 10,000 college kids that was pretty crazy to me. It showed me that anything can change at any moment and it could take your career from point a to point z.

NH: Wow that’s crazy. It’s amazing how much can change in just a small amount of time.

YM: Aw yeah. You just gotta hope things break the right way. You know, people who have never heard of you before are playing your albums all over the world, music is powerful.

NH: Definitely. Is there anything else you would like to share before we are done?

YM: Look out for a lot of things YONAS in the near future 2018, 2019, there’s a huge world of people in the underground hip hop scene that have heard of me but there so many more people who haven’t discovered me yet so if they discovering me just now, check me out, look out for a lot more YONAS in the near future. The album is dropping June 29th.

YONAS’ newest album About Time drops on June 29 and isn’t something any hip hop lover wants to miss. Between his use of melodies with crossover music production pulling from his classical background and his powerful use of words, he really is a unique voice in his field.

For more information on YONAS visit his website.