By Ben Moskow
18 Feb, 2020
Grand Rapids rapper Waldo exuded positivity as he greeted everyone in the Bottom Lounge upon entering. He daps up the rainbow-dreadlocked sound engineer and gives a shout to a guy setting up equipment onstage. With his round glasses and goofy grin, he almost resembles the book character himself. Underneath it all, though, lies a man who is passionate about his artistry and determined to put his small hometown on the map. While his good friend Sango is the best known among the Michigan-based AGO collective, Waldo is the Energizer Bunny, keeping morale high and focus clear for the whole crew.
WNUR got a chance to sit down with Waldo before his opening slot at the Bottom Lounge on February 18. Below is the interview transcript.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WALDO: For those who don’t know, I go by Waldo. I reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And I represent the AGO music collective. That’s who I am.
WNUR: When did it all start for you personally with music?
WALDO: I started my own rapping career in my head in like, seventh grade. I thought I was just this dope-ass rapper already. My 8th grade year, I ended up transferring to a different school which was called Pinewood Middle School. And the last week, we were having like, pep rallies and talent shows, we were going to high school and stuff, so they were doing it big for us. I had an opportunity to perform at the talent show. Me and a couple of my homies said we would rap. And I was the only one that kind of sounded professional at the time, at least to Sango. He pulled me aside after the show and was like “Hey bro, I make beats, bro, we need to work! I can record you and everything!” This is literally in eighth grade. So the very last day of school my eighth-grade year, I went to his house, recorded my first song, and it was history from there.
WNUR: What was that first song?
WALDO: It was called “Give Me the Crown.” He like, sampled this Busta Rhymes song that goes “give me the crown!” We were just rapping, it was me and the homie Mike Banks. Me, him and [Sango], we made that first song and ever since then I was hounding my folks to go over there, every week, like, “Can I go over there? Please, let me stay, I wanna record, record, record.” We just kept rocking all through school and here we are.
WNUR: Do you have records of all that old stuff?
WALDO: Hell yeah. [Sango] could go out there and play like, something from 2006 for you right now, easily. He’s still got it in his archive. It’s all a part of our journey. And bro has been this dope since then, I just knew he was special. And he helped me find myself. I didn’t really think this was real until he opened that door for me.
WNUR: What was that creative process like when you were younger?
WALDO: See, the studio was his momma’s basement [Laughs]. At the time, I think he was using, like, Fruity Loops. I was never on that side of the board, I was the lyricist. I was always just pen and paper. He’d tell me to jump on a song, and that’s what would happen. The creative process…felt natural because me and him had started to build a relationship outside of music, so when we linked up together, we could literally just add our personality to records.
WNUR: Where did the name Waldo come from?
WALDO: When I originally came up with it, I was a big ass Wiz Khalifa fan, so I just wanted a cool name that had a W in it. I was like “I need something like Wiz, what can I come up with?” and it was Waldo. I feel like the most important thing in life is figuring out who you are, and music helped me identify who I was. And that’s like finding Waldo in the book for me. It’s kind of a deeper meaning, literally just finding myself.
WNUR: And the AGO collective, you got inspiration from Wiz for that too, right?
WALDO: Yeah, so AGO originally stood for like, Astronaut Gang or Die, so it was A.G.O.D. at first. But as we got older, we started to find our direction more and it grew into something different. Now it stands for Acknowledge God’s Opportunities. It’s me Waldo, Sango, Savon, the SEVENth, Joose and Amos Rose.
WNUR: How do you feel like you’ve evolved since you first started with AGO?
WALDO: I’ve grown a lot. I was a fan of a lot of music at first, and I just tried to mimic people in all of my songs, like Lil Wayne or Wiz. People like Kai, Sango, started to show me that “Yo, you got your own self-worth, your truest stories make the hottest records. When I’m telling the truth, it makes these records. [That] developed me as an artist, gave me the confidence I needed.
WNUR: Is there a certain goal you’re working toward for your music?
WALDO: Honestly bro, I’m from a small city in Michigan. Grand Rapids is small. What we’ve done already, I’m happy, I can truly say that. We’ve been around the world, all types of places. My mom doesn’t even have a passport, you know what I’m saying? Let alone me to be doing that off of music, I’m already hitting milestones. Of course, we always set goals for ourselves. We’d love to see it go next level, but we’re blessed at the end of the day.
WNUR: What’s been your favorite city to tour in?
WALDO: London was fire. We did a venue called Cocoa. I was on tour supporting Sango and KAYTRANADA. That was crazy for me because I had never performed on such a big stage, with that many people in there knowing my songs, singing and rapping them. It was like, “this is nuts.” London, it’s in Europe but it’s like New York. I still kind of felt like I was at home a little bit. It was like McDonald’s everywhere, Nike stores and shit.
WNUR: You’ve kept a pretty small circle with your music. Who would you most want to work with outside of AGO?
WALDO: Producer-wise, I would love to work with Timbaland. If I reached that level, that would be nuts. He influenced Sango so much, he has a way of really making artists blossom on his records, so that’d be fire, just to see what we could cook up.
[Sango and Smino’s track “Khlorine” begins to play on the stage for sound-check]
WALDO: Collab-wise, fuck it, Smino, that’s the homie, I would love to do a song with Smino. Him and Monte [Booker] definitely, off of the top of my head.
WNUR: You’ve said Nipsey Hussle has been a big influence for you. What was your reaction to his unfortunate passing?
WALDO: Honestly, I didn’t want to rap for a bit. It was devastating, a dude like Nip, he’s just stand-up around the board. He never came off as a hater for anybody, he was always happy for other people and he was respected. When you see people like that not being able to live out their legacy, it’s like “Man, what’s in store for me? What’s in the cards for me?” I don’t even think I’m half what this man was. It was hard at first, but at the end of the day, his homies are pushing the mentality that he would have wanted everybody to keep doing what they’re doing and getting better at it. I think the spirit of him is still on Earth right now, like people can feel that energy, like “we gotta keep going hard. We can’t just roll over because something bad happened. We gotta just take it on the chin.”
When I used to work in factories, I would have The Marathon playing on my phone. You couldn’t have headphones in, so I would put my cellphone in my hat, because my hat was tight enough to keep it next to my ear and I would just play Nip. And he would get me through work. It made me feel like I was working toward something.
WNUR: What do you think you would be doing right now if you weren’t making music?
WALDO: That’s a tough question. Music saved my life for real. I was going down the wrong path, you can even ask Sango. I was class clown, always skipping school, it was never in the cards for me. Honestly, I don’t know what I would be doing, but I’m happy I’m not doing it.
WNUR: At what point did you fully commit yourself to music?
WALDO: Since eighth grade, that was the vision. As soon as I met somebody that was on the same page as me, I was just like, “I gotta hone in on this.” I remember days when bro would be like, “I don’t even want to do this. I want to go to college,” or whatever. And I would be pushing him like, “Dog, you gotta keep doing this. You’re changing the game and look at it now. We’re traveling the world off of your legacy that you created.” So, I’ve been on this. I’ve been telling everybody I was a rapper since I was a little kid. I always knew I would do something like this.
WNUR: How do you want to be thought of after you stop making music?
WALDO: I just want to be a household name. When people say Waldo, I want to make it feel like when you hear a J. Cole or a Nipsey Hussle, just like “Damn, they had their own sound and they made it happen.” Especially because for my city, there’s not too many artists who have set the bar on that level, so it would be an honor to be the one to kick the door in,
WNUR: What do you feel like you have to do to get there?
WALDO: Work harder. Just keep working. I got nothing holding me back except myself.
WNUR: Tell me a little bit about how you come up with lyrics.
WALDO: I like my stuff to be authentic. I love things that people from my neighborhood can relate to. Somebody else might be confused but anybody from where I’m from might be like, “it’s no way in hell he just named a song ‘Channel 8,’ like that’s the news channel in Grand Rapids!” Grand Rapids people would know that, nobody else would know what that’s about. Always trying to hone in on what’s original and what’s us.
WNUR: I like those glasses.
WALDO: The transitional lenses?
WNUR: Yeah. What went into the circle shape. Is that a part of the Waldo look, or just a coincidence?
WALDO: Honestly, this wasn’t even intentional, like I’ve been blind my whole fuckin’ life. I just needed some glasses, and these are the ones. It just so happened to work with being “Waldo,” it goes hand in hand. I never really even though about it until recently, somebody was doing an animated picture of me and they were like, “you need the glasses, bro. That’s how people are gonna know it’s you.” I was like, “I just started wearing these shits three months ago!”
WNUR: What’s next for you?
WALDO: Finish up this tour, and then a new album on the way, coming right back. The process of creating [Grove] took us three years to get through. We went through a lot of ups and downs, a lot of heartache, a lot of stuff. To finally get in a space where we were able to create and drop this one, we don’t want to lose that momentum again.
WNUR: What were some of the obstacles you faced?
WALDO: Honestly just not knowing if this was something I was supposed to be doing. I was starting to lose faith. I was seeing things grow around me. I was in my peak position in 2014, I was doing South by Southwest, just crazy shit, doing festivals and shows, opening up for big-name artists. It was getting real, but I was young. I just wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t know that until shit started to die down and I was looking around like “whose fault is this?” But it was mine. It took a lot of self-reflection, but now we’re here.
WNUR: How do you plan to sustain your success in the future?
WALDO: Staying focused, man. No distractions, like don’t make your situation any harder than it needs to be. A lot of people have bad influences around them. The people you have around you are so crucial because they will leech off you. Misery loves company. If they’re not doing anything with their life, they will swallow you. It’ll be crabs in a bucket.
If there’s something you want to do out there, believe in yourself. Know that you can do it. If you fail or have a bad moment, charge it to the game and just keep going.