In the process of finishing his debut album 3500, Polo Perks spent a few weeks doing a deep dive into the world of Midwestern emo music. Rap, punk, and what was then known as “alternative rock” were his genres of choice growing up, but he never had time to properly sit with this particular brand of melancholy guitar music. In the hazy, pastel green backroom of the Le Fleur Cafe on a muggy Thursday afternoon in lower Manhattan, Perks gushes about his favorites in the scene, from Midwest Penpals to Brave Little Abacus. “But the best one outta that whole wave is The World Is A Beautiful Place And I’m No Longer Afraid To Die,” he says, conceding that it's an excessively long name. When I ask him if he’s spent any time with Midwest emo gods American Football, his eyes light up brighter than the tan and green-speckled pants he’s wearing. “I definitely love [their album] American Football,” he says.
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Perks is laidback and amiable — his voice rarely rises above a whisper — and his musical appetite is bottomless. He’s as big of a fan of JAY-Z (he’s a self-proclaimed “Roc-A-Fella baby”) as he is of Linkin Park. As a kid, he snuck into a Warped tour (“I got in trouble for it,” he remembers with a shrug.) By the end of our conversation, we’re trading music to take home: I send him home with Swedish metal band Meshuggah’s 2008 album obZen and he recommends “Mafatshi Leh,” a slice of Arabic funk music he’d unearthed from another musical wormhole.
This sense of wanderlust extends to Perks’ own music, which is mostly rooted in rap but pulls liberally from the worlds of rock and electronic to create mutant hybrids. PUNK GOES DRILL+**, his 2021 breakout, includes floating lyrical homages to Kanye West’s “The New Workout Plan” over chirpy, 8-bit synths and a song that samples The Killers’ eternal one-damn-thing-after-another anthem “Mr. Brightside.”
Rappers being attracted to the pop hits of yesteryear is nothing new, but most of the samples in vogue right now feel opportunistic, hollow grabs for cheap nostalgia dollars. Perks’ downright avant-garde sample choices — he and producer Goner sampled a riff from Huntsville, AL band Camping In Alaska, for example, on “SomethingThatMatters” — are one thing, but he knows the contours of the music he references well, and fits his voice in the fray in a way that transcends sampling-for-sampling’s-sake. “We all wanna try to find some sorta connection — that’s music, that’s clothes, that’s art, that’s everything,” he explains. “When you doing something that’s more broad and pure, I think you get more of that reaction.”
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Perks’ relationship with music and art started as a kid growing up across the tri-state area. Born Sean Patrick Perkins in the South Bronx in 1994, he moved between there and Connecticut while his father was on the run. While in Connecticut, he was introduced to the world of rock music through skateboarding, local shows, and media outlets like Z100 and Fuse. Fuse would play marathons of videos by Taking Back Sunday, Fall Out Boy, and Glassjaw, which Perks would tape to VHS and hide from his mother so he could watch them while she was at work. These, and projects from rappers like West (Late Registration), Common (Be), and Cam’ron (Purple Haze), were what raised him. In high school, a friend who rapped recorded a freestyle over Hit-Boy’s “Niggas In Paris” beat, and Perks thought he could do better. He posted his own freestyle, and the response inspired him to try music on his own. By the time he was 18, in 2012, he was fighting a case of his own and dabbling in music less but still invested enough to earn his GED and enroll in the music program at Duchess Community College before dropping out 10 days later.
While he was honing his skills, disaster loomed. The digital footprint he’d been establishing was wiped from the internet when his Soundcloud and Instagram pages were deleted. By 2018, he had contemplated giving up on music altogether but was convinced by friends to drop the single “Trendy Shit,” which quickly went viral. Back on the saddle, he began working with producers like EvilGiane, Goner, and Tommytohotty, who helped bring PUNK GOES DRILL+** together. Both alone and as a member of the collective Surf Gang, Perks slowly carved out a lane for himself, combining elements of sample drill, rock, and early 2000s chipmunk soul into something simultaneously nostalgic and nihilistic.
3500, his soon-to-be-released debut album, came from a move to Atlanta. It’s his most focused and reverent project to date. Most of it was written and recorded in isolation with a handful of producers — Hanzo, Fedorian, and WorkForHire, among others — and was built around two specific goals: for Perks to give more of himself on record, and to show his deepening appreciation for the intersection of rap, rock, and everything in between. On “Minutia,” talk of getting paper is drowned out by downtempo guitars, muffled synths, and the hook “Shorty, I pour lean in my Sprite / I see demons at night.” Samples from artists like Ghost Orchard, Vegyn, and Alex G become playgrounds for flexes and intense reflection. One song is built around a sample by rising goth-pop star Ethel Cain, who personally cleared it after she met Perks at a show. “She was already aware of who I was because her sister loves my music,” he says. Like hip-hop itself, PUMA Classics are a sort of shared language for fashion experts and novices, b-boys and ballplayers, people old and young all the same.
Perks and his team take sampling very seriously. Genre-blending is common in the world of modern pop music, but Perks inhabits the same lane as artists like Kenny Mason and Jim Legxacy, whose hybrid songs feel organic and lived-in, tailor-made for kids who listened to as much Nirvana as they did Outkast or Wu-Tang. In fact, Perks’ relationship with the two goes deeper than just complementary sounds. “It’s not many people who get how equal each one is. For one, it’s all Black music,” he says bluntly. “For two, at one point, both were getting shunned and rejected the same way, not being understood and not getting the platforms the same way. Literally. It wasn’t like doo-wop music or whatever.”
Fundamentally, though, Perks is making music to honor the people who stuck by him through hard times. 3500 is named for his artist collective of the same name, and many of its most personal stories revolve around friends and family he’s lost. When I ask why this was the album to commemorate his blood and chosen family, he puts the blunt down for the first time all day, his eyes gaining laser focus: “I got people that’s held me down, let me sleep on their couches, pushed me for years — literal years. I owe a lot to a lotta people. Their time was invested in making sure I was safe, that their brother was straight, that their brother was eating, whatever. I have to make sure that people know their time was well invested. You can’t let that investment go to waste. You just can’t.”
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