This is: AMS
ailing from the Midwest is rapper AMS, the alter-ego of Edward Moses. AMS was introduced to hip-hop at the age of fifteen, and started opening for rap icons like KRS-One, Illogic, and Blueprint just a few years later. He has since released a multitude of albums that tackle a wide breadth of topics, ranging from personal growth to politics to Russian Sci-fi.
After graduating from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, AMS pursued a professional career as an IT specialist. But make no mistake - in no way does having a day-job detract from his stage presence or his skills in the cypher. Rather, working in IT has enabled him to comfortably hone his craft and explore other passions, such as DJing and e-sports. Edward has since repurposed his childhood nickname of "Vader" into an additional moniker, which he now uses when performing house shows and making DJ mixes.
Together with his crew (Future Cult Leaders of America), AMS uses his powerful voice and knack for intricate lyrics to cement his place in Chicago's hip-hop scene. Myth had the opportunity to sit down with AMS, who brought his deep knowledge of hip-hop history and his own brand of life lessons to the table. Read Myth Magazine's interview with AMS below.
Hey Edward, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. Let’s first talk about your various names such as AMS, The Nerd King, and DJ VADER. How did you come about these names? What is the significance behind them?
AMS is a moniker I’ve gone by since I was 20 years old. It came from people mispronouncing my original name, Agent Mos (people kept pronouncing it as moss). I took the three capitals in how I stylized it to make “AMS.”
The Nerd King is something I got called when I was 14 years old, and I hated it because I was trying so hard to dodge being called a nerd - it was something used against me for so long. I remember somebody called me that in the context of an MC battle I was a part of, and I replied with this line, “I’m not just a nerd, - I’m the Nerd King.”
DJ Vader came from an OG from Champaign that picked up on my original breaking name from HS (Vader) because I was asthmatic and I had a deep voice - my homie saw me in between rounds clutching my chest and out of breath, thus “Vader.” When I started DJing, my homie told me I needed a name (so I said what about what I rap under?) - my friends had all called me either MOS or Vader, so I landed on Vader.
Your most recent release, “The Over/Under EP” has come a few weeks ago. Can you give us some insight into the inspiration for the two songs?
Uphill and Sisyphus are two sides of the same coin-Uphill is what it feels like to make art, Sisyphus is what it feels like for people to look at it and not know what to do with it. Sisyphus is based on a Grecian myth - a guy who was terrible in his living life was condemned by the king of hell to roll a boulder uphill incessantly for the rest of his days. Sometimes that’s what art feels like, it feels like rolling a boulder uphill. So Uphill feels like the triumphant portion of things and Sisyphus feels like "well, I’ve completed something.” The other part of Sisyphus is punishment in the fact that when the boulder got to the top of the hill, it rolled all the way back down. It speaks to that process of anytime you think you’re done with something, you’ve actually just started it.
"Man versus hill, Boulder in tow, slow on the go, goes as it will”
The EP was released during this time where the Black Lives Matter movement is especially crucial. Did this impact or change your initial motivations for the EP?
It feels absolutely terrible to try to promote your art and be like “Yo peep my new album” in the middle of everything going on, with literal famine, war upon people, and such taking place. But the thing is, people will look to art for a degree of a return to normalcy or an escape back into what they would consider normalcy. But I’m not here to present people with art that helps them effectively escape or disavow what’s going on with the world today. So I made this piece of art and I was like “Wow, this is the first rap release I’ve had in like six years because of bad studios and everything else.”
But you know, I said to myself: being able to work through some of my emotions (the depression and the fact that some people have been so stone-hearted towards the shit that has been happening) was very therapeutic for me. I thought that maybe it’d be therapeutic for other people, too. So that was the basic motivation behind it - that art still gets made. Whether people know about it is up to them, but I had to get those demons out as part of what I was feeling in the present context.
How did your journey with hip-hop music start?
I was a metalhead until I was 15. I’m still very much a metalhead - my dad was a classics / psychedelic rock fan, my mom was a big motown person. I had three Zulu Nation members in my family so all the groundwork was there. One of my cousins is a former Zulu Ahki - like somebody who was ranking in the Zulu Nation.
Hip hop hadn’t found me, but when I was 15, an New York-based independent label called Rawkus Records released a compilation of songs called Soundbombing 2 (which featured a lot of big names like Mos Def.). My cousin bought it, brought it to my other cousin’s place, and I was in the back vibing out to the music while playing fighting games. But there was one song on there called Patriotism by Company Flow, and when that song came on I think I literally dropped what I was doing to listen more closely. Their flow was different from anything I’d ever heard, and when the song ended I looked at my cousin and asked “who is this?”. I asked for them to play it again, and my cousins did me one better - they played Company Flow’s whole album, Funcrusher Plus. At that point, I was gone.
The beautiful thing about it was because I was a jazz and metalhead and because my parents listened to all that motown, all that classic/psychedelic rock, there were certain hip-hop songs where I listened and thought “my dad has that record.” Like I would recognize that sample, and that sort of led me into how I look for beats, what I expect out of my producers, and what I ask them to do. I was completely inundated with hip-hop at this point. You know how people say hip-hop saved their life - I was in a very bad place back then, and as somebody that did not necessarily grow up with the greatest self esteem, hip hop gave me the ability to be something outside of what I construed myself to be. So these aliases, these personalities developed, and it’s like if Edward Moses doesn't’ have the confidence, AMS does.
Who were some of the most influential artists for you? What about the most influential albums/songs?
Most influential album in hip hop in the course of my life is a toss up between A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus . The latter fucked me up - there’s a song on there that made a gigantic amount of influence on me called End to End Burners, which was a song about them going out to do graffiti and one of the members of Company Flow was infamous in New York’s graffiti circle. Listening to that song was really special to me because it was something from my cousins era. He was so inundated with hip hop, and he sat me down saying “this is cool, but you’re a jazz fan so listen to A Tribe Called Quest.” When I heard songs like Electric Relaxation and We Got the Jazz I was like “I know this sample.” So it made that difference of being able to center me between my music and the music of my parent’s generation.
That was back then - now, my tastes have changed in respect to hip hop. My favorite are people from my own crew - Defcee from Future Cult Leaders of America, my man Lamon Manuel’s Music to Feel Like Shit To. Rich Jones’s Pigeons and Waffles. There’s so much to take in now - being still involved in hip-hop at 36 I fan out at shows, but at the same time I look around and I’m like, shit, my own friends make incredibly good music.
Beyond my friends, my favorite rappers include Aesop Rock and Busdriver. I’ve met and hung out with Aesop Rock a few times and I’ve still got this voice inside of me that’s like, “Yo, your favorite rapper is sitting like four feet away from you. What do you do?” I’ve also opened for Atmosphere and interviewed Slug before. Ant, his producer, is cool too.
Through the course of 14 years you have released several albums, which are ILLuminate, The After School Special, Natural (Self), Natural (Influence), and The Over/Under EP. Within Natural (Influence) you stated that you wanted to write with a “new-found voice” that was still entwined with your early hip-hop influences. What was the direction you first wanted to take your music in? How did that change with Natural (Influence)?
I kept harking back to something that I heard over and over again from my AP English Teacher. She kept saying to me that when I was writing, “do you notice how your voice has changed as you have grown? The voice that lives here (pointing to head), has changed too. Acknowledge its sensibilities and accept them as your own.”
If I sounded back then like I do now, my music would stand still. The ability to change and take in all those influences is part of what changed my writer’s voice - it wasn’t always about writing things that rhymed or ended in hard vowel sounds - I changed how I wrote prose, short stories, hell I changed how I wrote emails. If you’re not growing, your music stays stagnant - you’ll keep your die-hard fans but you’ll never grow. Whenever I look back at my old projects I think this doesn’t sound like me, but it is me, and that gives me some milestones by which to measure the road. That’s what I love about it.
How would you describe your style? Is there an audience that you have specifically in mind when you create your music?
I have no audience save for people who like off-kilter sci-fi references, haha. My style is.. well, take every English class you’ve ever been in, take the curve record out of the class, expose them to a bunch of weird music, give them a drum machine that they only mess with occasionally, and watch what happens. I’m a result of every book, every anecdote, every colloquialism, every album that my parents had me listen to, and every bit of head banging and thrashing and mosh pitting that I did. I’m finding even weirder shit in corners of rap where I’m like hey some of these progressions, multis, and poetical devices - how they sound physically, I’ve heard resemblances of them in some of my favorite metal bands. One of my favorite groups is a metal band is called Every Time I Die. They’re a great show, but more than I love their music, I love the way that their lead singer Keith writes. One of his songs he starts off with:
“ So long to young love, I've anchored my heart/Farewell to small joys, I've burned down the bar/ I'm changing my name, so I don't do no harm/ ... Snuffed out the star with celestial wind/Ended a cycle that started again/I stopped going out, they kept coming in/Was I saving my soul or saving my skin?”
... I hear shit like that I’m like, fuck why don’t rappers listen to metal. Another part of me is like thats just really good and interesting song writing. I want to write songs that make you chase a line to unravel the whole song. If I want you to dig for something and understand the emotional connection in a line, I’m going to make you focus to put it into place.
Well, that actually leads me to my next question. The lyrical play, metaphor usage, and storytelling in your music has been strongly consistent throughout your career. Is there an artist that influenced this style for you besides Every Time I Die? What drew you to this style of rap?
Phife Dawg knew how to tell a story. He told these smooth stories and gave you a ton of great imagery to go alongside it. Pharaohe Monch still tells my favorite story in hip- hop. On the same compilation of Soundbombing 2 it’s a cut called Mayor. It’s about how someone through paranoid delusion assassinates the mayor of NY and then proceeds to go crazy after he’s done it. Obscure as he is, Busdriver from LA is still one of my favorite storytellers. A cut called Nagging Nimbus tells you a story of parents who are getting divorced but love one another due to their child. The story is told from the perspective of the child, then the dad, then the mom. Also, he raps in 5-4 time which is just ridiculous.
How long does it take you to write a song? How do you know when it is complete?
One of three things happens - let’s take Uphill as an example. The beatmaker is in the Chicago hip hop scene named Sev Seveer. We’ve been working together on music since his freshman year, my senior year of college. Sev is an astounding beatmaker but more than that he is an outstanding musician that just happens to use drum machines. He’ll occasionally make beats that are just clearly not for rappers - he played me one such beat and I said “give it to me.” He said” it’s in 3-4 time!” and I said “I know. The breath control is gonna be weird, but I wanna try.” So he passed me that beat and I finished the song in two days and went to record it the week after.
Other cases, I’ll receive a beat from a beatmaker and I’ll be like I have the concept around this but the words are failing me. A lot of producers know, and this is my own admission, that they’ll give me a beat and they’ll get a song a year later. Because I will write the song, then rewrite it, then rewrite it, then rewrite it, scrap it, write the song, rewrite it, scrap it, write the song, rewrite it, final draft, scrap it, write the song, rewrite it, edit it, then it’s done. And that’s also something I take into personal account because I look at my beat makers like, you can listen to me, I can bring you samples, I can give you feedback, but you do something I can not do. So I want to make a song that attributes the effort that they put into the instrumental.
Other times I’ll sit down with a song or I’ll have a verse that doesn't have a beat to it yet and I’ll put a verse together and even without the instrumental I can hear what the verse sounds like over it. So the song will be done but I’m just waiting to get the right beat in front of me. And when I do get that instrumental, I’ll shape the song to it until it’s done. Sometimes it’s done straight away, sometimes it’s not. I’m on a pattern of a week to a year.
So what about in the case of Uphill and Sisyphus? How was the process for that?
Rap is 4/4. 4 measures 4 counts per time signature, and it’s been that forever. I have known of rappers that have rapped over odd time signatures and the jazz nerd in me is like “ooh that’s fucking dope.” So Uphill was my first chance to do it. I sat down and I kept tripping over myself because I was like, “the breath control is never gonna get right on this.” I stayed at it for a week because the song was upsetting and I was like “why don’t I have this yet.” And then suddenly it was just there.
Sisyphus - I heard that beat in passing. I heard ten seconds of it and I’m like the drums are off beat, thought “oh that’s fucking weird - this sounds like a nightmare.” The concept that kept sticking with me was a line that made it into the song:
“Downhill we go love, tilt at windmills, curse the sun/
Turn water into whiskey/Raise the dead when the deed is done.”
Going back over, having chats with my dad - my father is huge on Greek myths - and he asked me one day “What Sisyphean task are you onto today?” and I was like, “Okay. Sisyphus.” So I went back and I read all the myths around it and everything and realized “Oh it’s a metaphor for art. Let’s go.” I wrote the song from there.
Are there any specific lyrics/metaphors in your music you feel have been especially personal or just masterfully put together?
I will catch myself on certain lines like, “oh Jesus Christ Mos, where the fuck did you come up with this.” The concept that I love and am never bashful about hiding comes from how I’ve sort of slap boxed with depression my entire life. It’s always been expressed under different metaphors. As of late, the metaphor that I very much like is “digging for daylight.” It’s this idea that you’re doing something opposite. The sun is not in the ground but you’re setting yourself to accomplishing the task. This hole has to be dug and you have to stay in it. So you’re looking for a cure for whatever depressive episode that’s happening via this work that you’re doing and by digging this metaphorical hole, aka sinking yourself further into depression swearing there will be something good down there. I’m gonna find the sun at the bottom of this hole. You never end up doing so but part of the therapy is the work. Part of it is like yeah I’m digging for daylight, it’s a futile exercise to try to cure myself of depression. But the other part of it is like digging for daylight is therapy, and I can sit at the bottom of this hole and look up and realize that the sun’s still there - I haven’t found it down here so I may as well crawl myself out of this. It highlights this idea that wherever you go, there you are. No matter what you do you will have yourself to deal with.
What part of creating do you enjoy the most?
The details. I’m a huge graphic design nerd as well, I hand draw and do typography. The little itty bitty details are something I appreciate no matter what work I do. Taking into account those details when you do anything creative is beautiful - you never know who's’ going to find it and you may as well put the effort in.
You also work as an IT Specialist as your main occupation. Does this at all affect your creative work and in what way?
I’ll preface this with a line from a song that ain’t out yet, but it’s coming out.
“Salad days on weekends/ Saturday and Sunday are a blur/ I’m a rapper with a day job/ and it’s what I prefer/ So you can yap your ugly jaw/ and I’ll atom smash your gray matter and still offer to politely fix your laptop after.”
I like having a day job because it enables all these creative pursuits. I was a starving artist throughout all of undergrad, I worked a tech support job at my university that allowed me to pay my rent and afford me some crappy food. The thing about it was when I figured out I wanna do art for the rest of my life, I want art to be a part of my life but I don’t want it to define how I live my life. It became a comfort measure. If I only did art for a living I would become frustrated with art and I would want to leave it. If I only did work for a living I would become frustrated with work and want to leave it. When I do my job, and in the same lines of paying attention to those details and the in betweens, that love for detail makes me a better IT person. When I do my job and I can get there on Monday and be like “alright seven meetings till freedom” and then suddenly on Friday I’m like okay, “one meeting till freedom, eight hours and then I’m gonna DJ this cool ass loft party or start a mosh pit with rap music at this venue or I'm gonna go see other artist friends of mine.” It’s a symbiotic relationship. If I don’t find that degree of zero I will go nuts in one direction or the other. When all my responsibilities are taken care of, when everything is laid and level, when I’m told I'm doing my job correctly, then art becomes my refuge. It becomes something I can launch myself into on Friday at 5pm and choose whether or not to leave.
What’s the next step for you? What do you consider to be the ultimate goal for you as an artist?
Whatever the next step is. I hate to think things in terms of next steps because there's some ridiculous stuff happening right now with music. Certain things I had to do got postponed because of extenuating circumstances. I was supposed to play a music festival out on the west coast this year. So there’s some exciting stuff happening but as for what’s next.. I just wanted to put out this album that I’ve been trying to get recorded for the past six years. It’s finally done, it’s recorded, and there are some big plans for it. I want to do that, step back, and look at it and be like okay...let’s do the next one.
So you mean to say that there’s no planned next step right? When you’re ready, you’re ready?
Yeah, I don’t want to exit or make rap music according to what someone’s formula for rap music should be. I want to be my own person. I want to be a decent human being and a rapper second. I’ve got tons of problems with what hip-hop is doing right now, where it stands, what the loudest voices are, or who’s muted or who’s being listened to. I want to be an advocate for those people and I want to make what I want to make. And when I decide I’m done making it I’ll be able to look back and know I had fun doing it.
So basically you’re not in this for the clout or fame? More for your own growth?
One of the ways I like to put it is that I like being dope. I’ll be the last person to tell you that I'm a killer if you put me in a cypher.. but if you talk enough shit in my direction, I will sit you down. So my thing is this - I want to be dope by my own standards but I want to be dope by those classical standards that we’ve established in hip hop. My word play, my cleverness, my ability to move a crowd.. I don’t want to be a rapper according to anyone else’s standards. I want to be a rapper that my parents are proud of.
On the more fun side, we know you’re a big fan of science fiction. What are some of your favorite sci-fi films?
Anything to do with Star Wars. Besides that, one of my favorite sci-fi films is Alien. My dad made me watch Alien when I was 8 or 9 years old and it’s been so influential that one of the bands I played in highschool was called Ash is a Goddamn Robot. Beyond Sci-Fi movies I love science-fiction books. Shout outs to my better half Jane who introduced me to the glory that is Russian Sci-fi. Monday Begins on Saturday, Picnic by the Side of the Road, The Dead Mountaineer's Inn. All these books are written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a pair of brothers that wrote science fiction in the USSR era of Russia.
You also mentioned your love for fighting games. What’s going on with you there?
One of my buddies convinced me to pick up Tekken 7 again and it’s made me feel like I’m in highschool again. Street Fighter 5 stays on my mind at all times as well; if you put me in front of classic SNK fighting games I will play them until my hands bleed. Smash Bros is fun too, I just gotta get used to it. It’s crazy - it’s like yo Nintendo, I watched fighting game tournaments a ton I always think to myself that the games can’t possibly be that deep. But Smash Bros is that deep.
What’s your advice for people who are in between their passion and their day job?
Anything you love is going to find a way to come back to you. Anything that you love, you will find to make time for and you can learn to love certain aspects of art. Every time you start out, especially when venturing into art, you’re going to be terrible. You’re going to want to throw away every script you write, every set you put together, and it’s (appropriately enough) an “uphill” battle. But the best part about it is - just like with anything else in life - if you find yourself continuing to be interested, if you continue to find yourself passionate about it and everything in between, it finds a way back to you. And because it finds a way back to you, you find yourself being able to make time for it or wanting to make time for it more importantly. The idea that I have to be good at something when I start out with it is dogshit and it will talk you out of every piece and parcel of art you attempt to talk yourself into. We must learn to be merciful with ourselves when we are learning to express ourselves. Just the idea of learning to practice empathy with yourself will also teach you how to practice empathy in life and part of that empathy in life is saying to yourself though I might not be doing something to the best of my ability, I am regardless doing it, I’m doing it the best I can and the next time I do it I will do so better.
Follow AMS on Instagram @thedamnnerdking for the most up to date information!