In an industry saturated with musicians and brands, it’s oftentimes difficult for new artists to break through the noise and offer a fresh approach.
Not for Willis.
Ironically, Willis’ fresh approach to hip-hop is his honesty. As mentioned in my previous post about his newest EP, The Color Room, Willis consistently and candidly reflects on his real-life experiences… never phony, never fantasy.
In an effort to better understand the man behind the lyricism, I joined Willis on a breezy Sunday morning in the Windy City.
Willis is undoubtedly a nice guy – soft-spoken and gentle upon first glance, but his suppressed angst and determination to strike chords in rap circles doesn’t go unnoticed. This just might be the formula for his success. The rooftop lounge might have helped…
You started in music so young! From the rock band you created as a kid to becoming a rapper in middle school. Was the goal always to be a professional musician?
That came to fruition over a long period of time. Even when I thought that was the goal, I didn’t really understand what that meant. I remember being 16-years-old and thinking “yeah, this is what I wanna do” but I didn’t understand what that meant.
And what does it mean?
You dedicate your entire self to it. When you’re young, you don’t understand the steps you have to take, the things you have to learn, the people you have to meet, the hands you have to shake. When you’re young, you’re thinking “Oh, I just want to make music.”
You have to treat it like a business. In my opinion, you’re an amateur until you cross the threshold and understand that what you’re doing is a business. You are a business owner selling product. I started looking at it that way.
I was working at a Jimmy John’s for a year and a half and it was horrible and I hated it – I didn’t want to be making money from food service. I wanted to be making money from music. So I figured if other people eventually figure it out, I would too. I just started learning the process and I was able to quit my job late last year. Now I live entirely off of music.
Do you think your mom being a musician has helped you understand that industry?
I can’t tell you how much of my character I get from my mom. My mom is an incredible person and I watched her deal with struggles and hardship. She’s always been tough and resilient and no-bullshit. She preaches not to feel sorry for yourself. I learned that attitude from her.
She’s also a go-getter. Being a musician, especially a harpist, is difficult. There’s such a different demand for that. Being a rapper, you can just throw your music on SoundCloud and hope it gets plays. But being a harpist, you have to be constantly going out and meeting people. She can be in a room with 100 people and she’ll know all of them in 15 minutes and have business with half of them in the same amount of time. She’s the one that always taught me to treat the music like you’re going to work. For a long time, for me, it was still super social. I’d be afraid to go out and go to a show or an event, because it was social and I’m antisocial and I get uncomfortable in social situations. My mom said treat it like you’re going to work. Do you feel nervous going to work at Jimmy John’s? I don’t… so she said treat it like you’re going to work – not a social situation.
You have to get your mom on a track playing the harp!
That’s already in the works! I just taught my mom how to use Garage Band. The other day I went to her house and she was sitting there working on a trap, hip-hop beat that she made on the harp! It was dope.
Does she listen to your music?
Oh yeah, my mom’s my biggest fan.
She’s also my biggest motivator. She’s the biggest poke in my ass, texting me asking how much money I’ve made and keeping me straight.
Have you ever put something out that you didn’t want her to hear?
Nah. You have to reach a threshold where you just stop caring about what your mom or aunts and uncles will think. If you’re going to do it as a business you have to just keep that out of your mind. At the end of the day, they know who I am and they know that this is what I love to do.
So how’d you get into rap and hip-hop in the first place?
Growing up, there were always instruments in the house. When I was young I was a skater that was into rock music and in a rock band. But a lot of my friends at school would rap at lunch. I used to write poems so one day I just decided to see if I could write a verse.
Then I started writing 16s. And then I started rapping. When I was 12 or 13 I got Logic Pro and a mini keyboard and I started making beats. The reason I got into making beats is because I kept looking for instrumentals to use and I couldn’t find any of them. I’d listen to the song and remake the beat myself – that’s how I got into producing.
I’d listen to the song and remake the beat myself – that’s how I got into producing.
So you were always super independent and on your own?
That’s always been my thing. I’ve always wanted to do everything myself – whether it’s mixing, producing, mastering, artwork, anything.
We live in an age where you can have studio quality music from your bedroom just with a MacBook and a microphone. Everything’s more accessible. I find that people don’t really want to take the time to learn. Patience is absolutely necessary.
As you grow as an artist, what’s your recording and creative process like?
It’s in my apartment. I have access to studios but I like the feeling of recording at home. It’s always what I’ve done, it’s more comfortable – so I just record in my apartment.
I’m super anti-social. I’m awkward and I just like to be in my house by myself recording.
How were you received before? There’s a stigma with white guys rapping, everyone knows this. How did people approach your music?
I have a skewed view of it because I went to an IPS school so it was perfectly normal for me to be rapping. None of my friends thought it was weird. When I got to high school that totally changed. There was a much bigger array of people so the whole ‘white rapper’ thing became apparent to me. At the end of the day I’m an artist, a musician. I’m good at what I do and I love it. It’s definitely different – but it’s not any easier or harder.
At the end of the day I’m an artist, a musician. I’m good at what I do and I love it
I do understand the stigma… My first impression of me would be bad! If I met me, I’d say “fuck that dude.” But at the end of the day I just have to tune everything out and do it because I like to do it. If we were in an apocalypse and all I had was my microphone, I’d still do it. I do it because I love to – not because of what people think of me doing it.
If we were in an apocalypse and all I had was my microphone, I’d still do it. I do it because I love to – not because of what people think of me doing it.
I think it helps too that you’re candid in your music! Like I wrote about in my post: it’s not like you’re out here making shit up. You’re writing about your legit life.
Right! And honesty is a big part of what I do. I don’t understand why you’d be any other way with your music. A lot of the stuff I listened to and got inspired by was honest music – people being real about what they do and who they are. That’s what I like, it gives me the most relief. Music is a form of therapy for me.
On that note, who did you really rock with that influenced your sound?
It’s kind of changed over the years but I think that the number 1 sub-genre of hip-hop that I loved was old-school boom-bap, like 1990s hip-hop. My all-time favorite album that exists is The Infamous by Mobb Deep. That whole album is what influenced District Nine and the song Misfit. 100%.
I heard Illmatic for the first time when I was in 7th grade and I remember my introduction to hip-hop was Graduation by Kanye West, which is a great introduction to hip-hop…
That’s the first album I bought with my own money!
That’s awesome! Graduation was my introduction. It has such great production and mixing and I think that subconsciously made me want to do beats – especially knowing that Kanye started as a producer himself. After that I branched out and found other things. For the most part, my favorite brand of hip-hop was 1994 New York stuff.
I could hear that in your music.
Yeah! If you listen to Color Room and then listen to District Nine, you’d think it was two different artists. That’s just because I go through periods of making different things. I don’t want to be the artist whose every album sounds the same. I like so many sounds and flavors and sub-genres. I still want to be authentic and be real, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change the sound.
I don’t want to be the artist whose every album sounds the same… I still want to be authentic and be real, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change the sound.
A lot of artists are beginning to blur the sharp lines of genres… they’re mixing them together and creating their own unique sounds. Is that what you’re trying to do with Color Room?
A little bit, yeah. Like The Misfit in particular has a jazz sample that I slowed down and chopped up. Color Room has some electronic influence and trap, even wavy hip-hop influence. It’s a culmination of everything I listen to.
You put on for Indy a lot in your music, too.
Yeah [with a laugh]. I have a weird relationship with my city, I’m telling you. The Misfit is all about how I feel like a misfit in my city because the music scene is very specific. There’s a specific sound and circle that does all of the big stuff. What I’ve realized is that most of my fan base and views come from outside of Indianapolis. It’s weird because in my city I don’t get a lot of respect and love. I talk about that in Once in Awhile: I get no love I get no respect, but I can find my peace of mind anyway.
For example, I was checking my Soundcloud and I have more plays from Rhiad, Saudi Arabia than Indianapolis.
Watch Willis’ lyrical breakdown of The Misfit here.
I love Indianapolis! But as far as the music goes I have yet to be acknowledged. Which is okay with me. I wasn’t okay with it for awhile. When I made Misfit I wasn’t okay – I wanted more respect. But what I’m realizing is that you don’t need to be a big local before making it big in general. A lot of rappers feel obligated to put on for the home team first, but I don’t. That’s bullshit. My whole thing has been going around the local rapper thing. I’m a local rapper in the sense that I live in my local – Indianapolis. But all my love comes from elsewhere.
But what I’m realizing is that you don’t need to be a big local before making it big in general. A lot of rappers feel obligated to put on for the home team first, but I don’t. That’s bullshit.
Who do you listen to now?
Definitely a lot of Smino – he’s somebody who I’ve been fucking with a lot.
Other than that, really just people I know. Paper Cleveland is a good friend of mine – he’s an Indianapolis hip-hop artist and I listen to him on the daily. Also my buddy James Oakland – he’s also awesome. I listen to Mathaius Young a lot, he’s doing some cool stuff. He makes all of his own beats and mixes his own stuff. He knows what he’s doing – he just had a song come out with Sonny Digital.
You’re listing off all of these Indy people. You can’t tell me you’re not getting love from home.
I’m getting a little love. More than I used to. It’s still not quite there.
You have hella views on a lot of different channels! Was that a surprise to you?
It’s funny to talk about this. For the longest time I was the rapper that was mad that he wasn’t getting any views. That was my thing for the longest. I felt like I was making dope music and only getting like 10 plays. I remember when my music first got featured on some promo channels on YouTube. Early last year, one of these YouTube promo channels posted an old song and it got like 20,000 views. I was like holy fuck! At that time, 20,000 views was like a million. I felt like I was rich or famous. And all they did was feature my song!
It’s surreal for me to be talking to someone about how many views I have because it’s still a relatively new thing. I also try not to look into that too much because at the end of the day I’m still not famous or rich. I’m not a staple in any scene, really. The views can be deceiving.
It’s also funny because those channels reposted some of my old tracks from an album called Chasing Daisy that I made when I was 17. I look at Chasing Daisy now and I cringe. My style and voice and lyrical direction have changed so much.
I started distributing my music everywhere when I released Chasing Daisy, but once these promo channels starting sharing my music a lot of Europeans picked up on me and started following me on Spotify. I don’t know why Europeans like Spotify more – but I have a song on Spotify with like 935,000 streams. I listen to the song and I’m mad that it has so many plays but that’s somebody’s favorite song… somebody likes it! I’ve seen the most success on Spotify – that’s where I make my money and pay my rent. So it’s awesome.
You’re totally invested in just this!
Yep. I pay my rent off of music
It’s cool to be so focused on music, but obviously I’ll never be exactly where I want to be. I’ll always feel like I could be doing more. But looking at where I’m at in comparison to like a year ago, it’s crazy.
Everything has it’s place and everything happens over time. It’s about understanding where you’re at and being thoughtful and having awareness of yourself.
Everything has it’s place and everything happens over time. It’s about understanding where you’re at and being thoughtful and having awareness of yourself.
That’s a lot of pressure too. It’s no longer just your passion, it’s also your livelihood.
Now if I’m not getting as many streams as I was last month I have an “oh, shit” moment. I’ve gotta sell some beats or do some mixing or something. But I like it! That’s one of the reasons I decided not to go to college, is because I felt like if I went to college I would’ve had a safety net. I wouldn’t have been hungry. If I’m broke and I need to pay the rent, then I’m gonna get this money.
Also, school was never my thing. I consider myself intelligent – I never had academic issues… but the social aspect of school sucked. School stressed me out because I’m antisocial. I left school a week into my second semester senior year – I just walked out of the building and never went back. I just knew what I wanted to do and I knew I didn’t need school to get it.
I hope it was really dramatic… like if you’re gonna leave school you’ve gotta go out with a bang and flip the table.
That’s kinda unintentionally what I did! It was during a lunch period and I just lost it. I was having a bad day already (not just a bad day, a bad week, a bad month, and a bad year) and when I got to lunch, I had no table to sit at and I just couldn’t take it. I seriously wondered why I was even doing it. I walked back into my classroom, got my backpack, looked at my teacher and said, “hey, I’m sorry but I’m going to leave.” I took the bus home.
What’d your parents say?
I just told my mom I couldn’t go back. She said if I wasn’t going to do school I had to get a job right away and finish online. So I got a job at Jimmy John’s down the street. At that time, I was still living with my mom at 46th and College. Then, financial shit happened and our house got foreclosed on so my mom and I moved to Broad Ripple. I graduated online and just worked at Jimmy John’s for awhile, doing the music full time.
You always talk about your mom – what about your dad?
My dad’s really cool, too. I think I get my personality traits from him. I’m really calm and rational, almost to a fault. I get that from him. He’s also really smart – he used to do interim professor work at Butler University teaching History. From the time I was a little kid, my dad always made me really interested in things. He’d always be talking to me about history, but he made it cool. I’ve always enjoyed history and science – my favorite class in high school was Latin with Mr. Perkins. He told us about History and he was passionate so it made it more enjoyable.
Even when I’m not in school I’m always researching. I’ll have a random thought like, “I wonder what Cleopatra looked like….” and then I’ll read an article from an Oxford student about Cleopatra and her ancestral history and other random facts.
You just like learning.
I love learning. I’m obsessed with space [references NASA hat]. Cosmos on Netflix with Neil Degrasse Tyson – that’s my shit. He’s the man. He’s the rapper of science.
I just remember my dad taking me outside when I was like 8 to show me the stars. He’d tell me how the light from the stars left thousands of years ago because of the speed of light. Stuff like that would blow my mind. So, I have a lot of interests besides music…
That’s good! You’re weird… but you kind of have to be weird to be into the art and make your music interesting.
Yeah, and I just like to keep my mind working.
Okay, so forget the plays on Spotify or Soundcloud. In your opinion, what’s your best song ever?
Can I give you a list of three? It changes daily!
Of all time, I’d say The Misfit…. [To his cousin, Sam] Help me out, what else?
[Sam: I’d say the Misfit!]
Well, let’s do a lyric breakdown of Misfit so you can go through a verse and explain the background.
I also like Numbers. A lot of your songs are deep in lyricism – honest, but really self-reflective. But Numbers…
Numbers is a big fuck-you.
Right! I was surprised to hear that from you.
You have to do that sometimes.