Gorilla Warfare Tactics member Dilla, a native St. Louisan, had been a hip-hop enthusiast since grade school. But after he relocated to New York and began making music with his NYU roommates, hip-hop nation started to become just as enthusiastic about him. With tens of thousands of downloads and a No. 1 single on Hype Machine already under their belts, Gorilla Warfare Tactics released its new album, Zoology, just before graduation. We spoke to Dilla about growing up in St. Louis, making the transition into the New York hip-hop scene and balancing schoolwork with a certified Internet smash.
Do you recall your first exposure to hip-hop?
The way I got into hip-hop was this transition between super-pop music and going from a Catholic school to a smaller private school in fourth grade. That was the summer that St. Louis was the center of the hip-hop universe, when Nelly had just dropped Country Grammar. I had never listened to any hip-hop before, and that was my first exposure to it. Since then, it's been all hip-hop. On a personal level, I never had a chance to see much of the St. Louis hip-hop scene because I wasn't able to get involved until I got to college. The only show I went to in high school was Lollapalooza. Since I've been at NYU, it's been a lot more of taking in the whole culture, seeing the downtown, seeing the hip-hop scene and the people involved in it. I haven't really met too many St. Louis artists at this point, but it's something I'm really interested in doing while I'm back here to connect with some people.
How did Gorilla Warfare Tactics come together?
Through high school I did a lot of spoken word, and that evolved into freestyling. When I got to NYU, I ended up rooming with these two kids, who eventually became [GWT's] production team, 1984. We'd go walk down the street, they would beatbox, and I'd freestyle all through the night. It's a fun party trick. After a while, it became something we became a little more known for in the NYU community. So, we said, we're all really tight friends, let's make a project out of this and make a song or two. Worst case, we release it to our boys and can bump it during pregames.
They took a summer off and picked up production in one summer. I took some time learning how to write actual conceptual verses. We got back to school the summer after freshman year and made the track "Temptations," which we released to our favorite blog at the time and, when they posted it, we were freaking the shit out. That spread across the internet, and by the end of it we were No. 1 on Hype Machine, which was big for us to get love from other blogs and from industry as well. We were reached out to perform shows and, by the end of it, got posted by over 200 unique blogs. We developed a name in the Greenwich Village area and decided, since we were making a name for ourselves, to put out a project. Two months later we banged out a mixtape called Premier, which got 30,000 downloads. We took a little break after that to figure our own stuff out, and then we released Zoology a few weeks back.
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Was it ever an issue balancing school with these projects?
One of us was a primarily math major, one was focusing on econ, and I was doing finance and creative writing. If you take on a project as big as being in a hip-hop group and really trying to push yourself as an artist, I think you're obviously going to run into problems with school and stuff. But, if you're passionate enough about something, it doesn't feel like a sacrifice. I remember, the last weeks before we dropped Premier, it was right around midterms, and we had three songs we had yet to finish before our deadline. When that happens, you study for your midterms until 8 or 9 p.m., go to the studio, get back around 3 a.m., study a bit more and roll into your midterm at 9 or 10 a.m. It makes no sense not to give 100 percent to both. For us, it was never a stressful thing, but it took up a lot of time in both respects.
Did you feel within the NYU community people were checking for your music?
Yeah, I think that's where we felt it most, to be honest. We're fortunate enough to have fans in a bunch of different countries around the world, but you really feel it when you're at NYU with people stopping you on the street saying, "Your project is dope." Or people saying, "Yo, my friend from NYU showed me your stuff."
What made you decide to use the name "Dilla"?
My last name is Kanakadandila. So before I ever got into hip-hop, "Dilla" as my moniker preceded all that. Once I began gravitating toward the hip-hop scene, there's been people who really don't mind and people who've felt very strongly about it. They see it as heretical to call yourself "Dilla" in hip-hop. For me, it's never about that. I have the utmost respect for Jay Dilla and the part of hip-hop he's representing. I'm not using his name to troll the Internet for views. It's not a publicity stunt. It's a name I identify with as an artist and something that fits me as an artist which I feel very connected to.
You also gave the commencement speech at NYU's Stern School of Business' graduation last week. How does speaking to a crowd like that compare to rapping onstage?
The feedback I've gotten is pretty positive. It was actually one of the cooler experiences that I've had. I was onstage in the center of Radio City Music Hall in front of 5,000 different people giving the last address before they called out names. It's an experience I'm very lucky to have. It's a similar experience [to rapping]. You're going to be stressing out regardless. The way I distinguish the two is that if you're rapping in front of people who don't know who you are, right off the bat you're trying to impress them. But when you're in front of people that you know who support you, it's a dope experience. You feel like you're in a position of power with everyone listening to you and not pointing out things that they can judge you on. I felt really comfortable.
Zoology is available for free download here.