He's an enthusiastic Twitch streamer, but that's only the beginning for the multi-talented T-Pain – games play a crucial role in his work and family
"Mannnn do I hate waking up early," T-Pain groans, to nobody in particular. It's just past 1 pm, and he's been playing Watch Dogs 2 for a press junket since 10. There's a half-empty bottle of Hennessy and a vaporizer on the table. A young interviewer is getting warmly berated for not knowing how to properly use a DualShock controller. "He's in rare form," one of his managers whispers, smiling. For all his groaning, he seems to be having a great time.
Born Faheem Rashad Najm, T-Pain is the rare rapper/singer/songwriter/producer that actually does all of the above himself. Though he currently resides in Atlanta, Najm was born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, and his stage name is short for "Tallahassee Pain" – a nod to his rough life growing up. Najm found an outlet in music, turning his bedroom into a music studio before his 10th birthday and going on to become one of the most popular and prolific pop artists of the last decade. He's perhaps best known for using Auto-Tune pitch correction to creative effect, popularizing a technique that has since been used by everyone from Kanye West to Bon Iver. He's also an avowed hardcore gamer, and occasionally streams his marathon sessions on Twitch ("I'd be on there all the time if hotels didn't have such shitty wi-fi," he says). We spoke about rappers being closet gamers, his Kickstarter obsession, and how he uses games to churn out the hits.
Do you play a lot of games in the studio?
Oh yeah. I have my laptop and my gaming sessions in the studio. I use it to write. A lot of people don't understand; they just feel like I'm in the studio "playing games." But it's kinda therapeutic. To be in the studio, have your mind free and playing games, not thinking about the song that you're about to make. I'll tell the producer, "Play this beat while I'm playing this game, and I'll have a song in like 10 minutes." Pause the game, get on the mic – full song – and then go back to the game [laughs]. Every night!
Are you thinking about lyrics while you're playing?
The gaming is therapeutic. While I'm playing, it'll be a flash of a few lyrics and, oh shit, I just came up with a smash.
Because it takes your mind off of the song, gets you in a flow state?
I'm not concentrating on making a smash or making a hit or making any kind of music – I'm just sittin' here living. If it's like a GTA V or like a Watch Dogs 2, you're gonna think about these things... you're gonna think about fucking chicks and tasing the fuck out of people, and you're gonna make a song about it! There's no writer's block when you're playing video games, man.
Sounds like you play a lot at home too?
Oh yes. My wife loves video games. She just went to Full Sail to learn [video game] development. She's developing games, doing cinematography and shit like that. We're a tight-knit family – my daughter is 12 now, she knows everything about video games. My daughter comes to me in the morning and she's like, "Dad dad dad dad dad – look at the detail on this hair on Final Fantasy XV!" We're a whole family of gamers.
Are you guys gonna make a game together? Sounds like there might be some family development aspirations...
There's development aspirations, but when we found out how much work goes into it... nope. We're just lazy, we're lazy as shit [laughs].
I want the fantasy, bro. I wanna shoot people in the face. You would think rappers want to shoot people in the face more! [laughs] But no, they want to play sports. Just like athletes want to be rappers.
But your wife's going to school for it...
She wants to do it but she doesn't want to, like, leave the house to do it [laughs]. If she could do it laying down then absolutely. She'll make games all day, but nobody wants to leave out the bed...
Do you and your daughter play a lot together?
Yeah, I always find her on some multiplayer shit – Battlefield 1 lately. A lot of people are like, "How do you balance being the 'dad'?" Well, I do it by playing games with my daughter and my son. Me and my son play WWE like crazy.
What you playing these days?
Right now my go-to game everyday is Shadow of Mordor. There's no, like, end-game to that one. I mean, there's the main story, but once you beat all the generals and all the new recruits... there's no end.
So you generally get pretty deep into games?
I want games that I can't beat in [just] 20 hours. If I got 20 hours, I don't want it to end. If there's side missions and shit like that, I'm all in it. I'm in it for as long as it takes. I will make side missions. Like in Mordor, I need to look for generals, I need to look for people to fight – and I pretty much decide how long this game is gonna be. I can just go look for orcs, I'll go walk around, and whoever notices me first, I'll generate a horde of motherfuckers – and if I generate a horde of orcs, I got a whole 'nother day of playing the game! I'm in it bro, trust me.
I'm always excited about gaming, man. It doesn't seem like the thing to do when you're a rapper. It seems like a nerdy thing, but it's not, man, it's about enjoying life. It's about paying attention to your pleasures. It's about paying attention to the things you really wanna do. Every rapper will say, "I play GTA V," but nobody will say, "I'm a gamer." What's the worst that could happen? Oh, you had a childhood?
A lot of artists seem to play sports games in the studio...
Nah bro, I'm not about the sports. I want the fantasy, bro. I wanna shoot people in the face. You would think rappers want to shoot people in the face more! [laughs] But no, they want to play sports. Just like athletes want to be rappers.
So I go to my mom's house in the hood, cause she's got 104 up and 107 down [laughs]. And her ping is like six.
Do you find that rappers and people in general are being more open about their gaming proclivities? You aren't bashful about it, obviously – you're going on Twitch and opening up about it...
I just think there's more ways to find out about it – to find out that Lupe Fiasco or Rae Sremmurd or all these rappers that people think are just "hardcore" actually play games. And all we do is stay in the hood or stay in the studio, or anything like that – no bitch! When we say we stayin' in the hood, we're at our mom's house 'cause she got the best wi-fi, and we playing games. Because my house is up in a penthouse somewhere... and the wifi sucks up there. So I go to my mom's house in the hood, cause she's got 104 up and 107 down [laughs]. And her ping is like six.
What were some of the games that got you into games as a kid?
Battletoads. Ratchet and Clank. Starfox on N64 – oh my god one of the best games ever, that shit revolutionized gaming. I think I stumbled on that one because I was so crazy on GoldenEye. The N64 controller was the most confusing shit of all time, but it was so great.
Are you big into technology in general?
Oh yeah. The way I keep up with new technology is Kickstarter. I'm always kickstarting people's shit. I funded the 3Doodler [3D] pen, I put $2,000 on that. I'm always funding 3D printing stuff. I'm always about technology. I want to further the world, and not just what's gonna make me cool right now. I'm not doing that. I want to make sure that the human race advances. Now I'm not trying to say that I'm the motherfucker that's gonna make sure we make it to Mars – I'm not gonna be in the first 100 and shit. But if you're telling me I can draw in 3D? Then fuckin' yes. I want to make sure everyone can do that.
There's a ton of developers that want to explain themselves but they can't, because they've got social anxiety like me. And they can't explain one thing at a time because there's so much going on in their head, and all they gotta do is pick up a 3D doodle pen and make sure they can draw it out in 3D space – and we're good. I've always been a firm believer that the cure to everything – cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy – everything, all the cures, are in somebody that can't afford the education. So I'll fund any fuckin' idea that I think is dope and that'll advance the human race. My current obsession is 3D printing all the Five Nights at Freddy's characters for my daughter.