The Cover Story

Rico Nasty: “I think genre deserves to get bent and broken”

As Rico Nasty prepares to drop huge alt. single Black Punk and hit the UK / Europe in July, the vital Maryland musician makes her Kerrang! cover debut to reflect on going from poet to rapper, rock and hip-hop’s give-and-take crossover, and creating her own revolution…

Rico Nasty: “I think genre deserves to get bent and broken”
Emma Wilkes
Jamie Lee Taete
Lindsey Hartman

Rico Nasty’s teachers often told her parents that their daughter had an excellent memory. When they gave the class poetry to learn, Rico could pick it up faster than any of her peers, sometimes after reading it only once. “In order to remember stuff,” she explains, “I would see [the information] as a song. I literally always loved music.”

She grew up immersed in sound, with many of her earliest memories made watching her dad create music in the studio. Although it would be a few years before she began to write it herself, Rico unconsciously laid the groundwork for her future by continuing to explore poetry, writing poems for her church while she was in middle school, and later turning her hand to spoken word. “I wouldn’t say that I ever learned how to write music,” she says, “but I felt like [writing poems] helped me kind of figure out how writing music would work.”

When she was 14, Rico – real name Maria-Cecilia Kelly – was expelled from her boarding school in Palmer Park, Baltimore, for smoking weed. She was subsequently sent to a public high school in Prince George’s County, on the border of Washington, D.C. “There were a lot of people there who made music,” she remembers. “There’s so many people who I went to high school with who are rappers now. There was this little group, they used to dance, and they started making music for fun. I started hanging out with one of the girls who used to dance with them, and then I would just be around them. So when they started making music, I was like, ‘Let me make music with y’all!’”

The story of how she made her first song at the age of 15 glistens with the sort of dazzlingly small details that could only be regaled by someone with a photographic memory. She even remembers the date – December 21, 2012, because it was the supposed day of the Mayan apocalypse. “I went to school, and it was raining. I’d skipped school. I’d fucked my shoes up [because it was] muddy. Because we couldn’t take the real road, we had to go through the fucking woods because we couldn’t get caught by the police skipping school. We smoked. It was right before winter break.” The resulting song was Tumblr Famous Bitches.

As Rico transformed from poet to rapper, academic pursuits began to diminish in importance. “My mother would be like, ‘You got home late yesterday, I didn’t see you pick up one fucking book. You didn’t do homework all week. I don’t even know if you went to school.’ That would be our daily conversation. Three times in my high school career, she got phone calls home from my teachers being like, ‘Maria hasn’t been in class for two weeks.’”

She wasn’t playing truant for shits and giggles, however. She was making music. “I feel bad for my mom, though. I wish she would have just known it would have worked out because I know she was just trying her best to keep me in line. I put her through so much shit.”

Alternative music entered Rico’s consciousness through a variety of unorthodox means. One of them was video games, particularly Guitar Hero, but some of her most instrumental discoveries came from, believe it or not, the Shrek soundtrack.

“Growing up, I knew all them songs by heart,” she smiles. Her favourite being Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation. “I would go on a computer and search [those songs] up. I would literally look up, ‘Shrek Bad Reputation’. Joan Jett popped up and I was like, ‘Who is this?’ Then I became obsessed.” The suggested sidebar led her further down the rabbit hole, leading her to find Paramore, Weezer, Death Cab For Cutie and other emo/alt. staples.

Although her dad was the musician of the house, Rico absorbed just as much musical knowledge from her mother. “My mom used to listen to Blondie, my mom used to listen to Amy Winehouse, a hell of a lot of ’80s music, Whitney, Janet, Beyonce, Shakira. My mom used to listen to Shakira all the fucking time, especially Beautiful Liar. That song is lowkey my childhood.”

Crucially, she also adopted her mum’s habit of using music as an outlet for catharsis. “If she was in a sad mood, she would listen to sad music. She listened to music to help her through a rough day. [When] she was having a good day, she would listen to happy music.” This inherited trait became invaluable after her dad was sent to prison when Rico was 15. “I was angry when my dad got locked up,” she remembers. “I was rebelling, and I wanted friends. So I used music to distract myself and cover up what was really wrong.”

“The sound of my son’s heartbeat was the sweetest music I’ve ever heard”

Rico talks about the impact of hearing her son’s heartbeat for the first time

A couple of years later, Rico’s boyfriend Brandon died of an asthma attack. Shortly afterwards, she found out she was pregnant with his child, which came as a shock to those around her – “I was always the innocent one,” she says, assumed not to be the type of girl who would have her first child just as she finished high school. “When that shit happened, everybody was like, ‘We have no idea who you really are.’ When I had my baby, everybody shitted on me. Everybody talked about me behind my back. I was the talk of the town.”

She had to learn to not give a fuck. “What were they doing for me?” she questions of the people on the sidelines who weren’t contributing anything of value to her life. If all they had was criticism, they didn’t matter. Listen to anything the now-25-year-old has committed to tape, and the shimmering, braggadocious confidence with which she spits her lines is one of its most remarkable characteristics. All of that attitude came from that time in her life. “Having my son was what made me confident,” she asserts. “That’s all I had to be confident in.”

And that's just one way in which having her son was transformative. “There’s something about being so young and seeing life and death side-by-side,” she explains, in only a brief reference to Brandon’s death, a subject she prefers not to talk about. “I started feeling like I should express more about what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful for the fact that when I first started rapping, I was on WIC [an American scheme helping low-income pregnant women and new mothers access nutrition and healthcare]. I was on fucking food stamps. I was on Medicaid. I was getting paid $400 [about £320] a month. When you look at a baby every day, it becomes your drive, and then your dreams really start coming true. You know how they say, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize?’ That’s the prize right there. My fucking baby.”

Motherhood is a very visible aspect of Rico’s life. Her son Cameron appears periodically on her social media accounts, and his innocent chatter can be heard in the closing moments of her upcoming record. It’s all for a purpose: “There’s not a lot of women who feel like they can be accepted for both [their career and their family life].” It’s why the experience of being a mother in the music industry, juggling career and family life, is not often discussed. In the alternative world, it’s spoken about even less, as Venom Prison’s Larissa Stupar acknowledged during her Kerrang! cover back in January, revealing that the lack of conversation led her to be unsure if she could safely play shows while pregnant.

Similarly, young mothers have also not had their stories told a great deal. Often, the faces Rico most appreciates seeing at her shows are those of young mums like her whose shoes she once walked in: “I love them so fucking much.” Indeed, when becoming a parent represents such a huge turning point in her life, why would she want to minimise it? “My biggest thing is never to be accepted,” she says, “but simply just to tell my story. And my story is my son.”

Hip-hop and rock have an unlikely friendship that goes back decades. It’s birthed some of the scene’s most ambitious crossover events, from Aerosmith and Run-DMC modernising the former’s classic hit Walk This Way, to Linkin Park collaborating with Jay-Z for the Collision Course EP, to Hayley Williams guesting on B.o.B’s 2010 mega-hit Airplanes. It’s created whole musical movements, particularly nu-metal, and in more recent years, emo rap and trap metal.

Although the heavy music community has been historically stereotyped for its genre elitism, a number of hip-hop acts have been welcomed in with open arms. A few decades ago, it was the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill, and even the most musically close-minded of metalheads are partial to a bit of Eminem. Nowadays, the artists crossing the border are those like K! cover star Denzel Curry, Run The Jewels and Rico Nasty herself.

In spite of this relationship between genres, however, Rico never expected the alternative world to show any interest in her music. “That was a really, really big moment for me,” she smiles. “I really appreciated it.” She doesn’t believe it’s necessarily the sound that has attracted traditional rock fans to hip-hop artists like her, but the live shows, where hip-hop has leaned into rock culture as much as rock culture has leaned into hip-hop.

“Cardi B doesn’t make rock music, she uses guitars, but the shows are like a metal show,” Rico explains. “My shows are like heavy metal shows. They’re chaotic as fuck, chaotic people flying every which direction, there’s mosh-pits and all of that shit. [There’s] an equal give and take going on right now, for sure.”

“The shows are determining whether or not artists are rock or punk”

Hear Rico Nasty on the intensity of hip-hop gigs

Indeed, hip-hop and rock are intertwined so closely that both are simultaneously witnessing an explosion of female talent, and one where women of colour are playing an essential part. It’s long overdue, after decades of women struggling to see themselves represented, and consequently there’s a growing thirst among fans to hear new voices beyond the male (and in rock’s case, often white) paradigm. Alternative fans with their fingers on the pulse will have sensed the sparks of excitement around the likes of Meet Me @ The Altar, Nova Twins and Pinkshift, while in hip-hop, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat and Cardi B have all made meteoric rises. Rico’s excitement about this bubbles over. “This is the fucking future,” she enthuses. “Women have literally taken over hip-hop. They’ve taken over R&B, they’ve taken over pop. It’s happening right now.”

The rise of female energy in hip-hop has been catalysed by each of the aforementioned major players experiencing viral fame. Rico Nasty is undoubtedly a part of this wave too, especially on a viral front, with her 2016 hit iCarly amassing 500,000 views on YouTube in a matter of months, before she rose to greater prominence after her 2018 singles Smack A Bitch and Poppin’ set TikTok ablaze. Rico herself puts down the democratising power of the internet as the cause for the equalisation of genders in hip-hop.

“The internet is a double-edged sword,” she muses. “It can break you to fucking pieces and it can rip you a new asshole. But once the internet likes something, you’re kind of unstoppable. Once the internet likes you and you have your own fanbase, there’s nothing a label can tell you. What can you do? The internet gives everybody visibility nowadays. I feel like people should use that to their advantage.”

Rico acknowledges that neither genre is a misogyny-free utopia, however. “Especially in metal, people get shitted on for the way they look. Women [still] get shitted on.” But her response to such narrow-mindedness is blunt and simple: “Get the fuck over it. We don’t care.”

Most 17-year-olds aren’t sure of who they are yet. Rico Nasty was the same. It was at that age that she released her debut mixtape, Summer’s Eve, in 2014, while still trying to find her own sense of identity as a person, let alone an artist. She found an answer in Nicki Minaj, the artist who inspired her to become a rapper in the first place, and someone she describes as “a creative genius”. Anyone clued up on their Nicki trivia may know that throughout her career, she has adopted a series of alter egos, most famously Roman Zolanski, a twin brother figure who she becomes when she's angry.

Rico did the same thing. She developed the character of Tacobella to represent herself at her softest, while her Trap Lavigne persona is a fishnet-wearing, hard-as-nails punk. Eventually, as she became more sure of her own identity, as Rico, even just as Maria, she outgrew those alter egos. “I was trying to compartmentalise myself,” she reflects. “Really, it’s like, when I’m Maria, you can catch these hands, when I’m Tacobella, you can catch these hands. When I’m Rico, you can catch these hands. I don’t wake up and say, ‘I’m going to be Tacobella today.’ I’m just me.”

This compartmentalising and categorising, Rico reckons, helped her fans, more than anything, to understand her artistry. “I love to do super-soft music, then to do super-hard music,” she grins.

The vastness of her own genre-defying musical spectrum might have at one time been seen at confusing, but in 2022, where genres are cut up, rearranged and endlessly collaged, it’s better accepted that sometimes, music has no need for such definition. When she first signed a record deal, Rico was told that her music was ahead of its time. Whoever said that made a compelling point. “I treat genre like a bitch on the street,” she says. “I think genre deserves to get bent and broken. I don’t ever look at genre; I only look at vibes.”

“I don’t ever look at genre; I only look at vibes”

Listen to Rico Nasty discuss genre and why it’s an outdated concept

That much is clear from her recent musical output. The cuttingly confident Intrusive is a scuzzier, harsher blend of trap and drum‘n’bass with an undercurrent of rock energy that could be faintly reminiscent of WARGASM, Dana Dentata or Ghostemane. Meanwhile, Vaderz fuses siren-like guitar wails with thudding beats, Rico delivering her bars with a raspiness that with a familiarity to anyone who loves harsh metal vocals. Both showcase Rico at her most self assured, even violently so – hers are the words of someone who feels so unstoppable that any wrongdoer could be cut down in an instant. 'I like putting on my make-up, ready to slash throats,' she raps coolly during Intrusive, 'Chokin’ bitches out with spiked chains and rope.'

Yet in testament to her versatility, there are surprises to come on her upcoming seventh mixtape. There’s a wounded guitar ballad that appears out of nowhere, and later, a touching musical tribute to her son and mum. Beneath her hard shell is a vulnerability set to be revealed, which feels all the more striking because of how unexpected it is following songs about sex, drugs and 'spitting on racist c**ts.'

But it’s upcoming single Black Punk that is perhaps this record’s biggest statement of intent, and Rico’s most overt appeal to her growing alternative audience. It’s a call to arms for those who still feel like outcasts within communities of outcasts, specifically the people of colour who might be the only non-white person in the room. It’s an anthem for alternative black power.

“Being a black punk person, walking into certain rooms is very uncomfortable,” says Rico. “People look at you like they’re fucking afraid of you. People count you out. People downplay you. People think you’re weird. This song is for my weirdos who resonate with that sense of alienation that comes with being just who you are. I thought it was very important to acknowledge my black people, because they’re just starting to get acknowledged in the punk space. It’s a calling for them. If you resonate with this song, you might want to come to a show and find more people like you so you don’t feel so alone when you’re walking through the hallways blasting this song.”

Rico Nasty knows what it’s like to feel like a misfit. That feeling, after all, is often what draws people to alternative music, and is what bonds them together. But above all, she knows how to find power in that feeling.

“Those things you don’t accept become the outcasts,” she says. “They will begin to make their own revolution. So whatever is happening, I’m happy to fucking be a part of it.”

Rico Nasty's Black Punk tour hits the UK and Europe this July.

Rico Nasty wears:

Jacket: Heurueh
Glasses: Gentle Monster x Coperni
Shirt: Mimi Wade
Bottoms: Honey Birdette
Shoes: Naked Wolfe
Necklace: Fueyo
Pink Bunny Hat: Ryder McLaughlin

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