"I used to watch Run-D.M.C. videos on my grandmother's TV in South Philly; then, I had to hide Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg CD's from my parents when I was 10-years-old. I used to make Rap tapes on my dad's stereo system. I would record every episode of BET's Rap City in high school on VHS. In college, I started my first Rap group. After college, I started my own Indie Rap label. Today, my first album released on a record label is out. And I can't believe it!" Zilla Rocca ecstatically wrote within a Friday afternoon Facebook post. Friday, May 19th was the release day for the seasoned South Philly rapper-producer and remixer's major label "debut," Good Luck with That on Toronto-based Indie Hip-Hop label URBNET. Zilla recently formed Career Crooks with his long-time friend and partner-in-crime Small Professor (Small Pro) and ahead of Good Luck with That, they released two hard-as-nails pre-album collections: last year's Sin Will Find You: The Collected Works and Name-Your-Price Take What's Coming EP. URBNET fittingly describes their sound as being "steeped in the late 1980's to early 1990's Career Crooks, couples street smart blue collar futurism, with a modernist approach, launching them to the level of current luminaries like KA, Roc Marciano, and Westside Gunn."
"[Career Crooks] hits you like a big-a$$ 60's Batman sound effect. Go get that," Hip-Hop critic and purveyor of all things dope Elmattic (@thisiselmattic) wrote on Twitter Friday afternoon; characteristically continuing, "Yo @ZillaRocca & @smallpro, that "Corrupt Novelist" joint hits you like..." along with an attached image that simply read "ZLONK!" Good Luck with That does indeed hit you like a ton of cocaine-filled bricks and is very reminiscent of 36 Chambers-era Wu-Tang Clan, as well as similarly-minded Hip-Hop duos like Run The Jewels and OutKast. I was lucky enough to obtain the unique opportunity to interview both Zilla Rocca & Small Pro coinciding with the release of Good Luck with That this past Friday; Career Crooks waxed poetic on everything from Sin Will Find You: The Collected Works to Take What's Coming EP, Good Luck with That's friendly features, "Cheesesteak Noir-Hop," Zilla Rocca's now-infamous voicemails, and inventive album artwork. I suggest you do yourself a favor, download or order a cassette copy of Good Luck with That, pop open a nice aged bottle of Cognac, and delve into this expansive interview with Zilla Rocca & Small Pro!
Matt "The Witzard" Horowitz
"The Humpty Dance" Contest Winner
I. How did you guys initially meet and ultimately, decide to start recording together as Career Crooks, a 2-man faction of your larger group, Wrecking Crew? How did you come up with the name Career Crooks anyways?
Zilla Rocca: Me and Small Pro met in like 2007-08. We were the only dudes in Philly getting blog love around then with dope underground sites, so I made it my business to find this guy and make him work with me. I came up with the name just driving around listening to Jay-Z's "So Ghetto;" plus, it fit in with our underworld themes, like our past projects, Major Crimes EP and Thieves with Good Taste EP [with PremRock.] Plus, we just steal a lot of sh*t.
Small Pro: I prefer the term "illegally recycle," but yes... very fitting group name. I actually didn't like it at first, but it grew on me, like most of Zilla's artistic suggestions do. My mother also pointed out that it's (slightly) alliterative, after slightly frowning upon learning that her favorite middle son is literally a "career crook."
II. As Sin Will Find You: The Collected Works expertly shows, you've been "unofficially" working together as Career Crooks for a number of years now... but what exactly made you decide to make it "official" with a proper rapper-producer full-length?
Zilla: The album was going to be just "Zilla Rocca & Small Pro," but after talking with people I respect and thinking about how it would be dope for us at this point in our careers to have something brand new out, making it an official group was the right move. Like Run The Jewels is obviously Killer Mike & El-P and they could've just dropped their music like that under their names, but making it a group name to me, creates a real bond with the music and to the fans, like this isn't a one-off or just some quick sh*t we put out. It's about formally uniting.
Smalls: I think that conceptually, it made sense to make Career Crooks its own distinct entity; this way we can go places creatively that we might not, if it's a Zilla song produced by me.
III. How do the tracks on your recent pre-album EP, Take What's Coming relate to Good Luck with That? Is it mostly composed of album left-overs and voicemails?
Zilla: There was one song that we left off the album and put it on the EP, but everything else was built from scratch. We spent a long time with the album, so the EP was just light work. It was more fun and quick to put together. By that point, we knew what worked best with each other, so I know if we do another album, it would be very comfortable and simple, just based off how cool the EP came out.
Smalls: [Take What's Coming] is [Good Luck with That's] companion piece; an introduction to our world and a preview of the debut, as well as being its own entity. I'm sure [Zilla] has his own reference point for it, but mine was Soul Position (RJD2 & Blueprint) releasing the Unlimited EP in 2002 before they released 8 Million Stories in 2003.
IV. What can you tell me about your now-infamous voicemails, Zilla, which Small Pro included within your recent Take What's Coming EP and Good Luck with That? What struck you as so compelling about them, Small Pro and why did you ultimately, decide to include them within the recordings?
Zilla: I don't even remember those at all! If Smalls didn't put them on the albums, I'd have zero recollection of ever leaving them! But I miss hearing voicemails on people's albums in general—you can't put a f**king text message on a song.
Smalls: Zilla leaves me stuff like that all the time, in all honesty... it picked up more during the making-of [Good Luck with That] since we were actively working on an album and therefore, communicating with more regularity. However, until we started working on the EP, I was planning on using them on something completely different, since they didn't really fit in anywhere on the album comfortably. The EP setting worked better for the voicemails because of its loose and fun nature.
V. What was your typical writing, recording, and beat-making process like for Good Luck with That; was the album fully written, recorded, and produced with both of you together in the studio in South Philly, remotely via email transmission, or a little bit of both scenarios?
Zilla: We both work completely alone—we don't live far away and we talk on the phone and kick it in person; but we keep very different hours and schedules, so it made sense for Small Pro to bang out stuff on his end and me on mine. We both are self-sufficient people and very prolific artists who don't like people telling us what to do, so it was the smartest way to maximize both of our strengths.
Smalls: Most Rap songs/albums follow this sequence during their creation: producer makes beat at some point in time, rapper hears aforementioned beat, rapper records pre-written lyrics or writes new lyrics to beat. We did things the opposite way this go 'round: for the most part, I crafted and worked around Zilla's pre-existing vocals. Same end result, just our own particular process.
VI. How would you attempt to best describe the underlying 90's Hip-Hop-reminiscent Noir-Hop feel heard throughout Good Luck with That, for someone who may have never previously been exposed to your solo music or Career Crooks' storied output?
Zilla: It's just natural for us to make sh*t like this. My other projects that are more Experimental and Proggy on purpose, such as No Vacation for Murder or The Slow Twilight; they were natural and effortless when I made those with my homie Douglas Martin aka Blurry Drones. He and Smalls have had this years-long respectful rivalry with each other as producers. It's just Douglas lives in Seattle and Smalls lives here, so they're not going to do sh*t the same way—Douglas' beats feel like the Northwest. Small Pro's feel like the East Coast, but I'm the constant between both sounds. Like I worship Nas and Ishmael Butler [Palaceer Lazaro,] Aesop Rock and Nas, Raekwon and doseone. So, I've always straddled the line between traditionalist and progressive with Hip-Hop. I think this album is more "traditionalist," but me and Small Pro love Prefuse 73 and Drake, so there's little moments on the album that aren't strictly [just] for back-packers in their thirties.
Smalls: On the production side of things, I've always liked the idea of purposefully using previously utilized samples in my music; even though Guru of Gang Starr once famously said, "Rap is an art, you can't own no loops," there are still producers that feel like using the same piano sample as DJ Premier from 1998 would be heresy, no matter how different the end result comes out. Even unwritten rules are meant to be broken. Also, we both grew up on dark and gritty NY Rap... so, even though we weren't trying to sound like a particular year, there's simply a specific and special feeling you get when you hear hard drums and a loop and that's what we were aiming to convey.
VII. Where exactly did you draw your greatest sources of inspiration and influence while creating what Passion of The Weiss scribe Chris Daly fittingly described as your unique "Cheesesteak Noir[-Hop]" style showcased throughout Good Luck with That?
Zilla: After we finished the album, Smalls told me our album was incredibly "South Philly," which I never picked up on, until he said that. But I'm a life-long South Philly resident, so I'm too close to pick up on that. He's not, so he has the outside eyes to peep it. But since we both live in South Philly, it had to come out that way. And when I was writing songs like "Cold Ten Thousand," that's inspired by real people I knew around South Philly—the loser who gambles and works side jobs, the loan shark who is everyone's buddy, the wife who just tolerates it because she's loved her man since they were teenagers. On "Dock Street Suspicions," I pick out very specific real places in Philly to tell a fictional story, so I guess that's what Chris [Daly] meant by "Cheesesteak Noir" haha!
Smalls: South Philly definitely has its own sound, which [Zilla] has always interpreted in his own way... both subconsciously and on purpose. But having the added dimension of a fellow South Philadelphian picking sounds to match his words accentuated those vibrations.
VIII. How exactly did you go about fielding and recruiting Good Luck with That's featured artists: DJ Manipulator, Curly Castro, ALASKA, My Man Shafe, Defcee, s.hablB, PremRock, Dewey Bryan, and MaLLY? How did you decide which artists to place on each corresponding track?
Zilla: Almost all of those guys are good friends of mine and cats like beeb (s.habIB) and DJ Manipulator are dope cats I met on Twitter that I wanted to bring in for their specific skills. But I've known MaLLy 10 years, [Curly] Castro is my best friend. I've toured with PremRock and have hung out with Dewey [Bryan] countless times—again, real life friends. So, it's just a natural extension, not like we had to reach out to big-name guests to sell the record, which I'm not against, but the album was built on camaraderie. I started getting really cool with ALASKA way after the album was in post-production and was like "I need this guy, too." It's all organic.
Smalls: The guest performances are one of my favorite details about Good Luck with That, especially PremRock's two spots. Everybody in the Wrecking Crew is heavily influenced by the Wu-Tang Clan's string of albums in the 90's... so, for example, you might hear a [Career Crooks] song one day where a featured artist's verse is longer than Zilla's, or elsewhere, it might not even have Zilla featured at all, even though it's still Career Crooks/Wrecking Crew. As long as it comes out dope, we have zero issue with sharing the spotlight or letting a guest's star explode on a track. And we love posse cuts... just ask Curly Castro.
IX. How important was it for you guys to really "hit the nail on the head" and capture some dope inner-album imagery to accompany Good Luck with That's CD/cassette release, considering Zilla's day job as co-creator of @rapbooklets alongside @EgyptoKnuckles?
Zilla: I'm really big on artwork—I feel like that's the one piece of props I've never gotten in my Indie Rap career that I'm salty about still! Any project I put out, I think about how it will look next to all the other artwork on my Bandcamp page. Because I'm a fan of discovering people completely off great artwork. I just discovered this band SHEER MAG because their album was so inspiring. I cheat and screen-grab sh*t all the time from Instagram, Tumblr, [Twitter,] or will snap a pic out and about and go back to it. My wife is a photographer, so I've cheated from her style a bit about framing, lighting, and sh*t like that. Rap Booklets is all about that—just letting people know the more imagery with Rap beyond a Soundcloud .JPG or a YouTube video is better.
Smalls: As far as the group photos accompanying [Good Luck with That] are concerned, we were just having fun... especially me, with the mask! There will be more masks.
X. What can you gentlemen tell me about Good Luck with That's striking Golden Age Hip-Hop-reminiscent cover image? How does it correlate to the lyrical themes, style, overall feel, etc. of the record? What do you think of my Good Luck with That re-design commissioned by self-described Instagram Outsider/Folk Artist @grimeytapesnewportcigarettes?
Zilla: I don't know what's "Golden Age Hip-Hop" about the cover honestly—it was just a scene I saw one day getting coffee on Broad Street not too far from where we both live. So, I snapped it, posted it on Instagram, and Smalls and a few other people were like "YO! THAT'S AN ALBUM COVER RIGHT THERE!" So boom—we had that album cover before we even had a group name or album title. But Smalls was right—the cover fits the album because it's completely South Philly—the old stretch Cadillac parked between two funeral homes on a dreary day.
Smalls: The commissioned re-make made me chuckle, once I figured out what it was. Above all else (and in my not-so humble opinion,) [Good Luck with That] simply looks like it's probably a dope album based on the cover and that especially is something that both Zilla and I try to be mindful of, in our respective fields.
XI. How did you initially come to get in contact with Canadian Indie Hip-Hop imprint URBNET and what made you feel as though they were the perfect fit for a label to work with to unleash Career Crooks' premier project, Good Luck with That?
Zilla: My homies PremRock and Fresh Kils dropped an album late 2016 with them called Leave In Tact. And Prem was always saying great things about the label and the big cheese Darryl [Rodway] that runs it. I wasn't too familiar with them, but once I did my research, I thought it would be a new, fun outlet for this record. We're the first 100% American act they've ever signed and they've been around almost 20 years, which is dope! And me and Smalls wanted to catch more people that might've never heard of us before this album, so why not attack the Canadian Rap fans?
Smalls: I had heard of URBNET previously through releases by Moka Only and Elaquent, but after a little bit of research and discussion, Zilla and I agreed that it was the right way to go. This will sound a little weird, but since I place a lot of stock in album artwork, I went to their Bandcamp page and imagined our record there next to their other releases and it made sense. I also knew that if they were putting out and standing behind records like the Leave In Tact album, we would be right at home.
XII. What do you fellas have planned next for Career Crooks or within the confines of your separate, yet often over-lapping solo careers? I know you've recently been hittin' it outta the park with your 90's Hip-Hop-evoking Soundcloud loosies series, Zilla and you with your ever-infectious Jawns beat series, Small Pro!
Zilla: I have my long-awaited solo album on deck [called] Future Former Rapper. Looking for a home for that now. But beyond that, it's good to not be sitting on music anymore. I'm stacking up more remix credits, which I'll compile for another remix project as Anything I Touch I Bruise Vol. III.
Smalls: Let's see... currently working on a group album with a Philadelphia-based singer that doesn't have a name/title yet, I'm in the middle of my second official instrumental album, and I've started setting aside beats for Gigantic, Vol. 2, the follow-up to my first compilation album.