An unlikely rapper picks up the mic, finds his true voice

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As part of our series Age of Expression, teen artists from around Southern California share stories about the art they create and why they do it. Listen to the first installment in the series, on a young poet who used her art to help her adjust to life in the United States. 

When Tobias Hess first started rapping, his peers didn't take him seriously. He found it a little embarrassing. 

"I’m very skinny, very obviously Jewish, I wear goofy clothing," said Hess. "So it was just funny. It felt like I was a white-boy parody of a rapper."

Hess has learned to cut out those voices and the 16-year-old recently started putting his music out there on his SoundCloud. 

As a music producer and rapper who is also gay, he is developing a unique voice. 

"My life experiences may not directly pertain to what hip-hop is generally known to be," Hess said. "But you can frame any story in an interesting, reflective way. So why don’t I – instead of talking about what my life isn’t – talk about what life is."

Hess will soon begin his junior year at Wildwood School in West Los Angeles. His love of music goes back to when he was four years old, tinkering around on the piano. He started taking lessons and always liked to make up songs. When he was 10, his piano teacher suggested he start composing on the computer; that opened up a whole new world. 

"It’s just pretty insane: I can access any sound in the world," said Hess. "It’s intimidating, but it’s beautiful and freeing and really cool."

Hess was mentored by Kip Blackshire, a musician and producer who's working with Prince and Dr. Dre, and takes classes with the Young Producers Group, a program that teaches kids about electronic music. 

Hess talked with KPCC's Priska Neely about embracing his identity as a rapper and what he hopes to accomplish with his music. 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the stories he wants to tell with his music

A lot of crazy things happen in teen life in Los Angeles. I don’t think everyone knows that. You know, drugs are extremely readily available, there’s this whole terrible Instagram culture that I don’t think adults have any knowledge of. There’s like a whole pop culture within the teen world.

I’m really interested in the duality of music that sounds fun, but has something deeper to it.

Things change a lot when you’re kind of coming of age and figuring yourself out. I feel like me and all my friends and everyone I know has changed so much in a year.

LISTEN TO "MOTHER TIME" - Warning: contains explicit lyrics

On being a 'gay rapper'

I came out about a year and a half ago. ... The whole “gay rapper” thing is something I’m still figuring out right now cuz I think that is an interesting part of my identity, especially as a rapper. I mean, hip-hop has a terrible reputation with homophobia. Yes, that’s part of my identity but I also want to be a fully rounded artists who talks about other things, other than that.

Both my identity as a person and my identity as a musician collided to form something that’s really my unique voice. And now when people make a little joke, like “Oh did you write that?” After I perform or something or like, “Oh I didn’t know you were a rapper, that’s really funny." I don’t even give that any validation because I know that I’ve worked really hard and have found something that’s true to me.

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