Saint JHN is steadfast on evolving. He's a confident MC with a knack for melodies. Born in Brooklyn and of Guyanese descent, JHN grew up listening to a lot of Caribbean music but was inspired to rap after he would watch his older brother rhyme in the neighborhood. In the beginnings of his music career he went by his birth name, Carlos Saint John, which he also used for a brief time when he put rapping on hold to spend time writing songs for other artists. JHN worked hard and his talents landed him co-writing credits on songs like Usher's 2016 hits "Crash" and "Rivals."
"It was humbling and I need that. I took a different route and course of action so writing songs for other people allowed me to be the person in the room," JHN told the FADER. Now, he's saving the heat for himself — and he's focused on winning with his own music. Earlier this year, he reintroduced himself with the song and the visual "1999" and today on The FADER, he premieres the sinister video for his second single "Roses."
"Fuck making a rap video, I wanted to score a movie. The video is based on a Hungarian film named ‘Werkmeister Harmonies," JHN told The FADER. "The first time I saw it I watched it on mute. It was just cold and empty, it’s the right type of weird. I felt like you could score the entire movie with just ‘Roses alone,’ so that’s what I did.”
In September, JHN came by the FADER office and we talked about the impact of his childhood, making the decision to be a songwriter, and how he describes his own sound now.
Before dropping your single, "1999" you were making music as Carlos Saint Jhn. How would explain your sound during that era?
It was more aggressive. I was rapping because there were so many things that I wanted to say. There weren't enough words for me to articulate all of the things that I wanted to say in a three minute song. It was less musical than it is now. I don't think I had the background in music at the time, I just had things that I wanted to say, things I wanted to get off of my chest. I might've been angry — I'm a little less angry now.
So what's changed?
Melody changed everything. I just started growing up a little bit more, so my experiences became a little bit more diverse. At the time I was just purely angry because I was just trying to get out of the hood. I was trying to make something of myself and an impression and indentation on the culture. Meanwhile, trying to figure out how to stop eating Ramen noodles. Now, I've had a couple of different experiences. What I talk about now is a little bit more reflective of my most recent experiences like falling in love for the first time and life as an adult. The pallets are a little bit softer so it's less angry and it's more evocative. It has more of an emotion to it. Not quite angst all of the time.
Before you started making music as Saint JHN, you were writing songs for other artists. You wrote "Crash" and "Rivals" on Usher's new album. How did you get into songwriting?
I was hustling. It was just another hustle. I was like, "How do I flip this? How do I introduce myself to the same business from a different point of view where I was more of a utility?" Where I could be useful as opposed to someone who needed help.
When I was in L.A., I met Zach Katz and he's the chairman of BMG publishing now. I wrote a song for a friend of mine and Zach somehow found it online. He flew me to L.A. and was like, "You rap, right?" I was like, "Yeah, I rap." He said, "I'm going to ask you a serious question. Do you want to rap or do you want to make a million dollars?" I was like, "I want to make a million dollars. How do I get this? How does this happen?" It was the first time anybody with a million dollars had said that I could do the same thing. It wasn't just fictional or an idea. It seemed possible. He was like, "Write these songs." So I started pitching records for Rihanna at the time because that's what they were looking for and it didn't work. I didn't land any Rihanna records. I came full circle. I was only in L.A. for 2 months. I came back to New York and I wrote a record for a kid named Hoodie Allen. That opened up my door a little bit more because I had a W, even if it was a smaller W it was something that was more validating— I had done something.
Was there ever an inner conflict with you songwriting and also feeling like you could use your time to cultivate your own personal music?
It was a challenge. You're an artist so you're contributing these ideas, feeling like you're giving some of your best ideas to other people. And then somewhere in the middle of it, that gets lost. The art of contribution gets more important than how you feel. You start becoming an instrument. I started realizing that I was just a vessel. I'm not making up any of these ideas, it's coming from somewhere else. I'm just getting it and grabbing it from wherever inspiration comes from and I'm giving it to someone else because they have the better platform. So at first it was hard, in the middle it was really easy, and then at the end it got hard again. It got harder because I felt like I was the better person to pull off the ideas.
Somewhere in the middle of it, I started writing records for other people and I would pitch them or however it works. So I would give them to someone who would give them to the artist. That someone would be, a manager or an A&R and they would say, "What am I supposed to do with this? How can I give this to my artist? This sounds like you." The first 40 times I heard that, it was discouraging because I thought I was boxing myself in and then I realized, Oh, it sounds like me. I discovered I had a sound.
Tell about your song "Dope Dealer." Is that story personal?
Yeah. I come from a world where a lot of my family members have done some illicit things. That was normal for me. How I grew up, the opportunity to sell drugs was just too available. I tried my hand at it but I didn't like it. It didn't fit me quite the same. My teeth are too straight, my skin is too smooth. It just didn't work for me the same way but for everyone around me, that's what was normal. Your options are what you're exposed to. If you come from an environment where selling drugs for you is normal, that's probably going to be option number one for you at a time or somewhere in the top five. For me, gang banging and selling drugs was normal. So yeah, I could've been a dope dealer. My brothers grew up and turned into dope dealers. It's just my recollection of those events. That could've easily been a story.
Did you find music after realizing that that wasn't the life for you?
No, I knew. My father wasn't present, so my older brother felt like a father. He was only two years older than me so that was all I had. Whatever he would've done I was going to do. If he was a fisherman, I would've been a fisherman. If he was a captain in the army, I would've been a captain in the army. I would have followed him down whatever dark hole he went down. I remember coming home one day and seeing him on the corner in a cypher, rapping with a bunch of people and I was like, "Oh, I want that." I followed him down that path and it was early. I'm really good at committing so I committed before I even knew I had other options. I committed before I really understood that there were really other things to do. Like, who knows? I might've been a marketing executive somewhere if somebody would've told me that that was possible or if he would've said, "You can do something else."
So now that you're releasing your own music, how would you describe your sound?
I think it’s challenging trying to describe my sound. Not because I'm making some experimental martian music, but because it's a little broader. The things that you've heard are only fragments and small fractions of what you're going to hear. I don't want to give you the opportunity to find a box to put me in, figure it out later. When the records come out song by song, you'll hear it and get to determine how you want to classify me.
A component of it is GØDD COMPLEXx, that's my collective, that's my team. It's Mr. Pyrex T, a young Demi good basking in the pale blue moon, Mikill Angelo, he creates the vibes. Kyle the Hooligan King, Lanta, and myself, Saint Jhn. Those are the people I grew up around—that's family. I can give you that sound. That's just absolute nigga shit, to the utmost. That's rap music in it's most contemporary form. We're talking about where we're from, what we're doing, and how we're feeling at the moment.
Your career as an solo artist is coming full circle. Have you truly tapped into feeling like you've found your purpose?
I think I deserve to be in every room that I'm in. I think qualified to be there. I think my talent says it all and my skill set says it all. My ability to craft records says it all. I still have out of body experiences. If you put me in a room with someone else I'm going to be like, "Yo dude do you know who you are? Do you know? I know. I grew up listening to you." But, I feel like I belong wherever I am.