Q&A: Ill Bill on getting personal, Henry Rollins and Chuck D, and a changing Brooklyn

Ill Bill: The Grimy AwardsIll Bill: The Grimy Awards (Uncle Howie / Fat Beats, 2/26/13)

“Paul Baloff”

Ill Bill: “Paul Baloff”

It’s one thing to say a lot on an album; it’s quite another to actually have something to say. Drawing from artists who are equal parts entertainer and activist, Ill Bill uses his new solo album, The Grimy Awards, as a platform to both tell his story of growing up around drugs and violence in Brooklyn and sound the alarm against blind acquiescence to authority.

The former Non Phixion MC, coming off recent collaborations with La Coka Nostra and Vinnie Paz, teams with a host of collaborators and producers — including Large Professor, Pete Rock, El-P, HR of Bad Brains, and more — to showcase both the scars and the life lessons that come from being a hip-hop heavyweight with nearly three decades in the ring.

The Grimy Awards is described as “biographic.” What balance did you want to strike between personal, political, and cultural? Were there specific topics that you wanted to address when making the album?

I think even the political stuff is personal; it just depends on how you look at it. This record is my way of describing different influences in my life, whether it’s people, ideas, concepts, whatever — I wanted to put all that into an album. I made songs to delve into how I got where I am in my life and my career. The songs that people might perceive as political on this record are just an extension of that way of thinking that I have — always wanting to explore to find out what’s going on beneath the surface.

How does working on a solo record change the music you’re making?

I think it’s easier in a way. I think it’s easier to be true to yourself as an artist in terms of concepts — you don’t have to compromise. In a group, you have to compromise on ideas. You have to throw ideas back and forth, and one guy might go, “I don’t know about that,” and it’s not as pure. The solo records are a more concentrated effort.

Were there any guest spots or production work that blew away your expectations on this album?

Yeah, the song “When I Die,” Pete Rock actually remixed it for me. I’m really proud of that song in general — lyrically and not just with production. I’m excited about that. With the album being as new as it is, it’s hard for me to pick apart the record — I hate to do that. I’d prefer that people listen to the record as a whole. I’m proud of the record as a whole.

In “Severed Heads of State,” you say that you learned a lot from Chuck D and Henry Rollins. How have those guys influenced you, and how does that manifest in your music and lyrics?

Growing up in New York City, just being a Brooklyn kid with Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” and listening to political music and growing up with those type of heroes, they kind of instilled in me to question things.

Those two guys in particular — Henry Rollins and Chuck D — are real dynamic dudes that are super influential, way beyond the music that they make. So mentioning them in “Severed Heads” is a tip of the hat, but across the board that song is just about not passing the buck. I think those guys were the first two guys to tell you, “Take responsibility for your own shit.” It’s easy to point fingers at the man, at the establishment, and many times it’s justified. But when it’s all said and done, we do control our own destinies to a huge extent.

You talk a lot about hard times in Brooklyn — especially in your past — yet it seems that Brooklyn is in the beginning stages of an artistic, economic upswing. What do you think about the way some things have changed through the years?

In general, New York has changed a lot. Has it changed for the better? I loved New York when it was grimy. It’s not as grimy; it’s safer now. In a way, that’s a good thing.

I think every generation is going to look at the previous generation and say, “When I came up, it was realer.” That’s the natural progression of things. So for me to say that Brooklyn was realer when I was coming up, it’s kind of clichéd. Regardless, New York is still a huge melting pot and a great place to interact with different people with different backgrounds and learn from each other and exchange ideas and influences — add them to your own repertoire with your own twists. I think that has always been great about Brooklyn and New York as a whole, and I think it’s still that way.

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