St. Louis rapper Richard Williams, aka “Prince Ea” discovered hip-hop through the big beats and big egos of his east coast idols—artists such as Biggie Smalls, Mace, and Puff Daddy.
Over the past several years Prince has been making waves developing his own brand of hard-hitting, socially conscious lyrics, often about subjects as varied as Charles Darwin, colonialism, politics or brain chemistry.
Born and raised in north St. Louis, in a solid middle-class family, Prince aka Richard Williams, started producing his first mixtapes for his friends at Metro High under the name Richie Rich. By his own admission he says it was your typical bad-boy posturing.
“When I first started rapping, you know, I was always lyrical, you know I really loved the lyrics that artists would display in their songs and I would talk about the same things," Prince says. "[Things like] the ice, the chains that I didn’t have, the cars that I didn’t drive, I would kind of use these things to boost myself up, my ego, I would posture like these other artists do. But then when I heard the conscious artists and what they were saying, it really resonated deeply within me.”
Williams took that curiosity to the University of Missouri—St. Louis, where he majored in Anthropology. It was at UMSL that he realized that he actually had something to say, not only about hip-hop culture, but also the world around him.
"I was at UMSL, this was about my Freshman year," Prince says. "I was in the Nosh, anyone who goes to UMSL knows the Nosh, it’s like the cafeteria, and there was a rap cypher going on. People were standing around in a group, you had spectators, you had guys rapping, they were in a group doing their thing. And then I stepped in, this pretty much unknown guy, I just went in…(freestyling):
It's the theoretical physicist
Meticulous multidimensional lyricist
Ever since the colonial clipper ships
Came pillaging innocent villages
I was discerning the difference
Between preemptive and preventative
Wars are riddled with disingenuous
Politicians configuring their constituents
To be oblivious to the divisiveness
"I just went in on that and there was complete silence, nobody said anything when I was done…they were just shocked and awed. And afterward, this girl came up and was like, 'How are you gonna be a smart rapper?'"
"Everybody starts laughing…and I’m embarrassed, I had my head down, I tried to laugh too. But you know how it is when you try to start laughing, when you really hurting on the inside, that’s how I felt. But sometimes you really have to think about what people say sometimes and figure it out. And she said 'how are you going to be a smart rapper,' as if rappers are inherently stupid people. That’s kind of what she was getting at, and I just didn’t think that was true."
It was during this time that Williams started going by Prince Ea, short for "Prince of the Earth."
In addition to music he also launched the “Make Smart Cool” campaign, a branding and clothing line. He also works with schools and teachers around St. Louis, talking to students and presenting a different image of hip-hop. Given the sometimes conflicting stereotypes associated with hip-hop I wondered whether he felt like he had to put himself out there as the anti-Jay-Z when talking to kids and students.
“Yeah, you have to explain to people, not only kids but adults who listen to hip-hop and think its only what they hear on the radio," Prince says. "On the radio is only about 10 percent of what actually comprises hip-hop, this great culture we have. But, I love Jay-Z, he’s one of my favorite artists. I think what hip-hop needs to have, that it doesn’t have now is balance. We have the guys that talk about that side of hip-hop that you were mentioning, the cars, the girls, the jewelry, but we don’t have anyone else talking about the other side.”
While Prince says his heart will always be with the hip-hop underground, he doesn’t necessarily see commercial success as selling out. Perhaps his most famous track to date, “Backwards Rapper” released in 2011 has racked up nearly 1 million views on YouTube.
Follow Adam Allington on Twitter: @aallington