His freestyle videos amass seven-figure clicks, his rendition of Nicki Minaj’s ‘Chiraq’ garnering over 12 million views. His popularity online has led him to even bigger looks, most recently as an actor on the premiere of Fox’s massive drama Empire. His role on the show linked him with Chris Rock and Rick Rubin, who count themselves among Montana’s supporters — but it’s clear that he doesn’t need help from anyone in high places, as his success is truly organic. He’s sat in rooms with Kardashians, but remains dedicated to the independent ethos that has gotten him this far.
Gearing up to release his debut full-length in May, Montana discussed Empire, his links to Kanye West, the merits of sobriety and why lyricism is so important to him.
“There’s no surface to scratch with most of these rappers nowadays. It’s plain.”
Do you wanna tell me a bit about what it was like to work on Empire?
It was cool. Everybody was real down to earth. What I can say is, it was time-consuming. So many takes, it’s way different than shooting a music video. They had professional cooks and everything. We took our breaks. My chair was right next to Terrence Howard’s chair and that was kind of a surprise. I had my own trailer and everything. It was actually cool, that type of stuff, to see how working in film works. Terrence Howard was real down to earth.
How did you end up getting that role?
A talent agent made a post on Facebook [asking], “Who’s the best rapper in Chicago?” And she said that my name popped up the most. She went and checked out my ‘Chi-Raq’ remix video and she said she felt like I’d be perfect, so they called me in for an audition. I did audition. I just had to rap in front of Lee Daniels. And the next day I ended up getting the role.
What do you think it was that separated you from the other Chicago rappers who were invited to audition?
I don’t know who else was asked to audition, but I just rapped one of my raps that has a lot of pain and some rage in it. Just like anybody else, I feel like it’s my lyrics that’s more potent than anybody else.
That’s something I noticed in general about your music. It’s different from a lot of what outsiders expect from Chicago. What did you listen to growing up that got you in that lane, as opposed to staying in line with the trends that become popular outside of your city?
My three favorite rappers are 2Pac, DMX and Lil’ Wayne. As far as the creativity side and metaphors, I would say Wayne influenced me a lot. Really dissecting lines and picking things, letting things have double meanings. Sometimes if you trip on someone’s wordplay, that’s real creative to me. His uniqueness and out-of-the-box thinking is what I admire [about him], so it made me want to try and be the best at metaphors [and] to make my fans participate, to have to dig to understand certain things.
A lot of these rappers, you listen to them and you don’t have to tap your friend like, “Hey, did you hear, bruh? Did you hear what he said? Do you get it?” You don’t have to do that with too many rappers. There’s no surface to scratch with most of these rappers nowadays. It’s plain. There’s nothing to really be broken down and looked at. I think [Wayne] influenced that part of my craft.
But as far as DMX, that’s probably more of the passion and rage I bring out. And 2Pac, that’s the relative shit, the stories. The messages. Just giving people a peace of mind and showing that he cares about the community and people that he’s not even really responsible for –– you can tell he [cared] about them. I put messages in my music because I know it can help out, or touch more people than I’m even aware of. And that’s even when I’m dead and gone, [I] can still influence and inspire people. So I make sure I put messages and positive things in my raps.
Did growing up in Chicago’s South Side also inspire you to talk about community?
No, not actually. I think I’d be like this anywhere, just being at the bottom, wherever it is, and knowing the struggle, how hard it is and how odds is against us, it really has nothing to do with being from the South Side of Chicago. I wanted to be relative and reach out to people all over. It’s not like I wanna rap about how life is living in Chicago. How does that help other people living places that aren’t Chicago? It’s not really a proud Chicago thing. It’s more of a life, in general, thing.
I wanted to go back to Empire because I know working alongside Chris Rock on set led you to connecting with Rick Rubin. How did Rock make that connection?
I was talking to Chris Rock about my situation, the numbers I had on YouTube, which was probably 70 million at the time. He asked me my name and I figured he would look me up on YouTube and he was actually texting Rick Rubin like, “Check out this dude Montana of 300 and let me know what you think.” Hours later, we got a break and went to our phones and he told me, “Rick Rubin says he likes you,” and he showed me the text message. He said, “I’m gonna put you guys in tune with each other. You definitely need to go to L.A. to work with Rick Rubin, man. Kanye goes there all the time. A lot of different famous people go to his crib. He’s a cool dude. You definitely need to get up with him.” And he stuck to his word.
Did you guys work on anything together?
No, we’re not working on a project or anything. It was basically me showing him what I have and him showing me what he has. I had an offer, too, for signing with him. I had an offer to sign with Kanye. He actually came to the studio too. I got a lot of offers. [Rubin] said the door was open if I ever changed my mind. He asked me what kind of deal do I want and stuff like that, but that’s about that.
Do you want to stay independent?
I just like having control of myself. I don’t really like being told what to do or worry about someone shorting me on my money or doing things behind my back. Being independent you really know what’s going on for yourself. Being lied to about how [much] this costs or that costs, you have to be here, you have to be there, you have to do this. Being independent, I can be like, well, my son’s birthday is this day, so they have to find another date. Artists that are signed can’t do things like that. You have to go work [for other people] and make their money back. I just feel real free. I’m doing the same thing, if not more, than a lot of artists that are signed are doing and I don’t owe nobody shit. I’m my own boss. Who wouldn’t want to be their own boss?
In general, do you think it’s a bad idea for a rapper to sign a deal?
No, because I feel like me. What makes me me and effective is how potent my lyrics are. [There are] people out there with beautiful voices that can sing but they’re not great at writing lyrics and material, or they don’t have grade A producers, so they need a label that can pull in producers and great songwriters that can write with their voice, that can put together the presentation they need, because they wouldn’t be able to do that if they were just working on their own. I’m good. I don’t need ghostwriters. I don’t need a stylist or people to dress me. I know how to be my own worst critic.
Signing a deal is helpful for some people, but if you can do it on your own and you’re seeing progression, stick with it and ride it out. You could look up [as] you gain more and more and say, “I still don’t owe nobody.” It feels good not to owe anybody. It feels good not to be in debt. A lot of people don’t know, but [when] rappers get on social media with big watches and big wads of money, holding up money to their ear — dude, that’s really not your money. That’s like if I gave you some drugs to sell for me and I said, when you’re done selling them, bring me the money back. And while you sold some of my drugs, you hold some of the money in your hands, flashing it on camera and you still haven’t paid me back yet. It’s not actually your money, it’s just in your possession.
“I felt like if I worked on music, I could be the best rapper ever.”
Do you think being sober is a key to your ability to be success on your own?
What made you decide to be sober?
All my life, my mother’s been a crack addict and my dad was a pretty heavy drinker. He could control his drinking, but I’ve just seen a lot of how it affects people around him and I hated the feeling. I’ve never wanted to put my sons through that. I just feel like to be the best at anything, you have to be, mentally, at a higher level. Killing my brain cells, how can I do that? I like to have a clear mind and be on my Ps and Qs. I want to add to my brain, not take away from it. The plan is to add money to my pockets, not add a bad habit that takes away from it. That’s going against the goals.
To me, it’s just common sense. I’ve got friends who will ask, “I said that last night? I did that last night?” I don’t wanna wake up in jail one day like, how the hell did I get here? There’s a sad story I heard one time about a guy that woke up in jail [to find out] he killed his brother while he was drunk. He was driving drunk and his brother was in the car with him and now he’s in jail for [manslaughter]. It hurt him, not because he’s in jail but because his brother’s kids are mad at him because he was drunk and driving with their dad in the car.
You said you like to add to your brain — what are your favorite ways to do that?
I like to read, watch movies with subtitles. I’m always trying to soak up things, become the stronger version of myself that I can.
What kind of books are you into?
Mostly self-improvement. Stories that have good messages in them.
What do you mean by “good messages”?
Like, I could tell you a story about myself and you could find it inspirational. Ones where there are plenty of times I could have gave up, but I told you my mind process behind why I didn’t give up. It gives you the type of hope, that motivation to do the same thing or that burst of energy to be effective or make something happen. A lot of people don’t get that and I think I get [inspired] more than other people. I’m just very self-motivated.
I asked my brothers who both play sports, “Have you ever told yourself nothing is going to stop you from getting to where you’re going to get in life?” In reality, they’ve probably never told themselves that. I’ve told myself that a lot of times. I can’t expect everybody else to tell themselves that. Not everybody has a go-getter in them. You could want something for somebody that you love so bad, but you can’t make them want it that much for their damn self.
Was that spirit what transitioned you from playing football to rapping? Were you rapping while you were still playing football?
I could rap a little bit. I wasn’t making money with it, but when I played football and was running track, I was better at track than I was playing football, but I was doing it and it was fun and I didn’t have a love for it. And I have a love for music. I felt like I could go to the NFL, I might not be the best running back that ever ran, or in the league at the time, but I felt like if I worked on music, I could be the best rapper ever. [I couldn’t make] football my way of life. But I’ve got friends and family who hit me up when I drop a video like, “Hey cuz, I want you to get on this track with me,” but this is not your way of life. You’re ready to get in the studio now because you’ve seen me doing something. You haven’t been to the studio in almost a year! But you knew you could rap a little bit, but you’re not taking it seriously.
I’m willing to put in overtime. I’m not drinking my spare time. I’m not smoking in my spare time. I’m working on my mind in my spare time, I build my vocabulary. It’s like having more weapons: you could take this .40 caliber handgun or this AK-47 and this rocket launcher. You have more weapons! Are you gonna settle for the weapons they give you or are you gonna go read a book and add to your vocabulary? Add to your options of weapons and know when to use them? At the end of the day, rapping is English. You have to know English, you have to know words. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s going to show to intellectual people. People will say, “There’s no surface to scratch with him, he’s not saying anything I haven’t heard before.”
Were you a talkative child?
I wasn’t. I was real observant. How I’m talking to you now? I usually don’t have conversations like this unless it’s someone that I love a lot or I feel like is worth my conversation like this. There are so many people who are so loud or so obnoxious or think they’ve got life figured out, I’m not gonna waste too many of my words with them. But you can learn way more from being quiet than talking about what you think you know.
What should we expect from your album in May?
Expect the unexpected. I want to always be unpredictable and effective. I feel like if you can always keep those two things, then you’ll always be relevant. There’s too many rappers whose fire dies out because they’re predictable now. “You’re rapping again? Oh, we know what you’re gonna talk about.” It might be to a different pace because the beat is different, but you’re talking about the same shit you was talking about and it’s really not a lot you’re covering. I don’t feel like too many rappers can inspire me to do anything but turn up. “You inspired me to fuck a bitch over and call her a bitch afterwards!” That’s the type of shit that’s not timeless.