Q&A: Tim Vocals On Pickup Lines, Why Harlem Is New York City’s Mecca, And Reworking “Marvins Room”


Is Tim Vocals the “future of gangsta R&B”? That’s the way the young uptown singer’s debut mixtape, Live From Harlem, is being billed, thanks to Vocals’s knack of turning songs like Drake’s “Marvins Room” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” into grittier tracks that include lines about bullets meeting brains. But beyond his boisterous bravado, Vocals can undoubtedly sing: At times his voice seems shot through with an angelic touch as he hits notes with the breezy ease of someone who’s been in the spotlight for decades.

Born and raised on 114th Street, Vocals began the year by mustering up an Internet following thanks to a series of YouTube flicks that showcased him warbling a cappella in his building’s hallways and elevators. Now he says he’s readying up his first EP of original songs. Ahead of that, SOTC got him to reminisce about being awed by Slick Rick passing through Harlem, talk about opening shows for Chicago’s much-hyped Chief Keef, and drop details about an inevitable-sounding collaboration with fellow Harlemite A$AP Rocky.

You were born in Harlem, right?

Yes, I was born and raised in Harlem.

What’s your earliest memory of growing up there?

I remember people coming to perform in the street. That just got me hyped when I was little ’cause I always wanted to be a performer. That’s what inspired me actually and made me want to sing.

Which performers do you remember most?

Just the old rappers, like Slick Rick used to come through, and the old Harlem legends and local talent. They’d do they job and I wanted to be in their predicament. It was music and that’s what I wanted to try and do for it.

What do you remember about Slick Rick?

He had the gold chains! He had the [eye] patch! It was crazy!

What defines an artist from Harlem?

Harlem is the Mecca of New York City. Everything is so soulful; everything about Harlem is so dope. Everything about New York City that people know—like the swag, the confidence—it all comes from Harlem. Not to say it doesn’t come from anywhere else, but it’s us first. People out here are thorough—it’s just a couple of blocks long.

There seems to be a lot of young musical talent coming out of Harlem now with A$AP Rocky and Azealia Banks.

I’m pretty cool with Rocky; Rocky’s my guy. Before he became who he is today, he was striving too, striving to make a buzz. So I ain’t mad at him.

Is there any chance of and A$AP Rocky and Tim Vocals collaboration?

Without question. There will definitely be an A$AP Rocky song with Tim Vocals on it. It’s no question. That shit would sound crazy, with my swag and his swag. I’m downtown Harlem, he’s uptown Harlem—put that together it’s a H-Bomb!

Your video for “K In The Trunk” includes shots of Melba’s in Harlem.

Ah, man, it’s classic, it’s monumental with Harlem downtown! It brings a lot of good business, everyone knows it’s a monument. To be able to do a video there and have it on my block was great.

What do you recommend ordering at Melba’s?

What does anybody like? Most people go for the drinks! But honestly, whatever you like, they got it there.

When did you decide to re-do Drake’s “Marvins Room”?

The song just owned me. I was walking around singing it and singing it and I put my own lyrics to it and it sounded good so I put it out there.

Does it take you many attempts to re-do other artists’ songs?

Nah, I don’t write anything. I freestyle everything. I’m not just saying this, but I freestyle everything I sing. I haven’t had no training at all. It’s just street singing. I listen to a song and I can sing it. It’s that simple.

You also cover The Weeknd on the mixtape. Are you a fan?

I like Abel [Tesfaye], he’s a great artist. I thought his sound was crazy and it was something different that no one else could do. I became a big fan. I don’t hate no artists but I think he’s one of the best artists out there today.

You’ve opened a show for Chief Keef. How did that come about?

It was at S.O.B.’s. I didn’t know Chief Keef or anything—I just knew that I had to go in there and do what I had to do.

Do you like Chief Keef’s music?

Yeah, I think Chief Keef is different. He’s really what he is, he really ain’t trying to be nobody else or play a facade. I respect that.

A lot of people know you from the YouTube videos of you singing in your building’s elevator. What are the acoustics like in there?

Yeah, in the project buildings and all of that. In the hallways, the sound basically bounces off the walls different. You get to hear what it sounds like more than in a studio. It sounds good when you record it. I mean, I loved the hallway singing, ’cause it always brings out what I really want to hear. If I’m out in the streets, there’s too much noise to hear what I want to hear, but when I’m in the hallways, the acoustics will echo past me so I can hear if I’m sounding bad or not.

If money wasn’t an issue, which producers would you want to work with?

Whoo! Kanye West, Pharrell, Timbaland. A whole lot of them. Swizz Beatz, too.

Since the mixtape has been out, have you noticed more girls approaching you?

Honestly, since the videos have been on the Internet girls have been coming out of everywhere. So I ain’t worried about that at all.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve had a female fan tweet at you?

The strangest thing was, “Tim Vocals, I want to suck a bullet out of you.”

How did you respond to that?

Nah, I didn’t! I didn’t respond!