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Interview: Ill Poetic - Collaboration is Key

Photo Cred: Robert Sanchez

“The more I’ve grown as an artist, the more I hold tight to the idea of exploring directions that don’t fit into boxes…”

It’s been almost 2 years since ill poetic came home to Cincinnati. Almost 4 since the release of his last proper full-length. There’s been a smattering of inspired singles, an EP, and a lot of production work, of course - it’s a safe assumption he’s always working on something.

This time, though, we find him in the midst of something new, different, and, I think, transformative.

This week sees the release of his latest project - a not-quite-album, but collection of loosely intertwined works that does all the things he does best (and then some). Couched in the comfort and familiarity of hip-hop, expansive in surprising ways, Portfolio I: As Serious As Your Life, is a moody, multifaceted work that takes its time, unfurling slowly and methodically, maybe even lavishly. It’s an interesting release for many reasons, so I was glad to get the opportunity to catch up with ill poetic after a couple of really strange, challenging years.

Check out our lengthy chat below - my thanks to ill poetic for taking the time to answer my questions and provide invaluable insight into what this release is all about.

It’s been a while since we’ve last caught up, two years to the day, actually. Aside from the release of your new… well, for now we’ll call it an album, give us a quick update on what’s been happening for you.

Like most people...a lot. Two and a half years ago I remember visiting a planetarium with my parents, it was the last public place I ever went with my mom and a memory that has really seared itself inside my brain. The presentation ended with a first-person rollercoaster ride through Neptune mapped across the dome above us. These past two years have felt a little like my memory of that rollercoaster ride through Neptune: exhilarating, frightening, surreal and really emotional.

Since we last spoke, my family lost our dog, a grandparent, the pandemic kicked in and my mom passed away all within the span of 5 months. It was devastating. However, our family’s pivot during the pandemic landed my wife a great job. I graduated from my community college the day my mom passed and was accepted to UCSD’s ICAM-Music program on full scholarship a few weeks later. My family and I spent all of 2020 working, learning and creating from home. I was able to focus intently on this new project and pay some of my favorite musicians for their services right when the live-performance carpet had been ripped from under them. So beyond the tragedy of the global pandemic, it was actually a pretty beautiful year for all of us in so many ways.

On the creative side, specifically within this UCSD program, this past year has pushed and challenged me to the point of breaking multiple times. But it’s also taken me creatively to places my younger self had only dreamed of. It’s given me a completely new vision for myself and my future as an artist. I don’t think I’ve ever creatively grown this rapidly for such an extended period of time, it’s lowkey scary. I’m not so sure I define experiences as good or bad anymore, so all-in-all I’d say it’s been a transformative two years.

In the two years since we last talked for CincyMusic, the world has basically turned upside down. How have you managed to stay productive through the pandemic? Or, if not productive, at least sane?

Thankfully sanity was never an issue. I know a lot of people who live alone or were on frontlines as essential workers so I was deeply appreciative of our luck on this one. I was extremely blessed to live in a small place with a family who actually loves each other. Annoys each other, but deeply loves each other. I really appreciated the time we got to spend with each other and kinda knew it might not last forever so I’ve been trying to be in the moment and soak it up.

Beyond that, the great pause of the world allowed me to dive heavily into projects such as this new one that I’d been struggling to finish and balance with life/school responsibilities. It also allowed me to focus 100% on my classes when fall hit, which was a huge life-saver. So as far as productivity, I had no problem filling the time up. There’s still not enough time in the day to get through everything and there probably never will be. I’m good with that though.

That brings us to “Portfolio I: As Serious As Your Life,” what I can only describe as a series of audio essays that explore the foundations and concepts of modern music through the lens of hip-hop. What was the process for bringing these tracks together? And, because I’m curious, what was the catalyst to do a project like this in the first place?

Man, that’s a really dope way to describe it, I might have to steal it because I still haven’t really figured out how to explain this project to people. That said, a few things sparked this project idea:

First, I was pretty tired of sending packs of beats to artists and convincing them to imagine how the tracks would sound after I added arrangements and live instrumentation. I learned years back that I’m less a beatmaker and more a full-on producer and I just need to own that. So a few years ago I had the idea of creating an actual portfolio of fully-fleshed-out pieces that could really showcase my production skillset, something I could release and just direct potential artists to as a reference point.

A major step toward this vision came when my guy B. Shields (dope Cincinnati hip-hop artist) reached out to me for some custom production work. Since I was fresh in school, I had the chance to really use a lot of new skills I’d been learning: piano, theory, composition and live-studio recording, to create an entirely new style of production for him. Around this time I was also producing tracks at home, projects for classes, plus reaching out to other artists and musicians for collaborations. When I dumped all the puzzle pieces out, I realized I had a few different potential portfolio collections. I grouped together the pieces that seemed to flow together into this first installment.

Second, I had a specific sound I was trying to get across given these new skills I’d been developing, especially theory and piano. I wanted to further blend the relationship between samples, production, composition and live musicianship; to continue exploring and mashing up genres at a more molecular level. This portfolio concept really gave me a lot of room to play around with that and that was really inspiring.

Beyond the sonic aesthetic of it all, what really tied this project together was the range of emotions I was processing about my mom’s sickness and eventual transition, which spanned a pretty traumatic couple of years. These emotions were really finding themselves into the DNA of the records I was producing. Initially this was completely unintentional, but near the end of this project it became very apparent to me and I began to feel an additional theme developing for the project. To play the portfolio in order, these emotions just keep bleeding out more and more as the record progresses. This all gave me a narrative for sequencing the project, which is why this feels both like a portfolio and an album to me and ultimately why these tracks all seemed to fit together.

You’ve mentioned to me that this is meant to act as - and as the title indicates - a portfolio, a sort of… summation of the work you’ve done with various artists and musicians across the musical spectrum. What was the most unique challenge you faced in putting this all together? What was the most unexpected?

This project was named after this 1977 book on the black free-jazz era of the 1960s, and in that book innovators of free jazz said that musicians no longer needed to be “confined to a single key or pattern of chords”. This allowed performers to become composers of the moment through every improvisation and interpretation of the original music. That shit is a metaphor for life, just another spin on the theme of my last album (“An Idiot’s Guide to Anarchy”) - there’s no rules in creativity, long as you’re not hurting anyone, just do what the fuck you want and don’t overthink it.

That said, the most unique challenge had little to do with the music and more to do with letting go of my own expectations. My last record came out 4 years ago. I spent 10 years creating and releasing every aspect of it. The pressure of working on something for 10 years is really suffocating at times. It’s nice to create this structure of portfolio installations that can kinda just be whatever the fuck I want it to be whenever I want it to drop. They don’t have to have some sprawling narrative, they don’t have to involve some elaborate release strategy. And because this is a showcase of my work for and with other artists, it’s okay to present records that wouldn’t necessarily go on an “ill poetic” album. So basically man, just letting go of everything, creating a vision for this specific project, sticking to my guns and being water.

The most unexpected challenge of this project is presenting it publicly. At its core, this project is a portfolio of my creative work designed to share with musicians, vocalists, visual artists, emcees, filmmakers and other producers I might like to work with in the future. However, because of the circumstances that occurred while putting it together, this project felt like something worth sharing with everyone: a progress report on my evolution as an artist and something worth experiencing as a full piece of music. Reconciling that within myself this past month has actually been a bit of a tightrope walk.

What I’ve always found most interesting about your work is that you might create inside the framework of hip-hop, but you’re not at all confined by what that term, or genre, might classically be for most. Your music tends to purposely ignore genre tropes. That being said, tell us about some music you’ve been into this past year. What has you excited right now?

Thanks man, for better or worse, that definitely seems to be the case. This project was definitely influenced by my love of spiritual jazz, fusion, and post-beat scene shit but the hip-hop vibes still kinda sit as a core to my process. I just never know what to expect from the results.

As for new music, I’ve actually been getting into a ton of shit. Shameless promo, but I have a playlist on my “ill poetic” Spotify artist page called WAV Current where I add new joints I’m constantly getting into. Some artists and projects off top: Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders “PROMISES”, Yebba & Smino “Louie Bag”, James Blake, MY MYND, Taylor McFerrin, the new Nas, Fhloston Paradigm / King Britt, Medium Zach, SAULT, Devin Burgess, Pink Siifu, the new Tyler, Miro Imani, the new Evidence, Nipsey Hussle, Donald Byrd, Cameron Haywood, Riot, Thom Yorke, Spillage Village, Royce 5’9”, EARTHGANG...and there’s a ton more.

As this album finds its way out into the world, what’s next for you?

Actually, a lot. These portfolio installments are meant to be progress reports while I work on more long term ambitious projects that don’t really fit the album format so much. Right now I’m really focused on letting my education guide me into new territory. For me this means figuring out ways to lean into my synesthesia and better combine my audio and visual lives.

A couple specific things: I’m in the early stages of co-developing a virtual reality project around this 8-minute song I've been composing and recording these past couple years. For me, this involves diving into ambisonics and spatial audio on the sonic side and transferring my graphic design skillset over to 3D-world-building on the visual side, then working with my partners to integrate it all into a web-based VR environment. We have an early iteration of this project ready behind-the-scenes, but it will be a while before I have something prepared to release to the public.

I’m also getting deeper into audio/visual collaborative performances. I’ve been working with my friend and collaborator Ben Gurrette out here in San Diego on a performance piece. We’ll be performing a private set at the end of September out here but then depending on interest I’d love for us to bring it elsewhere. I’m hoping to dive deeper into 3D projection mapping and real-time audio/visual programming during my time at school to further bring this idea to life.

Lastly, I’ll (hopefully) be graduating with my BA next year. I’m really hoping to continue into a masters or doctoral program and continue fleshing these ideas out. This should also help lock in my qualifications to teach the curriculum I developed a couple years ago when we last spoke. But for now, just taking it step by step, because who knows what new global pandemic might turn everything upside down again.

Anything else you’d like to add or mention here?

Sure. First, I really want to highlight some of the key players on this project: B Shields, a Cincinnati hip-hop artist with one of the most unique ears and abilities to put amazing cross-cultural artists and musicians together on songs who brings things out of me as a producer I didn't think were possible. Devin Burgess, one of my favorite artists to ever come out Cincinnati, extremely honored to have him on this record as an emcee and co-producer. He really inspires me to keep progressing and never go stale.

This is the first project I’ve released collaborating with San Diego-based musicians. The musicians out here are truly on another level and to get to work with any of them was a true honor, so shout out to Jake Najor, Jesse Audelo, Andy Geib, and especially Nick Costa, who finds himself all over this record. Nick, known as MY MYND is the singer and guitarist on the title track. His guitar can be found scribbling all over this album. He’s become one of my favorite artists and people in San Diego so please go check him out.

God bless anyone who’s read this far. I’ll close with this. The more I’ve grown as an artist, the more I hold tight to the idea of exploring directions that don’t fit into boxes: allowing creativity to move from piano key to Ableton to audio/visual collaboration to experiential performance pieces. I don’t know what to call what I do any more, I just know that I’m going to keep following my curiosity and I’m eternally grateful to any and everyone who still follows, supports and at times joins me on that journey.

Again, my thanks to ill poetic for taking such time and care to answer my questions.

You can find Portfolio I: As Serious As Your Life, as well as all of his other work, here. Grab your favorite headphones and enjoy.