Sway Calloway deserves a medal. Anyone who has spent over 20 years creating and covering hip-hop while remaining a loyal supporter through all of its many incarnations is an outlier. Add to that his ability to challenge and critique that same art form without being considered a “hater” is wizardry that would make Gandalf choke on his pipe.
Starting out as an MC with his partner King Tech, Sway released his debut album Concrete Jungle in 1990, which lead to their pioneering radio show on KMEL, “The Wake Up Show.” Since then the Oakland, California native has worn many hats in the industry (including his trademark knit) going from rapper to radio host to reporter and producer for MTV.
His latest venture harkens back to his radio days when he would break new artists and invite young, local challengers to show off their skills for visiting veterans. “One Shot” on BET is hip-hop’s “American Idol” where a team of judges evaluate and critique aspiring artists from cities across America, granting one lucky winner a $100,000 prize and a recording contract.
If anyone knows about the changing face of music stardom it’s Sway, so WatchLOUD spoke with the vet about the challenges of producing a music competition when the way young people create—and compete—has evolved. And sorry Mr. West, Sway does have some really good answers.
WL: So for those who are not familiar, tell us what BET’s ‘One Shot’ is.
Sway: ‘One Shot’ is a show that embodies the spirit of hip-hop from the early days of believing that you could be something that other folks didn’t think you could ever become. That’s really what triggered a lot of things. People watching television and not seeing proper representation. People seeing folks get wealthier as they got poorer. People seeing folks become more educated as they lived in an impoverished environment where you were lead to believe you couldn’t amount to anything. From that came this culture called hip-hop and ‘One Shot’ is just a continuation of that.
I think the rap game has always wanted to have its own ‘American Idol’ or ‘The Voice,’ its own platform to filter artists in our own way. For us by us. Nobody goes to Charlotte to see where the talent is but 9th Wonder and J. Cole and Rapsody are from the Carolinas. We’re going to Chicago where most of the headlines talk about the people killed this year but we want to show the people the great talent that is coming from there. So we brought out Twista and Tech N9ne to be judges. I see people that remind me of how I grew up in Oakland [where] there is nothing tangible to make you believe that you can be anything other than the environment is showing you. But everything intangible is pushing you towards your goal. You just have to believe in yourself. That’s what “One Shot” is. It’s an opportunity to help you reach your goals. I got DJ Khaled to come through to be a judge. RZA, TI and my partner King Tech giving back in a major way. This isn’t us trying to get a one up on [labels] it has everything to do with reaching the public and the people and giving them an opportunity to watch somebody they could relate to on TV. Whether you win this $100,000 or not you’re still going get this exposure.
The industry moves in different ways today. People don’t submit demo tapes anymore. Kids can upload their songs directly to Bandcamp or Soundcloud. Why do they need a show like this?
It’s another avenue. That kid may have his song on Bandcamp or Youtube but I’m sure if he could have it on BET or another network I’m sure he’d like to. Also this is a process reminiscent of what it took to make a super star a super star. When you look at an Andre 3000, a Kanye or Drake, these people are at the top of their game but they were groomed. Drake took acting lessons and put out mixtapes before he became who he is. Before he met Lil Wayne. Then when he met Wayne he got that Young Money tutelage it all started to come to fruition. But he paid dues first. Kanye West had to earn his way onto the mic at Roc-A-Fella. He had to evolve as an artist and a rapper before the world accepted him as the biggest rock star on the planet. I could go on. So ‘One Shot’ is in the tried and true tradition of giving artists a chance to show and prove and go through a filtering process and help make them a more well rounded artist. Filtering the saturation is important, too. The gift and curse of the digital platform is there is no filtering process. There is no one to say ‘hey I liked that song you wrote but that second verse was GARBAGE! Maybe if you worked on creating a bridge from that second verse into the chorus and then switching your music up on the third…that might increase your odds.’ The great artists have always taken suggestions and used it as they could. This is different from posting on Soundcloud because we know your song, but can you write another one? You can record a song but can you perform it live in front of an audience? So we have professionals who have sold millions of records over a lifetime to give you added advice. That’s what separates this. Not to say one way is better than another—however you can get it, get it— but this way will get you $100,000 if you make it to the finish line.
Competitions like this celebrate a skill set that isn’t necessarily needed to make a hit record in 2016. So when you assess the contestants, how do keep in mind what’s popular verses what you think is dope?
It doesn’t always matter if an artist has a style like Lil Uzi Vert or like J. Cole, if you’re a music lover and immersed in it, you can see what’s great in those styles and what isn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be to my personal liking to see that this kid got talent and could blow with the proper push. It is a trying time when you got artists that rap differently. Some artists are more about vibe and less about lyrics. Some are more melodic. It’s just having a love and passion for this music and seeing that this kid is special. Lyrically he may not be my cup of tea but I can see how he can blow. Or it could be the other way. Lyrical, he’s way over rapping, but I can still see this dude with the proper A&R blow [up]. We’ve got a lot of artists now, I like Desiigner. He’s got a lot of great energy. Panda is huge, let’s see if the next one is as big. If he got what it takes it will be. His brand will sustain. He has a machine behind him and people like him. He performed for us on “Sway In The Morning” early on. Was he as lyrical as Kendrick? No. But does he have an energy about him that’s appealing? Yes. Don’t get it twisted, for every great rapper or group in the ‘90s, there were 15 or 20 who were NOT. And there are dudes out right now who are rapping and killing it. Logic is killing it. Oswin Benjamin is killing it. There is a caliber of MC out there you just gotta support them. I understand your question but I’m happy to be doing this show and giving people an opportunity and hopefully we get a great artist out of it.
BET’s “One Shot” airs on Tuesday night at 10:00pm EST.