There’s something very cinematic about Good Luck With That and Career Crooks as a group, running through everything from the name itself, to the artwork, and most notably, the themes and atmosphere of the music. I’m intrigued to find out if you, Zilla Rocca, write rhymes in a visual way, and if you, Small Professor, approach beat making as if scoring a movie?
[Zilla Rocca]: I like to write pretty specifically. And I’ve always enjoyed rappers and writers who pointed out very specific things. In rap, the greats like Nas, Slick Rick, Ghostface, Biggie, etc really placed premiums on the small details when they told stories, so even if you had no reference points on your own, it felt more believable as a listener. Tom Waits said something about that once which I always tried to follow: he likes song in which they tell the location, where there’s a place to eat, what the waitress looks like, if the cars parked out front have rusty mufflers, stuff along those lines. Even Action Bronson right now only raps in specifics – the color of his sneaker, the ’90s baseball player he looks like, what kind of sauce he puts on exotic foods. Sometimes it takes longer to write like that, but it also puts you closer into the mind of the author like what the hell have they seen or experienced to jot down stuff like that?
[Small Professor]: Usually the inspiration I get from TV and films affects my music in the literal sense, in the form of sampling vocal clips and soundtracks. However, for Good Luck With That, I certainly approached things in a movie scoring manner. Sometimes rap music where the lyrics and the beat(s) don’t match up mood-wise can be interesting in a starkly contrasting way, but I prefer to try to match the vibe of whoever I’m working with.
Zilla Rocca; You write very vivid stories with a keen attention to detail, especially on tracks like Cold Ten Thousand and Dock Street Suspicions. They remind me of the work of a range of different writers, from the noir of Raymond Chandler, to the gritty street crime of novels by George Pelecanos and Richard Price, to graphic novels by Frank Miller. Who would you say are your biggest influences as a writer?
As a writer, it’s all of those guys you listed, plus Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, David Goodis, Ed Brubaker, Megan Abbott. George Anastasia was a legendary crime reporter in Philly who I read heavily. Richard Stark. Lawrence Block. Warren Ellis who I reference on the album, he’s major. I read comics based on the author, not the artist, so I’m into visual mediums with great voices. I get a lot of lines from reading these people, some I jot down and use for bars and hooks, or some that literally make me want to rap as soon as I finish reading them.
Do you see yourself in the future focusing more on creative fiction, perhaps becoming a novelist?
Someone once mentioned that to me 4-5 years ago as a possible avenue. It feels overwhelming to think about, but I never entirely rule it out. I just don’t have any ideas that I think are good enough yet. I’ve made so many albums and EPs the past 10-12 years, I feel like each one was grooming me to the process of a book someday. Because it takes you about a year to write an album. Indie guys like J-Zone and Blueprint have published awesome books based on their careers, and I think I could do something like that because I’m older with a lot of wisdom and hilarious bits of failure and banal trivia to share in my rap journey.
It would be wrong to say that storytelling in hip-hop is back – it honestly never left. But there has definitely been a resurgence recently. A good example would be an artist like Ka, but also often in the work of emcees like Jonwayne, Homeboy Sandman, Your Old Droog and more. Obvious examples like Slick Rick, DOOM and Ghostface Killah aside, who do you think does this kind of rap song well?
I said it before, but I think Action Bronson gets overshadowed as a storyteller because his persona isn’t built around that, but he’s heavily inspired by Kool G Rap who is a masterful storyteller as well. Same thing with my buddies Billy Woods and Elucid – they touch on worlds so far out of my realm of life experience and it’s thrilling. I remember hanging out with them a couple years ago in New York and thinking to myself “I’m getting drunk with two of the most talented artists in the world who couldn’t be more opposite than me in every single way, all because we decided to rap at some point as young men.” I think Kanye is a great storyteller too because he’s good at being brief and to the point, which is incredibly difficult. This song White Dress he did, I still get goosebumps. Same with Big Brother. He’s the best in the business when writing about relationships and the honestly awful shit men think and do. Aesop Rock – fuck man. From No Regrets to Ruby 81 and Blood Sandwich, he’s made me want to quit multiple times the past 15 years. Danny Brown is slowly getting there, as is the homie Vic Spencer. It’s not an easily acquired skill.
Small Professor; You can tell by listening to the new album that it was an in-person collaboration – helped by you and Zilla Rocca living close to each other – rather than a via email project. As a producer, how important is it for you to create face-to-face in the studio?
I’m certainly glad that it sounds like it was an in-person collaboration, but not only was the album mostly done via email/Dropbox, I was given ZR’s raw vocals to build around rather than sending him beats to write to. I’ve always wanted to do an official project this way after spending a few of my formative years creating and releasing remix projects; I feel like while creating rap songs traditionally can be fulfilling, I’m better at matching up words with sounds that fit. Generally speaking, I don’t spend much time working with anyone face-to-face. I do music on my own, usually after a hard day’s work or when my children are ignoring me.
When working with someone who writes as vividly as Zilla Rocca, do you hear the lyrics first and then create a beat around them, or create a selection of tracks for Zilla to then chose from? What’s the process?
As previously stated, Good Luck With That was me creating beats around Zilla’s lyrics, but our also-recently-released project, Take What’s Coming, features ZR rapping to beats I sent him in the 1-2 months prior to its debut. Every once in a while, I’ll make an instrumental and be like “this is a Zilla/Curly Castro/PremRock jawn”, but that is mostly random and unexpected. I generally just try to create interesting things that can either be the backdrop for a new song or stand on its own 7 feet.
Producers like J Dilla, DJ Shadow and Pete Rock are credited with making full-length instrumental hip-hop projects a viable product, but Dilla himself often said how he always made tapes to sell the beats to artists, and not necessary to be seen as albums in their own right. How do you see your ‘Jawns’ projects – standalone albums, a way for emcees to audition your beats, or a bit of both?
I’ve always considered my Bandcamp releases as unofficial albums, or the rap beat version of a mixtape. Sometimes, such as in the case of Elderly Jawns or the Mixed Jawns mini-series, they can simply be glorified (and organized) collections of beat sketches. Sometimes, such as in the case of Chicago Jawns or the Nasty Jawns mini-series, they can be conceptual and/or theme-based in nature. It’s all really just an avenue where I can release what I’ve been working on fairly recently at anytime I want.
Beatmakers like RJD2 and Oddisee have been able to open up new revenue streams by making music with a view to being licensed for commercials, video games, TV and movies. Is that something you’d like to get into?
I’ve always had this idea to do a score for No Country For Old Men just for practicing purposes, to see what it would feel like to tackle a movie soundtrack. Guys like John Williams and Bernard Herrmann always impressed me with their ability to have their own musical voice remain obvious while providing full-length films with an integral dose of personality. Creating music for video games would be a welcome challenge for me, as well. I’m pretty much down for whatever.
Good Luck With That is out now. Listen below, then go here to buy it. If you are in NYC, also check the album release party, June 9. See flyer below.