Milwaukee rapper BLAX is back with a new album —Be Well— produced by Reason. It premiered today on the national hip-hop website HipHopDX.com.
Born Adebisi Agoro, the wordsmith became known as a spoken word poet in the early 2000s. Agoro is also an original founder of the defunct but beloved Milwaukee hip-hop band Fresh Cut Collective.
In 2010, Agoro moved to New York City with $250 in his pocket, eventually landing an internship with entrepreneur Damon Dash. Agoro worked behind the scenes with Dash, producer Ski Beatz and the Jet Life family, while networking and creating with different artists from around NYC and the globe.
Agoro moved back to Milwaukee a few years ago to focus on his family. He continues to hone his craft and build on the momentum he had in NYC.
As an advocate for the Milwaukee hip-hop scene, Agoro supports young emcees while championing the old guard. Those inclinations are evident on Be Well, which features an impressive mix of guest artists from sultry singer Fivy to Milwaukee rap icon Coo Coo Cal.
On Be Well, Agoro draws from his NYC connections as well, including a guest verse from Brooklyn rapper G.R.A.M.Z. on “Nothin,” the first video from the album. It is directed by Eli Salcedo of Visual Index Films.
Be Well opens to reworked sound bites from news reports on the Sherman Park riots that ensued after the shooting of Syville Smith last summer. The album’s dark undertones do well to express emotions that Agoro and his community have been experiencing as they continue to witness black Americans being killed by police with impunity.
In anticipation of the release of Be Well, Agoro shared some of his thoughts regarding the new project and his future ambitions.
WiG What was your goal with the new record?
BLAX My personal goal for this record was to make a time capsule of a sound and place. This record for me defines a moment in life. When people look to my music I want them to look to it as a reflection as to what was going on in those days and times. I wanted to capture my Milwaukee reality, my world view on how I am feeling in these modern times.
This record is a culmination of skills learned and wisdom gained as a traveled independent artist. For me it symbolizes the closing of one door and perhaps the opening of a new one. This record is a farewell note to the past, while being an introduction to the future. Hence the album title, Be Well.
There is definitely a boom bap aesthetic in the music, but we are definitely cooking it up in the digital trap. We spent maybe about 100 hours in the studio mixing this project with Moses, meticulously mixing each individual sound to get the feel we wanted. Incorporating new artists such as Wave Chapelle, as well as veterans like Coo Coo Cal was also important.
WiG What does Coo Coo Cal mean to you and how did you get him on a track?
BLAX Having Coo Coo Cal on this album was important to me because his career and the impact that it had for a moment in time laid the foundation for what we are doing as independent artists in the city of Milwaukee right now. At this point there are no other artists who can lay claim to having a platinum single and have had the same national acclaim as Coo Coo had. We have to respect that as a community of musicians and artists if we hope to attain those same heights one day ourselves. And he is still currently dope.
That record came together how things do in the Mil. It’s a pretty small world. My cousin reached out to him about us collaborating on another song with a totally different producer and that song actually happened. However, I ended up scrapping that idea and sending him the track for “Maybe,” which was a better fit. Cal has a reputation for being a wild dude in the past and I knew with the topic of the song he could give me some real good game on it. It worked out perfectly.
Indirectly, the same initial collaboration with Coo Coo was how the Wave collab happened. I had this idea of crafting a song with the two features to the first song with Coo Coo. I sent that to Wave’s camp and it was a go, but again I switched it up and eventually we came through with something new and different with the track “Shades.”
WiG How did the video for “Nothin” come together?
BLAX The video for “Nothin” came together rather serendipitously. We shot the video in Brooklyn with Eli Salcedo of Visual Index Films. He has been on the come up and I liked what he was doing. We have mutual friends so it wasn’t too hard to get in contact with him. It was definitely important to me to have someone with a fresh perspective help with my visuals and I love the vision and professionalism he provided.
We discussed some motivations for the visual beforehand, but most importantly, I let Eli do his thing. The guy tied up in the chair is a friend of my cousin named Robert Jackson Jr., an acting graduate from NYU. He provided that essence for what we needed as realism in that scene. He is an amazing talent. We are symbolically putting an end to the wack rapper who “ain’t talking about nothing.”
WiG What’s next for BLAX?
BLAX More of the same. Growth, building and expansion. It’s funny to talk about what’s next when it that seems my art exists in cycles. By the time the new art reaches the people it’s already old art to me. The next goal is to keep things moving. To continue on with a successful album roll out, to touch and reach as many people as I can with this music. I would like to lay an independent blueprint for distribution and marketing for my company to follow in the future. It’s bigger than BLAX. Its Level 13 Entertainment and we are preparing for takeoff. Be well.
Once upon a time record label reps crisscrossed the globe in search of promising young musicians. You might find one hanging out in the back of a small club or at a showcase. These days most up-and-coming artists are left to their own devices. The current industry model requires a built-in following on the Internet and on stage before labels bother to reach out. But the emergence of the do-it-yourself online infrastructure makes you wonder what major labels are still good for.
That being said, when an artist does get tapped by the industry—even if they choose not to pursue a contract—it can decidedly improve their circumstances. Such is the case of Milwaukee rapper Ishmael “IshDARR” Ali.
At 20-years-old IshDARR is the hottest Wisconsin hip-hop artist by industry standards, with over 7 million streams of his single “Too Bad,” a brand new project—Broken Hearts & Bankrolls—charting on the iTunes Store, and a world tour under his belt.
I recently sat down with the man behind-the-scenes—IshDARR’s close friend and manager Enrique “Mag” Rodriguez. We scheduled our interview for his studio, which I assumed was a converted recording space in a commercial or industrial section of town.
Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to a modest two-story home in Burnham Park on Milwaukee’s South Side. The front lawn was filled with a trampoline, bicycles, and all sorts of toys. Like many 22-year-olds, Rodriguez is living with his parents. But unlike many millennials, Rodriguez and IshDARR almost bought a house in Los Angeles this summer.
“We live by this saying, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’” Rodriguez tells me in his upstairs bedroom studio, a sparse space with a single microphone in one corner, an old laptop with a busted screen connected to a large monitor in the middle, and a mattress pushed up against the opposite wall.
As Rodriguez plays me tracks from Broken Hearts & Bankrolls we talk about how he got started producing in high school, their experience with the music industry, their house party series, their new studio, and their decision to stay based in Milwaukee.
BOODAH’S LITTLE BROTHER
“I actually used to rap starting in 7th grade,” says Rodriguez. “But I only rapped because I wanted to learn how to record and I didn’t know any rappers. Being raised on the South Side nobody really rapped, that wasn’t a thing over here.”
That would change when Rodriguez enrolled in Messmer Prep for 8th grade on Milwaukee’s North Side. There he met Radonte Ashford II aka “Wave Chapelle” and Isaiah “BoodahDARR” Ali. The trio bonded over their love of hip-hop and formed a group called NoNam3. Rodriguez had been playing the clarinet since 4th grade and Messmer’s band director Greg Flattery became supportive of their music.
“One day I showed up to school and our band director had a Mac in this room with a really good interface, two expensive microphones, some of the walls were soundproofed and he was like, ‘Here you guys go, create.’”
Rodriguez and Ashford II spent the summer before their junior year learning how to use the makeshift studio. The next semester Ali’s little brother Ishmael started at Messmer.
“It’s crazy because he was always just Boodah’s little brother. He was the youngest so he was never the focus and his voice was very high pitched. After high school I worked with Wave for a little bit but then he moved down to Memphis and I quit making music. I had a regular job at a banking company and it was kind of cool. Then one day I got a call from Boodah. He wanted to try some stuff with Ish.”
Boodah, Ish and Rodriguez created a group—iLL Collective—that put out three songs and a video. But the project ended faster than it formed, as Boodah left for college at UW-Parkside.
After another false start, Rodriguez pledged to leave music alone for good. But a message from Ish two months later reeled him back in. Throughout the winter of 2013 and spring of 2014 the duo worked on music that would eventually became The Better Life EP.
AMANDA & ATLANTIC
As they were preparing to release The Better Life Rodriguez and Ish received an email from an A&R at Epic Records named Amanda Berkowitz. She expressed interest in their music. Shortly after Berkowitz left Epic and started her own creative agency in New York City. Over time Berkowitz would become Rodriguez’s mentor and eventually IshDARR’s co-manager.
“I’ve seen people post about Amanda being ‘Ish’s secret manager.’ But she’s not a secret, she just doesn’t live here. She is someone we go to for advice. If we need something she’ll help us make it happen. She coordinates things. She tells us what to watch out for, the ins and outs of the industry, she makes sure we’re heading in the right direction. But she’s also trying to figure it out just like us. ”
In the summer of 2014 Rodriguez and Ish were flown out to Los Angeles by Mike Caren, who was at the time Vice President of A&R at Atlantic Records.
The scene Rodriguez describes is straight out of a movie. Big house in Beverly Hills. Plaques on the walls from household names. Caren sits Ish down in the big chair, listens to his music and asks him about his plans. Rodriguez says the meeting went well, but they decided to pass on the opportunity.
“We could sense they saw it becoming something bigger and wanted it early. We were like, ‘We either give this to them or we do it ourselves and see what happens.’ At the time we had nothing to lose. Ish was 17, I was 19.”
“That was our biggest motivation. Somebody actually opened the door in the industry for us and was like, ‘We want you guys to be a part of this.’”
Prior to the Atlantic meeting Ish opened for West Coast rapper Schoolboy Q at The Rave. Ish linked up with Q’s independent record label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) and were attached to Ab-Soul’s tour that Fall. Ish refers to that experience as a major milestone in his career.
During this time labels were knocking on Ish’s door and flooding Rodriguez’s email with beats. That is how they got their hands on the J Gramm instrumental for what would become “Too Bad,” Ish’s biggest single. J Gramm is responsible for some major hits, including “Broccoli ft. Lil Yachty,” Big Baby D.R.A.M.’s current smash. “Too Bad” got a huge lift when actress Chloë Grace Moretz tweeted it out, generating 14,000 streams overnight.
“I think most people aren’t prepared for stuff like that to happen, that’s why they can’t follow up. You’ve got to be able to push records and give them a life instead of just dropping a song and moving on to the next thing.”
HOUSE PARTIES & HUGS
The first time I met Rodriguez was the summer of 2015 in the alley entrance of a barbershop on Historic Mitchell Street. It was the initial house party in a series to celebrate IshDARR’s second project—Old Soul, Young Spirit. The party featured a slew of local rappers doing a couple songs each in between DJs playing dance hits. Guest rappers included Von Alexander, Job Jetson, Klassik, Pizzle, and WebsterX. It was a packed, sweaty, rowdy affair. IshDARR closed the night with a wild rendition of “Too Bad.”
“I used to throw parties all over the city,” says Rodriguez. “I realized the easiest way to bring people together is by giving them alcohol and music. We did three OSYS parties and brought out 100 to 150 kids to each. I’m not sure that would’ve happened if they were concerts. We’re exposing them to Ish while they are there for a party. I think that was one of the big reasons we were able to sell out The Rave last December.”
IshDARR’s camp originally had a tour in the works for this fall but ran into routing issues. They also realized they stand to make more money hosting house parties. Rather than paying to rent a venue and the associated fees (security, sound) all they need is a fan with a house and they take care of the rest. Having sold out college houses all over Wisconsin, they are taking “The Locals Experience” around the country this fall.
“Ish knows he’s not ‘somebody’ yet, but he knows he wants to be somebody. And he wants his fans to know that at one point they met him and Ish appreciated them. So he’ll stand at the door and say ‘Thank you,’ take pictures, and give everybody hugs.”
THE PLANT & THE CITY
While working on Broken Hearts & Bankrolls Rodriguez bought new equipment for the studio he is building on the East Side using blueprints he received from friends in New York. But they decided to keep the project cohesive and finish it with their bedroom equipment.
“We’ve recorded in big studios all over the country, but there’s nothing like recording in this room for some reason,” Rodriguez says about his bedroom studio.
“There’s an aesthetic to making a project, it has to fit with what’s going on in your life. We could just put out a project full of singles and it might do well and we might make some money, but it’s not genuine. I can’t speak for Ish, but this last year has literally been broken hearts and bankrolls. With the rising fame this stuff has happened in his life and it’s happened in my life.”
“I think this project is a good interpretation for people to get to know Ish better. It’s a very dark project and that might throw some people a little bit. Because it’s pretty conscious and coming from Ish’s heart. I think now that he’s growing as an artist, he’s more worried about what he wants instead of what people want to hear.”
While Ish has drawn comparisons to Midwest contemporary Chance the Rapper, the moody music and honest lyrics on BHBR are closer to Drake. In fact, one of BHRB’s standout tracks—“Dumb Playing”—was created by frequent Drake producer Chilly Gonzales. Rodriguez—who records, mixes, masters and even does graphic design for IshDARR and his affiliates—cites Drake’s friend and producer Noah “40” Shabib as a major influence.
“I feel like to be great you have to imitate greatness. I studied that man’s sound. I want to imitate my version of what he’s done. There’s a lot that ‘40’ did that people don’t even know about. That goes with being behind-the-scenes. And I’m cool with that. I love being behind-the-scenes. I generally don’t like being in crowds. I have social anxiety. I like watering the plant, I don’t like being the plant.”
When Rodriguez talks about IshDARR’s notoriety he often uses Drake as an example of someone who lifted his or her city up. Drake’s success shined a light on the Toronto hip-hop and R&B scene, which brought artists like The Weeknd and PARTYNEXTDOOR to the mainstream. Rodriguez believes IshDARR could do the same for Milwaukee’s bubbling hip-hop scene and be a positive influence on the city in general.
“There’s too much going on here, there’s a lot of lost youth. The segregation in the city is ridiculous among browns and blacks. I think it’s important for people like me and Ish to promote that you can do something positive rather than being out in the streets killing yourself.”
IshDARR was one of the first artists to be featured at a Freespace event, which is a monthly all-ages music showcase run by Janice Vogt, Vincent Gaa, WebsterX and Kane the Rapper. Rodriguez sees Vogt and Gaa as important community leaders supporting the city. IshDARR has also modeled for Milwaukee streetwear brand Among the Prime.
“We want to help build Milwaukee. And I think artists lose themselves when they leave their city. We’ve been all over Europe, we’ve been all over this country, but there’s nothing like coming home and ordering some chimichangas from down the block. That’s just how this goes.”
IshDARR will be in Racine October 27, at The Altamont in Marquette (Michigan) on October 28, and in Madison on October 29. Follow @IshDARR on Twitter and SnapChat for updates from “The Locals Experience.”
[ FULL INTERVIEW ]
When I arrive at Enrique “Mag” Rodriguez’s house he and the Canadian producer Canis Major are slowly rising. They “went hard” the night before at Bad Genie in downtown Milwaukee. Canis leaves the house to get Wendy’s.
Mag offers to play songs of the new IshDARR project Broken Hearts & Bankrolls.
WiG Are you calling this the first official album?
MAG Some people say first album, some people say sophomore album. This is really still a mixtape. We haven’t really worked on an album yet. We consider this a mixtape. The only difference is that we got really good support from Spotify and Apple Music. It definitely sounds like an album though.
[He plays me the intro “Crown Ct, Racine” and second track “Yes, You.”]
MAG The first one was produced by Canis Major. And the second one I think his name is Vincent Leone, some kid from Sweden. He’s like 16. He’s sent us some dope stuff.
WiG Ya’ll getting that a lot? Beat submissions.
MAG Personally on my email I get 10 to 15 beats a day. I try to get to all of them because you never know what you might find. But it gets a little overwhelming after a while. Since we finished the project about two weeks ago we’ve been taking a break. We did this last time and we did this when we dropped The Better Life. We took a break for like a month of no studio. Just letting experiences happen.
Plus we have so much music. We recorded about 85 songs and only put 12 on the new project. I’m going to play you this song “Dumb Playing.” This was produced by Chilly Gonzales. I don’t know if you’re familiar…
WiG I’ve heard his name.
MAG You know So Far Gone by Drake?
WiG Of course.
MAG You know the last song where it’s just keys and shit?
MAG Where he pops a bottle of champagne? Chilly did that. On a song I produced, “Four The Fuck Of It,” I sampled this random song that he had out, made it into the beat, and he fucked with it. He reached out to me like, “Yo, I love what you did to the beat…” Then he reached out to Ish and built a relationship with Ish. He sent me 20 samples of different piano keys and was like, “Here you go, do whatever you want with them.”
He’s a grammy-winning producer. He’s worked on Drake’s albums. That was so dope. And so this is the song he did for us.
WiG For a track like that, Chilly makes the beat, sends it to you, then you record Ish’s vocals. And do you handle the effects on his voice?
MAG Yeah. I recorded, mixed, and mastered everything on the project. I’m going to say that track is the one I did the least amount of work on to be honest, because all I did was some rearranging. Everything else on the project we had an original of the song. Usually how it works is they send us an MP3 of what they arranged and we record over that. Then we’ll send it to them and ask if they can send us the stems. They’ll send us every individual component, like the kick, keys, et cetera, and then we rearrange everything.
WiG What software do you use?
MAG I use Pro Tools. I produce on FL Studio though. I wish I had a version of a song before we released it to give you an idea. This isn’t on the project but to give you an idea I’ll play you “Mucho Mango.” You heard that track, right?
WiG Yeah. That’s an example of how Ish pays homage to the old school. Did you sample the original song?
MAG We just used the vocal sample for that one. What’s crazy about that song is that we recorded it September 7th of last year and we just kind of sat on it. We didn’t do anything with it because we had already dropped OSYS and we dropped “Sugar” and we were still moving singles. So we just kind of left it alone. And when we were doing the rollout for this project we were like, “Well we gotta drop a loosie. We should drop two new singles and two loosies.” One of the loosies being an original and one being a remix.
For “Mucho Mango,” I think one day me and Ish were listening to some old stuff and this is something that came up and we were like, “Yo, we should do it.” We reached out to the producer ESTA. and he was like “Yo, I love it, let me do some stuff to it,” and he sent us the stems. But what was funny, you’ll hear from the original version, is that we didn’t even get the right stuff. He forgot a lot of stuff because I think he was in a rush. He had a gig somewhere else. But it was low-key dope. You’ll hear it, it’s completely different than the original.
[Plays the original version of “Mucho Mango.”]
WiG Yeah, you can hear the guitar way more, it’s different.
MAG At first we didn’t know what to do with it because we got the stems and we were like, “Damn, this is like a completely different beat.” And we were just like, “Fuck it.” We went in and redid it and it came out dope. I personally like the new version better.
WiG Yeah the new version is clean, I fuck with it. I was wondering though if the sample is why it’s not on the project? Like if you couldn’t get it cleared.
MAG No, we can get stuff cleared. I don’t know, I think it didn’t fit the vibe of the project. We have some amazing songs that will probably never be released. But I feel like there’s an aesthetic to making an album or a project. It has to fit with what’s going on in your life. We could just put out a project full of singles and it might do well, but it’s not genuine.
When we do these projects it’s not about just having a song blow up. Of course you want that because it’s good for business and you can make some money. But it’s also about creating music that’s genuine. I can’t speak for Ish, but literally this last year has been broken hearts and bankrolls. With the rising fame this stuff happened in his life and it’s happened in my life. It can happen to anybody, so I think this project is a good interpretation for people to get to know Ish better.
I think Old Soul, Young Spirit was that too, at that time. It describes him perfectly at that time. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to ask why isn’t there another “Too Bad.” I feel like the best way to answer that question is that “Too Bad” was where Ish was then. And I think now this project is where he’s at. It’s a very dark project and I think that might throw some people off a little bit. Because it’s pretty conscious and coming from Ish’s heart. I think now that he’s growing as an artist, he’s more worried about what he wants instead of what people want to hear. Records like “Mucho Mango” were like, “Oh, what do people want to hear?” So they’re fun records.
WiG Let’s take it back a little bit. How did you meet Ish?
MAG I met Ish in high school. I was two grades above him. Me and his brother were in the same class, BoodahDARR. It was me, Boodah and Wave Chapelle, we’re all good friends. We were known as the music guys. I actually used to rap starting in 7th grade. But I only rapped because I wanted to learn how to record and I didn’t know any rappers. Being raised on the South Side nobody really rapped. That wasn’t really a thing over here. So I figured I had to record myself. It was cool and that’s what I was known for my first two years of high school. That’s how I got connected to Wave.
WiG Was he rapping early on in high school?
MAG Oh yeah. I’ve been in school with Wave since 8th grade. I went to Messmer Prep with him in 8th grade, then high school, and he was always rapping. I was in band in high school…
WiG Did you play an instrument as a kid?
MAG Yeah I played the clarinet. I messed around with drums and trumpet, some piano. But I played the clarinet from 4th grade to senior year of high school, which is weird. I don’t know why I played the clarinet looking back at it, but that’s my only real music background. So in high school our band director was very supportive of me doing music. I don’t know how this happened but one day I showed up to school and he had a Mac in this room with a really good interface, two expensive microphones, some of the walls were soundproofed and he was like, “Here you guys go, create.”
MAG It was crazy because we got that equipment sophomore year of high school, but I was literally clueless as to what to do with it. During the summer before junior year me and Wave spent all our time figuring it out and we created the studio. Then that next semester is when Ish came to Messmer. It’s crazy because he was just there. The main focus was always Wave, Boodah and myself. We were in a group called NoNam3. He was the youngest one so he was never a focus and his voice was very high pitched. I remember always being cool with him but I don’t know what it was, I guess because he was two years younger than us. But he was always just Boodah’s little brother.
After High School I worked with Wave for a little bit but then he moved down to Memphis and I quit making music. My sister was in college and I wasn’t going to college. I was just like, “What am I doing?”
WiG You were just working?
MAG Yeah I had a regular job at a banking company and it was kind of cool. Then one day I got a call from Boodah. It was right before the college semester started after our senior year. He wanted to try some stuff with Ish. I used to just have this cheap interface and cheap microphone so I was like, “Yeah whatever, let’s do it.”
We actually created a group call iLL Collective and there’s still a video on YouTube. I’ll show it to you. I guess this is the first song that Ish had out. And it got good views. It almost became something but then it fell apart faster than it got together because Boodah went to college like two weeks after we released this.
WiG So he went out of town?
MAG Yeah he went to UW-Parkside and he was living in the dorms.
[Plays me about a minute of iLL Collective’s video for “Dimes&Nicks”]
MAG That is kind of where it all started. What’s funny about this track is that Ish used to have a very high-pitched voice. I mean it wasn’t super high-pitched but it was before puberty. But when we recorded this I was like, “Bro are you sick?” and he said, “maybe.” but this was about the time that his voice started changing. So I was just like,”Word this sounds dope, you should be sick a little more.” But really his voice was changing.
The iLL Collective thing didn’t really fall apart, it was just Boodah went to college, I was working and Ish went back to high school. Then I was like, “Okay, for real, this music stuff is done. I’m not doing it anymore.” Then I got a call from Ish two months later. Actually he tweeted me like, “Yo Mag, trying to get in the stu, what’s up?” So I said, “cool, come thru.”
His mom was very protective at the time. She wouldn’t let him just leave and come down here. Because he lived out in Brown Deer so getting all the way over here from Brown Deer was a mission. I was driving at the time so I said, “Yo, ask your mom if it’s cool if I take my stuff there and we record over there.” Me and his mom were cool so literally for the next three months I would drive three times a week to Brown Deer and we would work on music. We didn’t even really know what it was becoming.
This would have been the Winter of 2013 into the Spring of 2014. We just kind of did that for a couple months and we finally put together an EP that we didn’t even know was coming together. I think the second time we were in the studio we were like, “Yo, let’s drop an EP April 4th.” We wanted 4-4-14 for like Milwaukee or whatever. So we just put this idea in our head and it was slowly coming together and one day we got an email from an A&R at Epic Records that was like “Yo, I love the music…”
That got us excited. Labels are interested? “They Lost Me” was his biggest song at the time. It had about 8,000 plays on SoundCloud. So we really started focusing on what we wanted to do. We were like, “Yo, let’s just do this. We’ve been doing this for so long and we have the resources to do it, so let’s put it together and make it happen.”
We worked on the EP and dropped it in the Spring of 2014. At the time that A&R that reached out from Epic Records ended up leaving Epic Records and became Ish’s other manager. Her name is Amanda Berkowitz. She still co-manages Ish with me. She’s like a creative from New York. She has her own marketing company with some friends. She kind of lets us do whatever we want. If we need something she’ll help us figure it out. She coordinates things for us. We’ll have the ideas and then she kind of tells us, “Okay, try doing this or try doing that.”
WiG Was Ish doing any shows in 2014 at all?
MAG Not prior to the EP. For some reason almost to this day we’ve always had an issue in Milwaukee.
WiG I mean there’s not a lot of all-ages venues.
MAG But even outside of that. There’s always a showcase going on. But they would never invite Ish. I sent out like 50 emails in that month when the EP was coming out to all different things that were going on. Nobody was really fucking with it. Some people said he wasn’t good enough or that he wasn’t “ready for something like this.”
WiG And he was like 16 at the time?
MAG He was 17 at the time. It was just weird and that has gone on up until, maybe, I’ll say when we announced the world tour last year, when we went to Europe. People didn’t really care for Ish in the city. We were doing shows all over the country but people didn’t really care for him here. I still don’t really have an answer as to why people didn’t really like him. I don’t know what’s going on. You’ve met Ish before though, right?
WiG Yeah, yeah.
MAG He’s a likable kid. I’m confused by it.
WiG Jealousy issues maybe.
MAG But at the time there was no reason to be jealous of anything because we had nothing. So the weekend of the first EP release I put together a party at the old Art is For Lovers gallery because I knew Karl at the time and I was like, “Yo, I need a spot,” and he was like, “Cool.” We did it there and the next day we did the Schoolboy Q show yet at the Rave. The Rave used to do this thing where you had to buy tickets, you had to buy like 20 tickets, and you would get them for half the price, but they would give you 40 tickets so you could make some money if you sold tickets. We’re like, “Alright whatever, we want to see Schoolboy Q, all of our friends want to see Schoolboy Q.” So we bought the tickets and we got our money back and we did the show at The Rave and it was dope.
WiG That was 2014?
MAG Yep, the weekend of April 4th. Something happened that weekend though. Because the project dropped and it just kind of sat there for a couple days and then the next thing you know blogs started picking it up. 2dope Boyz picked it up. They used to do this thing “2dope to sleep on,” and they put Ish on that. And it just started growing. That summer we had a lot of labels started calling to talk to us.
At this moment Amanda was someone we would go to for advice, she really wasn’t on the team just yet. But she kind of told us the ins and outs of the industry, how the industry works, what to watch out for, and that definitely helped out alot. I see her as a mentor because that’s mainly what she does for us. She makes sure we’re heading in the right direction all the time.
I’ve seen people post about Amanda being “Ish’s secret manager.” But she’s not a secret, she just doesn’t live here. She’s worked in the industry and she’s been trying to figure it out just like us. For some reason it’s worked out for all of us and we’re very thankful that it happened. But yeah, that summer Atlantic flew us out. That was our first real experience with the industry. I think that was our biggest motivation. Somebody actually opened up the door in the industry for us and they were like, “We want you guys to be a part of this.” For me at the time I was 19, Ish was 17, for us to walk in…I don’t know if you know who Mike Caren is?
MAG He’s like one of the most powerful people in the music industry. He runs Warner and Atlantic and he flew us out and as soon as we got out of the airport we went to the hotel, changed and he welcomed us to his house in Beverly Hills. He had all kinds of plaques on the walls from everybody. Anybody you can think of.
At the time Ish would want me to talk for him sometimes. He was only 17 and he was a little scared and so there was a main chair in the room and then there were three chairs around on the side and one farthest off to the side and that’s the one Mike Caren sat in. Then he put Ish on the main chair and he made sure we were behind Ish and he was like, “Alright, play me some music.”
We played him like two songs and then he was like, “I like it. What do you wanna do?” He was very direct and Ish had never experienced that. The meeting didn’t go bad, it was a good meeting, they were cool people I guess. But we walked away from that opportunity because we could sense that they knew this would become something bigger and they wanted it early. We were like, “We either give this to them, or we do it ourselves and see what happens.” And at the time we had nothing to lose. Ish was 17, I was 19.
It was like, “Yo, we walk away from this, worst comes to worst, we try again next year.” It was just kind of like, “Fuck it, let’s keep going.” So we walked away from that situation and kept doing music and we started working on OSYS that summer. We ended up getting linked with TDE and they put Ish on the Ab-Soul tour that Fall. We did the Midwest run with Ab-Soul and that was dope. It was good exposure for Ish. We got to experience what tour life was like. And started interacting with new fans.
Then we dropped the project Old Soul Young Spirit and the same thing kind of happened. We dropped the project and nobody really cared for a couple of days and then one day that actress Chloë Grace Moretz tweeted out “Too Bad” and it exploded. At first it was like 14K overnight. We were like, “Holy shit, what is going on?”
WiG Who produced “Too Bad”?
MAG J Gramm.
WiG Who’s that?
MAG He’s a producer. He’s got that “Broccoli” record out right now with D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty. He did a lot of early Travis Scott. He’s been in the industry for a while.
WiG How’d you link up with him?
MAG We actually never really linked up with him. All these people wanted to sign Ish at the time so A&R’s kept sending us beats like, “Yo, you should try this out.” That’s one of the beats we got from an A&R who is a good friend of mine now. He linked us with it and we made it happen. That’s the funny thing about this music stuff, people always ask me, “Yo, how did this happen?” And I’m just like, “I don’t know.” Good music just moves by itself. I think that’s the biggest part.
I think most people aren’t prepared for stuff like that to happen, that’s why they can’t follow up. We’ve been pushing “Too Bad” for a year and a half now. That’s a big thing that we had to learn, you’ve got to be able to push records. You’ve got to give them a life instead of just dropping a song and moving on to the next thing. So yeah, I don’t even remember what the original question was.
WiG We were just kind of running through the timeline I guess. And then that OSYS house party was last year, that was crazy.
MAG Me and Ish get these ideas that just pop in our heads and we think alike, so we’re just like, “Let’s do it!” That’s kind of what we’re doing with “The Locals Experience.” I used to throw parties all over the city, that’s kind of what I was known for in high school. And I realized that the easiest way to bring people together is by giving them alcohol and music. For some reason it works and people will pay to be there just because it’s a party.
So we did three OSYS parties and each party we brought out 100 to 150 kids. I’m not sure that would’ve happened if they were concerts. But we’re exposing them to Ish while they are there for a party. I think that was one of the big reasons why we were able to sell out The Rave last…
WiG December, right?
MAG Yeah, yeah.
WiG I remember because it was my birthday and we were out of town. The OSYS party at the barbershop was in late May or early June I want to say.
MAG They were all at the barbershop. That is my boy’s barbershop. He used to let me throw parties there. He is one of my best friends. He was just like, “Yeah bro, do whatever you guys want.” He would just give me the key. To this day, I don’t know why people trust me. He literally just gave me a key to his business and he was just like, “Here you go.” You were in there, you know that’s a respectable business district on the South Side so I don’t know how…like, I didn’t have to beg for it, he was just like, “Here you go.” He let me do it so many times. And there were all kinds of shit going on in there, I don’t even know…it’s crazy.
I think with those parties, the name for it is “guerilla marketing.” But we didn’t even know that’s what we were doing. And that’s kind of what we’re doing with “The Locals Experience” parties. Two weeks ago we brought out over 200 kids to a UWM party, we brought 200 kids out at Oshkosh, and then Madison was the craziest one. We had this apartment. I hit up my sister cuz my sister went to Madison and I was like, “Yo, I need a house. We have to throw this party.”
We had a frat scheduled but they cancelled on us like the day before. And then we almost cancelled the Madison show but Ish was like, “No man, let’s figure it out.” So I got this apartment and we gave out the address at six o’clock and the next thing you know there was like a line of a hundred kids on the side of this apartment complex ready to go into this party. It sold out in nine minutes. We had over 200 kids in a space the size of this whole upstairs and then an extra room about this size, just crammed in there. Then Ish came out, turned up.
They weren’t even concerts. Ish would come out, play a couple songs and then play whatever songs are popping right now. Then after that Ish would come down and take pictures and when everybody was leaving Ish would be at the door shaking everybody’s hand and taking pictures, doing whatever. The stuff like that is what makes Ish different I think compared to other artists. Some artists in the city would never do that because they have such big egos, even though they are nowhere.
Ish knows that he’s not “somebody” yet, but he knows that he wants to be somebody and he wants his fans to know that at one point they met him and Ish appreciated them. So he’ll stand at the door and say “Thank you,” take pictures, and give everybody hugs. It’s a nice thing to see that you’re working with someone genuine that actually cares for the people that are coming out to see him.
We’re doing one today in Whitewater and another one tomorrow in La Crosse. Then we’re actually going to take these across the country. We were gonna do a tour but we cancelled it because we were having routing issues and there’s a lot of politics when it comes to doing a tour. We were just like, “Yo, we can make money doing house parties and there’s no initial investment.” We don’t have to book a venue, we don’t have to do anything. We just have to find a fan who has a house. Fans want to have Ish at their house and people love parties. So we’re just going to hit a bunch of colleges across the country and just kind of crash and throw a big party. And most venues don’t even pay that well anyways. New artists aren’t going to make a ton of money. But you can make money charging $10 a head and bring 200 kids in. You don’t have to pay anybody.
WiG Don’t got to pay sound guys or security or shit like that?
MAG We bring everything ourselves. We have a guy that does sound. We don’t need security, we roll 10 to 15 deep everywhere we go.
WiG You mentioned Drake before and I have a sense you’re probably a Drake fan. But who else are you inspired and influenced by?
MAG I wouldn’t even say I’m that influenced by Drake, I’m more influenced by his producer “40.” That’s honestly who I look up to. I studied this man’s sound. I feel like to be great you have to imitate greatness. I want to imitate my version of what he did. There’s a lot that “40” did that people don’t even know he did. That goes with being behind-the-scenes. And I’m cool with that. I love being behind-the-scenes. I generally don’t like being in crowds. I have social anxiety. I like watering the plant, I don’t like being the plant.
WiG I do see you out though every now and then.
MAG Yeah. I like to support. I’ll be at Freespace. I try not to go that much anymore just because people recognize me now and they want to talk to me and pitch me their music. A lot of people think I’m like this asshole because people come up to me and are like, “Yo aren’t you Mag, blah blah blah.” They don’t know that when I’m out in public I have really bad social anxiety. I’m usually keeping to myself and I try not to focus on people.
When people come up to me and get too close and start talking and there’s all this noise, I can be like, “Yo, email me” or “Here’s my number, just text me or something.” I feel like that’s why I don’t go to places anymore. I don’t want to seem rude. I don’t want to be that guy. Because I used to be that kid that wanted people to hear me out and check out my shit. I know what it feels like when people want you to listen to their stuff. And I don’t want to disappoint no kids.
But so outside of “40,” I look up to…new artists inspire me a lot. Canis Major, his production inspires me a lot, just seeing him work and make beats inspires me. I look up to people like Kanye. I like the way he thinks and the way he moves. A big thing too is that I look up to people who aren’t even in the music industry. There’s this guy named Gary Vee. I’m really big into marketing now. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about marketing in the past year. Especially for how I’m marketing this project. This guy Gary Vee, he’s not even rich yet. He’s made some money, but his ideas are amazing. And they work for everybody. If you get a chance you should check him out. He has some dope ideas on how to brand yourself and branding artists.
WiG I get the sense that you’re not just a producer, you’re not just Ish’s manager, you’re a renaissance man in terms of production, marketing and graphic design, you do most of the artwork, right? MAG Yeah except for the project. I haven’t done the artwork for the projects, I feel like that’s too much of a responsibility.
WiG Is it the same artist who did the covers for both projects?
MAG Yeah his name is Nick Bilardello. He’s actually one of the biggest art directors in the industry. He’s done some work for Bruno Mars, he did some Wale stuff, he worked on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3. He’s well-known, he’s done some amazing stuff. He’s in Amanda’s marketing company, her creative group. We’ve always trusted him with the artwork and he’s probably going to do all the artwork for projects because it keeps it cohesive.
WiG So when you say “the studio,” this is the studio?
MAG This is the studio.
WiG Word. But I saw on social media that you want to build a “proper” studio…
MAG Well I’m building one right now. It’s out on the East Side. It’s going to be a real studio. We could’ve built that studio maybe six months ago if we really wanted to but I just have this idea that we’re stuck in this room for some reason. We’ve recorded in big studios all over and there’s nothing like recording in this room for some reason. It just feels like home. There’s nothing fancy and I’m kind of glad we did the interview here.
Like people always ask me, “Yo, where do you guys record?” It’s good people will see it’s just a room with a microphone and really that’s all there is to it. But I am building a proper studio. I got some blueprints from my homies in New York. They’re building the walls this week. It should be done by the end of the month.
WiG That says something about you and Ish’s sort of commitment or comfort level with Milwaukee. Because obviously where you’re at and where you’re headed you could move to a bigger market, but something’s keeping you here and you’re investing in a studio.
MAG I think artists get lost when they leave their city. We live by this saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Like this computer [shows me this old PC laptop with a busted screen], the computer that we work on and record everything is broken. It’s like a broken screen I just connect to a monitor. Granted, I have a Mac, Ish has two Macs. We have these good computers but we just kind of have this…I don’t know what it is, but it’s like one of those things where it’s like, our headphone jack doesn’t even work on this interface. I already ordered a new interface, we could’ve just plugged into the new one, but we wanted everything on the project to be together and cohesive.
When we start on the next project it’s going to be all new equipment in a new studio and it’ll be a new experience overall. I don’t know, I think it’s stupid when I say it out loud, but I guess that’s just what it is. But yeah, I think artists lose themselves when they leave their city. We almost moved to LA this summer. We were kind of like, “Fuck it, let’s get out of here.” We went out there, we went house shopping. We found a house. We almost signed the lease.
Then we came back home and we were like, “Nah, we don’t want to leave.” It’s no point, to leave. It’s home. It was never really a conversation we had, we just came back and said, “Nah, we don’t want to leave. Let’s stay here.” There’s nothing like being here. We’ve been all over Europe, we’ve been all over this country, but there’s nothing like coming home and ordering some chimichangas from down the block. That’s just the way this goes.
I think artists always feel like you get on and you leave. But why not get on and stay here? Because I feel like when you grow up you want to be famous or make money and enjoy the stuff that you saw growing up. I think now that we’re here we get to enjoy stuff that we always saw here. And if we want to travel, we can travel and see other places. But all of our friends are here, all of our family is here. It’s kind of like, let’s keep the ball rolling. If we really want to move in time we can buy a house somewhere else.
WiG And the infrastructure has changed where you can be a successful musician who makes money in your city because of the Internet.
MAG Yeah, because of the Internet. You don’t need to leave. Before you had to leave because the only way you could work with producers is to be in the same city as them. Canis Major is the perfect example. He lives in a town of like 150 and he’s one of the biggest producers on YouTube and people don’t even know he lives in this tiny city in the middle of Canada. If he can do it, we can do it.
A big thing too is we want to help build Milwaukee. There’s too much going on here, there’s a lot of lost youth. And I think stuff like this inspires kids. Every once in awhile some kid will message me and be like, “Yo, you guys inspire me.” And even sometimes adults will be like, “Yo, you guys inspire me to do this or that.” And I think that’s important for the culture of the city.
Big organizations have kind of caught on too. The Bucks have reached out to us in the past and they started building that relationship in case this becomes something. Cuz you know they’re investing a lot into the city too. They’re building the new arena and now the city is investing a bunch of money. But you know the segregation in the city is ridiculous among brown and blacks. So I think it’s important for people like me and Ish to promote that you can do something positive rather than being out in the street killing yourself.
For me at least that was a big thing on why to stay here. I’d rather motivate these kids. And we have great people like Janice and Vincent doing Freespace. It’s Janice’s birthday today too. We need amazing people like that because they create something. I know kids who have gotten stuck and needed to get home and Janice called them an Uber. That’s amazing that there’s someone out there who actually cares about these kids like that and is trying to motivate them.
WiG Yeah, Janice is cool as fuck. That’s great man. Thanks for talking.