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Zilla Rocca: It Started In The Alley.

April 15, 2014

ZillaRoccaOnline07Text by Christopher Malo. Images by Marie Alyse Rodriguez.

“The desk was a wreck. Dagget sagged to his knees. He stayed there, kneeling as though in fervent supplication. Then very slowly he shook his head, sadly refusing the supplicant. As he got to his feet, it seemed he was falling instead of rising. There was a certain dullness in his eyes, a certain look that said, It’s the escalator going down and where it stops don’t matter.”                  

-“Fire in the Flesh,” David Goodis

Times were rough. And they didn’t look as if they were going to be getting easier anytime soon. Deserted, betrayed, alone. The walls weren’t caving in. They had collapsed. Anything he had worked to build was destroyed. The streets of South Philadelphia were strewn with the type of garbage you pretend not to see but can’t ignore. And the one he loved, whom he had truly loved and devoted his life to, had slipped through his fingers. Yet again.

The love affair had began back when he was younger. They had bumped into each other in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where he was raised, but their attraction was a forbidden one.

“I’m coming from a super white, Italian or Irish neighborhood where racism was the shit,” says the Philadelphia MC Zilla Rocca, 31, reflecting on years long past, when he lived near 3rd and Tasker streets. “Booming business back then. I couldn’t overtly wave my hip-hop flag. It was acceptable to like rap in small doses back then.”

Attending school in Center City at Roman Catholic High School gave Zilla a reprieve from the people, places and customs that surrounded him in his own neighborhood. Not that it was bad, but he now had exposure to other kids from other cultures, from other parts of Philadelphia. And to kids who could wave that flag. Peers who didn’t come from the same area, but liked Black Moon and Fat Joe. It was the start of not being ashamed of his feelings of affection.

Sitting in an SUV on Pearl Street, the alleyway that runs behind his alma matter, Zilla eyes the stone exterior of the school that plays a major character in his story. The alley in the heart of the city may look benign on a warm winter afternoon, but the reality of what pulsed through the vein was much colder. It was here he would trade off tapes like Heltah Skeltah or OutKast with kids of different races or from different parts of the city. There was a network of guys who were up on some shit.

“I couldn’t do that in South Philly,” Zilla reminisces.

It was also the time and place, specifically his sophomore year in science class, that Zilla began to put pen to paper, beginning to craft his own raps, even going so far as to record early raps at friend Domenic Zarrella’s house, on his sister’s karaoke machine. He bought instrumental tapes and records, and experimented with making beats with MTV Music Generator for Playstation.

Much like his initial infatuation with rap music, this was also the point his crush turned into lust.

Taking the train up from South Philadelphia gave him ample opportunity to zone out to the tapes traded with schoolmates. He tells the story of getting off train and seeing Black Thought, back when he had long dreads, walking past him.

Not that it was all sweet. He had his headphones and Walkman jacked on more than one occasion in Philadelphia’s dark and dirty underbelly, on the subway. On one occasion a Nas album provided the soundtrack to the robbery – until they got ripped from his head.

Once at school, this alley of Pearl Street, became the place where cigarettes were smoked, rap music and basketball were discussed and Eastbay catalogs and Source magazines were traded.

On this day, a junkie sits on the curb, sock and shoe removed, shooting dope into his foot.

“I don’t think he went to school here,” Zilla mumbles.

“Yet even so, the grin was somewhat forced and the shrug was more or less faked. Under it, he squirmed and twisted as though trying to pull free from hard gripping shackles.”     

– “Night Squad,” David Goodis

Anyone even moderately successful knows that the path is full of potholes, trips and missteps rather than a straight shot to the destination. Back stabbers, front stabbers, liars, crooks, fools, dames and dime bags are all a part of Zilla’s journey through this urban jungle and the next several years were full of them.

On the first day of class at Temple University, Zilla made an early connection that has stood the test of time, even when others haven’t. As the story goes, freshman Zilla was rocking a Rawkus T-shirt in his first class on the first day and spots a Noah Goldstein rocking a Technics bag. Recognizing common ground, the two formed a friendship while blazing a path between Temple to Cue Records and back to their dorm to create music and mixes.

“I’m a fan of Zilla because of his honesty,” Goldstein states. “I feel like honesty is hard to come by in most genres of music and especially hip-hop. As they say, honesty is the best policy. For me that always rings true in Zilla’s music.”

The two collaborated on several projects over the next several years, including a group called Crooked Soul with their TA at the time, PJ Geissinger, better known internationally as DJ Starkey. Then Goldstein moved to Iceland and later became Kanye West’s official studio recording engineer, mixer and producer. Geissinger’s time became focused on getting his master’s degree and going on to produce and DJ around the globe.

With Crooked Soul being put on a permanent temporary hold, Zilla began to feel the effects of a turbulent relationship with hip-hop. Did she want him as bad as he wanted her? What was he willing to do for her attention and affection? Sure, sacrifice and compromise are a part of any relationship, but how far was he willing to go? Bad ideas are only bad if they don’t work out.

Zilla turned to reconnecting with Zarella, also known as Nico the Beast, to form Clean Guns. In 2006, the duo recorded the album Sometimes There is Trouble. Having learned from pressing up records for Crooked Soul and seeing them amass dust, not sales, Zilla focused on getting copies of the new record into Record Bar on Passyunk Avenue.

During high school, his life revolved around Center City – attending school there and running a circuit downtown at places like HMV, CDs to Go, Strawberries and Armand’s Records to get music. His college years centered around the triangle formed by Passyunk Avenue, Mifflin and 13th streets. Nico’s crib was down Mifflin a block. Zilla worked at R & K Meats at 13th and McKean streets as a butcher.

“Of course rap music wouldn’t fly here,” Zilla says, peering out the window, looking at what is there but can’t always be seen. “That was like a ‘fuck you’ to this culture. Not directly, but it would be perceived as such. It’s not in line with mob culture. It’s not in line with Italian culture. I’m not Italian and I’m not in the mob. I like rap.”

Every day, he was paid in cash, sometimes larger amounts when he made deliveries to alleged mob bars or social clubs in the area. With money in his pocket, his first stop was the King of Jeans.

“The most ‘90s shit in the ‘90s,” says Zilla about the sign, while sitting in the SUV. “She’s kissing a dude on the side of a building. You know where you stand when you put that on the side of your building.”

Next stop was across the street at Record Bar to cop custom made mixtapes for $10. Wanting a presence, he recognized that he would need something to capture people’s attention. The cover of their album featured a young girl in a kitchen, washing a pistol in the sink with guns on the drying rack.

“Imagery was always to be elegant or crazy violent,” says Zilla.

It was effective. They got in Record Bar. They moved copies.

The combination of Zilla’s intelligent and well-crafted lyrics with the street braggadocio of Nico the Beast seemed to pair well, despite the differences in styles. The next few years were spent trying to extend that through the the creation of the Beat Garden collective. What may or may not have looked good on paper and provided a good start in actuality, eventually disintegrated, the collective and relationships.

“Rap attracts the worst type of men – insecure, competitive, possessive guys,” notes Zilla. “And it’s cheap, so anyone can do it.”

He had spent years trying to follow a blueprint for success, for happiness, trying to build a long-term relationship. It wasn’t working. He suspected she was being unfaithful with lesser men. With paranoia and friction eating away at the conglomerate, Zilla was dejected, confused and alone.

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“It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty.”

– “Dark Passage,” David Goodis

With dissention in Beat Gardens’ ranks, Zilla continued to network and produce beats, music and albums. He reached out to various bloggers across the country, realizing the potential of free marketing and advertising. One of those bloggers was Jeff Weiss, now a columnist for LA Weekly and Pitchfork in addition to being editor-in-chief of his Passion of the Weiss site.

“Zilla Rocca does one of the most difficult things an artist can do: he inhabits multiple characters while making them all seem personal, as though he can empathize with every halfway crook and double crosser to slink into his songs,” says Weiss.

Weiss linked Zilla with Douglas Martin (aka Blurry Drones), who also wrote for Weiss’ site. Martin’s weird, experimental beats took Zilla back to his Crooked Soul days, making music that may not have made sense to people, but made sense to him. Martin would send Zilla a beat with just a name, like “High Noon,” “Weak Stomach,” or “Stay Clean.” Taking each name as a clue, Zilla challenged himself to craft a track that matched the production and the name. With the gentle nudging of Weiss to make a full album, the two continued collaborating. They called themselves 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers, later shortened to just The Shadowboxers.

“At some point, his writing and rapping started to morph into something else entirely,” notes Weiss. “He went from being a hirsute, bourbon-voiced Philly rapper into the anti-hero in his own noir. Whereas it could’ve come off as a gimmick, it felt like a natural extension of himself – a cynical smart-aleck, somewhere between Sam Spade and Roger Sterling.”

The result was 2009’s The Slow Twilight, a conceptual album that was well received – outside his inner circle, that is. Within Beat Garden and another side project, Rap Pack, however, the fissures became full-on ruptures. Several attempts were made at working it out, moving forward, not looking back. But instead of breaking bread, there was a breaking point.

The fallout became public, sparked by an interview Zilla did and hashed out via social media. There were no physical confrontations but the gritty reality was a punch in the gut. She was leaving him. Zilla was left reeling with nowhere to find refuge. The cold streets had just gotten colder and there was no one to warm his bed with.

He had been close to signing with a label five different times by this point. He had collaborated with friends, he had chased money and deals, sacrificed his time, energy, relationships and belief system. With little or nothing to show. Until The Slow Twilight album.

“I’m sick of worrying about all these other guys,” Zilla notes. “I’m sick of worrying about labels and cliques. I just want to do great records and be really interesting and weird. That’s what has always worked. I keep going back to it but then I put shit in the way of that, which is stupid.”

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“His mind was vacant now, and the only thing he knew was that he didn’t care. He walked through the pitch-black chasm of somewhere past five in the morning, his coat unbuttoned, the muffler missing, the snow inside his shoes and melting there, but no awareness of it, no feeling.”                          

– “Of Tender Sin,” David Goodis

Things were bleak. It is always darkest before the dawn but what if the dawn never breaks?

Luckily for Zilla, others appeared to wait out the night with him. The void created by losing longstanding relationships began to be filled by a new cast of characters, most notably Curly Castro and Has-Lo. With Zilla, they formed Wrecking Crew.

“We were all gunning for as many placements as we could around that time,” remembers Has-Lo. “Being from the same town, we’d take notice when we’d come across each other’s name because it’d be the other person from Philly. I went to this Blu show and he walked up to me with this ridiculous mustache and said, ‘You’re Has-Lo.’ We’ve been friends ever since.”

Now working together – trading off producing, mixing and mastering duties amongst the three, they are cognizant of the fact they have tapped into something. Their most noticeable release was 2012’s Wu-Tang Pulp, a Wu-inspired effort that managed to reference the Shaolin massive through reworking the original production and verses. It was a high bar to set but they nailed it. Masterfully.

“The beauty of the Wrecking Crew is that the friendships carry a mutual respect towards each other’s music,” Curly Castro notes. “So when either of us finish a project, we can have the others digest said project and give productive criticisms.”

The pulp motif was an aesthetic that resonated with Zilla. He had always been a fan of comic books, pulp and crime fiction, like the works of Philadelphia noir writer David Goodis.

“The city has shown him things that shaped his perception of good, bad, innocence, crime, etc.,” says Has-Lo. “The things he’s grown up around are things out of a gangster movie. But done with a sense of humanity.”

Shaking the need to conform to what a label or rhyme partner may want, it became easy for Zilla to slip into his own skin.

“From the time the first record ended to when this started, it made me realize what I really liked, and to only do things I really like,” Zilla explains. “A big part of that is the noir aesthetic. I always liked it but thought, ‘What if I made this my shit?’ I always liked crime books. I always liked detective stories. How come I never thought to do just that with my music and hone in and make it an aesthetic. Why did I not do that?”

Zilla began dressing in a shirt, tie and fedora. The 1961 noir thriller “Blast of Silence” served as a backdrop to his performances, which started attracting the likes of Flying Lotus and Hudson Mowhawke. There was a mixtape distributed on cassette titled Neo Noir.

“The Wu-Tang and Tom Waits and Aesop Rock influences were sublimated into something new too,” Weiss points out. “No rapper has ever had that fusion of elements. Instead of copying Humphrey Bogart or some avatar of James Ellroy, he let his imagination merge with what was  innate to create his own snub-nosed slanguage.”

Experiencing a freedom with music he hadn’t previously known, falling into the all-too familiar pattern of defining what success is, then chasing it, not realizing that you have just enslaved yourself and forever put attaining that goal just outside of your reach, Zilla stopped chasing.

But, there continued to be a nagging. She just wouldn’t leave him alone. They decided to do a second Shadowboxers album.

Initially, it was fraught with roadblocks. Getting beats from Martin was proving to be difficult, as was being able to write. After the public, yet personal fallout with former friends, Zilla, like many artists, eventually was able to take out his pain and punishment with a pen and in bars. Then he tried to move away from the project because it was dark, vengeful, angry and not a space he wanted to occupy any longer.

Then, a moment of clarity – a realization, an epiphany – that revenge is meaningless, useless and stupid. It changes nothing. The record was reworked and rewritten. The wall had been broken through and the concept for the follow-up crystallized. The album, No Vacation for Murder, was finished and passed to his partners, who disagreed wholeheartedly with the premise.

“Zilla had some preconceived notions of the theme of the record, having sat with it for a few years,” notes Castro. “But Has and I saw the theme of cyclical revenge. No matter the intention or redemption attempts, the spectre of revenge will always fill its underbelly until it has satiated the hunger. So No Vacation revealed itself to be that upon our intense listen. We brought it to the attention of Zilla and the rest is infamous history.”

the fire showThe album just dropped (the release party is Saturday at The Fire). There is a line off the track “Fake Surfers” that states, “I’m tired of Wildwood, idle looks/ adults in their third second childhood.” It is a sign of maturity, realizing that you can’t change people or the industry. The only thing you have control over is yourself and your perspective. The thrill may be gone for Zilla Rocca. But not the love.

“If he hasn’t gotten the breaks of others, it’s because he’s too original for the revivalists and has too much artistic integrity to insinuate himself within ephemeral trends,” says Weiss. “Originals are sometimes overlooked, but they create new forms and inspire other artists. I wouldn’t be surprised if 10 years from now, some very popular rapper lists Zilla Rocca as one of his main influences. Others build themselves a lane; Zilla and the Wrecking Crew have built themselves a world.”

Zilla sits in the SUV outside of his father’s house on a small block near 8th Street and Oregon Avenue.

“No one on this block – no one from here,  no one who has lived here, grew up here – has been to all different parts of the country because they rap. And I’ve done it,” Zilla notes with accomplishment and touch of melancholy. “And still do it.”

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“Trouble? They don’t know what real trouble is. Look at them walking. When they take a walk, they take a walk, and that’s all. But you and I, when we take a walk it’s like crawling through a pitch-black tunnel, not knowing what’s in front, what’s in back. I want to get out of it. I want it to end, there’s no attraction and I want it to end.”            

-”The Burglar,” David Goodis

Zilla motions toward the wedding invitations he just picked up. Later this year, he will marry his fiancée.

“My success is right now,” he continues. “I have enough money to live on. I’m healthy. I’m with the person I am going to spend the rest of my life with. I live where I want to live. I make the music I want to make. I dress the way I want to dress. My friends are dope. My music’s dope. That’s success.”

He may get the girl after all.

One Comment
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