Retina.MC Talks Songwriting, Working with Chuck D, and Their Upcoming Track “RAP”

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Retina Hogue had some water ready and was pumped to give an hour-long concert to “everyone” in attendance. It was the real deal. As a little girl growing up in Charlotte, NC, Hogue, who goes by Retina.MC, was writing stories and songs when she was a small child, then performing to her sold-out audience—of teddy bears and dolls.

“Basically I started to write poetry and little books, and do things to entertain myself because I didn’t have TV and video games like most children,” says Hogue. “I started writing songs and would set up concerts for my dolls and teddy bears. I would do a full-fledged one-hour concert. I would drink water and prepare.”

When she was 5, Hogue’s aunt asked her what she wanted to be, and she said “a star.” Once Hogue had the writing down, she became a self-taught student of songwriting, learning how to structure songs. “I didn’t start out as the best but got better over time,” Hogue tells American Songwriter. “I kept working at it. I became better. I became an artist, and I started writing for other artists.”

Today, Retina.MC, one of a dozen artists on Chuck D’s SpitSLAM label, has had her music used in dozens of television and film spots. She’s a mentor. She’s an artist, but first and foremost, Retina.MC is a songwriter.

In her 2017 book, “Invisible Daughter,” Hogue documents her upbringing, including her mother’s drug abuse, her absentee father, and how her childhood escapism led her to music, and writing.

“Songwriting is everything to me,” says Hogue. “Just creating something that gives people emotions means everything, because music gives me every emotion I need. Knowing I can create those moods for people… songwriting is the best job in the world.

Under SpitSLAM, Hogue has written with the Public Enemy co-founder on numerous occasions. She first met D more than 10 years ago when he was forming the female Hip-Hop group Crew Grrl Order—which also featured Lady Payn, and fellow Charlotte rapper Cleo Jones—and was immediately impressed by Hogue’s songwriting ability.

“He just said ‘Retina I love your lyrical content, and I love the way you write,’” shares Hogue. “The meeting was amazing, and I loved his idea of wanting to promote women and make sure they get a fair shake in this industry. What I love about him is that you don’t have to look a certain way. You don’t have to have a thong on. Whoever you are, when you come to him, is who he wants you to be.”

Working with D keeps Hogue on her toes since he’s constantly throwing out song titles and concepts for her to catch and craft a song around. Hogue remembers her Crew Grrl Order days when D would say ‘let’s do a song about Michelle Obama,’ so she wrote “First Lady.” The trio even penned a track around wrestler Ronda Rousey. “He’s great at coming up with ideas,” she says. “He just shoots them off, but it makes me work super hard. You have a rock n’ roll hall of fame who calls your phone sand says ‘here’s an idea. Show me what you can come up with.’”

His dedication to bringing more female artists to the forefront in music industry is what attracted Hogue to SpitSLAM. D has even called Hogue one of the most amazing songwriters he’s ever met, which she sayshe has recorded for her upcoming documentary, also titled Invisible Daughter, as proof. 

“Meeting him has just been a dream come true,” says Hogue. “I’ve done things I’ve only dreamed about in front of my baby dolls. I’ve toured. I’ve written for him and a lot of different artists. Meeting Chuck has been life changing for me.”

Recently, the duo wrote their own take on the Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion hit “WAP” with “RAP,” which stands for “Real Ass Problems,” and taps into the current socio-political climate in America.

On her own, Hogue has generally written tracks tied to a specific project for TV or film placement and has had her tracks featured on “Jimmy Kimmel Loive,” “Access Hollywood,” “CBS Sports Spectacular,” and “My Super Sweet 16.” Eventually D suggested Hogue release these tracks on her debut, 2020’s Can You See Me Now?

Collectively, all the tracks Can You See Me Now? were used for some kind of placement, but illustrate Hogue’s songwriting prowess in R & B, Hip-Hop, and beyond. “Born Invisible” was more personal song, digging into Hogue’s life and is part of her upcoming documentary, while the more punchy “Who She,” was a track Hogue says she wrote while obsessed with the idea of “what if” Missy Elliot, Lauren Hill, and Lil’ Kim did a song together.

When writing around a specific project, Hogue says producers will typically send her music for the track. She’ll sit with it for a day, get a feel for the instrumental, and let it guide her. 

“I’m a very fast writer,” says Hogue. “I think that’s what Chuck liked about me. Sometimes I’m driving, eating a meal, and ideas just pop into my head. A lot of time, I just come up with the idea first then get the tracks.”

Keeping things more old-school, Hogue likes to file every lyric and song idea inside notebooks.

Retina.MC (Photo: Curtis Lawrence)

“I think I’m a little scared to put things on my phone,” she says. “I have a file cabinet with notebooks and ideas. I put down the day, the year, and the time I came up with it.”

Besides honing her songwriting craft, Hogue says how she approaches music now is different from her earlier Crew Grrl Days days. “I think the biggest change for me besides writing music for placement has been when I create content for myself, I am also doing more things to uplift women,” says Hogue. “Now when I’m doing more personal music, I’m doing more trying to be more positive. I’m not even using a lot of cuss words anymore.”

She also has business savvy and enjoys being a mentor to younger artists and women in the industry. “I try to teach them about publishing, writing music, and knowing that when you sit down and handle business you want to make sure you understand and be sure you own your own publishing,” says Hogue. “You want to make sure you register your song with ASCAP. You’d be surprised how many artists don’t know about registering their music or getting what they deserve from their music. I have become more of a mentor of sorts like Chuck was a mentor to me.”

Crossing genres doesn’t faze her. Hogue admits that if she’s approached to create a song in a genre she’s not too familiar with, she goes to school in that music, listening to everything and everything she can. “I listen to everything from a songwriter’s point of view,” she says. “I listen to everything I can in a day, the cadences they use… the tempos.”

Most people would even be surprised that she loves pop and her favorite artist is P!NK. “Her voice is insane, but I love her I don’t give a shit attitude,” says Hogue. “My dream is to sit and write music with her. I write Hip Hop, and I write R & B, and while I don’t sing or perform pop, it’s still my favorite genre of music.”

Now, Hogue is busy creating content for a sports network and putting the finishing touches on her documentary, and is about to release “RAP” with Chuck D. Since the COVID shutdown, Hogue also launched her own entertainment company Who She Entertainment and is also working on a ’90s R & B-inspired album.

“It’s personal, because I was in the school in the ’90s and that was my favorite music,” says Hogue. “TLC, Missy Elliot, that was the just the best music for me. I respect all artists that come out now, but I don’t get that feeling in my gut than when something from ’90s or 2000s comes on. I feel it in my gut.”

Writing still gives Hogue a rush unlike anything else.

“When I create something and hear the finished product, I go outside of my body and the feeling is so amazing,” says Hogue. “I’m like ‘oh my God, I created this.’ When I hear myself on TV and commercials it’s amazing that people are paying me for this. It’s a great feeling. I’m never going to give it up. This is what I do. This is what I’m going to do until I leave this earth.”

Hogue adds, “I love being a songwriter. I think I’m going to be a songwriter until the day I die. At the end of the day I’m an artist. I feel like God put me here to be an artist to create art for people. Without us, the world would be so boring.”

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