The mayor of Madison is proposing a task force aimed at making Wisconsin’s capital a more welcoming place, especially for hip-hop artists and audiences.
Mayor Paul Soglin’s proposed Equity in Music and Entertainment task force comes after years of efforts by the hip-hop community to address city policies and policing, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
“There is a vibrant local scene,” Soglin said. “But their ability to reach audiences is not as good as that scene.”
Madison has an active community of hip-hop artists. But in the past, some live music venues have added what some say is excess security for events or dropped hip-hop events altogether after fights, gunfire or other violence at shows.
“To have the mayor introduce (the task force) is a breakthrough,” said Mark “ShaH” Evans, a founder of the Urban Community Arts Network, which organizes shows, school workshops and community events for adults and youth. “How can we fix this, not just for hip hop but for the whole local music scene?”
Pascal “DJ Pain 1” Bayley, a DJ and record producer from Madison, said the task force is long coming and necessary.
“There are no opportunities for hip-hop musicians to perform,” said Bayley, who has worked with artists such as Young Jeezy, 50 Cent, Ludacris and Public Enemy. “The (regulatory) climate with regard to hip-hop hasn’t changed at all. Actually, it’s gotten worse.”
The proposal is being reviewed by city committees with a decision by the City Council expected in April.
It is unwise to employ the term “genius” loosely. Gratuitous use can degrade its meaning and discredit your judgement.
That said, I find Brandon Thomas — also known as bliss & alice — to be a genius. Since his debut project —Poetry Volume One – The Shit Talker Tape— was released in 2014, he has been heralded as a hip-hop virtuoso.
Thomas can be understood as a “rapper’s rapper” — not particularly popular with the masses, but well respected by his peers. Above all else, Thomas is a genuine artist. He creates art for art’s sake — not as a means to an end, be it fame, fortune, or accolades.
The latest release from bliss & alice —Mama Tried— expands Thomas’ limited yet extraordinary body of work. The record is a heartfelt masterpiece.
I spoke with Thomas over the phone in early December.
Brandon Thomas grew up an only child in Wausau, Wisconsin. The town is located almost directly in the middle of the state, with a population under 40,000.
“It is very insular and to itself. I guess it shaped me in it’s own way,” Thomas says of his hometown.
His father was born in Wausau and met his mother by chance, while she was visiting a friend. His parents played a significant role in shaping the man Thomas became, but were hands off when it came to influencing his tastes in music and art.
“I was very independent and they were very supportive. I was inclined to explore and learn on my own,” he says.
Musical exploration proved difficult in Wausau, where the radio was “a full year or two behind everything” when Thomas was a child. But, in his teenage years, the internet leveled the playing field, opening up new artistic outlets. He recalls Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as one of the first albums he loved.
In high school, Thomas was a focused painter, drawn to the work of Banksy and Basquiat, among others. He was also an avid reader.
“I still read a lot,” says Thomas, who was reading alongside the Wisconsin River when I called. “I might spend too much time reading.”
“I think through the practice of reading you gain an understanding of voice and the value of a word,” he adds.
Painting was important to him, but he never lost focus on words, especially rhyme schemes and how they fit together to create stories.
Thomas began writing poetry near the end of middle school and he began rapping in high school. While he appreciates the natural beauty that Wausau has to offer, he says the town lacks any semblance of a music scene. As a result, he was exposed early on to the idea of creating for the sake of creation, a process and approach he still enjoys and finds value in.
After high school Thomas moved south to attend UW-Milwaukee. He was an intended arts major but switched to psychology and graduated in December 2015. Before living in Milwaukee Thomas had not been exposed to other rappers. He recalls the first time he met Sam Ahmed — also known as WebsterX — one of the top hip-hop prospects out of Wisconsin.
“We met at Jay Anderson’s place while he was still living over by Alium. When I walked in, I saw a kid rapping straight through the living room. He was freestyling and we went verse for verse for a while. We didn’t hang out right away, but as we got to know each other, we formed a pretty tight relationship. He’s one of my best friends in Milwaukee. He’s a super supportive dude and he’s got quite the vision.”
Before putting out Poetry Volume One, Thomas had only rapped for himself and for friends at parties. This first project was a culmination of everything he had learned, reflecting his understanding of what he wanted to accomplish with poetry and music at that moment in time. As it was with Mama Tried, the writing and recording process was cathartic.
The response to Poetry Volume One was positive across the board. DJ Bizzon and Jank of 91.7 WMSE’s ‘Those Hip-Hop Guys’ crowned it the best Milwaukee hip-hop record of the year, while 88Nine Radio Milwaukee gave it an award for Best Independent Release.
“I was blown away by the response. It truly did change my life. To go from being a completely unknown rapper to doing interviews, going into radio stations and having people say really thoughtful, encouraging words about the work.”
“All the while I was still in college and didn’t actually have anything figured out. A lot of people believe that you have things figured out if you can do one thing successfully. It was an interesting way to grow. It was something I didn’t know I needed until I had a chance to step back from it,” recalls Thomas.
After the release of Poetry Volume One, there was a lot of anticipation for Thomas’ next record. But any pressure he felt was internal. Thomas recognizes that his brand of hip-hop is outside of the vein of traditional radio play and not easy to commercialize.
“To me it’s not really about the reach. I don’t sit down to write projects and think, ‘This needs to be better than the last,’ or ‘This is going to be my big break.’ It’s about the feeling and the emotion. Now that I have a platform, hopefully I can touch one person that needs some motivation or inspiration.”
“At the end of the day I’m writing songs that I need as a human. There’s always this artist in you that wants to be there for your fan base and try to articulate things as a public figure. But then there’s a 24-year-old that has stuff going on.”
“There are a lot of aspects to life. I have a lot to sort out and music is one of those things. I was very blessed to be put in a position where people listen, which comes with a certain level of responsibility and I’m still navigating that.”
Between album releases, Thomas worked as a consultant on a film in Milwaukee, helping the crew utilize local musicians and “think about the process of making something organic in Milwaukee.”
He took his time with Mama Tried, holding on to it for a while. Some of the production was done in-house, but mostly he reached out to remote producers through the internet whose music he resonated with and “tried to do their work justice.”
The result is a gorgeously hypnotic and cohesive record. Thomas’ poetry hasn’t lost its ferocity or wit, but there is not as much bravado. The tempered confidence remains, yet there is a vulnerability and emotionality that cuts deeper than anything on Poetry Volume One. Ultimately, Thomas is able to say more with less words on Mama Tried.
It is clear from the album art that this is more than music. The cover features an adorable picture of a young Thomas on his mother’s lap overlaid with a film-style “R rating” for “violence, grisly images, language, some nudity and sexuality.” Like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City, the album elicits the feeling of cinema — from the sound of the glass bottle rolling on the floor at the end of “Bathwater,” to the funeral procession horns in the middle of “Silver Buttons,” to the voicemail from his dear friend Tebs Maqubela on “Requiem Mass – July ‘15.”
“I think I had a lot to say that I wasn’t getting across on Poetry Volume One. Discussions on race and violence in Milwaukee, trust and relationships, how they fit together and how I fit into that. I think it touches on fears and emotions that people don’t really want to tap into.” “A lot of it is just trying to write about your own life, instead of always seeking a narrative. Sometimes people need an honest opinion. There’s a lot going on right now. And I think that in a lot of ways this project breathes that into the world.”
The night before Mama Tried was released, Thomas posted the following message to his Twitter account: “It takes years – to better understand process, to consider the weight of a word, to broaden a sense of identity. It is inherently detrimental to conflate the pursuit of catharsis and perfection. Tomorrow my life changes – the moment when it all switches hands, this work becomes yours – the blemishes intact, knowing that once this was all in my head. I want to thank you for your patience if you’ve waited. This is a product of letting the universe unfold and learning to feel everything. I wrote this as a reminder to myself: Thomas, B Well.”
When I talked to Thomas, hip-hop superstar Kanye West was in the news. Without addressing West’s situation directly, Thomas offered his perspective on celebrity and the media.
“I think there is an inherent restructuring going on with the internet age. Artists might have personal boundaries, but now people are allowed to cross those boundaries unabated. In that way, you’re either put on a pedestal or on the chopping block. You can be demonized very quickly for any sort of outburst.”
“It’s worth recognizing that information is moving so quickly and generally speaking, we’re not getting most of the story. Having an outlet like I do, it allows a certain lens through which you can process things in a different way without having to speak on them as they’re happening.”
“I also think there’s something to be said about the dehumanizing nature of entertainment in general. That’s something that young artists need to recognize now, because it’s not going away. It has a lot to do with how well you know yourself and what battles you’re willing to pick. What you say is out there, it can be found. It’s important that you really know where you stand before you start talking.”
Thomas is no longer based in Milwaukee, having relocated up north. He doesn’t paint like he used to. These days, his words are his brush. After being exposed to a community of artists in Milwaukee and getting a taste of success, Thomas remains invested in the virtue of his work and what it does for him.
“It’s going to change and fluctuate and hopefully resonate with who I am at the moment. I’m making stuff for me and as long as I’m growing through it, I’ll be happy. There’s more coming, it’s just a matter of when and how and being proud of the work.”
WiG Where you at right now?
THOMAS I am reading on the Wisconsin River.
WiG What city?
THOMAS I’m up towards Wausau, Wisconsin right now. It’s my hometown.
WiG I read that you were from Wausau. What was it like growing up there? Is it in the western part of the state?
THOMAS No, it’s almost dead center in the state of Wisconsin. It’s a town in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty. It is very insular and to itself. I guess it shaped me in it’s own way.
WiG How’d your parents end up there?
THOMAS My father was born here and my mother met him by chance while she was visiting a friend. So they are here now.
WiG They are still there?
THOMAS Yep, they’re still here.
WiG Do you have any brothers and sisters?
THOMAS Nah, I was an only child.
WiG What were your parents exposing you to musically and artistically growing up?
THOMAS They were pretty hands off actually. I didn’t really grow up listening to the music my parents listened to. I was very independent in that way. I found my own thing and always sort of moved towards that. They were very supportive of it. They played a very significant role in shaping the person that I am, but musically I was inclined to explore and learn on my own.
WiG When you were a child, what music did you gravitate towards?
THOMAS I was kind of all over the place. Again, being from a small town, I would say that the radio here was a full year or two behind everything while I was growing up. With the advent of the networked age, you know in my teen years, being able to explore a little further into what music was available, that just opened it up. So I started listening to a lot of different stuff. I wasn’t necessarily pinned down or particularly interested in what anybody else was listening to. My group of friends growing up they were all really interested in eclectic, “this is not what other people from our hometown are listening to” type music.
WiG Can you recall some of your favorite pieces of art, whether it be an album or a book or a movie or a play?
THOMAS I remember listening to so much different stuff and being really invested in the arts while I was in high school. An album that really resonates with me, I think the first album that I ever really loved was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It was one of those things that always sort of popped up and people jammed that a lot. Learning how to start writing, that was super important to me. I was always reading. I still read a lot. I might spend too much time reading, just in terms of having a lot of other stuff going on. I’m partial to a lot of writers, but it’s hard for me to pin one down and say, “This is a writer that defined me and helped me grow.”
I think through the practice of reading you gain an understanding of voice and the value of a word. So I guess just reading in general shaped me as an artist. In terms of visual arts, I don’t know, I was all over the place with that too. I totally went through a Banksy phase of being a 15-year-old kid totally disconnected from the rest of the art world. So I had a lot of those topical, not to say that Banksy is a topical artist, but the visual artists that rose to the top and have things written about them and were pretty prevalent in culture, and I think that I’m strayed from that in a lot of ways. I was super into Basquiat. I was doing recreations of Basquiat when I was 16 in my painting classes and trying to channel that, he’s just such a different person than me. I was definitely all over the place.
WiG Besides painting, what other art where you actively creating as a teenager?
THOMAS I was in a really, really great arts program at my high school. I was a focused painter through that time. It allowed me to use various materials to really get into painting. That was by far my most intimate outlet. I guess I started rapping when I was probably 15, 16. And I was writing poetry before that, so rap was the logical next step I think for me in that era. I don’t know, it was mostly words. I loved to paint, but I was always much more focused on words, rhyme schemes and how things fit together to create stories.
WiG Was there an outlet for spoken word or rap performances in Wausau?
THOMAS No, not at all, and there still really isn’t. I mean, it’s a beautiful little city, but it is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a place that a lot of people come back to after they leave, but there’s also a lot of people that never really leave here. I would say my first real experience being around other rappers wasn’t until I was 18, 19 and that was all in Milwaukee. Just trying to get a feel for what an actual music scene looks like.
I think in my hometown I was just connected enough that I knew every musician in town, but there was no movement, there was no collective, there wasn’t anything that was really going to progress other than these kids making music, probably going off to college and their bands sort of splitting up and going separate ways. A lot of what I was exposed to early on was this idea that you can create things and enjoy it for the sake of creating. And that was in and of itself very valuable, but my take on rap and trying to grow into a rapper, being a particular type of artist, I don’t know if that ever really caught hold. I think I was exposed to it in moving to Milwaukee, but overall I’m pretty invested in the virtue of my own work, what it does for me I suppose.
WiG And what brought you to Milwaukee?
THOMAS School. I attended UW-Milwaukee. I started as an intended arts major, then recognized the program wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. I wasn’t going to get what I wanted out of it. You know, at seventeen, it’s pretty easy to look at things in a short sighted, “This isn’t what I want right now” way. But I ended up switching over to psychology and last December I graduated with my bachelor’s, so I’m pretty stoked about that.
WiG How did you develop a relationship with Sam (aka WebsterX)?
THOMAS Sam and I met each other at Jay Anderson’s place while he was still living over by Alium. And I remember when I walked in with a buddy of mine, I believe it was Chris Thompson, who actually executive produced this last project that I just put up. And I remember I saw a kid rapping straight through the living room into this sort of dining room area. And you know Jay, there was a sort of drum set in there and instruments everywhere, and I remember seeing this kid rapping, he was just freestyling. I remember just walking into that space and we went verse for verse for a while. That was the first time I ever met Sam and you know, we didn’t hang out right away, but as we got to know each other, we formed a pretty tight relationship. He’s one of my best friends in Milwaukee. He’s a super supportive dude and he’s got quite the vision.
WiG You put out your first project in 2014. How did that come to be? What was the process like?
THOMAS Well, I guess it can kind of be said of any first project, it’s sort of a culmination. I was 20-years-old when I put that project out, so I had been rapping for myself and for friends at parties in the vein of just learning to rap and understanding what I wanted to do with it, or trying to understand what I wanted to do with it.
And so the process of that was just collecting verses that I already written and packaging things, trying to put together a narrative. Challenging myself to create something that was more than just a verse and finding the production, starting to understand the steps that it takes to really craft something.
It was definitely a process of learning and so was Mama Tried. It’s all, for me, this sort of cathartic, get this off my chest, understand myself a little better and hope that other people might enjoy it and go from there.
WiG How did you process the response to the first project, which was overwhelmingly positive?
THOMAS I was blown away by the response. I’m still blown away by it. I love to think that rap is something I will always have as an outlet. It’s a process of putting words together and expressing things that I think that I need for myself and hopefully that rubs off on other people. But the response, I don’t want to say it was overwhelming, but it truly did change my life. It was something else to go from being a completely unknown rapper to doing interviews, going into radio stations and having people say some really thoughtful, encouraging words about the work itself. All the while I was still in college and sorting through life and didn’t actually having anything figured out.
A lot of people believe that you have things figured out if you can do one thing successfully. It was an interesting way to grow, just learning a lot about an industry and a the process, a business, but never having had to go through any of that. I did it on my own with no real management or resources. I don’t know, I think it was a growing experience. It was something that I didn’t know I needed until I had a chance to step back from it and to this day it still blows me away.
“Apex” had 600 plays the first week it came out and I still am completely in awe of the idea of 600 plays on a song. Even though I’ve had tracks that have far surpassed that, I kind of always fall back to 600 plays and how many different times and instances people were hearing me, regardless of whether or not it was affecting them. It’s really interesting to think about how small of a count that is in relation to the internet, but it’s still hard to believe. So I feel very blessed.
WiG And you know “Madness” was being played on 88Nine on the regular and to this day I’ll still hear it occasionally. It’s such a breath of fresh air to me every time I hear it. It never loses its power.
THOMAS Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And you know, 88Nine, what they do for Milwaukee is understated by a lot of people. Just having had the opportunity to go in there and speak with the DJs and all the people that hold that place together. They do outstanding work for their community and they’ve done a lot for me as an artist and always have extended this belief in the people, in the community, and I really do appreciate that. I think that it can’t be taken for granted how important it is to have your local radio station actually put on for you.
It is kind of crazy when you get that phone call or that Snap or that text saying, “You’re on the radio right now.” It’s very surreal. A lot of artists all over the world spend their entire career trying to get some radio play. And so to be in a position where a widely listened to station goes out of their way to play local stuff and for them to sort through it and enjoy my stuff enough to put it in rotation, it’s something that I thank them for greatly. With the Radio Milwaukee Awards that year, it was this elevated distinction. It’s a super cool thing for Milwaukee artists to have and we should all be very thankful that they do that, so shouts to 88Nine.
WiG As a result of the reception and success of Poetry Volume One, did you feel any sort of external or internal pressure in terms of the follow-up?
THOMAS Yeah, I think that there’s pressure involved in anything, right? I think most of the pressure I feel is internal. I’m really invested in becoming a better writer. And a lot of what I’m writing is very much outside of the vein of radio play, it’s not necessarily easy to commercialize. A lot of the things that I’m trying to get across. So it’s not really about, I don’t know, to me it’s not really about the reach. It’s about the feeling and the emotion. Maybe touching that one person.
Now that I have a platform, hopefully I can touch one person some motivation or inspiration. But I don’t sit down to write projects and think, “This needs to be better than the last,” or “This is going to be my big break, this is my magnum opus,” or anything like that.
At the end of the day I’m writing songs that I need as a human. Not as an artist, but I need to get some of this stuff off my chest and I need to process a lot. It’s interesting. There’s always this artist in you that wants to be there for your fan base and try to articulate things as a public figure. But then there’s a 24-year-old that has stuff going on, you know?
There’s so much to life and music is something that I don’t want to say fell into my lap, like I work really hard to create what I create, but it’s not the only thing. There a lot of aspects to life. I have a lot to sort out and music is one of those things. I was very blessed to be put in the position where people listen, which comes with a certain level of responsibility and I’m still navigating that.
WiG I want to talk briefly about live performances. You’ve only done a handful over the last couple years. How do you feel about live performance?
THOMAS I love performing. Because I don’t perform a lot, it’s a moment for me. And I want it to be special to the people that show up. There are definitely people that have waited a long time to see a live show. And a lot of it for me is just making sure that if we’re going to go out and do it, we’re going to do it right. Put soul into it and performing in spaces that I prefer to perform at. Being cognizant of the fact that it’s pretty specific material.
You know, a lot of it is not stuff I want to throw out at a dance party on a Friday night when people are trying to have a real good time and get loose. It’s a specific brand. To an extent I would like to make sure that it’s in the right place. It’s not that I don’t care to perform or that I won’t be performing in the future. It’s totally a matter of making it right and feeling like it’s the right time and the right space. And maybe I over think that to an extent. For now I’m very happy with how often I perform. I think it’ll pick up in ‘17, but for now I’m coolin.
WiG In the time between when you released Poetry Volume One and Mama Tried, I think Kristina had mentioned to me that she talked to you at a party and you had said you were working on some non music stuff. What were you getting up to creatively in the interim?
THOMAS I was working on a film. It was being shot in Milwaukee at the time by a director and screenwriter who are beautiful people. I was really kind of exploring the idea that there’s more than one creative outlet and looking at the different ways that people put things together, in terms of how do people make movies versus how do people make music videos. How does that all conflate and differ? What is there to see and what is there to do?
Being artist can be about being very well-rounded and not necessarily always being in the public eye with material. I’ve learned so much in the last two and a half years about entertainment, the business, the practice, and the purpose of going out of your way to create something for other people. And you know, at the same time I’m writing and developing my sense of what I want to do with this work and the forthcoming work. So yeah I’ve been working on films.
WiG In what capacity? As a writer or actor?
THOMAS For them I wasn’t acting, I was doing a lot of consultation. Talking to them about music, seeing what could be done about using local musicians. While I was working on the last film that they shot, a lot of location scouting and thinking about the process of making something organic in Milwaukee. And just trying to take care of a process and a city that needs good work to come out of it. So for that I’m very behind the scenes. I have the opportunity to look at a process that is not necessarily my own and start seeing how to make it better.
WiG How did Mama Tried come together?
THOMAS I think that project is kind of here and now for me. I think I had a lot to say that I wasn’t getting across in Poetry Volume One. I think that there’s a certain sense of maturity to it. I think that there’s things that I wanted to speak on, like discussions on race and violence in Milwaukee, trust and relationships, all of these different things and how they fit together and how I fit into that. Especially being sort of a called upon representative for a city. There’s a lot to unpack and come to understand about the circumstances that exist.
I think Mama Tried in some ways is a commentary about being me in Milwaukee and looking at it all. There’s so much more to it, there’s a lot that I want people to be able to uncover by themselves. It was definitely a process of being honest and emotional and vulnerable. I don’t think I’m trying to be particularly unique as much as I’m trying to be me. Sometimes people need an honest opinion. There’s a lot going on right now. And I think that in a lot of ways this project breathes that into the world.
WiG I definitely feel there’s more vulnerability on Mama Tried. The personality and the emotion comes across heavier and cuts deeper, even though there may be less rhymes…
THOMAS Yeah. There’s definitely an emotionality to it. Without getting too deep into it, a lot of it is just trying to write about your own life, instead of always seeking a narrative. Trying not just to be a writer, but being a person that people can connect to. But maybe foremost a person that I can connect to within the music. There’s a lot to stomach in that project. It’s not necessarily something that I think people will sit down and play front to back always. I think that it’s effective in that way. I think it touches on fears and emotions that people don’t really want to tap into.
I’m not necessarily sure what the response is yet. People are listening and digesting it still. To that end I’m happy. That within itself says a lot about the content and the weight of it. I also think that it took a lot out of me to make a project like this. The continuity of it and sort of the whole structure, it’s something that I wanted to make. It’s not necessarily something that I think a lot of people want to hear in terms of just emotionality.
A lot of that tends to be lost on people. Maybe not in a bad way, but it’s definitely a specific listener that will take a whole lot out of it. And maybe more so it’s for those people. It touches a lot. And sometimes I think that that’s important, maybe more so than racking up plays or being in the spotlight or having any sort of acclaim attached to it. I think it’s important work for the people that are going through it, or I least I hope so.
WiG And how do you connect with the producers?
THOMAS Almost all of the producers on Mama Tried are remote to an extent. People I’ve never met personally. Long email chains. But I think how I connect to them is that I found their music through one outlet or another and it resonated with me to an extent that I felt obligated to try and reach out. I tried to do their work justice. A couple tracks were done in-house with people close to me, but to a degree I was looking for production that I thought fit the general feel of it.
WiG I’ve been thinking about this lately, I don’t know if you saw Dave Chappelle when he was on Inside the Actor’s Studio…
THOMAS No I didn’t.
WiG At one point he was talking about when Martin Lawrence allegedly went crazy and was standing on the roof of his car with a gun shouting, “They’re trying to get me, they’re trying to get me.” Dave said something to the effect of, “To call somebody crazy is dismissive,” and “maybe there’s something sick about their environment.” I’ve been thinking about this in light of what’s been going on with Kanye lately and I’m interested in your opinion as a psychology major and as an artist and a thinker.
THOMAS Without commenting directly on Kanye or Martin Lawrence, I think that there is an inherent restructuring going on with the networked age. Artists might have personal boundaries, but now people are allowed to cross those boundaries unabated. In that way, you’re sort of put either on a pedestal or on the chopping block. You can be demonized very quickly for any sort of outburst, whether it’s a serious thing or not. Being in the public eye and being expected to be sort of perfect, there’s a lot of pressure in that.
I think for me the way that that manifests is that I personally have opinions on everything that is going on. I personally am paying attention to the realities that are, but then again I take care of myself. It’s not that I don’t care to comment. I have a responsibility to dig through it all and process it and try to understand every angle and not caught up in the frenzy of any event. To try and look at it objectively. I don’t know if that’s necessarily something I conflate with having studied psychology. I just think it’s worth recognizing that information is moving so quickly and generally speaking, we’re not getting most of the story until it’s all played out. Even then a lot of people are only getting one side of the story from whatever media outlets they choose to associate themselves with.
It’s stuff that I put into my work. I think that having an outlet like I do, it allows a certain lens through which you can process things in a different way without having to speak on them as they’re happening. But I’m not some multi-millionaire artist, I’m not on billboards and I’m not playing stadiums. So my perception of it and the coverage of anything I say is very, very different.
I also think that there’s something to be said about the dehumanizing nature of entertainment in general. And I think that that’s something that young artists need to recognize now, because it’s not going to go away. It has a lot to do with how well you know yourself and what battles you’re willing to pick. Some people pick those battles just for the sake of having their name somewhere. It’s worth considering, especially as you’re crafting a career. What you say is out there, it can be found. It’s important that you really know where you stand before you start talking. I guess that’s the biggest takeaway.
WiG Do you feel like you’re taking care of yourself better now than in the past?
THOMAS I think as you grow up you try to. I’d love to think so. I think I have a different perspective than the last time I was making other music. I wouldn’t say that I’m better than I was when I was making Poetry Volume One. I might be a little more focused, a little more self assured, a little more able to process and articulate what it is that I’m looking at in front of me and what my career is to me. It’s hard to say if you’re “better.” I think we all get very, very concerned about whether or not we are better than our last showing, especially artists. I’d like to think I’ve grown. But I don’t really look at it that way for the most part. I’m pretty healthy. I’m working towards goals. There’s not much else I’m intending to do right now, so in that way I guess I’m very much the same.
WiG I guess that brings me to my last question, which is your creative goals and what you have coming up?
THOMAS I’m just looking for growth. All of it in terms of having opportunities, having conversations like this, having opportunities to be heard. I think my biggest creative goal is to continue to make anything that advances and articulates the person that I want to be, the person that I feel like I am at the moment. I’m going to keep creating. It’s going to change and fluctuate and hopefully resonate with who I am at the moment. I’m making stuff for me and as long as I’m growing through it, I’ll be happy. There’s more coming, it’s just a matter of when and how and being proud of the work.
WIG Are you still painting?
THOMAS Yeah, I’m still painting. Less than I’d like to, but I will continue.
WiG I appreciate you taking the time. I love the new project. I’m still digesting it and finding new things.
THOMAS Definitely. I’m interested to see the reviews if they ever come out. It was a labor of love and I’m kind of glad that it’s not easy to digest. It’s something you kind of have to hold on to. I held on to it for a long time for that reason.
For the bulk of its existence, hip-hop has been a culture and a music championed by youth, much to the chagrin of parents. This paradigm is shifting now that hip-hop is nearly a half century old. As I discovered talking with young Milwaukee hip-hop artists, many of their parents love hip-hop and some are even performers themselves.
“When I was young my mom played so much Mos Def, I just wanted to be as smooth as him,” says the magnetic Taj Raiden, 21, during an appearance on 91.7 WMSE’s Those Hip-Hop Guys.
On December 23, 2016, I had the pleasure of organizing a benefit event for Freespace, the monthly, all-ages, (mostly) hip-hop showcase housed at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. There I witnessed powerful performances from artists who have not yet reached legal drinking age.
Taj Raiden— who was performing at another benefit event later that night — came out to support the young emcees. She even took the mic — after some encouragement — during the community cypher, blowing the crowd away with her ferocious brand of hip-hop.
On January 18, Taj was a feature performer at Freespace’s annual “Femmespace” event, which takes place the week of Riverwest FemFest. Katie Lafond (Siren of New Age Narcissism) hosted the event. Lafond pointed out that while Taj is a “sweet little angel baby” offstage, her onstage persona couldn’t be any different. As Taj explained, the stage is where she releases her emotions and energy. This need to release is what got Taj started doing poetry, then making music.
Taj is aware of the double standards set on women. She questions the notion that if a woman is confident onstage that means she’s going to be stuck up in person. Taj understands the importance of male support, citing male friends who gave her confidence when she was starting out. But she also says that women should be wary of men who might try to dictate their artistic path.
Strength in numbers
While the first hip-hop act to gain national attention was The Sugarhill Gang back in the late 1970s, solo rappers became the norm in the the late 1990s and into the 2000s. The last decade has seen a resurgence of the group dynamic. Though Taj Raiden often performs solo, she is also a part of Team Ugly, which includes members YL64, Wolf tha Man, and Will the Glide.
The group dynamic was on full display during the Freespace holiday benefit when A.D.H.D. (“Adolescent.Devious.Harmonic.Dominance,” members Josh Jenkins, JalenG, Liv, and G-Gifted) took the stage.
As I spoke with A.D.H.D.’s Josh Jenkins, 19, I learned the group shares core values about hip-hop culture — the propagation of lyricism, community activism, and addressing social issues. Though the group is just out of high school, A.D.H.D. already has its own business cards.
“Hip-hop is very universal, so I enjoy performing in front of diverse crowds,” says Jenkins.
Jenkins first rapped onstage at a Juneteenth event when he was just 7-years-old. His father is also a rapper, singer and guitar player.
“It’s an exhilarating feeling to be able to do something I’m passionate about and have loved since I was a kid,” he adds.
While all the members of Phat Nerdz weren’t able to make the Freespace holiday benefit, Marquise Barnes (Young Epic) represented well for the crew, who are also just out of high school. Barnes stage presence and command of the mic showed skills far beyond his years. Like Jenkins, Barnes became involved with hip-hop at an early age.
“We loved how beatboxing and beatin’ on tables sounded, and how all the chaos in the class or lunchroom stopped and people would sit around and listen to us,” says Barnes.
“For me, that was big. Knowing that the vibrations of music and the sounds of instruments and our voice can attract people or at least grab their attention for that moment. After that I was just like, ‘I want to do music,’” he adds.
Thanks to his mother’s penchant for the Fat Boys and Biggie Smalls, Barnes — who is related to B.B. King on his father’s side — was inspired to incorporate the old school slang term “phat” into his crew’s name. Young Epic is joined by Myndd, S.I.N.P., Vimmy-T, Mayyh3m, and Captain Martian in the Phat Nerdz crew.
Not your average basement party
Phat Nerdz budding career got a boost when they started going to True Skool, an organization in downtown Milwaukee that “uses urban arts as a tool to engage youth in social justice, leadership and workforce development.” In the lower level of the Grand Avenue Mall, Barnes and company learned how to network and meet people outside their circle of friends. This led to a busy 2016 — opening for Lorde Fredd33, performing at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and appearing on the radio.
True Skool is a common thread among the younger generation of Milwaukee hip-hop artists. Jenkins and the A.D.H.D. crew, as well as Taj Raiden, have all spent time at True Skool. At the beginning of the year Barnes threw a holiday party at True Skool, inviting Team Ugly, A.D.H.D., and others to perform.
“I decided to kick it off with an open mic, because the party wasn’t just for us. It was for the city and the fans. It was a way for all the people who supported us in 2016 to come express themselves and enjoy the fact that we’re all coming together for one reason, and that’s to show love,” says Barnes.
Even though he is technically still a teenager, Barnes is already thinking about the kids that will come after him.
“I’ll be honest, I wanted to quit making music so many times. But in my mind I kept reminding myself that I’m putting in work now so the next generation, the kid who is like me and looks up to me, I’m doing it so they won’t give up,” says Barnes.
“I want them to feel like they can do anything in the world. That’s what I represent, the fact that even when the odds are stacked against you, you can become and do whatever you want in life.”
A.D.H.D. performs this Thursday, February 2, at Club 200 in Walker’s Point. They will also play a Valentine’s Bash on Friday, February 17, details forthcoming…
Phat Nerdz will open for The Fatty Acids on Friday, February 24, at Anodyne Coffee Roasters in Walker’s Point. Stay tuned for another show announcement the week of February 13…
Well, the day has come. President Trump. Brace yourself. Deep breaths.
They say the pendulum tends to swing in American politics, but I can’t imagine a bigger swing than this. From a charismatic community organizer who appeals to the best of our nature, to an obnoxious businessman who appeals to the worst of our nature.
Milwaukee hip-hop artist Vincent VanGREAT — fresh off a performance at Milwaukee Record’s Local Coverage — felt there was no better time than today to release his new video for “Radical (Prod. VVG x Q the Sun).” The frenetic track is accompanied by clips of police brutality and shots of VanGREAT on snowy Milwaukee streets letting his, um, middle fingers do the talking.
Trump supporters like to allege that police brutality and race relations have gotten worse under Obama’s watch and that he’s somehow responsible. This is nonsense. Police brutality was undoubtedly worse under previous administrations.
What changed during the Obama years is that now almost everyone has a video camera in their pocket, making it easier to document and expose police brutality. An increase in racial tension is simply a response to this increased visibility and awareness of police brutality.
It is important to note that when we say “Fuck the law,” we are not advocating anarchy, but expressing anger towards an unjust system that disproportionately harasses, arrests and imprisons people of color and marginalized communities. We want an end to police brutality, not an end to police. Ultimately, like VanGREAT says in the video’s preamble, we want more “love, peace and light.”
“Radical” is the second visual from VanGREAT’s excellent self-produced 2016 album UnGREATful, which you can buy on iTunes. The video was shot by JSwaqq.
“This record/visual is not to promote violence nor hate towards law enforcement or government of any kind. It is simply to raise awareness of current situations that are affecting many people around the world. With all the darkness and evil that we are forced to live with these days we must ALL remember to spread love, peace and light no matter what race, age or gender we are. God is love!” – Vincent VanGREAT
(It’s also important to note that when we say “Fuck Trump,” we mean FUCK TRUMP!)
With year-end “Best Of” lists populating News Feeds and other media spaces, they are being met with equal parts vindication and scorn. Some allege favoritism, while some promote their praises. Others — like Sam Kacala of Rhythm Changes — quietly take note of the underappreciated, the overrated, the justified, and move on. Kacala would rather focus on the music he’s creating with his band.
Sam Kacala is one of the most understated artists I’ve met in the Milwaukee music scene. It may have something to do with the fact that he works with youth at his day job. Kacala is the Character & Leadership Coordinator-Supervisor at the Don & Sallie Davis Boys and Girls Club.
As a result, I figured Kacala would be an ideal candidate for the in-school performance series I produced as part of the Arte Para Todos festival back in April. Rhythm Changes not only entertained and interacted with a gymnasium full of students at Gaenslen Elementary School, Kacala even assembled a student/teacher band for an on-the-spot jam.
In terms of underrated Wisconsin releases, 2015’s The Message is Real by Three. Stacks. Eliot (TSE) is one of the best examples. Rhythm Changes is the current incarnation of TSE, representing both a lineup and name change. The band continues TSE’s tradition of being a premier hip-hop/R&B backing band, while creating their own jazz-pop sound.
“Three. Stacks was done as a group when Teddy decided he was going to Japan,” says Kacala. “Even though I still speak for the band in terms of press and what not, it’s more of a collaborative project. Three. Stacks was more so me and Teddy’s vision of collaborating with hip-hop artists, specifically Klassik.”
TSE achieved their goal of collaborating with Klassik for a number of memorable performances in 2015, including one at Brady Street Festival and another at the Grain Exchange Building with the Milwaukee Ballet.
“Once that happened and we put out the album it was like, ‘Well, this is it. This is what we set out to do.’ Then we added new members and it became more of a group change than a name change. We have a lot of fun playing together. Our stage presence is like we’re laughing at each other.”
Rhythm Changes added Kyndal Johnson and Curtis Crump to TSE members Cody Steinmann, Calvin Turner, and Kacala. Earlier this year they produced a debut EP — We Had No Choice. Unlike the slew of guest rappers and vocalists on The Message Is Real, We Had No Choice is feature-free.
“It came together really quickly. It took a couple months to develop the music and then we recorded it all in one session. Kyndal’s vocals are somewhat repetitive, so it’s not a huge lyrical project. That helped the process. She’d be in rehearsal scatting, come up with a lyric line, then repeat it,” says Kacala.
Like The Message Is Real, the Rhythm Changes EP was recorded in Kacala’s parents living room.
“It’s so comfortable for me, though I can’t speak for the rest of the band. But we always get stuff done there. I like to have my hands on every part of the project. And I think it’s more of a learning process for me that way,” says Kacala.
Rhythm Changes threw an EP release party in September at Jazale’s Art Studio in the Bronzeville neighborhood. The lineup featured Genesis Renji, a stand-out guest on The Message Is Real. Renji — who recently moved back to Milwaukee after living in Washington, D.C. — is one of the most underrated hip-hop artists around according to Kacala.
“The release show was a great night. Renji is one of the hardest working rappers, but I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. It was a great moment for people to see how raw his material is. It was just him, no mic, nothing but his voice. He did a piece on diabetes and two on gun violence. People started tearing up,” recalls Kacala.
Back in 2013 when TSE was starting out the band produced a showcase series at the Jazz Gallery Center of the Arts. Among those first performers were WebsterX, Vonny Del Fresco, Lex Allen, and Emmitt James. Kacala prefers the art gallery/cafe setting to a traditional bar venue, where he feels people are more concerned with drinking than the music.
For the Rhythm Changes EP release at Jazale’s, Kacala and Darren Hill — Jazale’s co-founder — came up with an idea to do an art raffle.
“Vedale Hill is my favorite artist in the city. So we bought four pieces from him and ended up raffling off two of them. Kyndal had an artist that wanted to get her work out there so she had a piece there too. We had them on display at the front and each person got a raffle ticket when they walked in, but you could also buy them for a certain price,” explains Kacala.
“We raffled them off at the end of the night and we didn’t expect people to get into it. But the crowd was so intimate that people ended up bantering back and forth about who wanted what piece. It felt like I was watching a scene from a play.”
Kacala — who taught a free drum camp for kids at the Jazz Gallery in the summer of 2015 — will return to the East Center Street venue on Friday December 23, as Rhythm Changes will be the house band at the Freespace Holiday Fundraiser. Freespace is an all-ages, free, monthly, (mostly) hip-hop showcase featuring youth performers and established artists. It is the brainchild of high school English teacher Vincent Gaa and Sam Ahmed (WebsterX), with production help from designer Janice Vogt and KaneTheRapper. It provides an opportunity for youth to learn from and interact with professional musicians, as well as their peers.
“As a musician, I think it’s important to ask yourself if you are making a positive impact on your community,” says Kacala.
“We’re going to move on someday, whether it’s to a bigger stage or to no longer making music, so it’s important that young musicians have a chance to take our place. Music also kept me out of trouble. I was given so many opportunities and wouldn’t be where I am if not for older musicians taking the time to help me, so I expect that we do the same for the next generation.”
For more information on the Freespace Holiday Fundraiser click here.
To listen to Rhythm Changes’ We Had No Choice click here and Three. Stacks. Eliot’s The Message Is Real click here.
The late 1980s and early 1990s is considered the golden era of hip-hop, when jazz and soul laid a sonic foundation for boom bap beats and clever wordsmiths. In the last decade hip-hop has drawn influence from electronic music, veering into abstract melodic territory.
Of all the Wisconsin artists doing an updated version of golden era hip-hop, no one does it quite as well as AUTOMatic. Made up of emcee A.P.R.I.M.E. (Darius Windom) and producer Trellmatic (Montrell Sallis), AUTOMatic has a new album — Marathon — that cements its status as one of Milwaukee’s finest hip-hop acts.
I sat down with Windom — whose rap alias stands for “Armond’s Phenomenal Rhymes Incite Mind Elevation” — at Vanguard in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood and a week later I went to the Marathon release show at Cactus Club.
If young Windom had found friends who could sing, he may never have started a rap career. He might instead be in a “baby New Edition” R&B group.
“My mom really wanted me to like New Edition,” recalls Windom. “We went to every last New Edition tour that came through town, all the way up to when they came in 2012. I used to sing in the choir, I used to sing all the time. Honestly, I used to have a dope voice.”
Windom’s older sister and cousin exposed him to hip-hop. He remembers being taken to his first rap show in 1988, at the age of 6. The lineup included Public Enemy, Ice-T, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and was headlined by Eric B. & Rakim. Windom can still picture the rapper-producer duo walking out on the Mecca (now the Panther Arena) stage to a laser-light show.
“I really loved the DJs — K LA Boss who was EPMD’s DJ and Public Enemy’s DJ Terminator X. It wasn’t until A Tribe Called Quest that I really started digging it. But when Gang Starr put out ‘DWYCK’ is when I absolutely had to be a part of it,” says Windom.
His reverence for DJ Premier led Windom to model his sound after the Gang Starr producer when he started making his own music. But long before that, Windom found his rap calling. It came one night in his grandmother’s basement while hanging out with his sister and cousin.
“My cousin kicked it off and I went after him. I kind of went blank. I don’t know what I was saying, I couldn’t hear anything. I could only see their faces. Whatever I was saying was creating this astonishment on their faces. Then my sister ran upstairs and told my mom I could rap.”
GETTING IN THE GAME
Following years of writing verse upon verse and rapping for fun, Windom got up the nerve to start making his own music after dropping out of college. He found a producer that was asking $600 per beat. Startled by the price, he opted instead to buy an MPC 2000 drum machine, went half on mixers and mics with a friend, and recorded a demo on the friend’s computer.
In 2003, Windom saw Black Elephant, one of the hottest Milwaukee groups in the early 2000s underground hip-hop scene. He bought their CD and found their manager’s contact information in the liner notes.
The manager — Geraud Blanks, currently a programmer with the Milwaukee Film Festival’s Black Lens program — ended up booking Windom for a show at what is now Riverwest Public House. A new fan asked Windom when he would be releasing an album. He told the fan, “Probably the next show,” thinking it would be months away.
“But it turned out to about two weeks later, so I just went hard. My boy Jonathan Frost had a recording setup at his crib so I linked up with him and wrote and recorded the album in two weeks,” says Windom. The result was 2004 Writer’s Block, his only true solo project.
ROAD TO ‘AUTOMATIC’
For a time, there was a venue called bSide in Walker’s Point. In 2004, DJs Kid Cut Up and Why B started No Request Fridays there, which became a gathering place for Milwaukee’s hip-hop community. Windom met Seoul K at bSide and they formed the short lived group Class:Sick.
At bSide Windom also met Milwaukee rapper Dana Coppa, one of the original members of the Rusty Pelicans, the godfathers of Milwaukee hip-hop. Coppa suggested Windom meet Montrell Sallis (Trellmatic), who was making beats similar to his. Windom’s girlfriend at the time also ran into Sallis at a party and felt the two should meet.
“At the time I wasn’t really interested in working with someone that made music similar to me. Why would I do that when I could just do it myself?” Windom wondered at the time.
After meeting Sallis at bSide one night Windom got over his hesitancy, the two hit it off, and they formed AUTOMatic in 2007. They became a part of the collective House of M, which also included Dana Coppa, Professor Ecks, Haz Solo, and others. During their first performances Windom was a nervous wreck and performed with a mask.
“I have stage fright. Back then it was pretty crippling,” says Windom. “I’m an introvert. I don’t like the spotlight. So I’m kind of a walking contradiction in that way.”
Since teaming up AUTOMatic has released four albums, a mixtape and an EP. Windom has continued to work on solo material and earlier this year he released his first EP under the 3099 alias, which was a collaboration with DJ/producer JDL Rockwell and delves into more electro-R&B-rap territory. Local soul pop singer Lex Allen is featured on two of the songs off the 3099 EP.
“I wrote everything,” says Windom. “I honestly just want to be a writer-producer. If I was put in a situation where AUTOMatic was offered a record deal, but then I was offered a publishing deal to write, I would take the publishing deal.”
MENTORED BY A STAR
While the pool of talented Milwaukee-born emcees has grown over the last decade, it was a short list in the 1990s and 2000s. Atop that list was Todd “Speech” Thomas, who moved to Atlanta for college and formed the progressive hip-hop group Arrested Development in 1988.
A few years back Thomas — a two-time Grammy winner — was listening to 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and heard a song by AUTOMatic. He recognized a lyrical and stylistic kinship and called the radio station. Jordan Lee passed along AUTOMatic’s contact but Windom lost the email. Two years later he took a shot in the dark and reached out to Thomas.
“He emailed me back the next morning and was like, ‘Yeah dude, it’s been long enough. It’s been two years!’ I said sorry and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Everything happens in God’s time.’ Then we started emailing each other back and forth.”
“Speech has become like a mentor of sorts,” says Windom. “Anytime that I have feelings of doubt, he lifts me up. Honestly, before [JC] Poppe came back to manage us in December of last year I was ready to be done. I told Speech that and he was like, ‘Nope. I’m not hearing it. You are too good. Don’t quit because you’re frustrated. Quit when you’re wack.’”
Not only has Speech helped to motivate Windom on his artistic journey, he also contributed a verse on the track “Rising Sun” off of AUTOMatic’s 2015 EP ARISING.
A BREAK AND A BREAKTHROUGH
One reason there was four-year break between full-length albums is Windom lost trust with a former collaborator.
“My music is everything to me. I don’t have any children, so that’s how deep I feel about this. If you flub something with my music that’s ultimately like dropping my baby,” says Windom.
When Marathon was conceived it was originally meant to be another EP. But during the writing process Windom hit a stride and before he knew it he had 17 songs. Luckily, Windom’s friend and fellow Milwaukee musician Colin Plant (No No Yeah Okay) offered his home studio.
“That was very freeing. It allowed me to sing and do some things I really wanted to do, that I might not have done not if I was in front of people,” says Windom.
Because of their work schedules, Sallis and Windom were barely able to be in the studio at the same time, but sent each other material and feedback for Marathon. The result is their best project yet.
This time around Windom is doing less battle rapping and being open and honest about subjects that some other rappers might not touch. What stands out is Windom’s sharp rhyme and storytelling skills. He even flexes his singing voice on a few of the tracks.
“We’re trying to make good music that anybody can relate to. It doesn’t matter if you have a bunch of money or a certain kind of car. I try to relate the human experience above all,” says Windom.
At the recent release show, Windom closed the night with a heartfelt message about the need for unity and love in these times of tense political division, before playing the feel-good single “Talkin’ Bout Love.”
Coincidentally, Marathon was released the same day as the final album from A Tribe Called Quest, their first in 18 years. AUTOMatic paid homage to ATCQ near the end of their set. As Windom rapped and the crowd responded, I could feel the spirit of Phife Dawg — ATCQ member who passed earlier this year — in the building.
What follows is a transcript of my full-interview with Darius Windom (A.P.R.I.M.E. 3099) at Vanguard in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood a few weeks ago. I enjoyed a delicious buffalo chicken poutine while we talked.
AP I just read the article you did on Enrique. I thought that was pretty dope.
WiG Cool, cool. Do you know those dudes?
AP We’re Facebook friends but I don’t know them personally. I like what they’re doing. IshDARR is definitely one of the pieces of hope here.
WiG It seems like the Milwaukee hip-hop scene is better than ever.
AP Definitely there is a lot more of what seems to be…unity. I graced the scene in 2004. That’s when I put out my first album, but that was more on the Northside. I was an opener for this group that was pretty big then called Black Elephant.
WiG Yeah I remember Black Elephant.
AP I used to do shows with them all the time. Through them I ended up meeting the Rusty Ps and Def Harmonic and I ended up just kind of coming on what we called “the East Side scene.” I started doing a bunch of shows between there and the South Side. I was in a group called Class:Sick with my friend Seoul K. We were doing that and we did about two projects together and then the same year that we disbanded is when I ended up meeting Trell and we formed AUTOMatic.
WiG Did you grow up on the North Side?
AP I’m from Brown Deer.
WiG Did you go to Brown Deer High School?
AP Nah. I went to Hamilton and North Division. I ended up hanging with this one guy that was a friend of my girlfriend at the time. He invited me to this show that was at a spot that’s not there anymore. Black Elephant was on the bill and I ended up buying their CD. I’m one of those people that go through the liner notes. I ended up seeing that they had a manager so at the time I had a little demo. I wasn’t really doing many shows or anything like that.
WiG Were you in high school at this time? AP No I was out of high school. I started doing music probably a year or two after I left college. I only went to college for like a year.
WiG What year did you graduate high school? AP 2000. So this was probably like 2003/2004 that I ended up calling their manager.
WiG Do you remember what that venue was called where you first saw Black Elephant?
AP Damn, nah I don’t remember.
WiG What part of town?
AP It was on the North Side. It was on like 76th Street right off Good Hope…
WiG I can picture that part of town, but I don’t know of any venues that were there. Was it a bar?
AP Yeah it was. They didn’t have a stage. The performance was in this room right next to some pool tables and everybody was gathered around and they had strobe lights. But yeah, so Black Elephant performed and I was like, “Dude, they kinda nice.” So you know, they were selling the CD so I bought it, looked in the liner notes, saw they had a manager, peeped his contact information, and I hit him up and told him I was looking for representation.
He and I ended up meeting up at the Jalisco on North and I gave him my demo and started talking to him about some stuff and he was like, “Well, you know, we’ll see. I got my hands full with Black Elephant so I don’t know, we’ll see.” He ended up hitting me up the next day and was like, “Hey, we got a show at Riverwest Commons…”
WiG Which is now Public House.
AP Right. So I ended up meeting him there and he introduced me to Black Elephant. One of the co-managers from Black Elephant at the time, when he introduced him to me he was like, “Oh this is the dude that you were talking about?!” And so it’s funny because the way that Geraud is, he’s not the type that will give you props straight up. It’s almost like a backhanded compliment. He’d be like, “Yeah alright, it’s cool. I guess you got potential.” But then when I met the other guy he was like, “Dude said you are dope!” And I’m like, “Really? Because he tried to downplay it.” So that was kind of like the rapport that me and Geraud had. It wasn’t until fairly recently that he actually started straight up giving me props.
WiG What has he been up to lately?
AP Nothing music related. He’s been working with the film festival. He hasn’t done music stuff in a while.
WiG Oh yeah, I know who he is. Tarik introduced me to him this summer at Chic one night. He heads up the Black Lens program?
AP Yep. He’s pretty cool. So yeah, me and Trell formed AUTOMatic in 2007.
WiG How’d you meet Trell?
AP bSide. It was actually something in the making…
WiG What was bSide?
AP bSide was one of the hottest hip-hop spots. They used to do a Friday night there. Kid Cut Up, Why B, Steve Marks, the No Request cats, they used to have a Fright night. It was on 2nd and Virginia I believe. It was like upstairs from this restaurant. It was set up kind of like loft style. But yeah man, that place was crackin. It was people going through there all the time.
WiG Mid 2000s? AP Yeah, yeah. It was pretty live. That’s actually where I met Seoul K and Trell. I used to frequent bSide and they would have performances here and there. I came across Dana Coppa there one night. It was a night I was performing and he liked my beats. I was producing at the time. And he was like, “Dude, I know a guy who makes beats similar to yours and he’s pretty dope.” He kept telling me that he wanted to make the intro but it didn’t happen for a while.
So then this girl that I was seeing at the time, she must have ran into him at a random party or something like that, because she came back and was telling me that I should meet this dude Trellmatic. And I was like, “Yeeeeah, I don’t know about that.” Especially because Dana already told me that he makes beats similar to mine. At that time I wasn’t really interested in working with someone who made music similar to me. Why would I work with someone doing something similar to me when I could just do it myself?
WiG Were you doing more production at the time or more rapping?
AP It was pretty even. The way that I ended up making beats in the first place was that there was this one guy that I met who had two pretty cool beats, but he was trying to charge like $600 a beat. I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” So then I just kind of went online and did some research and told him, “So you expect me to pay thousands of dollars so you can produce an EP for me?”
At that time the MPC 2000 was just like a grand, so I figured I’ll just get the equipment myself. One of my best friends was singing at the time and he kind of wanted to get into it too…
WiG Who was that?
AP His name is Dino. He doesn’t really sing much anymore, but he ended up buying a computer, I bought the MPC, we went half on some mixers and mics and just got the equipment. I was going over to his house like every single night making three or four beats a night. But I had to make about 50 beats before I got something I was comfortable rapping to. Then I just continued with that pace making several beats a night. It came around to it where it was like I would meet producers and they would give me tips. Then I set aside the ones that I really liked and then before I knew it I had about twenty beats that I really dug and started recording a demo.
After Geraud liked to my demo I ended up doing a few shows with Black Elephant. And there was this one guy who was asking me where my album was and I told him it wasn’t out yet. And he was like, “When’s it coming out?” and I said, “Probably the next show.” Because I was thinking it would be a long time before Geraud called me for a show again.
But it turned out to be two or three weeks later, so I just went hard. My boy Jonathan Frost had a recording setup at the crib so I ended up linking up with him and I wrote an album and recorded the album in two weeks. And it was actually not that bad for the two weeks.
WiG What was the name of that project?
AP It was called Writer’s Block. It’s like my only true solo project.
WiG What year did come out?
AP That was 2004. But I do cringe a little bit listening to it. I’ve improved so much since then.
WiG And you did all of the production?
AP Yeah except for one that was produced by Jonathan Frost.
WiG Let’s take it back a second. Growing up, what did you hear in the house? What were your parents listening to?
AP Okay so I was born in Milwaukee, raised Brown Deer. I lived with my aunt who is like my second mom. My parents were in the army. I remember Saturday morning was the day to clean up the house so they would play all kinds of stuff, a lot of Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, there was a lot of Frankie Beverly, Isaac Hayes, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder.
WiG How about your aunt? What did she listen to?
AP My aunt was more into R&B. She liked Freddie Jackson, The Whispers, René and Angela, that type of thing. My aunt was definitely more into modern stuff at the time. I used to do this trick actually, once I started becoming an avid listener of music. Because initially hip-hop wasn’t for me. My mom really wanted me to like New Edition. She chose New Edition to be my group. They were like my Temptations. We went to every last New Edition tour that came through town, all the way up to when they came in 2012. We went to every single New Edition show, she made sure that.
I used to sing back in the day. Honestly, I used to have a dope voice. I used to sing in the choir, I used to sing all the time. I probably would have been a singer if things had worked out. But I didn’t have any friends that could actually sing, so I couldn’t really set up the baby New Edition. My cousin used to rap and used to be super into hip-hop. He wanted me to love hip-hop. So he used to take me to concerts, stuff that I couldn’t really appreciate at the time. I remember him bringing home 45’ singles. Eric B. & Rakim were one of his favorite groups. I remember he brought home the “Follow the Leader” single. On the B-side of that single there was the instrumental and the acapella. The acapella still had the hook with the cuts and everything, so that was super dope.
I really loved the DJs. DJs were kind of the way that I ended up liking hip-hop. During that time it was pretty much standard to have cuts. K LA Boss who was EPMD’s DJ, Terminator X was Public Enemy’s DJ. The DJs are the way that I got into it. It wasn’t until A Tribe Called Quest came out that I really started digging it. When I heard “Bonita Applebum” there was just something about it that made me get into it.
But when Gang Starr put out “DWYCK” is when I absolutely had to be a part of it. DJ Premier was it for me. Back when I started making beats that was my goal. I needed to learn how to make beats like DJ Premier. So the first thing I learned was how to chop samples. I would listen to his stuff and chop up a sample exactly like that. That was my whole thing. I didn’t care if someone called me a biter. I was going to make beats that sounded like DJ Premier. There’s a few on Writer’s Block that are indicative of that.
WiG Before you were saying that you had this trick with your aunt…
AP Oh yeah. She would ask me about certain songs when we were driving in the car and they came on the radio. She’d be like, “Oh who is this?” And I would say, “That’s such and such, and definitely you’ll like the whole album. The whole album is good.” Then she’d buy the album. I don’t even know if she would listen to it, but I would just keep it.
It got to the point where I would suggest so much good music to her that she just ended up blindly trusting me. It would just be like a bunch of stuff that I would sneak in. I would be like, “Oh the New Edition album is out. The new 112 album is out, but also I know you’re going to like this Jay-Z.” That would be my whole thing. She had so much music so I figured she wouldn’t know that the Jay-Z album wasn’t there.
WiG Did you have any siblings growing up?
AP Yeah I have three sisters. My older sister is a hip-hop head straight up. A lot of the things that she listened to had a great influence on me.
WiG Who were some of her favorites?
AP She listened to some of everything. She would be into the Geto Boys, N.W.A., and then turn around and flip it and be into Kwamé, Nice & Smooth, Tribe, De La, Souls of Mischief, Del the Funky Homosapien, and a lot of different stuff. My cousin did as well. He introduced me to the super lyricists, Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane. He put me up on some of the West Coast artists like DJ Quik, C-Bo, Pac definitely, and Dogg Pound.
WiG You said he was taking you to shows. Are there any shows that stand out in your mind?
AP I used to fall asleep during the opening acts for like every single show. Even the New Edition joints. I would like fall asleep and then my mom would wake me up. But I remember he took me to this one show, I want to say Public Enemy was there, Ice-T, I feel like Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince were there. I just know that Eric B. & Rakim were headlining and that was awesome. I don’t know how I remember this so much but the way that they came out was to “Eric B. Never Scared,” and they had some kind of laser light show. There was like a laser animation of Eric B. and then he came out and then the same thing for Rakim.
WiG Do you remember where that was?
AP I think I was like 6. It had to be at the Mecca.
WiG You were six years old?
WiG Damn. Do you remember if Eric B. or Rakim had to leave the show with a medical emergency?
WiG Do you know Mikal Floyd-Pruitt? MC Mikal?
WiG So Mikal’s dad is one of the top Black doctors in the city. There was an Eric B. & Rakim show in town, I don’t know where or what year, but one of them had a medical emergency and was rushed to Mikal’s parents house. Mikal was a little kid so he didn’t go to the show, but he remembers waking up and going downstairs and seeing this famous hip-hop star being treated in his house.
AP Oh word. That is crazy. Not to my recollection, I don’t think either of them had an emergency.
WiG I’m sure they played Milwaukee a few times.
AP But yeah I was like 6, so that had to be ‘88. That was like a milestone year for hip-hop.
WiG Blueprint made a whole album about it.
AP Yep. So it was a lot of that type of stuff. Once I got into hip-hop there was no turning back. But I still wanted to be a DJ. Rapping wasn’t the thing for me at first. I actually started rapping in a real strange way. We were at my grandmother’s house. We would always hang out in my grandmother’s basement. It was my big sister, my cousin, and we basically would just be chilling. He used to always throw on instrumentals and he would start rapping. I used to memorize different rapper’s lines, so I was really into the Death Row stuff, I was really into EPMD, Redman, Gang Starr, stuff like that.
My cousin was like, “I want you to rap with me.” He kicked it off and I went after him. This is where the story gets interesting. I just kind of went blank. I don’t know what I was saying, I couldn’t really hear anything. I could only see their faces. Whatever I was saying was creating this astonishment on their faces. When I was done they were like, “Whoooooa.” Then my sister ran upstairs and told my mom that I could rap.
The feeling of that situation just kind of made me want to continue to do it. So that’s when I actually sat down and started to write raps. I would just write verses upon versus. I didn’t know anything about counting bars. To be frank with you, I don’t count bars now. Whenever I feel like the verse should end, that’s when I end it. Sometimes if a producer gives me a beat with set verses then I just kind of go with that, but a lot of times it’s just me ending it whenever I feel like I’m done saying whatever I want to say.
WiG So in terms of performance, I read that you performed with a mask at one point?
AP I did. I really have stage fright. Back then it was pretty crippling. I was in a collective called House of M. It was a bunch of us…
WiG Dana Coppa was in that?
AP Yes. We used to do shows together. The way that it was set up it was like a round-robin type thing. Dana would do a couple solo songs and then we’ll switch to the next group and then AUTOMatic would do a couple, then Haz [Solo] will do a few. But whenever it was AUTOMatic’s turn to do it, oh my goodness, sometimes I would be rapping and I would literally forget a line because I would just be shaking in my boots.
So I’m kind of a walking contradiction in that way. Because I’m an introvert. I really do not like to be made a fuss of. I don’t really like birthday parties. I don’t like the spotlight on me at all. So for me to be utilizing my talent in this manner is kind of crazy. But at the same time my end game is not to be in front of the mic. I honestly just want to be like a writer-producer. If I was put in a situation where AUTOMatic was offered a record deal, but then I was offered a publishing deal to write, I would take the publishing deal. I don’t really like a lot of attention.
WiG I know that you write hooks and other song elements. Like on the 3099 project that came out this year, Lex Allen sings on two tracks. Did you write those?
AP I wrote everything.
WiG Speaking of 3099, tell me about the short story that inspired that name.
AP Well, without giving too much away, because I’m planning on tweaking it and utilizing it for the basis for the 3099 album. The story is basically about a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend. They have tons of mutual friends and everybody knows them as a couple. He tries to go to spots and they’re always asking where she is. And if he says that they’re not together, people just keep asking him about it. He never really got a chance to get over the breakup.
He used to take walks to clear his mind and one time he comes across this campus and they have a flyer up for some kind of government testing that is going on. He volunteers for the testing and 3099 is the subject number that they gave him. I really liked the way that “3099” sounds. It feels real random. I just started adding that to my name. One of my aliases was Prime 3099. When I decided to veer off and do some experimental stuff I figured I would really give 3099 an identity, a personality if you will. I have tons of random aliases and I plan on giving all of them a personality. I’m really like George Clinton in that way.
WiG Speaking of breakups, when your manager wrote me about the new album, which I’m a big fan of by the way, he sent it to me last night…
AP You listened to it already?
WiG Yeah, I been bumping it all day. But he said a lot happened in between your last album that came out in 2012 and the new album. He said there were some stories behind why it took four years. Breakups, friendships going bad, stuff like that…
AP We used to record with one of the guys that I was in the [House of] M with. I’d rather not say his name. We used to do stuff together all the time and there was a situation where we were working on Art Imitates Life and there was a song that needed to be mixed. He was our primary engineer at the time. We signed a contract with someone in New York and that person was supposed to be like our liaison with the labels, helping us put out good products. We had this one song that was a banger. My man mixed it, 88Nine wanted to play it, and some other radio stations wanted to play it.
So then we send it to 88Nine and they tell me that the mix sounds rudimentary. I was like, “Wow dude, seriously?” And I sent it to our guy in New York and he said, “Yeah, you need to get this re-mixed. You should let me have one of my guys do it out here. This mix sucks.” And I’m like, “Really?” So I ended up talking to my man about it and was like, “It’s the funniest thing, I was talking to these people about it and they were saying that the mix is wack. I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Honestly, I didn’t know what they were talking about, the mix sounded fine to me. So I told him about it and he was just like, “Yeah, it’s not good.” And I was like, “What do you mean it’s not good?” He was like, “It’s not a good mix.” And I was like, “What do you mean, you gave me a bad mix?” And he was like, “Well, I’m just saying it’s not good.” And I was like, “Word.” So that just made me stop trusting him. I’m the type of person that you can talk about my mom or you can take a swing at me and we can still go back to being what it is. But once you start messing with my music…music is everything to me.
My music is everything to me. I don’t have any children, so that’s how deep I feel about this. If you flub something with my music that’s ultimately like dropping my baby. So I really can’t trust him in the same manner. We just kind’ve parted ways creatively. We were still friends, but I couldn’t trust him with my music. So me and our DJ at the time, JDL Rockwell, we ended up pooling our equipment together and recording. He just recently moved away. WiG JDL moved away? AP Yeah. I mean he still comes back into town, but he lives up in Shawano outside of Green Bay. He left right when we were discussing doing a new album, so that left us without a recording home. We tried to link up with different people to get the album done and it just didn’t link up. Thank God my man Colin Plant has some equipment at the crib and he was like, “Come record with me.” I had some experience recording with my former guy and I ended up just going ahead and recording it myself for the whole project.
That was very freeing. It allowed me to do some of the things that I really wanted to do. Like I said before, I’m pretty introverted, so that gave me an opportunity to do some things like sing a little bit more. Things that I probably wouldn’t have done if I was in front of people. So it kind of worked out in that way.
WiG You mentioned 88Nine. I read that they connected you with Speech from Arrested Development, is that right?
AP Yeah. They played one of our songs and Speech called in to talk to one of the DJs there. It was Jordan [Lee] and they asked if he knew us or how to get in contact with us. And he was like, “Yeah.” So he definitely hit up [Jonathan] Poppe. Poppe ended up sending me Speech’s email and somehow I missed it. Two years later we were just talking one night and Speech came up and I was like, “Dude, I thought we were supposed to be doing something with him?”
Poppe reminded me he had sent me his email so I went through my emails and ended up coming across the email. Then I took a shot in the dark and emailed Speech. I was just like, “Hey, I’m from AUTOMatic and I heard you were a fan of our music. I know it’s been awhile but I just wanted to know if that’s still true.” He emailed me the next morning and was like, “Yeah dude, it’s been long enough. It’s been two years!” I said sorry and he said, “Don’t worry about it, everything happens in God’s time.” Then we started emailing each other back and forth.
Basically it was months of doing that and then finally I got up the courage to send him a song that was merely just to listen to and give me feedback on. But he sent me his feedback with a verse. He said he was inspired by the song and if I liked the verse I could use it, but if not, no harm. And definitely it was dope.
WiG That was on the EP right?
AP Yeah, “Rising Sun” is the song.
WiG Okay. I’m one of the organizers of Arte Para Todos…
AP Oh word, okay.
WiG …and actually I’m the main one that put together the compilation. That was the track you gave us for the compilation. It was definitely one of my favorite tracks.
AP Word up. I appreciate that.
WiG I feel like having Speech on there elevated the compilation project.
AP Speech has been like a mentor of sorts. Anytime that I have feelings of doubt, he lifts me up. I won’t talk to him for weeks and then he’ll hit me up a month after we last talked and be like, “Yo, I was doing this, that and the other, and I was just thinking about this,” and he’ll basically tell me what I need to hear at that time to keep going.
Honestly, before Poppe came back to manage us in December of last year I was ready to be done. I was just thinking I was going to be a regular dude. But yeah I told Speech that and he was like, “Nope. I’m not hearing it. You are too good. And this coming from me. I’m inspired when I hear you rap. Don’t quit because you’re frustrated. Quit when you’re wack.” And he was also like, “You improve immensely every time I hear something from you. Don’t quit.” WiG At the time when you were thinking about quitting did you have Marathon recorded or in the works?
AP No. Marathon was exclusively recorded two months ago. Just finished literally two weeks ago. Initially it wasn’t going to be an album at all, it was supposed to be an EP. And we were supposed to do another 3099 EP. But then I was just like, “Wait, I don’t want to do another EP, I want to do a full album.” I wrote enough material for an EP and then I just kept going. I had set a deadline for myself and when I hit it I kept writing. Once I hit my stride of about five or six songs before I knew it I had 17 joints. At that point we had to do an album.
WiG How does the process work with an AUTOMatic album?
AP We started this project towards the tail end of the 3099 sessions. JDL was playing me a couple beats he had in mind for 3099. So there was this original joint that he had but he flipped it on top of something else. He unfiltered this sample from a song called “The Blessing” by Michael Smith. It became a song I would listen to all the time. I used to listen to it to clean up the crib, clear my mind, that type of thing. I ended up giving that song to Trell and he chopped it up and I told him the drums I wanted to use for it and he chopped those up and put them in there and ultimately that became the instrumental for “Talking About Love.”
“Talking About Love” was the first song that was written for it, followed by “Speak To Me.” I had been performing both of those during my 3099 performances. He would give me beats, I would send him samples, and we would just go back and forth. It was collabing in that sense. But we weren’t really in the studio together much. Just because we had different schedules. I was working third shift. I have like three different jobs, so it was difficult to get in the studio at the same time.
WiG So what’s the plan now? You got the new project finished, you got the release show coming up. Is Poppe moving to Eau Claire? I saw a Facebook status about that…
AP Yeah he is. Our movement doesn’t stop. Poppe has always been the invisible hand. As long as he has WiFi he can get the job done. He does a lot from there. And it’s always been like that. When he first started managing us we hadn’t even met. We didn’t meet until two or three months into the relationship. At that time he was living out in Trempealeau. He started managing us near the end of 2009 until the fall of 2012. He left to go back to school shortly after Art Imitates Life, so there was that hiatus for about three years.
WiG Cool. Anything else you wanna add?
AP The album is dope.
WiG Are you excited for the new Tribe album that was just announced?
AP I am. I’m not excited for the date though. I wish it would have came out this Friday instead of the same day as our album. We’re always in Tribe’s shadow, so that’s kind of crazy. But as a fan I love it. Other than that, we put our heart and soul into this album and you can probably hear it. I’m doing less battle rapping on it. I’m being open and honest about things, touching on subjects that some other rappers would not touch.
We’re trying to make good music that anybody can relate to. You don’t have to have “racks on racks on racks” to be able to listen to it. Someone told me that’s the reason they love AUTOMatic’s music, because they can listen to it and feel good. Whereas every other rapper is talking about “I got this much money, you broke,” or “I drive this kind of car, you drive that kind of car.” “I’m going to take your girl” type stuff. That’s never the case when it comes to us. It doesn’t matter if you have a bunch of money or a certain kind of car. I’d rather pick topics that anybody can relate to so it doesn’t matter if you have millions or you don’t have two nickels to rub together. I try to relate the human experience above all.
At the end of the summer I noticed an article by Tarik Moody of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee promoting a three-track EP — Gravity— by a producer named Thane. As soon as I heard Thane’s soulful blend of jazz, electronic, hip-hop and R&B I was in awe.
I immediately thought to myself, “Who the f*ck is Thane?” I like to think that I pay pretty close attention to the Wisconsin music scene, but Thane seemingly came out of nowhere.
Less than a month later the mysterious Thane released a debut full-length album, Topia. The exceptional 12-track record features guest appearances by local and national artists including Mick Jenkins, Amanda Huff, BJ the Chicago Kid, and one of 2016’s breakout stars, Anderson .Paak.
It is rare for a debut album from an unknown talent to be so fully formed, with such a distinct, assured and progressive sound, yet that is precisely what Thane has accomplished with Topia.
Determined to uncover the identity of this up-and-coming maestro, I searched for clues. I could only find one picture of Thane on the Internet and it is of a tall, young man whose eyes can’t be seen. Local jazz musician Jamie Breiwick appears on both the Gravity EP and Topia.
My first guess was that Thane is a former student of Breiwick’s. When I reached out to Breiwick he debunked my hunch and passed along a phone number for Thane’s manager. An interview was set up for a Friday night at Colectivo on the Lake.
Going into my interview with Thane and his manager Jake Kestly I was nervous. I had no frame of reference except for the music. Thane appeared to be nervous as well. It was one of his first in-person interviews.
Thane grew up and still resides in the small town of Pewaukee about 20 minutes west of Milwaukee. He describes his home as having a “strong music environment.” As a child he took piano lessons and picked up a brass instrument called the euphonium, which is similar to the baritone but with an additional valve. In middle school he played in the jazz band and kept it up in high school for a few years. Thane continues to play the euphonium and incorporates the instrument in his production.
Like many young musical minds, Thane was aided by an older sibling with good taste. His brother Jake, who is two years his elder and now his manager, turned Thane on to hip-hop and electronic artists like Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus. Jake initially bought production equipment for himself, but according to Thane, “he kind of sucked.” Thane first tried digital production at age 15 — within a couple of years he had crafted over 600 beats.
“For the first two or three years I would go home and make music until the late hours of the night, almost every single night,” says Thane. “It was kind of an escape from reality.”
While Thane and Jake’s parents didn’t quite understand the boys mission, they were always supportive, allowing them to work into the wee hours of the night, despite the loud, often repetitive sounds coming from Thane’s room.
The brothers attended private, Christian schools throughout their childhood. It was difficult to find like-minded people. Listening to and discovering music was their primary means of entertainment.
“There was nothing else to do. There weren’t any parties or anything to go to in our town. We had a few friends that were really into it. So we’d talk about music and get really excited and go to shows at Turner Hall and in Chicago,” says Jake.
Topia is an expression of how the Kestly brothers navigated their adolescence. Rather than an overtly positive (utopia) or negative (dystopia) existence, “Topia” is about a neutral understanding of your reality — it is what you make it.
The concept is also a commentary on the individual versus their environment. The first words heard on Topia are actually a clip from a Ted Talk by a neuroscientist who is discussing how the brain works that suggests we have more power over our fate than we might think.
As Thane’s production skills developed, Jake approached him about putting together an album. Thane was only 17 at the time. The logical first step for a producer would be to create a SoundCloud or YouTube page and put up a few beats. Maybe reach out to a local rapper/singer to collaborate on a track.
But from the beginning, the Kestly brothers aimed to create a conceptual album that featured national talent. With no direct connections to the Milwaukee music scene, the Kestly brothers set their sights outside of the city for potential Topia collaborations.
Jake — who worked as an intern at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee during the early stages of Topia— reached out to artists all over the globe. The artists who ended up on the album were people who vibed with both the concept of the album and the music Thane created.
The beat for “Responsibilities,” a stand out track featuring BJ the Chicago Kid and Anderson .Paak, was not originally intended for the album, but an impromptu selection when BJ wasn’t feeling the groove of the initial beat.
When my girlfriend and I first heard the recorded version of “Responsibilities” we looked at each other and she said, “I’ve heard this before.” We are almost certain Anderson .Paak performed the song at the Soundset Music Festival in Minnesota this May. When I told the Kestly brothers this their eyes lit up.
“I wouldn’t be surprised, because he really loved the track. His manager contacted us and said he was jumping up and down when he finished recording it,” says Thane.
The other featured artists on Topia include Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins, LA singer Low Leaf, London poet/rapper Kojey Radical, Boston ambient musician Solei, plus a few “SoundCloud artists,” meaning musicians similar to Thane, who have music online but not much presence elsewhere. They include Memphis-based Jay Stones and Milwaukee singer Marxus. Instrumentation is provided by Thane (keys, guitar, euphonium), Jamie Breiwick (trumpet), Earl Turner (saxophone) and Aubrey Ellickson (violin).
‘STREETS OF MILWAUKEE’
On my favorite Topia track “Metropolis” we first hear dramatic strings, the sounds of cars driving by, then Amanda Huff’s voice. Next a beat drops and then disappears before haunting synths come in and a vocal sample says, “These are the streets of Milwaukee, something many of you have never seen.”
Later on “Metropolis” a frenzied drum beat drops and we hear Kanye West say, “That’s the main thing people are controlled by, their perception of themselves. They’re slowed down by their perception of themselves.”
Thane confirmed my suspicion that “Metropolis” is commenting on how Milwaukeeans tend to have a chip on their shoulder. Kanye — a Chicago-native — was an interesting choice to convey the message, considering the Kestly brothers have followed the Chicago hip-hop scene closer than Milwaukee’s. They admit that the Milwaukee music scene is becoming more receptive to collaboration than when they started. Jake cites the Strange Fruit Festival that took place in August as a successful example of the Milwaukee hip-hop, jazz, soul, and R&B scenes blending.
“I’m pretty familiar with everybody in the Milwaukee scene at this point,” says Thane. “I like Milo a lot, I like King Courteen, and Kiings are pretty good. Melvv is a big producer in Madison right now. Trapo and IshDARR are dope too.”
Since the release of Topia the Kestly brothers have been contacted about potential collaborations. Thane is being selective about who he works with. He is also not ready for a live performance just yet. Thane has an introverted nature and at 20-years-old he is entering the public eye after years of isolation in his bedroom studio.
When the time comes for a live performance, the Kestly brothers hope to create something visually dynamic and possibly interactive. They are inspired by Flying Lotus’ live show and the LA/Philly artist Ryat. They also have a lot of ideas for music videos but don’t want to rush the process.
A shroud of mystery still hangs over Thane. I was never given his real first name. A few things came up in conversation that they wouldn’t go into detail about. Jake is working on the next step in their business, but wouldn’t reveal what it was. I do know that Thane is currently a student at Carroll College and they’ve come up with a concept for the next album.
We’ll have to wait and see what the next moves are for this small-town Wisconsin music prodigy.
Click here to listen to/purchase Topia.
I met with Thane and his manager/brother Jake Kestly at the Colectivo on the Lake one Friday night a few weeks back. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
WiG First of all, I’m a big fan. Love the record. And to be honest it kind of came out of nowhere. So the obvious question is, where did you come from?
THANE I’m from Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Kind of near Pewaukee Beach.
WiG Growing up what were you listening to? What were you influenced by?
THANE I’ve always had a strong music environment. I started piano lessons when I was little and then I picked up this brass instrument called the euphonium and I’ve been playing that for a long time. Since maybe third or fourth grade. I really started getting into “good music” per say around eighth grade or so, my brother was getting into it so I did too.
WiG Older brother?
THANE Yeah. [Points to Jake.] He was listening to Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and stuff like that. I used to listen to more rock, and there’s still a little bit of influence from that…
WiG What kind of rock?
THANE Like bad stuff. Nothing terrible…stuff like Train. Pop rock stuff. But then my brother started listening to good stuff and I’d always be driving around in the car with him going to school so he was always playing that. I didn’t like it at first but he kept on playing it and then I got into it. That’s how I started to expand my tastes.
As far as electronically producing, I started that when I was 15 going on 16. I’m 20 now, so I’ve been working on it for a little while. Jake actually tried his hand at it first with FL Studio and he kind of sucked.
[Jake and Thane laugh.]
And he bought this cheaper MIDI keyboard and a machine micro and so we had all that stuff in the house and a year later I picked it up. I gave it a try and I really liked it. I’m more tech oriented too so I was having fun with it. As I advanced I got some monitors and got a better set up.
WiG Are you primarily doing everything digitally at this point or playing instruments yourself?
THANE The thing with my music is that I usually make a building block, maybe a bassline that I like, then I’ll create a beat around that on the digital workstation. Then I add keys, then either I record instruments I play or if I can’t I’ll bring someone in. Like how we brought in Jamie Breiwick. He’s a phenomenal trumpet player in the Milwaukee jazz scene. I remember my brother showed me him one time and we contacted him and asked him if he would like to be on a song and he was into it. So yeah, I like to combine electronic with different jazz elements and strings.
WiG In high school were you coming to Milwaukee to see shows? Or down to Chicago?
THANE Me and my brother went to Chicago a lot. I haven’t recently just because I’ve been super busy, but we would go to the Metro quite a bit. We went to see a lot of local hip-hop shows.
JAKE Were you at the Mick Jenkins and Earl Sweatshirt one?
JAKE Yeah we’d see a lot of the Chicago hip-hop acts there. More importantly we would see the energy in the scene that was going on there and we were inspired by that. Vic Mensa’s homecoming show was a big one.
WiG Is Pewaukee closer to Chicago than Milwaukee?
JAKE No it’s about 20 minutes west from here. It’s kind of out in the country but it’s a very quick trip to Milwaukee.
WiG You said you were a piano student Thane. Did you play music in high school, like in band?
THANE I didn’t do it all four years but I did band with the euphonium. Do you know what a baritone is?
THANE It’s like a smaller tuba. The difference between the euphonium and baritone is that the baritone has three valves on top that you play and the euphonium has an extra one on the side, that’s the only difference.
WiG Are you familiar with a guy who was in the Milwaukee music scene but has since moved up north, he was a pretty heavy electronic producer named Lorn?
THANE Oh yeah. I like his music a lot.
WiG He moved out to the woods by Eau Claire. I know he’s made music for videos games. Could you see yourself getting into that? Are you a gamer yourself?
THANE I used to be, but I haven’t in like three years. Maybe, but I don’t think it would be as cinematic. Do you know who Jon Brion is?
WiG Yeah, the producer.
THANE I like him a lot. Lorn’s style is a little different, I don’t know how to describe it.
WiG It’s really dark, more minimal. Your stuff has the strings and horns and uptempo keys.
THANE For sure, I like the minimal stuff though.
WiG The production on Topia is really polished and clean. How did you get it mixed and mastered? What was the process like? THANE It was a really long process. We actually started the development when I was like 17. I had been making beats and getting better and my brother was like, why don’t we make an album?
WiG Had you put anything out prior to the EP?
WiG So you were just making music for you? THANE Yeah. We came up with the concept. It was originally called “Utopia,” but we cut it to “Topia” because conceptually we wanted it to be an environment that you’re not trying to break out of. It’s not a utopia or dystopia…
WiG So not overtly positive or overtly negative?
THANE Yeah. You kind of make what you want out of the environment that you’re put into. I’ve made over six hundred beats and we went through and picked maybe five. The other ones were added on later. The ones that we started with kind of fit a certain sound we were going for. Then we built on those.
The guy who mixed the record, he’s not our engineer anymore, but he was a friend of my brothers, a friend of a friend. He did it in his mom’s basement. We had a pretty limited budget at the time so it seemed like a pretty good deal. And then we slowly built it as more ideas came.
WiG How did you link up or land the features? Because you’ve got some big names including Anderson .Paak, Mick Jenkins and BJ the Chicago Kid.
THANE We reached out to them before they got big but Jake did more of that on his end, so I think he can explain that.
JAKE Basically we kind of operate and always have like A&Rs to an extent, I like to think. I was on to Kendrick years before he blew up and I was telling people he’d be huge. So I kind of have an ear for stuff like that. We reached out to a lot of people that we vibed with, people we thought were really talented and would make a good addition to our project. We hit up a ton of different possibilities and the ones that came through are people that vibed with our concept. It was a really long process of going through who would fit and who wouldn’t.
THANE And it was figuring out the music business as we went along and how complicated it is. The funny thing too about the “Responsibilities” track is that one initially had another beat. It was almost too electronic-y so BJ didn’t like it as much because he wasn’t feeling the groove, so I was quickly trying to find one that worked with the sound of the album and had more of a soul influence to it. Then I quickly sent over that one and it turned out great. So that beat wasn’t intended to be on the album. It’s kind of funny how that worked out.
WiG I saw Anderson .Paak at the Soundset music festival in Minnesota this past Memorial Day and my girlfriend and I are almost certain he performed “Responsibilities.”
[Both of their eyes light up.]
THANE Really? JAKE That would be sweet.
WiG Did you hear any reports?
JAKE No. But I wouldn’t be surprised because he really loved that track.
THANE His manager contacted us and said that he was jumping up and down when he recorded it.
JAKE Since that time it took a while to get all the materials ready for release and come up with a plan. That took longer than expected and during that time Anderson .Paak inked a deal with Aftermath and I think there’s something within that contract that didn’t allow him to promote it on his social media at the point when we released our record, unfortunately. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he performed it because he did really vibe with the end product.
WiG And it was done by Memorial Day?
JAKE Oh yeah.
WiG I’m almost positive. Because the first time we listened to “Responsibilities” my girlfriend and I looked at each other and she was like, “I’ve heard this song.”
JAKE That would be super cool.
THANE That’s very cool.
JAKE Him and BJ have a really good chemistry. That was something that was cool too, we were one of the first people to get them on a track together. That was before they met and before they were on Compton, we put them together. There was a piece about those two in The Source a couple months ago.
WiG Did they record together for that?
JAKE Nah, we got BJ in February of 2014. We’ve worked on this project for a long time. But then we got Anderson in April of 2015. We had the BJ hook and we knew we wanted something soulful. At first we were trying to get GoldLink because we thought that would be dope. We were really vibing with The God Complex, but that didn’t pan out. And then we said what about Anderson .Paak? I heard him first on the Watsky album. He did production and had some vocals on it and I was really impressed. Then I heard “Suede” which came out later that year. That’s the first single on the new NxWorries, which just came out today. I was super impressed with that and I knew he was something special and I convinced Thane that we try and pursue him.
WiG Who are some of the other people? I’m not familiar with Jay Stones…
JAKE Thane found him.
THANE I found him on SoundCloud. I really liked his voice and delivery and thought he’d fit well over my type of beat. He’s one of those SoundCloud artists that doesn’t have a really big presence in any scene but he was totally down with it. I really like how it turned out, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album.
This is a weird comparison but for some reason his style reminds me of Jamiroquai. He’s got that type of futuristic funk vibe.
WiG It’s interesting that the genre designation on Apple music is “Funk” for the album.
JAKE We gave them a bunch of stuff to choose from and that’s what they ended up going with.
WiG Do you feel good about that?
JAKE I mean it’s kind of a blend, we had no genre in mind. When he was making it we never said, “Oh, we’re going to make an R&B album.” We just took a bunch of elements and put them together. I guess funk is appropriate…
THANE I definitely didn’t set out to make a funk record, but there are funk elements. It’s just kind of all the stuff that I like Modge Podged together.
WiG Do you listen to Rhythm Lab Radio on 88Nine?
WiG Because I feel like the album fits perfectly in the myriad genres and sounds that Tarik plays. And he’s been a supporter of the album, right?
JAKE Yeah he played “Responsibilities” a couple weeks ago, which is pretty dope.
THANE Jake actually used to intern at 88Nine.
JAKE Yeah, we played Topia for a few of the DJs early on and they were rocking with it.
THANE Him and Barney…
JAKE Justin and Tarik were the main ones listening and then Jordan just came in.
WiG So you were an intern at 88nine?
JAKE I did a couple years ago.
WiG So is that kind of the goal, to work in the music industry?
JAKE Yeah we were just discussing this project that we’re working on. I don’t really want to talk too much about it. It’s not really a label, but we do want to get further in the music and do something bigger with it.
WiG Topia is all you production-wise. And there aren’t any other tracks that you’ve produced for other artists, but do you see yourself starting to do that? Have you been contacted by other artists to make beats for them?
THANE Yes. I’m trying to be pretty selective right now. I haven’t done anything yet. Should I tell him about the remix thing?
JAKE Don’t tell him too many details.
THANE You can just tell him.
JAKE Okay, so we got contacted by a fairly respectable label out of Los Angeles to do a remix on spec for one of their artists. They seemed interested in Thane to an extent. We just submitted it and have yet to hear back. What were we talking about? Labels…oh yeah, collaborations. So when stuff like that comes up it’s a just matter of whether Thane vibes with the artist. It’s about natural collaborations.
THANE I’m pretty familiar at this point with everybody in the Milwaukee scene. I’ve listened to a lot of local music. If there’s an artist that I really like in the local scene that reaches out I would probably collaborate.
WiG Who are your favorite musicians in the local scene?
THANE Any genre? WiG Sure.
THANE I like Milo a lot. I like King Courteen. I like Kiings, they’re pretty good. I don’t know if you know who Melvv is?
WiG How do you spell it?
THANE Melvv. He’s in Madison. He’s a pretty big producer.
JAKE I personally fuck with Trapo.
THANE Trapo and IshDARR are pretty dope. Most of NAN to a certain extent.
JAKE Gotta shout Jamie out.
THANE Of course Jamie. I found Marxus too…
WiG Where is he from?
JAKE He’s from Milwaukee. He hasn’t released any material yet. You can explain how you found him.
THANE I always search the “Milwaukee” tag on Bandcamp. That’s how I find new music. I listened to his one track “X” and thought this guy had some really sick pipes. We emailed him and asked if he wanted to vocally contribute. Initially he just did backing vocals but we dug it so much that we featured him on “Summer in Paris.” Now we’re collaborating on more stuff. He’s going to be on some new material. He was backing on a lot of the other tracks like “The Arrival” and “Gravity.” You can hear some of his ad libs on those tracks.
WiG Yeah, it seems like when you have official featured artist on the track I can still hear other artists adding little elements.
THANE The main two backing on “Gravity” are Marxus and Amanda Huff. I remember hearing her on some compilation tape and I thought she was really cool.
WiG I think one of my favorite tracks on the album is “Metropolis.”
THANE Oh really?
JAKE That’s one of mine too.
WiG Yeah I love that one and you use some interesting samples. There’s an audio clip about “the streets of Milwaukee” and then you hear Kanye talking about people being slowed down by their perception of themselves. I’m wondering if that’s sort of a commentary about Milwaukee and how people here tend to have a chip on their shoulder?
THANE That’s exactly it and that’s kind of what Topia is about. You see Chicago and you see how collaborative everyone is there. And then you see Milwaukee, and it’s getting better, but especially when we started it felt very separate. Some people were doing their thing and some people were doing another thing over there. People have a chip on their shoulder and don’t want to collaborate as much. I think it’s one of the reasons why scenes like Chicago and LA are thriving more than a scene like Milwaukee. But Milwaukee is doing much better than it has in the past.
WiG And the intro track “The Arrival,” who is speaking in that clip about neurons?
THANE My brother actually found that, it’s from a Ted Talk.
JAKE I helped out with the concept of the album. I remember hearing that back in a psychology class my freshman year of college. I was really fascinated by this neuroscientist talking about how we are more in control and we’re more powerful in regards to our fate than we allow ourselves to be. It’s a lot about positive thought. A lot of what Topia is about is taking your environment and the stuff that we may perceive as really positive or really negative, and just realizing that it’s this neutral thing that is for your making. That was kind of the whole idea of Topia. Individual versus environment. A lot of those things are there throughout, examining the idea of how in control are we when it comes to our goals and dreams.
THANE If you can tell he’s more articulate with this stuff. He’s the communications major. I’m more of the introvert hermit. Sorry if I’m coming off in a certain way, that’s just how I am.
WiG No no. I mean the music is introspective and I feel like it’s geared towards putting it in the headphones and vibing out.
THANE Especially the first two or three years that I was working on it I literally went home almost every day and made music until the late hours of the night. It was kind of an escape from reality.
WiG Does that sort of speak to how I haven’t seen your name on any shows? Is it because of your introverted nature?
THANE I don’t really want to do shows, at least not yet.
JAKE I’m trying to get him to.
WiG Have you done any?
JAKE We want to do some cool audio visual stuff for it too, but that’s not ready at this point.
WiG In terms of a music video?
JAKE Well, I help serve as creative director and I get really inspired by what Flying Lotus is doing with three screen layers and making electronic based performances a little more interactive. We’d also like to bring in some live instrumentation and he’s honing in on some other instruments. We want to wait until he feels more comfortable and then we get some concepts together for a live show.
WiG So having it be not just a concert, but like an experience?
JAKE Yeah. That’s kind of how we approach creating records and that’s what we’d like to translate into the live setting.
WiG You familiar with Video Villains?
JAKE Yeah I just had a meeting with Adam the other day about something that I can’t really talk about. But yeah, they’re tight.
WiG Are you familiar with this audio movie art installation that came out I want to say 2010. It was originally an installation in New York where the artist/producer had multiple speakers in a space and you would stand there and listen to this audio film happening. It was narrated by an actor and it was a movie told through the music of New York rappers like Ghostface Killah, Nas, and Biggie. It was super cool and the way you incorporate audio clips, I feel like it would be really cool if you did something like that.
[NOTE: The project I was refering to but couldn’t remember details about is called “City of God’s Son” by Kenzo Digital. You can listen to it by clicking here.]
JAKE We’re totally into the idea of performance art. I’m really into what is happening in LA with Ryat. They blend a lot of film and incorporate it into the music making it this whole art experience. They’re doing some of the best stuff in terms of visuals.
WiG I’m not familiar, I’ll have to check them out.
THANE They’re Brainfeeder right?
WiG Who else are you inspired by and listening to right now? THANE I like electronic artists like Flying Lotus and James Blake that have more of a barrier breaking sound. This probably doesn’t make any sense but I listen to a lot of like chill music.
WiG Ambient sort of stuff? THANE No, no. Like Norah Jones, Nick Drake. Jordan Rakei, Nick Hakim. Those are some of the artists I listen to the most right now.
JAKE Nick Hakim has one of the best EPs out. We tried to get him too, but he’s not really a collaborator. He’s out of DC, really good.
THANE His voice kind of sounds like Jason Mraz, vocally. But the beats are more neo-soul.
JAKE Dwele almost. Jill Scott kind of.
THANE It’s really dope.
WiG All the strings and keys and horns on the album, is that people you brought in?
THANE Yeah mostly.
WiG So you’re moreso the composer?
THANE Yeah me and my brother. They’ll be the basic beat that I make and then we add live instruments, which either I’ll play or we bring a collaborator and they add stuff. I’m trying to learn more instruments to add to my arsenal. I’m honing in more on the guitar, piano, and I’m getting better at the euphonium, expanding my sound more. As far as trumpet and violin I think we’ll still be collaborating with Jamie Breiwick. The violinist is someone from Carroll College, Aubrey Ellickson.
JAKE You should mention Earl too.
THANE Oh yeah. The saxophonist is a high school friend that we’ve known for a while. He just comes over and lays some sax down.
WiG What’s his last name?
THANE He has no music presence in terms of putting anything out.
JAKE We’re trying to get him to get on the jazz scene here but he’s pretty busy right now.
WiG It seems like you’ve contributed a lot of ideas with the production…
JAKE Yeah I executive produced Topia…
THANE When I make a beat he’s always the one who’ll tell me if it’s garbage or not. He’s really critical of my stuff. The rare times that he says, “It’s pretty tight” or whatever, then I know I have a good one.
WiG That got me thinking, if you’re contributing so much why isn’t this like a duo, sort of like Kiings?
JAKE I don’t want my role to be that. I enjoy being behind-the-scenes. I like being able to have the creative and conceptual control and contribute the way I do. My role as manager I enjoy as well. It’s not really a big thing for me. He’s the talented one as far as the music itself goes.
WiG Are you the only siblings?
WiG What high school did you go to?
JAKE We went to private Christian schools all throughout.
JAKE That was interesting because there weren’t really like minded people around us. I remember trying to get jam sessions going, trying to find like-minded people when it came to music, but it was really difficult to do. Topia too is somewhat about how we were never in an environment with like-minded people, so how do we create that? It’s this multi-layered idea that both describes the process itself, like a commentary on the things that we see, and a general commentary on the individual versus their environment in an abstract, conceptual way.
WiG So was music sort of an escape for you guys?
THANE Oh yeah definitely.
JAKE For sure.
THANE It still is.
JAKE I would go on the Internet and Bandcamp and stuff like that and just search because there was nothing else to do. There weren’t parties or anything to go to. So music was the fun shit that we did. We had a few friends that were really into it too. We’d talk about it and get really excited and go to shows at Turner Hall and in Chicago. That’s kind of what we did.
WiG Did you go to that Flying Lotus show when he played the Miltown Beat Down final?
I don’t know if I was at that one, but it was after he released Until the Quiet Comes and Thundercat was there.
WiG How old are you?
JAKE 22. I just graduated college.
WiG Cool. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JAKE He’s working on the next project.
THANE Yeah. I’m like one song deep with a friend of mine from high school actually.
JAKE I wouldn’t even say that she’s included in the project just yet…
THANE Probably don’t want me to share too much of it…
JAKE Yeah no, because we’re figuring out the sound. But it’s in the works.
WiG So you’ve already moved on to the next thing?
JAKE It’s going to be different though.
THANE It’s going to be really cool. We came up with a very unique idea. I’m pretty excited to start flushing it out.
WiG And how has the reception been for a Topia so far?
JAKE It’s been expected but unexpected. We planned and we were doing it in a proper way, trying to execute it in a very orderly way. And so we would have expected it to have a good reception. We were grinding for a minute to try and get all the press spots beforehand, but we only got a few. But then just how the other blogs caught on, the way it built the way it did was kind of unexpected. The ripple effects of who’s been contacting us has been unexpected.
WiG You feel like you want to keep pushing that project or move on to the next thing?
JAKE Since he’s not ready to do shows we are still working on promoting it in the ways that we can. We’re a very small team. I have a few friends that kind of help with the social media stuff. But we’re ready to push ahead and focus on the concept for the next record. When opportunities like this come up we do them. We have a bigger thing coming up in a month or so that we’re doing. We have a music video too that we’re not sure if we should do or not.
WiG For a song from Topia? JAKE Yeah yeah.
THANE For the song “Minor Movements.”
JAKE We may shoot if the time is right. But there’s a bunch of ideas in terms of putting visuals to a lot of the tracks. So it’s just a matter of us finding the time to do it and the right videographer. We’re not going to close any doors but right now we’re kind of off Topia.
JAKE Again, I really dig that jazz piece that you wrote. It was interesting as hell. As a huge jazz fan it was cool to read. I had no idea that Milwaukee had that type of presence at one point.
WiG Yeah and I feel like it’s getting better.
JAKE Yeah it is. That’s the one thing I got kind of irritated with, that Milwaukee is mad talented when it comes to jazz but you wouldn’t know it. Me and my ex-girlfriend would go to Mason Street Grill every weekend and watch these guys play and shit was just crazy. You would have never thought because it doesn’t really get promoted. It would be really cool if all these hip-hop and jazz scenes melded even more. I went to Jay Anderson’s Strange Fruit Festival and that was a super cool curation. I definitely hope the Milwaukee scene keeps doing more stuff like that, keeps blending and collaborating.
WiG I feel like that’s what Topia is sonically. It’s such a blend of jazz and hip-hop and soul. The second article in my jazz series is coming out in two weeks and it’s about the present and I’m sure I’ll end up mentioning Topia in terms of Jamie being featured on it.
JAKE I’ve been a fan of Jamie’s since I heard of him on Bandcamp [CHECK] back like my sophomore year of high school. I reached out to him at one point when we were making the album and he responded and was enthusiastic about collaborating. To me he’s like the essence of what jazz is supposed to be in terms of the freedom and soul.
THANE You see a lot of electronic stuff that they call jazz, but it’s a lot of watered down stuff. I used to be in the jazz band in middle school and I thought it was really cool to be a part of that. I’ve always liked jazz, my brother even more so than me. So it just made sense to have a strong jazz element and presence on the album.
WiG Do you guys know BADBADNOTGOOD?
JAKE I dig them too. I feel like jazz is slowly becoming trendy again. You have the Kamasi Washington thing, ever since Kendrick dropped To Pimp A Butterfly I was very excited about that. It’s not just jazz samples, it’s legitimate jazz musicians playing on there.
WiG Yeah I feel like that was a turning point.
JAKE And then Chance the Rapper has his own variation. On Acid Rap it was more like a ragtime influence, like on “Juice.” On Coloring Book it’s more of like that southern, Louie Armstrong vibe. It’s cool how hip-hop is incorporating real jazz.
WiG Do you go to college now? THANE Yeah. Working and going to college at Carroll. I was at school all day and he just picked me up from there before we came here.
WiG What are you studying?
THANE Business marketing and a web design minor. Staying busy.
Once upon a time record label reps crisscrossed the globe in search of promising young musicians. You might find one hanging out in the back of a small club or at a showcase. These days most up-and-coming artists are left to their own devices. The current industry model requires a built-in following on the Internet and on stage before labels bother to reach out. But the emergence of the do-it-yourself online infrastructure makes you wonder what major labels are still good for.
That being said, when an artist does get tapped by the industry—even if they choose not to pursue a contract—it can decidedly improve their circumstances. Such is the case of Milwaukee rapper Ishmael “IshDARR” Ali.
At 20-years-old IshDARR is the hottest Wisconsin hip-hop artist by industry standards, with over 7 million streams of his single “Too Bad,” a brand new project—Broken Hearts & Bankrolls—charting on the iTunes Store, and a world tour under his belt.
I recently sat down with the man behind-the-scenes—IshDARR’s close friend and manager Enrique “Mag” Rodriguez. We scheduled our interview for his studio, which I assumed was a converted recording space in a commercial or industrial section of town.
Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to a modest two-story home in Burnham Park on Milwaukee’s South Side. The front lawn was filled with a trampoline, bicycles, and all sorts of toys. Like many 22-year-olds, Rodriguez is living with his parents. But unlike many millennials, Rodriguez and IshDARR almost bought a house in Los Angeles this summer.
“We live by this saying, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’” Rodriguez tells me in his upstairs bedroom studio, a sparse space with a single microphone in one corner, an old laptop with a busted screen connected to a large monitor in the middle, and a mattress pushed up against the opposite wall.
As Rodriguez plays me tracks from Broken Hearts & Bankrolls we talk about how he got started producing in high school, their experience with the music industry, their house party series, their new studio, and their decision to stay based in Milwaukee.
BOODAH’S LITTLE BROTHER
“I actually used to rap starting in 7th grade,” says Rodriguez. “But I only rapped because I wanted to learn how to record and I didn’t know any rappers. Being raised on the South Side nobody really rapped, that wasn’t a thing over here.”
That would change when Rodriguez enrolled in Messmer Prep for 8th grade on Milwaukee’s North Side. There he met Radonte Ashford II aka “Wave Chapelle” and Isaiah “BoodahDARR” Ali. The trio bonded over their love of hip-hop and formed a group called NoNam3. Rodriguez had been playing the clarinet since 4th grade and Messmer’s band director Greg Flattery became supportive of their music.
“One day I showed up to school and our band director had a Mac in this room with a really good interface, two expensive microphones, some of the walls were soundproofed and he was like, ‘Here you guys go, create.’”
Rodriguez and Ashford II spent the summer before their junior year learning how to use the makeshift studio. The next semester Ali’s little brother Ishmael started at Messmer.
“It’s crazy because he was always just Boodah’s little brother. He was the youngest so he was never the focus and his voice was very high pitched. After high school I worked with Wave for a little bit but then he moved down to Memphis and I quit making music. I had a regular job at a banking company and it was kind of cool. Then one day I got a call from Boodah. He wanted to try some stuff with Ish.”
Boodah, Ish and Rodriguez created a group—iLL Collective—that put out three songs and a video. But the project ended faster than it formed, as Boodah left for college at UW-Parkside.
After another false start, Rodriguez pledged to leave music alone for good. But a message from Ish two months later reeled him back in. Throughout the winter of 2013 and spring of 2014 the duo worked on music that would eventually became The Better Life EP.
AMANDA & ATLANTIC
As they were preparing to release The Better Life Rodriguez and Ish received an email from an A&R at Epic Records named Amanda Berkowitz. She expressed interest in their music. Shortly after Berkowitz left Epic and started her own creative agency in New York City. Over time Berkowitz would become Rodriguez’s mentor and eventually IshDARR’s co-manager.
“I’ve seen people post about Amanda being ‘Ish’s secret manager.’ But she’s not a secret, she just doesn’t live here. She is someone we go to for advice. If we need something she’ll help us make it happen. She coordinates things. She tells us what to watch out for, the ins and outs of the industry, she makes sure we’re heading in the right direction. But she’s also trying to figure it out just like us. ”
In the summer of 2014 Rodriguez and Ish were flown out to Los Angeles by Mike Caren, who was at the time Vice President of A&R at Atlantic Records.
The scene Rodriguez describes is straight out of a movie. Big house in Beverly Hills. Plaques on the walls from household names. Caren sits Ish down in the big chair, listens to his music and asks him about his plans. Rodriguez says the meeting went well, but they decided to pass on the opportunity.
“We could sense they saw it becoming something bigger and wanted it early. We were like, ‘We either give this to them or we do it ourselves and see what happens.’ At the time we had nothing to lose. Ish was 17, I was 19.”
“That was our biggest motivation. Somebody actually opened the door in the industry for us and was like, ‘We want you guys to be a part of this.’”
Prior to the Atlantic meeting Ish opened for West Coast rapper Schoolboy Q at The Rave. Ish linked up with Q’s independent record label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) and were attached to Ab-Soul’s tour that Fall. Ish refers to that experience as a major milestone in his career.
During this time labels were knocking on Ish’s door and flooding Rodriguez’s email with beats. That is how they got their hands on the J Gramm instrumental for what would become “Too Bad,” Ish’s biggest single. J Gramm is responsible for some major hits, including “Broccoli ft. Lil Yachty,” Big Baby D.R.A.M.’s current smash. “Too Bad” got a huge lift when actress Chloë Grace Moretz tweeted it out, generating 14,000 streams overnight.
“I think most people aren’t prepared for stuff like that to happen, that’s why they can’t follow up. You’ve got to be able to push records and give them a life instead of just dropping a song and moving on to the next thing.”
HOUSE PARTIES & HUGS
The first time I met Rodriguez was the summer of 2015 in the alley entrance of a barbershop on Historic Mitchell Street. It was the initial house party in a series to celebrate IshDARR’s second project—Old Soul, Young Spirit. The party featured a slew of local rappers doing a couple songs each in between DJs playing dance hits. Guest rappers included Von Alexander, Job Jetson, Klassik, Pizzle, and WebsterX. It was a packed, sweaty, rowdy affair. IshDARR closed the night with a wild rendition of “Too Bad.”
“I used to throw parties all over the city,” says Rodriguez. “I realized the easiest way to bring people together is by giving them alcohol and music. We did three OSYS parties and brought out 100 to 150 kids to each. I’m not sure that would’ve happened if they were concerts. We’re exposing them to Ish while they are there for a party. I think that was one of the big reasons we were able to sell out The Rave last December.”
IshDARR’s camp originally had a tour in the works for this fall but ran into routing issues. They also realized they stand to make more money hosting house parties. Rather than paying to rent a venue and the associated fees (security, sound) all they need is a fan with a house and they take care of the rest. Having sold out college houses all over Wisconsin, they are taking “The Locals Experience” around the country this fall.
“Ish knows he’s not ‘somebody’ yet, but he knows he wants to be somebody. And he wants his fans to know that at one point they met him and Ish appreciated them. So he’ll stand at the door and say ‘Thank you,’ take pictures, and give everybody hugs.”
THE PLANT & THE CITY
While working on Broken Hearts & Bankrolls Rodriguez bought new equipment for the studio he is building on the East Side using blueprints he received from friends in New York. But they decided to keep the project cohesive and finish it with their bedroom equipment.
“We’ve recorded in big studios all over the country, but there’s nothing like recording in this room for some reason,” Rodriguez says about his bedroom studio.
“There’s an aesthetic to making a project, it has to fit with what’s going on in your life. We could just put out a project full of singles and it might do well and we might make some money, but it’s not genuine. I can’t speak for Ish, but this last year has literally been broken hearts and bankrolls. With the rising fame this stuff has happened in his life and it’s happened in my life.”
“I think this project is a good interpretation for people to get to know Ish better. It’s a very dark project and that might throw some people a little bit. Because it’s pretty conscious and coming from Ish’s heart. I think now that he’s growing as an artist, he’s more worried about what he wants instead of what people want to hear.”
While Ish has drawn comparisons to Midwest contemporary Chance the Rapper, the moody music and honest lyrics on BHBR are closer to Drake. In fact, one of BHRB’s standout tracks—“Dumb Playing”—was created by frequent Drake producer Chilly Gonzales. Rodriguez—who records, mixes, masters and even does graphic design for IshDARR and his affiliates—cites Drake’s friend and producer Noah “40” Shabib as a major influence.
“I feel like to be great you have to imitate greatness. I studied that man’s sound. I want to imitate my version of what he’s done. There’s a lot that ‘40’ did that people don’t even know about. That goes with being behind-the-scenes. And I’m cool with that. I love being behind-the-scenes. I generally don’t like being in crowds. I have social anxiety. I like watering the plant, I don’t like being the plant.”
When Rodriguez talks about IshDARR’s notoriety he often uses Drake as an example of someone who lifted his or her city up. Drake’s success shined a light on the Toronto hip-hop and R&B scene, which brought artists like The Weeknd and PARTYNEXTDOOR to the mainstream. Rodriguez believes IshDARR could do the same for Milwaukee’s bubbling hip-hop scene and be a positive influence on the city in general.
“There’s too much going on here, there’s a lot of lost youth. The segregation in the city is ridiculous among browns and blacks. I think it’s important for people like me and Ish to promote that you can do something positive rather than being out in the streets killing yourself.”
IshDARR was one of the first artists to be featured at a Freespace event, which is a monthly all-ages music showcase run by Janice Vogt, Vincent Gaa, WebsterX and Kane the Rapper. Rodriguez sees Vogt and Gaa as important community leaders supporting the city. IshDARR has also modeled for Milwaukee streetwear brand Among the Prime.
“We want to help build Milwaukee. And I think artists lose themselves when they leave their city. We’ve been all over Europe, we’ve been all over this country, but there’s nothing like coming home and ordering some chimichangas from down the block. That’s just how this goes.”
IshDARR will be in Racine October 27, at The Altamont in Marquette (Michigan) on October 28, and in Madison on October 29. Follow @IshDARR on Twitter and SnapChat for updates from “The Locals Experience.”
[ FULL INTERVIEW ]
When I arrive at Enrique “Mag” Rodriguez’s house he and the Canadian producer Canis Major are slowly rising. They “went hard” the night before at Bad Genie in downtown Milwaukee. Canis leaves the house to get Wendy’s.
Mag offers to play songs of the new IshDARR project Broken Hearts & Bankrolls.
WiG Are you calling this the first official album?
MAG Some people say first album, some people say sophomore album. This is really still a mixtape. We haven’t really worked on an album yet. We consider this a mixtape. The only difference is that we got really good support from Spotify and Apple Music. It definitely sounds like an album though.
[He plays me the intro “Crown Ct, Racine” and second track “Yes, You.”]
MAG The first one was produced by Canis Major. And the second one I think his name is Vincent Leone, some kid from Sweden. He’s like 16. He’s sent us some dope stuff.
WiG Ya’ll getting that a lot? Beat submissions.
MAG Personally on my email I get 10 to 15 beats a day. I try to get to all of them because you never know what you might find. But it gets a little overwhelming after a while. Since we finished the project about two weeks ago we’ve been taking a break. We did this last time and we did this when we dropped The Better Life. We took a break for like a month of no studio. Just letting experiences happen.
Plus we have so much music. We recorded about 85 songs and only put 12 on the new project. I’m going to play you this song “Dumb Playing.” This was produced by Chilly Gonzales. I don’t know if you’re familiar…
WiG I’ve heard his name.
MAG You know So Far Gone by Drake?
WiG Of course.
MAG You know the last song where it’s just keys and shit?
MAG Where he pops a bottle of champagne? Chilly did that. On a song I produced, “Four The Fuck Of It,” I sampled this random song that he had out, made it into the beat, and he fucked with it. He reached out to me like, “Yo, I love what you did to the beat…” Then he reached out to Ish and built a relationship with Ish. He sent me 20 samples of different piano keys and was like, “Here you go, do whatever you want with them.”
He’s a grammy-winning producer. He’s worked on Drake’s albums. That was so dope. And so this is the song he did for us.
WiG For a track like that, Chilly makes the beat, sends it to you, then you record Ish’s vocals. And do you handle the effects on his voice?
MAG Yeah. I recorded, mixed, and mastered everything on the project. I’m going to say that track is the one I did the least amount of work on to be honest, because all I did was some rearranging. Everything else on the project we had an original of the song. Usually how it works is they send us an MP3 of what they arranged and we record over that. Then we’ll send it to them and ask if they can send us the stems. They’ll send us every individual component, like the kick, keys, et cetera, and then we rearrange everything.
WiG What software do you use?
MAG I use Pro Tools. I produce on FL Studio though. I wish I had a version of a song before we released it to give you an idea. This isn’t on the project but to give you an idea I’ll play you “Mucho Mango.” You heard that track, right?
WiG Yeah. That’s an example of how Ish pays homage to the old school. Did you sample the original song?
MAG We just used the vocal sample for that one. What’s crazy about that song is that we recorded it September 7th of last year and we just kind of sat on it. We didn’t do anything with it because we had already dropped OSYS and we dropped “Sugar” and we were still moving singles. So we just kind of left it alone. And when we were doing the rollout for this project we were like, “Well we gotta drop a loosie. We should drop two new singles and two loosies.” One of the loosies being an original and one being a remix.
For “Mucho Mango,” I think one day me and Ish were listening to some old stuff and this is something that came up and we were like, “Yo, we should do it.” We reached out to the producer ESTA. and he was like “Yo, I love it, let me do some stuff to it,” and he sent us the stems. But what was funny, you’ll hear from the original version, is that we didn’t even get the right stuff. He forgot a lot of stuff because I think he was in a rush. He had a gig somewhere else. But it was low-key dope. You’ll hear it, it’s completely different than the original.
[Plays the original version of “Mucho Mango.”]
WiG Yeah, you can hear the guitar way more, it’s different.
MAG At first we didn’t know what to do with it because we got the stems and we were like, “Damn, this is like a completely different beat.” And we were just like, “Fuck it.” We went in and redid it and it came out dope. I personally like the new version better.
WiG Yeah the new version is clean, I fuck with it. I was wondering though if the sample is why it’s not on the project? Like if you couldn’t get it cleared.
MAG No, we can get stuff cleared. I don’t know, I think it didn’t fit the vibe of the project. We have some amazing songs that will probably never be released. But I feel like there’s an aesthetic to making an album or a project. It has to fit with what’s going on in your life. We could just put out a project full of singles and it might do well, but it’s not genuine.
When we do these projects it’s not about just having a song blow up. Of course you want that because it’s good for business and you can make some money. But it’s also about creating music that’s genuine. I can’t speak for Ish, but literally this last year has been broken hearts and bankrolls. With the rising fame this stuff happened in his life and it’s happened in my life. It can happen to anybody, so I think this project is a good interpretation for people to get to know Ish better.
I think Old Soul, Young Spirit was that too, at that time. It describes him perfectly at that time. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to ask why isn’t there another “Too Bad.” I feel like the best way to answer that question is that “Too Bad” was where Ish was then. And I think now this project is where he’s at. It’s a very dark project and I think that might throw some people off a little bit. Because it’s pretty conscious and coming from Ish’s heart. I think now that he’s growing as an artist, he’s more worried about what he wants instead of what people want to hear. Records like “Mucho Mango” were like, “Oh, what do people want to hear?” So they’re fun records.
WiG Let’s take it back a little bit. How did you meet Ish?
MAG I met Ish in high school. I was two grades above him. Me and his brother were in the same class, BoodahDARR. It was me, Boodah and Wave Chapelle, we’re all good friends. We were known as the music guys. I actually used to rap starting in 7th grade. But I only rapped because I wanted to learn how to record and I didn’t know any rappers. Being raised on the South Side nobody really rapped. That wasn’t really a thing over here. So I figured I had to record myself. It was cool and that’s what I was known for my first two years of high school. That’s how I got connected to Wave.
WiG Was he rapping early on in high school?
MAG Oh yeah. I’ve been in school with Wave since 8th grade. I went to Messmer Prep with him in 8th grade, then high school, and he was always rapping. I was in band in high school…
WiG Did you play an instrument as a kid?
MAG Yeah I played the clarinet. I messed around with drums and trumpet, some piano. But I played the clarinet from 4th grade to senior year of high school, which is weird. I don’t know why I played the clarinet looking back at it, but that’s my only real music background. So in high school our band director was very supportive of me doing music. I don’t know how this happened but one day I showed up to school and he had a Mac in this room with a really good interface, two expensive microphones, some of the walls were soundproofed and he was like, “Here you guys go, create.”
MAG It was crazy because we got that equipment sophomore year of high school, but I was literally clueless as to what to do with it. During the summer before junior year me and Wave spent all our time figuring it out and we created the studio. Then that next semester is when Ish came to Messmer. It’s crazy because he was just there. The main focus was always Wave, Boodah and myself. We were in a group called NoNam3. He was the youngest one so he was never a focus and his voice was very high pitched. I remember always being cool with him but I don’t know what it was, I guess because he was two years younger than us. But he was always just Boodah’s little brother.
After High School I worked with Wave for a little bit but then he moved down to Memphis and I quit making music. My sister was in college and I wasn’t going to college. I was just like, “What am I doing?”
WiG You were just working?
MAG Yeah I had a regular job at a banking company and it was kind of cool. Then one day I got a call from Boodah. It was right before the college semester started after our senior year. He wanted to try some stuff with Ish. I used to just have this cheap interface and cheap microphone so I was like, “Yeah whatever, let’s do it.”
We actually created a group call iLL Collective and there’s still a video on YouTube. I’ll show it to you. I guess this is the first song that Ish had out. And it got good views. It almost became something but then it fell apart faster than it got together because Boodah went to college like two weeks after we released this.
WiG So he went out of town?
MAG Yeah he went to UW-Parkside and he was living in the dorms.
[Plays me about a minute of iLL Collective’s video for “Dimes&Nicks”]
MAG That is kind of where it all started. What’s funny about this track is that Ish used to have a very high-pitched voice. I mean it wasn’t super high-pitched but it was before puberty. But when we recorded this I was like, “Bro are you sick?” and he said, “maybe.” but this was about the time that his voice started changing. So I was just like,”Word this sounds dope, you should be sick a little more.” But really his voice was changing.
The iLL Collective thing didn’t really fall apart, it was just Boodah went to college, I was working and Ish went back to high school. Then I was like, “Okay, for real, this music stuff is done. I’m not doing it anymore.” Then I got a call from Ish two months later. Actually he tweeted me like, “Yo Mag, trying to get in the stu, what’s up?” So I said, “cool, come thru.”
His mom was very protective at the time. She wouldn’t let him just leave and come down here. Because he lived out in Brown Deer so getting all the way over here from Brown Deer was a mission. I was driving at the time so I said, “Yo, ask your mom if it’s cool if I take my stuff there and we record over there.” Me and his mom were cool so literally for the next three months I would drive three times a week to Brown Deer and we would work on music. We didn’t even really know what it was becoming.
This would have been the Winter of 2013 into the Spring of 2014. We just kind of did that for a couple months and we finally put together an EP that we didn’t even know was coming together. I think the second time we were in the studio we were like, “Yo, let’s drop an EP April 4th.” We wanted 4-4-14 for like Milwaukee or whatever. So we just put this idea in our head and it was slowly coming together and one day we got an email from an A&R at Epic Records that was like “Yo, I love the music…”
That got us excited. Labels are interested? “They Lost Me” was his biggest song at the time. It had about 8,000 plays on SoundCloud. So we really started focusing on what we wanted to do. We were like, “Yo, let’s just do this. We’ve been doing this for so long and we have the resources to do it, so let’s put it together and make it happen.”
We worked on the EP and dropped it in the Spring of 2014. At the time that A&R that reached out from Epic Records ended up leaving Epic Records and became Ish’s other manager. Her name is Amanda Berkowitz. She still co-manages Ish with me. She’s like a creative from New York. She has her own marketing company with some friends. She kind of lets us do whatever we want. If we need something she’ll help us figure it out. She coordinates things for us. We’ll have the ideas and then she kind of tells us, “Okay, try doing this or try doing that.”
WiG Was Ish doing any shows in 2014 at all?
MAG Not prior to the EP. For some reason almost to this day we’ve always had an issue in Milwaukee.
WiG I mean there’s not a lot of all-ages venues.
MAG But even outside of that. There’s always a showcase going on. But they would never invite Ish. I sent out like 50 emails in that month when the EP was coming out to all different things that were going on. Nobody was really fucking with it. Some people said he wasn’t good enough or that he wasn’t “ready for something like this.”
WiG And he was like 16 at the time?
MAG He was 17 at the time. It was just weird and that has gone on up until, maybe, I’ll say when we announced the world tour last year, when we went to Europe. People didn’t really care for Ish in the city. We were doing shows all over the country but people didn’t really care for him here. I still don’t really have an answer as to why people didn’t really like him. I don’t know what’s going on. You’ve met Ish before though, right?
WiG Yeah, yeah.
MAG He’s a likable kid. I’m confused by it.
WiG Jealousy issues maybe.
MAG But at the time there was no reason to be jealous of anything because we had nothing. So the weekend of the first EP release I put together a party at the old Art is For Lovers gallery because I knew Karl at the time and I was like, “Yo, I need a spot,” and he was like, “Cool.” We did it there and the next day we did the Schoolboy Q show yet at the Rave. The Rave used to do this thing where you had to buy tickets, you had to buy like 20 tickets, and you would get them for half the price, but they would give you 40 tickets so you could make some money if you sold tickets. We’re like, “Alright whatever, we want to see Schoolboy Q, all of our friends want to see Schoolboy Q.” So we bought the tickets and we got our money back and we did the show at The Rave and it was dope.
WiG That was 2014?
MAG Yep, the weekend of April 4th. Something happened that weekend though. Because the project dropped and it just kind of sat there for a couple days and then the next thing you know blogs started picking it up. 2dope Boyz picked it up. They used to do this thing “2dope to sleep on,” and they put Ish on that. And it just started growing. That summer we had a lot of labels started calling to talk to us.
At this moment Amanda was someone we would go to for advice, she really wasn’t on the team just yet. But she kind of told us the ins and outs of the industry, how the industry works, what to watch out for, and that definitely helped out alot. I see her as a mentor because that’s mainly what she does for us. She makes sure we’re heading in the right direction all the time.
I’ve seen people post about Amanda being “Ish’s secret manager.” But she’s not a secret, she just doesn’t live here. She’s worked in the industry and she’s been trying to figure it out just like us. For some reason it’s worked out for all of us and we’re very thankful that it happened. But yeah, that summer Atlantic flew us out. That was our first real experience with the industry. I think that was our biggest motivation. Somebody actually opened up the door in the industry for us and they were like, “We want you guys to be a part of this.” For me at the time I was 19, Ish was 17, for us to walk in…I don’t know if you know who Mike Caren is?
MAG He’s like one of the most powerful people in the music industry. He runs Warner and Atlantic and he flew us out and as soon as we got out of the airport we went to the hotel, changed and he welcomed us to his house in Beverly Hills. He had all kinds of plaques on the walls from everybody. Anybody you can think of.
At the time Ish would want me to talk for him sometimes. He was only 17 and he was a little scared and so there was a main chair in the room and then there were three chairs around on the side and one farthest off to the side and that’s the one Mike Caren sat in. Then he put Ish on the main chair and he made sure we were behind Ish and he was like, “Alright, play me some music.”
We played him like two songs and then he was like, “I like it. What do you wanna do?” He was very direct and Ish had never experienced that. The meeting didn’t go bad, it was a good meeting, they were cool people I guess. But we walked away from that opportunity because we could sense that they knew this would become something bigger and they wanted it early. We were like, “We either give this to them, or we do it ourselves and see what happens.” And at the time we had nothing to lose. Ish was 17, I was 19.
It was like, “Yo, we walk away from this, worst comes to worst, we try again next year.” It was just kind of like, “Fuck it, let’s keep going.” So we walked away from that situation and kept doing music and we started working on OSYS that summer. We ended up getting linked with TDE and they put Ish on the Ab-Soul tour that Fall. We did the Midwest run with Ab-Soul and that was dope. It was good exposure for Ish. We got to experience what tour life was like. And started interacting with new fans.
Then we dropped the project Old Soul Young Spirit and the same thing kind of happened. We dropped the project and nobody really cared for a couple of days and then one day that actress Chloë Grace Moretz tweeted out “Too Bad” and it exploded. At first it was like 14K overnight. We were like, “Holy shit, what is going on?”
WiG Who produced “Too Bad”?
MAG J Gramm.
WiG Who’s that?
MAG He’s a producer. He’s got that “Broccoli” record out right now with D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty. He did a lot of early Travis Scott. He’s been in the industry for a while.
WiG How’d you link up with him?
MAG We actually never really linked up with him. All these people wanted to sign Ish at the time so A&R’s kept sending us beats like, “Yo, you should try this out.” That’s one of the beats we got from an A&R who is a good friend of mine now. He linked us with it and we made it happen. That’s the funny thing about this music stuff, people always ask me, “Yo, how did this happen?” And I’m just like, “I don’t know.” Good music just moves by itself. I think that’s the biggest part.
I think most people aren’t prepared for stuff like that to happen, that’s why they can’t follow up. We’ve been pushing “Too Bad” for a year and a half now. That’s a big thing that we had to learn, you’ve got to be able to push records. You’ve got to give them a life instead of just dropping a song and moving on to the next thing. So yeah, I don’t even remember what the original question was.
WiG We were just kind of running through the timeline I guess. And then that OSYS house party was last year, that was crazy.
MAG Me and Ish get these ideas that just pop in our heads and we think alike, so we’re just like, “Let’s do it!” That’s kind of what we’re doing with “The Locals Experience.” I used to throw parties all over the city, that’s kind of what I was known for in high school. And I realized that the easiest way to bring people together is by giving them alcohol and music. For some reason it works and people will pay to be there just because it’s a party.
So we did three OSYS parties and each party we brought out 100 to 150 kids. I’m not sure that would’ve happened if they were concerts. But we’re exposing them to Ish while they are there for a party. I think that was one of the big reasons why we were able to sell out The Rave last…
WiG December, right?
MAG Yeah, yeah.
WiG I remember because it was my birthday and we were out of town. The OSYS party at the barbershop was in late May or early June I want to say.
MAG They were all at the barbershop. That is my boy’s barbershop. He used to let me throw parties there. He is one of my best friends. He was just like, “Yeah bro, do whatever you guys want.” He would just give me the key. To this day, I don’t know why people trust me. He literally just gave me a key to his business and he was just like, “Here you go.” You were in there, you know that’s a respectable business district on the South Side so I don’t know how…like, I didn’t have to beg for it, he was just like, “Here you go.” He let me do it so many times. And there were all kinds of shit going on in there, I don’t even know…it’s crazy.
I think with those parties, the name for it is “guerilla marketing.” But we didn’t even know that’s what we were doing. And that’s kind of what we’re doing with “The Locals Experience” parties. Two weeks ago we brought out over 200 kids to a UWM party, we brought 200 kids out at Oshkosh, and then Madison was the craziest one. We had this apartment. I hit up my sister cuz my sister went to Madison and I was like, “Yo, I need a house. We have to throw this party.”
We had a frat scheduled but they cancelled on us like the day before. And then we almost cancelled the Madison show but Ish was like, “No man, let’s figure it out.” So I got this apartment and we gave out the address at six o’clock and the next thing you know there was like a line of a hundred kids on the side of this apartment complex ready to go into this party. It sold out in nine minutes. We had over 200 kids in a space the size of this whole upstairs and then an extra room about this size, just crammed in there. Then Ish came out, turned up.
They weren’t even concerts. Ish would come out, play a couple songs and then play whatever songs are popping right now. Then after that Ish would come down and take pictures and when everybody was leaving Ish would be at the door shaking everybody’s hand and taking pictures, doing whatever. The stuff like that is what makes Ish different I think compared to other artists. Some artists in the city would never do that because they have such big egos, even though they are nowhere.
Ish knows that he’s not “somebody” yet, but he knows that he wants to be somebody and he wants his fans to know that at one point they met him and Ish appreciated them. So he’ll stand at the door and say “Thank you,” take pictures, and give everybody hugs. It’s a nice thing to see that you’re working with someone genuine that actually cares for the people that are coming out to see him.
We’re doing one today in Whitewater and another one tomorrow in La Crosse. Then we’re actually going to take these across the country. We were gonna do a tour but we cancelled it because we were having routing issues and there’s a lot of politics when it comes to doing a tour. We were just like, “Yo, we can make money doing house parties and there’s no initial investment.” We don’t have to book a venue, we don’t have to do anything. We just have to find a fan who has a house. Fans want to have Ish at their house and people love parties. So we’re just going to hit a bunch of colleges across the country and just kind of crash and throw a big party. And most venues don’t even pay that well anyways. New artists aren’t going to make a ton of money. But you can make money charging $10 a head and bring 200 kids in. You don’t have to pay anybody.
WiG Don’t got to pay sound guys or security or shit like that?
MAG We bring everything ourselves. We have a guy that does sound. We don’t need security, we roll 10 to 15 deep everywhere we go.
WiG You mentioned Drake before and I have a sense you’re probably a Drake fan. But who else are you inspired and influenced by?
MAG I wouldn’t even say I’m that influenced by Drake, I’m more influenced by his producer “40.” That’s honestly who I look up to. I studied this man’s sound. I feel like to be great you have to imitate greatness. I want to imitate my version of what he did. There’s a lot that “40” did that people don’t even know he did. That goes with being behind-the-scenes. And I’m cool with that. I love being behind-the-scenes. I generally don’t like being in crowds. I have social anxiety. I like watering the plant, I don’t like being the plant.
WiG I do see you out though every now and then.
MAG Yeah. I like to support. I’ll be at Freespace. I try not to go that much anymore just because people recognize me now and they want to talk to me and pitch me their music. A lot of people think I’m like this asshole because people come up to me and are like, “Yo aren’t you Mag, blah blah blah.” They don’t know that when I’m out in public I have really bad social anxiety. I’m usually keeping to myself and I try not to focus on people.
When people come up to me and get too close and start talking and there’s all this noise, I can be like, “Yo, email me” or “Here’s my number, just text me or something.” I feel like that’s why I don’t go to places anymore. I don’t want to seem rude. I don’t want to be that guy. Because I used to be that kid that wanted people to hear me out and check out my shit. I know what it feels like when people want you to listen to their stuff. And I don’t want to disappoint no kids.
But so outside of “40,” I look up to…new artists inspire me a lot. Canis Major, his production inspires me a lot, just seeing him work and make beats inspires me. I look up to people like Kanye. I like the way he thinks and the way he moves. A big thing too is that I look up to people who aren’t even in the music industry. There’s this guy named Gary Vee. I’m really big into marketing now. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about marketing in the past year. Especially for how I’m marketing this project. This guy Gary Vee, he’s not even rich yet. He’s made some money, but his ideas are amazing. And they work for everybody. If you get a chance you should check him out. He has some dope ideas on how to brand yourself and branding artists.
WiG I get the sense that you’re not just a producer, you’re not just Ish’s manager, you’re a renaissance man in terms of production, marketing and graphic design, you do most of the artwork, right? MAG Yeah except for the project. I haven’t done the artwork for the projects, I feel like that’s too much of a responsibility.
WiG Is it the same artist who did the covers for both projects?
MAG Yeah his name is Nick Bilardello. He’s actually one of the biggest art directors in the industry. He’s done some work for Bruno Mars, he did some Wale stuff, he worked on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3. He’s well-known, he’s done some amazing stuff. He’s in Amanda’s marketing company, her creative group. We’ve always trusted him with the artwork and he’s probably going to do all the artwork for projects because it keeps it cohesive.
WiG So when you say “the studio,” this is the studio?
MAG This is the studio.
WiG Word. But I saw on social media that you want to build a “proper” studio…
MAG Well I’m building one right now. It’s out on the East Side. It’s going to be a real studio. We could’ve built that studio maybe six months ago if we really wanted to but I just have this idea that we’re stuck in this room for some reason. We’ve recorded in big studios all over and there’s nothing like recording in this room for some reason. It just feels like home. There’s nothing fancy and I’m kind of glad we did the interview here.
Like people always ask me, “Yo, where do you guys record?” It’s good people will see it’s just a room with a microphone and really that’s all there is to it. But I am building a proper studio. I got some blueprints from my homies in New York. They’re building the walls this week. It should be done by the end of the month.
WiG That says something about you and Ish’s sort of commitment or comfort level with Milwaukee. Because obviously where you’re at and where you’re headed you could move to a bigger market, but something’s keeping you here and you’re investing in a studio.
MAG I think artists get lost when they leave their city. We live by this saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Like this computer [shows me this old PC laptop with a busted screen], the computer that we work on and record everything is broken. It’s like a broken screen I just connect to a monitor. Granted, I have a Mac, Ish has two Macs. We have these good computers but we just kind of have this…I don’t know what it is, but it’s like one of those things where it’s like, our headphone jack doesn’t even work on this interface. I already ordered a new interface, we could’ve just plugged into the new one, but we wanted everything on the project to be together and cohesive.
When we start on the next project it’s going to be all new equipment in a new studio and it’ll be a new experience overall. I don’t know, I think it’s stupid when I say it out loud, but I guess that’s just what it is. But yeah, I think artists lose themselves when they leave their city. We almost moved to LA this summer. We were kind of like, “Fuck it, let’s get out of here.” We went out there, we went house shopping. We found a house. We almost signed the lease.
Then we came back home and we were like, “Nah, we don’t want to leave.” It’s no point, to leave. It’s home. It was never really a conversation we had, we just came back and said, “Nah, we don’t want to leave. Let’s stay here.” There’s nothing like being here. We’ve been all over Europe, we’ve been all over this country, but there’s nothing like coming home and ordering some chimichangas from down the block. That’s just the way this goes.
I think artists always feel like you get on and you leave. But why not get on and stay here? Because I feel like when you grow up you want to be famous or make money and enjoy the stuff that you saw growing up. I think now that we’re here we get to enjoy stuff that we always saw here. And if we want to travel, we can travel and see other places. But all of our friends are here, all of our family is here. It’s kind of like, let’s keep the ball rolling. If we really want to move in time we can buy a house somewhere else.
WiG And the infrastructure has changed where you can be a successful musician who makes money in your city because of the Internet.
MAG Yeah, because of the Internet. You don’t need to leave. Before you had to leave because the only way you could work with producers is to be in the same city as them. Canis Major is the perfect example. He lives in a town of like 150 and he’s one of the biggest producers on YouTube and people don’t even know he lives in this tiny city in the middle of Canada. If he can do it, we can do it.
A big thing too is we want to help build Milwaukee. There’s too much going on here, there’s a lot of lost youth. And I think stuff like this inspires kids. Every once in awhile some kid will message me and be like, “Yo, you guys inspire me.” And even sometimes adults will be like, “Yo, you guys inspire me to do this or that.” And I think that’s important for the culture of the city.
Big organizations have kind of caught on too. The Bucks have reached out to us in the past and they started building that relationship in case this becomes something. Cuz you know they’re investing a lot into the city too. They’re building the new arena and now the city is investing a bunch of money. But you know the segregation in the city is ridiculous among brown and blacks. So I think it’s important for people like me and Ish to promote that you can do something positive rather than being out in the street killing yourself.
For me at least that was a big thing on why to stay here. I’d rather motivate these kids. And we have great people like Janice and Vincent doing Freespace. It’s Janice’s birthday today too. We need amazing people like that because they create something. I know kids who have gotten stuck and needed to get home and Janice called them an Uber. That’s amazing that there’s someone out there who actually cares about these kids like that and is trying to motivate them.
WiG Yeah, Janice is cool as fuck. That’s great man. Thanks for talking.