Rap artist Saint Joe, aka Joseph Quintana, was born and raised in Denver, and he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
"I've been to a few places, not many, but Colorado forever," he says. "I don't know if I'll ever leave this place."
A budding wordsmith since adolescence, Saint Joe began his career in music in the mid-’90s as a fourteen-year-old, freestyling with his cousins, Chris and Eddie Quintana. Chris, who later adopted the rap moniker Almighty Ravnous, pushed Joe to take their love of music to the next level.
"I liked to freestyle, so he said, 'We gotta write a song.' So we wrote our first song because he wanted to, and it was back with cassettes, and we had these headphones that were broken in half that we used as a microphone," remembers Saint Joe. "So we wrote our first song, and I wasn't even driving yet, and so then he was like, 'Okay, now we have to go perform.' And from that point, he never was ready for it to end."
Though it did come to an end. On March 12, 2018, Almighty Ravnous died from brain cancer. Two years later, Saint Joe is making sure the world still hears his cousin's music. His latest album, Penmanship, includes two songs that were written, recorded and produced entirely by Ravnous and published with permission from his widow. Saint Joe also chopped up and repurposed old Ravnous verses to include on two other tracks. And he used a beat by Ravnous for the album's intro, so the first thing on the album is his cousin's voice saying "Almighty Ravnous."
Hardly a traditional elegy, Penmanship is nonetheless a fitting tribute to an ambitious, talented, no-holds-barred rapper gone too soon.
"My cousin was a weird dude," Saint Joe explains, thinking back to Ravnous's last few years before his death. "He had cancer and had surgery for it, and was paralyzed in half of his body. And then he bounced back, he learned how to walk again, figured out how to be himself again, and then got right back to work. Then he started doing music again, and so he had to teach himself how to talk. So he started recording himself so he could figure out how to deliver the rhymes again."
Saint Joe collaborated with Ravnous on a song and a video to help him get back into making music; during the video shoot, Ravnous's doctor called and told him he had found more abnormal cells and they were likely cancerous.
Unfortunately, the prediction turned out to be true, and Ravnous isolated himself for the duration of his chemotherapy. With his cousin unreachable while undergoing treatment, Saint Joe turned to the way they had always connected: music. He remembered that Ravnous had sent him several beats for his previous album, Thinning Out the Herd.
"When he told me they had found abnormal cells, I started going through the emails to find beats, because he wasn't talking to anybody anymore. And I found that I had way more than I thought, so I started writing to them, to surprise him," Saint Joe explains. "I had a bunch of people who wanted to feature and a lot of ideas for features that he would like, and I eventually decided just to do it by myself and make the music the way I thought he would like it and give it to him and surprise him. But it just didn't work out."
The next time Saint Joe saw his cousin, he was unconscious in hospice care; he passed away within hours.
After Almighty Ravnous died, Saint Joe became even more determined to release the album his late cousin had inspired. It's an album for hip-hop heads who haven't been satisfied since ’90s gangsta rap gave way to new-age hipster-hop — people like Almighty Ravnous and himself.
"I haven't heard Top 40 radio since 'Black and Yellow' was on it. I don't listen to the radio, purposely. Obviously I don't like the music, because I'm a fucking weird purist piece of shit when it comes to hip-hop," he says. "I'll listen to it, and it all sounds the same. Add AutoTune, add a bar about getting a bag, add a bar about how you steal some bitches, add a bar about how you're the shit, then rinse and repeat. I could easily do that; it would be so easy to just write simply. But no, because I enjoy the puzzle of writing. I'm trying to twist my own brain into knots."
From Sir Mix-a-Lot and Wu-Tang Clan to Twista and Eminem, Saint Joe prefers quality lyricism and wordplay over easy listening, and it shows in his own work.
"I want to listen to stuff that makes me jealous I didn't write it first," he says. "I've always been more technical. I really enjoy coming up with word lists and reading the dictionary and using words that people didn't use. I felt like if you're going to do music, then the vocabulary, along with your voice, is your instrument and your weapon."
Almighty Ravnous shared his same philosophy on hip-hop, forgoing convention in favor of what sounds right. So Saint Joe wasn't looking to make your standard hip-hop tracks on Penmanship. He was playing to Almighty Ravnous's tastes.
"I wanted to make music that, if he listened to it, he would really love it," says Saint Joe. "So fuck regular song structure with a sixteen and an eight and a sixteen and an eight. I would listen to the beat and then write until I felt like it was done. So if there was a hook that was needed, it would get written, and if it felt like it didn't need one, it would just get 24 bars or 36 bars or whatever until I felt like it was over."
The thirteen-song album was released in August. Despite ample use of non-traditional song structure, the project feels old-school in style and subject matter. It's aggressive and abrasive, bringing to mind the gritty feel of early-’90s rap — the kind the radio won't play. The clear standout track is "The People's Champ," a triumphant battle cry rallying against "YouTube rappers," fakes, snakes, and anyone else who doesn't strike Saint Joe as authentic.
There's something haunting about the two tracks by Almighty Ravnous, "The Rebel" and "So High." They're raw, morbid, and at times vulgar and disturbing. "So High" is about how Ravnous felt when he thought he was going to die from cancer the second time; he wrote it while he was in remission. Knowing it was only a brief moment of relief makes the track all the more unsettling.
Of Penmanship, Saint Joe says, "I wanted it to be like when you hear the intro, if you like that style of music, you wanted more; it was not long enough. So it's like 24 bars of what I love, and a dope beat, and then it's over and you're like, 'Well that's not enough.' And it'll make you want to hear the rest of it. Or it'll make you say, 'Fuck this guy, his music is trash,' and move on — which is better for me, because I only want people who like the music to hear the music."
Penmanship is available now on all streaming platforms.
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