Every rapper has an origin story — the first hip-hop album they ever heard, why they started rhyming, how they made it big. Josh Baldelomar’s tale starts with a sheet of paper, A Tribe Called Quest jam and a girl named Molly.
A few years ago, Baldelomar, now a junior communications major at Pitt, was an awkward kid in a Miami middle school — the kind who said “I’m good, and you?” if you asked him the time. But he had just started writing lyrics and this girl was especially cute, so he thought, “how else to get this girl’s attention but to write her a rap?”
Riffing off A Tribe Called Quest’s mellow 1993 hit “Electric Relaxation,” Baldelomar did his best Q-Tip take, leading with “Honey, check it out, you got me mesmerized,” on the typed-out paper he handed to his crush.
“I don’t know if she read it and crumbled it up, or if she crumbled it up later,” Baldelomar said, “But all I know is that I do remember finding the sheet of paper in the trash can, and I was just, like, devastated.”
And thus, a rapper was born. Baldelomar — who moved to Mt. Lebanon before his junior year of high school — laughs when talking about the crush-gone-wrong now because there’s a chance he wouldn’t still be rhyming if not for Molly. After the rejection, he quickly learned that hip-hop could just as easily express other emotions, like frustration and anger. And unlike other genres, Baldelomar didn’t have to learn how to play an instrument to make music right away — all he needed was a beat and a rap.
Under the stage name Akono Miles, Baldelomar has released several singles, starred in Pittsburgh music blog A Beat A Day’s “Semple Sessions” video series and performed in local venues such as James Street Gastropub and the August Wilson Center. This semester, he’s looking for producers to work with so that he can release more original music.
Although he intends to support himself financially with his music post-grad, Baldelomar studies communications at Pitt because he’s always been interested in the philosophy behind media. He sees music as a form of communication, so his classes inform his own work. When he’s not in school, Baldelomar supports himself by working at the University Bookstore.
Baldelomar most recent track, March’s “Scared Money, No Money,” received attention from national music blogs and has accumulated more than 1,200 listens on Soundcloud. The song — which samples Planet Giza’s bouncy, Latin-inspired instrumental “Funky Kompa” — opens with a skit performed in Spanish by Baldelomar’s mom and features his comments on capitalism, thoughts on his future and a call for more minority-run businesses.
Over trumpets and violins he raps, “I wanna see more black businesses // More presents on Christmases // More minorities with riches,” and later, “Ain’t tryin’ to be another statistic // work for some sadistic business.”
Baldelomar’s lyrics are usually direct in this way — often choosing plain speech over metaphor in his social commentary — but he doesn’t like to talk directly about the meaning of his words, explaining that he wants people to come to their own conclusions.
“I think [artists’] role is to reveal things about society within their art,” he said, “And to express themselves and their viewpoints and to let the people decipher, let the people share with each other, and let it inspire most of all.”
Although he won’t decipher the final product, Baldelomar’s will share how he gets there. Without a producer, he searches for instrumentals he likes — one “Semple Session” even had him freestyling to a guitar-only version of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” Once he finds the perfect beat, he moves on to melodies, then the lyrics.
“I always think melody is like the animalistic side of me, where it’s like, ‘That’s how I feel,’” Baldelomar said. “Lyrics, it’s the sophisticated side, like, ‘Now, how can I really flesh out this feeling?’”
With “Scared Money, No Money,” Baldelomar said that he aimed for a more modern sound musically, combined with inspiration he took from the flow and fast pacing of Young Thug, an artist known for his experimental delivery and memorable hooks. There’s also a little bit of his Miami upbringing in the salsa sound — Baldelomar grew up listening to traditional Mexican ranch music, his grandparents’ favorite. “The only difference is lyrically I’m coming at it from a ‘me’ perspective,” Baldelomar added of the single.
If anyone understands Baldelomar’s outlook and inspirations, it’s Marcus Albert, who’s collaborated with him ever since the two took an SAT prep course together and would freestyle after class. Albert, a junior at Point Park University who works under the stage name Marcus Salvatore, said much of Baldelomar’s current success is due to his remarkable knowledge of music history.
“He has a good understanding of just the roots of the music that he’s making, like the whole atmosphere of the scene,” Albert said. “So he understands how to write and make music that’s true to himself and at the same time capture what the genre is at its core.”
You might expect Baldelomar’s favorite musical periods to start with hip-hop’s rise in the 90s and finish with current chart-toppers. But aside from A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A, Mos Def, Young Thug and Kanye West, Baldelomar doesn’t often cite too many contemporary names as his influences.
During a recent trip to Squirrel Hill’s Jerry’s Records — which holds a seemingly endless vinyl inventory with everything from Patti Labelle to 50 Cent — Baldelomar beelined straight to the jazz section to rave about a relatively obscure, 70s-era jazz fusion group called Weather Report.
Whenever Baldelomar saw a record he’d learned something from, he’d hold it up and explain what he took from it. He found a worn-looking copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and wondered how a dance floor-ready pop hit like “Billie Jean” could be about a paternity struggle.
Later on, he talked about Prince’s “1999” similarly and how the late artist recorded it during a time when many thought 1999 would be the apocalypse, basically saying, according to Baldelomar, “We’re gonna die, let’s party. There’s no point not to.”
That’s why humor figures so heavily in Baldelomar’s freestyles. It’s a way, he said, to “look at things that are very dark and messed up in a way where you can confront it.” Baldelomar’s usually smiling or dancing when he improvises, cracking jokes about everything from sumo wrestlers to Minute Maid juice, as he did in the “Semple Session” AC/DC freestyle.
Baldelomar even keeps the comedy in his live shows, according to Alex Oraschewsky, a recent Pitt graduate who founded A Beat A Day, the music blog behind “Semple Sessions.”
Over the summer, A Beat A Day hosted a show at Northside’s James Street Gastropub in support of CHS Food Pantry, featuring Baldelomar, Albert and several other musicians the blog collaborates with. Oraschewsky chose Baldelomar to open the show — he’s always the leadoff man because his energy hooks the audience early on.
“As soon as ‘Scared Money’ came on, he drew the crowd in,” Oraschewsky said. “Like he has a really special gift with that kind of thing. It’s almost like he’s making fun of himself or [joking] up there. And people just really like what he does on stage — they really feel his vibe.”
In front of about 35 people, Baldelomar danced and bantered with the crowd throughout his set. With his backpack on and his light attitude, Oraschewsky thought Baldelomar looked like “some guy you would see in the audience just like hanging out.”
“He just draws people in to make them feel like they’re part of his show,” Oraschewsky said. “It’s not even like a show in general — it’s his show when he’s on stage. It’s a very mature thing to see from somebody who’s only 20 years old.”
As for Baldelomar’s stage name? He looked for a moniker around 16, when Kanye West was his biggest inspiration. Baldelomar looked up the etymology of West’s name, saw somewhere it meant “The One” in Swahili and told himself he needed a dope name like Kanye.
When Googling names, he stumbled upon “Akono,” which means “This is my turn” in the Yoruba language, which is spoken in Nigeria and Benin. He was also a few albums into a Miles Davis’ discography, so he paired the two names together.
He considered changing it as recently as three weeks ago but then traced his birth name back to the Biblical figure who led the Israelites after Moses died. Baldelomar decided to keep Akono Miles going forward into a career that he hopes will be able to capture the period, the world, music and himself was in with every record.
“There was already a Joshua, and I’m named after someone who already did great things? No,” Baldelomar said. “And so I kept Akono for that reason because I felt like no — this is my life, I can make whatever identity I want. And I’m sticking with Akono.”