By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 29, 2017 at 8:56 AM

When you name yourself after one of the finest artists in human history AND put the word "great" in your moniker, you're bound to set yourself up for some high expectations. And that's what Milwaukee hip-hop producer/performer Vincent VanGREAT had going into his solo debut, "UnGREATful" – expectations that only increased after personal and professional reasons pushed its original 2015 release back a year. 

When the album dropped last June, however, the wait was clearly worth it, with 15 tracks vigorously and inventively bouncing from angry anthems about police violence and the state of politics to party anthems to dabbling in smooth pop and R&B to a track about Pacers great Reggie Miller. The results found their way onto several local best-of lists, while VanGREAT found himself on more and bigger stages – including one with comedian Eric Andre (though considering the comic's famed manic randomness, maybe that was more a risk than reward of the album). 

His next stage will be at The Jazz Gallery, performing with his band Ninja Sauce at 8 p.m. Saturday night as a part of Arte Para Todos. Before then, however, we chatted with the Milwaukee rapper about looking back at his last album, looking ahead to what's next, his night with Eric Andre and more.

OnMilwaukee: Going back to your last album, looking back now, what was the process like there?

Vincent VanGREAT: Well, I learned so much producing that album, coming up with different sounds and working with different artists. And that opens you up to different sounds and trying to connect with them in some way, but still keeping my own. The production on that album was different because a lot of it had live instrumentation.

I called on a lot of musicians, "Hey, maybe throw a guitar lick on this beat I just made; I can hear this guitar lick," or "I can hear these keys," or calling my drummer saying, "Hey man, want to put some chops on top of this beat?" It was really being a producer, not just sitting on a keyboard making beats. It was really producing records and getting live instrumentation and trying to come up with a sound that fit me and displayed what’s up here (points to head).

I read a Milwaukee Record interview where you said you wanted to show the full array of what you could do as a producer – a little pop, a little rap, crossing over all sorts of genres. A year away from the album, are you gravitating toward any genre or area?

Well, I want to open up the vocals a little more. I wanna do more singing and stuff, but that’s down the line. I’m working on a new project with Dana Coppa, all the great VanGREAT beats with me and Coppa. It’s gonna be real interesting. That’s the next project. With Coppa’s history and my history and us both being with Uni-Fi (Records), that’s going to be more of a hip-hop project. But after that, you’re gonna hear a lot of singing and a lot of poppy, R&B-type tunes from me.

Any inspirations down that path?

Pharrell Williams and Justin Timberlake. Those are my two favorite artists, so it’s a pretty good balance. Pharrell pretty much does everything, from the production to the rapping to the singing, and Justin Timberlake … is Justin Timberlake.

On Inauguration Day, you released your visual for your song "Radical." Obviously, it’s a very political song with a very political video. What was the reaction like for that?

It was a lot of mixed responses. On my Vincent VanGREAT music page, one comment on the video was, "You and your stupid f*cking hate messages." Some guy I didn’t even know, "This song sucks, your stupid hate messages." Then the next comment was, "This is very powerful; keep it moving." This came from all different ethnicities, all different people, all different walks of Earth.

One comment – this is a funny story – a lady commented, "Oh, you’re talking sh*t about Trump, but if you can deal with Obummer for eight years, you can handle a little Trump." And I’m like, ma’am, you totally made this about Obama and Trump; you totally disregarded the message of the video. If you think anything Obama did was worse than what you see these cops doing in this visual, then you’re missing the point. It wasn’t a race thing; it wasn’t a point the finger thing. This is actually going on.

On my part, I think I released my message the right way. That’s how I feel.

Do you feel comfortable being more political or less political nowadays?

I’m not going to dwell on it. I gave you my stance on it, so I’m not going to keep hitting you upside the head with it, right back to it again. You know my stance on it; now let’s enjoy the music (laughs).

So it’s awesome that you met Eric Andre. How’d that come together?

Well, we knew he was doing his tour, and he was coming around the Midwest. Mythicist Milwaukee, a group from here, they were basically VIP action for Eric Andre; they were in communication with his tour manager, and they’d traveled with him before. They basically hit (local rap promoter) Dima (Pochtarev) up, like, "Hey, they’re looking for some talent for this show; any suggestions?" So we sent them my stuff – and they said they received stuff from other artists from the city – and the tour manager said Eric picked me. But they wouldn’t give me any information on the show. No information. They wouldn’t tell me what he would ask. They wouldn’t tell me anything. Just go up there, man (laughs).

It was wild. He’s squirting ranch at people. Crowd-surfing. Super Soaker water guns. Asking me crazy questions, totally left field. I don’t even want to say the questions he was asking (laughs).

So after the show, I’m backstage, and I hear somebody stumbling down the stairs. It’s Eric, busting in my dressing room, ass naked, trying to give me a hug. Like, "Vince, you did a great job! You did an awesome job!" I’m like no, man. Hit the showers, bro, then we can talk (laughs). But he was super cool. He cut a promo for my album, took pictures with me. He even liked my "Radical" video on Twitter. I got a like from him!

Was there a teacher or a class or art education program that inspired you to follow music, follow the arts?

My family is just music. My grandmother, my uncles, my aunts – they sing, they play instruments. So growing up, I just always cared about it. I don’t know what I would be doing if that wasn’t my upbringing, so any art program or any school that teaches art, that’s kind of close to home. Because I wouldn’t be me without this platform and without that. And my band, most of those guys went to High School of the Arts, so where would they be without art programs in their school. So it’s really important for me to give back to the community in this way.

Vincent VanGREAT will perform on Saturday, April 29, at 8 p.m. at The Jazz Gallery, 926 E. Center St. For more information on other Arte Para Todos acts and ticket, visit the festival's website

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.