Zilla Rocca: The Cabbages Interview

The Philadelphia rapper talks about finding time for creativity, working with Wrecking Crew, and his new album.

Zilla Rocca: The Cabbages Interview
Photo credit: Bob Sweeney

Philadelphia emcee/producer Zilla Rocca spent no shortage of his hip-hop career toiling in relative obscurity. In recent years, however, he's seen his profile–and those of his Wrecking Crew associates–raised exponentially while proving one of the most compelling and consistent independent artists in the east coast rap underground. His new album is called Vegas Vic, released in tandem with Chong Wizard Records. He also co-hosts the hip-hop podcast Call Out Culture, available wherever you get your podcasts.

I mean, your current popularity, it must be strange, because three years ago you put out Future Former Rapper. You had that mentality already, the wheels were spinning. This is the end. I used to rap.

‌‌‌‌I've now rapped more than ever since that album. I've done more than I ever have, even when I was writing, rapping, and performing every day from like 2004, 2005 to 2011 or 2012. It's just like smarter. ‌‌‌‌

Why do you think that is? Why do you feel like you're getting more recognition as you're creating more?

I don't know, bro. From an artistic skill point of view, I'm better than I've ever been. Like when I stumbled across my old stuff from 2008, 2011, mostly I'm like, ugh, I was really bad. Or like, ah, you know, a couple of good ideas. But there's nothing I go back to where I'm like, man, if I could just do that again. I don't have the type of fans that are like, why don't you do this one thing we love from nine years ago? So I'm lucky.

It's just also just plugging away. billy woods is the homie. We were just at the show in Brooklyn the other night. Look where he was ten years ago, right? Ten years ago, me, [Open] Mike Eagle, [Curly] Castro, Nocando, watching Blake Griffin jump over a car at All-Star Weekend, playing a show in Phoenix for 30 people. Now Mike is multimedia God. It's like my cousin used to say about the stock market–you can't time the market, it's about your time in the market. So trying to catch the waves, you're going to go bankrupt. If you're in it for the long haul, you're going to see a lot of success, just from the way the market bears itself out. I think with hip-hop, it's the same thing, or with any art really. You just keep doing it.

For us, I mean, you've seen it with podcasting, with newsletters, just more and more dope tools emerged that are pretty inexpensive. And people want it. When people wanted blogs, I was blogging, ten years ago. When people wanted to be on MySpace, I was on MySpace and everybody else. The trend is your friend. [laughs] The trend right now, for my fans and people of our age, they want to get CDs again, they want vinyl again. They want to listen to podcasts. And shit, me too! So if I could just give it to them and find time, and it organically does what it does, I think that's the answer. 'Cause people I know that that didn't keep going, that were just kinda coasting, they were like, oh, they're going to still want me in three years. Unless you're D'Angelo or Sade or Kendrick, I don't know who can take these big gaps anymore, because we're all filling our cups up with whatever we like, all the time. ‌‌‌‌

You said you don't have like a ton of fans who are going back asking for shit from nine years ago, making those demands from you. It's a reflection of your tenure, of how long you've had to grind. I remember writing for The Quietus, like nine years ago, about Hellfyre Club. Some of those artists are now covered in such a bigger way– not all those artists, but the ones who stuck with it like Open Mike Eagle–

And Milo.

Milo is a great example. And you also brought up billy woods. There was a time where he was, like, that guy with Vordul Mega, for a lot of people–‌‌‌‌

Or Super Chron Flight Brothers. Who was really even checking for him then?‌‌‌‌

So that's one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you, because you've been putting in this time. It must be odd to develop these new fans who really only know you for a relatively finite period of your work.

It's great, because they're catching me on the upswing, at my best. It's not like they're catching me and then the next thing is a stumble or a drop-off. For me, creating and being with people that are creating a lot, I don't have writer's block. I just don't. I used to, and when I used to have writer's block, I was always working, making stuff, doing shows, working on a million records. You know this as a writer, like how you are now is a lot different when you were 19. And the coolest thing is you have that confidence, because you put all those reps in. I don't have to stress or worry; everything's worked out before. It's going to work out again. It's a matter of fine tuning and then picking your spots. ‌‌‌‌With my fans that I have now, I get people that go back to the catalog. I get catalog boosts, on Bandcamp and wherever else. And it'll be interesting to see what people grab or respond to. When people do get at me about older stuff, where I'll recommend things here and there, they'll be like, oh, dang, this is different. I like it. Or, this reminds me of the songs you're making now. So to me, they're all very clearly different spaces and different aesthetics and things I was trying.

I knew I didn't want to keep making the same records. But now, with the people that are getting me, I feel like I know them, where in the past, it was like, wow, I had 1,800 Zshare link downloads. Well, what is that?! Who are they? Or when iTunes first hit and then I would get my iTunes checks, I didn't know who these people were and they didn't know who I was. They found it somewhere and then bought it on iTunes. So now with the algorithms and the analytics, doing the pod, Twitter, and Instagram, you can really get at people in a really cool way. And as long as you're not an asshole and you don't blow people off, it's really simple to find and know who they are, versus blind commerce. And sometimes it's still that, I mean, overwhelmingly probably. But I at least have a sliver of people that can say something to me directly, I can get it and then respond back in kind.‌‌‌‌

A lot of that stems from the fact that you're out here is that you have the podcast weekly and you're releasing music at a fairly decent clip for sure. It always seems like you and the other Wrecking Crew guys are just constantly creating, with features, compilations, a pretty extensive discography with solo projects, duo projects, and side projects. Do you consider yourself a prolific artist?

‌‌‌‌I think we're prolific, but not a data dump type of prolific. Just in the last three months, we did a compilation in June, PremRock dropped the end of June with Load Bearing Crow's Feet. I'm dropping, then Curly Castro drops September, right? Yeah. But the only one that came together this year was Steel's Kitchen. Those other albums have been in the works, pre-COVID or during COVID. It wasn't a plot to say let's fill it up. However, what we did learn in COVID last year was like, all of us are inside, we can't go to shows and people want stuff to take their mind off a lot of concerns in the world. So if they want stuff and we have means to give it to them, let's do it. Me and Ray West linked up and did an EP in like a week or two. Me and Chong Wizard, we had started that [Midnight Sons] album way before, but everything finished up and got released during COVID. Same thing with Raheem's Lament, the Wrecking Crew compilation, same thing with Castro and Small Pro's BLUu Edwards. The Shrapknel record hit like a week or two before COVID. They had a tour, everything was lined up–shut down. With all of those things, we started seeing the uptick.

‌‌‌‌To go back to your original question, we're prolific in that there's never more, for any of us, than like a three month gap where we're not working on something for someone. There were stretches when we weren't. It's like Bryan Cranston. He didn't hit until he was like 48 or something, but once Malcolm In The Middle hit, and then Breaking Bad and then all those movies, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, like Argo. He's just been in everything, because he's just like, I know what it's like to not work.

I'll tell you why, bro, again, I keep going back to you, 'cause, you know, you're prolific as well. I feel like you can also be prolific when you start saying no to shit. You know what I mean? We can say no, that doesn't make sense, we're not going to do that. And when we say no to certain things, it allows us to spend more time on the things we want to do, or things that make sense for us, rather than like, do features for randos that don't really do anything. Or doing shows on a Wednesday in front of nine people and their girlfriends. I'd rather stay home and do a podcast. [laughs] It doesn't add up. Everything has to make sense and be beneficial. When you're younger, you just say yes to everything because you're afraid that people are not going to like you or they're not going to think of you again or they're going to stunt on you or you're going to miss a chance to blow up in front of somebody who's going to be there, you know? Like, someone's going to hear this and it's gonna change everything. And it doesn't. It almost never happens.

I think the difference that you're describing at this point is that you have a focus and you have a brand. Between the podcast and with Wrecking Crew, you've established yourselves as a unit and yourself individually as an artist. It would be terrible if somebody sent me a Bandcamp release that they were about to drop and you were featured on there and the album was terrible. I'd be like, what the fuck was Zilla Rocca doing?

‌‌‌‌I'm on a lot of terrible albums, bro. You gotta go on like hip hop bootleggers to find them. I'm on some wack shit. 'Cause when I was saying yes? Like, somebody in Europe thinks I'm good or, this dude in Rhode Island, I met his cousin once drinking, and he thinks I'm a neato guy. Now it's like, for me to stop everything I'm doing in my life–which is a lot of shit, for me to do that–to make time for whoever it is, it needs to be someone I know and care about deeply, someone was paying me a good amount of money, or something that I think is just really fire. And if I think is really, really fire, I don't care what anyone else thinks. I'm into it. If no one likes the record or if no one's checking it, I'm going to still go at it. There's features and things that I've done with people I'm like, that really should have been on my album, what was I doing, that verse is too fire to give to someone else, that needs to be shuffled back to the home base. Which is good for me. That means I'm not mailing it in. Maybe the person who's that person's fan has never heard of me, sees me on the feature, and are like, who's this guy?. They may end up digging me. But that's great, to know it means a lot for you to see the names on features or on people's records and that's something you want to hear.‌‌‌‌

If your name is on it, at this stage in your career, given your profile and the level has gotten to, it's now a co-sign with some weight to it, for those who fuck with you and with Wrecking Crew. So now you have to be choosy about that. Another aspect of this worth pointing out is something you reference not infrequently on Vegas Vic. You're husband and a father. There's a work-life balance that applies there, a core part of life that has nothing to do with making hip-hop. How then do you balance your creative career and pursuits with making sure that you're doing what you need to do at home? ‌‌‌‌

Man, when you have a child... as they get older, things get a little bit easier, for sure. But you just have to really be focused and be very present. Because you're not younger where it's like, what am I going to do tonight? I don't know. Maybe I'll go to the gym. Maybe I'll watch basketball for three hours. Maybe I'll just go to bed. Maybe I'll talk to a girl. Maybe I'll sit at a bar for four hours. Maybe I'll swing by such-and-such's house. Maybe I'll go bowling. When I was younger and I didn't have a family, me and Castro were still recording at my crib three, four nights a week. A lot of those songs just never came out. They were always for other people's shit, labels that vanished. The records he and I did end up putting out took a longer time.

I was always juggling jobs, having two or three jobs and doing music. I've always worked, on weekends, on holidays, nine-to-fives, working at a pizza place for 15 years, working retail. I've had a lot of gigs. And in those gigs I would always have time where I could write. Then when it was time to record, I was ready to go. I was never a writing-in-the-studio guy. When I started my home studio, I had more space to do it. When you have a child, all you're doing is juggling. But I was juggling since 2005. I had ten years of learning how to juggle and manage my time between work and jobs, relationships, family stuff, music stuff, trying to do a lot of shows, release a lot of shit. And back then I used to be mad, like, why can't I just wake up and create? Why do I have to do all this shit? But it was an opportunity for me to work that muscle for when things really did hunker down, having to really be tight. There was a stretch where when my son was really young, my wife would leave with him at 6:30AM. I had to leave the house at 6:50AM for my commute. I would record from 6:30 to 6:50, for about a year and a half, two years. That was my time–20 minutes. Like, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 20 minutes, do it. That's it. It was like super laser-focused. I don't have that anymore, thankfully. When you have those constraints, you can't fuck around. You can't sit there and be like, ah, maybe tomorrow.

Time is so valuable. I had pockets today where I was like, yo, I can lay a verse right now for this Wrecking Crew album. I got 20 minutes. I can do it, verse, ad lib, let me play it back. Let me get another shot at that verse. Okay. Boom. Do it again. Okay. Time's up. Then later on the day I was like, I got 40 minutes, let me do another verse for the Wrecking Crew album. I'll send it to Castro and see what he thinks. And in between that I'm editing and arranging. It's in short bursts, but you're so aware and present.

Speaking my from experience, some part of my mind is creatively processing ideas throughout the day, in the car, running errands. I think there's something to this constant, even passive, thinking about your work. Would you say you feel you're working in those little moments, on some level?

When I'm working on albums, I feel like very centered and grounded. If I'm working on a record, any turn of phrase I hear, anything I'm listening to just passively, anything I see is everything is being funneled into that thing. I'm like, oh, hook idea. Or like, I never worked with this person. They're popping up on my timeline a lot. I like them. Or, ooh, I haven't worked with this person in six years. They will be fire on the song and they just texted me out of the blue. Let me get them a spot. It's always like, what is the most useful thing I could pull into my main focus? Sometimes when we do the podcast, I'll just be freewheeling with my friends. Other times, it's like... we just did the Jay-Z episode on Vol. 3. I listened to it a lot. I thought about it. And I was like, yeah, I'm just gonna write some notes this time and see what that's like for doing an episode. I was still thinking about that record a lot, going back to it, thinking about things I always loved about it, thinking about things I never cared, thinking about that.

I'll be putting my son to bed thinking about a certain rap phrase. I'm like, why is this phrase in my head from Lord Have Mercy from Flipmode. Why is this here I'm going to use this somewhere. There's a reason why these things are just crawling in the front. I'll be in the shower, same thing. I'll wake up and just have a lyric from a random song from somewhere in my mind. And I'm like, why am I thinking about this? No one has sung that song. I haven't played it. Okay, I'm going to use this. This needs to be woven in somewhere at some point. Otherwise it's kinda like a hot air balloon, drifting by me. Whenever I'm in that mode, everything's getting pulled. It's like Castro, he and I always say, like the Buffalo we're using every piece of this thing. It's getting stripped down–the foot, the hoof, the heart, the eyes, we're taking all of it. Nothing's going to be left.

96 Mentality came out in 2019 and had a pretty clearly stated theme, a notable homage to Cappadonna. How did your experience making that project inform or impact your approach to Vegas Vic? ‌‌‌‌

That album to me was kind of like a sequel of sorts to me and Small Pro [as] Career Crooks, Good Luck With That. That was my first straight up unapologetic east coast rap album. And it did well, like on URBNET Records and Bandcamp. It was like top 10 rap albums of the whole year, 2017. We did a bunch of shows, the feedback and the energy. And I was like, whoa, like this is some shit, man. I had never just done that. And I was like, this is pretty easy. I know these records and I've lived on the east coast my whole life. Future Former Rapper took probably like a year or two. 96, I did that in probably like three months.  I was like, shit, these beats are banging, I'm not going to put a lot of thought into it. I'm just going to have fun. I wrote and recorded that one when my son would take naps on a weekend, basically. That's how I made that record. Then as he got older, we started getting more active again.

As for Vegas Vic, I looked at my notebook. It's like a studio book; I write down all the things I'm doing in the studio, which is the basement right here. I started it October 2019, the first song I made for Vegas Vic. But it wasn't for an album. It was "Wreck Havoc [feat. ShrapKnel]," the last song on the record. Because what's-its-name came out, Griselda's "Dr. Birds." And I said to Prem, we need a song like that. We're just rapping. To Small Pro I said, send me a rugged beat. He sent me to beat. I did a verse. I said, yo, everyone just do a verse, we're going to put this out on some Griselda shit. Once I got it back, I'm like, this is actually way too hot to just throw this out as a one-off. And then I started making the record.

I didn't think of it in a 96 Mentality lens. I thought of it again as this sound people react to quickly when I make it, you know what I mean? A more traditional east coast vibe. And I'm not ashamed of that. There was a long time when that was very frowned upon. It was not a good idea to do that. Now, the good thing is the fans that do want it are very vocal. They spend money, they talk about it, they share it. So if you're going to make music in that lane, there's a landing pad for you to coast in on. I can do this fairly simply and it's fun for me. Moving forward, I don't know if I can make up another one, be kinda like a trilogy, like Tom Waits has with Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Franks Wild Years. All them joints, a three-piece, a little suite in the middle of everything else. So I may do another, cap off that lane for me. If it's something that people want, I'm gonna hit them with it.‌

‌‌‌Vegas Vic is a very bars-centric record, not so much of a storytelling record. You do have "10 Deep With 6 Packs" on there; that is absolutely that kind of thing. Not to make direct comparisons with other artists, but there are certain Jay records where he's just like heavy on the bars, but then there's some storytelling at some point in it. That almost seems to break up a record. Because what you do on a bars record, as a listener, is you just catch that last couplet. A bars record is gratification, from a listener's perspective. But it sounds like you're saying that making a record like that is pleasurable to you as an artist.

Yeah. Because you know what it was, bro? I had a lot of identities and a lot of past rap lives and a lot of groups, a lot of failed crews. My first group, I was like the bar guy next to this charismatic, handsome sing-song ass dude. Then my next group I was in, there was already a bar guy, so I had to be more leftfield and a little more experimental–but then it was like, don't be too weird with that, bro. We don't like you being that weird. Rein it in. On my own, to break away out of that I did a record with Douglas Martin, a.k.a. Blurry Drones, called Slow Twilight [in 2009]. I could just ball out. I could be super weird. I could talk about chicks. I could talk about just being frustrated and annoyed at things. I'm like, whoa, I can do that. That's where like Castro came into the mix. We crossed paths a lot in Philly, but he heard that and he was like, oh, you and I are going to be friends now. I get you, I really get you...

I'll tell you what I did like about 96. That was the first record I made where [on] release day people were quoting it to me on Twitter. It feels great to have people hit you with them. They're like, oh, you think you're slick? Nah, I caught that part too. As someone whose dedicated their life to rapping and words, I really did realize why I'm a word nerd. I read books to my son every night. This is a breeding ground, potentially, for him to be like me. So to have people hit you with that right away, it's like, man, that's all I really need. I don't care if I sell four copies. The four people that got it know what I'm saying on release day, not six years later. It's really wonderful to get the recognition. I'm not just by myself, hoping in my basement that someone gets it in the outside world.

On Vegas Vic, you worked with some great producers, some really great beat makers. The title track with Doc Heller, aka Darko The Super, that's a really cool one. There's something about the combination of lyrics that are very gratifying, and beats that you ease into very comfortably, as a listener bus also as an emcee. They're built for you to to rhyme over. It's the instant gratification of a record, versus a record that you have to sit with and learn to appreciate.

Yeah. I've made records like that. You doubt yourself, because you don't know when it's going to click for someone. When's the light switch gonna go on? Eight months later? Listen, no. 84? I don't know. I got a ton of records over here, a whole cabinet my wife will divorce me over if I open it, with a thousand CDs and tapes. I've listened to everything, from Anticon to Queensbridge dudes, my whole life. As I get older, it's just like, the immediacy of it is–we know this. Your time is limited. And so I can't sit there, I can't dedicate a listen to be like, I don't know what's going on. Do I like this? What is he saying? When I was in college, you know, yeah, sure. Just trip out, listen to some weird shit, fill an iPod, and go crazy.

I was saying [this] to somebody at the bar the other night we did a show. I'm happy being Big L, Nature, Sauce Money. I'm good with that. All those years I spent listening to them and loving them. I didn't know why I loved them. I'm not even like one of those Big L stans, but when you listen to a Big L verse, play it three times, it's memorized. You can memorize that verse. The way it's crafted, it's so simple and immediate, but also hyper-technical. It'd be like five syllable lines that match up. And then same thing with Nature, who I was lucky enough to work with on Midnight Sons. His DJ Clue mixtape run, and even parts on his first album, it's like straightforward, but super memorable and easy to catch, like Sauce Money at his peak. There's something about that, to be memorable by saying things very plainly, but with a lot of pizzazz, or saying them in patterns people haven't said yet. And after it's over, you're like, how come I didn't think of that? I never thought to put those things right there. They were just waiting for each other; those words were just sitting to connect. When I listen to Aesop [Rock], who's like top three for me ever, Aesop's the king of that, just in very Byzantine ways. Like, why did no one match pots and pans with lobster hands? Anybody could have just took that. That was right there. Or that one joint where he's on something like, Heather Hunter still living in your college VCR. He rhymes like GNR with VCR, but how he gets there in between is magnificent.

I don't have a lot of time to fuck around when I'm listening to stuff, so what I'm listening to has to be right there, right in the moment. It doesn't have to be hip-hop. So, on my end, that's what I want to give you. And the beats I got from people,I put the bat signal up. I forget when, but I was telling people like, I want your version of Ironman by Ghostface. Like, to you as a producer, what do you think that is? I'm not going to say I want "Daytona 500." I just said, Ghostface, Ironman send me beats. And so the beats people were sending them back, like the Darko joint, that's a Ghostface beat to me. [Disco Vietnam's] "Merv Griffin Enterprises," to me that was like "Iron Maiden," the first song on Ironman. That urgency, it's like, boom. So Ironman's my favorite album of any genre of any music. I wanted the feel of it, to have a lot of soul and warmth to it, but just a lot of raw energy and urgency. You don't put Ironman on and not pay attention. You can't study and play that shit, you know what I mean? It's not for that. It's like driving fast, being at the gym, boxing, jumping rope. You're not going to put that on and be like, oh, how do I make this spaghetti squash recipe? Let me turn down "Poisonous Darts" real quick. You can't! There's a lot of records you can do that with, but not that one. So this record was made with that mindset. Immediacy, that's a great word for it.

Photo credit: Bob Sweeney

'Vegas Vic' is out now and available wherever music is streamed or sold. To purchase a copy on vinyl, cassette, or CD, please visit the Chong Wizard Records Bandcamp page.