Arts, Culture & Entertainment

SC Unplugged: Sumit on performing live and developing his brand as an artist

USC artist and performer breaks down his energetic style through four of his songs.

A photo of Sumit and other band members on stage with red and blue lights on them. Sumit is singing into a mic and kicking his leg up.

Sumit, a USC senior in the Iovine and Young Academy, is an artist and performer. His musical style has evolved from his first single “Senior Spring” to his most recent release “Big MF Energy” as he grew up himself. Each of Sumit’s songs develop an emotion, energy and feeling that relates to the experience of being at his live shows. He creates a “high energy” brand from his music to performances to merch.

Annenberg Media spoke with Sumit to learn more about his inspirations, creative process and musical goals.

SC Unplugged graphic by Steven Vargas.

Full transcript has been edited for clarity.

Sumit: My name is Sumit. I grew up in Shanghai, China, and I am in the Iovine and Young Academy. I’m a senior.

I guess I would say broadly speaking, I’m an artist, which for me that’s mainly recording vocals and, obviously, the songwriting and then a little bit of production, usually with a producer.

I don’t believe I make uniquely great music. I think I’m a uniquely energetic performer, and so I structure my songs with that in mind. They’re all really short. They’re all very punchy. They’re all very energetic and I always imagine how I would perform it live. And so that might mean that it’s not the best song to listen to in, you know, slow driving in a car or any other, like, calm setting. But when you’re in the gym or when you’re at a show or when you just want to jump and dance, that’s who I make it for. So it’s purely based off emotion and feeling rather than lyrics or instrumentation.

[Musical interlude: “Senior Spring” instrumental by Sumit]

So my first live performance was May 2021 and I think the fun part is that ever since I was in high school, I always thought about performing live because I would just go on YouTube and watch clips of artists just performing live. And just that energy really inspired me because ever since I was a little kid, I had an insane amount of energy. Like, I was bouncing off the walls. I was running everywhere. I was getting in trouble. And to me, that was perfect because it was still enjoying the art of music and still having that energy. And so even before I did my first show, I would spend just like, I would be in the bathroom mirror, just like ‘go, go’ just by myself as if I was doing a song live in front of thousands of people. So when I first did my first show, it came kind of naturally. Obviously, I was nervous and anxious, but I carried that energy through and it went incredibly well. And then the next one after that was a little bit bigger. So the first one was like 150 people and then it was maybe like 200 people and then 250, 300. And I think as I kept doing them, people would notice and they would book me for bigger and bigger shows and I’d be able to raise my price a little bit.

And then for USC Concerts for Springfest last year, there was a student stage and I was like, ‘I need to be on that.’ And they’re like, ‘But you’re on the e-board of Concerts, so it might be a conflict of interest.’ And I was like, ‘Look at these videos of me performing and tell me this wouldn’t be really fun.’ And slowly, actually, not really slowly, I kind of argued for it a lot, but eventually I think they saw my side. And based on how the concert went, I think I was phenomenal. I mean, I don’t want to toot my own horn too much, but it was a lot of fun. There were hundreds of people there and they all had a great time. And, you know, I’ll just speak for the people, but people thought I was more fun than Dominic Fike, which I thought was really cool.

But yeah, it’s something I love doing. I haven’t done a show in a while just because I’m much more selective with who I do shows for. I think it’s really easy to kind of prey on small artists and be like, ‘Oh, let me book you for this show.’ And then the venue doesn’t know how to sell tickets, and they don’t know how to craft a good lineup and they don’t know how to even work sound and lighting properly. And so I’m really, really selective with the shows I do now, which is probably why I haven’t done that many because I’m also still not a big artist where I’m getting called for hundreds of shows. But there have been a handful that since then I’ve just turned down because performing live is my brand mainly, so I don’t want to tarnish that.

[Musical interlude: “Senior Spring” instrumental by Sumit]

When I was 10, I found the Kanye album. God, this is just, it’s just not the right time and place to be saying these artists’ names. But when I was ten, in 2010, I found the Kanye album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which is like a basic answer for like the greatest hip-hop album of all time. But I was this little Indian kid, and I was being raised in a very classic Indian household of like, you’re going to be an engineer, you’re going to be a doctor, you’re going to be a lawyer. And I’d play, obviously, violin and classical piano. So hearing that album, I was blown away. Even at 10 years old when you don’t know anything about sampling or the music industry, which, knowing this stuff now, I’m amazed when I hear that album. But the fact that as a 10-year-old, I could hear the album and still be like, ‘damn, this is incredible.’ Because, you know, using people’s voices as instruments and sampling things from the ‘70s and ‘60s, it blew my mind. And so I think that taught me to look at music from a much broader lens than classical piano and violin. And from there, I started listening to mainly, hip-hop, rap, R&B and it was just natural that I started writing my own stuff and a lot of it was butt, like it was really bad. And so I would just get beats from YouTube and have this really bad mic, just really bad equipment and I would just record a song and be like, “Wow, this is sick.’ And everyone would be like ‘mmm.” And 15-year-old me was like, ‘Dude, check out my SoundCloud.’ Which you still can, some of the demos are still up. And I think when I got to college, I realized that there are a lot of people around me that are much better at the sides of music that I didn’t know much about, like production and making artwork and marketing things. And so I learned from a lot of these people and I didn’t do anything by myself. Even though as an artist, I’m the brand. Like, I work with my buddy Simon on almost all my songs and he produced the first one and the second one and the third one. My friend Mya did a lot of the artwork, and Joel and Shantanu did a lot of the videos and stuff, and so having that sort of team around me really helped me make a much more, I would say professional artist brand. And once again, it was literally all based off of emotion and energy. My first song to the song I just released last night. It doesn’t sound extremely different in terms of the feeling you’re getting.

[Musical interlude: “Senior Spring” by Sumit]

That was called “Senior Spring.” Yeah, so that was at my high school. I went to a really preppy high school called Exeter. It’s a boarding school. But they had a music studio and I was like, ‘This is kind of lit.’ So I found like the three people there out of this, like a 1000-person school that actually also liked making music that wasn’t classical music. And this one kid named Hoj, shout out him. He had this beat that had a guitar, and I was like, ‘Whoa. Like, I could try, not just rapping for a second.’ And so I didn’t really sing, but I tried and it ended up not half bad. And I took a picture of my dog in my backyard and my girlfriend at the time drew a crown on it. And that was the cover art. And I think that shows how little I knew about music and branding, and I didn’t even know how to put it on Spotify until I got to college. And when I put it on Spotify, which is crazy because I now work for a distribution startup that does all this stuff and like I know all that by heart now, but I used this thing called TuneCore and they uploaded it to a profile of someone named Sumit, but not me. So I had a mini release party in my dorm room and then everyone was confused because it was on some random person’s Spotify page. And yeah, it was, it was an experiment, but it taught me a lot in terms of like distribution, blah, blah. And there’s like three people who still message me to this day like, ‘I love this song so much. I play it every pre-game.’ I’m like, ‘Really? Like you can listen to my newer songs or other music’ and they just love it. I think that’s the unique thing about music is that, you know, like this song might speak to three people randomly and my next song might speak to another three people randomly, and they’ll just stick with it.

[Musical interlude: “Senior Spring” by Sumit]

Oh, man. I was just trying to make a song. Again, I knew nothing about styles. I didn’t even tweak the beat at all. This was the stage where I knew so little that I just got a beat and put vocals on it and tried to mix my vocals well.

But yeah, it’s pretty chilled. It’s relaxed. It gives West Coast energy, even though I’d never been to the West Coast before.

[Musical interlude: “Moshpit” by Sumit]

My friend Simon, he showed me Baby Keem when I first came to college, and he was not famous at all. And he has a song called “MOSHPIT.” And I was like, ‘This is incredible.’ Like, I don’t care at all about what he’s saying. I’m only listening to his voice as kind of like another instrument on this beat and I’m getting a really energetic feeling, and this is what I love about music. And so I was like, ‘Simon play a beat,’ and Simon played a beat, and it was literally just heavy 808 like...

[Musical interlude: “Moshpit” beat by Sumit]

It was like ‘It’s a mosh pit’ and it’s the dumbest lyric and it’s the dumbest thing ever. But it worked and it carried a lot of energy.

[Musical interlude: “Moshpit” vocal by Sumit]

And that was our first song. And so Baby Keem inspired me to put out that first song. And I think even up until now with, you know, him being a big mainstream artist, like, I love the way he gets bored and switches things up in his songs. That really inspires me. I love the way he changes his voice and uses a lot of vocal range, even though he’s not a singer. And I’d say he’s definitely my biggest musical inspiration.

[Musical interlude: “She Don’t” by Sumit]

Yeah, that one’s unique, because I think that that one stands out in the songs I’ve put out in that it’s not a trap, like hip-hop rapping song. It’s more instrumentation. It’s a little bit more funky. And there’s this producer, who goes by ROHO. He’s lit. Check him out. Or another friend of mine, Aly, who goes by Lackhoney currently, but I think that will change, sent me this pack by this kid, ROHO. And it was all beats I’ve never heard that style before. It was very–I don’t even know how to describe it- like a little bit, not funky, but very instrumentation driven, like very alternative percussion. And it really helps me as an artist to find like pockets when I’m writing and stuff like that and find melodies and, and find little flows that I wouldn’t normally find in like a classic 808 and hi-hats beat. And I think that was really cool because when I heard it, like I make music, again going back to the performance things, I make music around sound bites. Right, like I want like a 5, 10 second snippet. This is not the same as TikTok marketing. I want like a bunch of 10 second snippets in the song that sound really fun. And I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I want to hear that again,’ Right, so I literally sat with the beat and I tried to come up with different hooks. And then finally I was just like, [lyrics]. ‘Oh, wow, that might sound fire.’ And it did and I recorded it, and that’s all I had. And I just sent the demo of me going, ‘She don’t.’

[Musical interlude: “She Don’t” vocal by Sumit]

That’s also how right by the way I write by mumbling. And then I put lyrics in which you can tell because my lyrics suck. I’ll just be like [lyrics] and then I put lyrics in that went with that flow. And I sent it to my friends and I didn’t put any verses or anything and they’re like, and I fell asleep and I woke up to like six FaceTime calls and they’re like, ‘Dude, I didn’t even know you can make music like that. And I was like, ‘All I do is mumble.’ And [they were] like, ‘No you got to finish. You got to finish it.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, okay.’

And then I heard the beat and I wrote the verse like, ‘Let me step into the limelight.’ Again, just purely going off of like nodding my head, what sounds good? What kind of flow would I listen to? So when you actually asked me like what my role is in music, I think above all else, I’m a consumer. And I think that really shapes the way I shape my shows and my songs that like if I’m listening to this, would I enjoy it? So I purely, purely approach it from that perspective. And so that’s how I write. Right, if I’m listening to this, what would I want to hear? And then I put lyrics on it and then send it back to the guy, Aly, Lackhoney, who sent me the beat and he put a verse on it, he’s fire. And then I made some cool artwork. Again, artwork in the style that I’d never done before because it was a song I’d never done in that style before and I think it worked really well. I think a lot of people like that’s their favorite song of mine because it’s not just me, you know, rapping on a trap beat, even though I love that, but yeah.

[Musical interlude: “She Don’t” by Sumit]

And so yeah, I love experimenting. I really wanted to get into, like, rock music pretty recently. So Paris Texas, they’re dope hip-hop rock artists. Yeah, because again, what drew me to a lot of rock music was like the moments. Like in “Thunderstruck” by ACDC, basic song, people are going to hate me after these. There’s like [sings]. And I was like, ‘That gives me a feeling like I want to recreate that feeling.’ [sings] It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I want to recreate that.’ Again, and it’s shaped around live. Like, I played my last show with the band, but, it was really fun being able to, like I played rock covers. I opened to “Seven Nation Army” and I closed with “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” by Cage the Elephant. And people had so much fun. And I was like, ‘Man, what if I made music like this?’ Yeah, but that was some of the favorite live sets I’ve ever done.

[Musical interlude: “She Don’t” instrumental by Sumit]

I approach performing from the lens of if I have no idea who this kid Sumit is, which most people don’t because I’m small. So, I try and stay humble in that way of like, and I’m coming to this show. How do I make that person, that like mom from Kansas, have fun? And so, that’s how I approach every live show. So I did a skit at the beginning of my Springfest set. I think my Springfest set is the primary example of like the perfect set. I did a skit, right? So immediately you’re watching and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening on the show? It’s not just music playing with the band.’ And I’m trying to think about who inspired me to do a skit and it’s not anything new. A lot of people have done it. And then on the second, oh, I started with a cover- kind of a cover. I used to do these TikTok remixes, which semi-blew up, like I did one on Rico Nasty’s. “OHFR?” song.

[Musical interlude: “Rico Nasty OHFR? Remix” by Sumit]

But I open with that because I got like two million views on TikTok and Rico Nasty commented and reposted it. That’s again it’s like half my music half not my music. So people are like, ‘Wow, this is sick.’ And then for one of my songs, I have a bunch of people just mob on stage in like the same uniform and everything and it’s crazy energy because even if you don’t know the song, I mean, A, you’re jumping because it’s really fun energy and B, you’re like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on? Like, what is happening?’ It looks so cool. So I think what inspired me there was Kanye’s 2015 BET performance, where he did, I know there’s a clip of him doing “All Day,” his song, and he has just like 50 people on stage behind him just wearing black and half of them are really famous, so it’s kind of cool. And then what inspired me again to do that was AG Club when they performed at Welcome Back, shout out AG Club. They had just dudes running around on stage the whole time and it was sick. I didn’t even know who was performing and it was like, ‘This is insane energy.’ It looked really cool. So that’s what inspired me there.

[Musical interlude: “She Don’t” instrumental by Sumit]

Yeah, it’s just really fun seeing people, like, sing your songs back to you, even if it’s like 10 out of a 500-person crowd and you, like, make eye contact. ‘Wow, they know the lyrics.’ So I think that’s really cool. That’s really rewarding. And, this is such a stupid thing to brag about, but I’m just going to say it. Sometimes I’ll be somewhere, like on campus. Oh, actually, this is the coolest thing. I went to a party two weeks ago. It was this rave thing downtown, mainly USC kids. And this dude was wearing my shirt like a merch piece of mine and didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know how he had it. My friend was like, ‘Do you know, like, the person on that shirt?’ And he’s like, “This is a person?” And so I think it’s cool that my merch has reached people that don’t even know who I am, which I guess is a good thing and a bad thing, ‘cause yeah, I’ll leave it at that.

[Musical interlude: “Big MF Energy” by Sumit]

Last night I dropped a song after a year. And I think a big thing is that, because I like doing live so much, I hated making music. And it’s just, any artist will tell you this, like to be a full, committed artist you have to fall so in love with the process of not just jamming and finding a cool new melody or hearing a new beat for the first time. But, sitting with one verse and rewriting it and rerecording it and remixing it for hours. And that was just something where I was like, I’m working two jobs. I’m in school. I didn’t have the mental, I had the time maybe if I carved it out. I didn’t have the mental energy to just sit in a room and finish a song. So the song I released last night, I recorded the first version of it like a year and a half ago, and it’s been in my notes and I was like, ‘What do I have to do to finish this?’ So I was like, ‘What are some moments that I think are fun?’ So I added an intro, a radio intro.

[Musical interlude: “Big MF Energy” by Sumit]

I added this part where I just cut the beat and change the flow entirely, and I think it sounds cool. And I added a clip of Springfest into the song.

[Musical interlude: “Big MF Energy” by Sumit]

And I sat with the mix and I was like, ‘I’m just going to do this once.’ So I sat with the mix, mixed it. And then I was like, ‘I’m not going to change this.’ Because I think with all art like movies, music, everything, there’s never a final version. There’s just a version that you put out, right? And then you kind of just stop working on it. I think directors will say this, every artist of kind of any sort of medium will say this, is that you’re never done working on something there’s just a moment where you put it out and that’s just what we call ‘done,’ right? It is like when everyone else is consuming it. Because for every one of these songs, I could have sat there and made it better. That’s the really hard process about making music. And also to that effect, like, I don’t even make that high quality of music per say, so I don’t even care that much about that. But it’s torturing to just sit in a room and like, ‘How do I make this better? How does this reverb on this ad lib at this part of this song match with whatever?’ Like, it’s just like it’s so in the weeds. And I think my biggest challenge as an artist was finding the time to make the music I need to make. I think a lot of artists have, like, hundreds of demos, and I don’t. I maybe have dozens and I don’t like a lot of them. And so yeah, for me it’s been being in the studio and being a musical artist. I just like, I like a lot of the other stuff. I like performing. I like branding myself. I like making skits. I like doing live shows. And so, yeah, that’s probably my biggest challenge is like getting in the studio and making music.

[Musical interlude: “Big MF Energy” by Sumit]

It’s really fun. So the song in my notes was called “Bing Bong Freestyle.” And literally, when you listen to it, I think you’ll understand that it’s not what it’s called now. So I guess to the people who hear this who knew that, like when you hear this song, you’ll feel that energy. And I literally just wanted to make a song that encapsulates the energy of my performances. So I’ve done it at every show I’ve ever done since my first one, and it’s never come out. And people have asked me about it and they’re like, ‘Wow, like, are you releasing this?’ I’m like, ‘Maybe.’ And so I was like, ‘Okay, how do I take this from a performance thing to a song?’ And so, like I did, I just edited it a little bit and sat with the mix and stuff. But I think, again, it’s not for a listen in your car, listen while you are at the beach or you’re on a date. It is purely for when you are high energy or you want high energy, this song will give you that feeling and that’s essentially this song. I just wanted it to be like, this is the energy. I literally called it Big MF Space Energy. Like, it’s direct, it’s super, it’s to the point that’s what you’re getting. The photo is me jumping really high and, like, kicking my feet up and it’s red and it’s so on the nose. But that’s what I want. I want to evoke that feeling of energy. And so I think I did that well. And there’s some bars in there.

[Musical interlude: “Big MF Energy” by Sumit]

I want to just, I want to do a massive show like a festival-level show. I hate stadium shows. Just because I don’t want to ever perform for someone that’s sitting in a seat. So that’s why I love going to festivals more than I like going to stadium concerts. And yeah, I want to, basic answer, I guess I won’t say headline a festival. I just want to do a big festival set and people are like, ‘Wow, that kid was cool.’ And I think that’s what I’ll be like, ‘I did it. I did what I wanted to do.’

[Musical interlude: “She Don’t” instrumental by Sumit]

Yeah. I have a song with an artist named Abhi The Nomad that’s going to come out next, which I’m really excited about. Similar energy. He’s so dope. He’s been a great sort of mentor for me. And hopefully a lot of really fun shows, I think, I’m at the state where I’m making music just to sustain performances, because if I don’t make music and my listeners keep dropping, I’m not going to get booked for anything. So that’s kind of my attitude now is that, I have some pretty fire demos I wanna clean up and I’m gonna release and get back to a cadence hopefully, and start making it more of like a priority. And then that way I can do the shows I want to do. But that song’s gonna be really cool, really cool music video that’s coming out, that might come out before that song. And yeah, I think for the next year, probably like two or three songs. Maybe a music video.

[Musical interlude “She Don’t” instrumental by Sumit]

The most rewarding part about being an artist. I think the obvious answer is performing. I think the less obvious answer is that realistically, it’s a pretty just creative outlet that I think I’ve always needed a creative outlet growing up, being like an engineering kid. And it’s fun being the CEO of your own little company, right? Like, I choose the brand. I choose how to market it. I choose the product. Making the product is fun. I guess another part of the product is the shows, and that’s really fun. It’s like I get to build a brand around myself, which I think is hard to do in almost any other industry and setting, unless you’re like some tech Twitter kid. Even then, that’s kind of boring and a little bit cringey, but I think that’s really fun. Like, I get to build a brand about myself and it’s cool that I get to inject my personality into it. And it’s not just the music, but it’s like, ‘This is me as a person. I’m really high energy and I’m conveying that to you through my music, through my shows, through my merch.’ But when you get to know me as a person, it fits. It all comes together. So I think being able to build a Sumit brand, that’s to me broader than just the music, is really cool.

[Musical interlude: “She Don’t” instrumental by Sumit]

Host: You’ve been listening to SC Unplugged, a behind the scenes glimpse into the inspirations, creative process and musical goals of your favorite Trojan artists.