From Dry Seasons to Open Roads: The Musical Journey of Paul Russell
Last week, Paul Russell shared about the creation process of his debut album Once in a Dry Season. If you listen closely throughout the project you hear snippets of his personal journey. For this week, he shared how he got signed to one of the biggest labels in Christian hip-hop and the trials along the way.
Despite being signed to a hip-hop label, Russell admits that his relationship with the music genre was rocky at first.
“I was always more of an alternative rock guy,” he laughed. “Nowadays I listen to mainly alternative R&B artists who happen to exclusively be British.”
This confessional, while humorous, speaks volumes to the type of music he makes. While he’s a talented spitter in his own rights, the 21-year old rapper’s music always veered towards the experimental, melodic, and laid back as opposed to being exaggeratingly vociferous and trappy. Tracks served as an arena not only to showcase his lyrical dexterity but also tonal versatility. Exhibit A: the recently released “Feels Like A Dream.”
But as for rap? Russell stated that his foray to the world of hot 16s and rhymes was due less to curiosity and more to escape isolation.
“Growing up I felt alienated from other black people (namely my cousins) because I didn’t listen to rap. I started listening to it so I could connect with them. But even when I was listening to hip-hop/rap they were probably the kind of tracks that my parents would tell me to turn off if I was playing them in the car.”
Within these parental guidelines, Russell’s initial exposure to the Christian hip-hop sub-genre was through Lecrae. Russell recalls that the first concert he attended was Lecrae’s and that his first performance at an open-mic style event was a cover of a Lecrae song. He stated how to see that come full circle by being able to collab with the man himself last year on “We Three Kings” was a dream come true.
But as Russell got older, his relationship with CHH grew more complex.
“I thought it [Christian hip-hop] was corny,” he admitted. “Though honestly, I didn’t take the time to search or sift through the genre as much. I only stuck with the music I had access to which I wasn’t a big fan of at the time. It wasn’t like today where thanks to Spotify, you can find sub-genres of sub-genres.”
Paul mentions the above statement in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, speaking as though he’s an old veteran of the rap game and not a second semester senior at an Ivy League institution about to release his debut album. It is this very introspection that makes him wiser beyond his years. He’s someone who never takes the next step of life without thinking about all the other strides that got him to that point. Looking at him now, he can’t help but chuckle and think about the roads it took to get him there. The genre he once deemed corny is now one that he is actively invested in and participating in.
Russell cites conversations with Ruslan reinvigorated his interest in CHH and to his pleasant surprise, he found that the genre had grown and matured for the better. Gone was the cheesiness and in its place was authenticity and willingness to engage with real issues and yet not compromise on faith. He mentions WHATUPRG’s recent RAUL as evidence of how much CHH has evolved, stating how “It’s cool that he’s [RG] using his platform to not just play to an audience but communicate things that are truly meaningful.”
Indeed Paul’s adulation of RAUL reveals much about himself as an artist. “Meaningful” describes all of Paul’s music, from his recent collab album with Ruslan to back when he went by the name Paulitics and would sporadically drop SoundCloud singles for fun. Every song didn’t have to be a revealing confessional or dramatic soliloquy, but music making was always cathartic for Russell. Despite this, it was always something that he never seriously thought about pursuing. He was comfortable just working on it on the side.
Yet Paul’s music wasn’t destined for the SoundCloud medium. Russell’s friend Jet Trouble (who was signed to Kings Dream Entertainment at the time) shared some of Russell’s music to Ruslan. Ruslan, impressed, invited Russell out to work on a few songs and a working relationship soon turned into a friendship between the two.
Featuring on a few tracks is one thing but signing as a full-time artist? That took a little more time and Paul’s journey was equal parts crystal clear and confusing.
He stated how in the Summer of 2016 he was in Zambia doing research there and he listened to a sermon about letting God pick where you live.
“I thought it was cool but also was wondering like how does that apply to my life?” Russell said. “It was weird though. All signs were pointing towards LA during that time. A book I was reading took place in LA. The Zambia family I was staying with, one of the kids loved LA and would ask me questions about it. The street I took to get to work was Los Angeles street…it was crazy!”
Russell then applied to a bunch of jobs in Southern California. He accepted an internship at Vans. In retrospect, he says that this was an integral moment for the whole Kings Dream signing. The place he stayed at over the Summer was one hour away from where Ruslan lived and he only worked four days a week at the internship.
“Every weekend on Friday I would drive out to San Diego and do music. But at that point, I was still hesitant about getting too involved. I was comfortable keeping it as a side thing. It takes a lot to put yourself out there and to make music where the goal is to get a lot of people to listen to it.”
Paul told Ruslan that he would be happy to do Kings Dream things but that he was still unsure about what full-time commitment would look like. He was willing to burn the bridge when he got there. As a career path, doing music wasn’t something that he was thinking of actively pursuing.
Russell would have to face the music sooner or later though. A summer or so later, he was applying for a job that wasn’t in Southern California. He’d be working long hours and traveling and working long hours. Despite this, Russell said that it was something he “really wanted to do.” Should he accept the job, being able to do music seemed less and less of a reality.
After Russell clicked submit he felt uneasy. He admitted that he had begun to find his identity in whether or not he secured the job.
“I began to pray to God asking that if this is not what you want me to do then for him to reveal where I should go,” Russell stated, “I said ‘make this not work out’ if something will glorify you more.”
That’s easy to say but hard to live out and Russell learned that the hard way. Not too long after, he was told that his interview was canceled and that the job was not searching for any more applicants.
“I was bummed about it for weeks,” Russell said. “But I remember listening to a podcast then about how my prayers matter. It made me think about how maybe this is an answer to prayer. I realized the hard truth that God is and can be glorified through something I do that is outside the current plan for my life. His plans are so much bigger than I can dream.”
Russell didn’t realize until later just how true that statement was. He shared that later when he was in California, he got a text from Ruslan to come and stop by the studio. He almost didn’t show up because he already had plans to go to the beach with his girlfriend Megan. But she encouraged him to go on. “What if this is a way to God is leading you to be used by Him?”
In lieu of the beach, Russell went to the studio. That day Ruslan asked him to join Kings Dream Entertainment as an artist.
“Meg jokes that I’m only a rapper today because of her,” Russell laughs in hindsight.
As for what the future holds, Russell still isn’t so sure. He has three more months till graduation and his debut album Once in a Dry Season dropped two weeks ago. He still fears the dreaded question asked of all second-semester seniors (“what are you going to do post-graduation?”) but he knows that wherever he ends up, he wants music to be a part of his life.
To sum up Paul’s musical journey? No one says it better than himself on “Breeze” where he raps:
“God didn’t even say the plan / He just put me on the road.”
Indeed. Paul’s had his dry season and emerged richer in perspective. Now he’s excited for the road ahead.