Columbus Alive's Bands to Watch 2020: Sam Rothstein

Andy Downing
Sam Rothstein

For the last few years, Sam Rothstein has lived two existences — one as Sam Rothstein the rapper and the other as Sam Rothstein the show booker/promoter — and the workload has steadily caught up with him.

“I did more bad sets in 2019 than I have in all the years of my career combined,” Rothstein said in a mid-January interview at an Olde Towne East coffee shop. “I did a lot of shows that went fine, but I wasn’t giving it enough. … That feeling of not feeling it was coming to me more often, and it kind of freaked me out. Then even the shows I was throwing were suffering, because I was spread too thin.”

Up until that realization, Rothstein, who has recently taken on help to alleviate some of this burden on the business side, had long embraced these pressures. On social media, #SamAtWork became a go-to hashtag, serving as a blue-collar calling card and a reminder of the sweat equity he was investing into the music, both his own and within the scene at large, where his events, including Pipeline, have put dozens of local rappers on stages in the city and in locations such as Cincinnati and Dayton.

In this last year, however, the rapper has come to realize this drive can detract. Such was the case with the 2019 debut of the arts and music fest Cloud City, where Rothstein became so consumed with the task at hand that he didn’t take time out to enjoy the event itself.

“It was an amazing thing, and I’m really proud of myself and my team for doing it, but it was fucking exhausting, and when the day came I was just ready for it to be over,” he said. “I don’t want to be the guy who’s like, ‘Oh, Sam at Work,’ and I’m always grinding away to where I can’t even enjoy life.”

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These themes surface throughout Rothstein’s long-in-the-works new album, One More Jug, which takes its title from a line in a song by late Columbus rapper Nes Wordz: “One more jug and I’ll quit the game/I’m really lying, but it sounded great.”

Even beyond the lyrical nod, Rothstein said his friendship with Wordz left a distinct imprint on the recording, which he intends to release in late March, forcing him to adopt a more earnest, unguarded approach.

“I want to be a real person, the way Nes was. That was the one thing everyone got more illuminated to when he passed: what a complete person he was, and how many facets there were to him. And I want to do the same,” Rothstein said. “I don’t want to be just the business dude. I don’t want to just be Sam at Work, or some fucking Gary Vee caricature. I want to be a person who has fun, and who has bad days and gets dumped, you know what I mean?

“With music, it’s about putting that vulnerable, sometimes offensive, ugly side out there to see who responds to it. … I think that’s what all music is about, to a certain degree, from Mozart on down, where you have this thing inside you that just needs to be expelled from your body, and if you don’t do it, it can be very destructive.”

Rothstein, who grew up in Lancaster, raised by a chemical salesman father and a mother who worked in interior design, initially started making hip-hop in his early 20s while trapped in a period he described as “directionless.” “I lived with my friend, and we had been best friends for a long time, and he was recently divorced … and it was just a weird time in both of our lives,” he said. “I was just starting to figure out how to live in the professional world and hold down a job, but most of my other friends had drifted off because they’d become addicted to one thing or another.”

Around this time, Rothstein, who’d been a fan of rap since hearing Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death at age 10, stumbled upon Goblin, the 2011 debut from Tyler, the Creator. “And I could hear the plug-ins that they were using on Fruity Loops, which I had,” he said of the recording software. “They were clearly just kids in their bedroom fucking around. For me, it wasn’t even this thing like, ‘Now I’m going to take this serious and make music a career,’ because it was already a forgone conclusion that could never happen, but I was going to at least take making the music serious.”

Nearly seven years later, Rothstein actually does have a career in music, having left his full-time job in early 2018. He’s also amassed a growing discography littered with songs that reveal his considerable talents, such as the percolating “Kids on Drugs,” where the rapper dissects his adolescent indiscretions, and the dark, politically charged “What the Fuck Is Really Going On?” on which he confronts everything from police violence to rampant economic equality. ““Military aggression trickles down to cops’ oppression,” he raps. “Ain’t no way to check ’em/ Civilians getting popped, and that’s with or without a weapon.”

Buried within these smoldering lines is a simpler admission, though, and one that has informed Rothstein’s approach in the years since the song’s 2016 release: “So focus on my craft till my vision gets established/Till I’m weaving in and out of beats like stichin’ onto fabric.”

“I just want to make good songs now,” Rothstein said. “I’m about to be seven years in [to a career in rap] and I still don’t have an actual album, and I don’t think that’s a problem. Nipsey Hussle is one of my favorite rappers ever, and he waited like 10 years until he got his first out, and it was worth the wait, and it was clear he had something to say. And that’s kind of how I feel. … For a while, I really struggled trying to find a sound, like I was trying to be something as opposed to just being something. With [One More Jug], I just started writing, and I just wanted to be as transparent as I could.”

Ace of Cups

7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25

2619 N. High St., Old North

Columbus Alive's Bands to Watch 2020