Interview: Ric Wilson at NCMF
Recently I spoke with Chicago rapper Ric Wilson ahead of his Saturday set at North Coast Music Festival. For those of you who are just hearing about Ric Wilson for the first time, let me get you acquainted: Wilson is a Chicago-based musician, poet, and activist whose music traverses the realms of hip-hop, soul, and funk with conspicuous gospel undertones. Wilson spent his childhood immersed in music: from old school hip-hop to James Brown and the gospel hymns at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. From a young age Wilson had a natural affinity for music, and he soon began to develop his own voice. The southside musician found an early platform for expression with the Young Chicago Authors (YCA) organization and began to participate in community activism in his mid-teens. When he was only nineteen years old Wilson was chosen as a delegate to represent the voices of Chicago at the United Nations in Geneva as part of the We Charge Genocide coalition, an organization that protests pervasive police violence towards youth of color in marginalized communities across Chicago. Wilson and his peers testified in front of the UN, asserting that the CPD’s actions had violated the UN Conventions Against Torture. In subsequent years, Wilson has continued to work as an activist, doing social justice research in Cambodia and South Korea for the University of Illinois at Chicago while continuing to engage in community-based projects at home. With human rights and the safety and welfare of his community central to his activism, Ric Wilson’s ethos has found a natural home in his music.
Across his discography, from his 2016 EP “Soul Bounce” and 2017 EP “Negrow Disco” to his more recent works such as “BANBA” (Black Art Not Bad Art), social commentary plays a vital role in his music. The critiques are often subtly woven through laid-back spoke-word style verses. In “Everybody Stay” Wilson sings: “I thank God for another day” and “I pray to God everybody stay;” an expression of his desire for peace to overcome tragedy in the face of worldly obstacles. On the eponymous first track off of “BANBA” Ric Wilson seems to channel voices from the Black is Beautiful Movement such as Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. Wilson raps poetic verses that center on the phrase “Black Art not Bad art (mad art, sad art),” encouraging the listener to consider the merits of his work and that of other black men and women. But beyond the sincere social concern and critique expressed in his work, Ric Wilson’s songs are also sprinkled with levity and internal meditation. On “Sinner” Wilson works in comical references to Quasimoto and the children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba while chronicling his struggle between right and wrong. On Banba’s sixth track, “Split,” Wilson raps about the challenges of navigating a relationship that is on the verge of ending. But beyond his lyrical versatility, Ric Wilson takes a front seat in his productions. He seems to prefer to set the tone for his tracks rather than recruit producers to do that for him. Wilson will often collaborate friends—such as a horn player or a beat-maker—but the overall direction of the productions remains close to home and he commands the vision for the final product.
In my conversation with Ric Wilson I found that his dexterity extends beyond his work as an activist and musician: he’s a charismatic and engaging person with a great sense of humor, and it was entertaining talking with him. So, I bring to you my conversation with Ric:
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Brennan White: (performs under the name Landon Sea; Host of Sonic Sanctuary): interviewer
Ric Wilson: interviewee
BRENNAN WHITE: This is Brennan White (Landon Sea), your host on the Sonic Sanctuary show, I’m here with Ric Wilson at North Coast Music Festival! First off, Ric, I’d like to ask you about your musical roots. I saw you had some involvement with Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. So was that a part of your life growing up?
RIC WILSON: Yeah, definitely. Gospel music!
BRENNAN WHITE: How did the music that came out of that church influence your project? It seems like both the spirit and the energy of the gospel music and the vibe translate.
RIC WILSON: Yeah. I think gospel music has influenced my stage presence and my sound. Everything has to have a little soul to it. Like on the 1 and 3, everything with the clap, the rhythm—you know? It’s all that! My first concert was a gospel concert. I saw Stevie Wonder perform at a gospel concert the very first time.
BRENNAN WHITE: That’s awesome. So I want to ask you a bit about your social justice background. So you were a part of the We Charge Genocide Coalition, you’ve also done work with Young Chicago Authors. I’m wondering how your activism has worked its way into the rap medium? It seems like music is a really powerful medium for you to communicate your ideas—definitely at least in terms of sheer numbers and reaching an audience, such as with streaming. So how does rap factor into that versus traditional forms of activism based around churches, etc.?
RIC WILSON: I was always rapping [when I was younger], and I just remember my cousin told me I needed to research the history of hip-hop before I actually rap. So I was like fifteen and I was researching the history of hip-hop, and I came across KRS-One and the Stop the Violence Movement and through hip-hop I got into activism from there. I wanted to actually get on the ground. So I would start hosting protests and help organize protests, and I always had a mouthpiece and I was a good talker—or not a good talker really but good at picking my words.
BRENNAN WHITE: So the We Charge Genocide Coalition seems like it was pretty impactful. You were at a young age!
RIC WILSON: I was nineteen when it happened and I just turned twenty-three.
BRENNAN WHITE: It’s pretty awesome to be young and be able to do something momentous like that! And you also traveled to Cambodia and South Korea for some activism?
RIC WILSON: Yeah. That was through UIC. UIC hired me to do restorative justice studies.
BRENNAN WHITE: So your work before that informed the work you did overthere. Can you talk a little about the work you did in Cambodia and what you were up to?
RIC WILSON: In a nutshell, UIC was rebuilding their curriculum for restorative justice and how they could teach people about restorative justice. What happened in Cambodia was that the Khmer Rouge led a genocide—a lot of people died. The people in the provinces let a lot of the people who were in the Khmer Rouge back into their community after the genocide and the war ended. So we went to the provinces to study and see the people’s process to letting [former Khmer Rouge member’s] back into their community. We were trying to figure out how we could take what was going on there and apply it to the United States and bring some system of restorative justice here that could help lead to the end of prisons and jails here.
BRENNAN WHITE: So through a comparative process?
RIC WILSON: Yeah, see how other people do it so we can apply it to ours society.
BRENNAN WHITE: Cool. So I’m going to transition a bit to the music. So one of your biggest tracks to date, “Sinner,” with Kweku Collins: can you talk a bit about that? How it came together and maybe what you were feeling when you made that song?
RIC WILSON: Yeah, I guess that is my biggest song to date wow! I always think of "Soul Bounce" or
"Hang loose" because they’re my older songs, but yeah. My friend was working on a beat. I saw him working on it through his Instagram. I asked him to send it to me, and I added some stuff to it. Nick Kosma was already on the song. He wrote the hook. So I put my add-ons to that, I told my friend to do a switch up, and he made a switch up kind of loop, and I took that loop and extended it to something that Kweku could get on. I sent it to Kweku because Kweku’s a good friend of mine, and yeah, I had my homie Sam add some trumpet to it. It was nice!
BRENNAN WHITE: That’s sick. And the trumpet has become a mainstay of a lot of your productions. Does Sam do a lot of the trumpet parts on your records?
RIC WILSON: Yeah he’s my best friend and roommate. And he’ll be playing with me at my performance.
BRENNAN WHITE: Yes! and then you were at Mamby on the Beach this year?
RIC WILSON: Yeah, I’ve been around the block a little bit this year for the festivals.
[Ric has previously sold out Chop Shop, and Schubas here in Chicago]
BRENNAN WHITE: And I’ve heard you have a dope live show. Sometimes you bring out dancers?
RIC WILSON: Yeah! We’ll see I don’t know if I’ll have dancers [at the set] but I’ll see. I’m gonna bring out something interesting!
BRENNAN WHITE: You’re already doing better than a lot of these DJ sets when you’re bringing out a live trumpet and rapping.
RIC WILSON: There’s gonna be a vocoder too for “Sinner.” And the Legacy Drum Line are going to be joining us tomorrow [at the performance].
BRENNAN WHITE: Awesome! And so what do you try to give your audience in terms of a live performance? I imagine you’ve been to a lot of concerts and seen how the performances traditionally work, so what do you do to try to make things special for the viewer so they’re going to remember you and what you did on stage?
RIC WILSON: I’m trying to have people have fun! Everyone wants everyone to jump up and down and nod head but I’m trying to have people dance. I want people to dance with me. I like to dance and it always kind of translates. People like to dance and have a good time. I want someone to feel like they are at a disco show or a house party.
BRENNAN WHITE: Yeah, definitely. So to go to one of your songs real quick off the “BANBA” EP. It has a really cool sample at the end. One of the main lines of it is “I dedicate myself to the people—"
RIC WILSON: [interjects politely] “And the revolution don’t stop!”
BRENNAN WHITE: Yes! I was wondering where did that come from? It felt very powerful when I listened to that quote.
RIC WILSON: That’s my friend. She actually wrote that piece. I recorded her because we were working on a documentary, but the production failed. But I had that piece that she wrote, and I had it on my phone from like three years ago. And I was like can I put this in my project? Because I want to connect BANBA—black art not bad art to this piece: because every word is something I would say and think. When I think about it: I am the Revolution and the revolution don’t stop. As long as you know my heart’s pumpin’ I’m pumping for some revolutionary change and whatever I feel is revolutionary to me. So revolutionary to me, could mean no more prisons. Revolutionary to me could mean being black and doing whatever they want.
BRENNAN WHITE: Yeah absolutely. So you’ve described your music as nouveau disco rap before, right?
RIC WILSON: Yeah! Well someone else said that and I just took that down, but it’s a great description. I like it. Disco rap I guess means like—before it was gentrified by people like the Bee Gees in the 80s, you think of it like black and brown queer folks kind of creating this innovative genre of music. They would speed up R&B cuts to the point in which you could dance to it and dance til you sweat. And also what comes with the disco is the fashion. And I want to embody all of that in my rap. So that’s what. I feel like when I hear disco rap. I’m thinking like MFSB, “I will Survive,” Sylvester, those disco cuts! Those deep ones.
RIC WILSON: Yeah a lot of people like “Don’t Rush,” and I think my album is going to be more geared towards that.
BRENNAN WHITE: Ah! can we talk about your album a bit?
RIC WILSON: [laughs] No, that’s all I can say about the album! All I can say about that is I’m working on it.
BRENNAN WHITE: Is that gonna be 2018 or 2019?
RIC WILSON: Hopefully spring 2019. Might be released with a label might not be released with a label; I’m not sure yet.
BRENNAN WHITE: So "Soul Bounce" was self-released, but now with this new project you’re flirting with the idea of having it on a label.
RIC WILSON: Yeah. But I’m still working on "BANBA." I’ve got a video coming out for “Sinner” and a video coming out for “BANBA,” and maybe for “Don’t Rush.” And then with Vinyl Me Please, I’m their artist pick of the month, or like, their new artist pick—so they’re going to be putting BANBA on vinyl, which is crazy! It’s not even an LP. It’s gonna be an EP that also is a record. So it will be my first record album, but it won’t be my first LP record album. It’s gonna be a fun year!
BRENNAN WHITE: Damn. How many copies are they printing?
RIC WILSON: I think 5,000 copies.
BRENNAN WHITE: That sounds beautiful. Wow.
RIC WILSON: I just got the test vinyl a couple days ago, and I was like damn. I am no longer a SoundCloud rapper! Six songs on vinyl. This is crazy I thought. This is insane.
BRENNAN WHITE: And people are finally regaining an appreciation for vinyl in the past five to ten years. It never was gone, but it’s coming back more strongly, so I’m happy to see that.
RIC WILSON: Yeah.
BRENNAN WHITE: So I wanted to ask you, you went to Clark Atlanta for a year, is that right?
RIC WILSON: Yeah, it is.
BRENNAN WHITE: So I actually went to Emory University before I came to Northwestern.
RIC WILSON: Really! I ran at Emory [laughs]! I ran cross country on a full scholarship.
BRENNAN WHITE: Oh sick. So you ran cross country in high school and everything! What was your event? 5k?
RIC WILSON: 5k was my event on the track and in high school my event was the mile and I liked the 800m. But I liked the mile more. I got a D2 scholarship.
BRENNAN WHITE: So you came back to do music, but how did you like Atlanta?
RIC WILSON: It was good! Running-wise it was hard. I was running like a 15:30 5k when I left here, and when I went there my 5k dropped back like 30 seconds because of the hills. I was not used to the hills and the hot weather and the humidity.
BRENNAN WHITE: My best was 17:03 so you got me beat by several minutes man! That’s wild
RIC WILSON: 17:03 is good!
BRENNAN WHITE: [laughs] 15:30 is elite though. At that point you’re getting the scholarship! You know what you’re doing out on the field with that time! So, did the Atlanta scene affect you at all? When I was there I felt like trap music was a huge impact on me, for just even that year I was there.
RIC WILSON: Yeah, definitely. So I did this contest. I enrolled in the talent show at Clark and I made it to the finals. It was with Clark, Spelman and Morehouse. They all came together and had their freshman do this talent show. All these colleges were watching me do this talent show, like the first day ever, second third day in Atlanta for me, ever. So they were watching me at this talent show. So it was like 2,000-3,000 people watching me at this talent show.
BRENNAN WHITE: And you were rapping?
RIC WILSON: Yeah, I was rapping and doing this spoken word performance. And I lost. I came in third. But, Sprite was at the talent show, and this dude came and did an interview with me. And that guy and me became best friends, and I found out his brother was this guy named Sonny Digital, who’s a producer. And so now they’re like one of my closest friends—that whole family.
BRENNAN WHITE: So have you collaborated with Sonny Digital?
RIC WILSON: No, I haven’t collaborated with him, but I was the engineer for Sonny and I was around a whole bunch of people who knew Sonny, and that just opened up a whole brand new spectrum of music and making music to me. Sonny lived above Metro Boomin’ so I would be above all these dope trap artists and the in-guys in Atlanta. So that was insane!
BRENNAN WHITE: So I guess the last question I wanted to ask you today is along the lines of production. It seems like there’s consistency across all records. Do you usually get your hands dirty with the beats or chords? Because I’ve heard a lot of seventh chords—almost kind of Chicago house chords.
RIC WILSON: Yeah. I get my hands dirty with the beats. I get my hands into it in the sense that I kind of Quincy Jones produce it. I might write a little bit of it but then I also program the drums, and I track out and engineer everything. I’ll put small sounds in the song, and then I’ll ship a beat around to this person, that person. Just to get it how I want it.
BRENNAN WHITE: Yeah, definitely.
RIC WILSON: I’m excited. Hopefully one day, for this album, or my second album or third album, I can get to start working with guys like Kaytranada or Monte Booker. I gotta hit em up man!
BRENNAN WHITE: Yeah, [Monte Booker] is here today; you gotta find the man! Anyways, Ric, it’s been great talking to you. This has been Ric Wilson with WNUR and we’re excited for his set tomorrow at NCMF!
RIC WILSON: Hell Yeah! Thanks guys.
Ric Wilson put on a great performance on Saturday September 1st.
Keep an eye on him because he will be performing at Goose Island Brewery in Chicago on September 21st!
And follow my man Disco Ric on Twitter for some laughs :)