Young emcee

Fresno’s 21-year-old Fashawn busts a move on the national scene—by rapping to Joanna Newsom

Fashawn: eyes that have seen more than their 21 years.

Fashawn: eyes that have seen more than their 21 years.

Fashawn performs with Mistah F.A.B., Exile, DJ Fresh, Alexander Spit, Chase Moore and Bloe at How the Grouch Stole Christmas this Saturday, December 12, 6 p.m. at Empire, 1417 R Street; $15.


1417 R St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

Fashawn’s in the car with his family heading to Fresno’s FoodMaxx to stock up for the next day’s Thanksgiving feast. “I’m just gonna chill with my family, gain some weight. Get fat,” he explains from the back seat. And he adds that he can’t cook; his folks take care of that.

“I’m not talented in that area.”

But Fashawn, who just recently turned 21, sure can rap.

At 17, fellow Fresno rappers Planet Asia invited him on tour; he dropped out of high school and hit the road. Soon after, Fashawn got beats from Los Angeles-based producer Exile, who’s worked with Ghostface Killah and Jurassic 5. He rapped over those and sent them back to Exile, who called the very next day, impressed. And so the duo did more songs, which led to Fashawn finally traveling to L.A. to meet up with Exile at his Echo Park studio.

The two finished nearly most of Fashawn’s debut album, Boy Meets World, that week. And now, the album, which dropped in October, has received across-the-board raves; Fashawn even was nominated for Urb magazine’s Hip-Hop Artist of the Year.

It’s a deserving nod.

World is a wonderfully inventive and music-literate 15-track rite of passage of an album, telling the story of Fashawn’s life, from growing up without parents in Fresno—they were incarcerated and on drugs—to skateboarding and living on the streets, to learning under his Uncle Roy’s tutelage but finally bailing on school to tour after the success of his Grizzly City mix tape in ’06.

“Who knew I would maneuver through the manure and come out clean? / Still, I’m just a kid with the world on a string,” he raps on the album’s first track, “Intro,” setting the table for his rap journey.

The album’s third track, “Hey Young World,” with its soulful, chopped-up R&B piano run for a beat, finds Fashawn, who grew up reading nonfiction and motivational books, pushing the positive in spite of everyday strife: “It’s all a part of being self-sufficient / look for a shooting star and you keep on wishing / Who’s to say five years from now where you’ll end up?” Exile injects the song’s outro with a dreamy saxophone scuttle.

“Life As a Shorty” looks deeper at Fashawn’s life without parents: fighting his way through school, falling in and out of love, always being broke. He raps: “I love my childhood / despite the gunfire / I was quite happy growing up in the slums / It wasn’t too bad / having a few dads / The only thing I disliked was not having cash.”

He grew up in a rough Fresno neighborhood “on the same block as the guys who just got out of prison,” as he notes on “The Ecology.”

Fashawn has diverse, even precocious musical interests. On the day of this interview, for instance, he tweeted that he was bumping, of all things, Joanna Newsom’s Ys. Exile samples Newsom’s “Cosmia” on “When She Calls,” World’s best track, Fashawn telling the story of suicidal thoughts, broken hearts and overcoming depression.

“I like to explore everything, from jazz to rock to soul music—all that stuff,” he says. “[On my mix tapes,] I would rap over everything from Black Moon to Feist, from Alchemist to Ratatat.”

Fashawn says his newfound success has blown his mind, recalling his New York Rock the Bells performance as a tipping point.

“That was amazing: It was me, Evidence and Alchemist. I wasn’t headlining on the tour or nothing like that,” he says. “We did a song called ‘The Far Left,’ and it was just crazy to see that many people with their hands up, some of them reciting the lines.

“All the way in New York, coming from Fresno, Cali.”

Still, people are surprised by his young age but seasoned talent.

“I remember one situation where we were in Alchemist’s crib in New York, and Noreaga was there,” Fashawn says. “He was there for a while, and we were playing my album. About halfway through, Noreaga was like, ‘What is this?’ And I was like, ‘This is my stuff, yo.’

“And then they find out my age and are like, ‘Wow.’”