Emmitt James: The Indie Grind Personified

by Evan Froiland

Emmitt James is an artist born and raised in Milwaukee and currently based out of Los Angeles. He’s a rapper, a poet, a filmmaker, a fashion designer, and a latte artist. In all facets of art he participates, Emmitt really embodies two things: a suave demeanor and the spirit of the independent grind.

Image: Katie Boeckmen

Image: Katie Boeckmen

The first can be captured almost simply in the photos in this feature. Emmitt has a certain unique sense of style highlighted by his Mickey Mouse-like hair buns. This suave aesthetic is carried through in Emmitt's music, with a smooth, confident delivery. It can be heard in his most recent work, a three song EP released in December under The House of Renji label, 'And Then S H E Was Gone: The Same Love Story, Different Characters'. This EP is no exception to the most common theme in Emmitt's music - painting vivid stories about the women in his life.

A song like 'ATM Fees' off of Emmitt's 'HUNGER PAINS [EP]' starts to breach on the notion that he is 'the indie grind personified'. On this track, Emmitt raps about 'ATM fees killing him', a very real struggle for regular people, and very far from any sort of boastful rapping about money, cars, whatnot.

I've seen Emmitt perform his music live twice, first as the featured performer at UWM's September rendition of Lyrical Sanctuary, and later in September at a basement show in Madison, both part of his Hunger Pains tour. The basement show especially, with probably about 20 people in attendance, and Emmitt having come all the way from Los Angeles, just struck me as "wow, this is really what the indie grind is". He put on a great show regardless of the size of the crowd. When it comes to down to it, getting your music to stick is important, whether it be with 10,000 people or with 1 person. 

I had the pleasure of asking Emmitt some questions about his art. 

Do you really focus on one craft at a time, or is it always a mish-mosh? What are you focusing on right now?

Everything, but it’s whatever I’m inspired by. Mostly, it’s always going to be music, I’m too inspired by music not to create music, or listen to music. The next thing is up for grabs, it’s usually poetry, but as of late it’s been fashion. I’ve got some designs and stuff in the works, I don’t know when I’m gonna execute it because now I’m doing stuff differently. Before it was like T-shirts, crew necks, sweatshirts, crop tops. Now I wanna make stuff from scratch. So like going to the fabric store, getting a pattern maker to make the patterns, it’s like a whole different level. It’s like a $3000 project, but it’s a passion project that I’m working on. As of late, it’s been music and film, and trying to put those two things together, because I think they go together really well.

And that’s what your new project (If Your Orange Juice Is Yellow It's Not Real) is going to be?

I’m coining it as a visual art EP. So for this project, in order to listen to it, you have to watch it. It’s not going to be on SoundCloud, it’s not going to be on Bandcamp. It might be like a week or a month or so later once the film comes out, but I want to focus on visuals. So the EP is going to be three song. There’s a song called ‘If Your Orange Juice Is Yellow It’s Not Real’, there’s a song called ‘Simple Syrup’, and there’s a song called ‘Shortbread’. And so it’s all going to be shot in the studio. Each song is driven by a certain color, and I’m gonna have a projector to project different colors and different shapes. There’s going to a girl in the space, maybe a couple girls in the space, that I’m interacting with. It’s a visual art EP, and then when the audio version does come out, it’s gonna be different. There’s gonna be additional instruments. So I’m treating them like two separate projects.

Can your poetry be found online? Videos of you reciting or something written?

There’s a few videos, I’ve done that subconsciously on purpose. The poetry, you kinda gotta experience that live. There’s some stuff, like a video of me at a cafe or something, or I did Brave New Voices, which is like the largest international poetry slam. I was on the Wisconsin team, so we’ve got some group pieces on there. As far as my poetry, it’s hard for you to find it. I like to keep it something you gotta experience live. That’s why when I wrote a book called ‘Food Stamps and Other Forms of Reparations’, when you read it, there’s a lot of grammatical errors in it, and that’s on purpose, because I wanted the reader to read it the way I was reciting it, or as close to it as possible. There’s grammatical errors, comma slices, cause that’s how we do it, we use ebonics when we recite. It’s something that I want to do though. At one point I wanted to take the book and try to come up with a tablet version. At some point I might do that, I’ve just been so focused on music that poetry kind of takes a backseat. But when I’m offered opportunities to do Lyrical Sanctuary, stuff like that, then I’m excited cause it kinda forces me in a good way to pick up the poetry again and do stuff.

Are writing poetry and writing songs the same process for you? Do you have poems that end up as songs? Songs that end up as poems?

The latter never happens, but it’s the same process. I write in my head, I don’t write physically on paper. People ask me “how do you do that?” but to me it’s the same thing, like when you’re writing something you’ll have a good start, and then you’ll get to a part where you’re like “okay I’m gonna sit back, I’m gonna chill and sit on this some more”. And that’s how I do it in my head, I come up with so much, and then as time goes on, I keep adding and keep adding. The cool thing for me about that, especially when it comes to live performances, is now I don’t have to focus on learning my poem and then reciting it, because I’m working on my delivery while I’m creating it. So while I’m creating it, at the same time, I’m working on how I want things to be delivered. It’s the same thing with live music. When I perform live music, if I can, I have to have live instruments, cause that’s just my thing and that’s what I’m inspired by.
Image: Bianca Vicente

Image: Bianca Vicente


When/why did you move to LA? How do you like it?

I moved to LA on January 19th, 2015. I always wanted to move to Miami or LA. I had a semester left of school and wanted to be able to finish school wherever I went, and I found a school in LA. Everybody here is chasing their dreams, and there's a lot of selfishness and vanity. What I miss about Milwaukee is the indie music scene, sense of community, collective feel. In LA, there's pockets, but not like in Milwaukee. 

You belong to a couple different groups - House of Renji and Lost Boys. Can you tell me about those? 

House of Renji is an indie record label that I'm on. Genesis Renji is the founder/CEO. He's from Milwaukee but living out in DC now. PC The Real, Dee Phr3sh and AK Stackz are the other guys on there. 
Lost Boys is a group of friends who make art. We do it our way. It's funky and rough around the edges at times, but it's true to what we want to do. Lost Boys was founded by Riggs Repking and includes myself, Kyler Teatz, Katie Boeckman, Danny Nessman, Ian, Lucas (aka Thong John Silver), Nic Gauer, and Peter Doucette. 

Lastly - I'm wondering if you can expand on a Facebook status of yours that I feel like embodies what you're all about: "If I see you selling something on the street and I'm [even] slightly interested, 9 times of 6 (if I have the cash) I'll buy it: solely because I support the indie hustle and want to invest in your craft/product like I want people to invest in mines." 

There's a lot of homeless people in LA, and there's like different levels of homelessness. There's beggers, who might live in a shelter or something. There's people who have just given up. And then there's people who have something to offer. There's this guy that sells incense that he makes himself - like 12 sticks for $6. Another guy does barbecue. I walk past these guys all time and when I have the money on me, I'll buy something. I'm a barista, I get tips, so I just keep my tips as money to give to those people.  

Stay tuned to any number of Emmitt's web pages linked in this article to keep up to date with what he's up to.