Shadowboxin’ All Nite: 20 questions with Zilla Rocca and Douglas Martin

Here’s an example of when the internet improves music (and my life): when a rapper from Philly and a musician from Seattle email each other beats and rhymes until a free-spirited, highly creative batch of hip-hop tracks that sound like early ’90s RZA sampled from indie music, spaghetti western soundtracks, and Fela Kuti emerge. That was a long sentence.

5 O’Clock Shadowboxers are rapper Zilla Rocca and folk musician/beat maker Douglas Martin aka Blurry Drones. The wholly internet duo put out an excellent full-length last year called The Slow Twilight and on March 30th released Broken Clocks EP. Now before my hip-hop heads suspect gimmicky mixtape shenanigans and before all my indie readers pawn this off as another one of Curt’s long-winded, overly gushy hip-hop pieces give the new EP a listen below, and hell, stream The Slow Twilight while your at it, I suspect you’ll like what you hear.

Now I could listen to Zilla Rocca all day and be able to quote 3-4 rhymes per song (like this one off ‘No Resolution’: “pullin’ threads off my sweater/ they try to unravel me like Weezer/ but hipsters can’t battle me,” LOL) but this post is already borderline way-too-long so lets get to my interview with both gentlemen, 10 questions with Zilla and 10 with Douglas Martin. Go ahead, cozy up to the blog for some thoughtful, insightful nuggets of musical wisdom.

Also: If anyone’s going to LA tonight, a solid mom’s weekend event could be The Knux, The Holloys, Nocando and Shadowboxers live. Just sayin’

Read Zilla Rocca @ Clap Cowards

I want to get into the new 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers EP but first why don’t you tell us how long you’ve been rapping?

I’ve been rhyming for about 13-14 years.  It doesn’t feel like I’ve been at it for over a decade now.  Weird!

You’re from Philadelphia. How does that influence your music?

It’s influenced my life a lot more than I thought.  When I was living in nicer areas, my music was more carefree, imaginative, fun.  There wasn’t much thought to it.  When I’ve lived in, shall I say, cruddier areas, my output has been more angst-y, aggressive, and dark.  It felt like I had to work harder to have fun with music in those surroundings.  I’ve been in every part of Philly for work, school, hanging out, shows, etc.  There’s no surprises left to the town.  Now it comes down to the people around me and the actual living situation I’m in rather than the seasons outside or if the damn Phillies win another title or if Jay-Z decides to bankroll every rapper in the city again.

Who are the rappers, producers, musicians, or otherwise, that made you want to make music?

Ghostface made me want to do hip hop, point blank.  The first time I heard Ironman, it was such a rush.  I’ve been trying to recapture that moment.  It’s a great album still, but it’s my favorite piece of recorded music for that singular experience back in ’96.   The older I got and the more musicians I fell in love with and studied, it became a matter of “Who should I rip off this week?  Inspectah Deck?  John Lennon?  Tom Waits?  Dose One?”  Right now, what makes me WANT to make music is to challenge myself to do things I’ve never done on record before, so this week Amp Live, Why?, Mos Def, are my main inspiration.  But it changes bi-weekly.

You and Douglas Martin aka Blurry Drones collaborated exclusively over the Internet, right? How did you two meet and to what degree has the Internet influenced/affected the music of 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers? Do you see the Internet-age of music as a positive or a negative to artistry?

The internet is like the third member of Shadowboxers.  Without out, our existences remain isolated.  He heard my stuff at The Passion of the Weiss a couple years ago and tossed me some beats and it’s been organic and natural ever since.  I genuinely spazzed out on them, and the internet is to thank for that.  It’s helped all of us live easier, but not everyone uses it to their advantage.  It’s full of answers and people and cool shit, but it’s also made people lazier.  There are no guardians or censors or filters.  Sometimes that hurts, but there’s more GREAT music being made and, more importantly, heard now because of the internet.  I’m okay with that trade off.

What is the recording process like? Did Douglas Martin send you his beats and then you rapped over them, or vice-versa?

Douglas sent me all of the beats with weird ass titles to them like “Weak Stomach” and “Dead Queen”.  I handled the rest–the writing, the recording, the mixing, the final edits, etc.  So in a sense, it’s collaborative in that he provides a rough blueprint with each beat via the title, the arrangement, the melody, the mood, and I put all the finishing touches on it.  It’s great because there’s no deadlines or ego’s getting in the way of making something dope.  I hate when music is forced and with our working arrangement, that’s never been the case.

I love the humor and pop-culture elements in your rhymes, especially when you poke fun at bloggers and general Internet tomfoolery—which is found quite often found in 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers songs. What is your writing process like? Is it very “written” or more of a freestyle, one take kind of thing?

I talk shit about high volume internetians because I am one of them!  I have a blog.  And a facebook.  And a myspace.  And twitter.  And a Bandcamp.  And a CD Baby.  And 59 other things I forgot the log-ins too.  It’s all lighthearted stuff.  My writing process is never the same though.  Sometimes I do everything in 1 sitting or 1 day.  Sometimes I’ll piece together little phrases and words I’ve been jotting down here and there and it turns into a concept or a hook or something.  It’s highly thought out, planned and edited though.  I almost treat it like a damn book report or college essay.  The spontaneous things happen in the studio or on stage, which is often the best part.  If it’s really good, I’ll go back and add it to a finished song.  It’s kinda stressful at times, but it’s how I operate.  Us Virgos love methodical approaches, lists, and organization.

Let’s talk about Broken Clocks, the new EP. Like last year’s full-length, The Slow Twilight, there are quite a bit of indie-rock samples. The first two tracks sample The Black Keys and Dungen respectively, what was the inspiration behind sampling non-traditional music?

Its more daring and challenging to put rhymes and “hip hop” over non-traditional “hip hop” samples.  I’m drawn to music like that naturally.  I mean I love Freeway and Missy Elliot and Puffy because they’ve mastered the basics, but personally I like digging and scratching and clawing away at something new and unexpected.  I get bored with the same ol’ same ol’.  I picked out the Black Keys sample for “No Fury Remix” way before Blakroc and all that because I just always thought their music was hip hop minus the emcee.  The Dungen track, I made sure Douglas chopped that up for “Dirt Naps” because the mood of the original song.  It was very etheral and pretty and gritty and wide, like the ultimate paradox.  I just had to spit bars on it.

I’m interested what your take on “indie-rap” is in 2010. Genre’s have blurred, Def Jux is gone, the Internet, with distribution channels like Bandcamp have made it easy for anyone to get there music out there. What’s it like being a rapper today, and what constitutes “indie”?

Being a rapper today, largely, effing SUCKS!  Because everyone can do it, and there’s a million ways to go about it, it’s became devauled and lessened as an artform and as a viable piece of commerce.  Rapper Stock is falling fast.  If you are a rapper today, and an indie rapper on top of that, you have to really really love it.  No one is tossing out $500,000 advances anymore, and all your fans are now your competition.  I do like how we can put out anything we want at any given time–the immediacy of releasing music in 2010 is intoxicating.  But not everyone SHOULD be releasing music unchecked, much less making hip hop at the drop of a hat.  When Def Jux folded, it hurt because they were one of the few labels who embraced the internet, who respected their fans, and who did everything with class, precision, and quality.  It’s easier and cheaper to not do all of those things, so that’s where we are today with “indie rap”.

Tell us about Beat Garden Entertainment, the hip-hop company you found with fellow Philly rapper Nico The Beast. I love the motto, “Many styles. Many styles.” What’s the new style for Zilla Rocca?

This is a great question.  The first style or what you is, to quote Bob Dylan, “Don’t look back”.  So with that in mind, Beat Garden is no longer operating.  On to the next one.  I did that.  It was fun and a valuable learning experience for 4 years, but now I’m striking out on my own.  Me, Nico and Big O all had great individual opportunities pop up that didn’t necessarily intersect nor could fit under the Beat Garden brand.  Like I said, I hate forcing things, so I’d rather walk away from something than be forced to bastardize it (remember Rawkus’ later years?)  I want to experience my career from this new point of view, namely focusing solely on my songs, my projects, my shows and not having to answer to anyone or any old expectation.  My new style/label/imprint is Three Dollar Pistol Music–it’s just a name for all of my new junk, whether it be remixes or LPs or EPs or what have you.  I’m seeking new people, new sounds, new surroundings, new business models, new crowds, new food, EVERYTHING!  And it feels absolutely fantastic to do whatever the hell want.  I can go to a movie on a school night *snaps fingers* LIKE THAT!

What are you listening to right now?

Ghostface’s Fishcale, Freeway & Jake One’s The Stimulus Package, beats from Egon Brainparts and Small Professor, Why?’s Alopecia, Four Tet’s Rounds, the new Wu-Massacre (don’t get me started on this “album” *shudder*) and random cuts from Shawn Lee, Bonobo and Sean Price.

As Bunk from the The Wire once said, “A man must have a code.” What is Zilla Rocca’s code?

To paraphrase a quote I have hanging up in my office, you should only be doing something right now that someone else in the world would rather you NOT be doing.

Read Douglas Martin @ Budget Fashionistas and Passion of the Weiss

You put out two solo, art-folk releases called Fresh Cherries From Yakima and have recently been focusing on hip-hop beats as Blurry Drones. Are there more styles and pseudonyms to come?

Absolutely. I’ve been focusing primarily on Blurry Drones right now, and I’m currently working on mixtapes, more beats for my talented rapper friends, an instrumental record that I want to have out by the end of the year. But there are so many more things I want to do musically. I want to make another Fresh Cherries from Yakima record. I want to make a drone record. I want to make an auto-tuned noise-pop record.

Also I’ve gotten to the point where I want to be in a band. I’ve been playing music for almost seven years, and I’ve spent that entire time in bedroom sitting in front of a computer or in my garage kneeled over a four-track. That’s the one thing I haven’t done yet as a musician that I would be extremely interested in.

Listening to Zilla Rocca rhyme over Elliott Smith and Dungen samples is super fun for me. As a fellow indie/rock music fan and rap music fan, did you always want to hear something like this?

It’s not even the indie-rock thing that excites me. It’s being a fan of music and listening to something really dope that you can hear being spun a different way. The first beat I ever made had an Al Green sample. I was always that kid who would listen to songs on the radio or in my friends’ cars and think aloud, “This would make a dope sample!” I just didn’t know how. Now I do.

Why do you make music and what excites you about either making it or listening to it?

This is probably the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. I don’t really know why I make music. I was never really interested in music when I was younger; I wanted to be a writer. I was in my school band throughout middle and high school and never practiced my instrument. Some time after high school, I decided that I was going to make music. And I’ve been addicted ever since. Making music is something that drives me. It’s just something I… HAVE to do.

I get really stoked about making music when I’m alone in my room and listening to the complete song. Whether it’s something I recorded every instrument for or an attachment in an e-mail from Zilla, the first five listens of a new song is when I’m most excited.

When listening to music, there’s absolutely nothing like hearing a beat that makes you beat your head all over the place or a guitar riff that makes you bust out the air guitar or drum along. Those moments are as euphoric and intimate as kissing, you know?

The Internet makes awesome collaborations like 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers possible, but is there one thing you hate about the Internet’s role in music today?

I loathe the fact that the internet makes the listening experience so disposable. Most people will listen to a record once and if it doesn’t grab them immediately, they’ll take the songs they don’t like and click-and-drag it straight to the recycle bin. The vast majority of my favorite records– probably even all of them– are ones I didn’t particularly care for at first.

In hip-hop particularly, I’m not a fan of the type of artist that puts out 25 new songs every month for a year straight. There is a such thing as “quality control” and sometimes I think even a record a year is a little too much sometimes. I’d rather an artist put out one album every eighteen months and most of them be classics, but everyone’s struggling so hard to be relevant in the Nah Right/Stereogum era that they’re too afraid to fall back for a minute.

What is your favorite beat that you’ve made and what is your favorite Zilla Rocca line?

My favorite beat will definitely have to be “No Resolution”. I felt UNTOUCHABLE when I listened to the playback on that beat for the first time. Like, I literally felt like Kanye must have felt when he made “The Takeover”. It was such a gratifying moment.

My favorite Zilla Rocca line, from “High Noon”: “Foolish, fing-fang-foom-shit/You think-tank clueless, big bang boom stick.” You know when you put food in your mouth and it’s too hot? Upon hearing that line, I did that until the air was completely sucked out of my lungs. I’m a big sucker for things like wordplay and cadence, and he hit the mark with both on that one. “High Noon” was made very early on in our collaborative relationship, and it’s the moment I knew I wanted to work with Zilla for keeps.

There is a very cool, creative hip-hop scene stirring in Seattle. Could you see yourself collaborating with any rappers in the area?

OH MY GOD YES. Seattle’s hip-hop scene is so vibrant and diverse right now, it would be an honor. Particularly, I’d want to work with the dudes in the Sportn’ Life crew: Fatal Lucciauno is incredible, my favorite rapper in the city. Spaceman is nuts; that dude has so much charisma. D. Black is so thoughtful and poignant. I don’t know what I’d do if one of them asked me to work with them. Also, I really like Mash Hall. They’re doing their thing.

You’re an active blogger and stay pretty up-to-date with new music. Does this inspire you to make you own music, to write about music, or to chill out and browse blogs?

It does all three. I go through cycles where my inspiration takes me down a different road, but the latter is the most important. Sometimes it’s best to sit back and just be a fan of music. We artists get caught up a lot of the time, and it burns us out. Leading up to the release of Broken Clocks, I just laid low and listened to stuff.

What is your favorite musical instrument that you own?

Guitar. Without question. There’s so much I have to learn.

Your old blog recently expired. Will it be brought back to life?

I think it was just time to cut the cord for a lot of reasons, both professional and personal. I’ve always wanted to be a more active contributor to Passion of the Weiss, and running my own blog slowed my output for a blog that I genuinely believe hosts the best tandem of music writers on the internet.

Also, I think I grew weary of the nature of promoting my own music. With 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers it’s different, because Zilla does a lot of the promotional legwork and, although I do as much as I can to promote our product, I can mostly sit back and just be an artist. It’s different when you’re recording, producing, AND promoting everything by yourself.

Chillwave. Yay or nay?

A few of those chillwave dudes are very talented at what they do. I really enjoy Washed Out. Neon Indian is growing on me. Matthew Mondanile of Ducktails is one of the most gifted guitarists of the past couple of years. Although the guy from Toro y Moi is a very limited singer, I think he has brilliant compositional skills.

The rest of the chillwave guys I can take or leave. It just seems like a fad, like blog-house was in 2006 or whatever. But I think the aforementioned artists have enough talent to continue being relevant when chillwave goes the way of electroclash.

3 thoughts on “Shadowboxin’ All Nite: 20 questions with Zilla Rocca and Douglas Martin

  1. These Gentleman are and always will be, two of the Most talented musical Progenies, I ever had the pleasure of getting to now & working with. There Music is some of my favorite All-time Records.
    Bless Up,

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