IT’S MAGIC: With the help of the Hu$tle, LiL iFFy drops a ‘Wand Ambition’ coup de grace
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To passersby of a show at The Pilot Light in Knoxville’s Old City in mid-June, the madness on stage must have seemed Kafkaesque:
Seven white guys wearing sunglasses, basketball jerseys and hoodies, gold chains swinging from their necks, rapping about Harry Potter and Myrtle Beach, among other things.
More than a hundred fans crowded into the club, spilling onto the sidewalk and watching from the sidewalk; those fortunate enough to get a spot near the front pressed toward the front stage to scream along with every line, pump fists to every hook and writhe and dance with dirty abandon as muscular beats and flashing lasers blasted every corner of the room with a surreal combination of fantasy literature and hip-hop culture.
And center-stage stood the man responsible for it all: Local musician Wil Wright, also known as LiL iFFy. As the former, he’s shepherded the local dance-pop band Senryu for almost a decade; as a solo artist, he’s crafted sensitive indie folk for the brooding set; as a collaborator with bands like North Carolina’s Physics of Meaning he’s brought a crazy-creative energy to the table that makes other ideas even better.
Nothing, however, could have prepared friends, fans or the man himself for the supernova that iFFy has become. No other East Tennessee hip-hop artist, especially now that Renaldo “Swiperboy” Woolridge has left Knoxville for California, draws a bigger crowd or produces more rhymes; no other rapper has assembled a collective (Magic Hu$tle Entertainment) of like-minded visionaries with such speed.
And the most mind-blowing thing? Less than a year ago, LiL iFFy was little more than a concept.
“I thought maybe it would be a really great sort of aggressive show to nobody, and it was going to be really funny,” Wright said of LiL iFFy’s origins. “But then when we did the album release show, it was so full. Everyone knew the words already, and it suddenly felt like the real thing. Up until that point, it hadn’t really occurred to me to even go past that show, but after that it was a weird, abrupt sort of gear shift.”
Wright summoned iFFy from the creative void last summer during a particularly rough stretch of writer’s block for new Senryu music. The first track, “Patron Us,” was built off the classic hip-hop paradigm: first-person braggadocio about having lots of money, bedding lots of women and besting any and all competition. Taking heed of the adage to write about what you know, Wright — a veteran of the University of Tennessee marching band and the local indie-band coffee house scene — didn’t try to become something he’s not. Life in the Walter P. Taylor Homes housing project in Knoxville may be rough, but Wright never lived there or grew up there, and any attempt to transform himself into a street thug would have been disingenuous.
So he drew on something he knew very well: the Harry Potter canon. With the help of local electronic music wizard (no pun intended) Thomas (DJ Tom Ato) Thibus, he crafted a song playing on the famous Patronus charm from novelist J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster series as a swaggering, sneering order of tequila after a hard day of chasing galleons (money) and dispatching Deatheaters (enemies). At that point, iFFy started to take on a life of his own, Wright said.
“The name and the music were both still kind of a concept at that point, but once you decide you’re going to do it, you have to merge with it,” he said. “I’m not doing a voice, and I don’t want it to be a caricature. I wanted it to be the least silly as it can be, because extravagance rap is silly by nature. I wanted to leave room for it to be really good.”
Novelty brought in fans; talent kept them on board the iFFy bandwagon. As the phenomenon grew, so did the crew who helped make it possible. Originally known as Dude Source, iFFy’s “hype men” (the Flavor Flav to iFFy’s Chuck D.) — Zac “Playboy Manbaby” Fallon (who performs as the singer-songwriter act Katie and the Bass Drums) and Alex “Baylatrix” Bayless (a veteran of the band Bellfield) were soon joined by others: the rap duo Dopplegangsta around the first of the year, Jeff “Mr. 9 & 3/4” McClain, a long-time supporter of Wright and Senryu from that band’s beginning; and two recent additions, Tyler “Halfdeaf” McClure and Andy “Black Thunder” Vinson.
Going back to last fall, Wright said, “We did a little tour of house shows just for fun, and on that tour, a surprising amount of people were showing up — and they liked it. For our second local show, at Preservation Pub on Christmas Day, we were packed again. And then we opened up for Lord T. and Eloise at The Ciderhouse and played for 450 people. The acceleration was hard to ignore.”
And more and better songs kept coming. “Wandcore,” LiL iFFy’s first release, introduced him to East Tennessee; in the year since, Wright’s been working on his rap magnum opus — “Wand Ambition,” scheduled for release with an all-out party of a show on Saturday night at The Well in Bearden.
“We would go back and listen to ‘Wandcore’ and figure out how we could get better,” he said. “The vibe of our shows and our audience is so celebratory; our shows feel awesome, and we wanted an album to paint a picture of the experience we were having. Each song kind of pushed the bar up and demanded a higher bar. We knew we were not going to another one, so this needed to be better than anything I can do after it.”
And therein lies Wright’s dilemma: Where does he go from here? If “Wandcore” (and its follow-up, the remix-sprinkled-with-a-few-originals “Wandmore”) was a cherry red muscle car with a lift kit and a glass-shattering stereo, then “Wand Ambition” is a time-traveling Delorean that runs on nuclear fire. Thibus’s beats sound like what the Taliban must hear before bunker buster munitions turn them into paste; Wright’s rhymes make the “Wandcore” version of iFFy sound as if he was on Ativan; the addition of the Magic Hu$tle crew on many of the tracks adds an us-vs.-them pack mentality that would make Wu-Tang Clan jealous.
How does he top it? He doesn’t. The future of iFFy is up in the air, but one thing’s virtually certain, he said: There’s no need to do another LiL iFFy album.
“It’s sort of given us the quintessential experiences that everyone thinks they’re going to get when they start a musical project, and it’s given them to us without much resistance,” he said. “In our short time, our rap experience has exceeded those of most people who go down this avenue. We’ve got a great audience, and we’ve been so many places. People just Tweet us so much respect, especially considering how left of the dial it is.
“I don’t feel like I need to do another album. You can only do one ‘best,’ and once you’ve been you’re best, it’s a parallel move to do anything else. I don’t do parallel moves, really.”
That’s not to say iFFy will “retire.” At this point, putting him back on the shelf would be impossible; he and Wright are fully integrated, and the planets that orbit his exploding star — the rest of the Magic Hu$tle collective — are primed to erupt with new life.
“We have half a dozen albums ready to come out by other artists that are going to establish the label as a self-sustaining entity,” he said. “They all make this music that I believe in, and we’re all working on everybody’s stuff together. That’s why when we do a show, you’re going to almost always see the whole label, because there’s no point in going after it as hard as we do if it was just me that was into it.
“LiL iFFy will play the year out, that’s for sure; we have a tour coming up, so we’re going to play tons through the end of the year, as often as we can — in case it’s all we get.”
Which is another reason, he added, that Saturday night will likely be a show of legendary proportions. The iFFy crowd is already a party-hungry lot that needs little excuse to leave a dance floor a sopping-wet mess of sweat and spilled drinks; if anything could help them turn it into a slurried wasteland of lost minds and realized musical dreams, it’s the potential of “Wand Ambition” to be the definitive statement of iFFy’s meteoric rise to local fame.
“A lot of people from that community have said some really flattering, supportive things, and I feel like ‘Wand Ambition’ is the best I can do,” he said. “Whatever we get from that will be what we deserve. If you can’t be pleased with your best, that’s a personal problem.”
And while a rapper like iFFy may have 99 problems, that certainly ain’t one.