Connecticut’s Illus, or Adam Wallenta if you want to be legal about it, has one of the more unique backstories in the world of hip-hop. By day, he is Wallenta, a professional illustrator who has worked with both Marvel and DC comics, brought the Public Enemy comic book to life, and created album artwork for rap legends like KRS-One and DJ Premier. By night, he is Illus, an MC in his own right who is trying to elevate the level of conversation in hip-hop with poignant lyrics and a noble purpose. His first full-length album, 2010’s Feel Good Music, is a perfect primer to his style, brimming with good intentions and even better execution. His follow up, For Adam, is something darker: a commemoration of the live of Adam Walsh, whose murder in 1981 deeply affected a young Adam Wallenta, while also inspiring Walsh’s father John to start the television series America’s Most Wanted. The new album is deeper and more complicated than his past material, as Illus attempts to reconcile the positivity that fuels his music with the darkness in the world that an artist is honor bond to document.
So naturally, it’s a big time for Illus: For Adam releases today, the 26th, but more importantly his first child is due to be born in the coming week and a half. Nonetheless he was generous enough to get on the phone with RESPECT. and give us the lowdown on the new album, the relationship between comics and hip-hop, and the advantages of bringing a visual artist’s eye to the microphone.
Click the jump to read the full interview.
Max Jones: The album, For Adam, drops tomorrow, so I was hoping you could speak on the concept behind it? What is it about Adam Walsh that inspired you?
Illus: Well to really understand it I think you really have to be like, the same age. I’m 37 now, and at the time that it happened, I was pretty much the same exact age as Adam, so I was seven, he was a little over six. So it was one of the first times I can remember watching the news and actually being aware of what was going on. Up until then, I kind of just watched cartoons, and then you see this news program saying that this little kid has just been killed. And I just had happened to be in Florida at the time on vacation with my family, and the photo that they showed was an image from his little league.
It was the kind of thing where if you were a seven-year-old kid at the time you would have connected with it, you probably would have had the same pose. We had similar names, he’s Adam Walsh, my name’s Adam Wallenta. So I guess it was one of the first times I could remember being aware of what was going on outside of my own little universe. It was a scary time. There was like this heightened paranoia all around.
It kind of touched me at that point, but it’s something you don’t think about all the time, then as you get older you start to become more aware of these things, and I’m actually about to become a dad and it’s still relevant today. And after all these years these things still continue to happen. So it wasn’t just like I was dedicating it to Adam Walsh, but to all children who have been taken from us way too young from truly evil monsters who have no regard for humanity. So his father, John Walsh, has done plenty to keep his spirit alive but I wanted to do my part by making an album that brought a different topic and subject to music.
I think of your music as very positive, with songs like “Brighter Day”, but this is definitely an album with really dark subject matter. Can you talk about how you keep that positivity alive on the record?
I like to think the whole album is kind of positive, even though the subject matter can be a little dark because of the tragedy of what happened to Adam and other children. Like in the song “Better”, I talk about this story I read about a little girl who was kidnapped, I believe at 11, and she was brutally raped, and had this horrible horrible childhood experience, but she was rescued, she was able to get her life back, have her family, so even though we live in at times a very dark world, I wanted to show that things can get better, not to be cliched, but you can have a brighter day. Adam unfortunately didn’t get to have a brighter day, his life was taken from him, but this is really a celebration that also makes people aware that, you really didn’t have it so bad.
Some people did. There’s another guy in the “Better” story who spent 35 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but when I saw that news story as he walked out of the courthouse, he had a huge smile on his face. When they asked him if he was bitter or angry, he said, “no”, he just wanted to see his mother, and have like, a grape soda. He had such a positive attitude, and it was almost like “how dare he”, if it was me I would want to kill people, being caged for 35 years, knowing you’re innocent and nobody believes you. To me that’s inspiring, to take this horrible dark tragedy and turn it into something inspiring and positive. It’s really a celebration of people like that, who can stay focused and keep a positive attitude.
Speaking of “Brighter Day”, I love that moment in the video where Reef [the Lost Cause] is rapping to his kid. That’s beautiful to me.
I really try to, in any of my videos, give different imagery, even if you go back to the song, “Beautiful Day”, my wife is in that and we’re just enjoying a day together shooting this video. And you know, you get comments from people, like, “oh, that’s corny,” but you know what, I’m just trying to be honest and to me that’s what hip-hop is supposed to be. And you can tell stories about being hardcore, tell gangster stories, and you know Kool G Rap is an amazing rap storyteller. But you have to be honest about it, and I’m just being me. Some people might not like that, or Reef bringing out his son, just as a proud dad he wanted to show that off in the video. He has that forever, his son can always go back and watch that.
Your background is in the visual arts, so how does that affect your music, whether it affects the creative process or the way you tell stories visually in your songs?
I’m trained as an illustrator. I went to school for it, it’s what I do professionally, besides MCing. I draw comics, illustrate for novels, album artwork. IBeing an artist I think I any of us, and I think as an MC we try to put those images into words. I never considered myself an amazing storyteller, but it’s something I’m definitely working on, and I think as an illustrator, I can draw what’s important, and sift through everything, a whole chapter full of words to find what really matters, and when you’re writing a song you only have so many words to illustrate an idea to really connect with people. In that sense it’s really similar. I definitely always try to improve on my storytelling and the visuals of the song. Just like with artwork, you’ve got to practice.
On the subject of artwork, can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind the For Adam album cover?
It’s not [the softball photo of Adam Walsh] exactly, it’s a young boy, obviously baseball hat, baseball glove on the ground. I picked the colors for the sky, it’s a “Red Dawn” which is a song on the album. It’s just him looking out, onto the horizon. I wanted it to be a very reflective album cover, and have people take away from it whatever they want to. I didn’t want to be too obvious, too descriptive or put too much in it, but I think it captures the feel of the album.
My album covers, I’ve found, are the hardest to do, because, you know, my name is Illus as in illustrator [laughing]. I do a lot of artwork for people like Premier, and KRS, so when it comes down to my work, it’s like, what am I going to do? My most recent two albums, For Adam and Feel Good Music have very similar styles, but for everyone else I work in other styles. So like, it really just depends on the feel for the album. As far as inspiration goes, I look at everything. Once I sit down, and kind of attack it, it becomes organic and I try not to look at it in terms of styles, but instead what will communicate this message and bring this album to life.
There are a lot of great album covers out there, one of my favorites is Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. That was just such powerful imagery, you knew when you bought the album, you would be like “oh man, this is gonna be crazy”. That’s the kind of imagery that inspires me. I want people to see the artwork and think, “OK, what’s this about?” and then their imagination starts to run wild before they even open it up and put it in their iPod or CD player.
You’ve worked with Marvel Comics, so what is the relationship between hip-hop and the comic book world?
I think hip-hop and comic books are really similar to me, not just rappers taking the names of comic book characters. Comic books were an escape as a kid, and the heroes, especially in the Marvel Universe, were like these underground guys, hated by the mass-public and the government, but no matter what, no matter how much people hated or feared them, they always tried to do the right thing. Peter Parker, was always broke, the X-Men were always being hunted, but they sacrificed to do the right thing.
When I first started listening to hip-hop, Run-DMC, Kool Moe Dee, the Cold Crush Brothers, KRS-One, these guys had these alter egos and superhero personas, where you knew they were regular people, but when they were on a record or on stage they came off as these larger than life characters. And they were telling you stay in school, don’t do drugs, using big words like Mr. Fantastic that you had to go look up, and Chuck D was telling you about people like Malcolm X who you didn’t learn about in history class then. They were education you and fighting the powers that be, the evils in society. Back then they were fighting the drug dealers and the pimps, now they are the pimps and drug dealers.
So, on the Superhero theme, what would the origin story of Illus be? I guess, when you hear “Connecticut” you don’t really think “hip-hop haven”.
[Laughing] Well we do have a lot of talent here, a lot of great MCs and producers.
I was very much like a lot of kids in the comics, scrawny little kid who had something inside him that had a voice and had to always write and draw, that was like my superpower. Especially with other kids, they would see you could draw and ask you to draw them something, and that’s how you would become part of a crew and make friends, and if it wasn’t for my little power who knows what I would’ve turned into. I started rhyming when I first heard Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded, way back in the day, writing for myself. I had written a little before that, but that was the record that made me realize, you can’t just be like “I’m cool, and stay in school”, it has to be more meaningful, and deeper. So I started thinking about things that were affecting the world and how I can incorporate that into a song and connect with other people, how I was feeling about those issues.
Around 1991 I went into the studio for the first time, I’d saved up my money, paid for it all myself, busted my butt, I think we were paying $30 an hour. I had a friend who knew someone who had an old MPC, and helped put together a beat idea I had, and we put together this horrible song. I would always see these ads for these companies that would press tapes and vinyl, and I was pretty inspired by Too $hort, who would always brag about how he made his own tapes and did it on his own, and I was like, I can do this. So late ’91-early ’92 I pressed my own tape, and went store-to-store selling it out of my car, go to the beach selling stuff. It was a horrible song, but it was really a learning experience.
I was very lucky to be kind of naive as a kid, to think that you could actually do what you dream about. Like, “oh I want to be an artist” and then boom! I’m an artist. I want to be a rapper, that’s my dream, so then I’m a rapper. It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about that, especially when you get to a certain age and you have children, and you think that you’re going to live out these childhood fantasies, it’s pretty ridiculous and yet incredible at the same time. To maintain that level of inspiration is very difficult.
So I was reading you’ve got two more albums on the way already?
I have another album, not titled yet, I have some ideas that I haven’t revealed yet. I don’t know if it’s going to be an EP or a full album, but it’ll be produced by MCs. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate to make a lot of great connections and work with a lot of talented people, and a lot of the other rappers that I know are also super talented producers, so the idea came to me to have them featured on the song and also produce it. So we’ll have Ill Bill, Apathy, J-Live, Freddie Foxxx, Blueprint, and there’s a few others, it just depends a people’s schedules, and once the baby comes how much work I can put in. But hopefully by later this week I’ll be releasing a special thank you for everybody who has supported the last two albums, DJ Johnny Juice from Public Enemy has completely remixed Feel Good Music. It sounds incredible. I liked the first one obviously, it’s no disrespect to JJ [Brown, the producer of the original album], but we just wanted to do something fun and different and give that whole album a different vibe. That’ll actually be a free album. After that we’re supposed to be working on an original album together, we’ll see how that goes.
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