Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In-Depth With Remo Williamz

“There are worst things to be than in demand,” Remo Williamz says when we finally connect after a game of phone tag.

Williamz should know. He’s been hustling on the hip-hop scene since the late ‘90s.

“I did this backwards,” Williamz says. He tells me his unusual story of starting out in the music biz at the top, in “huge studios I had no business being in,” visits to Motown and Universal records, a recording “boot camp” that produced 13 songs in two weeks, and an intense period of traveling to and from L.A., Philadelphia, and Atlanta.

When Williamz finally settled in the Twin Cities and emerged on the local music scene, “Where the hell did you come from?” was the predominant reaction.  It took time to break through the Minnesota (n)ice veneer and connect in a genuine way with his “circle of cats” that include Kanser and Unknown Prophets.

“I haven’t done a ton of branching out,” Williamz says.

What he has been doing is working hard on his latest release, On Location, an LP four years in the making.

“It’s pretty sobering,” Williamz admits. “I learned patience with this album.”

When asked if there’s a theme surrounding the On Location songs, Williamz says, “I’m trying to show off versatility. It’s extremely well-rounded. There are a good amount of love songs. The ‘Baby, I love you and I want to move in together’ song, the breakup song, the ‘I hate my girl, but I like you’ song. There are songs about religion, about friendship, about running into someone you haven’t seen in a while. In the past, I’ve written about the experience of a dope fiend, of what rehab is like. I write relatable stories.”

Though the heft of the material sounds like reason enough to necessitate a gestation period between releases, Williamz says the delay was mostly due to finances.

“The scene is so unpredictable. I’ve had songs ready and been in a few situations that dried up due to working with someone who was an egomaniac, unreliable, or both. There are a lot of guys on the local scene who are in it for weird reasons.”

Williamz’s response has been one of “establishing a presence, having faith, and making a flagship capable of moving forward.”

With his new album, Williamz’s aim is to create a work of art that fans will hold onto, something that will stand the test of time, a collection of songs that can be appreciated long after the initial buzz has waned.

“Artists fall into a pattern of just trying to prove they can rap,” Williamz says. “But an album shouldn’t be a talent contest every time a beat comes on.”

What listeners will notice on the new release is how Williamz will use his voice to mirror the “delivery of a natural conversation.” When one is excited, one speaks faster. When one is telling a secret, the voice softens.

“I go from a melancholy whisper to full-on yelling and everything in between,” the rapper says.

When asked to compare and contrast the hip hop scene in the Twin Cities to musical communities nationwide, Williamz cites the sheer number of acts and the fulfillment of fans as strengths of Minnesota.

“There is definitely a good amount of opportunities to build together. That’s what’s behind the vibe we give off nationally. Of course you will also run into people who think it’s predictable. We live under that stigma, but it’s more of a talking point.”

The way Williamz sees it, there are different approaches to hip hop music in the metro.

“It’s a supportive community, but there are some people that are more entrepreneurs than they are rappers. They might have a studio where they bring in nine to ten acts a week to record, and seven aren’t making worthwhile music, but they pay the bills that way. That takes a certain kind of moxie. For me, music is personal, both in exploration and in execution. I would hate myself if I lived like that.”

Williamz, a refreshingly upfront interviewee, chooses his words more carefully when the subject of the Twin Cities Hip Hop Awards (which was cut short this year due to brawls in the crowd) comes up.

“It’s sad. I personally haven’t gone [to the awards] in years, since the first time I was scheduled to perform. It was supposed to be my big moment.”

Fights broke out—and broke up—the ceremonies that year, too.

“The scene needs to find a way to cater to the people so it won’t happen again,” Williamz says. “You simply can’t have enough security to stop that kind of activity if that’s what they’re determined to do. I’m not saying they shouldn’t market to people who aren’t prone to doing that sort of thing, but hip hop does carry with it that ultra machismo, negative tone.”

Williamz wonders aloud if a theater setting would be more conducive to a civil crowd, but “it’s not like he [the organizer of the TC Hip Hop Awards] can call up the Pantages Theater and ask to have it there.”

Conversation shifts to Williamz’s vision for the future of his career. “I’d like to be making music at the point where it pays for itself. The market is so oversaturated, but I’m trying to put out a real, worthwhile album that an eclectic crowd can appreciate.”

When asked to pinpoint his aspirational sweet spot, Williamz indicates somewhere between a superstar like Drake and a down-home hero like Zach from Kanser.

“Right in the middle of those two,” Williamz says with a chuckle. “I hope that when fans hand me $5 in exchange for something that took me four years to make, it will be seen as an act of trust. It will mean that they’ll ride with me.”

Williamz performs on June 21 at Honey along with Sadat X. His new album drops in late July/early August.

Tune into "Live From Studio 5!" every Wednesday from 10 PM to Midnight on KFAI radio for more Q & A's with local artists!

- Erica Rivera

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