Saint Cassius’ Instagram bio reads “an ANALOG swing in a digital playground,” which speaks volumes to his love for live music. Growing up in a musical household playing brass instruments, the songwriter, artist, and musician has what most people dream of: a Grammy. One decade ago, the Bronx, New York native had the rare opportunity to write on Bruno Mars’ Diamond-certified single “Just The Way You Are,” working alongside producer Needlz. They two also worked on Lupe Fiasco’s critically-acclaimed album, Lasers.
Fast forward to 2020, real name Khalil Walton continuously sees music as a coping mechanism for life. Having endured several pivotal losses throughout his lifetime, including his mother and 2 piano teachers passing away, Cassius turns his pain into punchlines and creates records to uplift the masses. Starting his own publishing company Vinyl Crown Recordings in 2013, he went on to serve as the publisher for J. Cole’s 3x Platinum single “No Role Modelz.”
With his forthcoming album Balloons Don’t Sink, Cassius conveys his philosophy that if a balloon is properly gassed up, it will fly until it reaches its peak. Flaunt caught up with Cassius via Instagram Live to discuss his upbringing in New York, working with Bruno Mars, the inspo behind Balloons Don’t Sink, and more!
How’d you get the name Saint Cassius?
My grandfather came up with the name Cassius, he was a Shakespearean historian. Cassius comes from the play Julius Caesar, who was killed by his best friend Brutus. A lot of people don’t know that Brutus’ older brother Cassius is the one who put him up to it. I used to always be the kid who came up with all the crazy ideas me and my friend would do, my grandfather called me the leader of the conspiracists. Eventually, he called me Cassius because Cassius was the leader of conspiracies. Saint is something I adopted later on, I realized we’re all sinners trying to become saints at some point. I figured if I claim it, it’ll force me to get there.
Being from the Bronx, New York, what was the household like growing up?
I was born in the Bronx, raised everywhere to be honest. My mom died when I was 8 months, very early on. I was one of those village kids, lived with my grandparents. On both sides, my grandparents are from Harlem. My grandmother on my mom’s side lived in the Bronx, stayed with her for a bit. My grandparents on my dad’s side moved across the bridge, stayed with them for a while. I moved to Atlanta for high school, so I was all over the place living with everybody. That experience really helped me to have a worldly perspective because I got a chance to see different households, different neighborhoods, different vibes. It built my ear and taste level for what I was into.
Who were you listening to growing up?
As a kid, one of my favorite musicians in the world was André Watts. He’s the only black composer I knew of in the world at that time, they used to always do PBS specials on him. I liked a lot of classical guys like Liszt, Brahms, Bach, Handel, but I also grew up on old school. I was very much into Frankie Beverly & Maze. Nas became my favorite rapper. Nas and Ghostface introduced me to rap when I was really young. The beginning of my hip-hop pursuits, I always wanted to make records like them. When I moved to Atlanta, I grew into a T.I. and Andre 3000 fan too. But I loved classical, that’s my first love.
You’re a trained pianist right?
I played really young, I was pretty good. I played Carnegie Hall in a couple recitals. I had a lot of loss growing up. I lost my mom, but I also lost one of my piano teachers when I was 9. I had another teacher 2 years after that, lost him too. I was classically trained young but as I got older, I lost so many people to it that I stopped and started doing my own thing.
How did you cope with all that loss so young?
I was adopted by my dad’s parents. Because they’re older, they had a lot of close friends in their lives pass away. I got used to loss at a really early age. I walked in and found my great grandmother, she had passed. It was part of my life. I cope with it through music. I’d sit down at the piano and play for hours and hours and hours. I wasn’t the most proficient musician, but I had a lot of emotion pour out of the music I made.
Your IG bio reads “An analog swing in a digital playground.” What does that mean?
I’ve always been into live musicianship. When I went to Atlanta, I went to a high school called Southwest Academy, one of the most proficient marching bands in the country. If you ever saw the movie Drumline, we’re the A&T band that Nick Cannon played for. That’s actually my high school uniform. I grew up playing brass instruments. I wanted to give my take in a hip-hop space. I know everybody’s digital and on the laptop, but I wanted to make sure we didn’t lose the element of real musicianship. We didn’t have to sample to get that vibe.
There’s people out here who are learning and know how to play instruments. If we could get that analog vibe back into music, something about real instruments hits you like no other. It’s timeless. A trumpet’s always going to sound like a trumpet, a French horn’s always going to sound like a French horn. That’s my thing, I try to bring a musical element to classic boom bap hip-hop.
Bring us back to 2013 when you launched Vinyl Crown, what was your intention?
Even before that in 2010, I had co-wrote a record with my great friend and super producer, Needlz, and Bruno. Bruno’s first single called “Just The Way You Are,” I was fortunate enough to retain my own publishing. This is way before the wave of owning your own publishing, nobody was doing that. After a while, it took some time but I saw checks coming in. I’d tell my friends doing publishing deals to do an admin deal, because that’s the specific type of deal that’d allow you to take the copyrights. Labels would all me like “yo, stop telling people we do that. We did a special thing for you, we’re not trying to do it for everybody.” You know, the slave master mentality. So I started a company called Vinyl Crown. Initially my goal was to help people, especially people of color, to create the best musical works that they could, then retain the ownership of those works.
How’s it feel to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of “Just The Way You Are”?
It’s dope. One of the few records in the last decade to go Diamond in the States, it feels good. My first record under Vinyl Crown officially was “No Role Modelz” with J. Cole. It’s really dope to have such big records in the catalog, then now at this stage be able to come out with my own music. Challenge myself to make sure I keep that bar as high as the music I’ve done for other people.
“Robert Horry Freestyle” is inspiring, what were your dreams?
My friend’s from Bulgaria, now he lives in Harlem. I was going over there to visit him and his parents for the first time, I’d never been to Bulgaria before. I was blown away because the first thing we did was go to an amateur basketball league. During all the timeouts and halftime, they’re playing nothing but hip-hop. Not what you hear on the radio, they’re playing old DMX album cuts, 50 Cent album cuts. Everybody knew the words, but nobody spoke English. It was amazing. I was surprised, they liked a lot of lyricists but didn’t understand how to speak the language.
I asked what really drove them to be enamored and love hip-hop, they said it’s the feeling. Came back home, “Robert Horry Freestyle” was the first thing I made. I wanted to create a feeling. That’s actually a sample of me singing, trying to sound like Boys II Men. Put some drums and then rapped over it. Robert Horry was a professional basketball player. From 1976 on, he’s the only player in the history of the NBA to win more championships than Micheal Jordan. He wasn’t this famous player, but he’s contributed to every championship team he was on in a major way. I’ve played with so many championship teams throughout my life. It’s important to classify people not as stars, but instead introduce winners. Some people win at everything they do, that’s something to be celebrated too.
What is it you want fans to get from your story?
My whole philosophy and name of the album is Balloons Don’t Sink, a concept I created. If you gas a balloon up the right way and you let it go, it’ll reach its peak no matter what. The only way to hold it back is to pull it down by the string itself. I’d noticed how many times I was soaring through life, I’d get either scared or I was alienating myself from my friends because I was getting to know different people or having different experiences. I’d hold myself back from what I was able to accomplish. The idea’s to let yourself go, to learn to gas yourself up the right way. Not be egotistical, but have a positive self image. A lot of the music you hear is positive affirmations for myself, allowing myself to have all the things I’ve accomplished in my life. All the things I’ll continue to accomplish, not feeling guilty for anything. Recognizing that my story’s my story, your story’s your story. Speaking my personal truth and inspiring others to speak their truth.
You got features from Jadakiss, Jim Jones, Macy Gray, Mick Jenkins…
Everything came really organically. A family member of mine grew up in Yonkers and knew Jada’s sister, same person plugged us with Jim Jones. Mick Jenkins was crazy, I was at the Grammys this past year which seems like a million years ago because of the pandemic. My little brother Desmond told me I should go take a picture in front of the Union store, because I had on the Union Jordan collab. Everybody knows that’s my favorite store in LA. While I’m in the store, Mick Jenkins comes in. We end up chopping it up. Later that day, I saw him at Lemon Pepper Wet, my friend PK’s party. We link paths again like ”alright I see you twice in one day, we should do something.” Next thing you know, we got the record together. Macy Gray’s on the project. I had a studio on 36th and 8th for a couple years, she came to do a session. One day I played her the song and told her it reminded me of her, she sang it right away. Statik Selektah’s on the new record “Harlem Hops,” he’s scratching on it.
Talk about “Harlem Hops” being inspired by the beer company.
Harlem Hops is one of the most celebrated, black-owned craft beer establishments in the country, really a prominent staple of my Harlem. We’ve turned the place into our family, a second office before the pandemic hit. It’s a lifestyle record, craft beer’s definitely a big part of my lifestyle. I like a good IPA. I’m getting into sours, it’s really good. I learned that before prohibition, Brooklyn’s responsible for a large percent of the craft beer in the country. A lot of what they had were sours from all over the world. I’m trying to refine my palette basically. They’re important, they’ve been able to flourish despite everything being shut down. We’re actually doing a beer collab soon, I’ll have my own beer out with Harlem Hops.
Greatest memory working with Lupe?
If you listen to my music, you can hear Lupe’s somebody I grew up listening to. We have a lot of the same influences. It’s the first record I wrote and somebody famous wanted to say what I said, word for word. If you listen to “Till I Get There” on his Lasers album, he’s singing over me but it’s me singing on the hook. It was cool like “alright, this is going to be my song.” Obviously the label bought it for Lupe and he didn’t change anything. He did it like I wanted to do it, which was a different experience from “Just The Way You Are.” For that, I did a lot of the music and wrote some of the hook, but they completely changed everything about the record. When “Just The Way You Are” hit, it sounded nothing like the original. For the Lupe record to sound exactly like the original, it made me feel like “alright cool, nobody has to change anything I’m doing in order for it to be dope.” It’s the first record for me where 100% the way I heard it, it came out exactly what I was thinking.
Goals yourself as an artist at this point of your career?
I want to spread my message. I want people all around the world to gravitate to the idea that Balloons Don’t Sink. I want to use my music and my story to influence positivity, positive self-image and self-belief. I’ve got a tattoo that says “my life is less about proving my non-believers wrong, and more about proving my believers right,” something that’s really guiding me. I want to spread the music and culture to all the people. I want to spread my variation of Harlem, it’s wide open on this side (central Harlem) in terms of people who are representing my neighborhood in a dope way. It’s time for us to be able to share our perspective and our influence on the culture.