Q&A with Zilla Rocca

After about three dropped calls in a failed attempt to record using Google Voice, I scrapped that plan and typed as fast as possible to keep up with everything Zilla Rocca had to talk about – from the pitfalls of the scene in his hometown Philadelphia to his love of noir fiction to 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers, his long-distance collaborative project with Douglas Martin. Between some random ellipses and shorthand I can’t remember, the gist of our conversation is spelled out below.

If you haven’t figured it out by now from this week’s posts, Zilla Rocca and Curly Castro are playing Hidden House Friday night (that’s tonight) with Random. Cover is a mere $5, so fork over your weekly allowance for taking the trash out and come have a good time. From Zilla’s description, their show is not to be missed.


Ever been to Phoenix?
No, never been. Only been to Vegas and LA out there.

For people who have never been here, I’m always curious: What’s Phoenix look like in your head?
Like a hybrid of Raising Arizona and then The Tao of Steve. It’s either a crazy bugged-out Mad Max desolate area or kinda cool spaced-out interesting place where people drive motorcycles and play a lot of outdoor Frisbee.

What’s the Philly scene like?
The hip-hop scene is comatose. It’s a nightmare. It’s strange. … Philly used to be really vibrant and full of cool stuff around the beginning of 2000. The neo-soul thing – we were the place to be.

Even after that, in 2002-2003, there were live hip-hop bands, spoken-word dudes, slam poets, that was really bubbling, too. They were performing at really cool places. Problem was, all these venues started closing and promoters started moving on. I got in the scene around ’05 and even from ’05 to now, it’s just a ghost town. There’s nothing exciting. Everyone is playing to their base and their corner and their little neighborhood and circle of friends. There’s no reason to leave your house to watch anybody, nobody is transcending or doing anything different. … It’s a mess. There’s really nothing. Even guys known nationally, they’re not here, they’re not playing here.

Philly is where people go to get comfortable. It’s very nice and very comfortable. … No one wants to be into stuff. There’s a lot of posturing and a lot of conditional love. It’s really bizarre. I don’t really concern myself with the Philly scene anymore. … It’s strange. I’ve just seen it devolve in the last three years. Now, the only thing I do in the city is non-traditional stuff – art galleries, art festival or play with a band. I don’t do rap shows. I’m done with that stuff. You’re playing for the same people. You’re playing for other rappers.

It’s not an inspiring or welcoming, bubbling scene. But then people want to own it; people want to be king of Philly, but nobody cares outside of Philly. I’m surrounding myself this year with really cool and interesting people that have nothing to do with hip-hop – a drum-and-bass dude and graphic-design guy and comic-book geeks. If I’m gonna stay, I need to maximize my surroundings. There’s no musicians, no rappers that inspire me in Philly, but not a lot of rappers that inspire me in general.

What is inspiring you?
I’m reading a ton of comic books and more crime-based noir – Raymond Chandler, pulp-heavy books, Ed Brubaker. There’s different stories about people in disastrous situations and how they deal with it. I like that stuff.

How did you meet Random?
He came up to me three years ago at this place Medusa Lounge. I hanging out there one night and he came up and was really cool, really personable. I got his CD. It was decent. I remember randomly see that album cover in random places, just out and about, and I thought, “There’s that guy.” Then he moved, I think, three years ago. I did one session with him a year and a half ago. He’s really personable, really cool guy. He found his niche with Capcom video-game dudes and really just killed it.

He was in the scene for years and years, so for him to exploit the opening in the marketplace, that’s fantastic. He’s just a great guy. It’s good when you see people like him make it. I think this is first show I’m playing with him at the same time. I’ve always missed it. Everyone always loves his set. It’s the first time I’ve ever played with him.

How did the Shadowboxers project come together
I was writing column for Jeff (Weiss) and would do it every month or so. Douglas (Martin) was hearing my stuff and was a commenter because he really enjoyed it. He got at me and said, “I made a track and I hear your voice on it.” I had it for like a month. I told him, “I’m just kinda stifled, you got anything else?” He was like, “I just made something.” It was High Noon. Whoa, oh my God. That song just pulled out this whole other side of me. … It was tapping into something I forgot about for years.

Douglas sent me a few more tracks and they have these interesting titles for songs – it was like a puzzle. It was like what is Weak Stomach, and Eric Lindros? … And it kind of developed into this thing. His stuff is really challenging. Some songs I would do in two days and some I had for three months. He pulled out this whole other thing in me I didn’t know I had. It was so organic and dope.

<a href="http://5oclockshadowboxers.bandcamp.com/track/eric-lindros">Eric Lindros by 5 O&#8217;Clock Shadowboxers</a>

It’s an Internet story of success, I guess you could say. It just became this thing and everyone I played it for liked it. It wasn’t divisive or weird or scary. And I’m like, “I’m onto something here with this.” So let’s put out the record and get a publicist, shoot some videos and do some promo. It’s really refreshing. I’ve done so many albums and groups and projects and EPs under various names and this works, this is what I like. I’m comfortable with this. I don’t hear anyone making beats like this. I can’t mail it in when I do stuff with Douglas. It pushes me. I like that. I don’t like making same songs or writing same rhymes or making same albums.

He cracked that door open. He didn’t even know. I didn’t even know. This feels normal, feels comfortable. Like putting on old jacket again.

You’re meeting Douglas for the first time this weekend in LA, right?
I’ve never spoken to him on the phone. Everything is e-mail, or texts every once in awhile, Twitter. I’ve seen him progress and do other stuff that’s interesting. He’s a really dope rock writer. I’m like, “It’s time to make some more beats.”

You have a new Shadowboxers album in the works?
Kinda like piece by piece. We have two songs in the can now. I gotta wait on him for whenever he feels compelled. I’m an artist of many whims and transitions. He used to do singer/songwriter lo-fi folk at first and then, probably around ’07-’08 started doing Shadowboxers beats like crazy. … I try to be cool with it and give him his space. I’m sure we’ll hang out and talk about this stuff.

So you guys are just exchanging the music via e-mail?
Yeah and Douglas doesn’t give any notes. He trusts me to do what I want. He just gives me a starting point and it’s up to me to figure out what it’s about. None of it is on a whim. Not with his music. It’s very moody. I know it kinda sounds lame, but I have to be in certain places to write to what he does. His music kinda tapped into that.

There’s definitely a distinctive style and theme to the album
At first when he sent me stuff, I wanted it to be separate from other stuff I was working on – more free-flowing, free-creating and I didn’t know what the hell it was. I would just write all this stuff down. That’s why I like guys like Raekwon and Camp Lo. Just sayin’ stuff that sounds really cool. I’ve always been attracted to rappers like that. So I was gonna make this a free-form thing. After I did it, Jeff said we needed dialog to tie the album together. All pieces of dialog and themes are from the movie Blast of Silence, a 1961 pulp noir movie. I became infatuated and was reading up on noir and Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I’m into look of pulp art. It’s really gritty – thes eedy underbelly of the ’40s and ’50s. I thought, “Jesus, I could just do this all the time and make it this one thing and not try to be everything or industry.” I’m not trying to compete with Mickey Factz or Wale; I don’t really want to. We started calling it “noir-hop” on press releases. Noir is everything: suspense, sex, danger, crime, loneliness, alcoholism. The language in it is so good. It’s slang. And that’s hip-hop. Hip-hop is slang. I started shooting photos all dressed up like detective or hitman. I’m trying to make it this very specific thing. And when I’m on stage, it’s that.

I don’t have discipline all the time to be in character, but when I go on stage and write, that’s when I become this thing, this character or this noir detective. I went to the library today and got this Chandler book. I just engulf myself in it and digest it and give it what it needs to be. Guys that rap about drugs, those guys lived it. They know the emotions and how it feels. So I’ve been leading like a purposeful pulp life … it’s kinda like research. I just like doing this in general. Now it became my life. Before it was just a way to write a rap record.

Give me an idea of what the live show is like
Just to tie it all in, what we’re doing is very specific. Had to really sell the imagery behind it and have some of voiceovers in between songs or before first song. … We’re just trying to give people an overall picture and feeling instead of me just rapping over an album. I want people to be weirded out at first or maybe they think it’s ridiculous or a gimmick, but maybe by end, they’re like, “Oh, this is cool.” It’s more exciting to have to get dressed up and I have to go to drycleaners. It’s more fun, like going on date with girl for first time. You gotta make sure you look right. This is new – no one’s done this. So how do we do this and people kinda understand what it is when we’re finished? We want them to be disoriented at first.

Are you worried that the imagery might distract from the music?
That’s fine. Most rap shows are terrible. I don’t have a band. I have nothing else for people to put eyes on. If they never heard your stuff, they’re going to give you the first song and tune you out. If images are cool and beats are cool, then they’ll give me shot. People have no choice but to watch.

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