When Johnny Polygon tells me that “being from Oklahoma is like having an asshole brother,” he’s not being pejorative.
“You know he’s an asshole,” he says, “but you don’t want to hear anyone talking shit about him.”
The Tulsa native, rising rap star and aspiring iconoclast doesn’t mince words, nor does he tolerate shit-talking about his home state. Though he hasn’t lived here for seven years, Polygon describes Tulsa as “the center of my universe,” and is fiercely, loudly loyal to it. A label based out of San Francisco once offered him a record deal with the stipulation that he transplant to the Bay Area and rep it as his hometurf. Polygon likens the experience to someone offering him a job on the condition that he break up with his girlfriend or, worse, murder his dog. He didn’t take the deal.
“It’s the hip-hop thing that’s built in me that’s just automatically like, ‘Scream out where you’re from.’ Ya know what I mean? The most successful artists are the people who are telling their own story. People who are just honestly speaking what they feel, where they’re from and who they are. So yeah, on some hip-hop shit I’m just like ‘Yeah! Tulsa, yeah! What about it?!’”
Lately, Polygon (who now claims both L.A. and New York as home) finds himself at a lot of rooftop parties, defending Tulsa to the cosmo-elite. “I’ll be 50 stories up in Manhattan at some baller-ass party, and someone will just scoff or say something disrespectful about Tulsa and it drives me crazy,” he tells me with a slight grin, betraying a curious hint of pride. “There are no ambassadors for Tulsa, which feels weird because I’ve been in a lot of situations where I feel like I’m the ambassador.”
Growing up, Polygon (born John Armour) attended a handful of schools including Evangelistic Temple, Booker T. Washington and Central before dropping out to pursue music. He has spent much of the last three years cultivating the kind of early career trajectory that the phrase “verge of success” was invented for, signing in 2008 with DJ Green Lantern’s Future Green Entertainment, collaborating with Nas and Kid Cudi, and breaking into MTV’s top ten with the video for “Riot Song.” He’s crafted a public image through Facebook and Twitter as a pussyhound, weed lover and all around hedonist that’s attracted thousands of online followers.
“back in new york. flew here with no seat belt, my cell phone on, & a bag of weed. I don’t give a fuck about anything,” reads a Facebook post from March 21st. It’s the sort of statement that gives publicists aneurysms. Online, Polygon appears to be a stoned lothario, making comments about pussy and “waking and baking” ad nauseam. But even when he’s mocking concerned mothers (“she told me I’m a role model & my reckless behavior is setting a bad example. I told her she was a milf. There’s an 85% chance we’re gonna do it now.”) or promulgating idiotic proverbs like “revenge is a dish best served with my diiick,” there’s an innocence to the rakishness, a shock-jock nudge-wink element that makes it hard to just dismiss him as a sex-obsessed narcissist.
Now, in person and freed from the one-dimensional constraints of 140 characters or less, the speaking person Johnny Polygon is before me, and he clearly gives a fuck about a few things. His style is spare. He wears jeans and a plain white tee, and, just as he announced on the opener of his Rebel Without Applause Mixtape (“from the way I dress you’d be surprised I couldn’t ollie”), he looks more overgrown skater than aspiring superstar. His hair is very short, save for a crop of dreadlocks that blooms at his hairline and hangs over his forehead. He’s warm and gregarious, and he possesses a contagious laugh that he wields often. When he speaks, he comes off as a thoughtful, insecure mess– an immediately likeable over-thinker prone to extended bouts of self-analysis.
I ask him about future collaborations, and his response sounds as if it was prompted by a shrink. “I’m in a weird transition period of my life, like I don’t really know what’s what, and I’m not trying to drag anyone into this mess right now.”
The candor becomes more pronounced when we talk about the perks of his initial success. “Its almost like a not-so-secret society, ya know what I mean? You get to a certain level in your career, you start rubbing elbows with all these people who were your heroes, and they’re all raging, and I like to have a good time too.” He pauses. “This is may be the only job where that’s encouraged.”
He makes lurid references to debaucherous behavior, like waking up in a Vegas hotel surrounded by naked girls, his hands dipped in paint and his pants missing. “It’s just like, ‘It’s Tuesday!’ Ya know what I mean?” Though the words sound boastful and shallow, his tone is one of defeat. “This world of mine is designed to make the most normal person into a bipolar maniac just because of the crazy ups and downs,” he complains, and I believe him.
Despite the neuroses, Polygon the artist displays street fortitude in word and action. He’s completely secure about his career. Last year, he fired his label (“those fuckin’ suits, man”) and self-released his latest album. He’s perfectly content to grind away as an independent artist, even if that means less piggybacking on Cudi and more performing in smaller venues like Tulsa’s Marquee (where he’s scheduled a green-themed blowout on April 20), because of the creative freedom it affords him. Typically, his reasoning is couched in blustery justification.
“Ya know I’ve got tons of friends on major labels, and maybe two or three that you’ve heard of. But 50 that are on these big major labels, they just didn’t have the leverage to get their project to the people, past the sharks and the gatekeepers and the water-downers and all that sort of shit.” Rather than submit to The Suits, he’s chosen to forge his own path. So far, the decision has paid off. His self-released EP Wolf in Cheap Clothing matched in its first week a year’s worth of downloads of his Future Green-backed Rebel Without Applause. Just a few weeks ago he shot a music video directed by Italian Vogue photographer Tomasso Cardile.
He attributes his confidence as an artist to his Tulsa roots. “There weren’t too many like-minded people when I was growing up here,” he says. “I was black but I wasn’t gangsta. I was funny but I wasn’t a comedian. I was always one of these—like a bunch of one thing.“ He pauses. “I’m having trouble articulating …”
I suggest that a lot of creative Tulsans seem to struggle with this kind of identity crisis. “Exactly!” he responds. “It’s like who are you in the middle of nowhere? Figure it out.”