By Sean Tuohy
Musician Zilla Rocca put together two styles of urban story to spawn his own subgenre he calls “noir hop.”
His latest album, “No Vacation For Murder,” came out a few months ago and showcases the artist’s ability to create tragic tales set to head bobbing beats. His self-made tone is brooding and filled with an uncontrollable creative energy that kicks to break loose.
Rocca sat down with me to discuss his creative process, his views on the music world, and what the future holds for him.
Sean Tuohy: Where did your love of noir and hip hop come from?
Zilla Rocca: I fell in love with hip hop as a kid. I used to watch MTV all day as an only child, going back to when I was really young, when Young MC "Bust a Move" and Tone Loc "Wild Thing" and MC Hammer were on television all day. As I got older and was able to buy my own tapes like Naughty By Nature, Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang and such, I had officially caught the bug and I haven't looked back. I liked the sound of people rhyming, the way people used to dance, and the outfits they wore. It was like nothing going on where I lived in South Philly, which was predominantly working class Irish and Italian people listening to Top 40 or the oldies, like Sinatra.
I was always a big reader too, so I used to read young detective books like Encyclopedia Brown. I always connected with characters that were smart, that were curious, and that weren't afraid to pursue something, so later on when I realized what noir was, it made perfect sense to become a diehard fan of it. Now I read Hard Case Crime books, Elmore Leonard, Frederic Brown, David Goodis, and others. I'm fascinated by crime and how or why people commit it.
ST: When did you decide that you could smash the two worlds of noir and hip hop together?
ZR: Back in 2009, I made an album called "The Slow Twilight" as the collective 5 O'Clock Shadowboxers with Seattle producer Blurry Drones, which was heavily influenced by the noir flick "Blast of Silence." The album is about alienation and anger that never quite bubbles all the way to the surface. I realized then that I made something completely original and that I needed to take ownership of this new style, which I coined "noir hop". And ever since then, it's been my calling card with any project I release, from the artwork to the song titles to the stories on the records. It was the best decision I've ever made musically because it gave me a distinct identity.
ST: What draws you to the world of classic noir?
ZR: I love classic noir because there's no time for bullshit. People have a clear purpose, whether their intentions are noble or heinous. The writing is quick and brutal. The world of classic noir is seductive and dangerous. The slang is thick, the men are tough, the women are devilish. There's a clear connection between the themes of classic noir and classic hip hop, namely that it's a reaction to a particular city and a particular set of morals. I've lived in almost every part of Philadelphia my whole life, and I've been around people who decided to join the Mafia and people who decided to become cops, people who became dealers and people who became junkies. So that aspect of the literature influenced my writing with hip hop, because hip hop is all about you representing what you know and where you're from.
ST: Which hip hop artist influenced you the most? Which noir writer influenced you the most?
ZR: I'd say Aesop Rock has influenced me the most musically because he showed me a long time ago that you can do whatever you want. For a long time, there were unwritten rules in rap about how you look, what your content should be, who you could emulate, etc. Aesop Rock completely destroyed every rule in the book and has made the most original music for over a decade in rap while always moving forward. His writing is unmatched. His slang is very coded. His production is swampy yet digestible. And his voice is like a death dealer. He gave me confidence to try things that the status quo would frown upon.
There's different noir writers who have influenced different songs and projects. "The Slow Twilight" is very Raymond Chandler influenced. I have songs that haven't been released yet that owe a huge debt to Ed Brubaker and Megan Abbot. My new album "No Vacation For Murder" is probably most influenced by David Goodis because he was a Philly guy who wrote about men near my age in my town making very bad decisions.
ST: You have built your own sub genre called "noir hop." What does it feel like to be the first of your kind?
ZR: I've noticed that my style and terminology has crept into the subconscious of my peers, which is corny in one way but flattering in another. It means that people have paid attention to my work, but could never fully maximize what I do because they're taking surface level pieces of my stuff—black and white videos, fedoras, whiskey, cigarette smoke, etc. People weren't doing that as much in indie rap before I made that my flag to wave five years ago. I've had other people point these things out to me so I know they too respect the architect.
ST: What is your writing process like? Do you have the lyrics first or the beat?
ZR: I read all of the time and watch a lot of television, so I'll catch a certain phrase and write it down in my notepad app on my iPhone. Or I'll overhear someone say something really slick in a conversation and write that down too. So when it's time to write a song, I skim through my notes for a phrase to spark the concept or hook. I like to write things that are vivid and use phrases no one else has ever uttered in rap, so my notes are like my cheat sheets to accomplish that. I never write without a beat because the beat determines everything: the mood, the flow, the story, the spacing of the words. And the notes I keep help me add some flourishes along the way once I figure out what to do. When I first started out 17 years ago, I used to write lyrics first and match them with a beat. I'll do that once in a while if I wrote a song and it got scrapped so I don't waste any lyrics. But 90 percent of the time, the music creates the words.
ST: You came out with "No Vacation For Murder" not too long ago. Can you give us the background on this album? How long did you work on it?
ZR: The album actually dropped a couple months ago after years of work. It took about two years to write the album and four years total to complete. It was inspired by real life betrayal by people that were the closest to me. I had to take time off from making the record because it was too heavy, so I put out a bunch of other projects that weren't as cumbersome to fill the time.
There's parts on the album that play out like revenge fantasies, and other parts on the album where I take full responsibility for even having those relationships in the first place. I did a lot of growing up from the time I wrote the first song to the time the album was getting mixed and mastered. So the trick was to figure out how to determine the narrative as an album, since I started off feeling like I wanted to exact revenge at all costs on people who had broken my heart, compared to feeling at peace and letting go of all those emotions years later. I can say proudly now that it's my best work, and that unfortunate set of circumstances were the best things to ever happen to me.
ST: Your single "Shoot the Piano Player" is a stunning one-act noir play set to an awesome beat. Where did this song come from? Why did you make this one of the first singles off the new album?
ZR: My producer Blurry Drones, who is the driving force behind The Shadowboxers’ aesthetic, sent me that beat a long time ago. I wasn't really impressed with it. And then one day my friend Has-Lo stumbled across it and thought he and I should tell a quick crime story to it in the vein of Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, two of our biggest influences, for a different project. We did the song pretty quickly, and after hearing it, I told Has-Lo that I had to have it for the album.
My director Pat Murray, who has done several of my past videos, came up with the entire concept. I love working with Pat because he's a visionary—none of the work we've done together looks like anyone else's videos in rap. He understands the mood I want when I do videos, and I give him 100 percent creative control, something most artists don't afford him when they hire him.
ST: The music video for "Shoot the Piano Player" is stylish and original. How did you decide to set the tone for the video?
ZR: Again, that's all Pat. He had previously used that location called the Physick House, a historical landmark in Philly, for a commercial shoot. It was very elegant and built in the 19th century. Lucky for us, we shot it on a Saturday afternoon when it was raining like crazy, so it gave us an added sense of doom. And Pat had the idea very early on to do all long shots for each take, so everything you see in the video had to be filmed non-stop with no edits. If anything was off, we had to start from the beginning and do it for the duration for the song. In short, Pat Murray is untouchable.
ST: What does the future hold for Zilla Rocca?
ZR: Who knows? I learned recently just to let things happen instead of trying to control everything. Since I've done that, I've been lucky enough to have favorable situations come together. It's better to attract good things rather than chase them.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
ZR: No matter what city I go to, someone will pull over, or stop me in the street, and ask me for directions. It's happened in Philly, Chicago, London, Phoenix, New York City, Los Angeles, and more. I guess I always look like I know where I'm going.