This is how a Chicago banker produced an album full of verses from all of his favorite rappers and yours.
Photos by Andrew Zeiter
Lil Fame (of M.O.P.), Cormega, and Killer Mike together on a track seems like a lineup straight out of some rap nerd's imagination, the sort of thing that might get assembled if there were a fantasy football-style thing for rappers (I definitely remember signing up for some short-lived thing like this circa 2007; free startup idea for anyone today!). As it turns out, that's pretty much exactly how this track came together.
A-Villa, the Chicago producer behind “The Warrior, The Philosopher, and The Rebel,” which Noisey is premiering below, has spent the last several years carefully assembling an unbelievable roster of talent to rap over his beats by “collecting” verses from many of his favorite artists. The vice president of a bank on Chicago's South Side, A-Villa decided to start making beats following the death of Gang Starr rapper Guru in 2010, and his hobby gradually gradually attracted the attention of rappers like Mikkey Halsted and Rapper Big Pooh (of Little Brother).
The result of this lovingly assembled collection is an album, Carry on Tradition, that's due out on Chicago label Closed Sessions on September 23. Among the contributors A-Villa managed to line up are Big K.R.I.T., N.O.R.E., Action Bronson, Kool G Rap, Joell Ortiz, Nico Segal (Donnie Trumpet), Freeway, Havoc, Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marciano, AZ, Elzhi, Michael Christmas, Chance The Rapper, and many more. It also includes this song, which is rowdy as hell and leans on royal fanfare-style horns for an effect that's classic without seeming out of step with 2014. Lil Fame is quick to “leave your grill smoking like a barbecue” and sure to “call a jackass quicker than Obama do.” Cormega gets personal, and Killer Mike both compares bullets flying to skateboard tricks and a butt to Louis Armstrong playing saxophone, which is some of the most poetic rapping you'll hear this year.
I had to know more about A-Villa's awesome story about turning his hobby into a dream come true, so I reached out over email with a few questions, below. Stream “The Warrior, The Philosopher, and The Rebel” and learn about A-Villa's fortuitous MPC purchase. Carry on Tradition is out September 23.
Why were you inspired to create music by Guru's death, specifically?
Early 2010, I was working at a bank and going through the motions of a daily 8-to-5 career. I sort of got bored and needed a creative outlet, but I didn't know what that would be. I've always been a fan of Gang Starr, and when Guru passed away in April of that year, it sort of hit me. It didn't hit me like losing someone close to me. More so, it just put things in perspective. We all could be here today and gone tomorrow, but what will we be remembered for? I have a daughter now, and I want to leave behind more than just money and material things. What better way than to make music and create a real album that represents who I am and that she could remember me by? I'm not a singer or rapper, but it was always a dream of mine to be a producer and make music behind the scenes. It's weird to say, but Guru's unfortunate passing really gave me the courage to pursue my dream of making music. Becoming a father just solidified it.
What were your early experiments like?
I've had no musical training whatsoever. When I first started making music, I couldn't play a note on any instrument if you asked me to. I didn't even know what a bar or a drop in a beat was at the time. However, I had a good ear for melodies, and my real training was just being a fan of music ever since I was a kid. My mother was always playing music in our house, and I just soaked it all in. And when I finally decided to make music, I went to a Guitar Center and bought an MPC 3000. I took it home, studied it, worked with it, and was making random beats that sounded like poor imitations of RZA and Pharrell tracks. Listening back, my early beats where horrendous. But we all have to start somewhere, and I just kept at it, put in the work, and got better.
When did you realize it might be more than just a private hobby?
I finally got the courage to let other people hear my music, and I got a positive response. At first, I was just making beats in my basement for fun and for myself. I didn't know what I had. And outside of a couple family members, I never let anyone hear anything. It wasn't until a couple weeks after Guru passed away and I saw a flier about a beat battle in Chicago hosted by Mikkey Halsted. I submitted some beats and qualified for the competition. I showed up at the venue with a few people, and I was just a nervous wreck. I didn't know what to expect. I thought I was going to get the Apollo treatment and get booted off the stage, but the exact opposite happened. I actually got a good reaction in the first round and kept advancing. I was competing against more experienced producers with song placements, and I ended up winning the entire competition. I got a lot of love that night from the crowd and the artists in attendance. I just felt on top of the world, and I knew I was on to something.
What launched the idea of 'collecting' verses?
So I won that first beat battle, kept competing, and won some more competitions. At the same time, I was making more beats and doing what every other upcoming beatmaker does: sending beats to every rapper I [was] a fan of, just trying to work and get recognized. However, I was getting no response at the time. It wasn't until I got a call from Mikkey Halsted, who I gave a beat CD to the night of the first beat battle I won. He liked the beats I sent him, and we got in the studio. Shortly after, I finally got a response from an artist via email. Rapper Big Pooh, formerly of Little Brother, reached back, liked the beats I sent, and sent me back half a song with two verses over one of my beats. I was ecstatic. I'm a huge fan of Rapper Big Pooh, Little Brother, and I remember playing those two verses for anyone that would listen. But all I had was half a song. I then reached out to Mikkey, told him about the song, and he knocked out the rest of it. That was the first song I made for the album and was the blueprint for how I would make the rest of the project. I reached out to all the artists I was a fan of, played them what I had, and told them what I was trying to do. They liked what they heard, and the rest of the songs just snowballed from there.
Who have been some of the most exciting rappers for you to receive verses from?
That's hard to say. I'm a fan first, so initially I approached all my favorite MCs and went from there. I never got discouraged when I got rejected because the artists that were down to work with me were a “who's who” list of legends and respected current artists. Coming up and being a fan of hip-hop's golden era, it was a blessing to work with a icon like Kool G Rap. However, I probably was most excited when I got to work with AZ. He's truly one of my all time favorites and, in my opinion, has never released a bad verse in his career. The song we did might be my favorite song on the album.
What goals do you have for this project?
Ultimately, the goal is to make good music and put my stamp on hip-hop with this album. Outside of Chicago, I'm relatively unknown, but I feel I have something unique to offer. The fact that I was able to work with over 40 established artists, put this project together myself, and make a cohesive album as an upcoming producer is a testament to my goal of making good music on an independent level. I have no expectations for financial success in music, which is why I still have a career in banking. The music industry has changed, and if the album performs well—great. But if not, so be it. I still got to fulfill one of my dreams. Overall, I'm confident that I've made a good album that will stand the test of time. And when I'm gone, my daughter could play the album, remember what I did, and be proud of me. Mission accomplished.
Kyle Kramer is signing people up for his fantasy rap league. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer
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