Sam Rothstein’s musical background is a lot different from others in Columbus.
I guess everyone has their own story, but his certainly doesn’t start too … hip-hop-ity. Actually, I guess it does. If the culture’s musical element assumes itself as one of relaying struggle and hardship through beats and lyrics than the 28-year-old emcee certainly fits in.
Rothstein grew up in Lancaster, away from concrete confines of major cities that usually have some sort of established urban music tradition or biography. He attended Catholic and non-Catholic Christian schools growing up, and didn’t have many rap-inclined friends to share his love of hip-hop with.
He felt somewhat outcasted in that way. Even though he has great appreciation for his hometown, there was something about the Columbus urban scene that had him visiting frequently and eventually moving here three years ago.
“I was so in love with having a community and having a seat of people I could be a part of because in high school, I felt a trillion miles away from hip-hop,” he said. “Even though I loved it and it was in [my soul], but like everyday at school I’d look out the window and see cornfields.”
It was motivation for him to find greener hip-hop pastures; a place where venues like Rehab Tavern with 9th Wonder or Alchemist nights would have him bobbing his head amongst like-minded and musically similar people. The open mics offered at events like The Break or Knock Five gave Sam some of his first opportunities to cut his teeth on the mic here in Columbus. It also gave him a chance to begin to tell his story.
“I’d always written raps but I’d had the raw image of I’m a kid from Lancaster, no one wants to hear what I have to say,” he said. “Once I got a little older and I lived life a little bit more and had a little more to say, that’s when I got serious about it.” From there the newly rejuvenated emcee booked as many shows as he could. At first, it was all about proving that he could rhyme.
If you’ve ever seen a Sam Rothstein set, chances are you’ve noticed his stage presence and command. His days as a self-proclaimed “class clown” mixed with his desire to challenge his audiences to interact on a personal level. The result? Promoters booking him constantly.
“I’ve always treated my rap career like a stand-up comedian. I always look at it like sets so every new show I do I’ll throw a variant in there or try some new idea and then improving on the [ideas] I know work,” he explains. “As a performer you have to know that what you say means something and that you being here means something. It’s your job for them to not walk away.”
As much as Columbus’ hip-hop scene inspires Rothstein, nothing compares to the people who listen for guidance through tough times. Lancaster, like many small towns in Ohio and across the country, has been gripped by heroin addiction. While never a user himself, Sam still knows the life because it’s killed people he’s known and inhibits people he still associates with.
One of his most listened to songs since he began rapping seriously three years ago is called “Narco.” It’s a nearly six-minute depiction of the life of a user as he becomes the sounding board for the pain and struggles the addicts he knows go through.
“It’s all about the mindset and hopelessness of being so far down the rat hole that all you can see is the sunlight, but you can’t get out,” Rothstein says. “It’s hard to talk about it because it means so much to me. Addiction was something right here and it was always something around me. I started getting people saying [to me] ‘I’ve been using for a year-and-a-half, I just relapsed, but I didn’t use for six weeks because I would listen to [“Narco”] every time I thought about using.’”
The inspiration has Sam Rothstein plowing ahead quickly. In July, he released his latest project, sadlosangeles EP and plans on dropping the sequel to an all-visual EP called Blood Orange, which, in 2015, caught the attention of Columbus gatekeepers like Nes Wordz and P The Emcee, among others.
Rothstein also has a promoter side and is passionate about showing off what his city has to offer hip-hop wise. He runs what are called Pipeline shows – events where artists from two different cities meet up and perform short sets for audiences from those areas to see what their towns represent. It’s all about providing them an audience, something Sam’s thankful Columbus provided him just a few years ago.
“I’m trying to make these younger artists who are making good songs, but maybe you don’t want to see a 15 minute set, but they’ve got that one good song, I want to stick them in-front of 100 people and see if they sink or swim doing that one song,” he says.
This month, Rothstein will be hosting his fifth pipeline show and first between Columbus and Cleveland. Featuring Darrio Lamont, Greg Owens, Walker OG and BhadWaiz, he hopes that a continuation of this already successful concept will get the city he now calls home a reason to appreciate all of Ohio and support the artists who are working hard everyday.
“I want to get everyone else into the mind-state of like, ‘Look man, Drake doesn’t need your f*cking help. Beyonce doesn’t need your help. The people you know and claim you f*ck with need your help,” he said in closing the conversation. “I understand why people would buy a Jay-Z album over their friends. I get it. It’s a safe bet. But I’m talking about people [here] who are making Jay-Z quality shit right now in their basement, and it’s f*cking happening.” •