by Natelege Whaley
It’s a cold afternoon on December 8, 2010 in Washington, D.C. on Howard University’s campus. Despite the weather, 50 students are loading a charter bus in front Cramton Auditorium heading to New York City, bringing warmth and energy in support of their fellow Bison Ashton Travis, who is performing that night as a finalist in a competition called Hip-Hop Unplugged.
Everything about tonight feels uneasy. The cold, rugged streets of New York City are far from the southern roots of Travis’s home and birthplace of Houston, Texas. At this point, the 20-year-old has only been home four times since being away at school. Also, the competition was not all the glory he had expected. Although he has made it to the finals, Travis had wanted out in the previous round after messing up his lines on a song he had wrote, thinking he did not deserve to win. He admits he is a perfectionist of some sort, but judges that night saw different and advanced Travis to the finale anyway.
It is now 8 p.m. and Travis is prepping to take the stage at Crash Mansion in the Bowery section of Manhattan, where the Hip-Hop Unplugged finale is taking place. He will compete against two other rappers by the name of Mike Check and WhiteOut. A panel of well-known hip hop industry judges including mega producer Just Blaze (who’s produced for Jay-Z and Kanye West), Sway from MTV, and Datwon Thomas (Editorial Director for VIBE magazine) are there as well. Donning a black Pittsburgh Pirates hat, gray sweatshirt, all-black Jordan sneakers and his rhymes in his head, Travis steps to the stage of the brick-walled venue. The lights are on him. All the late-night practices, performing in front of the mirror, and writing Travis has been doing for months is coming into play. His Howard supporters give him the energy he needs to liven his set. “H-U!,” he yells into the mic to acknowledge them. “You know!,” they yell in response. Travis performs an original song called “The Black Experiment,” and a cover verse of Jay-Z’s “Who You Wit” with a live band. This time he doesn’t mess up his lines. After performing, Travis looks to the judges to get feedback.
“You are ready to be a superstar…,” Big Mike From the Roundtable Show said.
“Your performance reminds me of Jay-Z when he first started out rapping,” said Sway.
The crowd applauds as Travis receives positive reactions from the judges.
After the performances were over, Amanda Diva, the host, announces that there is a tie. Mike Check and WhiteOut were given the same score, making Ashton Travis the winner of the third installment of Hip-Hop Unplugged.
Judges and industry people in attendance surround him with handshakes and pounds, journalists interview and take his picture, and his Howard family cheer him on. For Travis, this moment is surreal, as he has only began this journey for his career not too long ago.
Only 16 months prior, it is the beginning of fall semester 2009, and Ashton Travis is welcomed to Howard University with thousands of students from all over the world for his freshman week orientation. After entering the Freshman pageant and being crowned winner, Travis’s name began ringing bells around campus. During Christmas break with the encouragement of his friends, he decided to record his first mixtape Mr. Freshman which was released in March 2010. This landed him a series of performance spots at events on campus. Using that momentum, Travis went back into the studio to record Mr. Freshman 2.0 (June 2010), a marking of his overall freshman year experiences onto soulful beats and samples. And now as winner of the third installment of Hip-Hop Unplugged in December 2010, he has been given the opportunity to record with artists such as Mickey Factz and Amanda Diva. As summer 2011 approaches, Travis is gearing up for the release of his new mixtape Good Vibes. It’s hard to deny that Travis’ career as a hip-hop artist is taking off before he’s even had a chance to walk across the commencement stage. But, his first steps towards these transitioning moments began when he was a young child growing up in Houston.
“My creative side kind of came when I was around 8-years-old. My cousin used to make little beats on his computer. And he would rap, so I would rap too with him. But it was nothing serious at all. Like it was not even a part of my mind to say I wanna be a rapper when I grow up,” said Travis.
While visiting his aunt and uncle’s house after school, Travis remembers hearing soul legends such as Teddy Pendergrass and Al Green. Travis also had a television in his room as a child which he said opened his world more. “Some people say that’s bad but it can be a good thing if their kids watch the TV right. I learned a lot of stuff from TV. Of course I used to watch everything on Nickelodeon, but I also used to watch MTV and BET a lot. I loved music videos. Love love love.”
When he reached eighth grade he began penning his thoughts in the form of poetry after he was inspired by Messiah, a spoken word artist who is ironically a Howard University alum. He kept his poetic talents to himself until his junior year of high school when he began competing in poetry slam competitions.
But hip-hop was never too far from Travis. During this time, he was a part of a rap duo called No Statik with his friend Jason. Together they recorded a mixtape, performed shows around Houston and grew a buzz with high school students in the area. After graduation, Travis and Jason began making plans to continue their act in college at Howard University, but only one of them received an acceptance letter. “We both had plans on going to Howard and continuing. But I got in; he didn’t. So it was one of those ultimatums: stay and keep working on music see where it goes, or go up to Howard? He stayed.”
Once Travis stepped on the upper quadrangle of Howard’s campus, also known as “the yard,” during a sun-filled day in April 2009 for a tour of his future school, he knew it was where he belonged. He recalled watching probates of sororities and fraternities, and students sitting out enjoying the weather in between classes. As a student athlete in high school, running track and playing basketball, Travis passed up scholarships at other schools to attend Howard. “I chose Howard, one because sports wasn’t my life anymore, I grew out of that. And two because Howard has such a legacy. Howard epitomizes Black power. All these intelligent young Black people trying to do something with their lives and do something against the status quo; against the stereotypical acquisitions towards our people. I wanted to be apart of the movement.”
In the months to come Travis began attracting the right people to create his own movement. In summer 2009, Travis “met” his current manager Shenick and his public relations coordinator Sydney through a “Howard University Class of 2013” Facebook Group. Then he met Jimmy, who was his roommate freshman year, and he jumped on the team as promotions manager. Once his team was set, Travis’s vision of becoming a hip hop artist become more real. Travis has received plenty motivation from his friends. Far-and-few trips home has left him counting on this support system. “My friends, they know me. I can talk to them whether friends and business and it won’t collide. So that’s the best part,” Travis said.
Fast forward to March 2011 and it is Travis’s spring break. But, he’s not back home in Houston or away on a beach in Florida or the Caribbean next to turquoise oceans. Instead, he’s at home in a house not too far from campus, that he shares with his manager Shenick, Jimmy and other friends he’s stayed close with since his freshmen year. He sits laid back in his living room couch while Shenick and Sydney, sit across from him. Travis had just came from a studio session and was winding down. This spring break is no vacation. It is extra time to finish shaping up his upcoming release Good Vibes.
His Hip-Hop Unplugged win now has more music industry people watching so it is important that he puts out a more professional quality release than his previous two. Travis said the idea for the mixtape was to create music that was relating to day-to-day life. “Good Vibes, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be in a good mood. But if you’re having a bad day and let’s say you tripped and fell on your face at the bus stop and you’re listening to Good Vibes, and I rapped about tripping and hitting my face, you’d be like ‘wow I feel better.’ That’s what I was trying to bring with the mixtape.”
Speaking about real experiences as opposed to a made-up lifestyle glorifying materialistic items that are stereotypically associated with rap music sometimes is most important to him. “You’re not going to hear me rapping about driving a Ferrari doing ‘donuts’, which I could and make it sound dope, but I really don’t think it’s a point to talk about it if I don’t live it.”
As a new artist, Travis is finding his sound, but he’s not completely clueless on where he’s going with it. “I really don’t know how to define my music. I know it’s hip hop, it’s R&B, it’s soul, it’s life. It’s just a whole ‘nother genre, but I don’t want to sit here and try to make up a name. I usually just call it hip-hop life.”
Thus far, Travis’ has been compared to rapper Big Sean because of the likeness in their voices, as well as Drake because he can sing and does so on some of his tracks. But, Travis feels most honored when people compare him to rappers he grew up listening to such as Andre 3000 and other notables.
“Kanye,” said Shenick, his manager. “I always hear Kanye because of his personality.”
“No,” Ashton interjects. “Cause he’s Kanye. I’m Ashton. I don’t think anyone is like Kanye. That dude is on some other sh*t,” said Travis. But any comparison to Kanye West wouldn’t be too far off as Travis admits he’s inspired by his work as well as other hip-hop artists such as Mos Def, Common and Lauryn Hill. “As a far as rappers that inspire me, it’s really those people that got soul. If you got soul, I like you.”
If everything goes as planned, Travis will join the likes of those rappers who came before his time. Currently an independent artist, Travis has begun catching the eyes of labels, but is in no rush to sign. “I’ve just been taking my time focusing on Good Vibes, and when that’s over with and done I will start focusing on the future and seeing what they will offer me.”
In Travis’s future, his dreams are not only to have his name in bright lights. He also hopes to give back through music by putting a recording studio with engineers at an elementary school or high school back home and at Howard to give kids an outlet to discover their musical talents like he had the chance to do. “I always had this big personality when I was little and people knew me, but there are people that are reserved that you never knew who can sing, paint or draw. And the school should bring that out of them.”
Although outgoing, Travis himself even hid his talents for sometime. “I’m so complicated, I swear we can talk all day bout me. I’ve always had talents and stuff and I would have them and it’s not that I didn’t want nobody to know, but I didn’t big them up or nothing. I’ve been writing poems since 8th grade, my mother never heard my first poem till junior year. When she heard it she broke out into tears. ‘You mean you’ve been living here all your life and I did not know that you could write like that?’ That day my mom realized I had that creative gift. She’s been with me all the way,” said Travis.
Now, two years into his college experience, Travis looks in the mirror and sees a different person. After going through his own personal rifts with being away from home for so long, he was able to use music as an outlet to express himself and his challenges. He believes his experiences at Howard thus far have made him grow up. “I acquired so much patience. I used to be an impatient person for real,” said Travis.
Even in learning that virtue, Travis doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. This summer he looks to travel between D.C. and the big apple networking after he releases Good Vibes. Eventually he wants to move to New York to further his career, even if it means not finishing out at Howard. He is currently studying music management but said it is not what he expected. “I chose music management because it sounded good and it was something that I wanted to get into outside of school. But after doing research it’s not what people really think it is based on the name. I think when a lot of people hear the name they think ‘Oh you about to be in the music business learning about signing contracts and record labels or something like that,’ but it’s not,” said Travis.
But, he doesn’t want anyone to think he wants to ‘give up’ on finishing school. “I don’t like saying forget school because I’m an advocate for education, it’s just…” Travis pauses for a second and looks to carefully find his words. “I feel like if you know your purpose in life and opportunities arise you don’t pass it up. There should be no reason why I shouldn’t be going full force at this career if this is what I really want to do. And I’m meeting people in these high positions in the industry telling me this and that about myself. What am I waiting for?”