Back in 2019, I became introduced to one of my favorite groups to ever exist. That sounds like an exaggeration, but ever since stumbling upon their music, I have been completely enamored by their art in every way. It’s extremely common to be inspired by music itself, but its another thing to be inspired by the people who are making it; But, that’s exactly what you get when talking about the Vermont, Collective, 99 Neighbors. Over the past year or so, the rising group has made immense strides; from the release of their debut album, “Television” all the way to inking a record deal under the Warner backed label, Nice Work, the group of talented individuals have been creating a unique and outstanding lane that only they can occupy. As a longtime supporter of 99 Neighbors, it was only right to get them on our page in a way that covers more ground than the classic write up. Last week, I had the chance to hop on a zoom call with the main vocalists of the group, Sam Paulino, Aidan Ostby, Hank “HANKNATIVE” Collins, and Connor “Swank” Stankevich. I was even able to get manager, Cal Rawlings on for a couple of questions as well. Out of all of the interviews I’ve done, I can honestly say that this was my favorite. 99 Neighbors is a group of regular people with extraordinary talent who simply put the work in to make their dreams come true. Today, I’m extremely excited to bring to you all The 99 Neighbors Q&A.
SP=Sam Paulino (singer/songwriter/rapper)
AO=Aidan Ostby (singer)
SW=Swank (songwriter and rapper)
CR=Cal Rawlings (manager)
Sam: So, lets just chop it up fellas. Obviously this is special because y’all are connected to Lyrical Lemonade in a crazy way. Eric Montanez (of Nice Work) is Elliot Montanez’s older brother who is my editor at Lyrical. It’s actually crazy, because when I first started in music back in 2018, I reached out to Eric and he was the first person who ever gave me advice about music management. This is special and to start off, I would just love to hear about y’all and what role music played in your individual lives before forming this collective.
SP: Yeah for me, growing up in Burlington was a little weird because there’s not too much of a scene going on out there, but I was lucky to have my mom in radio. It was wild because, her radio show was actually really popular around the city so I just grew up on Top 40 and stuff like that. My grandma was always listening to vinyls too. My mom’s side of the family was always musically inclined and I just got it from them and then I discovered 50 Cent really young and from there I found my own web of Hip-Hop and kind of blended it all.
AO: For me, singing is the only thing I’ve never not done in my life. I’ve gone through a lot of phases where I’ve done a bunch of different shit and you know, I think thats a pretty common thing; But, I’ve always had singing and music. It’s just the one constant. So it obviously makes sense that I would never want to stop doing it. It’s a comfort space for me. I actually went to High School with Sam and Hank and I would see them around all of the time. I knew they were doing music, but I just didn’t really know them for a while; and then one day Sam and and Somba hit me up and wanted me to come hang out with them. That was probably like 4 years ago and we’ve just been like yeah thats insane.
HN: Yeah, my mom was the person who got me into music. She got me into R&B shit early like Usher. I’m a huge T-Pain fan by the way. I think rap was just always in the household, so that was a common thing; and then I ended up moving in with my grandparents later on so that was kind of absent in the house for a while. Then in High School, I met Sam when we were in Jazz class together. We kind of connected because we have similar interests and stuff like that. For the record, our high School was pretty white so it was nice to meet another mixed person and to connect on that. Sam was doing music already and actually our manager Cal had already done music. I was writing but I never did anything with it, but Sam encouraged me to keep going with it. We’d see Swank at local parties too. We’ve all kind of known each other for a while. We would see Aidan around school, but after High School, we just solidified it and made a group from it.
SW: So we all grew up in the same town, but if you live like a town over it could be like 10 minutes away. My house was realistically like 10 minutes from Sam or Hank’s but I went to a whole other High School. I went to a private Catholic School which was wack as hell, but I just always loved making music. In like 8th grade I had the “I am T-Pain” app where you could create auto tune vocals and shit. I just used it to make songs off that and in High School, me and my homies would just play 2k for hours and just freestyle. That developed into us saying, oh yea we should track diss, which then turned into us going to Guitar Center and buying like a $30 dollar mic and that turns into Garage Band. So it was really cool and I met them at like parties sometimes. We were a town over from each other and we all knew mutuals and we just knew that we could all rap, so we’d have like drunk freestyles. When we were like 16 or 17 too, we tried to make a rap group called Green House with some other locals, but yea that just never worked.
Sam: So how many members are there exactly?
SP: There’s 9 exactly. We have some extended family for sure, but the members that you see today are 9!
Sam: And I’ve always been curious as to how the name come about. Tell me about it!
SP: Yeah essentially, one night, I was making a bunch of random voice memos and recordings trying to put together stuff for interludes and stuff like that. I was at this one party and as soon as I hit record, this guy comes in and he was like “hey can y’all quiet down a little bit? My neighbor is 99-years-old”. And I thought that was hilarious because A) his neighbor was so old and B) the party was that big, so I felt really bad. Then I guess we were playing Banana gram at South Cove and were taking bunch of quotes and names that people had come up with and 99 Neighbors just stuck.
Sam: All of that is fire! I actually want to get Cal talking too; I wanna figure out how he got in the mix and how he started working with y’all as a manager. Managers need love too!
CR: Ah, thanks guys. But yeah, like Hank mentioned, around the same time when stuff started gaining more traction and the guys started doing more local shows, I was going to a lot of the shows as just like the homie really. I had known Hank and Sam and Aidan and Swank to some extent for like years at that point. Like they said, its a 1 degrees separation kind of town. We all knew everybody, so I just started going to shows as the homie; but it was really clear from just an early stage that there was something very special going on and something very exciting happening. Especially to be in the audience and to look around at the other fans and the 18-year-old kids watching. There was never a huge Hip-Hop Scene so it grew really quickly. So it was at that point when I told them, “yo, it seems like you guys could use someone to be on the other side of the emails.” It was clear that there was a lot of value so they just needed someone to advocate for them. There time was just better spent being creative and making music so my role just slowly evolved into a full time manager.
Sam: And then what made you guys want to choose to go with Pat and his imprint, Nice Work?
SP: I would say for me, I’m speaking on behalf of the whole group…I’m assuming they all feel the same. He actually hit us up on Instagram. He heard “Champion” during a random trip to LA or something and he hit us up and just kind of wanted to pick our brains and see where we were at with the whole process. That kind of led to a really good feeling and a good relationship and a good bond. Then they wanted to take it to the next level. And at that time we were meeting with a lot of labels. Some that we liked and some that we didn’t. When it came to Nice Work though, everything just felt very organic and it just fit. It was definitely a piece of the puzzle that we needed, even though at the time I didn’t know we needed it. So yeah I’m grateful. The silver lining was just there. He heard us on Spotify in an Uber and it was just a slim chance that worked out perfectly.
HN: Yeah we went around to a lot of different labels that were potentially interested in us. We were getting a lot of traction and Pat was on the early end of that. We went around to a lot of labels but what we wanted to make clear was that we wanted to function how we internally function and we function like a family. There’s open lines of communication, there’s push and pull. We made that known from the beginning and we chose Warner and Nice Work because they’re the people who are doing it the best. We’re happy with what they’ve done and we definitely feel like we made the right choice, that was important.
Sam: What was one of your first small victories as a group?
HN: As far as small victories, I wanna say the first one was when we packed out one of our local bars. And that was pure crowd sourcing. When we would have fans come we would tell them about it and each time, the crowd just got bigger and bigger. All the bartenders knew us at that point and that one time, we just slammed it. So, it was cool because we just knew our town messed with what were doing.
Sam: What has been something about this journey that y’all have been most grateful for?
SW: For me personally, I didn’t really travel a lot. I mean I have as far as like East Coast to West Coast. But now I get to travel with my friends. I never really had that moment before where I’m just in a random state in Mcdonalds, but I’m the happiest Ive ever been because I’ve never been in the state before and I’m doing stuff with the people I love, so its amazing.
AO: Yeah when I left High School, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was just kind of stuck. Not to be corny but I wake up everyday in this house and wonder how I got here and I feel like thats the most rewarding part of it. Just being somewhere and realizing that we got here because of something we made and something we continue to make. Thats as deep as it goes for me.
SP: For me, we all know the music industry can get really messy, it can get really crazy, it can get really bad, it can get really good; I just couldn’t have picked anyone else in the world who I’d want to do this with than the people I have around me right now and its a beautiful thing. We’re not an X-Factor band. It’s not like some label A&R picked us out of some bunch to forcibly do this thing. We came from the dirt. We’ve ran from the cops together, we’ve slept on the floor together. It’s real, so when there are real problems that we have, its much easier to communicate it with these guys than it would be with anyone else in the whole world.
HN: Mine is similar to Aidan’s in the sense that I too didn’t know what I was going to do after High school. I was a kid who graduated and took a gap year. Even my parents were wondering; Everyone’s got their parents breathing over your their shoulders worried about you and fast forward to now and it’s just like how did I get here? I wake up and my job is to be creative and do what I want to do with my friends. That’s crazy. That in itself is hitting the lotto. We get to travel. We just got a new apartment. Were doing it so far, so its just still kind of mind-blowing that we’re here.
If I continued transcribing the rest of the Q&A, we’d have enough pages to fit in an Encyclopedia. My thirty minute zoom call with the impressive Vermont Collective was filled with a lot of laughs and a lot of amazing insight. I left this conversation more of a fan than I’ve ever been. To see a group of people my age doing what they’re doing is inspiring to say the least and I’m so excited to track their career. If you’re unfamiliar with their music, I took the liberty to attach a couple of my favorite songs by them below! Make sure you take a listen and enjoy!