Zilla Rocca has been steadily producing solid rap records for a decade and is the man behind the original Noir Hop sound. I got the chance to chat to him about rap, the Golden Era and Buddhism, among other things.
GS: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, man. How’s everything going?
ZR: Everything is great, my friend! Just got some good coffee going over here listening to Abbey Road and the new Schoolboy Q album back to back, so I’m in the right frame of mind today.
G: For those UK heads who might not be as up on your history as I am, can you do a bit of a breakdown about your background and your career so far?
Z: Okay so I’m an MC/producer from Philly. I’ve been rhyming for almost 20 years, been making beats for almost 15 years. I’m an indie artist in the truest sense – came up worshipping Def Jux, Anticon, Loud Records, Rawkus, Rhymesayers. I started my first label Beat Garden in 2005 and that ran until 2010. Then I realized it’s a fool’s errand to try to put on crazy, unstable rappers in their 20’s, while you’re a crazy, unstable rapper in your 20’s, so I started my own label Three Dollar Pistol Music in 2010 and just focused on my own records. Around that time, I also joined forces with the least crazy rap friends I had left in Curly Castro and Small Professor and we started a clique called Wrecking Crew. Since then, collectively and individually we’ve all checked off just about every name on our bucket lists. For my UK heads, we’ve done joints with AssociatedMinds and Starkey (a longtime friend of mine whose a big EDM producer signed to Planet Mu). I love the UK – haven’t been out there in a decade but would always love to see it again. I’m a big fan of British crime flicks, from Guy Ritchie to the Michael Caine flicks like Pulp and Get Carter and that Bob Hoskins flick The Long Good Friday. I love crime books/comics/movies above all.
G: You are a frequent collaborator with the enigmatic Shadowboxers, tell us a bit about them and how that all came about.
Z: The Shadow Boxers (have to include that space now in the name for legal purposes – lawyers are ridiculous) started as me and my good friend Douglas Martin aka Blurry Drones, a lo-fi funeral funk type of producer out of Seattle. We made this record in 2009 called The Slow Twilight. It was my artistic breakthrough and it turned a lot of heads back then, because it sampled a lot of obscure indie rock records. After that album, Douglas wanted to focus more on writing and less on beats, so I wanted to make The Shadow Boxers more of a revolving door of characters that create a certain mood, like how Queens of the Stone Age is a totally different band every time out but Josh Homme is the remainder to keep it centred. So for the last Shadow Boxers album No Vacation For Murder in 2014, the beats were done by Blurry Drones, Floodwatch, Has-Lo, and St/Mic. When I do Shadow Boxers albums, it’s usually more cryptic and dark. They’re not usually albums I want to hear in the summer when I’m laying on some grass or grilling a burger. It’s winter music for sure. I don’t make those particular albums, unless I’m in a very specific mood.
G: Noir Hop is the name of the style of hip hop you have developed over the years. Was that something you intentionally set out to do, or was it more a result of the natural evolution of your sound?
Z: It was unintentional. When I made The Slow Twilight, we thought it would be dope to tie the album together like GZA’s Liquid Swords by sampling movie dialogue from one film. And that film was Blast of Silence, one of the harshest, hardboiled noir movies I’ve ever seen. So I came up with the term Noir Hop kind of as a joke, but it really made sense for the album, my style, and my lifelong love for detective stories, true crime, etc. Noir as a genre has a lot of slang, booze, moral ambiguity and lonely characters. That’s where I was as a regular guy back then too, so it was an extension of my lifestyle as well. Since then I noticed A LOT of hip hop reviews and press releases calling their shit “Noir” and I realized where they all got it from, so it feels good to know that people have paid attention to my shit without ever dapping me up, because my work has made a dent, regardless if they want to acknowledge me or not. And it was all natural, whereas I feel like the people using that term, their shit is forced or just flat out corny as hell. They think noir just means “black and white”. But to be real, with my next two projects that are coming out, I’m leaving that title and that style behind. These lames can keep it – I started it seven years ago, so whatever I do next they’ll be copying in due time anyway.
G: I know you have a keen ear for production, remixing especially; do you prefer that realm to rapping?
Z: I LOVE to remix songs – it’s a lot easier than writing a verse or a complete song. When I remix songs, whether for fun like on my Queensbridge remix album ZR vs. QB, or Anything I Touch I Bruise Vol. 1, it’s about listening to a song and thinking “I can do that better” or “It would be crazy to juxtapose the lyrics with THIS type of sound that they didn’t use”. It’s like cheating because you already have a framework to deviate from, whereas when you’re writing lyrics, you have to create the framework from nothing. I’ve always been a big fan of remixes and remix projects for that reason – here’s someone else’s take on something. It’s always excited me, especially when producers drop full remix projects, so I decided to start doing it. A lot of the beats I’ve placed on other people’s albums were remixes of people like Jay-Z or Nas I did for fun and those beats usually were hotter than the regular ass beats I was making with no acapella. Plus there’s a competitive nature as a producer where you’re like “Yo I’m going to wash this cat who did the original beat”. Me and Small Pro have that approach all the time! We like to one-up each other like “Yo, I like that original you did but I’m going to SMASH that shit when I get the acapella!”. I’m also a stickler for arrangement and editing, so when I remix songs, I’ll make adjustments to the original that I think are upgrades, or just interesting left turns.
G: Do you think you’ll reach a point where you retire your microphone and concentrate purely on production?
Z: Most people don’t know much about me as a producer, which I get, but I made probably 500 beats that were terrible before I was confident enough to drop any “producer” projects. Plus my producer friends are nice, and my rapper friends are incredible, so I always want to put my best foot forward in either realm. But I don’t think you ever retire from rapping. I think you have less of a desire to write songs/albums, or get on stage, or grind out shows, or just to stay contemporary. But right now rap is in a new frontier where guys are aging and still rapping. I’ll be 34 in a couple months and when I was a teenager, you couldn’t even fathom anyone rapping that long into their 30’s. But now all of my heroes are well into their 40’s and for the most part are sharper than ever. I feel like writing matures really well if you’re invested in being a writer. In my life now, I’m a father and a husband so I have less things I want to talk about, especially after pumping out records every year from 2005-2014. It’s good to step off for a while and recharge, live a normal life, absorb culture, let your thoughts marinate. There’s nothing worse than when I listen to a rapper and think “This guy has nothing left to talk about and yet he keeps making albums”. Maybe he needs that check to pay his bills for 6 months, or maybe he doesn’t want to be forgotten. But he sure isn’t inspired. I’m OK with being forgotten and my bills aren’t paid exclusively from hip hop, so I’m ok with stepping off and only releasing stuff when I’m excited about it.
The older I’ve gotten, i realized I’ve spent almost exactly half of my life rapping and making beats. So the shit is also way easier because I’ve worked those muscles heavy. I’m not a good freestyler anymore because I don’t do it enough, but I think I’m a much better songwriter and producer because I spent 10 years writing or making beats pretty much every single day. I don’t have time any more to do those things on a daily basis, so when I do have time, I don’t fuck around. I know exactly what I want to do, I know which tools to use and I know how to maximize my time. I don’t have the luxury of just sitting in front of the computer for hours hanging out and waiting for magic to happen.
G: Your last album, No Vacation For Murder, was by all accounts a very personal project for you. Can you tell me a bit about the events surrounding its creation?
Z: That album is really a concept record about betrayal and revenge – how far are you willing to go to even the scales after you’ve been gutted? It’s not a good place to be emotionally or psychologically, but I felt like it was the right album for me to make because I was examining those ideas from bad experiences I went through. That album really took a lot out of me, to where I had to step off of it for a good year or two before completing it. In no particular order, I lost my grandmother, I had an ugly falling out with two of my closest friends, I moved three times, I ended two romantic relationships, people in my town started hating me based on the opinions of jilted former friends… songs were being made before, during, and after all of those events. It was pretty turbulent. I also put way too much pressure on myself with that album, after securing appearances from two of my all time favorite emcees on this planet in Roc Marciano and Geechi Suede. I never had big name features before so it puts you in a weird place competitively as an emcee like “These guys aren’t going to wipe up the floor with me” as well as focusing on the wrong things: “I’m going to blow up now! All of the big name blogs will run these songs and I’ll get a huge new following and I’m going to make loot from iTunes and more shows and blah blah blah”. Some of those things happened, but most of them didn’t. From the birth of that album in 2010, until it’s release in 2014, I put out four other projects just to loosen up and have fun and enjoy the process of creating and releasing music.
G: Now I know you do a spot of writing on the side, for the likes of Passion of the Weiss and I’m always keen to know, with any rap aficionados, what they consider to be the golden era. When for you was the golden era of rap and why?
Z: The obvious golden eras are 1988 and 1994. I love every record made from those years, but I was a bit too young to be aware of them while they were happening. So my golden era of rap personally is 1996. You had CLASSICS: Fugees’ The Score, 2pac’s All Eyez on Me, Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth, Nas’s It Was Written. Even Stakes is High. Redman’s Muddy Waters, one of my all time favorite albums too, plus ATLiens, still the best Outkast album. Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life which has aged really well. And check the rookie class of 1996: Busta, Jay-Z, Heltah Skeltah, Lil Kim, Foxy, Xzibit, Ras Kass, OGC, Bahamadmia, DJ Shadow! I’m telling you ’96 was NASTY! And my favorite album in music history, Ghostface’s Ironman, also dropped that year. That’s just my era. I make stuff in that vein cause it’s in my blood.
G: I read once that you have a keen interest in Buddhism. Is it something you actively practice and if so, how does it feed into your creative process, if at all?
Z: I’ve been a practising Buddhist for five years. It changed my entire life, creative process included. It made me loosen up, calmer, more relaxed, more empathetic. I also learned to just value things more, mundane things rather than feeling like a failure because I hadn’t achieved some mythical level of “success”. I used to have incredibly high standards for myself, personally and creatively, so anything less than that was debilitating. But through being more still, more giving, it slowly made those thoughts vanish. Buddhism is really about giving you the tools to feel happy, but it’s work. It takes a steady practice. It’s like going to the gym – if you’re fat and out of shape, you don’t go to the gym once for 45 minutes and think “That’s it — I’m healthy now!”. You gotta start cutting calories, you gotta have a workout plan, you gotta get more rest, you gotta drink more water, you gotta indulge less with food on a weekly basis, you gotta do more challenging workouts. That is how you see results and create a healthy lifestyle – and it SUCKS! But after you do those things everyday, six months pass and you weigh less, you look better, you feel better and you realize the amount of work it took everyday to get there. I can tell you that while I was tense and anxious and angry and vindictive during the making of No Vacation for Murder in 2010, by 2013 I was relaxed and having fun, when I banged out my mixtape Neo Noir. That particular project is pure joy – just enjoying the process of rapping with my friends over beats that made me want to be creative. So now when I go to New York and kick it with my homies up there, it’s not about being seen or getting a deal, or groupies, or selling 50 CD’s – it’s about enjoying the conversations and arguments I have with Billy Woods and PremRock! Buddhism helped me let go and just be OK with things instead of feeling like I wasn’t doing enough, I wasn’t achieving enough, I wasn’t working enough.
G: What can we expect to hear next from you?
Z: Me and Small Pro are 80% finished with our joint album Good Luck With That. We’re just doing tweaks now with mixes and stuff, then it’s done. It’s a dope ass rap album. It’s more like my first ever solo project Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca, where I’m just rapping my ass off. It’s not conceptual or heavy. Smalls compared it to It Was Written, because it’s just got hot shit, catchy shit, features from our friends, and some ill crime stories to boot. We got Curly Castro on there, PremRock, ALASKA from Atoms Family, Defcee (one of my favorite young guys outta Chicago), my man Mally who’s down with Rhymesayers, my man Dewey who just did the artwork for Anderson Paak’s Malibu album, the homie My Man Shafe, and this slept on cat s.habIB, outta Newark, NJ who really impresses me.
I also have a solo LP after that called Future Former Rapper. That’s about to be mixed and mastered. That’s more like my love letter to rap and a full circle type of album with friends and collaborators I’ve had over the past 10 years. That album is more varied because I’ve always liked boom bap shit and futuristic shit, weird artsy shit and head-nodding shit, stripped down samples and 808’s. I feel like I’ve always been too weird for hip hop purists, but too pure for artsy weirdo types. I’ve never fitted comfortably into one grouping or another – I’ve made dark ass noir shit, but then have rapped over reggae/dub samples, Italian string shit, Ethiopian jazz joints, African horns. I don’t ever get enough credit for being hardworking or daring, so people that have followed me all of these years must also have large musical palletes cause I rarely stick to one sound for very long. Future Former Rapper is me embracing that part of myself.
G: Any final words?
Z: Yeah I just want to thank you for staying with me all these years. I realize how hard it is to expect people to keep checking for your music after you’ve been around for almost 10 years. Some people fucked with me in 2009 and stopped in 2010. Some people starting fucking with me last year. Some people only like my music from 2006. Some people only know me from songs I’ve done with higher profile people. Some people only know me as Wrecking Crew. It’s really fun to accept all of that, because as artists we really have no control over how long listeners will be interested in what we do. But we all get our moment – it might last six months, two years, or 10 years, but eventually it ends. I’m closer to the end and I’m through with chasing any props, or publicity, or money, or notoriety – I’m more interested in folks like yourself who just like what I make. Most people who listen to music on the internet are tourists – they listen to shit just to say they did. I’ve done that plenty of times. But the artists I’ve been loyal to for years and years, they mean something to me. Maybe I only mean something to 80 people in the entire world and the rest just come and poke their head in, then move onto the next thing and that’s fine. But I’m at a place now where I only care about those 80 people, wherever they are. So thank you for reading this, thank you for wanting to know more about me, thank you for supporting my music however you have. PEACE!