Not many musicians can boast of having their first gig at a strip club. But the Houston-based rapper/producer known as Guilla effusively recalls his virginal voyage as a performer.
“My first show was at a strip bar in 2010 or 2011. There was one stripper there.” he muses. “My friend Kenno went onstage before me, and then it was my turn. I was shaking and there were only two people in the crowd. I went on stage and I did it.”
I sat across from Guilla on a Saturday afternoon at Mercantile in Montrose to discuss his sudden successful emergence in Houston’s hip-hop scene. Low-key and soft-spoken, yet focused and determined, the deeply perceptive and shrewd producer and dynamic performer elucidated on his approach to writing, producing and executing his dream of becoming a full-time musician.
“I met a guy named Witty Gritty, and we came out with a mixtape that I produced called FYI, Volume One," he recalls. "We followed that up with an album called Supernovas, which we didn’t release because we weren’t happy with the quality behind the music.”
At this point, during his residency at UH, a monumental moment occurred in his life. Guilla took a leap of faith and dropped out of college, forgoing his senior year. School no longer provided any intrinsic motivation. Thus, he and Witty Gritty parted ways, one pursuing his education while the other decided to pursue his dream.
"I was majoring in Psychology and I knew I wanted to pursue music," says Guilla, 27. "I knew what I wanted meant to do in my heart, so the degree is just a piece of paper to me at this point.”
Hip-hop has created memorable punchlines since its infancy. Kanye West, for instance, extols his ride on “Last Call”: “Mayonnaise-colored Benz/ I push Miracle Whips.” Cam’ron, the veritable king of rap punchlines, provides his rivals with some sound counsel on “Come Home with Me”: “I’d advise you to step, son/ Before I fuck your moms, make you my stepson.” Guilla likewise prides himself on his own gift for wordplay, snatching every verse and at no point in any of his tracks wasting a single word.
On Rap, Trap and Drums, Guilla’s second and strongest record, he generates countless pop-culture references that underscore his limitless punchlines — opening track "Pinkman" goes from Game of Thrones (“More money than a Lannister”), Old Spice commercials (“You are Old Spice like Terry Crews”) and Breaking Bad ("I got more metals than Walter White”) all before the end of the song’s first verse.
His lyrical skills, by his own measure, are not God-given. The result of his lyrical style and sound stemmed from countless hours of listening to a wide array of music, far from the myopic stereotype that plague many rappers today — that they only listen to hip-hop music. In fact, Guilla prides himself on being raised on Kansas, Styx, System of a Down, and a formidable musical influence that remains prevalent throughout Rap, Trap, and Drums: House.
“When I was growing up, my dad used to DJ," he days. "Except that he wasn’t DJing hip-hop music, but House, so that had a huge influence on me when I was younger.”
Considering those musical roots, the likelihood of Guilla becoming who he is today cannot be divorced from his exposure to an eclectic mix of music. Moreover, until the late 2000s, he rarely flirted with the thought of being an MC.
“I used to be the designated beatboxer in high school when people wanted to rap,” Guilla explains. “A friend of mine said, ‘Yo, you should start creating your own beats. When I moved to Houston [from Wichita Falls], I was bored, so I started producing on FL Studios. No one wanted to rap over my beats, so I decided to do it myself. From there I started writing and writing, and I started dreaming about having my own album. I would take my beats and put them in the order of how I would want to hear and perform them.”
Following the feat of rocking a strip club, he still found it difficult to get shows. It wasn’t until he met his manager and entrepreneur of Cloudopolis Entertainment, Blake Hunter, that things began to take a turn for the better.
“When I finished my self-titled debut album, I felt inclined to start pushing it. I was still getting crappy gigs," the rapper says. "Then I met Josh Letke, who was a DJ in the Houston music scene. Because he was real connected, he eventually led me to meet the guys [in the Houston collective] Printz, not Prince. All of this happened very quickly. Within a year, I went from nobody knowing me to being booked for festivals and getting booked for larger acts in larger venues.”
In May 2013, Guilla opened for hip-hop savant Riff Raff. Since then, his career took off, and his momentum continues its ascent. Focused on composing solid verses over catchy hooks, Guilla’s approach to songwriting relies on his environment. Having lived in Japan, England, California, Virginia and North Carolina, his best ideas come from being connected to the context of his present situation. He’s penned verses while teaching driver’s ed, sitting at bus stations, and laboring through long-winded biology lectures.
“There’s a song called ‘Shooting Stars’ off of my first album, Guilla, and in the verse I write, ‘I’m loving you from your atoms to your cells/Your organelles/To your molecules/ Damn, I’m in love with you.’ That came straight from all this stuff the professor had written on the board."
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Ultimately, the importance of his verses create the dynamic atmosphere of his performances. “More important than anything past the verses is the performance," he says. "I love to perform.”
On the way to the interview, Guilla says he finished listening to System of the Down’s “Spiders” and thought, “If I could sing like that guy [Serj Tankian], I would cover this song at one of my shows. When I hear songs, I often imagine how the performances are going to be. When you think about it, the verses are the majority of the song. When I am onstage, people have a tendency to vibe throughout the whole track because they’re connecting with what I am saying. It transfers to other people. They think to themselves, ‘Man, this guy really likes his own music.’”
To hear Guilla is to see him perform; the concept remains inseparable. He, like many great performers, goes out of his way to diminish the fourth wall between him and his audience. Because of his undeniable enthusiasm for his music and his audience, his eventual preeminence in Houston’s legendary hip-hop scene will not be contained.
Guilla performs 12:50 p.m. Sunday on Free Press Summer Fest's Venus Stage. More info at fpsf.com.