Twenty years ago Nas released his career-defining debut, Illmatic, and while the New York MC has spent the bulk of the year celebrating that anniversary—he’s played the album in full on tour—other folks have been working and building on those ideas. In Chicago 33-year-old producer Adrian Villagomez, aka A-Villa, has been waving that flag proudly. His forthcoming debut is steeped in bold, old-school hip-hop, right down to its title, Carry on Tradition—that’s a reference to a line Nas collaborator AZ raps on “Life’s a Bitch,” which A-Villa sampled for his album’s title track. A-Villa’s vital, bustling “Carry on Tradition” features local stalwart Mikkey Halsted and Little Brother‘s Big Pooh—it’s an excellent example of how the producer is drawing from hip-hop’s past to push the form further.
Next week Closed Sessions will release A-Villa’s debut, several years after the producer made the first beat for what would eventually become Carry on Tradition. A-Villa’s been working steadily on it since the spring of 2010, which is when, among other things, he won his first beat battle—Fresh Produce, hosted by the aforementioned Halsted. A boatload of additional rappers jumped onboard A-Villa’s project through the years—including Killer Mike, Freddie Gibbs, Action Bronson, Big K.R.I.T., Inspectah Deck, and AZ—and the producer crafted these songs while juggling his day job as a bank vice president and life as a new father. As the release of Carry on Tradition, the end result of A-Villa’s lifelong dream, appeared on the horizon I spoke with the beat maker about his inspirations, collaborating with MCs over e-mail, and wearing several different hats (and, on some days, half a suit and a hoodie).
Leor Galil: What started all this for you?
A-Villa: I was always big into music when I was young, but I’m not a good singer, I had no musical training, and I would never consider myself a rapper. I just had a passion for music and a good ear for melodies. I always had a dream to do something with music; I was never really motivated to pursue it. Finishing school and excelling at a career in finance was more my parents’ dream for me, but after I accomplished all of that—graduating from DePaul and eventually becoming a bank vice president—I got bored with the daily work grind and needed a creative outlet.
I went to a local Guitar Center, bought an MPC drum machine, and really taught myself from the ground up how to make beats. It was starting out as a fun, after-work hobby, but that changed when Guru of Gang Starr passed away—that was April 2010. I didn’t know Guru personally, I was just a fan of Gang Starr’s music coming up, but it really triggered something in my own life and put things in perspective in regard to my own personal legacy. I can be here today and gone tomorrow, but what exactly am I leaving behind for my loved ones—really, the world—to remember me by?
Then it hit me, I should create art by making my own music. I was competing and winning local producer competitions at the time, and that really gave me the confidence to make songs. Those songs and the birth of my daughter motivated me to create my own work of art, which is my album Carry on Tradition.
Prior to Guru’s death how long had you been figuring out how to make instrumentals?
It was just a matter of months—probably a few months. Like probably most beat makers I didn’t sound good at first, but I just kept working on it at night, and it was just fun. Like I said, it was a creative outlet, it was something that I was just doing for my own pleasure. It finally turned into something once I took it serious and got that motivation to push forward with it.
Your career is your parents’ dream for you—what did your family think of you pursuing this dream on the side?
They loved it. They were very supportive. Part of it is still making my parents proud, making my family proud, my lady, and at the end of the day, being a new father; it all comes down to leaving something for my daughter. More than money she will have something to remember me by, because of my album—it represents me. I just wanted to make my family proud and I think this album does that.
Is your daughter’s name Ava?
Correct. Her full name’s Avalyn, but we call her Ava for short.
I noticed her name on the last song on your album [“Never Give You Up (One for Ava)”]. I was like, that’s gotta be her!
Yes indeed, that was definitely dedicated to her. It’s kinda wrapping up the whole project, and I’m rapping on the song, I got the last verse on the album. It’s kinda just me putting out the narrative of my whole journey of starting music, where it began, my goal with it, and what I was trying to do with it—and at the end of the day it’s all for her. And that’s her featured on the song as well, that’s actually her first cry that you hear on the song—that’s her first sound.
Earlier you mentioned you don’t think of yourself as a rapper—what was the challenge in recording your verse?
I always wrote down lyrics—I consider myself a writer. I even wrote some lyrics on this album, a couple hooks and stuff you might’ve heard. I was doing a little ghostwriting, as a producer does, so I kinda graduated from that beat-making element.
I just wanted to express myself and all my feelings involved with the album and the creative process of working on it—the struggle as well as the inspiration I gathered from previous producers that made beats and rapped. I mentioned Dr. Dre and Pete Rock on the song, definitely J Dilla, producers that did both things. It was nerve-racking but I got through it. I think it only took a few takes and I think it came out dope.
You mentioned you ghostwrote for some people—who did you write for?
I can’t say that, man, but I was definitely involved in the studio process with a lot of these songs. A lot of these compilation projects get made through e-mail stuff—that happened with this album too. I would say it was kind of a 50-50 thing. When I was in the studio it was definitely a full-on session with me actually producing the track, vocally working with the artists, and definitely bouncing ideas off each other.
I’ll give you one particular song, “A Day in the Life.” I’m not gonna take full credit for that, that was actually me and Macie Stewart [Marrow guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist, formerly of Kids These Days]. I came to the studio with a hook written for that and gave it to her. We’re just bouncing ideas off each other, and she wrote her parts and added to it and she made it what it is—she’s definitely very talented and improved upon what I wrote. That’s really the process.
The album is very cohesive considering you’re collaborating with people over e-mail and it’s packed with rappers who have very distinct styles. How did you approach people for the project and fit everything together? How much collaboration did you have when you have five rappers on a single song? How did you make it all work?
It was a communication process. I would start a song with an artist and I’d have the concept—usually with the beats I’d try to have a concept already laid out within the beat—I’ll title the name of a beat, I might put a scratch hook on a beat just to give it that feel. Then we’d just take it from there and I’d just communicate to the artist exactly what my vision for the song is. We might have a verse and just a hook at that point, and I would send it to another artist, or I might be in the studio with two artists and end up sending it to a third artist, and they add their elements.
The challenge with that is at the end of the day you got a lot of rappers in the room with one producer. It’s very competitive, rap, and they want to outdo each other and sound better than each other. So you may get a situation where a rapper hears something and they want to improve upon that, and then the other rapper that previously recorded wanted to hear what the other guy did. So that was a challenge and that’s why some of these songs took a long time to do. I’m dealing with all the artists from different parts of the country—I got artists from the west coast, down south, the east coast, and the midwest—so I’m kinda just bouncing that all together.
Your first song was the title track, yes?
“Carry on Tradition,” with Mikkey Halsted and rapper Big Pooh. I kept producing beats and doing what most up-and-coming beat makers do: I e-mailed my music and handed out beat CDs to every rapper I could think of, to managers and their A&Rs. I was in a suit and tie working in a bank during the day and really pursuing my rap-music dreams at night, but I didn’t have an established name. Initially I was getting very little response. It wasn’t until I won my first beat competition where I met Chicago artist Mikkey Halsted, my first real studio session was with him.
Around that same time I finally got a response through e-mail: rapper Big Pooh, formerly of Little Brother, he reached out, told me he liked my beats, and sent me a track with two verses he recorded on one of those beats. Being a big Little Brother fan back when I was going to school and now having a beat with rapper Big Pooh on it was a real big deal to me. It wasn’t even a finished song, but then I brought it to Mikkey Halsted and it became the first song we actually recorded for the album. Seeing how that song came out I took that same approach and just really hustled that song and my beats within the industry.
One song turned into three songs, then it turned into an EP, and then it turned into a full-on 16-track album with 40-plus artists on it. At the same time I’m still working at a career in banking, of course raising my daughter. Overall I’ve worked on this album for about three years.
It’s a jammed schedule—being a father and having a full-time job is probably enough stress. How did you balance everything?
It was really like I was living three different lives. I still have that identity to this day. I just literally came from the studio. I was joking with Alex [Fruchter, Closed Sessions cofounder] that I was wearing a half suit and a hoodie. That’s just my lifestyle, man.
My first priority is my daughter, putting food on the table, supporting my daughter, and raising her. Part of that goes with my career in banking that I already had before I even started music. It’s still my priority as far as a career, I’ve become successful doing that. But like I said, my personal dream was to do music, and I think I was in a good place—financially, mentally, all that—to really pursue that at the time. It was just the right time.
Some people do the “go for the dream first” and I understand that, but my whole intention and my mentality was have a plan A, B, and C. My plan was always school, ’cause that’s what my parents told me to do, and I follow what they wanted me to do. I did that, I did the career thing, and now it’s time to go do what I wanted to do.
Other than plan A, B, and C, do you have a plan D? Have you thought about what you’ll do beyond this LP? This seems like the dream is achieved—what’s next?
Music’s still a go. I’m working on various projects. I have a bunch of material I didn’t release on this album—crafting this album I just want to make it as cohesive and as tight as possible. I got instrumental projects that are already done, I got side projects that I’m working on with other artists from the album and not on the album. Beat placements are important and I got some of those in the works as well—some big surprises that I’m working on with that.
The music’s still gonna be there but as far as an album like this, a producer album in my name . . . I did this whole project myself, before Closed Sessions came in and did their part, the album was already recorded fully at the time, and that was all done by me. I put my blood, sweat, tears, my heart, work, money, everything—my energy and time—into this. Just doing that again, where I am right now, and now that I’m a father, I just really don’t have the time to do that.
So unless somebody wants me to cut a check to do an album like this I’ll be all for it. But I’m proud of what I have here. I really love this album. I’m a fan of it. I know a lot of artists don’t listen to their own work, I actually do. I listen to this almost daily, and I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished here. I don’t see myself topping this anytime soon.