Zilla Rocca: Future Former Rapper

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Photo courtesy of Bob Sweeney

Philadelphia emcee and producer Zilla Rocca has had one of the busiest years in Hip-Hop. He released joint projects with his fellow Wrecking Crew band mates earlier this year – “The Grift Company EP” with Curly Castro and “Thieving As Long As I’m Breathing” with Small Professor. He also dropped an EP over the summer called “Hard Boiled.” Most recently Rocca released his most daring music to date, a solo album titled “Future Former Rapper.”

Future Former Rapper features appearances by Armand Hammer, Sid Sutra, Serengeti, and Curly Castro. The album is produced by Small Professor, Steel Tipped Dove, Messiah Musik, William J. Sullivan, Disco Vietnam, Ray West, Starkey, and Zilla Rocca himself.

The Real Hip-Hop chatted with Zilla Rocca about his team, the Wrecking Crew, paying homage to classic Hip-Hop fashion, and his new album, Future Former Rapper.

TRHH: You released the ‘2000 Pelle Pelle Flow’ and before that the ’99 Triple 5 Soul Flow’ and ‘98 Avirex Flow.’ What’s inspiring these tributes to old jackets and flows? And what’s on deck for 2001?

Zilla Rocca: Wow, I really have to think back because the first thing that jumps out to me about ’01 is Blueprint. That was the shift back to samples. I don’t want to say watered down Jay, but he was kind of talk rhyming on that joint. I have to look back at ’01. The first one I did was ’98 Averix Flow. I had that beat for years. I was just playing it one day and just started rhyming like Scaramanga for fun. When you’re an emcee you’ll hear beats and go, “This sounds like a Cam’ron beat,” or “This sounds like a Ludacris beat,” or “This sounds like a DMX beat,” and start going into their voice and style. I was doing that with the beat for ’98 Averix Flow by my man Son Raw and I just started doing a ’98 five-percenter street flow for fun. I thought it was so funny. As I was writing it down I thought it was hilarious. I kept doing it because I loved those records so much. I came up listening to Rawkus and all that indie stuff, but I also like the street stuff too. There was always that defining line back then that you liked indie backpack rap or you liked street stuff, and I liked both. When I thought of that flow I thought about what I was in love with back then and I always wanted that Avirex jacket. I just thought it was funny to name it “’98 Averix Flow” [laughs]. If you remember these very specific things you’ll like this, otherwise you won’t get the joke or how much love went into that. People really love it and have been telling me that they’re playing it nonstop.

When I did ’99 Triple 5 Soul Flow with my man Disco Vietnam he sent me a bunch of beats and this particular beat sounded like Afu-Ra. I started playing Afu-Ra’s album a lot and I started rhyming like him. With the ‘2000 Pelle Pelle Flow’ one of my fans reached out to me and was like, “Yo, I got this beat that I wanna give you, but it would have to be a 2000 street anthem type of song.” He gave me the concept and it reminded me of Black Rob, G. Dep, or Kool G Rap on his second renaissance. I was stuck on that beat because he gave me very real parameters to go with as a challenge. I kept thinking of Capone-N-Noreaga. I always loved that N.O.R.E. flow – the first wave of N.O.R.E. when he would do that, “Catch you with the clips out/Four fifths out/Blow your shit out/My man Capone…” I don’t know why he stopped rapping like that. He kind of normalized his style as he went on, but me and my friends would always do that Noreaga flow from ’97-to-2000. I thought it would be a C-N-N song so I tried to do both of their voices. It’s just fun. It’s so goofy to me, but I genuinely love those artists and those records so much. When I put them out it’s generally for a small set of people that know what that is. You have to be of a certain age or certain taste level to catch what I’m doing. And when I think of those years I think of what jacket I wanted because I was a teenager. “What jacket did I want in 2000?” It was the Pelle Pelle. The artwork I used for ’99 Triple 5 Soul Flow was a Mos Def ad and I had that on my wall in high school. I did some deep dive on Google search, found that ad again, and re-did some horrible MS Paint on it – I don’t care. I always wanted that hoodie and I didn’t get it. It’s all things I really loved when I started rapping, because I started rapping in 97 or 98. Everything was so official and wide eyed. That’s what inspired that trilogy.

TRHH: You released the Grift Company EP with Curly Castro earlier this year and soon after dropped the Career Crooks project, Thieving As Long As I’m Breathing. Why did you drop those projects so close to each other?

Zilla Rocca: Career Crooks is me and Small Professor and we put out our first record last year, “Good Luck with That.” That was so unbelievably successful and we were just blown away. We were so thankful. For fun we decided to do a remix project and it started ballooning organically to a whole project. It was like twelve songs, but originally it was five. While we were expanding that, dealing with the label, and art work I just felt like there was too much time in between. I don’t like to sit on material. I have a really high work ethic so I don’t like to work all the time and just sit and wait. That just drives me crazy. Curly Castro is my best friend. We talk every single day on the phone. He was finishing up his album he’s working on and ironing out details with the label, and all the administrative duties that go into records, which is a drag – publishing, photos, and whatever. As we were dealing with Career Crooks stuff I was saying to Castro, “You’re going to be out in a couple of months and this is going to take me a couple of months, why don’t me and you just do something really fast?” So we did it.

A lot of those songs were joints we had separately or together. Some were older songs and we just revamped them and put new verses and hooks on them. He and I have been performing together since 2009. We’ve toured together and he was the best man at my wedding. We’ve never officially done something with just he and I only. I produce a lot of his stuff and he’s on my records all the time. I was like, “We need to separate this then,” and he came up with the name Grift Company. We just put it out for our friends that know us and people that like us and already know what it is. We weren’t trying to go into a big marketing campaign. We’re all in the same collective — the Wrecking Crew. That’s me, Small Pro, Curly Castro and loosely our good friend PremRock. He’s like the Cappadonna of the crew. He’s basically in it, but he wasn’t there from the beginning. It takes longer with bigger stuff, but we’re still active, hanging out, and being friends.

TRHH: You seem to be working non-stop, do you ever hit a wall creatively?

Zilla Rocca: That’s a good question. I mean, I’m at a stage now where I’ve been doing it for so long that to me it’s just a lot easier because you get direction. When I was like 21 I would hit dry spells, hit walls, was self-critical, not sure if I was good enough, or trying to really shine. You’re just more insecure in your 20s anyway. I’m 35 now and I’m just more relaxed in general. I’ve been rapping half my life so I know ways around those things and I know ways out of situations where I’m like, “That’s not good. That’s going to be a waste of time. I’m not doing that.” I know when I need to decompress, just live my life, and get inspiration that way versus locking myself in the studio every single day. You don’t get creative when you do that. If you’re always on the grind it kills your creativity. You need time to decompress, read a book, go to a movie, and hang out with your mom or something. It’s really important to soak stuff in. I’ve learned that over time versus trying to squeeze blood out of a stone.

Through experience you know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at anymore so you don’t waste your time going, “I gotta get on this beat because this beat’s hot!” and “Everybody does this style so I need to bend my style to be on this.” No, that doesn’t work for me so I just won’t do it [laughs]. I will not get on a Lil Pump beat – it just doesn’t work for me so I’m not going to waste time on it versus Career Crooks stuff, we just started our second album. I got beats a week or two ago and I’ve got two songs written. Those beats speak to me, he’s my friend, we work together well, we have good chemistry — it’s just easy. You create the conditions as you get older. I would hope for people to make their lives a little bit easier with more experience and know-how.

TRHH: You produced the song ‘Billy Batts’ and the vocal sample is really dope and drives the song. How did that song come together?

Zilla Rocca: That beat is like 7-8 years old, maybe older. That sample is from A Bronx Tale soundtrack. I live in South Philly and Bronx Tale is like the most seminal movie, even though we’re not in the Bronx. Every single person has it on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray. That is a life time movie. I have the soundtrack and I had a plan ten years ago to make an entire album sampling A Bronx Tale’s soundtrack. That was one of the beats. It was Bronx Tale or Goodfellas, one of those mob movies. I live in a predominately Italian area so I thought it would be a cool little thing to put out. I made that beat really quick and forgot about it. We did something to it years later and then we forgot about it again. Curly Castro was like, “Man, that song was always hot! Why did we not put that out? We were stupid!” So when the Grift Company started I pulled it out and I was like, “We never put this out!” so we went back and touched things up on it really quick.

It’s funny to me how many people love that song. We performed it a few times and did a video for it. That was a beat I made in ten minutes. It was super-easy, I didn’t really think too much about it. I think it’s a Supremes sample. It’s definitely a Diana Ross sample. I like doo wop and 60s girl group sounds anyway so that beat and sample was like a layup for me to get into. We did it really quickly. The beat is ten years old at this point but when we put it together everything was seamless. It’s funny to me to see how much people love that song. It just lets you know that if you’ve got something that’s really hot it doesn’t matter when you first made it.

TRHH: What does your workstation consist of?

Zilla Rocca: That’s a really good question too, man. I’ve been making beats since 2002 and I’ve been using Reason the whole time. I have a ten year old MacBook Pro laptop – it’s slow as hell. I have a Fast Track Pro interface, which now doesn’t work randomly all the time because it’s like thirteen years old. When I want to mix, master, and record stuff I have a two minute window before it starts working and I have to reset it — so that’s fun. That happens a lot now. I really need to buy a new one, but I’m really lazy and haven’t gotten to it yet. I like the charm of knowing I have a certain amount of time before this thing stops working, so I have to be more efficient with time when I’m recording or mastering stuff. I have Reason on a ten year old MacBook Pro, a thirteen year old interface, and then I have an M-Audio midi controller with the keyboard and drum pads on it. It’s like a 60 key keyboard/midi controller – I’ve had that for like ten years.

I have a Rode NTK mic, KRK Rokit speakers, and that’s it. I’ve had the same set-up since about 2005. The midi controller is newer, I probably bought that in 2009. I like to turn things on, know how to use it, and get what I want fast. I’m not a knob twiddler. There are a lot of producers that like to goof around with effects all day. I’m not a gear head that keeps buying all the newest stuff. There’s some stuff I would like to get, but I don’t have the time to master that. I mastered Reason by 2008 or 2009 and that’s all that I’ve ever used. I record using Logic on my laptop. I’m really self-contained. It’s pretty easy for me and I keep it moving.

TRHH: You do a lot of remix projects in addition to rhyming; do you prefer producing or emceeing?

Zilla Rocca: Man, you’ve got some fantastic questions.

TRHH: Thank you.

Zilla Rocca: It’s very different. It’s easier for me to remix something than it is to make a beat from scratch, than it is to write a verse from scratch or come up with a song. When you remix you have the cheat code built in. You already know what the BPM is and you already know what somebody has already done first. So if I’m going to remix Cam’ron and Jay-Z – Welcome to New York City I already have Just Blaze’s original concept and approach which is kind of like an 80s action thriller soundtrack. It kind of reminded me of a Stallone movie. I know that works so I can either do the inverse, do something completely stripped down and different or in that vein. It’s kind of your way as a producer to work with these people you’ll never touch, like working with Nas. And Nas has the best pocket for his acapellas. If you get the BPM right you can put Nas on anything. If the BPM lines up he’s just nailing it – he just rides it for twenty years, up until his newest album, which was not his best flowing. It’s fun.

When I do remix projects it’s like a lot of the beats I remix rappers then take from me. They’ll be like, “Nah, you can’t put that on, I need that beat!” It’s probably close to ten that I couldn’t put out that people took from me over the years. That’s like the most fun thing to do. It’s a super cheat. It’s so simple to do. I did one with Conway. My buddy DJ Manipulator did a song with Conway and I asked him for the acapellas. I was watching a movie where they were saying “the machine” and that’s his name, Conway the Machine. I sampled that and you already know what’s been successful in the past with this particular song. Remixing is a super cheat code move. It’s great. It’s so much fun. It’s a lot harder to start a beat from scratch or someone sending you a beat and you have to think of the concept, think of the hook, write the verses, and work on the flow. Writing a song as an emcee is way more lengthy than, “Oh, here’s a Jadakiss acapella, here’s the BPM, boom! I have beats than can fit this. Done.”

TRHH: Having a crew like the Wrecking Crew that’s made up of individuals, how do you guys handle disagreements when it comes to the music?

Zilla Rocca: You are on it, man! You’ve got really good questions, dude. The good thing is we’re all older. We were all in groups and crews when we were much younger. When you’re younger as men you get a bunch of guys in their 20s who are competitive and insecure. Dame Dash spoke about this. That’s not a good environment to be in. “Why did he get 16 bars and I got 12 bars? That’s not fair!” or “Why did he get a show? I didn’t!” You’re so caught up in chasing validation, props, looks, and stardom. With us there will be times we disagree, but it’s nothing like we really disdain each other or, “I can’t talk to that guy.” We either laugh at it or we know each other’s limits, but it’s always genuinely coming from a place of love. When we were younger and with different groups and crews it was coming from a place of vanity or pettiness or insecurity. I can call Curly Castro and he’ll tell me how he arranged his album and I’ll say, “You should change this,” and he can disagree with me and I can say, “Well, here’s where I’m coming from.” We can still disagree with each other and I’ll say, “At the end of the day it’s your record. I love it no matter how it comes out. I just think this should go here instead of here.”

Me and Small Pro, we had that years ago too. He asked me how his album was arranged and I was like, “I don’t think this really works this way, dude.” All you can do is say how you really feel and people know you’re honest and care about them and respect them, whether they want to do it that way or not, it’s up to them. We’re all just grown men. I hate to say it, but it’s true, we’re okay with being vulnerable with each other and saying, “I need help with this,” or “Be brutally honest with me and tell me where this stands,” or “Should I do this or not?” and not going for each other’s jugular if we don’t agree. I used to have a label and a different crew when I was younger and it was like group therapy. It was so draining. After that was over we did Wrecking Crew for fun and it was very different. It was like, “Yeah, let’s not do all that stuff. Let’s have fun and enjoy stuff and if we have disagreements we can move on, and that’s that.” It’s very simple. It’s really painless.

TRHH: What will people hear when they cop Future Former Rapper?

Zilla Rocca: This album took me about 3 or 4 years to make. The impetus behind it was at the time I started it I was about to get married and as I was making it I was getting married. Then I found out my wife was pregnant, then we had to get a house. So I was thrust into all of this real life, super-mature stuff. There is no right time for all that. I had the concept and everything in advance thinking, “Oh, I reached a stage now where I can kind of look back and pull a lot of different styles, looks, and ideas I did in the past together, now I know how to weave it together.” Because I saw how well-received Danny Brown has been and I love Danny Brown. I was like, “Wow, you can be a super rap nerd and also a super music nerd in general and you can weave records together.” The album started like that, thinking about Danny Brown’s album “Old” which is great because he made it when he was only 30 and I was in my early 30s. There was different sides to it. One side was grimy, East Coast/Midwest loops and ruggedness, and the other side was electronic. I was like, “I can do that and I’m going to make it one album.” Like I said with my real life stuff happening I was like, “Oh my god, I’m getting married,” “Oh my god, I have to get a house,” “Oh my god, I’m about to be a dad,” okay, the clock is ticking now and you’re not going to have all the time in the world anymore. I couldn’t listen to a snare drum for two hours, listen to samples for six hours, go crate digging for six hours, or spend four hours watching basketball writing one verse – that’s gone! The album has a lot of urgency for me just to kind of get in and get out.

Phonte says it about his new album “No News is Good News” and he kind of summed up what I was going for, “My album is for adults who have shit to do.” I’m not going to be making nine minute songs. I personally don’t like that. I don’t like songs that are 4 ½ to 6 minutes in rap. I think rap is always less is more. I’m not saying it’s not good when people do that, but I like brevity, getting your point across, and moving on to the next idea. My album purposely has several songs that are 2 ½ minutes or shorter. There are a couple of songs that are over four minutes but I’m not into 8 minute songs, 6 minute songs, and five different parts to a song. I’ll just make that three different songs. This album is about that. It’s more experimental compared to Career Crooks. It’s kind of like Grift Company where it’s boom bap loops next to some electronic stuff going on, 808s all over and hand claps. It’s my way of being a contemporary independent rapper versus being a specialist. Career Crooks is a very specialized style. It has an East Coast, late 90s feel to it. That’s what we like to do for fun. This record is Danny Brown/Vince Staples — that was the guiding inspiration when I started it.

Purchase: Zilla Rocca – Future Former Rapper

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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