I first heard of Zilla Rocca very recently, thanks to the track he produced for Has-Lo, entitled Cock Diesel. I was caught up in the dark and mesmerising instrumental, which made me curious about the producer/MC. I entered his universe with his previous EP, the very dim Bad Weather Classic and I became a fan instantly. There is something quite mysterious about him and when I learned he was about to release a new project, I was more than happy to give him a little exposure. The result is below, a very interesting interview where he tells us more about his career, collaborations, projects and influences, among other things. Without further delay, here is Zilla Rocca, in his own words.
First of all, for people who are not familiar with you and your music, who is Zilla Rocca? How/when did you start making music and why this name?
I’m Zilla Rocca aka Vic Sage, the Corrupt Novelist, Noir Hop originator. I’m an emcee/producer from Philadelphia and the sole proprietor of Three Dollar Pistol Music. Part of Wrecking Crew with Has-Lo, Curly Castro, Small Professor and some other homies in the mix. The voice of 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers with Douglas Martin aka Blurry Drones on the beats. I started writing rhymes when I was 14, started making beats when I was about 19. Been putting out records in all kinds of groups and one-off projects officially since 2006, but didn’t really catch on with the people until 2009 with The Slow Twilight LP from 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers.
My name doesn’t mean anything. I had so many horrendous rap names before this one. I like the vagueness of it. It could sound slick to some folks, an abomination to others. It can’t be pinned down. That’s kinda how my style and my catalogue has developed, coincidentally.
You are both a producer and an MC, part of a group and collaborating with many other producers and MCs. Is it necessary for you to explore all aspects of music and to express yourself in different ways?
Truthfully, I was never interested in being a solo artist. It just happened that way somewhere along the line. I’m very self-sufficient; I have my own studio, the world famous International Dart Parlour here in Philly. As much as I like writing by myself or spending hours listening to records for ideas and making beats, it’s always fun to collaborate what people, to see what they bring on their own then to see what they bring out of you. Shadowboxers brings out a different monster inside me than working on Has-Lo beats. And I want to bring out all the ideas and stories and flows and approaches I can because I consume so much music in all genres, it needs to be unleashed. I have dubstep records, drum n’ bass records, boom-bap records, trip hop records. But they all sound like me. I love experimenting. It’s always fun to just do stuff without any inkling of how good it is or if people will even like it. And those records end up connecting the most with people, oddly. It’s like walking into a casino off the streets and just betting on a random horse in a horse race. You might win big, but if you never gamble, you lose nothing. I like gambling with music.
As I mentioned earlier, you are part of a group, 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers. Could you tell us more about this and your previous/upcoming projects?
5 O’Clock Shadowboxers came about organically in late ’07-early ’08. Douglas Martin heard my stuff online and slid me a couple of beats just as a fan. They were unlike anything I’d ever heard, and the songs I wrote got me excited because they unearthed a whole different side of me I didn’t know was there. I had no clue if they were any good or not. People liked it. We made more records until we had an album done, which became The Slow Twilight, still my best work to date. That was in 2009. In 2010, we dropped a companion EP called Broken Clocks that wasn’t so insular or personal, just dope records and collaborations and remixes. At the end of this year or early next year, we’re dropping the 2nd LP called No Vacation for Murder. It’s about 80% finished. Got some big name guests on there.
As a soloist, I dropped a mixtape in 2008 called Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca that was 90% original tracks. I had a blast making it and putting it together on some Redman/Beastie Boys type shit. People liked it. At the beginning of this year, I just said, “Screw it—it’s time to put stuff out” and dropped Bad Weather Classic EP via World Around Records. The feedback was outstanding, from fellow artists to fans in parts of the world I didn’t know existed. So I figured “Well, I might be on to something here” so I buckled down and decided to make a summer EP called Nights & Weekends which is coming out very shortly.
Something I find quite interesting about you and the atmosphere you create through your music is the darkness, as well as the references to noir cinema and novels. This is quite obvious in your latest EP, Bad Weather Classic. How did you become interested in this genre and decide to incorporate it in your music?
I always loved detective stories, crime stories, understanding why people are driven to do things that defy their character on the surface. And noir has all of it: sex, murder, betrayal, slang, violence, desperation, danger, loneliness, corruption, and a moral center that tries to make sense of it. The Shadowboxers LP pulled all of that out of me. Jeff Weiss said at one point that I was the “Raymond Chandler of rap”, so I went back and read the classic Philip Marlowe stories. I read Richard Stark books. I watched some Orson Wells movies. I bought anything with Ed Brubaker’s name on it. I rewatched Brick, which I’ve loved since it came out in theaters. Grabbed a lot of Batman titles. I wanted to immerse myself in this thing that I was always conscious of and voila: I took that genre and put it out front as my own brand of hip hop. It separates me from everyone else, so I don’t have to compete with Big Sean or Meek Mill or whoever. I’m in my own world (yeah yeah, now check the method). It’s liberating.
Another element that seems to be important for you and influence your art is Philadelphia. You have been living in this city for a long time and are clearly proud of your city. Would you say your music sounds specific to Philly, or is this influence less important that could be imagined?
I’ve traveled many places, but I’m Philly’s own. I enjoy shedding lights on parts of Philly that most rappers overlook. That saying from The Naked City how there’s 8 million stories in the city, well Philly rappers have told the same 8 stories 17,000 times. That’s no disrespect. Some are great at it. But I never want approach something that’s been covered at large. So I reflect on my experiences growing up in South Philly. I didn’t grow up in the hood, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t near danger or shady dealings or around people who died young or did horrific things. Philly is very territorial. There’s people in North Philly who have never set foot in South Philly in their entire lives, and vice versa. It’s a 20 minute drive! All parts of the city have good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods with good and bad stories. Like Raekwon said, “People don’t know, a lot of ill stories came out of Philly”. He was right and I’m trying to add to the ledger.
Now, let’s talk about your latest adventures. You are about to release a new EP entitled Nights & Weekends, with a concept I find very interesting. It sounds rather different from your previous projects and from what I read or heard about it, you tried to create a different vibe. Could you let us know about the concept behind this EP? Was the creative process different for you?
Nights & Weekends is a departure from other things because right now, I’m not in a murky, thoughtful mood. My life is completely different than it was a year ago, and I’m a whole other better person than I was when I made some of my other stuff, so naturally my output is going to reflect, good or bad. I’m getting towards the end of my 20’s, so I thought this EP would be a good retrospect on my decade of immaturity, decadence, bad decisions, strange company, lustful conquests, long hangovers, late night diner trips, etc. Your 20’s is all about discovery, finding out who you will ultimately become. And you have to make a lot of mistakes to learn that. You don’t KNOW you’re making bad decisions, you just keep chasing the rabbit down the hole. So this EP is looser, brighter, different tempos and sample choices. Some stories end badly, some are ambiguous, some happened, some didn’t. I wanted this project to be unpredictable but digestable.
For the first time, you are using Kickstarter to release the EP and provide some very interesting goodies to your fans and supporters. What can we expect with this campaign and how do you feel about this new system of funding?
It’s a whole different idea for me because I’m used to spending thousands of dollars (I don’t have) every single year on my rap career. My homie Random aka MegaRan has done really well with it, so I took a gamble on Kickstarter and I’ve been absolutely floored by the contributions. It’s incredibly humbling because I’ve always had this rule that I would never ask people for money to help me press up CDs or tshirts or pay for publicists, etc. I got tired of doing online/digital-only releases. Kickstarter is a good gauge of actual interest in your music. I’m from the days of saving up thousands of dollars to press up 1,200 CDs then sell 200 of them. That was a bad option but it was the only option. Kickstarter lets you see how many paying customers you have beforehand so you don’t wipe out your savings account on stuff that ends up in your basement for years.
Something else that is important for you is providing concrete, material additions to your music, including CDs and tees. In an age where those tend to disappear, I find it very interesting and admirable. Do you feel there are still people who appreciate those and fight the digital age in a way?
It’s fun to get a CD in the mail that you paid for, or buy something at a show from someone who put on a great performance. You can’t do that when you say “Check me out online at blah blah blah”. Because there’s so much free music popping up everyday, you have to separate yourself by making something tangible that people can’t live without. Tangible items mean something. Digital items are just things stored somewhere. It could be in the sky, it could be at your desk, it could be in your pocket. A t-shirt is on your back. A CD or record can only be played on certain devices. It makes it special because it’s limited. Music is devalued now because it’s not special anymore, it’s just free wallpaper. It’s good for convenience and audience democracy. But I don’t cherish digital stuff or have personal attachments to it. In the 90’s, whatever CDs or tapes or vinyl you could afford, THAT’S ALL YOU HAD. I always wanted to buy a Duck Down shirt or a Wu Wear shirt that they advertised in the liner notes. Those days are over, life and technology progress; I’m not saying we “need to go back to the good ol’ days”. But music doesn’t have an experience attached to it anymore. And going the extra mile with shirts and custom songs and autographed fedoras for this campaign, that’s my way of rebuilding that bridge.
[wpaudio url=”http://wordisbond.data.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Cock-Diesel-ft-Zilla-Rocca2.mp3″ text=”Has-Lo – Cock Diesel (prod Zilla Rocca)” dl=”0″]
[wpaudio url=”http://wordisbond.data.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/02-Bad-Weather-Classic-prod-by-Face-One-feat-Mally-Curly-Castro1.mp3″ text=”Bad Weather Classic ft Mally & Curly Castro (prod Face-One)” dl=”0″]
Your music, whether as a producer or as an MC doesn’t sound like many other artists, you definitely have a personal and unique touch. But who or what could you say influenced you and helped you create that specific style?
Well thank you! It takes years of failure and biting other people until one day, you just figure it out. Like everyone else, my influences change by how I’m feeling presently, so what I try to do is study the career paths of people I admire. I want to have the career of Mike Patton, Tom Waits, El-P, Dose One, Aesop Rock, Mos Def, Raekwon, Camp Lo, Ish from Shabazz Palaces/Digable Planets, Roc Marciano. Guys whose style is off the beaten path. Some records they do suck. Some are amazing. But they at all one point realized, “Hey, I’m never going to be a mainstream artist. I have a lot of weird tendencies and I like radical shit. Let me pursue those ideas rather than trying to be current or trendy”. They maximize the worlds they create. And everyone I named, at the minimum, has a career that’s lasted over a decade. That’s no coincidence. They’re not shackled by popular taste so every year new people catch onto them because they are providing an alternative. I can’t outdo Rick Ross or Kanye or Drake. And that’s what most rappers fall victim to: competition. But why? Only in rap music do people think the music is a sport. When Tom Waits makes a record, he doesn’t want to bury Lady Gaga. He makes a Tom Waits record. Mike Patton sold millions of records with Faith No More in the ‘90s. Last year he put out an entire album singing traditional Italian songs that was amazing. I might put out an EP next year built around polka samples if I feel like it. It might suck. But the album after that could be great. And then people could go back to the polka album 3 years later and say, “You know, I didn’t understand this at first but now I get it”. I’m ok with failing because it produces interesting results. When you win all the time, you don’t learn as much.
From what I’ve heard, you have quite a few fans in Europe and more precisely in the UK. Do you know what’s the reason behind this? Would you be interested in touring outside of the US and is performing a very important part of the process for you as an artist?
I’ve had discussions with my Euro fans via email. From what I gather, they just have a better filter for rap music than US fans because they don’t have a “rap industry”. They don’t have cities where major label offices reside that dictate what goes on the radio. They’re free to pick and choose what they like. And they end up choosing stuff that sounds like, you know, good hip hop music. They don’t care if the rapper is fat or skinny or young or old or “hot” or not. They boil it down to this: do I like this song? American fans have other things to check off of a list before they can like something. Does he have a co-sign? What kind of sneakers is he wearing? How many mixtapes did he drop? What big name rapper is on his first single? What part of the country is he from? What are his first week numbers? Have I ever heard this in the club? Do my friends like it? And so on. Americans are programmed sometimes. Europeans don’t seem to have that wall up. I have more fans in Australia than Philly because they “get it” quicker I guess.
My Euro fans always ask me to come play their part of the world and that’s my next goal. I love performing. Curly Castro and I rehearse 3-4 times before we do any shows. And whether we’re in Philly or Phoenix, people respond to that. Everytime you perform, you have to think about snatching up at least 1 new fan. The audience is the king now. You have to give them reasons to get excited, to tell their friends about you, to spend money on you. This isn’t 1997 where if you put out something, it’s going to sell 700,000 copies at worst. This particular moment in time has separated the people who REALLY want it from the people who just want the rewards. It’s like a job. I don’t know who gets promoted to CEO after working as a line cook for 6 months. This takes years. And practice really does produce results. I have to get better live because my recorded music is better.
Anything else you would like to add?
I think I’ve talked enough! Thank you for this interview! Thank you to everyone who has ever given me their ear, or a dollar out of their pocket, or hated me then eventually came around. It’s cool; I’m like that too. Check me on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Soundcloud, ClapCowards.com. I’m everywhere. If you feel compelled to be a part of the new EP Nights & Weekends, check those sites and you’ll find links to donate. But hurry! It ends July 31st! Shouts to my co-conspirators Curly Castro and Has-Lo; they’re a big reason why I keep doing music. Shouts to Small Pro, Castle, My Man Shafe—y’all are right there. Shouts to World Around Records, Mello Music Group, 33jones, Khal at Rock the Dub, So Much Silence, Passion of the Weiss, my homies at WXPN. Mally, whattup! Nex Millen doing his thing. Alex Ludovico. Shouts to Netflix and Atomic City Comics for giving me weekly inspiration. Aw man, I could do this all day. This has gone on long enough. Enjoy your nights and weekends, cause that’s when all the action goes down!