By: Sahan Jayasuriya
For the better part of 2014, I had a semi-regular series for the Shepherd Express called Influenced, where I talked to Milwaukee musicians about the artists that shaped and inspired them. I entertained the idea of revising the series earlier this year, but was unable to actually do so. I conducted one interview before scrapping the idea, but thanks to Evan Rytlewski over at the Shepherd, we are honored to have it over here at Explain.
Milwaukee based MC, producer and label owner MIlo has built a sizable following over the last five years, thanks to a tireless work ethic that includes international touring and an impressive release schedule. 2016 found Milo touring the West Coast, Canada and Europe. He also provided us with one of the year's finest releases, Too Much of Life Is Mood, released under the Scallops Hotel moniker. In January I sat down with him to discuss the influence of a MC and producer who is known for his many monikers, the inimitable MF Doom. Thanks for reading, and enjoy.
It’s always interesting to see how the music people heard as children shaped their personal tastes. In some cases it serves as a foundation to build upon while in other cases, it causes the person to go in a completely different direction. What are your earliest musical memories? Rap was such a big deal at the time when I was born. Having young parents in Chicago in the early 90s got me exposed to a lot of rap.
What are some of the first rap records that you remember hearing?
It was probably uncle Nizm’s stuff, but besides him…X Clan’s “To the East, Blackwards” was probably some of the earliest stuff that I heard. Coolio; I can remember being like three or four when “Gangsta’s Paradise” was big. Ice T, too-"OG Original Gangsta". I used to love when my parents played his records.
Coolio and the X Clan…that’s quite a range.
So did you show an interest in music from a young age?
I could see from a young age that music was how my family expressed themselves. All my family has eclectic taste in music and they really try to express themselves through what they listen to. It’s that idea of agency through curation. Like my grandfather-[he’s an] older cat from Arkansas and loves John Denver. It’s an interesting thing, using agency to cultivate personal interests.
I just had super supportive parents. I remember when Madonna dropped that song….(sings) “Music…makes the people…(mumbles)” I saw that video on MTV in the morning before school and I was like “Mom, I need this album today” and she got it for me. I remember…what’s homey’s name…Conway Twitty? I saw a commercial with that song “Slowhand” in it and I was like “Mom, I gotta get it”. Any music I ever wanted, she’d get it.
What music did you start to seek out on your own?
Different kinds of rap, really. This cat Mr. Lif, he’s a Boston MC. He was the first rapper that I found on my own that I loved. My mom got into him too, she started buying his cds on her own. I was really proud of that. Busdriver, too. Video games and soundtracks definitely exposed me to a lot of stuff as well.
I know a lot of folks who got into a lot of music through Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
Busdriver is on that!
Which game? 2?
Tony Hawk’s Underground. That…”I’m just here to hold your hand til you die, and to show you around imaginary places…”
Yeah, that’s him.
Did you play a lot of video games growing up?
A good amount, yeah.
This is jumping ahead a bit, but I can hear references to anime and RPGS in your lyrics. Is that the kind of stuff you were interested in?
Oh yeah, I was into all that. For me it was Ultima Online. It’s based on these old games called Ultima, there was Ultima one through nine. With the advent of the internet, they took it online. We used to do pvp and all this shit, it was my life. It was ill. You had to become the greatest miner, so that way you could get the best ore. Then in conjunction with that skill you had to become the greatest blacksmith, so that you would know how to handle the greatest ore. Then you could get the illest weapon and become the illest knight. It was cool, it’s like the rap game.
Do you think Ultima Online prepared you for the rap game?
Yeah man. All those kinds of strategy games, definitely.
So Mr. Lif and Busdriver are relatively obscure for a nine or ten year old kid. Were you interested in some of the more popular artists at the time? Dre and Eminem were riding high around then.
Oh yeah, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin, I loved that album; I used to listen to it every night before bed.
Gettin riled up before bedtime?
(Laughs) Nah, I just really loved the way he rapped. I think people really sleep on the fact that he’s a great rapper. Now it’s like nothing to be lyrical and very dangerous at the same time, but 50 was definitely the biggest, swollest, most nimble guy with that much attention at that time. I love his energy and enunciation.
You definitely were interested in a pretty wide variety of rap music at the time. When was it that your tastes shifted a bit away from the mainstream?
My uncle Nizm put me onto Illmatic when I was like eight, so by the time I was nine or ten, that’s when I was bumpin Lif, and that got me into all that Def Jux stuff-Aesop Rock, El-P, Hangar 18, Company Flow. It just continued from there.
Yeah. Transitioning from the late 90s into the 2000s, there was a significant difference between what was going on underground vs what was going on in the mainstream. On one side you had beats and rhymes and on the other side you had yachts and champagne.
Yeah, that stuff never really appealed to me in the first place. Because my uncle was an underground battle MC, he used to take me to cyphers in the park. Like I can remember 40 dudes in the park just rappin…just rappin, doin what they do. So for me, that other shit was never cool.
So what eventually lead you to hearing MF Doom?
I was living in Manchester, New Hampshire and I had just heard about Kazaa. I dabbled with Napster here and there, but with Kazaa it was like “oh word, it’s on like that?”. I was just about start high school, so I wanted to get a bunch of new music to listen to in study hall or whatever. Just from using Kazaa, I started seeing this cat named MF Doom. He had the ill titles on everything and it seemed like he had the most songs. Out of the pool of rappers that were on there, it was like, hella mainstream cats and then just Doom, Doom, Doom, Doom, Doom, Doom.
Do you remember what the first song it was that you heard?
Yeah, actually. It was “Red and Gold”, but the way I heard everything was crazy, because I heard his whole discography as single songs that I found at random on Kazaa. They never had any context, so I was hearing stuff from Madvillainy next to Operation Doomsday next to some KMD track. I wasn’t going to record stores yet cause I didn’t have any money, so all I had was what I was finding on Kazaa.
The school I went to had four different buildings, so they gave us like 17 minutes between classes. It wasn’t against the rules to wear headphones, so like…walking across the quad bumping “Dead Bent” for the first time…those are feelings that you can never have again.
When was it that you started to distinguish the difference between songs? There’s a lot of variety there, especially with Madvillainy, being that it was more of a collaborative effort between him and Madlib, who himself has his own distinct sound.
It’s funny because I didn’t like Madvillainy as much. It wasn’t just Doom rapping, and I didn’t like how Madlib rapped. It was so simple and addled; it bothered me. Now I know where he’s coming from, but at the time I didn’t get it.
What was it about Doom that grabbed you initially?
Doom was the first rapper who communicated like...the widest swath of black identity. Whether it was like being into comic books to being into rap or whatever; just the whole gambit. He could incorporate anything and make it fly.
When was it that you came to find out about a lot of the...mystery surrounding Doom? Like how he hasn’t really been seen without the mask in public, for example.
It was probably around that same time-freshman year of high school. That was back when instant messenger was still huge. I was getting on there and there were all these different rap forums, and Myspace and all my uncle’s friends and cats like Open Mike Eagle. There were just a lot of different rappers who I knew online who I could reach out to and ask things, so I’d always be like “What can you tell me about Doom? What's his story”? Even now, every time I meet a new rap entity that’s usually like the first thing I ask them-“Have you met Doom?” Now I’ve met a few people who have rapped with him, so you know. We’ll see.
Do you have a favorite record of his? He’s got a rather sizeable body of work.
Operation Doomsday. I just love when he raps over his own beats. Especially the whole Doomsday vibe, it blows my mind. That record is amazing.
Have you ever seen him live?
I went to see him and Mos Def on my 17th birthday at the Congress Theater in Chicago. He didn’t show up, but Mos Def rapped his verses.
When did you start writing your own rhymes with the intent of sharing them with others?
By that point you had been listening to Doom for a while. Did he have an influence on your writing?
Yeah, he definitely did. Doom was one of…maybe even the first cat I ever heard flip the third person. That’s a huge thing. Like now everyone does that, but he was the first person I ever heard talk about himself in the third person. He had all the different projects-King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn, MF DOOM, Metal Fingers. Yeah, he was hugely inspirational.
I love that he swears, but it's never a crutch. It's never an intimidation factor and it’s never because it sounds cool. He’s really one who uses his words; he uses his vocabulary in such a fly way. He makes being an MC very cool.
Lyrically too, there’s this…juxtaposition of seriousness and humor all at once. Even going back with KMD, especially the second record.
To me, Black Bastards is definitely a record I look at as a blueprint. It’s definitely a record where like…if I’m in the rough doldrums of working on my craft and could use some inspiration, I’ll throw on Black Bastards. Those beats are really dope, they’re really well made. Like that Pharoah Sanders flip on “It Sounded like a Roc”? That shit is insane. Or how it’s split into two parts with “Plumskinnz”; that shit is so cold. I love how it’s an extended metaphor from the first record with “Peach Fuzz”, too. I love that stuff.
That right there really highlights the fact that Doom is as gifted of an MC as he is a producer.
Yeah definitely and as I started to study Doom more…and other rappers I really love as well…I realized that my favorite songs by any rapper were the ones that they also made the beat for. And that’s when I realized that I was fucking up. I realized that I probably wasn’t rapping as well as I could, because I didn’t understand how a beat was made. He’s really dope, he’s one of my favorite producers. I don’t really understand the rudiments of sampling, though, so I could never chop things up the way he does.
Do you feel like you have a different relationship with a track when you build it from the ground up?
It’s interesting. When I’m making a beat, the rapping is so meshed with it. It’s like the lyrics and the music are coming to life at the same time. With getting a beat cd from someone, it’s different cause that music is already made. With me making beats too it's like…if someone makes the beat and you write the lyrics, who’s song is it? You know? It’s such an annoying question, but it's one that comes up all the time. I’m just really into discovery through music, just doing it myself.
So you mentioned having interest in different elements of Japanese culture, something that Doom shares with you as well. Did you find yourself getting exposed to other things from Japan through Doom’s lyrics?
Not as much. He’s really into Godzilla films and I’m more into anime. That kind of stuff has always interested me. Like Ghost Dog, that film was everything for me. Finding Doom after that was like “Oh shit, this guy is exactly like this stuff, but in a parallel world”. That connection too, with Japan and hip hop…that’s been there for a long time. Doom taps into that. Like Tsutchie, Fat Jon, Shing02, Teriyaki Boyz…Japan has had a very deep connection with hip hop for a long time.
So obviously in wearing the mask, Doom has a very different look from a lot of other MCs. Have you seen his Red Bull Music Academy Lecture?
Yeah, that was so good.
Yeah it’s great. In that he explains how his choice of wearing a mask was an attempt to refocus hip hop, which at the time was way more about image than skills. Do you relate to that sentiment at all?
I definitely like that precedent. It’s something that Doom has set that a lot of cats have picked up on, like Jay Electronica. Not even with the whole mask thing, but just that idea of like…”I’m a rapper, dog. I don’t wanna be all up in the video.” That’s what I love about Doom, he doesn’t really fuck around with all that stuff. It’s just like “Yo, do you like these raps”? That’s what it is for me. That’s kinda how I got into making music, too; what I styled my shit after. The hooks is extra. No hooks, long verses, rambling, preambling, monologues, wordplay…I love that stuff.
Do you think these kinds of decisions-wearing the mask, making limited live apperances, etc-have contributed to him becoming one of the most mysterious figures in modern rap music?
He’s not that mysterious, though. That’s what he says on wax, but if you think about it, he’s not really all that mysterious. Like we know that he’s been deported, you know? He’s done commercials for Adult Swim during Christmas. That’s a huge thing. Especially now that I’m an artist myself, it's like, I ain’t ever been on tv, so what does that make me? Very very mysterious? (laughs) He’s an interesting cat, but I don’t know if I’d call him mysterious.
He’s got the best sense of methos. All these different legends can form a whole sensibility, of which he can then pull different absurdities from. He’s just given himself the illest playground to make rap music in..
Do you think that’s why you’ve remained continuously intrigued by him over the years?
I think at the end of the day, he just writes the best raps. Simple as that.
Too Much of Life Is Mood is available for download now via Bandcamp. Visit Milo on Facebook as well as his label, Ruby Yacht.