The Chicago rapper on the power of performance

You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of someone unlocking the full potential that South By South West has to offer than Chicago rapper Ric Wilson.

Intent on performing his music to anyone that’ll stand around for long enough to hear it, and determined enough to convert listeners to fans by the end of a set, whispers of his upbeat disco-influenced rap shows have been passed around the Austin, Texas, new music festival all week, carrying him from basement shows to legendary 6th Street staples and major stages.

To close his first SXSW experience, Wilson played Shure’s Bedroom Sessions, offering one last chance for curious music fans to uncover the rising star’s celebrated live set. The location was felicitous; as Shure are using this event to launch their For Those Who Tour initiative, pledging their support to grass roots artists with a venture centering around a creative retreat in Chicago, Ric’s resourcefulness and resolve is an ideal match for the audio brand’s objective.

The morning after he metaphorically set the Shure stage alight, we took some down time to reflect on his experience in Austin, and how he’s utilised SXSW to set him up to continue his artistic progression.

How has SXSW been for you this year?

SXSW has been good for me. This is my first year that I’m really down here and it’s cool. I feel very privileged to be in the position where I am playing these shows.

Have you witnessed a growth in fanbase while you’ve been here?

Yeah, definitely. I think I probably got like 200 followers since I been here. It’s cool because everyone’s like, “social media, social media, social media.” So it’s really grass roots growth, and people are actually seeing [me perform] my music. I think it’s a nice balance for artists. I’m more of an artist where I love the basement shows, so when I do [the bigger shows] and I do the basement shows it helps. It’s like people appreciate you more when you’re doing the actual basement shows. You use those things to kind of get real people into the smaller shows, because they love it. I’ll play a big festival and then I come back to that city later on and I play a 200-person room, but they remember when I was on the big stage and now we have this intimate feeling. I like the intimacy in performing.

You’ve played a lot of different showcases with varied line-ups in terms of genre, like the Shure Bedroom Sessions last night, presumably because if you were only playing hip-hop showcases you might not get the broad visibility that you’ve achieved. Was this intentional when it came to planning which shows you booked?

No, it’s actually interesting. Shure and all these people reached out to us and asked us to perform. And then I guess, maybe because I have the trumpet, or I usually have the full band when I perform, I guess it brings a different aspect like, ‘It’s hip-hop but it also fits with other bands.’ And it’s instruments - people love instruments, so I feel like I might be one of the reasons. My career’s so weird because I’ll play like Rolling Loud, and then I’ll play a Shure showcase. It all compliments [each other].

Did you play Rolling Loud with the band?

I played Rolling Loud with the trumpet and the DJ. I’m the only person with an instrument. They loved it, but Rolling Loud is young kids; there was this 14-year-old girl, she comes up to me and says: ‘This is the first time I’ve ever seen any show with an instrument.’ I was like, ‘Wow. That’s crazy. Do you go to concerts much?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, but all the rap concerts never have it.’ And I’m just like, wow. That’s great. [She’s] gonna remember that forever, and I think that’s pretty cool. I like bringing the instruments back into live hip-hop performance.

Other than performing, how have you utilised your time in Austin?

I’ve got a lot of friends that I met through the Internet; I like their music, they like my music and they live somewhere like 100 miles away, something like that. But we’re all here so I’ve been linking up and meeting a lot of my Internet friends. So there’s a guy named Dreamer Boy, I’ve met him. This person named Claud, they’re really, really good. Miya Folick is really cool. I started meeting all my friends through the Internet. It’s cool. I’m doing that, enjoying the weather, riding these fucking scooters everywhere. And making new friends too. I’ve made some new friends that aren’t musicians. I’ll be somewhere and have a conversation with them and they were hanging out and going here and going there, so it’s cool, it’s nice. I like this SX experience. I couldn’t imagine myself not being able to walk down the street at SX. That would be too much. I know some artists can’t do that and I’m lucky that I’m at that stage right now where I can.

So when you came to SXSW, did you have any goals for yourself?

I just wanted to make sure I represent myself fully on every single stage and that people see it and like it, remember it. I just want to be a great performer.

It’s not uncommon now to have artists create entirely in their bedroom and have the biggest song in the world without ever having to learn to perform live. Why is being a great performer of particular importance to you?

Because my favourite artists have always been artists that were great performers: Janet Jackson, James Brown, Otis Redding. These people are performers, and also the Internet isn’t real, so I can’t just be having a career because of the Internet. If they destroyed all social media today, what would the artist have? They would have their music but how will they be able to push it? If they destroyed the Internet right now how you gonna get anyone to buy your records? I really like the origins of hip-hop, and hip-hop was based off performance, based off dancing and partying and knowledge of self. I want to bring that to the stage and I want to bring that to my music. And I think there are other artists that are doing it, like Anderson .Paak is really dope at doing that. J. Cole’s really good at performing. I think the artists that perform better last longer too. It's getting better at your craft.

Does Chicago and the open mic scene there have an influence on your live performance?

I came up in the open mic scene in Chicago so that’s probably another reason why. I had to win people over at open mics. So you gotta be able to rap and you gotta be able to perform so good that you can make everyone shut the fuck up and listen to you. And people don’t like to shut the fuck up, so you gotta figure out how to do that. I can’t sing like Billie Holiday so I gotta rap like Nas. I think that’s why you won’t see a bad person that comes from that scene. None of them will be bad. Saba’s really good. Noname’s really good live. Chance is really good. All from the same scene. We all came from the same open mics, same mentors, same people that ran it and everything. Same friend groups, all that.

And at what point did you start bringing the live instrumentation into your set?

Since the beginning. I think I did one show with a DJ and I realised that I have a lot of energy but sometimes I want to share that energy with someone else on stage. So I put a band together in Chicago. Also, to just be different from other artists. I realised there was an over-saturation of rappers in Chicago and I was like, ‘I need to make my live performance set something that’s memorable and different to stick out.’ And that’s why I work so hard on performance.

What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned from being at SXSW this year?

Do not take tequila shots until you are done with all your shows! Yesterday I couldn’t talk because I took tequila shots the day before, so I didn’t talk all day until the set, just so I could make sure I had my voice for you guys. And today, that’s why I’m talking a little quiet, because I gotta do one more last basement show at a U.T Campus, which is a student show but those shows are cool cos then the students like you then they bring you back next year.

Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Katherine Squier

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