With three EPs dating back to 2007 and now two albums to his credit, Tommy Ill could be in danger of making a career out of his frivolous and fun-filled hip hop. Indeed his latest release ‘New Hat And A Hair Cut’ finds him signed to a major label, employing orchestral musicians, limiting the sample abuse and, err, slipping into his mate’s mum’s wardrobe, as he tells Westley Holdsworth.
I met Tom Young, aka Tommy Ill, in what a few years ago would have seemed an unlikely setting, the rather flash EMI headquarters in Auckland city. The man from Wellington was looking slightly out of place amongst the glass separated offices and cityscape views. How did he end up here? By hustlin’ just like Rick Ross obviously.
“My manager a couple of years back was a lady named Lucy, who was working at Radio Active in Wellington. She got a call from EMI about them purchasing some advertising or something like that and she was like, ‘Oh by the way, I manage Tommy Ill and he’s this rapper who does this, this and this. You guys should check him out and I’ll send you his music.’
“She was kind of pushy with it and somehow we managed to get a meeting out of it and they were actually looking to sign a hip hop act. They were trying to find roughly one of each genre and they were looking for their next hip hop band, and that ended up being us.”
Through perseverance and having the talent to back it up Tommy Ill has made the jump from small fry to big leagues and kept his soul intact. He’s entered into the daunting world of mainstream hip hop and come out with a horn-fuelled album as smooth as black velvet, as stand out track 5th Beatle testifies.
The evident attention paid to production is what first grabbed me when listening to Ill’s new ‘New Hat And A Haircut’, and I was keen to find out how Young approaches his tracks.
“I’ve got a really good sound engineer guy called James Goldsmith. He is pretty much part of the band now, he comes on tour with us and he also did all the recording. He now has a studio but at the time of recording he was between houses, so he was living at his mum’s house. His mum was on holiday and we turned her bedroom closet, her walk-in wardrobe into a live room, with a mic running through into there. So I was in the dark in the closet with headphones on. I could hear James through the headphones and he could hear me, so I was just making jokes about putting on his mum’s dresses.
“There’s three of us when we do the live show – Buck Beachamp and Kelvin Neal rap with me on stage, but we roughly make a third each of the backing music. I’ll make half a beat and then be like, ‘Hey Kelvin what do you think of this?’ and pass the laptop over to him and he’ll have a go on it. Sometimes we make things completely independently and other times we all sort of jump in and muck about with each others’ projects. It’s a big sort of collaborative thing, and then we’d usually take it to James and then he’d have some other crazy ideas.”
In addition to sampling pre-recorded instruments, extra flavour and real depth was added to the record by utilising some real instrumentation.
“For the new record we hired a guy called Steve Bremner, he’s a percussionist for the NZ Symphony Orchestra, and had him re-do all the percussion stuff. Most of it is still samples but he added little bits and pieces here and there, congas and stuff like that, and making it sit so you can’t really tell if it’s a sample or not.
Although I’m sure a member of the NZSO would have no problem performing inside a friend’s closet, Young decided to hire Trident Sound Studios in Wellington and it’s here that some of the interesting textures on the record were put down. Bremner’s percussion and the All Seeing Hand’s Alphabethead’s scratching, something which has become a mainstay of Tommy Ill’s records. Though he’s yet to join the band on the road it’s something that Young would like to see happen, but notes, ‘He’s a busy man’.
Instrumentation will become more and more a part of the band and Young hopes the next album will feature next to no samples – likely due in large part to his last record’s (‘Tommy Ill’, Loop, 2010) problems of sample clearing – which meant them having to pretty much redo the whole thing before releasing it.
“We’ve been a lot more careful with what we’ve sampled on this one obviously. It’s a tricky game, when you know if you put a big sample on a song you can get in trouble for it and then you can’t licence the song. You need to be careful.”
The self-titled predecessor to ‘New Hat And A Haircut’ drew comparisons to the Beastie Boys, partly because of quirky tracks like Robot and well… because Young is a whitey. Still witty and retaining a hefty pinch of the quirkiness he’s known for, the lyrical content of this album does seem to carry a much more serious context than previous Ill records.
“I feel like it’s a bit darker than stuff we’ve done previously. Slightly less gimmicky, there isn’t the robot song and stuff like that. It’s us doing what we do, but slightly bigger and slightly better and maybe slightly more mature. There’s a lot of mentions of zombies, but I think we just set out to make a really good record. We were listening to lots of Kanye West at the time.”
And it’s easy to hear the influence of more modern and mainstream hip hop. The title track sounds a little like Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot and Cask Full Of Hope and No Magnets wouldn’t be out of place on a Dangerdoom record. ‘New Hat And A Haircut’ certifies that there’s more than meets the eye, to an artist somewhat pigeon-holed due to playing with indie bands rather than other hip hop acts. Not just a tongue-in-cheek rap act, but a relevant part of NZ’s vibrant hip hop scene that just happens to sit well with a different crowd too.
“I think that is my place with that crowd. The indie scene, if there is such a thing. But at the same time all the guys I work with they’re all musicians in other ways. Kelvin is a drummer, he’s played in various indie bands. Buck was in Holiday With Friends, they’re all these indie guys but they’re all into hip hop and mainstream hip hop, they love Jay Z and Kanye West.
Being part of the indie guitar crowd yet signed to EMI as a scene-representative hip hop act, and also loving Kanye West, could induce some kind of existential nightmare. Where does Tommy Ill sit? What does it all mean? Who does it appeal too? Young has a typically philosophical view.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure where we sit really. We’ve been compared to Homebrew Crew, but I don’t think that’s fair on them, or fair on us either. I honestly don’t worry about it too much, we’ve never really fitted in with hip hop crowds too well anyway. I think if I start worrying it’ll affect what we’re doing. It should be the other way around really.”