The small island community of Petersburg celebrated its ties to Norwegian culture, as well as the start to the fishing season in mid-May. Visiting musicians flew in for the town’s Little Norway Festival — but they also shared the stage with some homegrown talent. Ashon McCay — who performs under the name Lil Realist X — is a Petersburg-based fisherman and rap musician. Sometimes, he even raps about fishing.
It’s the night of Lil Realist X’s first show of the year — and local watering hole Kito’s Kave is packed — from the stage, to the very back of the bar.
Lil Realist’s superfans are all sitting up front. Shirley Yip is one of them, and she’s decked out in his merch. She — along with many others at her front-stage table — knew Ashon from childhood. Yip got an iTunes gift card as a high school graduation present and remembers using it to buy his very first album.
“I remember — he would do some of his recordings in GarageBand on his MacBook Pro,” said Yip. “So we got to hear the GarageBand versions of his music.”
Dalton Small is another Realist fan. He remembers when McCay started rapping in middle school.
“From what I hear, he’s done nothing but go up,” said Small. “You hear some of his old stuff compared to stuff now — and it’s just it’s gotten great. It’s done good. He’s nothing but the chillest guy you’ll ever meet; down-to-earth and always down to have a good time hanging out with friends — that kind of guy.”
After his set, Realist hopped off the stage, sweaty and energized.
“I feel good, it was a good show,” said Realist. “I’m sweating — I worked really hard.”
But the tiny stage at Kito’s Kave isn’t his first rodeo. When he’s not fishing, himself, Realist is producing his music across the U.S. — from Atlanta to Hollywood. Realist started rapping when he was about 12 years old, and he says the rap icons of the early 2000s helped shape his sound.
“Yeah — Eminem, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne,” said Realist. “Lil Realist X is my stage name, and I got that from one of 50 Cent’s songs. It’s from the lyric: ‘Remind me that you’re rockin’ with the realest.’ He was such a big influence on my life. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna use that!’ So, it’s Lil Realist — and then the ‘X’ is just me finding myself.”
Realist said that growing up in Alaska also had a major impact on his art. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia and adopted by a family in Petersburg when he was six months old.
“I’ve never known anything different,” said Realist. “You don’t really know any different until you go Down South. I mean, we were driving four-wheelers on the roads — snowmobiles, a bunch of crazy stuff. You know, all the snow.”
His parents started taking him out fishing when he was eight years old, and he got his first full-time gig when he was 15. He lists the fishing industry as another major artistic influence. But Realist is stepping out of “the grind” and setting aside his nets for now, following fishing accident that happened earlier this year. He was working with herring pounds — huge pens for holding the fish when they spawn.
”We were herring pounding in Craig, and were setting the pounds on the beach,” said Reality. “And I went up and jumped in the air and tried to twist one. But my spine twisted too far forward, and I crushed two discs.”
For now, Realist is taking a break from fishing — but he said he’s come to understand that the lifestyle is a critical part of his artistic persona. He says rapping about his roots sets him apart from other artists. It keeps him grounded in reality.
“The older I get, the more I’m actually fairly comfortable presenting about life — instead of just like everybody in the mainstream,” said Realist. “Like parties, big houses — I don’t have that. So it’s more just, like, being real.“
Realist says the recovery period is giving him more time to focus on his music. He’s trying to set up tours in Washington and Montana, and looks forward to producing his next album in Detroit.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct spelling of Ashon McCay’s last name.