musician diop poses in front of indianapolis skyline

Diop Connects His Passions for Entrepreneurship and Activism in Newest Album, “Still Shinin’”

Musician, producer and business owner Diop is a rising member of Indianapolis’s ever-growing creative community. The Renaissance man prides himself on consistent learning and his parent’s early instillment of entrepreneurship drive his hunger as an artist. “I was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana with pretty unique parents. They are Pan-Africanness, critical thinkers, community builders and entrepreneurs. A lot of my world view and outlook comes from that cultural context, which impacts my passions and creative aspirations.”

musician diop poses for 'still shinin' promo
Photo taken by Willis (@willyfromindy)

The Still Shinin’ album arrives nearly a year after Diop’s last release, Flow Flexin. It’s apparent that the musician prioritizes quality and substance in his art, with projects covering black empowerment and self-love and music videos that could easily be featured on MTV’s top 10. “The last full-fledged project that I put out was in January of 2017. A lot of people hadn’t heard the growth of my songwriting ability in terms of hooks, bars, metaphors, storytelling… I’m excited for others to see my growth and my production amplified that.”

Diop has a full team of supporters and mentors to thank for his growth in the musical space. Throughout our thirty-minute conversation, Diop makes it clear that his consistent collaboration with other Indy artists power his strong outputs. “I decided to start making beats around April with the help of Willis and Mandog. Within the first two weeks, I made a beat that was pretty good! It shocked all of us [myself, Mandog and Willis], and then I reached out to Allison Victoria to make a song together. It’s still unreleased but that was basically the turning point.”

Still Shinin’ serves as a self-portrait, illustrating Diop’s personal growth as an entrepreneur and community activist, while also demonstrating his determination to become a fully self-sufficient musician.

Continue reading as Diop discusses his album, Still Shinin’ and the connections between his childhood values, ongoing friendships and passion for music and art.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

I don’t know too much about you on a personal level, so before we dive into the project tell me a little bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana with pretty unique parents. They are Pan-Africanness, critical thinkers, community builders and entrepreneurs. A lot of my world view and outlook comes from that cultural context, which impacts my passions and creative aspirations. Diop is my middle name and I go by that artistically because it reflects where I come from and why I do what I do.

Is “Pan-Africanism” similar to Afro-Centrism?

Yes, very similar. Basically, it means any contributions of people from African descent are studied and a part of the collective consciousness. The more you know about it, the better you can have clarity on self and direction. That’s the philosophy.

When did you begin creating music?

I started doing hip-hop when I was a freshman at Broad Ripple High School. At the time, Broad Ripple was an arts school so it already encouraged a special type of energy. I had two friends that were really good at free-styling, so I started writing music myself at lunch. I wasn’t that good, but I watched my peers do whatever they wanted with the art form so I wanted to keep pursuing it. I started to consume and study more hip-hop to improve my craft – a lot of Outkast. To this day, Andre [3000] is still my favorite rapper. Eventually I was performing at talent shows and after-school rap battles and started to learn the recording process. I taught myself how to engineer and mix as best as I could. The key was to build relationships along the way. By the time I got to college, I was already at least self-sufficient in recording so I could capitalize on economic opportunities.

So many stories start with those lunchroom freestyle memories. When did those experiences shift from being a fun challenge to becoming an economic opportunity?

My sophomore year, me and two of my friends were in a group and we put together a mixtape. I had always been entrepreneurial so it made sense for me to print them up and sell them to my friends! We pressed up maybe 600 and split them 3 ways.

That’s a real production!

Yeah! It was an investment! I sold all of mine plus some of my friends. That’s when I realized that I could connect my art to economic opportunity. The idea started early on, but I had to take some time away from that focus because I wanted to be sure that the product was worth the effort that I exerted in the marketplace.

That makes sense. What was self-learning like in the engineering space?

In high school I’d collaborate with an artist by the name of Young Gattas. When she’d record, I’d look over her shoulder to learn and ask questions. When we stopped working together I downloaded an illegal version of what she was using and started mimicking what I saw her do. Eventually I learned enough to put out something that was listen-able. It wasn’t nicely mixed but it got the point across so I kept going. I bought a multi-track recorder and then I bought Pro Tools with my college refund check. I bought a Pro Tools for Dummies book – it was like 800-fucking pages but I would read what I wanted to learn. Eventually I met Mandog, and he was a better mixer than me, so I gave him all of my equipment to make music in his basement. Then we met Willis, who was better than both of us, so we had him do it. Willis insisted that he teach us his approaches we could at least have common knowledge.

My first introduction to entire self-produced projects at a local level was definitely Willis. It blew my mind how he did everything from start to finish. I love that he’s encouraged and helped you to do that for yourself! Tell me about the process of creating this album. How much more time and effort did it take?

That’s funny because this one took the shortest amount of time.

How is that possible?!

[Laughs.] It took about 10 months. When I started producing in April [2018], I had a goal to make at least one new beat a few times a week. The more you do something, the more chances you have to create something worth listening to. Within the first two weeks, I made a beat that was pretty good! It shocked all of us [myself, Mandog and Willis], and then I reached out to Allison Victoria to make a song together. It’s still unreleased but that was basically the turning point. If I can make something that’s high-quality within only two weeks of knowing the program, I must have an ear and natural ability to transfer sounds from my head to a computer program.

Then I went to London for three weeks and didn’t make a single beat. At the end of the trip, I created something that was better than anything I’d done before. When I got home, tragedy occurred. One way I dealt with that was by making more beats to express how I was feeling and what I was going through. I was averaging around one beat a day. By the time June came, the production level had increased so much! My learning curve was shaved in half because I was standing on the shoulders of two giants. Myself, Mandog and Willis opened a studio together and I was able to watch Willis make a beat then sing a hook then play the piano all in one session. It’s like a jungle gym! Mandog would work on a sample and ask for my input – that alone taught me how to pick samples. Once I started to actually build my own production skills, I could hear songs that resonated with my voice and write on them. I started with Gold Wrist and about two months later we had the entire album.

That’s crazy. What an opportunity! That experience would have been a lot different if you were still depending on that 800-page book for Dummies.

[Laughs]. Yeah, for sure. When I was teaching myself videography and filmmaking, I’d consume YouTube tutorials. I’d go and watch Rhythm Roulette to see how legends approach it. Lots of studying and putting myself in a position to learn as easy as I could.

I heard you say that this it he best project that you’ve released to date. Is that exclusively because of the production process or were there more factors?

I definitely think the production is one of the major points. Not to knock  any producer that I’ve worked with over the years, but this one cohesively sounds like me, because it is all me! I could be a lot pickier with beats because I’m making them and I don’t have to worry about paying or waiting. I’m able to be more selective sonically.

There’s definitely clear growth. Are you planning to produce for other people’s projects as well?

Absolutely. Me and Willis are working on a collaborative EP. We produced two songs together, I produced one and he produced three or four. Me and Mandog have made some productions together and I just met with Fresco of the New Wave Collective to produce an upcoming EP. I’m still figuring out how to make beats that fit other artist’s sounds so that’ll challenge me in a new way.

What’s your production tag going to be?

None of mine are tagged, but my producer name is Yop. Double A says if I have a tag it should be “get the Yoppers.” [Laughs.]

You gotta have a little kid say it!

Damn, you’re so right! [Laughs.]

Diop poses for "Still Shinin'"
Photo taken by Willis (@willlyfromindy)

Transitioning to your entrepreneurial endeavors – what is Flex Forever?

Flex Forever started off primarily as my YouTube channel. I wanted a brand that could stand for more than just me as an individual artist because I believe in the strength of numbers and community building. I considered what I wanted to represent, which is investing in yourself, continuously growing and making things that are timeless and impactful. A lot of that can be summed up as “flexing.” When you’re flexing, you’re doing something at a higher level and if it’s great, it’ll impact forever.

I created the YouTube channel and designed a crewneck – that was the beginning phases. Then, I started doing music videos with Jake and Alex, who asked me to post other artist’s videos on the channel. It helped to build the fanbase of the brand while also extending the reach of other artists, like Double A, Willis and Fresco. During Chreece, I went and bought twelve t-shirts just for artists with whom I already had strong relationships.

If we don’t promote what we think is the greatest, it won’t exist. If we do, it’s contagious and that becomes the standard for other artists in the environment. I just want to collaborate with like-minded creatives and keep the momentum going.

That’s awesome! I wasn’t at Chreece this past year, but I definitely saw the impact of Flex Forever on social media. The branding is on point – major kudos to you from one marketer to another.

I appreciate that! It was definitely an investment, but I’m grateful for its impact.

I read a book called Contagious, which discusses the different principles that you can use to make a product or service contagious in the marketplace. One of those principles is exclusivity. If there’s only a select group of artists with the t-shirt, people will wonder how they can become a part of the group. Associating the brand with an environmental trigger, like Chreece, increases the chances that someone will think of Chreece and immediately think of Flex Forever. Philosophically, Chreece represents local artists who aspire to be timeless – the association is almost perfect. My goal is not only to drive engagement, but also to establish deep relationships and strong connections.

I’m loving this conversation because you have such a unique approach to your craft. It’s very strategic and you have a deeper knowledge of your art from a branding perspective. That’s unique.

Yeah, definitely. I’m an artist but I’m also an entrepreneur and activist. These principles impact all aspects of my life. It just took some time for me to connect the worlds and blend them together. The more I do that, the more I’m able to see the importance of these values in all areas.

The three words. Describe Diop the artist in three words only.

Empowered, adaptable and clear.

Listen to Still Shinin’ on all streaming platforms, then join the Flex Forever team on YouTube.

The feature photo was taken by @keenanrhodesmediums.

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