Meet New Orleans hip-hop, soul artist Willard Hill

Willard Hill

Willard Hill
Rapper, singer and musician
Genre(s): Hip-hop, jazz, funk, Latin, soul fusion
Early influencers: Wyclef Jean, Jerry Wonda
Latest project: Sketches of Spain Street (scheduled for Fall 2014)

Read what the New Orleans-bred, via Atlanta, Los Angeles resident has to say.

Do you most often actively seek inspiration or does it find you? Or is there a combination of the two?

If I go looking for inspiration I never find the thing that I wanted. If I went to a concert to be inspired chances are I’d leave talking about the merch table or the seating arrangement. I’m weird like that. It’s gotta come to me. I may write, play piano, guitar, bass, or tap on the MPC for hours at a time out of boredom and something will hit. After that, I’ll be so zoned out I’ll forget to eat and pee and then I’ll look up and it’s 6 a.m.

What led you to music in general and to your style in particular?

Music has always been a part of my life, growing up in New Orleans, but I didn’t love it until high school — not so much making music, but just getting lost in the feelings. And back then everybody was listening to Cash Money and No Limit and I was listening to some abstract Peruvian s— and East Coast hip-hop. My style came from those late night drives around the French Quarter and parts unknown— just avoiding s—. It’s the same now. I reach for those lyrics, chords, or melodies that take me elsewhere. I get numb sometimes and I just need to feel something. It’s my escape.

Have you and your music ever been involved in traditional business? If so, how?

I’ve made songs and tracks for network TV before and it made me feel cheap. You know what I mean? Like not only am I discouraged from trying my best … for time’s sake … but nobody is listening to it. Some dude is running off the Sunday lineup or whatever for a commercial. After that, I decided I wouldn’t mix business and pleasure again. If I get paid for doing what I love … cool. But I won’t do what I love just to get paid, ya dig?

In addition to mastering their gifts, what other skill sets do you recommend that artists develop if they want to be successful?

Artists today have the keys to the castle but trade ‘em for a time share. I think this is the first time in the history of recorded music that it’s expected that an artist give away his or her art for free. No other art form … really other genre besides “urban” music follows that business model. You have to look at yourself as a storefront operation in this business. You can only give so many free samples out before you have nothing left to sell and the bills are due. So yeah, I guess the skill set would be business fundamentals or at the least marketing. I know it’s not easy … and I’m still learning myself … but don’t be sold false hope. Learn the business.

How do you stay at the leading edge of your craft?

I honestly don’t think that I’m in any position to call the race just yet, but I do feel that I’m ahead when it comes to my own lane. I try not to pay too close attention to what the industry decides is the flavor-of-the-month. I’ll listen and if I like it then cool, I may dabble to see if there’s something there I feel, but I won’t change who I am and what I do to fit in. There’s no future in that.

Do you think that there are any widely held misconceptions about music and/or artists? If so, what are they and how do you work to dispel them?

So far the only misconception that I’ve dealt with is that we all smoke, drink, get faded, and hit the studio. I can’t concentrate well enough as is, so running off on some abstract tangent that really doesn’t fit in the song is wasting studio time and money. Some people need it to leave themselves behind and zone out but I do that naturally on the daily. If I get faded and try to write it’s hard to get back to reality afterwards. I try to be professional, you know? There are budgets to worry about with studio time and no time to waste. It’s all getting recouped.

How do you map out your goals? How do you measure your success?

I map out my goals on paper. I pray about ‘em. Then I give it to my Creator. Whatever will be will be. I’m really ambitious so I don’t think I will ever feel successful, though. I guess it will keep me hungry but there’s also a sadness that comes with that — like you can never be satisfied with your last accomplishment. But if I’m told I’ve had a positive impact in the world … then I think I can go peacefully into the next chapter.

Who do you consider to be your peers in your field? Who do you see/use as examples for you to emulate?

I’ve always admired Lauryn Hill. I saw her in L.A. in May and it was like a master class. Critics give her a hard time but that woman is so talented. She is one of my heroes. Her, Bob Marley, Donny Hathaway, Burning Spear, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Mystikal are my all-time favorites though. Random bunch but true.

Name two of your top role models: one in the music world and one from outside of it.

My top role models are Bob Marley and Dave Chappelle. Bob Marley went into the music industry focused and his focus was making the world a better place by spreading the Rasta philosophy. Dave Chappelle galvanized a whole generation of Americans. He made us look at the world and look into ourselves just by telling jokes. He made beaucoup money … then when he felt the powers that be trying to change him … he walked away so the message wouldn’t be corrupted. That’s an example of recognizing your power and taking responsibility. Gotta love him for it.

Name three books, works, performances or exhibits that changed how you view life and/or yourself.

The book Ishamel by Daniel Quinn, “Concrete Jungle” by Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Half The Fun” by Duke Ellington. That last one describes my life without words. It’s crazy! It’s one of the dopest pieces I’ve ever heard.

Why do you consider continued learning important?

I’m afraid of someone taking advantage of me. I’m afraid of being left behind. I’m afraid of being powerless. The things I actively learn, outside of music, are all for those reasons… I can’t front. What I learn about making better music is out of love, though. It’s exciting to find some new way to make my lil’ noise. I love electronics and nature too.

What affirmations do you repeat to yourself that contribute to your success?

Every now and then I’ll have to stare in the mirror and ask myself “Why wouldn’t it work for you?!” I have had so many people discourage me throughout the years that their words became my inner voice. Now I have to wake up with that “F— you, I’m just as good” attitude to get anything done. Doubt is a dream killer. Your roots will only grow as wide as the pot you’ve planted them in — and some people’s dreams are planted in fear. It’s sad.

What role does music have in the community? What role would you like to see music play in the community?

I think music has the greatest potential of all to change the world. We’re absorbing it everyday from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep. TV, Radio, elevators, grocery stores, your ringtone, whatever! I just think that people abuse it. They don’t give a s— about anything except the fame and fortune and will say and do whatever will sell. That’s the norm. It’s ab-normal to find someone with some sense of the Greater Good in the industry. It’s like a f—— gimmick if you think about it. Nah, it’s a sub-culture. Weird, right? Doing good is a sub-culture.

I’d like to see people taking these kids into consideration when they make music, though. Like, come on bruh. You know who’s listening to your lyrics so you are a role model whether you want to be or not. The parent is front row at the show truth be told. Somebody’s gotta watch the babies.

What role does technology play in your day-to-day life? How do you utilize it?

My phone and laptop are my windows to the world when I’m in creation mode. I don’t like to talk on the phone but I like to see what’s happening, ya know? It keeps me from being a weirdo locked in the studio all day and night. I don’t party much cause I’ve always got something on my mind that I want to delve into, so my gadgets keep me connected with the people.

What software, app or other technological innovation has made the biggest difference in your life and/or career?

Instagram. Before Instagram I’d be home on Facebook pissed off looking at other people’s dope vacation pictures. People only would put up vacation and baby pictures. It was irritating. Instagram made people want to document their world on a daily basis and you’d start seeing the beauty in everyday life. That dog taking a s— on the lawn is somehow dope now with a filter haha. It kinda inspires me from time to time. Other times it makes me want to punch people in the throat real hard. I don’t like the pretenders and trolls.

Please define your personal brand.

I’m your neighborhood storyteller.

What is your favorite vacation destination and why?

Paris, because they have a long running history of respecting black art. I feel free there. I’ll always love New Orleans but Paris is on its heels. I got to visit Josephine Baker’s house too. Her spread was so fire even by today’s standards and she accomplished all that while being treated with respect. Makes you wonder why any of our greats stayed stateside.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

The power scheme that keeps a few in power and the masses powerless.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I take s— personal when I shouldn’t cause I’m sensitive. I have an ugly mean streak too. I do a good job of keeping that side cool, but my defensiveness makes me show my teeth when I shouldn’t. That s— is scary sometimes — where my mind goes. I’m a Gemini. Was that one only one thing?

What does it take to be iconic? In your estimation, who has achieved that status?

I think in order to be iconic you have to mean more to people than just entertainment value. You have to be that thing that defines that powerful moment in the lives of a whole generation, I think. You know, like how Marvin was or Tupac or Bob or Curtis. Be on a first name basis with generations of people.

I think all the real icons are dying out and the rest are selling out. We’ve still got Stevie, though. We’ve still got Quincy. Those artists that influenced other artists who influenced other artists. I’m gonna cry real man tears when they go. Real s—.

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