Inside a small Costa Mesa home studio, clouds from burning incense and blunts gather toward the ceiling. The thump of a beat in its Beta stages causes the cozy walls to rattle with bass. Producer Asem Pria, a.k.a. Chris Perez, and rapper Tony Santana sit back, casually bobbing their heads near the pulsing speakers. Their skin looks discolored, thanks to the glow from a computer screen. Together, they're the most essential parts of the A$E (Always Staying Eminent) Squad. Though Santana is still netting feedback from his debut mixtape, Eminent, which was nine months in the making, he's now working on the second installment of The A$E Tape. The 19-year-old cites as inspiration the success of other rappers and, more specifically, early-morning calls to Pria for studio sessions.
"Nah, we don't take no breaks," Santana says in response to the duo's refusal to come up for air in between projects. Pria notes that there were already three songs on the upcoming tape before Santana dropped Eminent on Nov. 7. As Santana and Pria answer questions, they bounce responses off each other as if they're twins. But the partners are quite different, personality-wise. Pria, the beat maker and engineer, carries more bass in his voice, while Santana's diction is much more melodic, with a twang akin to rappers on the charts right now.
That swagger, a staple in the mainstream rap community, separates Santana (his last name is an homage to his hometown) from many other notable rappers in the local scene, as OC is still known for producing a more old-school, underground hip-hop sound. He gravitates toward artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, two pretty reliable benchmarks of greatness these days. On Thanksgiving, Santana received some advice on improving his bars via a Twitter exchange with MTV pundit Rob Markman, who took the time to offer wisdom to the young wordsmith.
"He just gave me some tips on how to get better and whatnot," Santana says, leaving out the details the hip-hop journalist had for him. Markman implored the Mater Dei graduate to be more personal and add more detail in his music.
"I'm just introducing myself to people, so, like, once they get to know me, you know, I'll be more personal with them, but for now, it's like an introduction," Santana explains. Surely bits and pieces of his life story as a son of Syrian immigrants living in OC will play into his storytelling on future tracks. Santana says that growing up different from most of the kids around him meant that he spent a lot of time alone. Over time, he used social isolation to build on his creativity.
"You could do more with being alone in a room, like write freely and express my rhymes out loud," he says. "And you could rap in front of the mirror without feeling weird and shit, like somebody watching you."
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When Santana isn't trying to lay down tracks, he's at Orange Coast College studying biology, though he admits he doesn't see himself doing anything other than music for a living. He looks to further immerse himself in his artistry; Pria recently helped Santana set up Logic Pro X and some essential hardware, so Santana could start recording vocals and making beats of his own. Santana is determined to put the A$E Squad on the map. And in the process, maybe they could even afford to stack their deck with some new talent.
'We're just trying to expand, honestly," Santana says. "I don't just want rappers. I want singers; I want other producers. I want a full-on team. Even though us two is perfect, the more you expand, you get all these different fan bases fuckin' with you."