20 Questions With: Tall Paul
“It’s time I introduce the no good good guy.”
So begins the title track from Tall Paul’s 2015 album, No Good Good Guy. But for the Minneapolis MC, the running theme of duality isn’t so much a display of artistic irony as it is a true reflection of his reality.
Born Paul Wenell Jr., Tall Paul is the first to admit he’s no hero. Nor is he a villain.
Like most of us, he falls somewhere in between, juggling his music career with fatherhood, social work, sobriety and spirituality. But unlike most of us, he has the courage and self-awareness to not only wear his struggles on his sleeve, but to share them with the world through his art. Indeed, it’s this honesty and authenticity that has informed his work, defined his voice and struck a chord with his ever-growing legion of listeners.
Spitting about everything from Martin Luther King’s imperfections (All Kingz) and the murder of George Stinney (No Questions) to more personal matters (Reservation Guilt Trip and P3’s Song, among others), Tall Paul manages to blend the universal with the individual, pumping out hard-hitting hip hop laced with heartfelt lyrics and social consciousness.
In addition to building an impressive back catalogue and landing gigs across the country, he’s racked up hundreds of thousands of Youtube views (including 282,000 and counting for 2012’s Prayers in Song, in which he blends English with Anishinaabemowin). He also has an active social media following and recently took crowdfunding back to the streets, raising $1,000 in a matter of days.
But more than anything, Tall Paul reminds us that it’s possible to remain positive amidst negative experiences, that we can have good intentions but make mistakes. He reminds us what it is to be human.
We recently reached out to Paul with 20 questions. Here’s what he had to say about meditation, the music biz and more.
How did you come up with the name Tall Paul? How tall are you?!
After I hit my last growth spurt in high school I shot up to 6 foot 3 inches tall. People just started calling me Tall Paul, so I decided to stick with that when it came time to pick an artist name. I’m still 6’3″.
How did you get in to music?
I started writing when I was 14 years old. From there I kept doing it as a hobby, and eventually I progressed to writing songs and doing drunk freestyles at house parties and whatnot. When I got sober seven to eight years later I decided to pursue music more seriously, and I began performing and recording, hitting open mics and doing shows.
Why hip hop?
Hip hop is pretty much all I was ever exposed to as a kid and I always enjoyed listening to it, and one day I just felt like writing a rap.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I don’t know if I necessarily have any musical influences in terms of artists that influenced my style of rapping, but I listened to Bone Thugs N Harmony, 2Pac, Biggie, Snoop Dogg, The Fugeez, The Luniz, DMX, BIzzy Bone’s solo work, Twista’s underground work, Eminem when he first came out, Bad Boy Records.
Favourite song (or artist) of all time?
Ooh that’s a tough one. I don’t know if I have a favourite of all time but I’d have to go with Jay Electronica right now. I just saw him live for the first time and he put on a crazy show, definitely one to remember.
Comparing some of your earlier stuff with your latest album (No Good Good Guy), how would you say your sound has evolved over the years?
I’d say it’s become more self-aware, honest, transparent and open-minded. My penmanship and lyrical ability has naturally seen significant progress as well. A lot of it’s forever changing too, such as the writing process for any particular song.
Explain the meaning behind the title, No Good Good Guy.
Duality. It just means being imperfect, exhibiting positive and negative traits and therefore simply being human. Imperfect, but willing to grow and trying to do so.
Tell us a bit about your day job as a youth worker. How and why did you get into that line of work?
I got into youth work shortly after I graduated college, and it was something I intended to do upon graduation because I felt it would be a field of employment that would satisfy my spirit. I looked back on when I was a kid who went without a lot of direction, having had no father figure. I wanted to be a positive figure for young native kids in similar situations. How I got my job was actually through Facebook. A friend told me they were hiring and who to talk to, and I happened to be friends with the supervisor on Facebook so I messaged her and she interviewed me the same day. She offered me the job right there. It was a pretty cool experience.
Do you find that your music makes it easier for you to relate to the kids you work with, and vice versa? If so, how?
It does. Kids in the school I work at tend to gravitate toward me simply because they know I rap, and it just makes it very easy to connect with them on a meaningful level.
What’s your favorite thing about the music biz?
That it provides me with a means to make a living doing what I love to do most.
Oftentimes true talent isn’t recognized, and people with little to no true talent can become rich and famous just by knowing the right people and having money. It’s more driven by money than by talent.
Describe a typical day in the life of Tall Paul.
A typical day in the life of Tall Paul. Here goes: My son and I wake up around 8 a.m. and get ready for the day. He does his homework and plays video games for a bit if he has enough time after his homework. While he’s doing that, I do whichever daily lesson I happen to be on that day, from a book called A Course In Miracles. Afterward, I meditate for 20 minutes or so. It’s a form of meditation called Transcendental Meditation. After that I’ll check on my son and his homework, and then we head out around 9 a.m. to get him to school by 9:30. After I drop him off I’ll get something to eat and stay on top of whatever my ACIM lesson is for the day. From the time I’m done eating to the time I go into work I might do any of a number of things, whether it be writing, making music, taking care of miscellaneous things, connecting with friends and family, paying bills or whatever.
I work from 1:30-5:30 p.m. doing youth work. We do a lot of different activities with the kids in our program, which is a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) program. I get off work and pick my son up from either his after-school program or from his mom’s, around 5:30 p.m. He eats dinner while I meditate again, and then I eat too. From there, again, we might do any of a number of things depending on the day and how we’re feeling. During this time I often do things around sobriety, whether it be going to a meeting, speaking at a treatment centre or at a detox, meeting with an individual one-on-one to help them however I can with their sobriety, and so on. My son usually gets to bed around 9 p.m., I might stay up until as late as 1 or 2 a.m., but not always. Just depends on the day. Overall, my days consist of work, fatherhood, music, sobriety and my spirituality.
What role do your Indigenous roots play in your day-to-day life in general, and your music in particular?
They play a large role in my life during work because the youth program I work for is Native-specific, not to mention the school I work in is too. It often plays a part in my spiritual life as well. In terms of music, it’s always been a part of my identity, so naturally I speak on my Indigenous identity here and there whenever I’m feeling like it. It just comes naturally, it’s not something I plan out or make it a point to do. It’s just a part of who I am and sometimes it comes out in my lyrics.
Do you consider yourself an activist? How does your platform as a musician/artist play into that?
I don’t. I try to stay away from applying labels to myself and others. I do some things that you might say an activist would do, but I just consider that me being me. I’ve rapped a lot about socially conscious topics, and it enables me to be a voice that speaks on important matters, with the intent of raising awareness and educating others.
Hip hop has a reputation for its focus on drinking, drugs, violence, sexism, etc. How do you reconcile the genre’s history and reputation with the positive messages you’re trying to spread through your music?
First off, I’d say most genres of music speak on those things, and that it’s not just hip hop that does so. Second, I’d say that reputation is largely pushed and perpetuated by corporations, major labels and Top-40 radio stations. The music business makes it lucrative to speak on those things, so a lot of people do it just to make money, and not even necessarily because they actually live the life they rap about. And again, this doesn’t just happen in hip hop. I think hip hop just takes the hit because it’s largely undertaken by people of colour, and we all know this country’s history with intentional, undercover racism.
As far as I go, I wouldn’t even necessarily say that I try to reconcile any of this. I simply do my best to be an honest artist, and that entails imperfection. Not all of my music is necessarily positive, and I do have music that also pushes those not-so-classy things. It’s not intentional, it’s just what comes out of my pen sometimes. I do try to educate my listeners on important matters, and I try to inspire and motivate them to undertake positive actions and changes in their lives. I’m positive and negative, a No Good Good Guy. Always trying to get better though.
As a musician, how do you define success?
Making music exactly as I see fit and being happy with my product, as well as being able to support myself financially with it. Knowing that I’ve made a positive impact on the lives of others, however big or small, that’s always a great feeling.
What’s the highlight of your career so far?
I’d have to say rapping on Sway In The Morning. That was pretty dope. Other than that, traveling around the country doing shows.
What has been your biggest challenge or struggle to date, either musically or personally?
My egotistical self (laughs). Figuring out my place in this world and what my true purpose is, that’s been extremely difficult for a long time. I’ve finally arrived at the answer to that, but it’s been a long and hard road and it requires a lot of work and maintenance.
There’s a ton of MCs out there. What makes Tall Paul different?
I spit from my own personal experience and in my own style. When you do that, it’s not really possible for anyone to sound like you.
What are you currently working on, and what’s coming up for you in the next year?
Musically, I’m working on a collaborative project with DJ Kool Akiem and $kywalker, as well as a solo project produced solely by Jake the Jeweler. I might release some one-off singles and features here and there as well. I’m also working on putting together a potential tour with Baby Shel, Thomas X and Leftfield. The four of us were recently featured in a VICE/Apple Music documentary titled Reservation Rap and we want to set up a tour with the same name and concept: going to reservations, towns and cities all throughout America and Canada. We’re hoping to go national and international with it but we’re still in the early planning stages. We do have a handful of shows already booked in the midwest.
To get connected with Tall Paul, check out his social media channels below: