A lot has changed for Cameron Henderson, rap name Lorde Fredd33, in the year and change since he released his debut album, Norf: The Legend Of Hotboy Ronnie. The Milwaukee emcee has had another kid, gotten married, and wrapped up a new album. But Norf itself seems rooted in a place and time—the 26-year-old’s youth spent in the north side of Milwaukee.
While most music invites listeners to incorporate it into their own worlds, this album pulls audiences down a wormhole into the grim north-side Milwaukee environs of his adolescence, through the power of idiosyncratic boom-bap production and ruthless lyricism. On tracks like “Sanctified,” the member of the New Age Narcissism crew delivers cutthroat lines like “Water rollin’ in the deep / Watch the company I keep / A real shepherd guides the sheep,” with constantly shifting vocal tones and over the glitchy vintage production of MKE producer Q The Sun (real name Kiran Vedula).
For Henderson, though, Norf is not just a tale about the past. It’s an urgent message that the same hardships and social ills he encountered as a child continue to expand and fester. Over the phone, before his June 21 show at the Memorial Union Terrace—which caps off a day of hip-hop as part of Make Music Madison—Henderson discussed the challenges of bringing a listener into a difficult world, the necessity in doing so, his upcoming work, his personal philosophy, and the irony of being awarded the mantle of creating a sound for a city that actively blights one’s own community.
Tone Madison: How has the album sat with you in the time since it was released, and through all the life changes you’ve experienced in that time? The album seems like a really vivid portrait of one side of you, but then you have all these other things have happened to you more recently.
Cameron Henderson: I haven’t mastered presenting the other sides of myself through music so much, but I have been working on some other aspects of doing that. I started a smoothie tutorial blog recently with my son, my five-year-old, so people can see the other sides of myself. But as far as the music goes, I tried to pick a lot of the different sides. But, as far as this first one goes, it really was a depiction of the era of recklessness and desperation. No matter whether the song is fast-paced or slow, it’s that concept of the volatile nature provided by the surrounding environment that we come from.
It’s like yeah, I’m a great, loving dad and shit like that, and I’m a great, loyal friend to a lot of people. Especially locally, in the artist community, I’m a confidant or this sage character to a lot of them. They come to me for advice or to listen to their music and hear their stories and shit like that to give them my view. Those aspects of myself, those are also true. But, at the end of the day, everything in the music is me for the most part unless it’s a second-hand story or me presenting an observation. But, Hotboy Ronald isn’t really like a character, but that depicted the stage where I went through the most recklessness in my life—that stage in my life where I was a freshman in high school, I was in the hood. There was a real volatile situation around us, and shit was just crazy.
And while all that was happening, Milwaukee got attached to the phase of the “Hotboy Ronald” dance. I remember that constantly playing all the time. A lot of us even thought that the artist was from Milwaukee because of how much it was accepted and adopted by all of us. It turned out he was from the south. (laughs). But we just didn’t know any better, man.
Tone Madison: Do you think you might favor depicting that part of your life because you have the most distance from it, and therefore the most perspective?
Cameron Henderson: In a way, but if you’ve ever been to the city, if you’ve come up in the city, you begin to realize nothing really changes. Most of the people haven’t even changed, and the situation has only gotten worse for most people in the surrounding areas. So it’s more so, I depict that because all of that has led me to where I am. All of that recklessness and all of that shit you hear in that music is the shit that has been my entire life up until now.
And now I’m looking for something else.
I really removed myself from that, even though my behavior and my reactions to things sometimes do reflect where I come from. When you look at the album cover—it’s me reading Alchemy, The Ancient Science by Neil Powell with a chopper between my legs and me holding my son. It’s me trying to figure out a way to elevate from where I am. I am exactly where I’m supposed to be based on what educated and brought me to this point. If I wasn’t brought up in this environment, maybe I would’ve been somewhere else, maybe I wouldn’t have even had a fucking kid, maybe I would’ve never heard of this alchemy shit.
It’s like I am that shit. I am not far removed from it. We’re in it. Milwaukee is constant, shit has not really changed at all. It’s only getting more segregated, and the black inner city really doesn’t have much power or any say in what happens around us. Politicians are still doing their thing, TV is still moving, music is still moving, kids are still being born, but we live in the same world. Man, it’s the exact same shit, and most people born in Milwaukee don’t get to see anything outside of Milwaukee. Even if they watch it on the internet, they can’t fathom how to get out of it, how to become that which they aren’t.
It’s just wild, man.
Tone Madison: Do you think it’s fair to say that though the album doesn’t represent all of you, it does capture the part of you that allowed you to present the most accurate depiction of Milwaukee?
Cameron Henderson: Oh, yeah, I’m definitely Milwaukee all the way through. Every fucking word, for the most part, like all the terminology I use, I try to make sure comes from Milwaukee, because a lot of Milwaukee artists never do, because they’re ashamed of where we come from or don’t see the value. I try to put all the things that brought me here into all the music.
Tone Madison: That’s kind of what I was thinking. The record is not so much about a person, but about a place. And because you were so focused on telling a story about a place, did it limit how much of yourself you could share?
Cameron Henderson: I’m a microcosm of this universe on a holistic scale, but in reality, I’m a microcosm of Milwaukee because I’ve spent my entire life pretty much in Milwaukee. Just by me being quiet and you observing me physically, all day every day, no matter what city I’m in, you would see a picture of Milwaukee. I am Milwaukee, and every person that comes from Milwaukee is Milwaukee.
I come from a train of thought, where I don’t think people are unique, and I don’t think people are special. I’m a firm believer that we do have unique perspectives, sure, because there is only one us, but, at the end of the day, we’re just numbers. The only thing that is unique to us is the work that we choose to do based on how we see the world around us. And I wouldn’t be doing myself any justice or my city any justice if I didn’t talk about it like that.
The United States doesn’t give a shit about Milwaukee unless it’s something negative. Hell, a town over doesn’t give a shit about Milwaukee unless they hear about something on the news, which is usually something negative. Any artist from Milwaukee has the responsibility to highlight where they’re from.
In this album, I told a shit-ton of stories, and it was more an exhibition of different styles that I have come up with from melding with a) the hip-hop from the golden era, the ’90s and shit, and b) from where we actually come from. It was for the Norf, you know what I’m saying, so they understand that you don’t have to rap a certain way. Every Milwaukee artist doesn’t have to rap like a Detroit artist, which a lot of Milwaukee artists are being influenced by.
Texas, places like that, create unique styles based on their culture and their environment, and Milwaukee doesn’t do that. Milwaukee hears what’s hot, and they copy. But I’m from the Northside of Milwaukee. I’ve spent all my years there, and I don’t sound like [those other artists]. As a matter of fact, it’s not one way I don’t sound like none of that, it’s a hundred.
I lead by example, which all of the artists in Milwaukee follow at the end of the day because they definitely feed off that energy. And that’s what it’s like being that first cowboy on the top of the hill, taking those damn arrows and giving the other artists the perspective of, “OK, that worked for him, that didn’t work for them,” and then hopefully the next lot, the next season, the next quarter, a bunch of kids doesn’t sound like Detroit, or Chicago or Atlanta or Texas.
I think it’s our responsibility, those of us that get heard on a national scale, to encourage kids to create their own wave and their own lane, fearlessly. We have nothing to lose. We’re from Milwaukee, no one gives a shit about us as is.
Tone Madison: How do you respond then to the reactions to the album that have praised it as defining a style or voice for Milwaukee hip-hop?
Cameron Henderson: I’ve observed that people are constantly looking for the brashest statement or the most attention-grabbing statement they can make because there’s this feeling of not having enough time and everyone’s attention span is fucked up. People rush to acclaim things and say that.
I’ll take any compliment that’s given, and I appreciate appreciation. I just love that people are listening to the music. I know that my sound is unique. I know that I’m original and that nobody can do what I do. I’m okay with them saying that, but at the same time, it’s not necessarily going to be the new slogan for the year [laughs]. I’m not going to throw it in people’s faces.
It goes without saying that I successfully created an original style derived from the city of Milwaukee. I did not do that with the intention of creating a unique Milwaukee sound. Will it be? That remains to be seen. If the next chunk of rappers starts pulling from the Lorde Fredd33, then I think we can say that.
Tone Madison: So it seems like you give credit to the city for your sound, rather than expect credit for making an established sound for it?
Cameron Henderson: I think that the main fundamental difference between myself and a few other artists from Milwaukee that get their name posted nationally, it’s just that we don’t compete with other Milwaukee artists. Any time we set a career goal, it has nothing to do with Milwaukee. We’re basing our goals on reaching the industry and the rest of music on a global scale. If I’m aiming at creating a unique sound, it’s on the scale that the world has never heard because that’s the sort of impact you need. So, that’s a lot of push and drive to come from a little-nothing city like Milwaukee to try and make a name for yourself on a national scale. You have to do that. Aiming to do anything for Milwaukee, that’s a bonus and a plus, and I love it.
I actually like to claim I’m from the Midwest, like I hail from the Midwest, more than Milwaukee. Aside from not killing me before I reached 25, Milwaukee hasn’t done more for me than it’s done to me, so it’s like, should you be grateful to your captor for letting you go? For not taking down and murdering you? Or, do you just forget about it and keep it moving?
Tone Madison: Milwaukee must have a lot of different connotations for you. It sounds like the Northside must have a more positive connotation for you than the whole of Milwaukee?
Cameron Henderson: Right, Milwaukee didn’t make me. The Northside made me, and the north side is forgotten and shit on by the rest of the city, even though the rest of the city is occupied by people who are gentrifiers, people who would never step in the Northside unless it’s for a pass through. The same Northside that my homies are ashamed to say they’re from unless it benefits them in some way. The same Northside that the white people don’t like unless it’s in a safe little box that has no way to break or crack or join their world. The same Northside that the same news reporters who report third-hand stories from don’t even come to for any reason unless they have a police escort. That Northside can never fucking change, bro. The same Northside that looks the same since I was a fucking toddler, just with more boarded-up houses.
Whites, Asians, all sorts of people have real estate out here, and they’re scared of our people but still profit off of us. And, we don’t do anything to better our own situations, we just feed other people and making their day brighter, while we just have to go through the same bullshit. That’s who I do it for, the Norf, to let my little homies know. The backhand of that is that I have to do way more with my life than music, to counter that bullshit stigma that we can only do music or play sports. It sucks that I’m good at this because my little homies look up to me, and I don’t want them to think they have to be a fucking rapper.
But, if me succeeding as a rapper, which I will, which am, is that Jesus or that messiah role in the system, where I do it so you don’t have to, so you can be anything else or everything else, I’m with that. And that’s the sacrifice I’ve been making the past few years. That’s why I go so hard.
Tone Madison: I want to sidestep a little a bit to talk about the album, specifically the production. Despite incorporating so many different musical styles, it really has this cohesive feel, which I think adds to the world-building of the project. So, could you tell me how you cultivated your beat selection?
Cameron Henderson; It’s always organic. Usually, I’ll just stop by the homie Q The Sun. That’s my in-house producer, and we create most of our shit together. There have been a couple of times where he’ll already have shit done, and then he’ll e-mail it to me. But most of the time we just start off with a sample and we just work from there.
Tone Madison: It makes sense that you primarily worked with one producer on an album that pays homage to an older sound, since that’s a more vintage approach, rather than having something like 13 producers like most albums tend to have nowadays. What do you think that kind of approach added to the record?
Cameron Henderson: Q and I have put in years together, so we know each other backward and forwards. He’s very versatile, and so am I. We have a “water commitment” to our music where if it don’t flow, we don’t go. He has proven to be able to remain as flexible as I am, and so because of that we still work together. And don’t get it twisted, I definitely search for other producers. It’s just the relationship between the writer and producer is just very fickle and very important. And you can’t just pull that out of your ass. It has to be very organic. I don’t think anyone else can match my drive or my flexibility or my versatility. And that’s why I haven’t really worked with anybody else in the Midwest.
When I went to Los Angeles, I met quite a few people who are really nice, but we just haven’t made the relationship. We haven’t gotten in there and became melded to where we know each other, and that’s the stuff I like. If you just write a hit to it, that’s one thing, but if we’re making something that has that flow and concept to it like Norf does, then I and the producer have to go into the wilderness together if we’re really going to tell a story together.
Because Q doesn’t come where I come from. He’s a first generation Indian guy who is from Racine originally. He doesn’t come from the Northside of Milwaukee, which is good, but at the same time, he doesn’t have the life experiences I have. So for us to get to that same wavelength, we have to get to know each other.
Tone Madison: I’m also interested in how you go about turning this album into a live performance and bringing it into other spaces, since it is so based on a specific time and place. What is it like to bring a project like that into a place like Madison?
Cameron Henderson: It’s great. People who don’t come where I come from get a little insight and get to feel the energy more than anything, that unfamiliar energy. If they have heard stories about Milwaukee, the inner-city or the Northside, they get to meet somebody that makes it real for them.
I’m not a college guy. I’ve got my own list of problems and life experiences. But during the performance, we come together to fucking groove. That’s what it’s about. We come together to feel something and vibe out together, sweat a little bit and go through the motions.
Tone Madison: Before we wrap things up, I’d love to get some other information on this new project you mentioned earlier. How does it compare to Norf?
Cameron Henderson: Norf was a concept album, right, that was about everything that culminated in me to bring me int to existence in this world as a young adult who wants more and wants better. This next record is more of a vibe, and we want to capture energies and pour it into different jars. It’s a different kind of experiment.
Tone Madison: Could you elaborate more on what it means to “pour energy into different jars”?
Cameron Henderson: With Norf, it was a message. With this one, it’s like how do we capture the energy of like, when I’m in my zone with the homies listening to all Southern shit, like that vibe.
People hear my recorded music, but then I do a complete 180 when I perform it live. Like there might be a calm song that I’m going punk rock as fuck on during a performance. People always say, “Damn, your music is so much different during a performance.” This time, I wanted to bring the performance into the project, on those vibes where there’s no more chill, and I want you to just really listen and feel something. I put a little more effort in the interludes. It’s a lot more realness, a lot less storytime, but there is an important story throughout.
In the interludes I’ve got voice recordings of fans calling my hotline number on my website at like 3 in the morning drunk, talking about something they came across or giving me well wishes, just so people understand that I hear them, I feel them and I’m here, and I’m still moving forward. And there’s life lessons and stuff, like “live flashy and die nasty.” It’s different messages I’m putting in there, but at the end of the day, it’s all pretty much the same shit.
Because the message I want to get across to kids and adults before I die is do whatever the fuck you want. Ask questions if you want to know the answer but understand that if you want to know the truth, you have to apply and figure those answers out for yourself. Do what you want, stop complaining so fucking much and just enjoy your life. I’ve been through a shit ton, and it sucks. But, who cares? If you see something then go get it. If you want to change something then go change it. Do better and stop bitching. That’s always my message in every song I make. There’s a piece of that in every one, you know what I mean?