Local high schooler charts course to recognition in rap

Local high schooler charts course to recognition in rap
Young Hef performs in front of a crowd at The Fillmore in Silver Spring (Courtesy Photo)

By Evan Berkowitz | eberkowitz@alextimes.com

When George Hughes stepped onstage in front of 1,700 people at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland, on March 17, the Alexandria-based rapper got a feeling he never wanted to lose.

“I had 1,700 people that I had never seen before in my life screaming, and it was humbling,” said Hughes, who raps under the name Young Hef, six months after he opened for PnB Rock & Light Show. “The feeling that I got was absolutely incredible, and I just want to have that feeling every day if it’s possible.”

Since recording his first track about two and a half years ago, Hughes — whose mother, Jane Hughes, is co-publisher of the Alexandria Times — has seen his audience balloon and the buzz around his work grow steadily louder.

Now working with a producer who graduated from T.C. Williams High School in 2016, the rising senior at Bishop Ireton has planned his first tour, partnered with a former “American Idol” contestant and begun navigating the music world as he seeks to hit it big.

“It is starting to happen a little bit,” he said. “We’re just starting to get that buzz. … Of course, I’ll take all the exposure I can get. I’m just thankful for that.”

A little bit of buzz

Hughes first recorded a set of three songs over as many weeks at a Washington, D.C.
studio during his first year at Bishop Ireton.

“It was just kind of a ‘Let’s see what’s going on,’” he said, “just to hang out freshman year and have fun.”

It wasn’t an instant success.

“People were kind of skeptical about it, ‘cause I wasn’t great,” he said. “I was super young, and then I stopped.”

A year and a half later, Hughes made more music with a friend, but that too fell by the wayside. Meanwhile, across the Port City, Zach Siegel, the T.C. now-alumnus who produces under the name “Siegz,” was hard at work on his home desktop.

He’d first gotten into music during his junior year at T.C., diving into club, house and electronic dance music before begging his mom to buy Logic Pro X, a music mixing software.

In his senior year, Siegel’s interest gravitated to rap and he committed to music production, which he now studies as a rising sophomore at North Carolina’s Elon University.

Hughes first heard Siegel’s production work on SoundCloud, a popular music streaming site for nascent artists, Siegel said.

Hughes sent Siegel a direct message on Twitter, the producer said, and they began recording soon after.

The first song they recorded together, “Mr. Dapper,” dropped on SoundCloud about a year ago, and Siegel was stunned when it got 10,000 plays on the website.

“It was at a time when I wasn’t … a lyricist,” Hughes said. “I just rhymed stuff, and then [Siegel] was like, you should try really writing, really focusing on lyrics and really trying to tell a story in all your songs.”

This advice quickly made a difference.

“That’s when it started off for me,” Hughes said. “I started focusing more on my lyrics after that.”

Hughes likes to write about women, or about sadness or happiness. He likes to write about his feelings, or whatever else comes to mind.

“I love to write about the fact that my chances of actually going somewhere with this are so slim,” he said. “I love just to write about [how] my plans and my life are going to break boundaries.”

Sometimes, Hughes even writes about his hometown.

“What my friend group does for fun is just go out into Old Town and go to the Masonic Temple and hang out and walk around and just have fun, do some childish stuff, that influences a lot,” he said — experiences chronicled in his song “Live It Up.”

“I wrote a lot of other music at the Masonic Temple at night, ‘cause it’s just the most peaceful place you can go in Alexandria.”

Hughes and Siegel followed up “Mr. Dapper” with “Smile More,” a Smokey Robinson sample about recognizing life’s blessings.

“People started loving that,” Hughes said.

He put out a mixtape called “Rip Tide” and soon booked his first gig at Arlington’s Iota Club.

“It was a lot of fun and that’s when people like labels started showing interest,” Hughes said.

“Music labels, people trying to manage me, all that good stuff. So that’s when we started catching a little bit of buzz.”

They performed at the Fillmore, then Blackthorn 51 in Queens, New York. Hughes is currently planning a fall tour of Southeastern Conference universities, where he’ll join bigname artists he’s not at liberty to name performing at school venues and large fraternity houses.

A year and change after “Mr. Dapper,” the difference is staggering.

“We started with 42 followers on SoundCloud, [and] we averaged about 250 plays a song,” Hughes said. “Now, we’ve got about 1,000 followers on SoundCloud and we average about 30,000 plays a song.”

Siegel is amazed by the success his work with Hughes has enjoyed.

“It’s just hard to believe that something that we made can [have] so many people listen to it,” he said. “Obviously we aren’t there yet, but we’re getting there, definitely.”

It goes beyond the numbers as well.

“He’s not only my main artist now, but he’s probably my best friend,” Siegel said. “We work every day when I’m home. I guess it’s just our main goal in life now.”

‘You just can’t not be smiling’

Singer-songwriter Maddie Assel, who traded features with Hughes on her song “Shouldn’t Have Let Me Go” and his “Missing Something,” also has seen Hughes’ work mature.

“He’s grown so much in the year that I’ve known him that I don’t even know where he’s going to go,” she said. “It’s like there’s endless possibilities.” Assel, who was a contestant on Season 12 of “American Idol” in 2013, was interning at a record label with Siegel when the latter showed her Hughes’ music.

“As soon as I heard them,” she said, “I fell in love.” Her work with Hughes was
Assel’s first rap feature, and she wasn’t quite sure that the complex style of rap would gel with her self-described “bubblegum pop” music.

Almost immediately, it did.

“He listened to what I wanted for my song and mimicked it completely perfectly. He jumped in there and felt the vibe that I was trying to give,” she said. “He has a lot of soul in his music, so I can relate on that sexy, soulful vibe of his songs.”

Hughes’ music doesn’t fit into any box, and while he and Siegel listed among their influences artists like Dirty Heads, Travis Scott, Mac Miller, Metro Boomin and Felly.

“My music isn’t really similar to a lot of artists’, and I don’t really have a whole lot of influence[s],” Hughes said.

Instead, Hughes’ music can be identified by the feelings it evokes.

“My style of music is … a lot of good vibes music, feel-good music,” he said. “If you listen to my music, there’s a good chance you’re going to be in a good mood [and] have a positive mindset.”

These feelings influence Hughes’ gigs as well.

“If you go to one of my shows, I guarantee you will have so much fun, no matter what age you are,” he said. “My mom comes to my shows and has a lot of fun, and she brings her friends and it’s honestly a good time. It’s a good time for everyone.”

That upbeat attitude continues offstage as well, and Assel said it’s especially clear in-studio.

“You just can’t not be smiling and laughing when you’re with him,” she said. “He lights up the room. He always makes you feel comfortable when you’re in the studio and confident, which is really important. He’s just the most fun to be around, and his music reflects that.”

Assel hopes for more collaboration in the future should schedules align, and Hughes said he would welcome the opportunity.

“I could make a hundred songs with her in a week, probably,” he said. “She’s such a nice woman, she’s amazing — amazing talent; crazy good voice.”

Until then, Siegel is looking to expand his portfolio of artists and help Hughes reach the big time.

And Hughes?

He’s looking forward to his SEC tour, of course, and to college next fall after graduating from BI in 2018.

Ask him what he wants out of music and you’ll get the usual suspects in response: A comfortable life where his mom has nothing to worry about.

But “Young Hef” dreams bigger, too.

“I want the whole world to hear what I have to say,” he said. “I just want to really have the whole world hear my music.”