After five years former Non-Phixion member Ill Bill has finally released his latest solo album, The Grimey Awards. The record looks to continue his gritty New York boom-bap vision that help defined the city’s alternative rap underground in the late ’90s. We spoke to Bill about the people in his life who shaped the album, the difference recording solo makes, and even Zubaz.
Where does the title The Grimey Awards come from?
The title is, obviously, a play on the Grammys. It’s kind of like my own Grammys, but it’s more than just music. The album itself has a concept, it’s a collection of songs that are like a tribute to the most important influences and experiences of my life up to now. Each song has a different meaning that connects to that concept, [it’s] like my own personal award show through song.
Recently you dropped the Pete Rock-produced “Truth,” where you flip a style you haven’t really used since the mid 2000s. Was that a deliberate choice?
Not really, it wasn’t a conscious thing, but the beat itself gave me a Non-Phixion vibe. It reminded me of the joint we did with him for The Future is Now album. I choose my beats based on what inspires me to sit and write, and that one jumped out at me. It also, to me, has that classic Pete Rock sound. I felt I could identify it as a Pete Rock beat without knowing that Pete necessarily did it. It just screamed Pete Rock.
Speaking of producers, the record also features productions from Large Professor, DJ Premier, El-P, all with a very definitively New York sound. With you now residing in North Carolina, do you feel that’s altered your approach to writing to that sort of production?
Not really. I’m born in Queens, raised in Brooklyn. I’m a New York MC. Sonically, it’s a real boom-bap New York-sounding album. Nowadays, a lot of newer artists coming out of New York aren’t as New York-centric as some of the older cats like me. I stuck with the sound I came up on, some hard beats, grimey samples. I don’t think it’s any different from what I do. Even the West Coast producers I rock with, like DJ Lethal, got that kind of New York sound anyway.
What’s the story behind the album’s cover?
It’s actually me, when I was a month old, with my grandmother and my uncle, who I have a song about on the record called “When I Die.” That’s the oldest picture I have of me and them. That’s actually the only picture I have of me and both of them together. It just felt right for this album. I just wanted to see that picture on a 12 inch album cover.
You mentioned about a year ago that your favorite verse you’ve ever written is on this new album. Which verse is that?
“When I Die” is probably what I was talking about.
You were a part of Non-Phixion, you’re currently a part of La Coka Nostra, you’ve done duet albums with Vinnie Paz and an upcoming one with Sean Price. Is your writing process different working on a solo album than a collaborative project?
Yeah, I think on group projects a lot of times you’ll be in a room with people and it’s not as conceptual. It’s like back-in-the-day radio show/standing on the street corner cypher. Albums like that La Coka record will have a few concept records, but it’s easier to settle on a topic and go in on it on a solo record. I’m a fan of just spittin’ and saying fly shit, but I think albums give me a chance to write complete stories. As, for me, doing these collabo-albums keeps it fresh. It cleans the pallid, but the solo records are a lot more personal.
The album’s being released on FatBeats Records, whose retail store you worked at back in the late-90s. Do you have any stand-out memories of your time there?
There was a bunch of crazy moments. A day in the life working at FatBeats was like, opening the store and Q-Tip comes in and buys a bunch of records for a party he’s DJing. Two hours later, Master P and his crew come in and buy out the store of one or two of everything and spend ten grand. And then Funkmaster Flex would come in and buy a bunch of stuff. It was like a mecca for the hip-hop community. A highpoint for me was the Gang Starr instore in ’97. There was a line around the store, and that was one of my favorite groups of all time. Best job I ever had.
You released your last album The Hour of Reprisal on FatBeats in 2008, after mid-2000s reports that you had signed to Warner Bros. and Strange Music. What was the story behind not staying with Warner or Strange at that time?
Well, those were two separate things. Originally, the record was recorded for Warner, but they were owned by, I think AOL at the time, and they took Warner and sold it. 500 people got fired, and one of those people was my A&R. I had a clause in my contract was that if he goes, I get to leave and keep my record. Part of the reason that was in my contract was because, when I did that deal in 2006, that was way late in my career and I had been through all the bullshit on major labels and I really didn’t want to do a deal. My boy who had a situation up there talked me into it. Up until that point, I had no complaints about Warner. They gave us a lot of money, 100% creative control and they were mad cool. The album that came out, was the exact album that was supposed to come out on Warner Bros. It just came out a year later than it was supposed to, and part of that reason was Strange was interested in putting it out. My homie at Warner had a relationship with them, and we sat down with them and started working out a deal, but we just couldn’t work it out. Those are still the homies, and Tech N9ne’s my boy, but we couldn’t come to a final agreement on it and ended up bringing the record to FatBeats. What’s crazy is that I was able to work out the deal so fast with FatBeats, that the album was only delayed two weeks.
One of your oldest songs in circulation is an early ’90s demo called “Peep the Zoobaz.” With the recent resurgence of Zubaz, is there any chance you might do a remake?
The company that makes the pants? [Laughs] I’ll tell you where that title came from. The reason we called that song “Peep the Zoobaz” was because that day, when we were recording at one of the homie’s house, his little brother, who might have been eight-or-nine years old, without saying anything opened the door when we got there and he was wearing those pants. One of us was like “Yo, ‘sup, peep the Zubaz!” We were crackin’ on the little homie, and ended up naming the song because of that.