“Let it rattle!”

This battle cry, the first track on P.O.S.’s new record, is a perfect summation of the gauntlet that the Minnesota rapper throws down to every other emcee. Those who have wondered where craft and honor have gone in today’s hip-hop, who remember the golden days that inspired a generation, will rejoice in the arrival of P.O.S.

On his new album, Never Better (Doomtree Records, 2009), P.O.S. explores musical and lyrical territory few rappers have visited. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t start out as a rapper—he put in plenty of time in lots of punk bands—and although he has left that genre behind, he still has plenty of angst and fire, as evidenced by his razor-sharp verbal attack and his ear-crunching guitar riffs.  

P.O.S.’s intricately woven rhymes are filled with honest and blunt revelations most rappers wouldn’t dream of unveiling to their audience. Not everyone will notice his agility, but careful listeners will catch quick-witted references to things such as Myspace (“Look at all this hate/peeled out/bounce their livers out their top 8”) and comedian Mitch Hedberg (“Who got a fix?/Bush no more/Nobody’s like, ‘Dufrane, search party of four’”).

For those who listen to hip-hop for the music, P.O.S. keeps things fresh by writing and recording his drum, bass, and guitar parts himself. It may be rare for a rapper to play instruments on his own records, but P.O.S. seems right at home picking up his Gibson guitar and shredding lead riffs and solos while rapping hooks to his songs. Sound typical? We didn’t think so either. 

His musical and lyrical abilities have earned him fans among his peers, too; many rock bands ask him to tour with them (Minus The Bear, Cursive). Maybe it’s his open-book demeanor that makes him so likeable, or maybe it’s the precision of his music that makes him so sought after.

    We caught up with P.O.S. on a leg of his tour with Atmosphere, just before he set out to take on the alternative crowds of the Vans Warped Tour. He’s got his work cut out—every night, he has to win over audiences who probably haven’t heard of him—but his confident swagger and charismatic smile lead us to believe that he will have no problem with the task at hand. 

You’re coming off of a huge rush with the well-received release of Never Better and a powerful showing at this year’s SXSW. How good does all of this attention feel after so much of your hard work?

It feels very brand new. I’m really not used to all of this attention and praise from so many directions. It’s cool, but I’m a realist, so I’m not banking on it to stick around forever. I’d like for this to stay around all year, but if it doesn’t, I won’t lose any sleep over it.

Did you expect such a great reaction?

I didn’t expect this at all. I mean, it’s a dense record–it’s not something that just anyone is gonna pick up and be like, ‘I get this.’ And for that, it is inspiring that so many people do get it, or at least attempt to.

Tell me a bit about SXSW this year. The critics seem to be swooning over your performances.

Well, SXSW was the best one ever. I’ve been there the last three years and this one shattered all of the other ones. It’s funny, though, because it’s everyone trying to get noticed, looking their best, trying to sound their best—if you stop for a minute and look around, it looks like a coolest clothes/best hair contest. I don’t do that shit. I just did what I always do and brought a lot of intensity with it, and this time people approached me. Did I expect it? No. But I wouldn’t have been pissed if they didn’t.

So how did you get the name P.O.S.?

When I was 14, it meant “Pissed-Off Steph.” Mainly because my name is Steph and I was pissed off at the time. I was in punk rock bands playing heavy guitar, though, so it wasn’t that far off. Now it means different things at different times–if I’m feeling savvy with rapping one day, it could mean Product of Skill. If I’m feeling like nothing special or average, it means Piece of Shit. If I’m doing business, it could mean Point of Sale. I don’t really worry about it much nowadays. I’ll let you choose today.

I’ll go with Product of Skill. On that topic, how did you go about writing the material for Never Better

I think it was a combination of a lot of things, really. I started writing this record a long time ago, but it got interrupted with a few unfortunate events. I was on tour with Gym Class Heroes and my van got robbed. They stole everything—my MPC, my files, my lyrics, took it all. So I started over from scratch and it was totally different than my previous stuff. I loved it. It was definitely for purpose. I really wanted to flex my mainstream chops, rapping and musically, over some ludicrously odd beats. People got it, so it must’ve worked.

You are a multi-instrumentalist as well. What did you contribute to this album musically?

I did most all of the beats and I played the guitar, bass, and organ on it. I love making music; I never want to ‘just rap.’ There’s too much of that out there right now. There is a major lack of genuine talent. I started off as a musician, so I have to stay true to that, know what I mean? I just love performing–in the studio, or on the stage.

On your most recent tour with Atmosphere, you’ve been playing guitar. Are crowds surprised to see you bust out an SG?

Oh, definitely! They love it, too. Sometimes I think that I could suck and they would still love it because no one expects to see a rapper pull out a guitar and bust some lead shit. It’s cool, though, because it allows me to play the parts I wrote in the studio and give it a raw feel live. It keeps things exciting.

As you said, you started out in punk and rock. What made you shift into rap music?

I was always into both when I was searching for music on my own. I was a skater, so naturally Black Flag was prominent in my headphones. At the same time, my family was all about R&B and soul music and my cousins were all about gangsta rap. I had so much diversity that I really had to feel things out on my own. When I was 18 my band broke up, as most bands at that age do, so I needed to find something that I could do on my own. And that thing was rap.

You certainly don’t have the same demeanor or image as most of your peers in rap do. What do you want to communicate as a rapper?

I absolutely don’t want to look or sound like other rappers. I grew up listening to rap, the style and technique of it. I studied it and figured out what I liked and disliked. It was just me and my mom living together when I was growing up, so I naturally don’t say “bitch” or “ho” because I have a deeper respect. I never say anything flashy or anything just for the sake of saying it. I keep pretty true to my lifestyle–these songs actually mean something to me. I’m not dropping money in the club, I’m not pimping women and I’m not ballin’ out of control. You know?

Explain the title Never Better.

A lot of the songs come off as really dark and heavy with a lot of weight to them. I guess I was just feelin’ that at the time. You could look at the album as a whole and say, “Damn , that’s dark.” But if you listen to it, it’s really optimistic at the same time. I’m not just getting down on everything; there is the light at the end of the tunnel on that album. Maybe they just have to search harder for it.

Are things never better for you right now?

Oh, most definitely. Things are great. I’m living my dream, touring and producing nonstop. I’m sitting in L.A. in a café doing an interview right now. Never better.

Your reign over the crowd is unbelievable. We’ve watched you turn around audiences who were there strictly for a rock show until you flipped it on them and made them fans of yours. How natural is that for you?

It’s fun, really. I get to be antagonist. They already have a preconceived notion that they don’t want to hear a rapper before their favorite rock band, so what do I have to lose? It’s the rock bands that keep asking me to tour with them—all I can do is do my thing and see who gets it. I’m just honest with the crowds, too; I think that throws them for a loop more than anything.

You certainly haven’t had to turn any crowds on this last tour, though.

I’ve been lucky, man. Things are rolling and I’m not taking it for granted.

What inspires you to keep touring and producing?

It’s the first thing in my life that struck me as what I want to do, was meant to do. It took me over. I’ve been playing shows since I was 13-years old, so it feels pretty natural now. As far as writing, it’s my outlet. I would be writing if I weren’t in the limelight even.

What is the ultimate goal of your writing?

It’s a delicate combination of not being too preachy but getting my thoughts out at the same time. I write whatever I’m feeling at the time. For instance, I’m not in love right now because I’m not ready to be in love right now, so you can’t expect me to write the perfect love song. I have to feel and experience things in order to capture them right. If I didn’t, it would be obvious that it was fake or contrived, and I don’t do that.

What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions about you?

The most common is that I’m rap-rock. I hate that. A lot of people hear my background and expect to hear Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park come out. That can really get under my skin.

What are you listening to on the road right now?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Spoon lately. I never got into the Beattles until later on in life, so I’m digging them right now. I’m also listening to a little Charles Hamilton, a little of the new Cursive record, too. I’m going on the road with them soon, so I’m pretty stoked on their new record. 

And your greatest influences ever?

The Refused are huge on me. Their album The Shape of Things to Come floored me. Kid Dynamite blew my mind up also. I vibe on some angry punk when I’m in the mood for it; otherwise, I would say the undeniable influences like Radiohead and At The Drive-In.

How would you describe your music in your own words?

Hmmm, I don’t know. I guess aggressive hip-hop with dense beats and pattern-based raps. It’s hard to say. I don’t read my own reviews because most people don’t get me. You can’t just listen to my music twice in passing and then review it. It has to sink in.

Well, luckily you’ve been playing on our iPods pretty constantly. What do you have planned for the near future?

I’m going to finish out this tour with Atmosphere and then hop on the Warped Tour for a while. After that, I have some other tours lined up and then I’m getting back to writing. I can’t let up, you know—can’t stop now.

In your song “Optimistic,” you claim that when rap is no longer fun you’ll find another hobby. Any idea what that will be?

No idea. Whatever I’m feeling them, I’ll follow. Until then I just have to do this as best as I can. There will come a day when no journalists will want to interview me anymore and I’m OK with that. That’s just part of life. But for now, things are great and I’m embracing that.

Never better?

Never better.


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