Life Alchemist: How Zilla Rocca Cooked Up His Noir Hop Recipe

Zilla Rocca

Zilla Rocca

Guest post by Zilla Rocca

Rick Rubin summed it up for me in an interview last year:

"When you’re a fan from the outside of something, you can embrace it in a different way than when you’re a fan from the inside. Run-D.M.C. could be sort of gangstery in their own way, pre-gangster rap, because they were suburban kids. Kurtis Blow, who was from Harlem and really around gangsters, he didn’t want to be a gangster. He wanted to look above it and wear leather boots and be more like a rock star. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were really inner-city, hard-life guys, and they wanted to be from outer space.”

I grew up during the South Philly mafia wars of the 1980s and 1990s, where people's houses were blown up from nail bombs in the mailbox. This kid I went to grade school with was called into the principal's office to find out his mafia father was gunned down. My best friend's wife is the daughter of a capo who just got out of jail after a 14-year stretch. I've been inside mafia bars. I've delivered pizza to mafia houses. I played sports with guys who are now high ranking officials. My mother's first house had issues with property value because a  former mob boss delayed a riverside development near our house—he tried extorting the developer for $1 million and the developer went to the FBI. It took another 10 years for that development to happen.

It was just an accepted part of growing up, but I didn't want to be in it. Most guys in South Philly were in heaven when “The Sopranos” was on the air because it resembled parts of our lives. Same with “Goodfellas,” “A Bronx Tale,” etc. But I'm not Italian, so that wasn't a badge of honor. It's fun to visit those guys on a television screen, but you don't want to live next door to them or work for them. They had no integrity or character. They were also incredibly stupid—none of them finished high school. Like Posdnous said, they were animals surviving with animal behavior. I was never like that.

When I first started writing raps, it was on some super-lyrical shit in 1997 because that was the style—Wu-Tang, Killarmy, Canibus, Big Pun, Black Thought. Even back then, there was a group of all white South Philly rappers named Nostra who wanted to be mafia guys. I thought they were clowns (I just found their stuff on Philaflava). By my early 20s, I was into crazy abstract shit like Camp Lo, Aesop Rock, El-P, and doseone. My mid-20s, I had more stories to tell about women. I was really into Slum Village, Q-Tip, and Ghostface. My late 20s, I start pinpointing what I really liked and left everything behind: nightlife, good booze, the way certain words sound, and stories about crime.

Zilla Rocca

Zilla Rocca

The way I write is a combination of things: most of them start out with notes and phrases I keep on the notepad in my phone. I get those phrases from anywhere—comic books, something I hear an old lady say at the market, a lyric from a different genre, a hardboiled crime book I'm reading. So I weave those in with some personal experiences, but I stray away from being 100 percent open about my life on purpose ("Success is Invisible" off “Neo Noir” is probably the most honest and concise I've been in a while). It's more about quick snapshots of my life mixed in with phrases and notes blended with shit that sounds good.

I edit a lot. I barely do drugs. I work a day job. I'm engaged. I go to the gym. I practice Buddhism. My life is pretty balanced. But there's times when it's not balanced, and there were many years when it was completely out of whack. Once I started focusing on things I always enjoyed though, it started manifesting itself. Last night, I was at two speakeasies then had a steak dinner at an English pub. My fiancée bought me Bulleit rye for Christmas. A dude in New York City at my last show brought four books for me to borrow, and all of them are about detectives, noir, and tough guy writers from the 1930s. This stuff wasn't happening to me in 2008 because I was obstructing and compartmentalizing my creativity: "I make beats for this guy over here that sound like this, then I do weird one-offs for me that get leaked by themselves, then my main album has to have this producer only on it" and so on.

I really connected with John Lennon, because he would write stuff like "I Am the Walrus" and "Come Together," which are lyrically thrilling. Then he would write beautiful and simple songs like "Julia," "Oh Yoko," and "Jealous Guy." Tom Waits is the same to me. What Waits always does, and what John figured out later, is not compartmentalize his stuff like "My love songs go over here, and my drawings go over there, and my short stories stay under the bed, and my love for kazoos stays hidden forever." He puts them all together because they're all him. I try to do that, so my personal stuff mixes with slang mixes with stories from other people mixes with a Daredevil comic mixes with an old phrase my grandmother used to say. The common thread is my enjoyment from all of them. After becoming fans and friends of Billy Woods, Curly Castro and I decided to start putting more sports references in our songs because that's a big part of our lives that we kept out on purpose.

I love Action Bronson because his entire career is based solely off of things that make him laugh, smile, or want to eat. He only follows his joy, whether it's a baseball player from the 1990s he used to worship, or a pair of sneakers he always wanted, or doing something foul to a prostitute. He blends it all together all of the time. He's never obstructed. He raps over "November Rain." He tells crime stories that go nowhere but sound intoxicating. He lusts for roasted elk. He's so open to the world, and what he attracts fulfills his interests because he only pursues his interests. He can't write a hook and he's famous with a major label record deal because he shares with you all of things that make him giddy.

I try to do the same thing because that's the most honest way to write.

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