Zilla Rocca Talks Electronic Music, Drops “Neo Noir” Prelude

Image via Zilla Rocca
Image via Zilla Rocca

We won’t harp on how future we can be – why bother, right? I will say, though, that Zilla Rocca has been a cat I’ve had my eye on for years. Even though the name of the game at DAD is electronic music, I’ve had my ear to the hip-hop underground for years now, especially when it comes to the leftfield excursions that the Philly-bred MC can take listeners on. Back before A$AP Rocky was rhyming over Skrillex beats, Zilla was expressing himself over dubstep, grime, and drum & bass tracks, along with his Wrecking Crew associate Curly Castro. Both have been featured on releases from street bass maestro Starkey, drum & bass legend Dylan, and with other talented producers, and they have a knack for approaching electronic beats that other rappers tend to miss. Throughout following Zilla’s career, we’ve become acquaintances, and he recently hit me with a copy of his forthcoming mixtape, Neo Noir, which finds him digging back into the electronic realm and sounding awesome doing it. When he hipped me to this primer mix he made to ease cats into this chamber, I figured now was the time to speak to him and get people in tune to how long he’s been at this, blending hip-hop and electronic music together, as well as drop the mix to the DAD community.

Now you’re hip-hop through and through, but have dabbled with electronic music over the years. Talk to us about when you first started encountering electronic tracks, and what made you want to start rhyming over them.
In the early 2000s, I was in college listening to everything from Dizzee Rascal when he first popped off to Bjork to Beastie Boys to Outkast. And I was lucky enough to befriend Noah Goldstein, who is now the full-time engineer for Kanye West and GOOD Music, and Starkey, who is an elite producer/DJ in electronic music. So we formed a group Crooked Soul around 2003 while Starkey was in another electronic group called Aunt Jessica. We would kinda fight to get his beats, and they were all experimental. This was right when iPods first came out too, so people weren’t fully blending sounds and styles yet. We were definitely ahead of our time. We were young, not caring about that, just doing what we liked. And we liked to do hip-hop that was spliced with grime, IDM/EDM, etc. The only people who liked it were non-hip-hop fans, so around 2006 we parted ways. I decided to do more straight forward rap, instead of rhyming on beats at 140BPM and leaving everybody confused. So with Neo Noir, it feels like I’ve kinda gone back to my roots. And now, people are more sophisticated and diverse as fans and listeners so I feel really confident blowing dust off the electronic burner so to speak.

Who are some of your favorite producers right now?
Right now, I’m a big fan of Silent Dust in the UK. We’ve been working together for a little over a year on dubstep, drum & bass, [and other forms of] EDM. Our aesthetics line up really well. I’ve always been a big fan of Bonobo, Four Tet, DJ Krush, Blockhead, Dan the Automator, Odd Nosdam, Ratatat. I think Mexicans With Guns doesn’t get enough shine (hence me rocking over one of his beats on the mixtape). MONO/POLY is ill, as is Shlohmo. I just started getting into Young Fathers. El-P is a grandmaster who has updated his style very well. Alchemist is probably the best hip hop producer again this year. Scoop DeVille is quickly becoming one of my current favorites too. And whoever in the hell is doing all of the beats for Shabazz Palaces.

Talk to us about Neo Noir. From what we hear, there’s a bit of a mixture between electronic beats and more leftfield hip-hop. Where do you see the line crossing between, say, a Clams Casino hip-hop track and someone like Branchez?
I had the title Neo Noir for a while. I’ve been doing my own thing for years under the guise of “noir hop,” and I felt like Neo Noir felt like a more current variation of my style. I realized that there was a disconnect between the contemporary music I enjoy and the dynamics of the music I was releasing, and that a lot of people who have caught wind of me the past three-four years wouldn’t really know of my background rhyming over double-time 808s and such. I play Juicy J and Pusha T just as much I listen to Aesop Rock and Planet Asia, but there was no grand plan with any of this stuff — I just make music all the time and figure out stuff later. I’m saying all of this now in hindsight. Once I heard Gaslamp Killer’s album The Breakthrough, I felt like I had to go home and immediately rhyme on “Dead Vets.” Then I started thinking about music I just enjoyed that made me want to rap. So I tackled yU’s “Fine” off his album Before Taxes next — I’ve loved that song for three years. And I just took it from there. It felt right, so I went through my iTunes library, picked out all the beats, sequenced them for a project, used the title Neo Noir, and boom — it was done really fast. It was effortless. That’s when I knew it was meant to be.

I think Clams Casino is a contemporary version of Blockhead, DJ Shadow, RJD2. It’s a similar formula — find moody, melodic samples and go to town. The only difference is the drum choices and bass. They’re all great producers who fit the sounds of their era. It makes me pay attention when I make beats and then when I pick songs to perform. I go to a lot of shows and clubs with my fiancé and her friends, and I pay attention to the audience, whether it’s a dub step DJ or some indie folk musician. And I saw the reaction I was getting to the song “Massive” anytime I would perform it live. Branchez and Clams use sounds that are very comforting and stimulating, or wild and aggressive. These are the dynamics that people are reacting to the most right now. And my theory is that people are so overstimulated right now — there’s always a screen to look at with music playing in the background. So people like things that either blend well into the background, or smack them back to life. And because we’re all completely intertwined with technology, people are choosing music that is made electronically more than live instrumentation, analogue recordings, etc.

Would you ever attempt to do a project with nothing but electronic tracks?
I’ve thought about it. Like I said, I spent a good four years doing nothing but that with Starkey and Noah. I’ve had DJs suggest it to me, and a few producers like Dylan and Kitech feature me on multiple drum & bass and dubstep tracks. I change styles often based on whatever is compelling me to react at the moment. Some of the beats on Neo Noir are four-to-five years old, some came out this year. I’ve talked with Silent Dust about doing more work — we’ve done a handful of songs that all have come out really great. I just look for people that have a certain vibe. You can shake a tree and 10,000 trap or dubstep producers will fall out because it’s in fashion right now. But it’s actually easier for me to rhyme on electronic tracks because they’re very open and challenging. It makes me change my approach and experiment more.

Talk to us about this mix we’re about to premiere.
This mix has some exclusives no one has ever heard, namely “Drowning Venice” remix with Starkey and the “Philly Crime Remix” with Dylan & Kitech. It’s got some personal favorites from my guys like Elucid and Curly Castro. It has some beats I initially wanted to use for Neo Noir but didn’t fit the project. The mix is kind of a heads up on where I’m going with the mixtape and a little glimpse into some of the music I just enjoy as a fan: Cotton Jones, Dirty Beaches, A$AP Rocky, Roc Marciano, Why?, Raekwon. I want people to discover something new, maybe be reminded of joints they slept on like “Cocotaso” by The Beatnuts & Tony Touch. Neo Noir is my most joyful release yet, and this mix is an extension of that feeling. So don’t be a bitch — listen to it! NOW! RIGHT NOW!

Tracklist:

1. Mr. Hill “Feeling Fine”
2. Silent Dust x Zilla Rocca “Massive”
3. Dabrye feat Guilty Simpson & Paradime “Special”
4. Elucid “Whirlwind Thru Cities”
5. Mexicans With Guns feat. Freddie Gibbs & Bun B “Highway to Hell”
6. Starkey feat Zilla Rocca “Drowning Venice (Airtight Refix)” EXCLUSIVE
7. CRS “Us Placers”
8. Dirty Beaches “Lord Knows Best”
9. Cotton Jones “Gotta Cheer Up”
10. The Beatnuts feat Tony Touch “Cocotaso”
11. Shabazz Palaces “Barksdale Corner”
12. Mos Def “White Drapes”
13. Starkey “Paradise (Rudi Zygadlo Remix)”
14. A$AP Rocky “Suddenly”
15. Flying Lotus feat Blu “GNG BNG (MeMix)”
16. Roc Marciano “Poltergeist”
17. Zilla Rocca vs. Javelin “2 Dollar Lunches feat Has-Lo” (TAKEN FROM NEO NOIR)
18. Why? “Against Me (Amp Live Remix)”
19. Green Lidget Position x Curly Castro “Teenager”
20. Dylan & Kitech feat Zilla Rocca x Elucid x Curly Castro “Philly Crime (Kitech’s Trip Hop Remix)” EXCLUSIVE
21. Four Tet “Angel Echoes”
22. Raekwon “Never Can Say Goodbye”