Perry Howell, also known by his rap name James Slay, grew up in the Edgewater neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. During his time at Walter Payton College Prep, he was introduced to the art of freestyling. Since this exposure, he realized how rap can be used as a form of expression. Through our discussion, he elaborated upon how he utilizes the creation of music per enjoyment, as opposed to making a profit.
Mary Tres: When did you first become interested in music?
Perry Howell: I became interested in music my junior year of high school when two of my teammates from the volleyball team invited me over to our friend Hans’ house. After we lost our chance to go to state, we went over to his house and freestyled and smoked. It really was my introduction to music because it opened up my eyes to how it can capture the moment of how you feel.
MT: What kind of genres, and more specifically artists, did you listen to?
PH: When I was younger, I listened to a lot of Linkin Park and 50 Cent; that contrast was crazy. Once I got to high school, I don't remember what year it was, my sister showed me Kid Cudi and after that, he’s been one of the most predominant artists that I listen to.
MT: At what point did you realize that you wanted to create your own music?
PH: I realized it the first time I made the freestyle because it was just such a powerful moment, even as weird as it sounds, it was just an awakening to how you can really just speak about your life. It's like kind of therapeutic because even when it's not for yourself, you can be speaking on someone's behalf. That night Cameron was speaking on Hans’ situation, which was about a breakup and I was like, “Wow, he's really capturing it for him.” It was still meaningful and therapeutic.
MT: So was it rapping more of an outlet at first as opposed to being something that could potentially be a career path?
PH: Even now I feel like it's always still more of an outlet than a career path. I feel like it's something that I need to do to express myself.
MT: Can you talk a little bit about Clark and Division?
PH: Yeah, so Clark and Division was a thing before I even really got into it. It was really just Cameron and Hans and I think they came up with the name before. But once I freestyled with them and started making music with them more, it became more of a thing that we talked about. The name Clark and Division comes from the CTA stop on the Red Line that was the closest to Payton and it was kind of like a meeting point for us. Like I came from the north side; I still got off at Clark and Division. Cameron came from the south side, he got off at Clark and Division. That was just a central spot to all of us.
MT: How would you describe the group’s style?
PH: I feel like now all have different artists that we look up to, but back then a lot of our style even though I didn't know them back then, would be Atmosphere, a lot of Kid Cudi, Kanye. I think Cameron and Hans were inspired by a lot of acoustic music too. It was kind of really well rounded and a lot of unusual hip hop artists; not the mainstream artists.
MT: How did your experience with Clark and Division eventually transition into James Slay?
PH: I don't remember when I made that but i think it might have been the end of sophomore in college. I kind of felt like I just needed some name for myself even though I didn't really feel like what I'm making is the same. I just felt like Clark and Division was pretty spread out; like there's people on the west coast and there's people on the east coast. So I just felt like I needed a name for myself to put out music and I didn't want to use Perry.
MT: And why is that?
PH: One, I don't really like the way I say my own name. Two, James Slay sounds waayyy cooler than Perry Howell. James Slay actually sounds like a stage name and it captures people's attention. I came up with ways to say it that would sound cool and make people want to repeat it.
MT: Do you think James Slay more as an extension of yourself or a persona that you put on?
PH: I’d say it's more of an extension of myself, but it also feels like a persona. Right now there’s a very hard divide between myself and James Slay. I don’t really share a lot of my music; most of my music I haven't even shared at all. That’s really James Slay, the music part. But I mean music is a part of me. As of right now since I have such a divide where I’m trying to focus on other things and that's just kind of a separate part of my life, I feel like it's a persona.
MT: Then do you feel as if you act different when you perform, as in confidence or personality wise?
PH: I act a little bit different but I think it’s just showing a different side of myself; I don't think it’s a part of me that's new or anything or that I’m faking it. I think that it's just a load of confidence that a lot of people haven't seen from me, especially like people that have known me for a long time that aren't necessarily my closest friends. They think that I'm really quiet. When I’m performing it's really an opportunity to show that I can carry myself and I do have confidence.
MT: Where have you performed so far and how have audiences responded?
PH: I’ve only performed at the Greenhouse Theater and the audience has always been responsive because it's my closest friends. I found out who really fucks with me through the audience and who showed up. Their responses were always pretty receptive. The first performance, they were really shocked. I think they were shocked at how far I’ve come, like the skill and amount of thought that I put into it. I didn't just go into it blindfolded. It surprisingly was a moment of proudness for my parents and other relatives. It was just really amazing that they could see my improvement.
MT: So you decided to study graphic design at DePaul. Why did you chose to study that as opposed to something related to music?
PH: I chose graphic design over something related to music because I wanted something that I could really depend on. Graphic design doesn't limit your creativity. It’s still a very creative field but it's also a technical field where it's in high demand. You’re basically getting paid to be an artist, which is amazing. There’s no guarantee with making rap music or hip hop.
MT: So do you utilize graphic design as an expression or is it more so career based?
PH: Graphic design is not an expression at all. I love it and I can get really in depth with it and go on and on and critique different works. But, it's always been more of a career thing because I don't just do it in my free time. Like music is something that I would always do. Graphic design is something that I would do for a purpose.
MT: What are your long term goals for either focus?
PH: Long term if I was just going graphic design, I would want to eventually become an art director because that’s where the money is. I don't know for where or whatnot, I just would become an art director and be respected because I feel like the thinking is what is really important about it; not the final project. Graphic design is about thought and that's what really separates design from art. As far as rapping, I feel like it's always going to be a hobby no matter where I go with it. I plan to make money off of graphic design to support my hobbies which includes rap. I feel like I have a good chance of being local. Graphic design is money, rap is enjoyment.