Aaron Smith’s favorite class at Malibu High School took place in the school’s recording studios.
“I remember, I just imagined, ‘If this could be my job, like if this is what I got to do every day, just create and make music? I will be the happiest person,’ Smith recalled when The Malibu Times reached him by phone last Friday, poolside at Calamigos Ranch.
More than a decade after that Malibu High class—with a college semester in San Diego that ended in zero credits, days spent living on his friend and future collaborator Cisco Adler’s couch, a rock-doc MTV show, multiple Billboard chart-topping singles, six albums and memories of performances worldwide along the way—Smith, better known to the music world as rapper Shwayze, says he has to slap himself sometimes. More than 15 years ago, he was dreaming about doing what he’s doing now.
His August release, “Surf Trap,” is the latest chapter in a Malibu-inspired, endless summer discography.
The album was produced by Paul Couture, a producer best known for his hip-hop work. The pair made the album in quarantine.
“We worked for two weeks, pretty much, like, made a song a day, and that’s pretty much the album,” the artist described.
“Usually, I make 20 to 30 songs for an album and then whittle that number down to 10,” Shwayze said. This time, he kept every one.
Shwayze’s a rapper, but you’re equally likely to find his name on playlists next to lowkey, surf-loving musicians like Jack Johnson as you would next to Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar’s (though he and Lamar have worked together in the past).
That doesn’t bother Shwayze; his music is hybrid, anyway.
“Surf Trap” features a break-up song, a rock song, a mix of all the genres he loves. Shwayze particularly enjoys the fifth song of the album, “Inside Out,” which has a bit of a psychedelic vibe. On the final song, “Don Draper,” he “get[s] a little grimy.” As for the perceived exclusion from the rap canon despite the magnitude of his commercial success? Shwayze doesn’t mind.
Nor does he mind when other artists, such as pop star Miley Cyrus, who has a song called “Malibu,” or Oxnard-born singer/rapper Anderson .Paak, who has a whole album called “Malibu,” lay claim to his hometown. He just tries to focus on his own vibe.
That being said, he does feel that some people miss the essential core of the city: “If you’re a tourist, you can just drive right through it.”
“There is a working class in Malibu,” he said, mentioning that his grandfather was a handyman. “Not everyone is the child of a celebrity.”
Everything that Shwayze writes feels true to him.
“Even if it hasn’t happened to me, I’m telling a story that I know about,” he said. Often, though, his lyrics include his actual experiences. For example, he kicks off an earlier song of his, “High Together,” with the lyrics, “It’s 9:45, work starts at 10/So it looks like I’m callin’ in sick again.” Shwayze wrote those lyrics as he was walking in the door to his onetime workplace—a Malibu Starbucks.
Shwayze moved to Point Dume as a toddler where he was raised by his grandparents, one of whom is Malibu Times Dolphin Award-winner Candace Bowen, an actress, producer and longtime volunteer poll worker. Shwayze’s music reflects this upbringing. He describes his sound, most famously established in 2008’s breakout songs “Buzzin’” and “Corona and Lime,” as “feel good music.”
Most of his lyrics, though, he writes on the spot. Shwayze said he works best when there’s one other person in the studio whom he really trusts, the beats are ready to go and he can do his favorite thing, which is laying vocals. He said he knows he’s doing his lyrics right if he’s laughing while writing them.
Then, he gets into his Shwayze character, an alter ego that only comes out when he’s in the studio and he “kinda black[s] out,” or when he’s performing or when he gets, in his own words, “shwaysted.”
The artist summarized the difference between Aaron Smith and Shwayze like this: “I just think that I’m more chill, you know, more of like a lover, a hopeless romantic type person ... and then Shwayze, like, just has fun and turns up,” he laughed.
Longtime fans of Shwayze know that he did record a project called Lovestoned under the Aaron Smith moniker, though it remains unreleased. The artist has never performed as Aaron, but he’s not yet ready to rule that possibility out for the future.
For now, though, he’s happy to make more music like “Surf Trap” and spend some time back home in Malibu, away from his base in New York.
You might even run into him at Spruzzo’s, which he said he orders from two or three times a week.
Recently, for example, he ran into Bill Bixler there—his old teacher who taught him that studio class all those years ago at Malibu High.