Editor’s note: This week, as Oklahoma musicians descend on Austin for South by Southwest, we’re turning our focus to rap from the middle of America. All week, we’ll feature a different hip hop artist making it big in—and out of—Oklahoma.
Johnny Polygon hasn’t lived in Oklahoma for nearly 10 years, but he’ll always be “that rapper from Tulsa.” He clings to his hometown—to what it represents—as much as his fans here still cling to him.
The 28-year-old, who counts both coasts as home now, recently released a new album, The Nothing, and is kicking off his U.S. tour in Tulsa at The Vanguard on March 20 with Pac Div and After the Smoke.
“That was a no-brainer,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to bring other artists through town. Once I got the opportunity to go on a big, national, 25-city tour, I was looking at the schedule, and I was like ‘oh, that’s easy, we’ll start in Oklahoma.’ ”
His new album represents his longtime approach to making music—“No gimmicks, just music”—and his raps are interspersed with melodies and singing. Both Oklahoma and Tulsa get several mentions.
Polygon got his start in Tulsa, first as a break dancer who’d sneak into Retro Night at Cain’s Ballroom with some of his underage friends. One night they snuck in and witnessed an MC battle; Polygon swore the next time Cain’s hosted one he’d enter. He did, and he won. One of the DJs there, DJ Shabazz, invited him to record an album. Word spread among his friends and the small but dedicated hiphop crowd.
Polygon knew he wanted a career in music and thought he had a good shot at it. He dropped out of school and told his parents he wanted to be a rapper.
“I told my parents I want to do music, and they were like you can’t really do that here,” Polygon said. “So my dad was like ‘I’ll give you a ride—where you want to go, L.A. or New York?’ And the weather was nicer in L.A., so I was like ‘let’s go there.’”
He started out with $300 and a thousand copies of his first CD, Leggo My Ego. He sold them to strangers on Hollywood Boulevard, chatting up a couple hundred people a day.
“I would take out 20 CDs and try not to come home until I sold them all,” he said. “I would have a CD player and some headphones and people would walk by and I’d be like, ‘Hey you like good music?’ If they stopped, I’d hand them the CD, put the headphones on them and press play. It was very guerrilla. It was probably my most significant time of growth as an artist—learning how to sell myself to strangers who couldn’t care less.
“That’s basically what the world is, a bunch of strangers who don’t give a shit. And making them care—that’s the big trick, that’s what everyone’s trying to do.”
Eventually he met a guy who helped him make a music video, which he entered into an online contest. One of the judges of that contest was Green Lantern, who, after a few months of back-and-forth, invited Polygon out to New York for his first big deal.
Since then, the artist has tried to make a go of it with labels but decided that he’s better off on is own.
“I’m a really hard-headed artist when it comes to my beliefs and what I’m wiling to compromise and what I’m not,” he said. “I’ve tried to work with different labels and function in that world and I just consider that due diligence; it’s not for me.”
He often gets described by critics as “quirky” and “unique,” but Polygon says he puts very little effort into his image. He credits it, in part, to being pushed to the forefront of a burgeoning hip hop scene in Tulsa in the early 2000s.
“I think I just got really comfortable being myself,” he said.
“Whatever comes my way, I know I can handle because I’ve been famous before. It started here. And every time I come back here, I feel more and more support. The quirkiness—those are just new people. People have to associate you with some adjective, some box they put you in. But to say ‘quirky’ and ‘unique,’ those are pretty complimentary, so I’ll take it.”
People also associate him with Tulsa, which he appreciates. It adds to his “uniqueness,” and it compels just enough doubt to keep Polygon motivated.
“It sets the bar low, so it’s like I can’t actually let anyone down if they’re looking down on me about Tulsa,” he said. “It’s also why I’ve kept Tulsa as part of my identity. I really thrive off of people doubting me and thinking (my music is) not going to be something of relevance.”
It doesn’t hurt that his most loyal fan base is still here.
“Nothing compares to playing a show at home and the intensity of the love,” he said. “I can look out and see people looking at me, and it’s like they’re not even looking at me; they’re looking at what I represent to them. Anywhere else, I have fans and I have that personal connection with people, but there’s nothing like being in Tulsa.”
With a tour on the horizon, Polygon is also looking to new opportunities with Armatura Production Haus, a new endeavor that will umbrella various multimedia projects: music video production, television, film, and a new children’s books he’s working on. “It’s just a fan-funded production company,” he said. “My label is my fans.”
Listen to the full album below.