This story was originally written for MEJO 356, a feature writing class, in November 2017.
When he and his family road tripped long distances, Will Young wrote songs.
In some ways, the songs a 13-year-old Young wrote while curled in the back seat of his father’s 2008 Chevy Tahoe differ from the raps he writes now. Back then, his lyrics weren’t meant to accompany a kick drum, snare or melody. They weren’t about proving anyone wrong, or chasing the dreams that no one knew he had. They were rhymes about Mario Kart and Pokémon and other “random stuff.”
The pen he scribbled with was his voice. The notepad he scribbled on was his recording studio. And his audience — instead of the crowds from unexpected places around the world — was his father, mother and sister, who were all in the car with him.
“As far as knowing when I’ve been wanting to do it,” Young said, “I’ve always loved writing.”
But in other ways, the songs he wrote as a kid aren’t all that different from the ones he is currently producing as a junior in college. The environment he writes in isn’t that different, anyway. In the summer of 2017, Young road-tripped an estimated 30 hours from North Carolina to Colorado with a friend of his, and when he wasn’t behind the wheel or napping or conversing, he was typing lyrics on his iPhone.
He wasn’t a rapper then. He was still only a writer. Nobody — not even his closest friends from home, his fraternity brothers or his family — knew about his musical aspirations yet.
Even Young’s roommate for two of his three years at UNC-Chapel Hill, Kyle Cocowitch, didn’t hear about it until he picked up Young from RDU airport right before the 2017-18 academic school year started.
“This summer, I went backpacking for a month in Wyoming and I was like completely [disconnected], like I didn’t even have my cell phone,” Cocowitch said. “Within the first 10 minutes of seeing Will, he was like, ‘Yo, I was writing some lyrics on my way out to Colorado. Can I freestyle for you?’”
When Young got back to campus, he met up with Jemal Abdulhadi, one of his fraternity brothers who was also a founding member and co-president of the Student Hip Hop Organization on UNC-CH’s campus. Abdulhadi dropped his first mixtape the semester before, and Young expressed his interest in Abdulhadi’s project from the jump.
“At the end of the summer, he showed me all of the lyrics he’s written,” Abdulhadi said. “There were a crap-ton of lyrics. And he let me hear some, and it was like pretty good shit. And that was when I initially realized that he was trying to get into it.”
“I came back to school, talked about it with some people, got laughed at a lot ...” Young said with an exhale of laughter. “It does sound a little ridiculous. I don’t blame anybody.”
After all, Young is an eastern Carolina, relatively-wealthy white kid with a stable, supportive family. He’d never, first-hand, been exposed to the realities most hip-hop artists sing about. Rap culture idolizes the roses that sprout from the concrete. Young grew up where the grass was fertile. He simply didn’t fit the part.
“When he was thinking about doing it,” Cocowitch said, “he had told a lot of his friends, and everyone’s friends said, ‘Ha-ha-ha-ha, you’re an idiot, you’re gonna suck, etc.’”
So, in response, Young stopped talking about it.
And he showed what he could do.
Young pulled his key from the ignition and stepped out of his car. He swept his eyes over the one-story house, noticed a little Bull City poster in the corner of a window and cautiously opened the front door.
A lanky white guy, who sported a snapback hat on his head and a Charlotte Hornets jersey on his chest, greeted him. He was Young’s DJ for that session in Bull City Sound Studio. Rap posters covered the walls of the sitting area, and LED multi-color lights lined the hallways and lit the way to the studio room, which was really just a bedroom cluttered with recording equipment. The recording booth, where Young actually rapped, was a walk-in closet big enough for two people to stand comfortably.
“Oh, this is so me,” Young thought to himself. “It’s not like fancy, you know. It’s just like someone who loves music just turned his house into a little bit of a studio.”
He recorded “Preheat,” the first song Young ever released.
“I went and sat on this couch and watched him go through the whole song and mix and produce and whatever,” Young said. “And then he was like, ‘It’s done.’”
Young had the product now. His dream was finally ready to get off the ground. That’s what he wanted, after all, right? He could only scroll through so many stanzas of notes before wanting to share them with the rest of the world. He could only send so many RapChats — a messaging app whose messages are really audio files of friends freestyling to each other — before formulating a scheme to publishing a song. This was exactly what he wanted. How could it not be?
And yet, there sat the writer, rethinking the whole endeavor. He stared at his laptop screen for minutes.
Before he clicked the publish button on his Facebook post that would share his first ever song with his friends and family, that’s all Young was — a writer. The words were still safely hidden in his iPhone, just as they were when he’d jot them down on the notepad in the back seat of his father’s car. His dream was still protected from being shot down. If he wanted to, he could quit without consequence. He could undo all the efforts he’d made to get to this point, save himself before defenselessly opening up to all the people that would not take him seriously; to those that deemed the pursuit of his peculiar, radical and admittedly-unrealistic dream ridiculous; to those that never understood why he tried to be someone he wasn’t; to those who never tried to understand who he really was.
Will Young, the writer, was about to add a new moniker: Young Will, the rapper. And to many, the name was as backward as his delusion.
“So crazy thing I'm trying to be a rapper now,” Young’s Sept. 6, 2017 Facebook post, with the SoundCloud link attached, wrote. “Wrote some songs, bought some beats, recorded at a studio and the first single is uploaded. This is honestly the scariest thing I've ever done…”
And then the writer, who stood more vulnerable than an open wound diving into saltwater, waited.
Because, really, that’s all he could do.
Today, a month and a half after Young posted his first ever song, he can’t help but reflect and laugh about the situation he’s made for himself.
On the one hand, his initial Facebook post accumulated 122 likes and 12 comments. “Preheat” has over 1,800 plays on SoundCloud, and his other single that he has since released, “Illuminate,” has over 2,800 plays. Young added a music minor to his academia. He paid for a SoundCloud Premiere account, using it to track where his listeners live. He’s received listens from all around the United States and the rest of the world. From Kazakhstan to Nigeria. From Guam to Russia.
“I know what good music sounds like, and I might not be able to create that yet …” Young said. “I’m kind of in this range right now where I can make stuff that’s like not bad. I just got to be able to separate myself and be like, people actually want to listen to this.”
On the other hand, Young says his mom still hopes he’s going through a phase. He still feels discredited at times.
But the rapper will admit: That’s what he opened himself up to when he clicked his plans into motion. It’s what he asked for. And, considering everything, it’s fun.
“There’s a song that I want to write called ‘Blue Shells,’” he said, referencing his favorite childhood racing video game. In Mario Kart, the characters collect special power-ups and hurl them at other racers to slow their opponents down. If a player were to pick up and use a blue shell, the race’s leader at that time would get blasted and chucked straight up into the sky temporarily.
“It’s going to be funny, but also serious. It’s about life’s troubles that you can’t really avoid. With a blue shell, even when you’re doing well, you can still get hit with things you can’t control.”
Young Will may have exchanged a pen for an iPhone, a notepad for a studio and his father’s SUV for the world wide web. But at the end of the day, he is the same writer with the same ideals Will Young has always embodied.
After all, he still writes songs about Mario Kart.