On rolling with the punches, by Eigen Makelij’s Pepe

Giuseppe Federico (1986), better known as Pepe, is an Antwerp-born rapper of Sicilian-descent whose first album Planeet Pepe came out in the spring of 2016. From his humble beginnings with Francophone rap, to street handlings, and finally finding his way with his day-one family Eigen Makelij by his side; Pepe recounts on his past as well as promising future – and everything in between. Of personal demons and motivating aspirations, Pepe is one to keep an eye and ear out for.

Photographer Thomas Ost (c).

Rapping for me started at home – my older sister was the only one with a stereo growing up, and I would always sneak into her room to use it when she wasn’t around. French rap was really what introduced me to the hip hop world at the age of fifteen: IAM, Suprême NTM, Oxmo Puccino and the likes. At the time I didn’t understand their lyrics at all but I could always sense the French were dropping straight bangers, the vulgarity of the their delivery contrasting beautifully with their melancholic beats. I would practice their songs as a youth – but it wasn’t until hearing the first Flemish rap outfit ABN that I gained the confidence to actually write my own bars. Eventually I started a crew with a mate a few years later and began teaching myself music production properly whilst also entering a more experimental period in my career, picking up various different rhyming techniques and developing a taste for a certain kind of beats. Unfortunately, my artistic choices set me apart from the rest of my group so I decided to step out of it, which led to my first solo track. It got a lot of love, and gave me the motivation to keep working on my sound. I had also, earlier on, met the guys who would go on to become Eigen Makelij – one of Antwerp’s very first hip hop labels. A great bunch of guys who took me everywhere and always had a place for me to lay tracks down. I know they were always down to help me release something, but the prospect of making good hard cash slowly relegated my music to a second priority, as this was also around the time when I started hustling on the streets.

I’m also not your typical gangster rapper; I tend to deliver a certain style of gentle roughness.

Things quickly got sour though as I got done for my not-so-lawful handlings and was handed down a sentence. Thankfully this was the wake-up call that I needed. I finally joined Eigen Makelij officially in 2015 and released my first album Planeet Pepe the following year. It’s a strong nod to French hip hop through meaningful, personal rhymes laid on beats courtesy of my producer-in-crime Cloos. I always try to be as honest and genuine as possible in my lyrics, showing both my good and bad sides. Sure, I have the light-hearted party tracks with your more generic hip hop topics, but I’m also not your typical gangster rapper; I tend to deliver a certain style of gentle roughness. Neither is it about pretending to be something that I’m not: if I’ve gone through a certain fucked up situation, if I’ve made a mistake, I’ll write a song about it. And it’s also not about teaching a lesson, or making some political manifesto through music. I just want people to listen to what I have to say – enjoy it – and then use it in whatever way they want. In a way, my bars are too personal and specific to me – I’m clearly fighting my inner demons. From a young age I seemed to always lean towards the melancholic: I’ve had my fair share of betrayal and backstabbers, and also was never satisfied with life. It was only at a later age – especially after serving my time – that I learnt to fully appreciate the smaller things in life, and not take them for granted. Doesn’t matter what anyone says – home is better than jail. It also gave me the drive to go grab what’s within my reach and achieve what every other rapper out there wants: to be their own boss and not have to answer to anyone else. Which can be hard, seeing as we’re not considered TV or radio-friendly yet – our playground is still limited to the Internet – but there’s also a heavy stream of Belgian hip hop which is taking over right now, so who knows what the future holds? Things have changed drastically since I was a young’n, where there weren’t so many examples of Dutch rap for instance: now everyone and their brother across Flanders and Holland is making some absolutely crazy stuff. A teenage boy of about fifteen is bound to try his hand at rap music – especially in areas like my neighbourhood. So we’re hoping to give the next generation of rappers and producers the tools, inspirations and platform for their inevitable grand entrance into the Antwerp – and Belgian – scene.