Hip-Hop

Resrface Rises After Leukemia Diagnosis

Jesse Santana, a 23-year-old Denver rapper who performs under the name Resrface.
Jesse Santana, a 23-year-old Denver rapper who performs under the name Resrface. Alex Valeas
Resrface, aka 23-year-old Denver rapper Jesse Santana, owes his start in hip-hop to a high school AP Spanish class.

"It was mostly just a joke, initially, to be honest with you," he says of his early forays into making music. "I remember the first time I thought that I should do it. I was in AP Spanish, and when you do the AP Spanish test, you have to do a spoken portion. The program we used to record it was Audacity, and somebody mentioned that somebody else in the class made songs with Audacity, and I was like, 'Oh, interesting.' I didn't know that it was that easy and free and accessible."

An avid music fan since he was a kid growing up in Montbello, Santana learned to play piano, guitar, ukulele, and drums before starting to experiment with recording vocals at seventeen.

"When I heard there was a free software where you could lay down vocals, I was like, 'Well I might as well try it.' So I bought a $30 microphone, I got Audacity, and I just took YouTube beats off the internet and started doing that," he explains. He quickly outgrew the need for pre-made instrumentals. "I realized I could make my own music because I already played instruments."


As he began to take his music more seriously, he upgraded to more sophisticated software and equipment.
He also figured it was time to decide on a rap moniker.

"I wanted a one-word rap name, and I wanted it to mean something to me, but I wanted it to be strategic, too," he says. "I wanted it to be something that, if you searched it on the internet, you would never find anything else. If you search this particular spelling on the internet, you won't see anything besides my content."
In addition to rapping and producing, Resrface plays piano, guitar, ukulele and drums. - TARIQ AL'JARAH
In addition to rapping and producing, Resrface plays piano, guitar, ukulele and drums.
Tariq Al'Jarah
But there's a sentiment behind the name Resrface too. "When I decided I really needed a rap name, it was during the era that mumble rap was really big. Every now and again they have good production and stuff, but I just don't particularly enjoy that," he says. "I was reminiscing on the hip-hop I grew up loving, because I grew up listening to Tupac and older rap that had meaning to it — it had storytelling. I figured, if I did have a choice in the matter, I would like to resurface those trends, and bring something back, a bit of a renaissance. And I'm glad to see it has come back, because since that time, hip-hop has been way better."

Besides Tupac, Santana is heavily influenced by hip-hop's modern storytellers as well, like J. Cole, Logic and Chance the Rapper. His music shares their honesty, vulnerability, poetry and narrative focus.

"I would describe it more so as a conscious rap. A rap where I want it to be relatable to people," he says. "So I try and tell my story, in a way where I feel like if somebody else heard it, they could apply that to their own situation and draw something from it. It's hard to describe, because I don't think I have a crazy unique sound as much as the words I choose to use are unique. The diction is the unique part of it." For Santana, carefully crafted lyrics are equally as important as the beat when making a song: "I want it to be good to listen to from a pure vibe perspective, but I also want it to be something that, if you're breaking it down, it's written like a poem. It's literature."

Because he draws inspiration from him own life, Santana's music has matured as he's aged.

"I used to write a lot of funny songs. I'm a comedic person, mostly, and so that's what I wanted to do. Now that I've started taking it seriously, it's become more of an emotional outlet, kind of therapeutic."

On his new album, Virginia Place, which came out in early May, we are introduced to an older, wiser Santana. It's only been two years since he released his first full-length album in 2019, but those two years have been life-changing for Resrface. During a studio session in March 2020, he found himself suddenly struggling to breathe.

"At this point, I'd been rapping for like six years, so I knew what I could do. I knew how my body worked. I was very in tune with that. For the next month after that, I was struggling to breathe even more. And I smoke, so I thought maybe I was just overdoing the weed, so I stopped smoking, but it didn't help," he recounts. "One night, I had a culmination of just a bunch of different pains. My back hurt. I couldn't breathe. I felt like I was dying."

The next day he went to the hospital for a PET scan and was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rare type of blood cancer. Santana spent a month in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy treatments, and although he's still on maintenance chemo, a year later he's happy to report that he's "pretty close to remission."

Not one to hold a pity party for himself, Santana was determined to learn and grow from the experience, he says. "It was almost like a break from life in a way that I could truly step back and appreciate some of the things I wasn't appreciating before. It was quite a year."

Resrface is still undergoing maintenance chemo for T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. - KEVIN VRAI
Resrface is still undergoing maintenance chemo for T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Kevin Vrai

Facing a life-threatening illness changed Santana both personally and artistically.

"While I was in the hospital, I had time to reflect on the music I was making, and I didn't really like it as much. So when I left, I pretty much started from scratch. I wanted to talk about some of the things that were more prevalent on my mind, because that kind of thing changes your mentality," he confesses.

He scrapped all but two songs, "Space Jam" and "Awful," that he had been working on, and conceptualized an entirely new album.

"That was a big deal to me," he says. "I remember thinking that I would like to include some of these songs on whatever project I put out next, but something told me I just need to take the experiences and whole mentality and do something new. It makes me even more proud of it."

Virginia Place is a memoir of sorts, a frank portrait of the artist's highs and lows, reminiscent of J. Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The album title represents one of Santana's highs: finally having a place to call home.

"I was raised with a single mother and my little brother, so for a long time, we were bouncing from place to place, lots of apartments, just not really stationary. We didn't have a place that I felt like was a home," he explains. "So about five years ago, my mom put the down payment down on this house, and Virginia Place is the street we live on. It means a lot to me, because it feels like a home, and it's not just temporary; it's a permanent place where we have roots. I wanted to pay homage, because I'm so appreciative of that."

Aside from the three songs with producer credits, Santana made all of the beats on Virginia Place himself, and recorded most of the vocals in his closet. Though he initially hoped to record the whole album in a professional studio, COVID closures and chemo treatments made that an unlikely goal. But it worked out for the best.

"I wanted my production value to be as high as possible, so I didn't really want to record it all in my closet. I wanted it to sound really, really, good," he recalls. "But I had this grand revelation that nobody knows what I want it to sound like like I do, so if I make it and I put it all together, it's something I can be proud of. This is the first bit of music that I'm actually, truly proud of, and I've been putting out music since 2018. I'm happy with it."

Although it's only May, Virginia Place is already one of the best albums out of Denver this year. It's an impressive showcase of an emerging talent's versatility, intellect, charisma and humor. Tracks like "All in My Head" and "Awful" are thoughtful, contemplative explorations of life and death, but fun, catchy bangers like the Futuristic-assisted "Give Me 100" and "Lock It Up" bring levity to the project, as well. "Back on the Times" wraps up the album nicely with a forward-looking conclusion, but the actual final song, "FTB," is a goofy throwback to Santana's SoundCloud days.

"I'm so proud of everything else on the album, and you can see the progression, but this old song is so fun," he laughs. It's the perfect send-off with a smile, guaranteed to be stuck in your head for weeks (just try and refrain from belting it in public).

With this latest addition to his discography, Santana is ready to get to work growing his fan base.

"One thing that I was struggling with before is, I had music out, but I didn't believe in it enough to promote it as hard as I wanted to. Now I feel like I have the means to promote and the material to promote in the way I want to," he says. "I'm excited to see what this album can do."

New music is on the horizon for Resrface, including some more upbeat tracks.

"I'm in touch with a British Columbian producer named Whitlock, and I'm hoping that we're going to get a little EP out later this year, maybe like five songs," he says. "This piece of art was very contemplative to me, very reflective. There were some good hype songs, but really I want this next thing to be all hype songs. Exciting party songs. That's what's coming next."

Virginia Place is available now for streaming and download on all music platforms. 
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Cleo Mirza recently graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in English and anthropology. She enjoys good food, cheap wine and the company of her dog, Rudy.
Contact: Cleo Mirza