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Zilla Rocca: It’s A South Philly Album

July 5, 2017

Zilla Rocca is a productive – if not busy – man at peace.  He’s a solo artist, one third of his own nuclear family and one half of Career Crooks (along with producer Small Professor). The duo recently released the Good Luck With That LP.

The album tackles and speaks to Zilla’s own life and experiences, likely knowing it won’t necessarily speak or be relatable to everyone. Nor will it speak to what many want to portray. His lyrics often capture that time right before many people fall asleep, when the truth isn’t escapable, despite what one wishes to portray to others or tell themselves.

Topics range from dusted rappers, exes and lust, to a story about a degenerate gambler and the consequences, as well as the workingman’s plight as someone who is not new to the game of life or the music industry (please refer: #FailedRapTales).

Zilla was kind enough to break from 4th of July festivities to speak with JUMP.

 

So besides a new wife and newer baby, what’s your world like since the last time we caught up for JUMP?

Just being a dad and a family man, but that’s changed everything for me. It’s made me realize why I still want to make music, since music isn’t the number 1 priority for all facets of my life anymore, and that is because I just love doing it, man. It’s been almost 20 years since I decided to rap as a very young man, and with that decision, I’ve made so many weird and interesting friends all over the planet. My son isn’t even 2 years old yet and loves to make beats! It’s crazy. I used to sing him the hook to “The World is Yours” to rock him to sleep when he was first born. I still love it as a fan and as an artist, so with Career Crooks, it’s exciting to stay sharp and put out an album with Small Pro, who I’ve been friends with for almost 10 years now. My time is more limited than ever, so I like spending it only on things I really enjoy with people I care about the most. That’s different. Also, shouts to URBNET for signing me – got my first deal well into my thirties!

When or how did the idea for the first song, the title track “Good Luck With That,” come to be?

We were wrapping up the album and felt like we didn’t have a good introduction song. So I was listening to Heltah Skeltah’s first album Nocturnal where they intro’d the album by using all of the song titles. I thought that was a dope idea, and Smalls sent me the beat. He originally made it for Westside Gunn and Conway but was like, “I’d rather just use it for ours instead of waiting on those dudes to check for it.” And voila – that’s the opener.

Is it a point of frustration or pride that a detail like this could be missed by some listeners?

This album dropped May 19th, and by May 20th people were incredibly vocal about all the parts of the album they loved and understood right away. That’s never happened to me before, because most of my records were more layered and abstract to a degree. Like even when I thought I was being straight forward, my projects typically took a while for people to pick up on. But with the Career Crooks album, it’s unapologetic East Coast rap, and people knew of me and Small Pro as friends and Wrecking Crew members for years now, but having a real duo set up, they were accepting it with open arms right away. It was really inspiring to have people from around the world catch references I made to obscure athletes, or be impressed with the album art. It’s a South Philly album and I’m grateful people from different corners of the planet are rocking with it.

What is the significance of the Mike Mulligan character from Fargo?

We’re hip hop guys, so someone like Bokeem Woodbine has been one of “our guys” since the early ’90s, from “Strapped” to “Dead Presidents” to even being in the Wu-Tang videos for “The Jump Off” and “Careful Click Click.” When he stole the entire second season of Fargo, it was like watching a dude from your neighborhood who could hoop a little bit get drafted in the NBA lottery, like, “Wow I always thought he was good but now he’s on the main stage!” I would argue that the second season of Fargo is one of the greatest television shows ever made, and Bokeem’s character Mike Milligan is the first person I think of at least as to why it happened that way. The grandiose speeches, the ruthless pursuit of power, the hair, the showdowns with law… We just wanted to pay homage to him on this album.

And Steve Martin? You sort of black out on this one…

I don’t know man ha ha! I just was freestyling to another Small Pro beat on a Saturday afternoon like seven years ago while I was going to the laundromat on Front and Snyder Avenue. I was just walking back and forth to get my clothes washed, rapping to myself, and boom – “Keep pace, lead car, ZR, Planes Trains Automobiles, STEVE MARTIN!” Smalls remixed it for the album and we made it a single with a video that we shot at Jinxed in Fishtown – shouts to everyone at Jinxed for taking me in. They did a lot for me. Anyway, we performed “Steve Martin” for the first time together in New York a few weeks back and Quelle Chris said to me, “I like songs like that where you keep bringing back the same couplets,” and I was like “Me too!” So it’s just a song about reacting to a beat without much thought to it and going off.

You had mentioned the song is actually old (originally having a different beat). What made you release it now? What made it relevant?

Like I said, that song existed many many moons ago and I always loved it, but it never made it on any of my projects for whatever reason. So when we were rounding out this album as Career Crooks, I thought it would be dope to revisit. Small Pro hates almost all of his beats that are old, so naturally he wanted to put a new spin on it. I love the final version – it’s really hectic. It’s a great closer for a show and an album to me, and it sums up our group so far–just two guys who have chemistry and go with the feeling. It’s carefree but it’s gritty.

You had mentioned the EP is a mix of old and new. How do you go about selecting something out of the vault?

I’m very very critical of using stuff that’s in the stash. There’s a reason why most songs I’ve made that haven’t been released, you know, haven’t been released, ha ha. But sometimes, you make a song you love and it’s always the odd man out when you compile a mixtape, an album, an EP, etc. So we didn’t have to dig too hard. The album started with Small Pro remixing songs I made with another cat, and that relationship soured, so I wanted to get the songs out because I still loved them. Smalls loves remixing, so I thought it would be a real quick turnaround, but the more he kept doing it, the more we felt like it should be something more than that, it should be an actual realized group. So then we started making new songs and there you have it. He really did a Madlib job to the album in terms of beat switches, interludes, movie clips, arrangement, etc. I’m used to being the one doing that but he really did incredible work. I got to sick back and be a lazy ass rapper for once.

You being a happily married man, I’m guessing “Lipstick Itch” was an older track?

I wrote “Lipstick Itch” in 2012 right when I broke up with my last girlfriend. My next girlfriend became my wife, so I was conflicted about putting the song on there, but I felt like the song is very real to men who are in the late 20s or early 30s and how it gets harder with relationships sometimes as you get older. Like you start realizing what makes you actually happy, how maybe you were the root of the problem in past relationships. “Lipstick Itch” is a song I don’t replay a lot because I’m so far removed from that guy now, but it’s 100 percent honest about where I was going into my thirties as a single guy at the time.

Where did the idea for the story in “Cold Ten Thousand” come from? 

“Cold Ten Thousand” is loosely based on people I knew for a long time in South Philly, who were real people but also fit the film noir archetypes – the loser who always eats through money, the unsatisfied wife who makes a move in a dangerous direction, the loan shark who is your buddy but is only there to collect. And I delivered pizza for a long time, so I met guys who were hustling gigs, betting money, paying off bookies with their side gigs specifically. One of my best friends was a bookie when we were teenagers so other parts of the song are based on the degenerates he was dealing with who were kids and grown men, going to their house trying to shake them down, or showing up at their jobs to collect. It’s not fun, ha ha.

I know you pay attention to things like sequencing. What was the narrative arc you had in mind when arranging this album?

We arranged it like Nas’ It Was Written — not to fit any specific concepts, just to put a collection of hot songs together. There’s some story joints in there, some rapping for the sake of rapping, some wild hot beats on deck, posse cuts. That was it.

To say someone is a student of the game is cliche, but it would be hard to argue you don’t fit the bill. How does being a prolific consumer of music affect you as an MC?

I study people heavily, from their flows, to their rhyme schemes, to how they move on stage, to their artwork, etc. I never felt like I had all the answers as an artists, so I always kept a sharp eye as a student from the time I was 14 until now. Plus, I’ve been a producer for 15 years, so that led me to be a consumer of all types of music too. In general, I like to learn and always find out what made people do things that they’ve done, what environments were they in, what was the hot style at the time everyone was copying, etc. With us, Career Crooks pay a lot of homage to ’90s rap specifically but from a place where it’s not in opposition to anything current. I like 2 Chainz, Drake, Kanye, Vince Staples, I just don’t make that music naturally on my own. Small Pro loves all kinds of producers, from Dabrye and Lex Luger, to Large Professor (obviously) and Havoc. We’re the only rap duo in South Philly that loves Prefuse 73.

When your son is old enough to understand, what is the first song of yours would you sit down with him and play for him? And why that one?

Man….that’s an incredible question. There’s a song I’m writing now about him and his mom, it’s taken me forever to write because our lives change constantly with him growing, learning more stuff. It’s hard for me to put in all in a song because I always feel like there’s stuff I’m leaving out and I want it to be special. Regardless though, like most sons, I think he’ll think either I’m a total cornball or a superhero whenever he hears my songs and understands it. He did like the video for “Steve Martin.” But he’s been listening to nothing but rap and podcasts whenever he’s in the car with me. He’s a big talker already because of that.

From story telling to honest introspection to elements of the noir rap you pioneered to nods to artists and a time you hold in high esteem without simply trying to recreate that time and place. It’s all in there. Do you think this album best represents you?

This album came together in a strange way, where some songs were written in ’09, ’12, ’14, ’16. So it does take a picture of where I was in all of those stages as an artist and as a person. I lived in four or five different parts of the city during those times, went headlong into specific styles and everything. It represents me, but it’s also more like my first project ever, Bring Me the Head of Zilla Rocca, where I can hear myself just enjoying the art of rapping. Most of my projects over the years weren’t very joyful – they were focused, or conceptual, or made in reaction to something negative. Good Luck With That is an effortless listen so I hope people want to hear what we do next.

 

 

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