Rapper Enon Gaines Splits His Time Between Tech Work and Music

SF Weekly

music1Twenty-eight-year-old Enon Gaines is sitting behind a white desk in a peach-colored cubicle at the San Rafael headquarters of software firm SafetyChain. Eleven other cubicles dot the room, which Gaines refers to as “a mini cube farm,” and light reflecting off a manmade lake outside glimmers through the windows.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and, like millions of other people, Gaines is at work. This April marks his one-year anniversary as a project manager for the “food safety and quality operations” company, and his seventh year working in the tech industry as a whole. (Before SafetyChain, Gaines worked at a teacher accountability company in San Francisco.)

After the one-hour commute from his home in Vallejo, Gaines usually arrives at the office around 6 a.m. At 3 p.m., he heads home, where he transforms from techie to musician.

“I live a double life,” says Gaines, who raps and sings under the name PhenomENON. “Once I’m done with work, I spend the rest of the day writing songs, listening to beats, rehearsing, and playing the guitar.”

Gaines has been writing and creating music on the side since he graduated from high school. Juggling the two alter egos can get tiring. If he could quit working altogether and focus on music full-time, he would. But, alas, being just a musician is “not enough to support my living,” he says.

For most of last year, all of Gaines’ time after work and on weekends was spent writing, rehearsing, and recording his upcoming EP, Clairvoyant.

“Anytime I’m not at work, I’m working on music,” he says.

And sometimes when he’s at work, too. Though he makes the bulk of his music at his Vallejo “bachelor pad,” he finds time when necessary to sneak in a few songwriting sessions in the cubicle.

“When I hear something, I don’t want to lose that moment, so I try to make sure to shut everything off at that time to cater to it,” he says. “Because I don’t want to lose that idea. It could be the next big thing for me.”

A little under a year ago, Gaines also formed a band called Unlikely Heroes. After entering and winning the Inspire Us competition hosted by The Los Angeles Times for his song “Gold Rings,” he was awarded the chance to play a live show at the University of Southern California. He was told that he could bring a DJ or a band to back him up for the performance. Though he’d used a DJ for past shows, he’d never before performed with a band.

“I’ve always been up for a challenge,” he says. “And I thought a DJ would be too easy.”

He had a little over a month to put together a band and teach them the song. Through friends of friends and Facebook followers, he found five musicians — guitars, bass, drums, and keys — and they met and started rehearsing a few weeks before the event. It sounds too good to be true, but the performance at USC went off without a hitch.

After that unlikely success, the temporary band decided to continue playing together. Over the course of 2015, the self-described “punk-rock/hip-hop” sextet played close to 30 live shows, culling their material from Gaines’ previous works and through sheer improvisation. Gaines has since written five new songs for Unlikely Heroes, but maintains that it’s not as hard as one might think to arrange a rap song for a live, full-band rendition.

Gaines grew up in Oakland and started rapping around the age of 18. His childhood friend Hot Tracks produced his first mixtape, High Hopes, around 2011. At the time, he says, “we didn’t really know the formula for releasing things, so we were just throwing things out there.” One of the places they “threw” their mixtape out to was radio station KMEL, which hosts a daily song competition called Home Turf aimed at promoting and highlighting local hip-hop and R&B. Two of Gaines’ singles — “Hustlin'” and “All Right” — were selected as winners in the competition, resulting in radio play for both songs.

Buoyed by these achievements, he went on to create his first album PhysiCool (a combination of the words “physics” and “cool”) in 2013. The 13-track album, which Gaines made available to download for free through Bandcamp, serves as an introduction to the young rapper, whose inspirational, confessional style is reminiscent of MCs like Kid Cudi and J. Cole.

Both the album and upcoming EP (which drops on May 10) are mélanges of beats and melodies that shift and transform from upbeat, tinny dance tracks to dark, staccato electronic jams. (“I like to be worldly in my productions,” he says.)

His lyrics, on the other hand, are less varied and more consistent. Gaines, whose low, gravelly voice sounds unnervingly similar to the singer Baby Bash, has a knack for covering the quotidian and banal, which he feels makes his music more relatable and applicable for his listeners.

“I really speak out about my dreams and beliefs and try to be as vulnerable as I can in my music,” he says. “I can’t relate to a lot of Drake’s songs where he’s talking about being in the club, popping bottles, and throwing all this money because I don’t have a lot of money to throw and I’m not popping any bottles and I don’t have a lot of hoes. I speak on a level of consciousness that I feel the greater population deals with, and I try to form it in a way that caters to the mainstream.”

Gaines’ other goal when making music is to depict himself accurately to his listeners — to keep it real without exaggerating. When he first started writing raps, he penned a song about “a Lamborghini or Ferrari.” Looking back, he laughs at that early attempt, which “doesn’t make sense because I don’t have any of that,” he says. You won’t find songs about him carrying a “nina” or shooting up the block, but he will write songs about gun violence, friends who have been killed by guns, and the importance of being aware of your surroundings and protecting yourself.

He also keeps it clean. He doesn’t use the word “bitch” to refer to women, nor does he degrade them by turning them into sexual objects or stereotypical rap tropes. And though he does use the N- word in some songs, he does it seldom, and at the expense of using other swear words. (When he does live shows, he claims that out of the entire hour-long performance, there are usually only 20 words that need censoring.)

“I make music that my grandma could appreciate,” he says. “Overall, I try to keep things positive.”