Lord of the Fly talks racial inequity, future plans and campus community

This is a transcript of an interview with local rapper Lord of the Fly. To read the story printed in the Spring 2015 Welcome Back Issue, click here.

You record and are based out of Madison—what are your thoughts on Madison as a town? In terms of music, culture, society and so on?

I think it’s a really interesting place, in that there’s this really distinct perception of it as this liberal cultural center, that I’ve definitely experienced, and I think there’s a lot of historical stuff that’s been done here.  Nirvana’s Nevermind was recorded here—

Really?  

Yeah, they used to have a studio here that ended up getting hit by a bus. A lot of great records have been cut here. Bon Iver w as from around here…  I’m also from North Carolina, so I don’t know all the history, but it’s iconic in a sense. It’s also, you know, not a big city at the same time, compared to a Minneapolis or a Chicago, which are, I think, a little more active in their music scene as far as bringing acts up from a local level and pushing them to a national level. That’s been more successful in Chicago and Minneapolis, while here in Madison that’s been more contained in the local scene. But I think the local scene is really great. 

I came in from North Carolina as just an 18-year-old kid, especially just as a rapper who’d been getting people to email him beats and then record just, like, words over them. There are tons of musicians and producers who are willing to interface with me, and I felt like I was welcomed to the scene—very easily despite not playing an instrument. Well, I do play an instrument—I play violin—despite just kinda rapping and being like “I’m here, I wanna do my thing, I know I don’t really have any fans…” Well, I guess I was talented [laughs]. But I didn’t necessarily have anything to contribute, and so people were accepting of that. 

I think one thing too is that there’s that perception of [Madison] as a liberal place, and I think that I’ve found that… I’ve seen where that perception comes from, but I’ve also seen a lot in Madison that I don’t like. Or not that I don’t like, but rather that I find isn’t represented. I think that’s what’s really interesting is that Madison is this iconic music place, and I can definitely identify with that, but there’s also a lot of race and inequity issues here and some hella douchey people.  So yeah, I like it though. 

That’s funny, because a friend of mine, he’s a Poli-Sci major, worked in DC for a while, the most idealistic “I can change the system” kinda guy.  And when the protests were happening here, at College Library, he was part of the Die-In and he was just appalled. He was checking Yik Yak and stuff during it and all the shit he was seeing was—he was like “Man, I had this idea of Madison being progressive and thoughtful, but here’s a bunch of racist [people].”

Yeah, and I think it’s sort of two-fold. There’s the attitude of the student body, which is “I’m gonna go here, I’m gonna graduate, I’m gonna get a job, and I don’t really have any responsibility to the community in which I go to college in” and stuff like that, and then “I don’t have a responsibility to society to care about the other people who comprise our society.” And then I think there’s also, which is a little less reported on, on like an institutional and systematic level, there is… the poverty in Dane County is very strictly biased along lines of race. There’s this report—and I mean, I’m part of First Wave, a sort of scholarship for hip-hop and spoken word, so I’ve been kind of educated on the things that are going on in Madison—but there’s this report called the “Race to Equity” report which compares racial inequity in Madison and other areas, and they found that 75 percent of children, of black children, are under the poverty line. That’s three out of four. But it’s not just in Madison; it’s in all of Dane County. And that’s another thing, in these areas, there’s also a lot of heroin problems and the like there, and those are things you won’t hear and won’t think about, and yet we’re supposed to be the smartest people. This is the best of the UW system, and people here aren’t even acknowledging the problems that exist in their community where they go to school.

You touched on this a bit, but if you want to expand—has the atmosphere of Madison influenced your music? The way it’s produced, your lyrics, the way you shape your sound?

Yeah, definitely. I would say… in couple of ways, a lot of what I’ll do… just in living here has kind of taken in the architecture and colors of a place and the textures that make up a place like this. It’s an interesting mix of urban—it’s the capital of Wisconsin, you know, but at the same time there’s all these naturally occurring phenomena with the lakes and forests and everything. Even with the snow, just, like, the totality of all that. I try to take queues from that, and even incorporate that into the way I portray myself as an artist, whether it’s in the clothes I wear reflecting the silhouette of a city or stuff like that. I feel like my sound, at the same time, tries to blend that same sense of the urban and the rural. I come from North Carolina, which is—I come from Chapel Hill, which is relatively a parallel to Madison cause UNC-Chapel Hill is there, which is the big state school in NC, but it’s the not the capital, it’s a bit smaller. But I’m used to the mix of the urban and the rural there, and even in the music I listen to—I’d say the two genres of music I’m most heavily into are probably hip-hop and folk music. 

So existing in the city, but also in the scene in the city. I’ve been able to come together and form this collective, Catch Wreck collective, with CRASHprez and *hitmayng, who’s a graduate student here, and Coby Ashpis, and Aaron Granat, who’s like a com arts teacher here, and just a bunch of different people that really I think, because—it’s not like you’re in L.A. or something, where people are like “I need to get signed, I need to get a deal!” so they’re not really willing to work with you cause they’re worried about “Am I gonna get credit so I can get royalties and licensing?” whereas everyone here is focused on getting better as an artist and also—well, at least I’m—interested in getting better as a person too. I think everyone’s focused on improving, though, so it’s easy to learn from the people you’re around. 

And that’s another thing about being part of this collective, now I’ve been producing my own stuff and playing the piano and stuff like that. I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable doing it if I didn’t know people who are egging me, like “Show me, show me stuff about it,” and making sure I’m listening to the right stuff and all that, but also not letting me put out stuff that’s like really terrible without telling me it sucks first [laughs]. It’s just interesting because to me music isn’t a meritocracy. You don’t get rewarded for how, you know, good your music is. I feel like a lot of the producers I work with are more talented than me, but it just so happens our culture has a demand for, like, rappers and entertainment, and like dopamine in our brains when we listen to things and we feel aliveand all that. So I see these people who are more skilled than me, and I can learn from them, and give them a platform in exchange to get the respect they deserve. 

What was the best show you’ve ever played in Madison? I know you’ve opened for some really dope people—did you play the Lil’ B show with CRASHprez [in 2013]?

No, I didn’t! That was maybe like my third week of school, before I’d put anything out here. But I wish I did, man! That’s one of my favorite artists. I just wanna take the time to say, shout out to Lil’ B, Task Force, you know. 

Alright, let me think, best show I’ve played here… I’ve opened for a lot of bigger touring artists, and that’s always fun, cause people will always come out and I can present my art to people who might like, you know, similar artists, but my favorite show was actually—Catch Wreck, the collective I’m part of, threw a house show earlier last semester—

Was that the Pancakes one? I was thereit was so cool.

Yeah, it was called Wreckfast and it was [whispered voice] kinda my idea. It was Catch Wreck and breakfast, we called it Wreckfast. It was live music, we had live pancakes. My friend who plays saxophone was making pancakes, and my other friend was also making pancakes, just in the basement of a house, and I think by the end of the night we had something like 200 people come through. It was really grimy, like, the room where the mic and the PA was like too hot for people to even stay in there, people were leaving and coming out, but it was really dope, just cause we really did everything ourselves. It felt like a community there—it wasn’t as much like I was trying to promote to people to come out to my show as much as we threw a big party and everyone came, and it was crazy. It was easily the best. People brought bacon to cook on the griddle and everything. You wanna know the messed up part of the show, man? I didn’t even get a single pancake. 

Can you talk a little bit about your influence? Stuff outside of music –You already talked about the environment, but what about things like TV and art—things like that. 

I’m really inspired by a lot of young entrepreneurs who find a way to make their creative vision a reality, cause a lot of times there are artists that will have this vision, but they don’t have the ability to make it a feasible thing, with like funding and also stuff like that, maybe they’ll have a great song, but won’t have a way to get the samples cleared and will get sued and lose all their money. So, I’m trying to think—like, Madbury Club is one entrepreneurial venture I’m inspired by. Philip T. Annand, who’s the guy who runs that. They’re a creative design house that does branding for Nike and stuff like that. Other artists that I enjoy…  Kehinde Wiley is an artist whose work I really like, just as far as his representation of people of color in high art, where that’s a space that they’re not necessarily represented in. I have a lot of musical ones, but I think also… people like thestand4ard, who are an act coming out of Minneapolis, which consists of just 21 year old, 19-to 21-year-old kids who just went on a national tour and sold out every show. And I’d say, even before that, people that I’ve met who I’ve seen pursuing their dreams influence me more than people who are successful. Simon from thestand4ard, this summer I stayed with him—well, I stayed in NYC and he was living there too and we worked on music every day for a month. We made a bunch of tracks and I saw his process, how he’s a really creative dude that’ll just be, like, “Okay, I need to make drums, what should I do? Oh, I’ll just record a bunch of coins swishing around on my desk through my iPhone and then put it through my interface and my DAW. Glen O’Brien, “How To Be a Man,” that’s a big book for me. He was GQ  Style Guy editor for a while, and it’s just like, people who… it’s just impossible to be a better artist than you are a person, you know what I’m saying? People who have found ways to really make themselves have a legacy that really stands for something, more so than just finding a way to be like—“okay, A$AP Rocky’s right here, Lil’ B’s right here, I’m gonna come in right here and make this hot song that people enjoy.” Okay, but are you really supporting the people around you and are you really thinking of the community and stuff like that. But stuff like, and really, the canon of work, are you really adding something that’s long lasting? So, all those people [laughs]. Oh, one more, a big influence; Rain Wilson, the assistant creative director for First Wave. She’s like a playwright and painter, she’s just an amazing individual. I’ve had the opportunity to work with—well actually, I haven’t even had the opportunity to work with her, she came to the program after I’d completed the class that she teaches now, I was taught by someone else, but even seeing how she works and stuff like that has just inspired me a lot to grow as an artist. 

What’s kind of funny is that, while were setting this interview up, we were also talking about setting up a house show—still looking for a venue, gotta figure that out—but the reason that started is that a friend of mine records noise music out in Chicago, and I saw his show in Milwaukee before I came back to Madison, and it was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. It was him and two guys with contact mics hooked up to things and they did a lot of sound manipulation and looping and the dude got antagonistic, was getting into the crowd, getting into people’s faces, [breaking stuff], you know. I was talking to him afterwards and he mentioned he wanted to come play Madison, cause he loves Madison—I told him the one condition was that couldn’t hurt anyone here [laughs]. 

Yeah, you hurt someone in Madison they call their lawyer [laughs].

Exactly, exactly. But the thing ishe said to me, “If I play Madison, can you get Lord of the Fly on the bill? I love that guy!” and I was like “What? No way, cool!” So, to awkwardly spiral this into a question—are there any things that you’re into, really invested in, that people might not know about from the way you present yourself, or what you put out through your music?

Yeah, definitely. A big thing for me is—that I do actively—is clothing design. I’m part of this startup Super Losers. We’re sort of a creative branding house, so we started this one brand, Hidden Characters, so I’ll help with designs for that. I’m trying to think of things that people wouldn’t know about… Aaliyah is like the shit to me. My music doesn’t sound anything like hers, but it’s more so the way she presented herself as an individual. I don’t know, it was her birthday yesterday so she’s on my mind [laughs]. Yeah, I’d say the biggest thing is visual art, and I’d say especially since of how branded my music is, my visual art doesn’t really get pushed. But I’ll walk around with paint markers and stuff and just draw like random stuff. Oh, another thing I’m into is violin. I haven’t played in a little bit, but I’m getting back to it for this next project, which is gonna use more live instruments and stuff like that. Yeah, I can say that’s all the stuff I’m genuinely interested in that people might not know. And folk music, that’s another one. 

So NSFW came out almost a year ago—it was April of last year, I think—do you have any thoughts now, looking back on that over the course of the last year or so? Any reflections?

I would say I’m really just happy about having taken on the endeavor of taking on that project. I’m happy about the place that pushed me to as an individual and the growth that came from that. In retrospect, I wish I had promoted it differently, and like placed it differently, and released it differently. The thing is—so, NSFW, here’s a little breakdown—basically, the way I promoted it was I announced it was coming in the next month, I released singles and little teasers, and then released it at the end of April. And so, I think the weekend—it was coming out maybe on Tuesday, and so the weekend before I was playing a show in Milwaukee at the Borg Ward and some dude for ?????, a Brooklyn based clothing company—well, they’re pretty international now—he was covering the show. He wrote an article about Saba from Chicago, who’s like a big, big up and coming dude who was playing it. And his creative director sees it, who’s like the creative director for ?????, and he’s like “Lord of the Fly, I saw this music video I really liked”—he saw the “Just Sane” video, which was directed by Aaron Granite and Will Rylan. But he saw that, and was like “I wanna reach out to this dude, and release his stuff, and sponsor him with ?????. And so they reach out to me that weekend and are like, “Yo, we wanna release your next stuff,” and I was like “Okay, well, my album’s dropping in four days!” So, like, in reality I wish I had been like “Let’s push it back, and you use not only your blog, but also your publicist to get it on other blogs, and build a demand for it.” So I think it wasn’t, like, the smartest—especially since I’m in the journalism school and stuff and I understand strategic communications and it just wasn’t the smartest way I could have released it. 

Also, I wish I had just sat with it a little more in the studio, and worked on the mixing a little more. I definitely feel like I could have worked on it a little more—it was rushed, for no other reason than like—“I said I was gonna do it, so I’m gonna finish it this month.” But I think the act of making it was really helpful. And it got me to the next step I needed. It got me the clothing sponsorship. Now I have a publicist, you know? And I’m in the Journalism school, now I can work on placing my stuff how I want it, creating a demand for my next project before I put it out. I dunno, one thing too is… I put out the “Lord of the Fly” video my freshman year, that, you know, did very well. But when I put that out, I recorded it in two separate studios randomly, that I had to find on the internet, and like ask permission to use and I only got like an hour in one of them. So even for this last album, half of it I recorded at the Boys and Girls Club on the south side of Madison, you know what I’m saying? Now I have a mic set up in my room and a place I can record in Chicago, and stuff like that, but I think that…even with the amateurism with which I attempted it, I’m really happy how this came out, and I’m looking forward to working more professionally in the future. 

On top of that, we can’t all pull the Jay Electronica, sit on an album and marry an heiress. 

For sure, for sure. I mean, maybe… Nah man, marry for love, not for money. 

In a market like hip-hop, which is predominantly occupied, stereotypically, by people of color, what has your experience been as a white rapper? Do you think it’s been different, something you’ve really noticed?

Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely been different than if I wasn’t white. It’s definitely been my own experience, as I’m sure everyone else has their own experience. I mean, I think that a big thing that happens when people play my music and stuff is—then they’ll be like “Oh, this is him! Oh shit, I didn’t think you were white!” and that’s definitely a common response to it. I think a big thing for me, especially studying journalism and media and the way that effects our mind, is, like—representation of people of color in the media, I think my thing is, especially now that I’ve had time to really sit and think what I want to do with my work, I think I need to inspire and uplift the artist community that I’m part of, which is composed of a lot of artists of color, and give them mentorship and leadership and resources and stuff like that so that they can be represented as they want in the media. 

The idea of Lord of the Fly, right, that to me is like being in control of the things you think are cool or ideal, and in that sense it’s your ideals or your morals, so I guess it’s to say—and, I guess it’s similar to the Buddhist idea of being in control of “want” and not wanting thing, but more so now it’s deciding we live in a place where we—it’s knowing what you want and going for it. And I feel like there are lots of things, for instance the inequity in Dane County, that I’m aware of and that I want to speak out about, but I know it’s important that I’m not the one, I’m not the face people see saying that stuff. Then people, little kids who are just establishing a world view of what people can be good and what people can be bad and stuff are going to just associate that with me, and it’s not really my fight and not really my issue. So what I try to do is get—like my roommate, he’s a very talented singer and person of color that’s also my mentee, I mentor him in First Wave, so I try to give him the resources he needs for his projects and stuff like that. That way he can really grow into that great leader and I can be behind the scenes helping him do that. 

And also, I think my personal narrative is important just as an individual and also as a white person, I think. I don’t know, it’s important to talk about what I see because I have a different perspective, you know what I’m saying? Maybe people of color won’t hear how often white people say the n-word while they’re not there, but like, I do. So I can understand that, and I can then represent that how I want to. So I think I have an important role, but as a white rapper, my purpose is to help the people around me pursue their passion, be in control of what they want. Be lord of their flies, or whatever [laughs]. 

You’re working on a new project right now, could you talk about that a bit?

I’m working on a… so, this past semester, I’ve been working with playing with a live band, recording with a live band, stuff like that. We’ve been making one to three songs a week this past semester that I haven’t really been putting out. And over winter break I rented some studio sessions, we went to Soundscape Studios in Chicago, closed studio sessions, and laid down some demos for some stuff. I have a project I’m looking to put out probably this summer, through ????? and Catch Wreck, that’s really going to establish my sound as something that is that mix of rural and urban and folk music and also, like, kind of orchestral music with modern day hip-hop to form sort of a new genre and a new sound. I’ve kind of taught myself to play piano over this past semester, so there’s gonna be a lot more of me playing keys, a lot more of me singing, stuff like that. It’s not necessarily going to be a traditional hip-hop project as much as a… almost more of a noise project! Probably softer noises and less antagonistic, but yeah. But yeah, I have a single on the way, “She’s Just Another Vanessa,” classic tale of heartbreak and of loss, and then more tracks on the way. I’m really, more than anything, looking forward to seeing the kind of growth that me, my friends and the community around me have underwent, and now, the power we have from that growth, using that to make something really strong. 

Any closing remarks? 

I just really hope that everyone reading this takes the time to think about the person that they’re becoming today. I just want to say, your identity is just as much rooted in the future as it is in the past, you can still grow into the person that can make the change. Your designs for great things—all the artists I’ve seen that are the most successful aren’t the ones who are talented, aren’t the ones who are born with great voices or perfect pitch, they’re the ones who have a vision, they’re dedicated to that vision, and they’re willing to learn anything, any skill or anything that is necessary to make that vision a reality. So I’m just hoping that everyone can really focus on their vision, and understand that you’re capable of learning or growing to make that vision a reality. 

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