One day, “Honey Eye” by Inner State 81 started playing on Pittsburgh City Paper’s Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify, a curated music list that recommends tracks from popular artists. A blend of soul, hip hop, and electronic music, “Honey Eye” samples Patti LaBelle’s “Love, Need and Want You.” By changing the pitch of Labelle’s voice, chopping the vocals, and adding elements like a snare drum, Inner State 81, whose real name is Tucker Nicholas, bought a fresh energy to the early 1980s R&B hit.
A few weeks later, Nicholas dropped “Holes in Pockets,” another sample-based song, this time drawing from Dean Martin’s 1954 single “Money Burns A Hole In My Pocket.” At the end of “Holes in Pockets,” Nicholas added a voicemail from his grandmother.
“Tucker, it’s Nana,” she says. “What’s going on in Pittsburgh? And what’s going on with you? I really need to know. So, give me a call whenever you feel like it. Not past nine o’clock. I love you. Bye-bye.”
Realizing Nicholas lived in Pittsburgh after listening to and loving his music was like a jolt of electricity.
“She doesn’t even know that that’s in the song,” says Nicholas. “She left me that message after I told my mom and dad that I was going to stop going to school.”
After Nicholas’ freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, he realized that college wasn’t the path for him. Nicholas wanted to pursue a career in music. But before dropping out, Nicholas needed to perfect his craft. At that point, he had no musical experience.
He spent the summer practicing and once back at school, he applied for the spring study abroad program through Pitt’s business school, which guarantees all participants an internship.
“I [didn’t] even know if I’m going to make it to the end of my junior year, which I didn’t,” says Nicholas. “So I was like, 'I want to go to London.' If I’m already going to be paying tuition, I might as well use it to my advantage while I’m still a student. But I only wanted to go if could get an internship at a record label.”
Placed at Blow Up Records, a small mom-and-pop label run out of an attic in East London, Nicholas learned invaluable skills, like how to interact with and market to music industry professionals. Nicholas also found out about the playlist's curator, a piece of information that sky-rocketed his career.
Traveling across Europe during spring break, Nicholas was on a train from Prague to Berlin browsing the internet when he saw a viral tweet.
“This guy, this Uber driver, tweeted about how he made like 12 different playlists to classify his riders based on what they look like. I quoted it and said ‘Get this man a job as playlist curator,’ and then I tagged Spotify because at the record label I was literally contacting playlist curators every day trying to get songs played.”
A few days later, when he had Wi-Fi again, Nicholas opened up Twitter to see that his tweet had over 2,000 likes.
“Three weeks earlier, I had put my first songs up on Spotify, and I DM’d the guy, and I was like ‘Yo man, your playlists are dope. Do you mind giving my songs a listen through? If you like it, throw it on one of your playlists if you think it works.’ He hit me back and was like, ‘So many people have messaged me, but you got me a free year subscription to Spotify, and I really liked your music, so I added them to a couple different playlists.’”
Overnight, his songs reached over 1,000 plays on the music streaming platform. Two weeks later, “Livin’ at Mumsies” got over 12,000 plays in one day. The song is now his most played, with almost 300,000 listens.
Being added to popular playlists meant Inner State 81 started popping up in Spotify users’ Discover Weekly, like CP's and actress Chloë Moretz', who tweeted out one of his songs in November.
Nicholas had successfully debuted as a new face in music, as a producer. Up until his Feb. 13 album, Can’t Please Everyone, Nicholas’ voice wasn’t found in any of his music.
“The real reason I started producing is because I wanted to be a rapper/singer,” says Nicholas, “which I’m just now starting to get into. But who I am, being a white kid from a middle-class background, I always had this anxiety about being a white kid trying to rap. I was like, I need to learn the art of the craft if I want to gain respect from the people that have been doing this. This [type of music] is something I grew up loving. I’m not doing it up to hop on a trend. I always looked up to Mac Miller in that sense because he was someone that was very respectful of someone else’s culture that he was being welcomed into.”
Can’t Please Everyone showcases the change in direction. The opening songs are an ode to the sample-based beats that drew listeners in. But as the album progresses, rap-infused hip-hop songs, some featuring Nicholas, take over.
“I wanted to be able to have both,” says Nicholas, “so that people who liked the last thing would click on it at the start of that album, and leave it on and ease into that sound a little bit and be like, ‘Oh. this is really cool too, he can do both type of things.’”
In the next few months, Nicholas plans to release a slew of singles that have him rapping. Hermz, a London-based rapper whose album Nicholas produced, drops in the next week.