by Jess Spence and Dylan Taylor
Freestyle Fridays: that is where it all started for Julian Harrell, sophomore International Business major and notorious local rap artist, Abstract. After moving to North Virginia in high school, Harrell met Saul. A year older, Saul was a step ahead in his rap career; he already had a studio set up in his basement, mixtapes recorded with friends, and a finetuned talent for rhyme. When Harrell saw him perform for a class project, his interest was immediately sparked. He’d been writing lyrics in a composition notebook for years, but it was not until watching Saul perform that he recognized his own need to find his voice. After a few sessions freestyling together, he asked for an opportunity to record.
Unfortunately, Saul said no. “He said, you can’t record with me yet,” Harrell explained, “because you have to get better.” Determined, he took the initiative and invested himself in an art he had been only toying with since seventh grade. Between recording a few tracks in his own home, refining beats and cadence, and continuing to freestyle on Fridays in the cafeteria, he quickly made progress. Saul noticed Harrell’s strides, but more importantly, so did Harrell.
There was always a natural passion for the craft, something he had regarded as a past-time and still doesn’t allow to become his top priority. “I didn’t come to College of Charleston for my music,” Harrell admitted. “My mom said, school first, then you can do what you want. As long as school work gets done first,” and he hasn’t strayed far from that principle. However, rap is still a large part of his life, and a successful one at that.
Since arriving at College of Charleston, he’s performed in a multitude of venues: Sneaker, King Dusko, Kevsco Alley and the Sottile Theatre to name a few. He took part in the Spectra Talent show for incoming freshmen this year, participated in Open Mic Night during orientation week and was featured at Von Postum’s Radio Show launch party. However, he declared Kevsco Alley as one of his most significant shows merely because of the atmosphere and support from the crowd. He doubted that anyone would show up; however, not only were there people, but donations were made. It was, in effect, his first ‘paid’ show.
Although his live performances have been thriving in Charleston, it’s a recent venture. He had been recording and releasing mixtapes throughout high school, but his first show wasn’t until his senior year at his cousin’s mixtape release party in Georgetown, S.C. To date, he has five collections released (one of which is a collaboration) and has been featured on his friends’ work as well. Instead of approaching the mixtapes in search of perfection, he views them as milestones of personal development. The creative freedom that comes with that perspective has led to a variety of tracks, some influenced by jazz elements, others with an electronic underscore and at times just a simple beat.
His last release, “Sketch,” breaks that habit and cuts down the list to less than 10 songs. The mixtape also represents the first time he has recorded outside of Saul’s basement and the first time he’s produced hard copies to distribute. Sacrificing Knowledge Eradicates Thoughts of Conscious Humans is the acronym Harrell created around the word to encompass the themes discussed in his music. In his lyrics, he tries to weave in pieces that will challenge someone’s way of thinking and acting, or just question society as a whole. He admitted he sometimes feels as if he’s a mother in doing so.
While he emphasized his desire to educate people through music, he refrained from making it seem like the only purpose behind his rap. “I’m just trying to make good music people can jig too,” he finally admitted, brushing off the serious undertone of taking on a teacher-student position.
His affection for contradictions and keeping things in the scope of a bigger picture is what initially inspired the name Abstract. Just as he views his rap
career (which he hesitates to even refer to as a career) as one piece of his entire being, he encourages his listeners to take a step back and diversify their lives. “I try not to pigeonhole who I hang out with,” he responded when I mentioned how well-connected he seems to be at the college. Harrell strongly voiced his idea of a creating a bigger community through his music. He wants to host shows where there are “random people that you wouldn’t see chilling together otherwise.”
Essentially, his end-goal in creating music is to try and get as many people involved and connected as possible. While he’s considered the possibility of becoming a producer or creating his own record label, he has a skeptical approach to the business. “Rap is a very volatile industry,” he explained. Right now, he just hopes to keep progressing with his own music.
After all, Harrell admitted that hip-hop has influenced everything else in his life. “[Hip-hop] makes me look at things differently; how I talk, think, learn – everything,” he elaborated. When he’s trying to make sense of something, he relates it to music to come to an understanding. Even if he doesn’t pursue rap in the long run, he sees the benefit of his investment in music and the changes it has made in his life. That passion is all that really matters in the end.
This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Yard.