We spoke with DMV rapper Re-Up Nelson to discuss his background in music, his debut album, and his experience performing on both coasts.
by Cydney Lee
Re-Up Nelson at Rolling Loud Bay Area 2019. Shot by Domingo, IG: @lanijetson
DMV rapper, Re-Up Nelson doesn’t go to the studio unless he knows he has a hit on his hands. He works at his own pace but doesn’t like to waste his time, which is why his debut album, Don’t Walk Over Green Gardens, was two years in the making.
We first learned of the rising artist back in March when we premiered the visual for his single, “WYA,” on the ELEVATOR YouTube. Since then, he has had a hot year having dropped his debut album in August, selling out his first headlining show, opening up for Key!, and performing at Rolling Loud alongside his cousin and fellow rapper, Tund3.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Re-Up Nelson to learn more about his background in music, his progression up until now, and what he hopes for the future.
How did you get started making music?
From the jump, when I was younger, I was always in love with music. When I moved to Nigeria, they have a different educational type. The way they teach their kids is very different. It’s a lot of note-taking in school so I had a lot of books, like a lot of journals and notebooks. Back then, there was no Rap Genius or lyrics.com. When I would hear songs, I would listen to the CD over and over and write down the lyrics in my notebook. So when I started doing that, I started writing my own raps.
In school in Nigeria, I was kind of perceived as this popular kid. I’m Nigerian, but I was American to the people I went to school with. They looked at me as American, so obviously I was already in the “cool” type of thing. There was this one event that they had where I rapped Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” to the whole school, and when the whole school went crazy, I was like ‘Alright. I’m jii like an entertainer type shit.’
How did I start making music? I started recording songs in high school, but I never released anything. I did have a gospel go-go band with my best friend—I grew up with him all my life type shit—we would have shows and stuff like that, but I was still more into rap. I never told people I rapped, but I was fully invested in it. I would record songs and never drop them because my music didn’t sound like what I would want to put out, so I was always building within myself. Then I dropped a parody mixtape—I think it was right after I graduated high school—I just sat home and recorded songs on my laptop and I just said anything that came to my mind. I dropped a whole mixtape of doing that shit and my friends were actually kind of fucking with it. That’s when I was like ‘Alright, cool.’
2014 I was going to Towson and I hated that shit, but I was doing music shows. I was in a group with my friends and we were all going to Towson together and started doing shows. That’s when shit really started to give me the confidence. I was going to a new school where I was meeting new people and I was starting to rap and my shits were actually nice, so I used that as a confidence tool. I left Towson, and I’ve just been dropping music ever since.
How did you come up with the name “Re-Up Nelson”?
In 2016, I was putting out music under “Outcheaville,” and I’m like ‘Yo, I don’t want people calling me that. That sounds like too much on the tongue type shit.’ So I went with my real name, Dimèji. But then I’m like, ‘Nah. Do I want the world calling me the same name that my mother gave me, like this precious name?’ So I made the decision not to go with that.
The name “Re-Up Nelson”… honestly I was just high as shit, and I don’t know, the name just came to me. Nelson is my middle name, but then I was like, ‘I like Re-Up, but I want it to mean something.’ And for the longest I just sat on it. Then one day, it literally just came to me: Rather Earn Under Pressure. Once I told my friends that … when I saw their reaction to my name, I was like ‘Ard bet, it’s lit.’
You dropped your debut project, Don’t Walk Over Green Gardens, back in August. What’s the meaning behind the album title?
I had the name in 2016, and I knew it was a good album name but I didn’t know what that meant to me. Rest in Peace to my friend that died in 2016, he’s kind of the reason I still went with that. Before he died he told me that that name was fire to him. So over the years, I was like ‘Yo, I gotta stick with that.’
But then, I’m like ‘How can I create a concept around Don’t Walk Over Green Gardens?’ So I started Googling what garden and green symbolizes, and what I found is stuff like, green is like peace, growth, money. You can also put the bible in there. Adam and Eve were at a garden so that’s a love type of situation going on there. And that’s when I tried to pull off with Don’t Walk Over Green Gardens. I’m talking about relationships. I’m talking about growth. I’m talking about green, I smoke weed and shit. I’m talking about what it means to be in my garden.
Don’t Walk Over Green Gardens album art. Shot by Tobi Odukoya, IG: @heytobs
Tell me how that came about and what your creative process was like during that.
Well for one, I recorded it in different places. I recorded in Laurel, MD–where I’m from–and I also recorded in Miami, Atlanta, LA, [but] the LA songs didn’t make it and the New York songs didn’t make it either. I did have a little change of scenery when I was doing the songs, so it gave me different inspirations. Like “Miami Lavender,” we actually recorded that in Miami during Rolling Loud weekend. That shit was random.
But my other songs … when I hear a beat, I record voice notes. I try to find what I want to sing melodically and I’ll just keep singing over and over, try to find a reference. I’ll listen to those references over and over, even if I’m not saying shit on it, it’s like solving a puzzle for me. So I pretty much did that with every song.
“WYA” is one of your singles off of the album, and you tweeted that you sat with it for a while before dropping it. Now, the music video for it has almost 12,000 views on the Elevator YouTube account (which is what I helped with). Tell me why this wasn’t an immediate drop for you.
In 2017 I created “WYA,” and I held it because that song was really good and I didn’t know how to get it out there. I didn’t want to just drop it for people in my neighborhood to hear. That was also my first record like that. I normally rap and I’m still experimenting with that [sound], so I wanted to have more records that were in that direction before I released that joint. So fast forward to 2019, I dropped “WYA” and the rest is kind of history from there. That was the start of my year being lit forreal.
I know you had some shows in your hometown, DMV area. How was that experience? How did you feel on stage performing your debut album for the first time? Were you nervous at all?
I ain’t going to lie, I wasn’t really nervous, but I was nervous on how many people were going to come. I threw a free show, but I had people RSVP but that didn’t necessarily mean they were coming. Once the RSVPs reached like 450, I was like ‘Alright yeah, people are definitely coming,’ but I still was a little nervous. When I was getting ready to come out, my friends kept coming back to tell me like ‘Yo, this is crazy,’ so just hearing that over and over, I was ‘Alright, yeah it’s time.’ That shit was cool because I’ve never had a show where everybody specifically came for me like my friends, family, and all that. So for it to all be at this moment now is almost like God has a timing for everything and it literally just came together perfectly. That shit was amazing because that was the first time my family really came to see what I was doing. They don’t know my music. They’re not really in tune with what I’m doing, but just having everybody there … it was lit.
Re-Up Nelson performing at his first, sold-out headlining show at MilkBoy ArtHouse in College Park, MD. Shot by Domingo, IG: @lanijetson
How many people were there?
It was 350.
You sold it out?
Yeah, it was sold out. Packed. Wall to wall.
How did the audience receive your performance?
Honestly, it was lit. “WYA” was the second song I did when I came out, but I cut it. It was one of those things where I was saving it, but I played it in the beginning to get them hype.
That’s such a tease.
[Laughs] I was so mad when I cut it because I was like, ‘Yo, y’all n***** are fucking lit right now. This shit is crazy.’
So that was your first show; you headlined it and sold it out. Then, you opened up for Key!. And then Tund3 brought you out at Rolling Loud Bay Area. How did you feel performing at Rolling Loud?
Rolling Loud was dope. That was another key thing that propelled me this year. Once people saw me on that type of stage, a lot of people put respect on what I got going on. I definitely enjoyed myself. More than anything it just inspired me that this shit can really be done. Like I’m on the stage. It was a wake-up call that I need to keep grinding.
Re-Up Nelson performing at Rolling Loud Bay Area 2019. Shot by Domingo, IG: @lanijetson
Do you have any more shows coming up?
I just played a garden, The National Arboretum. I got to perform outside and people brought their blankets on the grass. But right now, as far as shows lined up, I’m actually trying to get more gigs. I think Key! should be coming back to MilkBoy ArtHouse in January, so I’m looking to open up for him again.
My thing right now is more so how can I put on my next headlining show. It’s two things with me: I have to either be opening up for bigger artists or I have to be focusing on my show. I have something to work on on my own, but that also comes with time. But I’m plotting on my next move right now. I definitely think I want to throw something for my birthday in March.
Back to your family … you told me about how in Nigerian culture, pursuing music as a career isn’t really valid. Tell about what your parents thought about you rapping in the beginning vs. how they feel now since you have a project and some shows under your belt.
My parents are a little bit more lenient than others. My mom kind of always saw that I had a passion for music, but all they really wanted me to do is get a degree. They don’t care if I chase music, they’re with that shit but they just want a degree in front of it. One thing I had to express to them was the sacrifices I have to do to make music.
They were chill about it, but I always thought on the low they were like, ‘What is he really doing with his music? Is it going anywhere?’ up until the show. My dad jii like was talking to me a little different after that shit, like he didn’t know what I was off. Because, I’m not going to lie, I never really played them any of my music so they never saw what I was doing. But they still want me to get my degree so imma get it.
Who are some of your biggest music influences?
Biggie, of course. That was the first rapper that I was exposed to, my dad used to play that shit. Jay-Z of course, he’s the greatest rapper ever. I love Kanye West, but I don’t really know where he’s at right now. Kendrick Lamar is one of the best rappers of all time, like he’s top 5, I don’t care what anybody says. Travis Scott. I grew to love Kid Cudi. There’s a lot more because I really love music. I could even say some in the Afrobeats genre. Wizkid is one of my favorite artists. I love Burna Boy, I think he dropped one of the best albums this year to me genre-wide type shit.
What artists/albums are in your rotation right now? Give me like 3.
African Giant by Burna Boy, most definitely. I ain’t gonna lie, my album is in my rotation [laughs]. And Over It by Summer Walker, I’m bumping that album.
Who’s your dream artist to collab with?
I ain’t going to lie, if I made a song with Adele, that’d be fire.
What’s next for you?
Just more music, more content, more visuals. Right now, I’m damn near about to shoot a visual for everything on my project. I’m really trying to push the project and while i’m dropping content, I’m going to just go in the cut again, record a bunch of songs and build up for the next project. I’m in my bag right now.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.