“I used to hop fences to get into Summerfest when I was a kid,” Corey Pieper writes in an Instagram post. “Now I’m performing on the main stages.”
July 8 was a monumental day for the Milwaukee hip-hop R&B artist. He took to the Miller Lite Oasis Stage for the first time, opening for popular hip-hop duo Timeflies.
It probably won’t be the last time Pieper graces a main stage of “The Big Gig.”
Pieper is becoming somewhat of a household name on Milwaukee’s hip-hop and R&B scene. His music videos — filmed and edited by Philly Fly Boy (who also acts as Pieper’s booking agent) — garner up to 1 million-plus views, and his songs have featured such big-name acts as Atlanta-based R&B singer Sammie.
Pieper’s discography packs a versatile sound thanks to a fusion of Hawaiian-pop, R&B and hip hop. The Hawaiian influence is most notable on his 2014 EP Aloha, which kicks off with a ukulele riff before moving to an R&B summertime anthem of pop melodies. Pieper cycles seamlessly between clean singing and rapping. His upbeat, bouncy music is the kind you’d hear blasted from a Bluetooth speaker at a beach party.
But on Pieper’s more contemporary singles, such as “Wishy Washy,” he has dialed down the island vibes and pop fluffiness and showcases his flow as a lyricist and rapper. Whereas the Hawaiian influence was very in-your-face on Aloha, Pieper’s sound now plays like a fine-tuned package of mainstream genres and niche subgenres with smoothed-out edges. The Hawaiian-pop influence is there, but it has matured and taken on a subtler role.
Chasing his dream
Pieper caught the performing bug as a freshman at Nathan Hale high school in West Allis. A group he had formed with some of his friends won a talent show.
“It was at that moment when I was onstage and everyone was cheering that I was like, ‘I can see myself doing this for a long time,’” Pieper says.
After high school, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to study business. During that time, he connected with Aaron Lucas, owner of Wisconsin-based The Good Fight Studios. Lucas offered Pieper a recording deal and then sent him to Hawaii to film a music video for his single “Show You the World.”
The video became a representation of Pieper’s culture and background. Although he was born and raised in Milwaukee, he has Hawaiian ancestry — hence his island-influenced sound.
Around the time of the music video, Pieper decided to drop out of college to pursue his dreams of musical success.
“Ever since (that video) it’s been serious,” Pieper says. “Once we went to Hawaii and we shot that video, I was like ‘I’m just going to soak this up for the time being.’”
Since Aloha, Pieper has released a couple of singles almost every year, pairing them with professional-quality music videos shot by Pretty Fly Boy.
“Being able to have him on the team and whip up content really quickly for some of my videos is one of the biggest blessings I have,” Pieper says.
His two most successful singles — “Girlfriend,” featuring Sammie, and “Who Are You,” featuring Kirko Bangz — are definitive of Pieper’s experimentation with his sound post-Aloha. The two tracks take on opposing tones — “Girlfriend” is light and flirty, while “Who Are You” has some bite and heartbreak.
“One of the best parts about being an independent artist is that I pretty much have the freedom to do whatever I want,” Pieper says.
Putting in the work
Pieper has been making music for eight years, but this is the first in which he’s been able to financially support himself through it. Putting his entrepreneurship to use, Pieper also has gained recognition through his branded “Aloha Milwaukee” shirts. Using his wide-reaching and active social-media presence, Pieper turned those words into a hashtag that his fans use to connect with his music. He hopes to be able to expand the “Aloha” brand to other states, but for now he’s enjoying his time making his mark in Milwaukee.
“Milwaukee has that big-city vibe, but it’s small enough to where it’s still personable,” Pieper says. “In bigger markets, people kind of get desensitized.”
Pieper gets recognized by strangers at the mall and the gym. People often ask for photo opportunities, but he doesn’t let that go to his head.
“In the big scheme of things, we’ve got a long way to go — a lot of work,” Pieper says.
Pieper has been putting in that work. In April, he flew to Hawaii to open for hip-hop superstar G-Eazy at Pure Nightclub in Honolulu. Performing in front of thousands on his family’s home turf was arguably one of the highest points of Pieper’s career so far. That performance fueled excitement for future projects.
Through a partnership with N43 Records — a new Milwaukee label that’s also working with Milwaukee LGBTQIA icon Lex Allen — Pieper released “Wishy Washy.” An upcoming project called Pineapple Playlist, a compilation of songs by Pieper and some collaborators, also will be released through the label.
Pieper has been working with artists like Green Bay-based hip-hop artist Bee.Scott (originally from St. Louis) and emerging Milwaukee artist Denny Lanez on the compilation that he says will embody “more of a grown-up” sound, with a new energy. He’s going for a more urban hip-hop sound with island influences as opposed to his more poppy R&B tracks.
“It’s definitely a nice little switch for me,” Pieper says.
Fans can be on the lookout for an upcoming single called “Up To Par,” featuring Bee.Scott and Denny Lanez, which will serve as a teaser for Pineapple Playlist.
While Pieper’s sound may be evolving, it will always have a Hawaiian vibe.
“When I go out to Hawaii, there’s just something about riding up the coast and hearing those good vibes and the catchy reggae riffs and melodies,” Pieper says. “That’s why I’ve always had that balance between singing and rapping at the same time. That’s kind of what has set me apart, at least in Milwaukee.”
Pieper loves to experiment and feel out what his fans respond most positively to, but he’ll always pay homage to where it all began and spread the "aloha" in Milwaukee.