Practically every underground rapper in Houston dreams of one day hearing his or her tunes broadcast by a nationwide radio station. Not a whole lot of them set their sights on the AM dial, though. Credit Guilla, then, for thinking outside the box.
National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk concert series, the popular online program of live performances recorded at the desk of “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen, has helped introduce dozens of artists, from T-Pain to Drive-By Truckers, to a public-radio audience of polite chin-scratchers since 2008. Now, Tiny Desk is holding open auditions for unsigned musicians, with one winner receiving his or her own Tiny Desk concert at NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.
It’s an opportunity that strikes just the right balance of intriguing and impossible necessary to spark Guilla’s imagination. He knew right away which song he’d be sending in: “Death of Tomoe,” his track from last year’s Children of the Sun album featuring Houston Grand Opera soprano Alicia Gianni.
“I got an email from [Suffers lead singer] Kam Franklin saying, ‘Hey Tim, you should apply for this,” says Guilla, who goes by his government name of Timothy Russell when teaching tennis lessons by day. “She said, ‘I think this is something you’d be interested in,’ and I thought, ‘You know what? Let’s do it. I’m going to try to see what I can do.’
“I’ve always liked obscurity and doing things that people wouldn’t expect, so I wanted to do the opera track,” he adds. “I thought it was something that would stand out in a field full of rappers.”
To help him create a compelling audition video, Guilla called up a few pals from the local music scene. The first person he contacted was Jonathan Chan, a fellow producer and the head engineer at SugarHill Studios, to lay down some violin. Gianni was quickly onboard as well, followed by BLSHS synthmeister Chris Gore and flutist Michelle Miears. GIO Chamba drummer Coffee Guzman would serve as the percussive glue.
Guilla’s Tiny Desk ensemble came together in downtown’s Digital Warehaus studios to perform and record the track with the kind of inspired instrumentation sure to appeal to the Hamilton set.
“It was really cool, because for the most part, it seems like the majority of people strip down whatever they’re doing for the Tiny Desk,” Guilla says. “I kind of did the opposite. Normally, I just rap with a DJ. So for this, I went and got some cool instruments together that created the pretty vibe that we were going for. Even if I don’t get selected, just auditioning for it is a big deal for me.”
“Death of Tomoe” will be hard for the series’ producers to ignore. For one thing, it’s just about the only rap song you’ve ever heard featuring a live opera singer. Guilla says he’d always dreamed of working with a legit diva since watching the multi-octave “alien opera” scene from The Fifth Element. For a lifelong sci-fi freak like Guilla, his inspiration for “Death of Tomoe” gets even geekier from there.
“I’m a huge anime nerd,” the rapper says. “I just like anything anime, sci-fi, all that type of stuff. When I was a kid, I watched this anime called Samurai X. In the anime, the main character accidentally, in his blindness of being the ultimate assassin, kills his own wife with a samurai sword through her back: She threw herself in the way to save him from being killed by her father. The final scene is her lying in his arms, bleeding out and dying.
“That always struck me,” he continues. “Imagine killing the person that you love the most, having them die in your arms, and then living the rest of your life like that. The song isn’t about me killing some girl I love, but it is inspired by the feelings that you’d be going through in that moment. It would be just a clusterfuck of emotions: sadness, anger, rage, confusion, psychosis, all in one.”
Lyrically, “Death of Tomoe” is pretty heavy. As captured days ago at Digital Warhaus, though, it’s a very pretty emotional maelstrom — one backed by impressive talent from all involved. For Guilla, it was a beautiful way to start off a new year after a turbulent 2016. His Rap, Trap & Drums – Vol. 2 mixtape, released on Thanksgiving, was anything but pretty, and the holiday-obsessed producer says he’s got a hell of a breakup album that he’s eyeing for a Valentine’s Day release. Guilla says it will feature no rapping, but vocal contributions from various local singers he’s worked with.
“There’s really no happy music on it,” he says, laughing a little. “I’m not going to say I’m switching my sound up or anything, but recently I’ve been making a lot of depressed, depressing music — but it feels good! I hate to throw that out there and sound like that guy, but it seemed like there was something going around in 2016 where everybody was just in this sickness. I was feeling it really bad. 2016 was probably the hardest year of my life, emotionally and spiritually.”
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Now, mercifully, the calendar has turned. Guilla was certainly in good spirits that day surrounded by terrific performers at Digital Warhaus, and he expects that mood to continue.
“2017 is looking a lot better,” he says. “I think it’s looking good for the Houston music scene in general. I think after the Super Bowl, you’re going to see a lot of people escalate to the next level. I’m looking at GIO Chamba, I’m looking at iLL Faded and I’m looking at a lot of people like that.
“2016 was like the year of shedding off the crap — the darkness before the light,” Guilla adds. “2017, I think, is when people are going to be able to reap their spoils.”
Guilla performs tonight at the Nightingale Room with iLL Faded. No cover. Doors open at 7 p.m.