Posted on Leave a comment

2023: Notes on a Year of Making Rap Music

My past year in the trenches, summed up in a single sentence: I didn’t get nearly enough done.

I am writing this from the first week of February 2024, a year that I had planned out meticulously back at the beginning of 2023. I still have a ridiculous powerpoint pitch outlining the whole blitzkrieg. The plan was stupid ambitious. I wanted to drop a new project every single month this year. As it stands today, I’m only two singles deep, with no big announcements coming any time soon. So much for meticulous plans.

I have zero regrets, though. The process matters far more than the product ever could, and I am blessed to have total creative freedom in my old age. I am also blessed to be working with extremely talented people that I love & respect. So while I have no need to rush anything for anyone, I do want to hold my hubris accountable.

What follows will be interesting to very few readers. By attempting to complete a dozen albums at once, I’ve been paying close attention to my process and constantly trying to refine my approach to crafting the best songs I can. I hope this is useful to some stranger in the same dubious line of work.

For me, making rap music is fundamentally about writing, constrained by meter. The easiest way to distinguish myself in a crowded field is to write better bars than 99% of my peers do. Note that I’m not saying “could,” because hip hop is full of tremendous talents who have been running on autopilot for a decade straight because they know they don’t have to really try. So they don’t.

It’s a big old world, though, and there’s a lane for pretty much everyone right now. The existence of independent success stories like Ka, Open Mike Eagle, Aesop Rock or Homeboy Sandman make it clear there’s a mass audience for niche artistry on the mic. Legendary talents like The Last Emperor, Shabaam Sahdeeq and Divine Styler are still revered to this day. Based on this evidence, I am confident my product will find fans as long as I’m attaining the same high standards. So, I write, I re-write, and I keep writing.

Since the fall of 2022, I’ve had the following text planted at the top of my massive (currently 52 pages!) “RAP PAD” text document where I have been dumping all my current rhymes for about two years now. I have mostly abided by it, too.

“WIPs” meaning works in progress, currently a far larger body of work than my entire catalog to date. “Lockdowns” meaning hours of singular focus on a song or verse. Rap is performance on a level more demanding and expansive than poetry readings, so practice will always reveal extraneous words or small fixes that hugely improve the final draft. Word Sound Have Power, as the Rastas used to put it. Rap can’t primarily exist on paper, shit has to be live.

The most important asset that I have is truly loving what I do. “Once this stops being fun,” as I often remind myself, “we’re fucked.” I don’t force the funk because I’m old enough to know I can’t. It’s important to have good routines, but nothing will save you more time than recognizing when nothing is going to happen today, no matter how long you work on it. There’s always other routines to switch to: chopping samples, workshopping tracklists, or just plain answering emails.

On that same note, when the connection is finally wide open, it’s crucial to sit down and operate in that flow state for as long as possible. I have gotten a lot of my favorite lines of 2023 out of sheer momentum, wrapping up one verse and immediately knuckling down for another. Same goes for cadences and flow patterns. There are only so many tempos & feels available, so that material will always come in useful somewhere else later on.

I am probably writing about a hundred songs right now. That may sound insane, but it works nicely for me. Being able to roam through dozens of verses pretty much guarantees I will hit on something good whenever I sit down to put in work. That also means I don’t need to think about prioritizing albums, that’s a question that resolves itself, day after day. I do wish it would resolve itself a little faster, though.

Of the six items on that list, #4 and #6 have helped the most. A lot of my best lines have come while doing routine chores I would otherwise be putting off, like any other idiot “artist,” thinking that if I just frown at the problem a little harder, everything will make sense. Nah. Go do the dishes. And nothing has helped me more this past year than continuing to learn & listen. Hip hop is vast, hip hop is global. No matter how much you think you know, there is more, much more, to learn. So keep learning & stay humble.

Not only did I absurdly over-commit on my own release schedule, I did the same in terms of guest verses or “features.” I am still digging my way out of that one. I’m not a particularly strategic man when it comes to doing features, it’s mostly a matter of mutual respect and the right beat. (In one case, “Lucky Guesses,” I agreed to do the feature because I’d had a dream about it the night before, a cosmically improbable detail that still weirds me out almost a year later.) Making a cameo in someone else’s catalog is an easy way to maintain momentum and visibility, but not hugely reliable. Some of the first features I recorded in 2022 are on projects that still haven’t dropped. No salt, either: I get it, I do. Albums are a pain in the ass.

Beat tapes, on the other hand, are good, clean fun.

For me, the biggest surprise of 2023 was getting back into the production side something heavy. I’ve always loved making beats, but it wasn’t until my wife got me a Boss DR-202 “Dr. Groove” for Christmas that I got back into it after a decade off. That drum machine was the bedrock of my early days. I bought one right after high school and spent years performing shows with it all over the east coast. I was not particularly great but I always make an impression.

So being reunited with some old familiar gear had a huge impact on me, and sure enough, I’ve been expanding my hardware collection ever since. But of course, it’s not about hardware at all. It’s about refinement.

Most verses are “sixteens,” 16 bars of rappin’-ass rhymes, and most sixteens start with a single, perfect two-bar combo. From there, the whole organism emerges via mitosis. Those two bars get expanded into four; four becomes eight; and finally, eight becomes done. At no point in this process can you afford to lie to yourself. In theory, nothing is ever perfect, but in practice, “good enough” absolutely never is.

At every turn during the making of The Fall Grime Collection, I was struck by the parallels between making beats and making rhymes. Seldom do beats ever burst into reality as head-nodding gold, but it sure is nice when they do. Beats have to get refined through experimentation. There is always another experiment within easy reach, there is always something more to try. The only real “dead end” you can come to is giving up out of frustration, so not getting frustrated is a valuable martial art to practice.

Re-working the same two bars for three months is little different from spending a week chopping a bassline into atoms and re-arranging funk pockets from scratch. Every detail needs to fit. That’s just a matter of giving it the time it needs and refusing to lie to yourself until the final product is undeniable.

That’s the schedule I’m on, from 2024 to infinity. If you see me announce something, you’ll know it is done, and done right. Knowing the difference took me twenty years, but it was all worth it.

Posted on Leave a comment

PROVISIONS – Provisions Theme ft. Wombaticus Rex

Got a brand new lyrics video to share. Once again, I have put in entirely too much effort, but that’s the whole point. These videos tend to have a very strong “long tail” and rack up a lot of views over the years, so that work does pay off long term. Short term, they’re fun to make.

One odd correction: In the course of this song, I mistakenly claim that “PROVISIONS is the brand,” but Executive Producer Garrett Heaney has recently corrected me & the world on that front. Life is funny like that.

Not knowing precisely what the fuck I am doing has never really stopped me before, though. There will definitely be more work under the PROVISIONS umbrella dropping in 2024, including an EP with freestyle legend A-F-R-O that I produced as DJ Multiple Sex Partners. (I didn’t see that one coming, but perhaps some of you reading this did.)

As for the video, I tried to pack in a proper education worth of in-jokes and references. For any students of the genre or the business: at a bare minimum, familiarize yourself with the careers of Berry Gordy, J. Prince of Rap-A-Lot Records, the saga of the Hieroglyphics crew (and Imperium!), the midwest empires of Rhymesayers Entertainment and Galapagos4, the dub industries of King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry, the vast legacy of Prince Paul, the planet-sized stamp that Dungeon Family and Def Jux left on the culture … oh, and the fact that the US space program was run by a Nazi super-genius who was buddies with Walt Disney. My curriculae are diverse!

Posted on Leave a comment

PROVISIONS – Triple Rock Steady ft. Wombaticus Rex, Teece Luvv & Nahte Renmus

Hot damn, am I ever psyched to share this one. One of my favorite collabs I’ll drop this year, I do believe, and a cold-ass banger, besides. “Triple Rock Steady” is an eminently 802 piece of work, featuring a funky Es-K beat, 2/3rds of legendary Windsor rap crew Maiden Voyage, and all of it orchestrated by executive producer Garrett Heaney for PROVISIONS.

There’s a lot of backstory to unpack here. That kind of self-indulgence is exactly why this website exists, too.

Maiden Voyage was Jarv, Nahte Renmus and Teece Luvv, all longtime friends who also happened to be naturally talented rapper/producers. “Freakishly talented” might be more accurate. They got their start opening for Lynguistic Civilians, a rap crew that was inescable in Vermont (and much of New England, too) for a long, long time. Civilians was the brand that brought in fans, but Maiden Voyage were the kids who stole the show. Every time.

Fast forward a decade & some change, and the landscape up here is … well, not that much different. Jarv has a solo career, routinely tours the country, and is often cited as the single best rapper that Vermont has to offer. (I myself wouldn’t quibble or complain about that. Check out his latest LP “The Amalgam” if you haven’t already heard it.) Mister Burns, always the management & business brains behind the Civilians success story, is also going solo, often with a killer band, and he’s still one of the hardest-working hip hop promoters around.

Teece and Nahte have been thriving solo, too. In fact, I’ve had the debut Nahte Renmus LP FUNK.95 in heavy rotation since he dropped it late last year. Teece Luvv, for my money, is one of the very best emcees Vermont will ever know. “Triple Rock Steady” is, ultimately, downstream of the fact Nahte & Teece were both on the first PROVISIONS project, Know Thyself. (Which, by the way, is a banger. Check that tracklist.)

I’m grateful for every connection & opportunity I get…but yet that ain’t entirely true, is it? Fact is, I pass on 99% of the opportunities and connections my improbable life has offered me. It has to be an organic fit. It has to feel right. I don’t want to collaborate with successful artists who are phoning it in for a deposit, I want to work with motherfuckers who wake up to die in the booth every day. A legacy is more important than a name.

Speaking of which: Es-K has both. The combination of his prolific output and his killer quality control put him in the top 0.01% of the field, and that will be come clear to the culture over time. It’s a paradox in theory, but in practice, a constant release schedule is very much the result of slow, steady work.

Posted on Leave a comment

Wombaticus Rex x SKYWISE – Making Friends Online

Diss tracks are almost always a mistake. This one was too much fun to resist, though. Naturally, it has led to a lot of conversation, public and private, about my motivations, priorities and objective levels of rap talent. None of these interest me much, but I’m happy to indulge potential customers, you know? Doing the video out of PowerPoint presentation templates was another mistake, but again: all my art has to do is make me laugh. Enjoy:

When I was circulating this amongst my elders & peers, the most common advice (aside from “drop that shit now“) was to cut the line about El-P. The man has an unimpeachable reputation on our East Coast, and it is somewhere between inaccurate & insane to imply he’s on the same footing as cornballs like Asher Roth or Talib Kweli. The best advice I got was almost a curse: there’s no way to diss rappers without writing them into your story. I’m still unpacking that one. All actions have consequences, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I reap from this harvest.

I’ve also had some pointed questions about the take itself. A number of colleagues & listeners said they wished I’d gone in more; spit it like a battle verse, less 50 Cent laughing, more Diabolic on a warpath. Nah. This track is a joke, and I enjoyed telling it. Plus that Diabolic track is not nearly as good as you remember: I still chuckle about him begging Dead Prez to tone it down. Maybe I’ll write a diss track to him next.

Once again, that is NEK producer SKYWISE on the beat. I like how these early singles are, with no prior planning, demonstrating how crazy his range is. The man is a musician first and foremost, building compositions over looped breaks every time he fires up the MPC. We have a lot of flavors to share with you in 2024…and 2025, if I’m being realistic, because everything, always, takes longer than you think.

Posted on Leave a comment

Wombaticus Rex x SKYWISE – Heatwave

Is this my first proper single? I think so. After the awkward mid-air feeling of a long soft launch, we’re finally hitting a point where there’s going to be … well, almost too much new music to share. Which is a big change from nearly a decade of nothing.

Big thanks to SKYWISE for the beat. The structure of the song reflects the writing; this puppy was done in two passes just driving around the Kingdom with the beat on loop. This really was sorted out with the windows down in April of 2023. It was cut live in my living room shortly thereafter. Living in the NEK is a blessing.

Big thanks to Matt Scott for recording, mixing & mastering. Once everything hung together, there was nothing left to do here.

That cover art is something sweet. No surprise, then, it’s another slam dunk from Kyle Tierce, the graphic design talent behind pretty much our entire World Around Records run back in the day.

Posted on Leave a comment

NEW MUSIC: LOUPO – Last Call ft. Wombaticus Rex

The arc behind this track is wild. First and foremost, it’s one of the smoothest pockets I have ever gotten to rap over. LOUPO is a monster, and has been a monster for quite some time. He got his start here in Vermont as a spooky talented standout producer who emerged just as Burlington’s beat scene was starting to pop. He has since moved to Arizona, but only grown into more of a monster out there, teaching himself piano and evolving into even more musical, layered, jazzy beats. His faith and support has been a help to me through some bleak times, too.

So coming full circle on a track like this, as I’m coming back into full-time rapping, is a lightning bolt.