Read the full interview on YoungCalifornia.com!
AK might be hip-hop’s best-kept secret, which is every reason why he’s grinding his ass off to break through from beneath the underground. Hailing from New Jersey, real name Austin Kassabian went after his dreams and turned them into a reality — all while recording in his bedroom with Logic and a microphone. Read more…
Blowing up after his “Panda” remix went viral at age 16, the 19-year-old today truly believes in the impact music has on one’s life, aiming to make it his lifelong goal to help others. It was in 6th grade when he saw his older brother making music. One day when he was out of town, AK took the mic into his room and freestyled to Hopsin’s “ILL MIND OF HOPSIN 5.”
The rest was history. Now, he unleashes a brand new single titled “Broken,” wearing his heart on his sleeve and dabbling into the world of R&B.
You’re from New Jersey, how does that play into your life and career?
New Jersey is a very diverse state, at least where I’m from. There are so many different religions, backgrounds in South Brunswick. It’s cool because I grew up in that. I’m accepting of other music. I’ve been introduced to so many different sounds that I subconsciously have in my sound. I love Jersey. I’ll always love Jersey, it’ll always be home for me.
How important is it to come to LA as an up and coming artist?
Honestly, it’s way bigger than I thought it was. Everybody’s here. New York’s cool, there’s a lot of people there too. When it comes to meeting people, LA’s more everyday genuine conversations. “Oh, I actually know that person’s manager.” Then they’re like “oh I can give you his number or email.” I’m like “bet.” [claps]
New York, that doesn’t really happen. It’s been more my team linking up with a different person’s team and scheduling something. Here, I’ve made friends with producers I’ve worked with. Through them, I’ve met new people. Everybody knows a piece of every different thing. It’s much easier here, it feels more genuine.
How long are you out here for?
I’m out here until I go to San Diego for my tour. Had a couple of rehearsals to lock in. We got the set down pat, we just want to make sure it’s second nature so I don’t even have to think about it.
What’s your favorite part about the West Coast?
The energy. That’s something I never realized. When I first flew out here to meet my manager before he was my manager, Brian Teefy — actually, his daughter’s Selena Gomez. In Jersey, everything was done in my bedroom. It was always about bars only. Bars, bars, bars, be angry about it. Let people know you’re here. Then I came to LA, everybody I met was talking like “yo the vibe gotta be right, the energy’s gotta be right.” I was like “wtf you talking about? Just sit down and write, do your thing!”
The more people I met, the more people talked about it. It opened my mind up. I’m like “alright, I’ma try to absorb the energy of the room.” The first time I ever did that, I wrote “LOVE ME,” the first single I ever put out. It was two dudes I never met before: Jimmy Duval and Arnold.
I interviewed Jimmy right here!
He’s the coolest dude ever, I fucking love that guy. It was my first session with Jimmy, he called Arnold in to just do drums on the song. The way it happened was super genuine. He came in, did the drums, killed that shit. I was like “alright, now it’s my part.” That’s the first time it felt super collaborative, but not like “you’re going to be in a session with these two people, you’re going to be working on this type of song.” It was a super natural environment. That’s what everyone was talking about! That vibe, that energy.
The “Panda” remix is at 31M views. Did you think it’d blow up like this?
No. Fuck, I was 16. A junior in high-school. I was pushing SoundCloud like it was my own baby. I was like “everyone needs to listen to this shit!” I had hometown buzz. People back home knew but the second you broke South Brunswick, no one knew who the fuck I was. The summer going into my senior year, my best friend Mike’s like “dude, there’s no 16-year-old that remixed ‘Panda’ the way you did. There’s not even regular grown men who remixed ‘Panda’ like you did.”
He’s telling me I should show it on a different platform, whether it’s YouTube, anything. I recorded a video of me doing it in my bedroom. Put it on YouTube on my 17th birthday — the title, I didn’t lie because I was 16 when I did it. I titled it on purpose because I was hoping it’d catch eyes and have people click on it. It sat on YouTube for 6 months straight and didn’t do a fucking thing. 0 views. One day, I just woke up and it was at 1,000 views. The next day, 10,000 views, then 100,000 views. By the end of the week, it was a million.
How’s your hometown fan base compared to elsewhere?
It’s different because I was always cool with every clique in school. Nobody likes to say it but everybody knows there are the cool kids, the nerds — like it is in movies. I was homies with people in all those cliques. I was always good at understanding where other people come from. Perspective wise: why they think the way they think, why they’re friends with the people they’re friends with. Back home, nobody’s like “omg, it’s him.” Everybody’s just like “what’s good? How are you? How’s everything been?” It’s more laidback.
What’s been your favorite remix you’ve done, aside from the numbers?
“Thotiana” for sure. The song itself, a lot of people hate it, a lot of people love it. I’m right in the middle because the beat’s crazy. He just has a unique sound, you need an acquired taste to fuck with him. I fuck with it because the energy. The second I listened to the beat by itself — that beginning flow was the first flow that came to my mind.
I literally wrote that remix in an hour. Recorded the lyrics right after I wrote them, did the video the same night. I decided I was doing that remix a day and a half before it came out. [chuckles] My manager hit me up like “you fuck with Blueface?” I’m like “nah, not really.” I fuck with him but I don’t bump him on the regular. He’s dope but I’m not a big fan. He’s like “listen to the beat, see if you like it.” The second I listened, I’m like “I’m doing this shit!” It was so natural.
Have you met Desiigner?
Actually I have! At the AMA’s in 2017. I saw him on the red carpet, he came up to me. I was like “what’s good, nice to meet you.” He was just taking it all in I guess, didn’t really pay attention to me. He’s like “ay, we out here at the AMA’s!” I was like “you’re in your bag bro, you’re lit.”
What’s the inspiration behind keeping your initials as a rap name? Were there any backups?
AK comes from my XBOX gamertag. I’m not gonna say it ‘cause I still use it. [chuckles] It’s AK and a bunch of numbers. My dad had a motorcycle, a Yamaha with letters at the end. I put AK, then some numbers of the bike at the end. Every time I’d play online, people would see my gamertag and wouldn’t want to say the whole thing. I was the type of gamer back in the day where if you’re cool online, I’ll message you when I’m on. Let’s play Halo or some shit, even if I never met you before. Everybody would just call me AK, it just stuck.
You say you’re a legend like Will Smith. Why is that?
My mindset, I think too much in the future that I forget to live in the now. I see myself in a different lane. I see myself taking this way further than anybody thought I’d be able to. My whole life, I’ve always been the one to prove people wrong who’s doubted me. It’s always been an uphill battle from the jump. That’s molded me to think no matter how rare or how common it is for people to do what I want to do, I’ma make sure no matter what the fuck goes down, I’ma make it happen.
What was it like bringing the visuals for “Broken” to life?
So dope. Me, my manager Brian, and basically my other manager Jason (they’re a tag team), we’re all on our way to a meeting, listening to the song and thinking of ideas. The visual is very real ‘cause I wrote the song on my keyboard back home. I came up with these four super simple chord progressions and wrote a ballad, all singing.
Went to the studio, told the homie “I want to put drums on this. I’ll rewrite the verses, but I want to make this hip-hop.” The visual: I’m on the piano playing while writing the song. I start to get frustrated so I rip a page out of the book and put it on the side of the piano where there’s a box of her shit. I accidentally knock the paper into the box and didn’t even know. When I throw more of her shit into the box, not knowing where this paper is (I’m not thinking about anymore), she ends up finding the note. She’s like “wtf is this?”
She sits down and starts reading it, but what’s written is actually the second verse. She’s mouthing the second verse while the song’s playing, which was a dope visual we incorporated in. I have a microphone in my hand walking around her in the room to represent how real it was when she was reading it. I was right there telling it to her myself, but she doesn’t see me. She’s in the middle of the room reading. She’s broken and hurt because she can’t believe what she did. What she’s missing out on. By the end, you actually see her wrapped around the microphone wire, which is that surprise “oh shit! That’s hard.”
What are some goals yourself as an artist at this point of your career?
I want to have a song that gets a million streams on Spotify the first day. That’ll be when I know people are really fucking with me. I know people are fucking with me now and I appreciate it but the second something like that happens, that’s when the calls come. That’s when it gets serious serious.
As an artist, I view this as a vessel to help people. It sounds so corny but the feeling of helping somebody who legit needs it or can’t help themselves is such a sick feeling. Doing shows and seeing that first-hand makes you want to do it even more.
What’s your take on the music industry?
I haven’t been submerged in it long enough to have a true feeling. The way I see it now, what everybody says is true. There’s a lot of bullshit that comes with it. Any time you feel good about something, there will 100% be someone saying “that’s ass, that’ll never work.”
There’s been certain situations where I didn’t even know that was a thing somebody could want to claim. If I were to write something and somebody else is in the room, and we record that song and want to put it out, somebody who’s just chillin’ in the studio could be like “yo I was there, I inspired that. Just my presence.” That’s something they could legit profit off. From now on, it’s me and the producer. We’re here to work. It’s cool to have people in the studio, definitely the energy changes. I never would have ever thought that was a thing. Back to that vibes and energy thing, it’s real.
How’s that YouTube money?
It honestly helped a lot. [laughs] I’d never throw it away but there’s a stigma that comes with it. People try to put me in this box where I’m a YouTube rapper. I’m not a YouTube rapper, that’s just a platform I came up off of. The blessing of coming up on YouTube over SoundCloud, which no disrespect I love SoundCloud, is that YouTube pays. I was able to make money in high school and save that shit.
I was living at home (I still am), I had no expenses. I just put that shit in the bank and let it sit. Once I was in the position where I knew what I had to pay for, that’s when I was like “I have this lump sum of money now that I earned the clean way. I can put it towards building this even bigger.
3 things you need in the studio?
Lights. I bought that Philips Hue shit, I put that in my bedrooms light. I put wraparound LED lights and shit. Gotta have my phone ‘cause I write on my phone. I have to be dressed, as if I’m ready to go out type shit. When I dress nice, I feel good.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing music?
I can’t even answer that truthfully. I never knew what I was going to do in the future until I found music. The second I found music, I was like “this is the only thing I’m doing.” [laughs] My mindset way before anything: “if music doesn’t work out, I’ma be homeless.” I never saw myself doing anything else.
What do parents think?
They fucking love it. Not in like a “my son’s doing so great” type of way, they try to keep it lowkey. So many people ask about what’s going on. Honestly, there’s a darker side to it. I don’t want my siblings to feel like they’re not doing enough because so many people ask what I’m doing. I’m conscious of that. I’ve never said that before.
It sucks sometimes because everybody asks “what’s going on with Austin?” I know it’s hard for my parents because they’re answering the same questions. I put myself in my sister and brother’s shoes when they hear that, that’d be annoying. My brother graduated college from Rutgers, that’s a huge deal. I knew I was never graduating college, but I felt like he thought that wasn’t enough because no one really talked about it. Nah, that’s tough as shit. I couldn’t even get through high school, literally passed one point above passing.
I want to make sure everybody knows, I’ve never talked about it with my family before. I don’t want them to think “you’re just being big-headed and thinking about that for that reason.” I just don’t want anything to be skewed. They love it, definitely appreciative of it. They worry a lot because it’s a completely new environment they never thought they’d have to deal with.
Anything else you want to let us know?
A lot of new music on the way. I have a tour coming up. Check my website out, officialak.com. If I’m in your city, come through. I’m excited to take on this journey, this shit about to be crazy.