A tale of two worlds: East Tennessee musician brews up a powerful potion of hip-hop and Harry Potter
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Mayhap he was struck with a Memory Charm or the Confundus Charm, because Wil Wright has no clear memory of how the Lil iFFy phenomenon got started.
Clearly, there was some magic at work back in the summer, when a simple exercise to overcome a crippling case of writer’s block allowed iFFy to manifest himself as Wright’s alter-ego. From a novelty concept involving the cross-pollination of Harry Potter lore and hip-hop culture, an entire album has been delivered, to be unveiled at a show Sunday night in Knoxville’s Old City.
Lil iFFy has appeared in Chicago, performed in New York, and the record, titled “Wandcore,” is poised to capitalize on the love readers have for J.K. Rowling’s iconic characters and the world they inhabit — one into which iFFy has inserted himself as a deep-rolling, wand-slinging thug with a posse that calls itself Dude Source and a message for curse-slinging haters, Death Eaters and anyone else who would stand in his way.
“It’s still just me doing a thing, but when I’m doing this thing, I go into a head space where I’m in it to win it,” Wright told The Daily Times this week over lunch at Tomato Head in downtown Maryville. “It’s a tribute to the modern hip-hop paradigm — you have to grind, to go in and stay in to get what you want and be the best. And it feels really good to be the best.
“This isn’t parody or comedy. It’s like doing a Mad Lib — you remove the nouns and verbs and replace them with nouns and verbs from one of the books, like ‘Chamber of Secrets.’ You can find one, and it will work, and it will make sense. It just fits so well. It’s not about Harry Potter, and it’s not parody — we’re making a new thing. We try to give as much respect as we can to the books and to contemporary hip-hop culture.
“And despite the fact there’s no direct correlation, if I pay enough respect to both formats, anybody who likes either will like it,” Wright added. “I’ve found that to be uncommonly true.”
To fully appreciate the marriage of two segments of popular culture that, on the surface, couldn’t appear to be more different, Wright points to his own background. One of his first concerts, in the mid-1980s, was a performance by the late Michael Jackson at Neyland Stadium. While Jackson doesn’t qualify as hip-hop, his dedication to appearance and theatrics immediately struck young Wright’s artistic heart.
Growing up, he gravitated toward party rap by groups like the Beastie Boys, some of the West Coast gangsta rap and the overall appeal of hip-hop swagger — the braggadocio, the flash, the defiant claims of dominance and dismissal of one’s rivals as the ultimate declaration of alpha male seniority. There’s a reason hip-hop, to this day, appeals to young men (and, to a lesser extent, women) across racial and social lines — it’s about swagger and cool, tapping into the ego’s need for acceptance and admiration. Wright felt it, and years later, iFFy would channel those traits with ferocity.
The final piece of the iFFy puzzle, however, came during his time working in a bookstore in the late 1990s. The hype over “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” the second-of-seven books by Rowling about the boy wizard and his eventual collision with both the past and his destiny set in a fantastical world of magic, prompted Wright to pick up the first. Like so many others, he was enamored.
“They’re fantastic,” he said. “I don’t know too many people who opened those books and didn’t get pulled in. They’re so complex and deal with such complicated issues, and there’s so much unique language. It transfers to the paradigm I’ve picked so fluidly that it’s been the easiest songwriting I’ve ever done in my life.”
And that’s a lot — over the past decade, he’s been the creative genius by local dance-pop rock band Senryu, along with numerous other side projects such as Skeleton Coast and the North Carolina-based band Physics of Meaning. But when his songwriting hit a wall back in the summer during an attempt to get a new Senryu album off the ground, he turned to writing rap lyrics about Harry Potter. It worked, and with friend/producer/Dude Source member Tom Ato, he kept going.
“I did ‘Patron Us’ as a fun exercise to jog my mind, but then I fell in love,” he said. “It felt like a drug and was such a different kind of cool, but I also immediately needed more.”
His thoughts immediately consumed by the song — a profanity-laced flow filled with enough Harry Potter references to make hardcore Potter fans swoon and enough muscle to earn respect of hip-hop fans — he found himself at West Town Mall, where a silver chain in a mall kiosk caught his eye. It was an impulse buy, a gaudy thing that seemed meant more for a 2 Live Crew video than around the neck of an East Tennessee songwriter, but he purchased it and put it on. Almost immediately, he felt iFFy manifest himself.
“I don’t feel like I slip in and out of it, but there’s a certain level of self-confidence that came with iFFy,” he said. “I feel all of this bizarre confidence, even doing regular old daily life stuff. It makes me better across the board.”
At iFFy’s urging, he pursued a greater vision — putting out an album, and starting a brand, known as “Wandcore.” On the surface, it seems like a novelty, a joke meant to poke fun at both hip-hop and Harry Potter. Not so, Wright said — he’s sincere in his love for both, and the music itself reflects it.
“These songs aren’t about Harry Potter,” he said. “I think of Lil iFFy as the absolute hip-hop standard. I’m telling classic hip-hop stories. I didn’t grow up in the street, and you have to talk about what you know — and I really, really know those books. But hip-hop is all about material possessions and the ability to tell the same story a dozen different ways — ‘I’ve got lots of money, women want me and I’m better than my competition.’
“This lives up to modern hip-hop standards. I’m telling it the way you’re supposed to tell it, using language and characters from elsewhere to show how the songs work. None of this is tongue-in-cheek to me. I’ve tried to be as dedicated a craftsman and give the songs the same amount of respect as I would any song I write.”
With Ato and his two hype men — Alex “Baylatrix” Bayless and Zac “Playboy ManBaby” Fallon (“These guys will pass the test; you can put Harry Potter trivia on those dudes, deep stuff, and they’ll get it,” Wright said. “They’re two hype men who are about as ride-or-die as dudes get”) — Wright has crafted something ... well, magical. For casual fans of Harry Potter who enjoy the films, there are plenty of grin-inducing overt references. For hardcore lovers of the Harry Potter canon, there are obscure characters, spells and creatures that can only be culled from the imagination of someone with a profound respect for Rowling’s works. And for hip-hop aficionados who appreciate throbbing bass, tasty hooks and the cocksure strut of larger-than-life anti-heroes who glorify riches, sexual conquests and the occasional violent response to those who would challenge the throne, there are plenty of those references as well.
“This isn’t only for fans of Harry Potter,” he said. “Harry Potter fans, assuming they can wade through the profanity, will love it. They’re the people you’re trying to speak to — the real (fans), and so far, they’re wildly enthusiastic about it. And fans of hip-hop can relate to it and appreciate it, too.
“I’m just trying to keep it from seeming like fan fiction. It’s not, and there’s going to come a day when we’re putting out these references to Harry Potter. But we’ll always look for an ingenious way to tell this story.”