Tommy ill
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Tommy ill

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"Tommy Ill"

Adam: So this [New Hat and a Haircut] is your first album on a major label – now you’re with EMI – and I couldn’t help but notice that the sound is blown out a little; it’s gotten bigger, there’s a bit more of that 50s/60s big-band brass music, ragtime piano etc. What exactly has influenced that – is this the stuff you grew up with or just stuff you think sounds cool?
Tom: Yeah, it’s a little bit of what I listened to growing up. It’s also – the production on this, there’s really three-four of us who make the beats. There’s myself, Kelvin Neal, Buck Beauchamp – who’s also my hypeman on stage – and James Goldsmith, who’s engineer; he sort of project-managed the whole record, but he also did music stuff here and there. With the earlier stuff, it was mostly my production, a little bit of the other guys; with this record, I did a third of it, and the other guys did a third each. So there’s all of our influences in there, which has been fun, because Kelvin’s more a dance music kind of guy, and Buck is really into heavy metal, and I’m more into my Northern Soul and Motown, so it was nice to get that. But they also have to make beats that they know that I’ll feel comfortable rapping on, things like that, and things that my voice will work on – you can’t make it too powerful, then the music might overwhelm my voice, things like that. So yeah, it’s a delicate balance, I guess.

Adam: Obviously being on a major opens you up to more resources -
Tom: Definitely.

Adam: So how has that influenced how you’ve navigated that style?
Tom: It’s been really good in that we’ve had EMI’s support and we’ve had a wee bit of an advance in money to spend, things like that, but at the same time, they really didn’t force us to do it any way we wouldn’t have done it otherwise. They’ve left us to our own devices, which has been cool, because we did all the vocals – we bought an amazing microphone and James Goldsmith, our sound engineer, was housesitting for his mum at the time and we set up a live room in her walk-in wardrobe, so I did all the vocals in a wardrobe with dresses and things. So we still did things on a budget when we could. We also hired a studio to do percussion and record Alphabethead doing scratches and all that. It’s nice to have money to pay people who, in previous things, have helped us out for free.

Adam: And obviously you mentioned Alphabethead, Pikachunes is featured on the album and stuff like that; have you been able to bring in more of these artists you’ve worked with before but haven’t been able to pay or…?
Tom: No, it’s more that we were all pretty good friends. There’s heaps of people on the next record – I’m already thinking about the next next record – but I want to do more collaborations in the future because, just from playing shows, you end up with so many friends who are musicians and things like that. It’s kind of cool.

Adam: Yeah, with Wellington and Auckland music scenes and stuff being quite insular, as things in these areas tend to be.
Tom: It’s such a small country that you end up knowing everyone eventually.

Adam: Exactly. So, there are running themes through your albums – the drinking problems, the hedonism of twenty-something youth in New Zealand – and I’ve also noticed that, particularly in the album, you mention how people try to rationalise your position now with where you were before, making songs like ‘Robot’, the idea of you being a ‘joke rapper’ or ‘parody’. So how has this progression come about? Do you feel like you’ve changed significantly from where you were in the past?
Tom: Not in any kind of deliberate way. I think, maybe, the music I’m listening to now, and just the fact that I’m a little bit older, probably shows in the songs, but it’s never been an ‘I’ve done this, now I need to go and do this other thing’ deal. It’s always just been whatever music came out, whatever we got. It just sort of happens. I think, with this record, we were listening to the latest Kanye West album a l - Salient


"Time To Get Ill"

Tommy Ill is back, with a new hat and a haircut – or an album with that title, at least. HANNAH SHORT caught up with the underground indie-rapper from Wellington.

New Hat and a Haircut is Tommy’s second album, and his first release with major label, EMI.
Starting off a new project – especially one of this calibre – is never an easy task. But take the right attitude, a few hard working friends and a healthy dose of humour, and you’ll have 15 tracks of ear-heaven in no time.
That is of course, if your name’s Tommy Ill. “We pretty much started this album right off the back of the tour we did for the last album,” says Tommy. “The day after we got back, we started on the first song, which was actually Living Dead [the second single from the new album]. We got into it then and have been working on it ever since.
“It’s a very collaborative process, ‘cause I work with Buck Beauchamp and Kelvin Neal, who make some of the beats and stuff with me. We roughly did a third each. It seems to have worked pretty well.”

Studio vs Stage
The challenges that arise when writing and producing music are seemingly never-ending. Whether or not a song will translate live is crucial in the creative process, but can become difficult when the music you create isn’t typical.
The blend of multi-tracked vocals and complex layering of beats may sound incredible on a studio album, but is near impossible to recreate for a live audience. Although all this comes into the equation, the boys don’t let it restrict their music. Tommy says: “We’ll do something cool then try and figure out how to make it work live.”
This means hours of trial and error, which tick by faster with the help of Buck and Kelvin, who also join Tommy on stage for live shows.
They do, however, aim to write for an album rather than a live show, which can definitely be seen on New Hat and a Haircut. Although it’s “kind of old-fashioned”, Tommy is a strong believer in the power of an album as a whole. “There’s a difference between a collection of songs and an album,” he says. “An album feels cohesive, and that’s something we strived for when we were working on this one.”

Major steps
Even with the experience that he has, Tommy says nerves still filled the studio at recording time. “It was a whole different bag of nerves this time. It doesn’t feel like a second album to me, it just feels like another big step, because it’s our first on a major label. I was pretty nervous about that, but it’s actually been pretty great. It hasn’t really sunk in that [the album] is out yet.”
“We were signed with Loop Recordings before EMI, and Mikee Tucker from Loop is still my manager. He’s a lot more relaxed with deadlines, but when you’re with a bigger label like EMI there are some pretty strict rules with releases and stuff. They’ve got so many other artists on their labels that they need to be a bit stricter, but that being said, they’ve been really good. They’ve pretty much let us do whatever we want on the album, which is really cool.”

Rap nerds and symphonies
Inspiration comes from all corners of the musical globe; Tommy is a self proclaimed rap nerd, Kelvin is into his dance and dub-step, while Buck is a heavy metal fan. This means they’ve got a different approach to music than many of today’s artists; they’re open-minded and willing to compromise.
Each band member draws inspiration from his respective genres and tries to use that to create a whole new sound. “We try to write songs that we like,” says Tommy. “You can never appeal to everyone, so it’s silly to try. You’re always going to have someone that doesn’t like it.”
Tommy prefers not to be categorised, not because he cares about labels or genres, but because it would simply be too hard. It goes without saying that he doesn’t fit into one single music genre – the music Tommy produces is technically “hip hop/rap”, but he braves Wellington’s indie scene to play live shows on a regular basis. He was even lucky enough to enlist the - Tearaway


"Tommy Ill – The Wardrobe Sessions"

With three EPs dating back to 2007 and now two albums to his credit, Tommy Ill could be in danger of making a career out of his frivolous and fun-filled hip hop. Indeed his latest release ‘New Hat And A Hair Cut’ finds him signed to a major label, employing orchestral musicians, limiting the sample abuse and err, slipping into his mate’s mum’s wardrobe, as he tells Westley Holdsworth.

I met Tom Young, aka Tommy Ill, in what a few years ago would have seemed an unlikely setting, the rather flash EMI headquarters in Auckland city. The man from Wellington was looking slightly out of place amongst the glass seperated offices and city wide views. How did he end up here? By hustlin’ just like Rick Ross obviously.

“My manager a couple of years back was a lady named Lucy, who was working at Radio Active in Wellington. She got a call from EMI about them purchasing some advertising or something like that and she was like, ‘Oh by the way, I manage Tommy Ill and he’s this rapper who does this, this and this. You guys should check him out and I’ll send you his music.’ She was kind of pushy with it and somehow we managed to get a meeting out of it and they were actually looking to sign a hip hop act. They were trying to find roughly one of each genre and they were looking for their next hip hop band, and that ended up being us.”

Through perseverance and having the talent to back it up Tommy Ill has made the jump from small fry to big leagues and kept his soul intact. He’s entered into the daunting world of mainstream hip hop and come out with a horn-fuelled album as smooth as black velvet, as stand out track 5th Beatle testifies.

The evident attention paid to production is what first grabbed me when listening to Ill’s new ‘New Hat And A Haircut’, and I was keen to find out how Young approaches his tracks.

“I’ve got a really good sound engineer guy called James Goldsmith. He is pretty much part of the band now, he comes on tour with us and he also did all the recording. He now has a studio but at the time of recording he was between houses, so he was living at his mum’s house. His mum was on holiday and we turned her bedroom closet, her walk-in wardrobe into a live room, with a mic running through into there. So I was in the dark in the closet with headphones on. I could hear James through the headphones and he could hear me, so I was just making jokes about putting on his mum’s dresses.

“There’s three of us when we do the live show – Buck Beachamp and Kelvin Neal rap with me on stage, but we roughly make a third each of the backing music. I’ll make half a beat and then be like, ‘Hey Kelvin what do you think of this?’ and pass the laptop over to him and he’ll have a go on it. Sometimes we make things completely independently and other times we all sort of jump in and muck about with each others’ projects. It’s a big sort of collaborative thing, and then we’d usually take it to James and then he’d have some other crazy ideas.”

In addition to sampling pre-recorded instruments, extra flavour and real depth was added to the record by utilising some real instrumentation.

“For the new record we hired a guy called Steve Bremner, he’s a percussionist for the NZ Symphony Orchestra, and had him re-do all the percussion stuff. Most of it is still samples but he added little bits and pieces here and there, congas and stuff like that, and making it sit so you can’t really tell if it’s a sample or not.”

Although I’m sure a member of the NZSO would have no problem performing inside a friend’s closet, Young decided to hire Trident Sound Studios in Wellington and it’s here that some of the interesting textures on the record were put down. Bremner’s percussion and the All Seeing Hand’s Alphabethead’s scratching, something which has become a mainstay of Tommy Ill’s records. Though he’s yet to join the band on the road it’s something that Young would like to see happen, but notes, ‘He’s a busy man’.

Instrumentation will become - NZMusician


"Tommy Ill’s At Ease"

One of the trademarks of hip-hop is the boastful rapper who declares in songs that not only are they good, they're the best in the universe.

Wellington rapper Tommy Ill isn't so full of braggadocio. "I did it really badly for a very long time," he confesses, then starts laughing.

But, going on the strength of what Ill - real name Tom Young - has produced in the past five years, he's improved in leaps and bounds. If he declared that he was one of the best and most original rappers to come out of Wellington, many would agree.

Ill raps - and occasionally sings - over a diverse mix of rhythms and beats, often peppered with a wide range of music samples, including soul, blues and pop. It's upbeat, catchy, joyful and dance-friendly - including the quirky Robot off his first album.

Humour is a strong element. "A tough guy rapper doesn't really work for me. I'm not comfortable bragging about myself."

So there's dollops of very Kiwi self-depreciation and a smart collage of references.
Ill, who has a day job as a graphic designer, started rapping at age 12 after hearing the Beastie Boys' genre-breaking white boy rap debut album Licensed to Ill.

"I sought out the CD and I learned all the words really, really quickly. Then I got to the point when I thought 'Hey, I can make up my own words and make up my own songs'."

Now, after three EPs since 2007 and a debut album in 2010, the big players have finally taken notice. Ill's new album New Hat and a Haircut is his first for record giant EMI.

Ill credits his manager at the time for luring in EMI.
"After a year of talking to them we managed to sort out a deal that we were happy with. They gave us a good advance and we used that to pay for studio time, buy new microphones, bring in a sound engineer and computer. It was just to make things sound as good as possible."

The financial advance didn't come with many strings attached. Ill largely had control of what the end result would be.

"I really appreciate how they've let us do it our own way," he says. It was also important because for several years Ill has worked with a close circle of friends in Wellington to create his music, music videos, album covers and live performances. Rather than hip-hop, several are from the city's indie scene including Flying Nun star Grayson Gilmour.

Long-term collaborators Kelvin Neal and Buck Beauchamp contributed to the album, while Brian Hainsworth, who plays his band, is also behind several of his memorable music videos. Other contributors included revered Wellington DJ Alphabethead and sought-after percussionist Steve Bremner, who juggles work with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Strike Percussion, Vector Wellington Orchestra, Shihad and others.

Ill, Neal and Beauchamp spent months on several of the songs. The only exception was when EMI asked for one more. The result was the popular New Car Money.

"EMI said 'the album's great, but we want another song like Robot off the first album.' We didn't want to give them a gimmicky song but we ended up giving them New Car Money.

"We did that in a night, basically. Kelvin found a sample, sent it to me. I went out for a cigarette with the song on my headphones, wrote a verse and an hour later we recorded that night and sent it to EMI the next morning."

But the EMI deal hasn't only resulted in a "more polished sound", Ill says. It's also likely to open doors internationally. One is already on the cards, with Ill likely to perform in Australia in September.
It will be his first appearance outside New Zealand. This may also lay to rest a brief period in the buildup to the release of New Hat and a Haircut where a few people believed Ill was interviewed on the Late Show with David Letterman.

It began when Ill concocted a video of himself in Letterman's studio being interviewed by the American talk show host. Despite Letterman questioning him about music and albums Ill, who appeared to not be wearing trous - The Dominion Post


"Tommy has a license to ill"

He used to be the local hip-hopper who wore the wolfman headgear but now Tommy Ill has said that's fur enough. His funny funky sophomore album comes entitled New Hat and a Haircut.

"The original [wolf hat] got nicked a couple of years back at a show sadly, and there's a second one floating around somewhere, but I haven't worn it in a while. It gets a bit hot and sweaty."

Instead, when he performs around the country next month with his collaborators Buck Beauchamp and Kelvin Neal, he might be wearing a business suit. Or just a cool cap.

You'll have to wait and see, because Tommy Ill (real name Tom Young, who's a Wellington graphic designer by day) is known for unexpected antics at live shows, and has always taken his own different path as a hip-hop artist.

Coming from a musical family (his dad played guitar, his mum the piano, and his sister is a singer-songwriter) he was drawn into singing, in a casual sort of way.

"Everyone was always singing, not planned singing so much, but people would always be singing something, and people would join in, and it was like that.

But when I hit puberty, my angelic singing voice sort of disappeared, so I had to find something else to do."

Rapping was what he was drawn to, so around the age of 14 he began making tracks of his own, inspired by the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest.

He would raid his parents' CD and record collections, and put together backing tracks.

"I'd try to take bits of songs and loop them, but it was always weird music that probably wasn't right for it, you know country songs, or anything I could find. And then the internet came along, and that helped a bit," he notes, dryly.

Young got plenty of bNet attention for tracks on his early EPs Toast and Tea Kettles, Matchsticks and Come Home Mr Ill, and found a niche for himself as a rapper playing live shows with up and coming indie pop bands, and appearing at festivals like Camp A Low Hum.

"A bunch of my best friends were in a band called Holiday With Friends, and they needed a place to play, and I needed a place to play, and I'd become a bit disillusioned with rap, so together we started this night at Bar Bodega in Wellington called Make Out City, and every time we'd have a guest band, plus Holiday With Friends and Tommy Ill.

"It wasn't a conscious move that I made to go and be a part of a certain scene. We just got the best response from those sort of crowds."

Two of those friends - Beauchamp and Neal - would make guest appearances during Tommy Ill's set, and contribute backing vocals, but several years on they're now fully fledged band members, and were integral to the creation of New Hat and a Haircut, contributing equal thirds to the beat-making.

Young also had the talents of NZSO percussionist Steve Bremner and Wellingtonian DJ/scratcher Alphabethead to work with, leading to a hip-hop album where the beats on the production are less sample-reliant, and more custom-designed.

It's a party collection, with a strong emphasis on horns and melody, and a strong rhythmical interaction between the beats and vocals.

"I really like Northern Soul kind of stuff, and I don't know, for me, some rappers have quite strong and piercing voices, but I really don't think I do, so there's a certain style of music that my voice carries over better.

"But it's just the music I like. It makes sampling stuff a bit more fun, because if you have to listen to a bunch of music over and over again trying to find the right bit to use, it's good if you actually enjoy listening to it as well."

They also had good friend and sound engineer James Goldmsith, recording and mixing, and lending out his mum's walk-in-wardrobe as a live room while she was on holiday.

"James couldn't see me in the wardrobe, he could only hear me, so I was making all these jokes about wearning his mum's dresses while I was singing, just to freak him out ...

There's certainly an irreverence, and youthful mischievou - TimeOut - NZ Herald


Discography

"Toast & Tea Kettles" EP (2007)
Singles from the EP: "Bill Cosby" and "All Sleep and Sound" (both had radio airplay)

"Matchsticks" EP (2008)
Singles from the EP: "Letters To The Editor", "Matchsticks" and "Nixon" (all had airplay)

"Come Home Mr. Ill" EP (2009)
Singles from the EP: "Cheap Wine Bender", "Best Damn Evening" (all had airplay)

"Tommy Ill" LP (2010)
Singles from the LP: "Robot", "Come Home Mr. Ill" "Second Hand Concorde" and "Susan"

"New Hat And A Haircut" LP (2012)
Singles from the LP: "Birdbath", "Living Dead", "5th Beatle" "Home"

Photos

Bio

With five releases and a slew of national tours tucked snugly under his belt, prolific MC, Tommy Ill, is a svelte yet metaphorically obese young man.

Rapping and creating beats for over 10 years - ever since he was simultaneously robbed of his angelic choir voice by puberty at 14 and discovered the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest – the alternative MC has honed his trademark sound.

Hailing from Wellington, New Zealand, Tommy Ill has earned a reputation for haphazard live sets and great party tunes that blend traditional rap, vintage soul and the occasional fun indie rock sample with playful beats.

With trusty sidekicks Buck, Shorty K & Brian in tow, being piggybacked around the stage by his hype men, tackling audience members, unexplained nudity, climbing on furniture and collapsing into a sweaty heap on the floor is nothing out of the ordinary at a Tommy Ill gig.

In late 2011, after already releasing three EPs ("Toast & Tea Kettles", "Matchsticks", "Come Home Mr. Ill") and a well-received debut LP (the eponymously titled "Tommy Ill") Tommy signed to EMI Music New Zealand. The shotgun romance saw the birth of the attractive musical baby - and Tommy Ill’s acclaimed sophomore album - "New Hat And A Haircut".

"New Hat And A Haircut" was released on April 2nd, 2012. While bearing the hallmarks of a Tommy Ill album with wry observations, dry witticisms, cheeky rhymes and askew soul samples; it marks a development for the rapper with darker themes, smoother production and a more diverse and fuller sound. It also saw a different creative approach to the song writing process with his hype-men Buck (Beauchamp) and Shorty K (Kelvin Neal) collaborating with Tommy, more or less contributing equally to the album with beats and ideas for tracks.

Following the release of his second album, Tommy and his gang decided to hit the road in May 2012 to celebrate and tour with a hodgepodge of New Zealand’s most exciting indie acts including Bang Bang Eche, Spring Break and Golden Axe. The tour was a success with every show selling out.

The last year has also seen Tommy make good use of a green screen he happened to have lying about. In the lead up to the release of "New Hat And Haircut", he and his friend and VJ, Brian Hainsworth, created a series of ambiguous virals, which had more than a few blagging about his sudden celebrity status. Some thought that he was so famous that he really was a guest on the David Letterman show; while another viral stunt saw him “boogying” and promoting his preferred carnivorous ways to the nation with Sarah Ulmer in the notorious NZ Beef & Lamb commercials.

With more shows booked and some potential overseas adventures penciled in for the not-so-distant future, Tommy and his cohorts are looking like they'll be keeping rather busy over the upcoming months.