Interview by Kazeem Kuteyi, Photography by Buruk Early, Kahlil Hernandez
Laith Hakeem has been through many incarnations. He’s been a YouTube star. He’s been part of Much Music’s VJ search competition. If you’re unfamiliar of Much Music, think Canada’s version of MTV. Laith has been some sort of Internet celebrity before Instagram was Instagram. There’s even a tumblr account by a fan that’s dedicated to celebrating Laith and his art.
The current version of Laith seems more true. Laith knows this. “I used to be phoney and be too cheery and wanted everyone to like me”. In this moment, he’s more focused on sharing his magic through his music and art. We can assume that he has found himself and if not, he’s close. Plusmood radio, a passion project turned full time pursuit launched after a trip to Amsterdam where he was exposed to new music and vibes. And while plusmood has gained traction on Soundcloud with thousands of plays and followers, recently he collaborated with Dais, a creative hub that’s dedicated to developing creative projects on a Saturday night slot on their brand new iHeartRadio channel.
In our conversation that took place this past summer, we were curious to know more about Laith and his journey to finally finding himself through creativity.
Tune into plusmood Radio every Saturday at 10pm. Download the iHeartRadio app and search for Dais.
So there’s so much that has happened in the few days, the death of icons like Muhammad Ali and Prince. These people represent so much to culture. So my question to you is, what’s your place in this world?
You brought up Muhammad Ali and that’s a beautiful thing. My parents put me onto him when I was a little boy. They got to hang out with him for like, 20 hours because their flights were delayed. And because of that, as a child, I was always learning about him through clips my parents showed me. Ali was like a superhero to me. I watched his funeral service on TV and through the speeches I realized it wasn’t even about boxing— it was about the fight to do what you believe in and be unapologetic. My place here on earth, in this lifetime, is to take those principles and just apply it in everything I do. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here. I just feel things. I create. I’m an artist and I’m obsessed with music. It’s not just because it sounds nice, I love the structure and the feeling and I love sharing that.
You say that your parents put you onto Muhammad Ali and perhaps that was to inspire you or something, but I’m curious, are you living the life they want for you?
100% no. I went off track to them. I love them and they love me. My father wants me to go to Harvard. I understand what they were saying as far as a path and everything but my path is my path. If I go to Harvard and try to be a doctor— yes that’s impressive, but that’s not real to me. That’s not my reality. It’s not that it is wrong, but it’s not my taste. I don’t care for that. But they are proud of the fact that I have a good head on my shoulders and I’m doing what I believe in.
So just like Ali, you’ve always had to fight for what you believe in.
Exactly. Even for the smallest thing. In a world full of manufactured things where music and art are made into a product, I stand out. I don’t fall for that. I don’t understand how people can be tricked into things like that. For example, the Kardashian family is a circus to me. Not because they are bad people but it’s the wild west and people love watching that show. Meanwhile, there’s people like Ali. I get more feelings watching him than I do Kim cry about whatever on TV. I just have to stay true to myself. It’s about being honest and being aware of what you’re being honest about and owning it. My favourite comedian of all time, Patrick O’Neal who passed away a couple of years ago said something along the lines of “Own your opinion, don’t let your opinion own you”— to me that was huge. If I feel something, I own it. I’m willing to be wrong but I think I’m right. And that applies to everything I do— my art, my music, and my friends. I don’t know if I answered your question.
I think you did. But how did you develop this self confidence and this self awareness to where you think it’s important to be honest with yourself? Perhaps it’s harder to do that these days because of social media and the Internet. You see someone posting the end result of their hard work but not the leading steps and one might presume that success or creating art is easy.
That’s very interesting you said that. If you check any of my artwork that I posted ever— I always show the steps. I like taking the pictures of its progress and people are like wow, it’s coming together. The artwork is great but it’s sad to me when I’m finished because I’m not in the process or in the zone anymore. I’m very hard on myself but at the same time I recognize where I do well and where I don’t. Like you said, in this social media world where people showcase the best of them, I get it. But that’s not their fault, it’s just that they don’t understand who they are and you overcome that by making mistakes and being honest about your bullshit.
I used to be phoney and be too cheery and wanted everyone to like me. Especially with girls. I used to do all the above and beyond stuff, but it didn’t make me happy because I thought that’s what they wanted. It’s like, “Do I really care about this girl?” or “Am I really really attracted to her?”. If I don’t care about her, I shouldn’t let her think otherwise. Take that small L because there’s a bigger L waiting for you if you don’t. I don’t mind taking an L or being wrong and if I affect someone negatively, I go, oh shoot, what did I do. I don’t care about persona anymore. People are going to follow me if they want to follow me. Social media is an interesting thing. It’s a poisonous thing to weak minds and beautiful thing to strong minds.
Years ago, I watched a video of you giving Drake a painting of Aaliyah. How was that moment for you?
Yeah, that was crazy. I met Drake during the Summer of 2011 and after that he followed me on Instagram and sent me a message. I was like, what?! Anyway, I was with Karla one night and she was driving me home from a photoshoot for her brand, ATF. She said Drake was doing a signing the next day and suggested I make a painting for him. After a bit of brainstorming and figuring out what Drake loves, I came up with the idea to paint Aaliyah in an OVO sweater. I got home and I painted for 14 hours straight. The next day I took a cab all the way from home in Newmarket down to HMV on Queen street— he didn’t know I was coming. Karla, told me to hide in line with everyone else. When it came to my turn to and gave him the painting, he freaked out. The whole time I was looking at his eyes— studying his reaction. I knew I won. For me, that meant that anyone can succumb to a moment and if I can do that to them, I’ve made my mark.
So art is your own way of bringing joy to people?
Well, joy to myself. If it brings me joy, then it will bring joy to other people. I don’t do it for the sole purpose of ‘for them’. I mean it’s in mind, but I go, do I like it or is it good enough.
So for kids who want to make art for a living— do they have to make those strategic moves like giving Drake a painting?
I didn’t think of it as a strategy. I just thought it was a cool idea at the time. I would love to be more strategic but I go with the moment. That’s it. I don’t know if there’s a strategy or formula to being successful as an artist. The only thing I know to be successful as an artist is to be a great artist.
At what point did you realize you were an artist?
Specifically, I knew I could create since my earliest memory. I don’t remember starting art. I had my tonsils removed when I was about 2 or 3. My mother felt so sorry for me because I was in the hospital feeling shitty so she brought me some pens, colours, and paper and for some reason, I stuck with it. That’s what she said. That’s it. I don’t remember that. I loved drawing. As a kid, I knew I always wanted to be an artist but I never knew I was one. I remember making some money in school off drawing for girls who wanted tattoos.
When did you realize that music would be your next step?
When I was about 13 or 14, my family and I moved into in a new house. I had a neighbour, his name was Logan, he was a year older than I and we went to the same high school. When we started hanging out and whatever, he went to a DJ camp for a summer and when he came back— he came back with turntables, crates and all that. It was all hardware. I’m a kid and I’m like, this is dope! I remember we were watching the videos on learning how to scratch. This new avenue of exploring art in this medium was so fascinating to me that I wanted to know more and do more. Eventually, we used those same turntables to sample. We bought an MPC 2000 XL, a mixing board, and we’d work summer jobs and save up for this stuff. We were 14! We were like, “Let’s make beats!”. We were obsessed with Dr Dre, Pete Rock, Pharrell, 9th Wonder, and Timbaland. These guys were gods to us.
Did you get the Neptunes drum kit?
Of course! I had that.
I remember making beats in high school and I would buy every drum kit possible. Timbaland, The Neptunes, Just Blaze. I bought them online for $20 a piece.
That’s amazing. DJ premiere was also my shit. I remember the first song I sampled was Human Nature by Michael Jackson. We had the drums and everything and we slowed it down and I was fucking blown away. I just made a beat! At the time I was 14, I was like what the hell! And that’s how it went for the next four years. It was everyday— go to his house, make beats. It was amazing because I learnt a lot about the structure of beatmaking and I really appreciated it. I knew I would forever make music.
How did you get exposed to this new sound you’re pushing through your platform, plusmood?
I met Full Crate, a producer from Amsterdam who is like a brother to me and as we became close he would always give me tips and pointers. I flew out to his event in Amsterdam, Rock the Boat and it was insane. Everyone was just down to party and have a good time. It was a whole different vibe from what I’m used to in Toronto. But he exposed to me a lot music that I’ve never heard about; Kaytranada, soulection, and when I came back I had a new ear. I had to make new stuff, I didn’t want to make trap beats and that’s how plusmood became a thing.
So that’s how plusmood took off ?
Yeah but originally, plusmood was an alias. I didn’t want anybody who knew me or followed me to support me. I did not want that. I wanted people to enjoy the music naturally. Not support it because it’s mine because I knew that was going to happen. So I just created a name and just put out a few remixes and it did so well, that I’d be hearing them at parties, in stores, in the mall. I’m like what! This is crazy. So I was like, well, I guess I gotta keep doing this.
So you’re all about taking chances ?
Yeah. It’s all in the moment. It’s capitalizing on the moment. Just take the shots and if you miss, try again.