Adam Traore, the born-and-bred San Francisco rapper known as A-1, says the best emcees are like Batman. "When he's in his mode, he can destroy anybody... He's a nightmare, he's scary, he's intimidating," Traore says. "But under that suit, he's got insecurities and fears, and he's discouraged all the time, and he's vulnerable."
That dichotomy between toughness and vulnerability deeply informs Traore's music — and has propelled him to a place as one of San Francisco's most promising rappers. Like any emcee, A-1 can spit tall tales of the street. But he's more interested in being honest. Traore just released "Retinas," a heart-piercing duet about the end of a relationship — and the realization that letting it end was a mistake. His Soundcloud page is full of sincere appeals like "Guns Off," an emotional retelling of the Trayvon Martin story from the perspective of both Martin and George Zimmerman that concludes with Traore recalling his own mischievous past, wondering how he could've been depicted: "We don't value every life the same it's kind of crazy/ I'm black I'm brown I'm woman or I'm gay so people hate me/ They say justice prevails somehow the system still betrayed me/ 'Cause the benefit of doubt is something that they never gave me."
Raised in the Mission by immigrant parents, it's no surprise Traore has an easy time seeing the world through others' eyes. His mother was born in Italy and came to the U.S. as a teen. She met his father, a native of Senegal, while serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa. Growing up after his parents split, Traore was torn between the traditionalism of his father's African background and the chaotic modern city outside his door. So you'll never hear him singing in the shower in his 29th and Mission apartment — because of the persistence of an old African superstition against it (it forces your guardian angel to pay attention while you're naked).
Rapping onstage has been doing just fine for him, though: So far, Traore has toured as the opener for acclaimed East Bay hip-hop outfits like Hieroglyphics and Zion I. Last year he was named one of the "Freshman 10" class of rising Bay Area rappers by local blog Thizzler, and since then he's performed before sold-out crowds at S.F. venues like Slim's and the Fillmore. A new mixtape, compiled with beats from his favorite producers on Soundcloud, is in the works for this fall. Traore is now at a point where rising rappers ask him for advice — certainly because he's a good emcee and a compelling presence, but also because he exudes a wisdom and worldliness that most 26-year-olds don't. It makes sense that the only thing he could imagine doing for a living besides rapping is teaching.
But worldliness and likability aren't enough to make it big in the rap game, and Traore is the first to admit he has a long way to go. Asked whether he has any plans for the kind of viral stunts — like releasing 600-song mixtapes or making YouTube videos that feature him rapping at high speed — that seem to launch many young rap stars these days, he declines. "It's all work ... it's like farmers," he says of the game. "Like you could farm your whole life and plant 20 million seeds trying to get that one big beanstalk ... and then this one guy, he finished eating his fruit and he throws it over his shoulder and the fuckin' biggest stalk ever in the world grows from that overnight. Both those things could happen, but the bottom line is that the more seeds you plant, the better your chances. So I'm just trying to keep planting seeds."