AJ Suede was, in a way, literally born into hip-hop. The logo for the hip-hop supergroup Def Squad—a drawing of a petulant child covering his ears as he sits behind three building blocks that read D-E-F? That’s AJ Suede. And the five-year-old flinging Redman brand cereal—now with more sugar!—in the kitchen in the video for “I’ll Be Dat”—that’s AJ Suede, too. But to him, that’s just what happens when you’re part of the close-knit community of Harlem, with parents who went to school with Roc-A-Fella founders Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke’s late brother Robert “Bobalob” Burke. “My mom was really good friends with all of them,” Suede says, recollecting how he used to play with the Dash and Burke kids when they were all growing up.
Suede’s own hip-hop odyssey starts at age 14 in a Harlem after-school music program, and moves through the dregs of the MISHKA era in New York City, and the goth trap movement of Seattle collective Thraxxhouse, until he eventually becomes Darth Sueder and releases a steady stream of albums—Avada Kedavra, Hundred Year Darkness, Metatron’s Cube—on which he delivers meditative knowledge over moody, underground boom bap. He learned to love the process—a path not defined by a singular moment or album but by a lifetime quest toward excellence. “I don’t think I was ever really designed to crack the code,” he says. “The code keeps changing. I’m a marathon runner.”
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That understanding began in 2015 after the release of his MISHKA debut Lefthanded Virgo. The nine-track digital album was self-produced and labor-intensive. He sent the label weekly revisions, feeling the pressure to seize a life-changing opportunity. He wanted the success of Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire, Main Attrakionz, and Lil B, unaware the label was in decline. Lefthanded Virgo received favorable reviews, he recalls, but the celebration was short-lived,. “Something like that you can’t necessarily call it a failure but it’s another lesson on how to manage my expectations and to just keep running the marathon regardless,” he says. “I go back to work the next week; nothing changes.”
One setback wasn’t going to stop him. Since the first time he touched a drum machine in a free after-school program at Jefferson Park Boys Club in East Harlem, he had vowed to become a producer and rapper. Teenage distractions led to being “outside”—translation: “up to no good”—which in turn led to him living with mom in the Poconos. His uncles in the Poconos had a rap crew called Absolute Loyalty Stands, and sometimes AJ got to run the boards in their garage studio, and they taught him how to pirate production software like Fruity Loops.
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Jump to high school graduation and Suede is back in Harlem, smoking weed with friends and watching a YouTube video of the legendary trap producer Lex Luger at work in the studio. The simplicity of Luger— who was also heavily weeded—at his laptop running Fruity Loops, delivering four beats in 20 minutes, was a revelation. “It was the coolest shit I’d ever seen in my life,” Suede says. “I took my little graduation money, damn near all of it, and I ran to Best Buy on 86th Street and bought a laptop.”
After the disappointment of Lefthanded Virgo, Suede took a job at an aeronautics facility in the Poconos, assembling airplane parts. During his training, he was regularly told to “design quality within the process” until it sunk in. Eventually, Suede connected with Raider Klan and Thraxxhouse, which resulted in a West Coast tour and ties to Seattle, where the two acts were based. Couch surfing turned to subletting, and in 2017, Suede recorded Gotham Fortress with Seattle producer Wolftone, scoring a breakthrough with the single “Gas Light.” One night a local clothing designer gave AJ Suede a cloak, which caused one of his friends to remark that he looked like Darth Vader; Suede swiftly corrected him: “Naw. Darth Sueder.” Thus was born an alter ego that led to an ongoing series now seven albums deep, the most recent of which is 2022’s Darth Sueder 7: Rogues Gallery.
“I wanted Darth Sueder to be more minimal, East Coast kinda drum-less boom bap type rap,” Suede says. “Seattle is super dark most of the year. A lot of us wear a ton of black. These are things that made me gravitate toward it, and made people gravitate toward me. I was in my dark bag.”
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But being “Thraxx” began taking its toll on AJ Suede’s mind and body. Downfalls of the lifestyle caused the crew to splinter and led to more of that “outside” behavior. Thank God, It’s Raining was Suede’s final trap record, and in retrospect, there’s a kind of prescience in the song “Negative Energy”: “I run out of energy/ When I’m surrounded by negative energy/ I’m feeling the lethargy.” Suede traded his vices for a week of dropping acid and revisiting the lessons of the Five Percenters, the Black nationalist Islamic movement founded in his native Harlem. The result is Finesse The Cube, a 10-song cycle of heady rhymes over psychedelic loops of Rhodes-y library jazz and ’90s UK downtempo. Turning 25 caused Suede to start seeking more, not just in the day’s mathematics but also in Kabbalah, Sufi Mysticism, and Gnosticism. “Obviously, I don’t necessarily call myself a member of anything,” he says. “But based on the definition of what the five percent is, the poor righteous teacher in the wilderness of North America, I feel like I started embodying that.”
The reset resulted in Suede cranking out 14 albums in three years. 2020 marked the arrival of Suede God—the name a nod to the Nation as much as Lil B and the idea of loving oneself. He developed his trademark tag—the phrase “knowwhatimean?” delivered in a deadpan cadence—and cut down on the number of features from other rappers, saving them for noteworthy guests like Fatboi Sharif, Tha God Fahim, and R.A.P. Ferreira. The exception is a collaborative record with ex-Blue Sky Black Death producer Televangel called Metatron’s Cube, in which Suede raps, “I fuck with all of ya’ll/ But I fuck with me more/ Respect the architect/ I builds it up from the floor.” The pair teamed again on this year’s Parthian Shots, a reference to horseback military archers shooting backwards—or as AJ Suede pus it, “I might say something wild and you might not get hit by it until I left the room.”
Parthian is unlikely to be his last project of the year, but Suede approaches everything the same way he did way back at the aeronautics facility, designing quality into the process. “When it comes time for me to create,” he says, “through failures and losses, I’ve learned exactly what I need.”