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…
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.
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.
R&B Album of the Year: Kendrick Lamar. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
Appearing at the height of national discussion about police violence targeting black people, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a messy and powerful document about the state of being black in America. At times it is so dense it feels practically unlistenable. At other times, you may find yourself singing along to a chorus. Lamar delivered on the promise of his debut album and his work riveted attention like few other albums in 2015.
Even if you believe you do not like hip-hop, I encourage you to listen to this album. It has much to say, and songs like “King Kunta” and “i” will have an emotional impact while remaining accessible enough for most pop audiences. They may encourage you to dig deeper, finding stories like that of “How Much a Dollar Cost” or the head-on confrontation of racism in “The Blacker the Berry.”
Honorable mentions deservedly go to Drake and Miguel. Drake’s surprise release If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late depicts the Canadian rapper at his peak. Until Adele came along, it was the biggest album of 2015. The gift of Drake is how he digs deep into his own personal experiences with an artful and often endearingly catchy, context. He has never sounded as idiosyncratic as on this collection of songs, and that’s a very good thing.
Miguel’s eagerly awaited third album Wildheart blurs the lines between R&B and psychedelic rock, and, at times, it is almost as difficult to get a handle on that sound. Keep Jimi Hendrix in the back of your mind and you’ll be fine; his influence is prominent. Perhaps more than most major album releases this year, Wildheart sounds like a multi-faceted journey into the artist’s soul.
Pop Album of the Year: Adele, ‘25’
Album quality and massive international commercial appeal do not always go hand in hand. Happily, in the case of Adele’s third album 25, they do.
A strong argument could be made that no solo artist has ever kicked off a career with three consecutive albums that maintain such consistently high quality as Adele’s 19, 21 and 25.
On 25, she surrounds herself with such stellar collaborators as Max Martin, Greg Kurstin and Bruno Mars, but it is Adele’s voice that shines through clear and true.
The theme of the album this time around is the strength found when the shock and immediate pain of a failed relationship fade. However, like all of Adele’s work, the broader theme is the intimate emotional experience of relationships.
From the moment she kicks off the album with the words, “Hello, it’s me,” on her massive No. 1 pop hit single “Hello” to “Sweetest Devotion’s” swaying, confident, “I wasn’t ready then, I’m ready now,” there is a bracing sense of personal and musical confidence on 25.
Honorable mentions go to The Weeknd and Madonna. Some may argue that Beauty Behind the Madness by Canadian artist Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, is most properly an R&B album, but it is in songs like the Max Martin collaboration “Can’t Feel My Face,” inspired by the best pop instincts of Michael Jackson, that his work truly soars. This album brought a very promising rising artist to much-deserved widespread attention.
Madonna’s Rebel Heart is the kind of album many past pop kings and queens would like to make in their late 50s. It is her best in 15 years and she sounds free and optimistic about the future. The album acknowledges her glorious past well and is an outstanding example of a pop artist aging gracefully.
Rock Album of the Year: Courtney Barnett ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’
The debut album from 28-year-old Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett earned her a surprising but well-deserved Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist. She combines relentlessly infectious garage rock riffs with deadpan lyrics that sparkle with wit and intelligence.
There is nothing particularly new in Courtney Barnett’s approach. What is arresting is how “right” this all sounds.
Songs like her breakthrough “Pedestrian At Best” get your attention with squealing guitar and thunderous drums, then launch into a flat vocal delivery drawing maximum attention to words like, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you. Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you.”
Somewhere legends like Patti Smith are smiling when they listen to Courtney Barnett. She is proof that while rock may not be in the spotlight as often today, it is still alive and kicking as fiercely as ever.
Honorable mentions in the rock category go to Coldplay and Fall Out Boy. Taken together, the bands represent the peak of commercial success for rock in today’s popular music climate. Coldplay’s recently released A Head Full of Dreams finds the band blurring boundaries between rock and danceable pop, collaborating with producers StarGate and including guest appearances from Beyoncé and Tove Lo. The result is the big, warm, hopeful sound we have come to expect from Coldplay. The moodiness of last year’s Ghost Stories has given way to songs like “Everglow,” a hymn to connections that remain even after the breakup of a romantic relationship.
Fall Out Boy proved 2013’s comeback was no fluke on American Beauty / American Psycho. From the infusion of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” into the bombastic top 10 hit “Centuries” to the good-humored sampling of The Munsters’ theme song in “Uma Thurman,” the album pulls together pop culture references in a good-natured stew of catchy riffs and sing-a-long choruses.
In a year when some of rap’s heavyweights pushed their craft either creatively (in the case of Kanye West’s innovative Yeezus), or by breaking new marketing ground (such as Jay Z’s Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail), the smaller ambitions of Eminem seem quaint. Eminem is frequently criticized for rarely exiting his comfort zone, constantly returning to familiar subject matter. The autobiographical and celebrity-baiting of his past few albums felt stale and juvenile.
Eminem’s first comeback album, 2009’s Relapse, was generally considered an artistic misfire for those reasons. Its follow-up, 2010’s Recovery, was a successful, if creatively timid, record that failed to do much beyond check off a series of commercial boxes, ensuring Eminem’s status as a watered-down, mainstream force.
And really, in 2013, what place is there for a middle-age rapper who proudly boasts of not being able to use a computer, and seemingly still believes that gay-bashing is a clever way to generate publicity?
No wonder audiophiles were uneasy when The Marshall Mathers LP 2 — obviously a sequel to one of the most acclaimed and successful albums of the early 2000s — was announced in late August. The hip-hop world and the American cultural landscape have shifted dramatically since then. Eminem’s lyrical history of mocking women and gays seems, if not offensive, just tired and archaic.
As a 41-year-old rapper who once actively courted controversy, how does an artist like Eminem remain relevant and avoid descending into self-parody?
Remarkably, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 succeeds not by trying to explicitly recreate the magic of its predecessor (which, one could argue, was the downfall of Relapse), or by playing it safe, as he did on Recovery. Instead, the new album revisits the original Mathers LP, offering a fresh thematic perspective both on the career of Eminem and the state of mind that enabled his career to become one of the biggest in the music history.
Of course, nostalgia is central to Eminem’s current popularity. Eminem seems to have spent his first two albums being truly provocative, and has cruised along ever since, commenting on his early years in the crosshairs. There is some truth to that, especially here, although with a new, almost solemn flavor.
The fourth verse of the opening track, “Bad Guy,” jumpstarts the album with righteous power. It is a searing call for accountability, not simply for Eminem’s transgressions, but also our own. The song is essentially a sequel to Eminem’s seminal “Stan,” from the original Mathers LP.
By the end of the third verse, Eminem has been killed by Stan’s brother, Matthew Mitchell (note the initials). This is when the themes of Mathers’ LP 2 become evident. It is a feverishly honest verse taking the rapper to task for a life’s work of profiting off groups that could not defend themselves. Matthew is killing the rapper not simply for a personal vendetta, but for a lifetime of perceived misogyny and homophobia:
I also represent anyone on the receiving end / of those jokes you offend
I’m your karma closing in with each stroke of a pen
After the track is demolished / I am your lack of a conscience
I’m the polyps on the back of your tonsils
Eating your vocal chords after your concerts
I’m the bullies you hate, that you became
With every faggot you slaughtered Coming back on you every woman you insult
I represent everything you take for granted.
Content-wise, the verse speaks to more than just Eminem’s own sins. It’s a powerful message from a rapper who once said, as Matthew reminds him, that he was nothing but a “bad guy who makes fun of people that die.”
The next track resumes a famous moment from the song “Criminal” on the original LP. It depicts the rapper, having robbed a bank, eventually being tracked down by police and surrounded. His time is up.
This is the crux of The Marshall Mathers LP 2, or why he bothered to concoct a sequel in the first place. He’s taking stock of his career’s impact and reconciling himself with the unintended consequences of his actions.
Youth is in the rearview mirror for him now, and throughout the album he confronts the boredom, isolation and overall shambles of his personal life. It is, in short, an album about regret.
Regret is a touchstone, sometimes an irreconcilable sensation many are overwhelmed by, while others learn to accept. While many of us have a kaleidoscope of quiet offenses we secretly wish to be absolved for, Eminem, always a larger-than-life figure, broadcast his on an international stage.
His controversial first album ignited a fierce battle over language and tolerance, dividing both ends of the political spectrum over what was fit to enter the public dialogue. Eminem was an inexplicable First Amendment activist. He was rapping about torturing gays, beating up women and, context be damned, raping his own mother.
Since then, Eminem has been embraced by Elton John, won an Oscar and sold millions of records. Public opinion suggests he’s achieved a kind of vindication over his critics.
The best moments of Mathers LP 2 are raw catharsis, the results of years of gained perspective, slowly earned maturation and, presumably, therapy.
On “Headlights,” he reexamines his infamous relationship with his mother and produces one of the most sentimental and heartfelt moments of his career. “Legacy” is yet another glance back at his troubled upbringing, but this time through the lens of a man who understands how those experiences shaped him. Even the more pop-oriented tracks are laced with pathos — the “Life’s Been Good” sampling “So Far” features the rapper questioning whether karma has finally caught up to him, while his latest collaboration with Rihanna, “The Monster,” focuses on depression.
Touching on one of his signature albums could have proven extremely problematic and, truly, much of Mathers LP II does not match the original’s dark energy. Fortunately, Eminem’s conflicted internal battles over his legacy and the consequences of his words make this an essential listen for the rapper’s fans and casual pop-rap fans alike.
For years, anti-gay epithets and sentiments in rap have largely been accepted, along with its frequent misogyny and violence, as part of the hip-hop culture – a culture that has been slow to change, even as gays enjoy more mainstream acceptance.
But a shift appears to be on the horizon.
“People are learning how to live and get along more, and accept people for who they are and not bash them or hurt them because they’re different,” Snoop Dogg said in a recent interview.
Frank Ocean may be largely responsible. The rising star, who revealed on his blog this summer that his first love was a man, is technically an R&B singer. But he has produced and collaborated with some of music’s top hip-hop acts, from Jay-Z to Andre 3000 to Kanye West to Nas. He’s also co-written songs for Beyonce, Justin Bieber and John Legend and is a member of the alternative rap group Odd Future.
“When I was growing up, you could never do that and announce that,” Snoop said of Ocean’s revelation. “There would be so much scrutiny and hate and negativity, and no one would step (forward) to support you because that’s what we were brainwashed and trained to know.”
When 24-year-old Ocean made his announcement, he received a ton of support from the music world, mainly through Twitter and blogs, including encouraging words from 50 Cent, Nas, Jamie Foxx, Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons, Beyonce and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even Ocean’s Odd Future band mate, Tyler, the Creator, showed some love, though he’s used homophobic slurs in his songs.
“(The support for Frank is) an extension of the overall kind of support we’re seeing across the country for LGBT people, and not just in a broad sense, but specifically from iconic members of the black community,” said Daryl Hannah, gay rights group GLAAD’s director of media and community partnerships, who namedropped President Barack Obama and Jay-Z as those leading the change.
While the support for Ocean is strong, and some rappers – including Nicki Minaj – have said a gay rapper will soon hit the music scene, it’s still hard to imagine that the male-dominated, macho rap world could include a gay performer.
Anti-gay sentiments have been entrenched in hip-hop for decades. Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels of the iconic rap group Run D.M.C., says it was the norm for years.
“You would have had 50 rappers jump on a song, diss the gay people because it’s cool,” said D.M.C.
That attitude has abated little, even as other parts of the entertainment industry have curtailed what many consider to be anti-gay material. (Last year, Universal Pictures altered a trailer for the movie “Dilemma” because a character called a car “gay.”)
Eminem was targeted by groups like GLAAD for his incessant slurs against gays, a role that now seems to be embodied by Tyler, the Creator, in his raps. Lil Wayne recently used a slur on Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” a Grammy-nominated Top 10 pop hit and No. 1 rap and R&B song.
There are also terms like “no homo” and “pause” used in the hip-hop community after an utterance to acknowledge that what was said does not have any homosexual intent.
In an interview, Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah recently explained the genre’s stance toward gays like this: “For the most part I think that hip-hop is, you know, we always have been open-minded to a lot of things. It’s just certain things we just – we don’t deal with.”
When asked if a gay rapper could make it in hip-hop, Raekwon, another Wu-Tang member, said: “I mean, I don’t know. I guess that’s a question we all want to know.”
When asked the same question, Snoop said with a laugh: “There might be some openly gay rappers in hip-hop that’s having success _ for real. You never know. There might be some(one) right now that hasn’t pulled a Frank Ocean yet, that hasn’t jumped out of the closet to the living room to make that announcement.”
Ice-T said he could see a gay rapper on the scene – depending on what kind of rap he or she performed.
“I’ve done hardcore hip-hop in my life where masculinity is at a premium. At this moment right now, we’re in the world of pop-rap and it doesn’t really matter right now. These guys are singing, it’s pop music and being in pop and gay is OK,” he said. “It would be difficult to listen to a gay gangster rapper … If you’re a gangster rapper like myself and Ice Cube … if one of us came out and said something, that would be a big thing. That would be like, ‘Whoa! What?’”
But some of hip-hop’s key figures have given some kind of support to the gay community. Pharrell recently collaborated with the openly gay pop singer Mika on the song “Celebrate.” Jay-Z, like Eminem, has said people of the same sex should be able to love one another. Eminem performed with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards at the height of GLAAD’s criticism.
D.M.C. is skeptical about some of hip-hop’s recent support of Ocean, since he believes homophobia is still rampant in the culture. Still, he is sure a homosexual hip-hop act will emerge: “Of course there’s going to be a gay rapper.” He said that a rapper’s success would be determined not by his sexuality, but by the quality of his raps.
Shaheem Reid, a veteran hip-hop journalist, said the inroads that gays have made in mainstream culture have made a dent in the rap world: “Hip-hop is just a reflection of what’s going on.”
He added that gay rappers can gain mainstream exposure, but that will come with challenges.
“I think that if the music is great enough and the topics are great enough, there’s a slight chance,” said Reid, who is editor-at-large for hip-hop’s XXL magazine. “If there was a homosexual emcee, male or female, I don’t think that talking about them being gay or lesbian could be the only substance in their music.”