Rapper Milo brings his music - and his hopes - back to Milwaukee
Rory Ferreira, aka Milo, has always been on the move. When he was a kid, he moved a lot between the Midwest and the East Coast before landing in Wisconsin for an extended time. Here, he moved up in the local rap scene, delivering a spoken word-like hip-hop flurry, discussing death and race with references and influences ranging equal parts philosophy and Pokemon.
With his name growing clout, he moved yet again – as many hopeful young artists do – to Los Angeles. Things were promising. He signed to a label. He released some music to warm critical and cultural receptions. He received a write-up in L.A. Weekly with a headline claiming him "ready to take over the art rap scene."
It wasn't to be just yet, however. Also like many hopeful young artists, he soon found the cold, cutthroat part of the industry. It became time to move again, back to the town he previously left: Milwaukee. And so far, Ferreira's picking up right where he started, working on multiple projects under his Milo and Scallops Hotel names and performing at Arte Para Todos Sunday, March 1 at Hotel Foster at 11 p.m. Before then, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with the young rapper, having an honest chat about race and rap in Milwaukee – and why he returns with plenty of hope for both.
OnMilwaukee.com: What got you interested in music?
Rory Ferreira: My life is kind of bizarre in that I went to a lot of schools when I was growing up. I went to like 13 schools by the time I graduated high school. My dad just moved a lot, so I was born in Chicago, lived in Chicago, and then Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, all these places.
In a lot of places – more rural ones – I might have been the only kid of color in the class, so rap was a way for me to connect and feel like I was a part of the culture at large. Maybe one that wasn't present where I was, but one that was present nationally that influenced trends and fashion and music. I really just wanted to be a part of something, and it seemed like rap was the easiest way to do that.
Probably when I was 12 or 11 – somewhere in there – I started writing raps, and I started taking it really seriously after my friend Rob drowned. I made my first mixtape and named it "I Wish My Brother Rob Was Here." So my first thing was really a tribute to my friend.
OMC: Who were some of the rappers and musicians who inspired your early raps and early sound?
RF: Guys like Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle and early Kanye West. Being from Chicago and seeing a guy rap in pink polo shirts. Early Kanye, when it was like nobody was doing that. No afraid to be the college dropout, kind of this bookish character. I really identified with that because my family is sort of large, and I'm definitely related to people who grew up on the streets and stuff, but that was never my thing. And I felt like Kanye was kind of in that same place of like, I'm just a smart kid who's kind of around it, but also serious about studying.
OMC: What were your feelings about the Grammys situation with Beck?
RF: I'm a fan of Kanye; I'm a fan of Beck. And it's my understanding is that Beck wasn't even insulted, so to me then, what is even the conversation then?
It's an interesting place, and I think people interpret Kanye's remark in a micro way. They think, "God, why is he attacking Beck?" It's like, he's not attacking Beck; he's attacking this infrastructure that only ever seems to laud white artists. And that's extremely frustrating. Kanye is someone who's gone from making beats on the South Side of Chicago to owning his own clothing line with Adidas, and he still feels that ceiling. So when I saw that, I just saw a frustrated artist, and I empathized. And I think that Beck also empathizes with that because he's an artist. So I wasn't offended.
OMC: How do you feel about the rap scene in Milwaukee right now?
RF: I'm interested. When I was 19, I released a project with a group called Nom de Rap, and we got a little nomination at 88Nine or something, and we showed up. I remember being dressed in a Velour suit, and I had on loafers with these teardrops embroidered on them, before Gucci loafers were even cool. And they turned us away at the door. They wouldn't let us in, and it broke my heart. I thought this will never be a city that I can rap in, will it? Like, they just disrespect me like this so openly. So, from that point on, I wanted to move to, like, an L.A. or something, and I wanted to make music on a bigger scale that I thought people would receive me better.
Then I did that, and I found it to be very cutthroat and ruthless out there. I found it to be an industry that was concerned with the business of art, but maybe less about the art itself, and that frustrated me immensely too. I don't know; I'm so hopeful about Milwaukee, man, so I moved back here.
Something I noticed – regardless of whether or not some radio station likes me – was that, in Milwaukee, the artists are extremely genuine, and they are coming from a place of really wanting to help each other out. And I admire that so much. So I moved back. I want to be a part of that. I feel so hopeful. Everyone right now in the Milwaukee rap scene is inspiring and talented, people like WebsterX and Lex Allen, Bliss & Alice, WC Tank. There's really something here. I felt like I worked hard to make a name for myself here, and then I left. And that seems stupid. So yeah, I feel good about it. Good enough to move back.
OMC: Take me through your experience in L.A.
RF: I signed to a label based out in L.A., Hellfyre Club. I signed to them a couple of years ago when I was in college in Green Bay, and everything was great. I put out my first double EP with them, and they flew me out to L.A. and put me on tour and sent me to SXSW and I was getting checks. I was at a place where I could say, "Mom and Dad, send no more money. I got this from here. The raps … are paying."
It was great, so I left school and went out to L.A. And in L.A., I got depressed, and the whole thing kind of unraveled. I put out my first LP in September, and I still haven't been paid for that to this day. I started to experience the industry. People who I thought were my pals or nice or kind, suddenly it went straight to voicemail. Suddenly, they don't answer tweets. Suddenly, the emails bounce back. Classic stuff. CLASSIC stuff. It's such an embarrassing classic trope of my genre, almost now inextricably linked to black business. It's just like how is this still happening.
I'll always love Hellfyre Club, but it was time to leave L.A. And I felt like Milwaukee's scene was at a really fly place where it wasn't when I was first trying to do my thing. Because I rap weird, man. I rap like a weirdo. It wasn't there, but now it is. And now I want to take my clout and my name, and add to the scene in whatever way I can.
OMC: How is it being a rapper in a city with such notorious racial and segregation issues?
RF: To me, it's interesting because the Midwest is classically a white rap zone, because of Minneapolis and even Detroit and Ohio. The best received, most famous rappers from here have traditionally been white, so there's definitely that tension of how do we make our own sound in the wake of those kind of giants.
But I don't feel any tension between white rappers and black rappers. None at all, actually. If anything, the white guys I know who rap go out of their way if they notice an inequality. In earnest, they want to help if they notice something going on like that.
OMC: Do you think the race issue in Milwaukee – and even the world – will improve?
RF: Absolutely. I'm very hopeful. I hope that my hopefulness isn't confused for a naivety for how I live my life. I won't go on tour without at least one white guy who can drive the car; that's just real life. I've been on tours where we've been pulled over every single day of the week when a black guy drives. What do you do when you have to go through the South on tour, you know? I've lived the inequalities, but I'm hopeful. Hell yeah, I'm hopeful. My generation – our generation – seems pretty earnest about fixing certain problems, especially racial ones.
My concern is that in our zest, in our hurry to fix things, we introduce broken philosophies and ideologies, like this concept of New Black or post-black. I just think that's a flawed way of thinking, and I worry that stuff like that will catch on in the scramble to find an answer for why we still have these tensions.
OMC: How do you see people react to your rap style?
RF: It depends. If they first hear it on a recording, they might not like it. And that's cool. But if they see it live, normally that's when people make sense of it. All my grandfathers were preachers, so I try to make it a spiritual moment – without evoking any kind of religion or anything. I just try to bare honesty. Let's take off this armor that we're all wearing, this armor that we're talking about when we talk about race relations or class or education. I'm trying to bear my f*cking soul.
When I left, I left kind of cocksure and a little bit arrogant, and I was amazed how many people forgot that – to my benefit. They didn't remember when I was this snide asshole kid who signed to some label in L.A. and thought he was cooler than everyone. I don't even deserve that, so I love being here.
OMC: How did you feel about your first LP musically?
RF: At the time, I was using phrases like "magnum opus." I really thought I was onto something. It's really literary, and at times, it's boring, and I have enough space from it now to say that. At times, it was literary to a fault. But I felt like I had a breakthrough on it musically.
I was working with this kid Seamus out of England; I got onto him when he was just a little sapling, and he was down to ride with me. I wanted to do all these poetic interludes and a song that was eight minutes long that went through three mood shifts and all sorts of stuff like that. Musically, I was really confident, so with everything that happened with the label, it kind of stole my confidence in myself and the record. Subsequently, the record kind of died. I was doing anything; I was just kind of depressed.
OMC: How do you feel about this current project, Scallops Hotel?
RF: I feel great about it. Without saying too much, I have a new situation on the horizon that fills me with hope. Scallops Hotel is just about agency; I make all the beats, record it all myself, mix it myself, everything. I found hope in that project. After the Milo thing happened and when you feel like people in the whole infrastructure aren't on your team, it robs you of a feeling. Scallops Hotel made me feel like I don't need anyone.
OMC: Is that still a Milo project?
RF: Technically, I put it out under the Scallops Hotel name, so it's not quite canonical. It's a different mythos. It's a different universe. It sounds different; I rap different. But they need each other; I need both of them. A Milo record needs the off period that a Scallops Hotel project presents. And that's something I'm learning about my own process.
OMC: Are you going to hop back into Milo now?
RF: Oh yeah. Before I left L.A., I finished a whole Milo album that's about 12 songs. I didn't want to put it out until I knew what was going on with Hellfyre and all these open questions still lingering out in L.A. In the interim, Scallops Hotel has a sort of working class, DIY aesthetic that I think fits in perfectly with what's going on with the Milwaukee rap scene.
OMC: You're performing at Arte Para Todos this weekend. What about this project really spoke to you?
RF: Without saying too much, it makes me so hopeful. It blows me away, a project on this scale. That makes me feel like skipping. So of course I want to be a part of that. This to me was, like, wow, instead of complaining about who wasn't writing a thinkpiece, how do we influence the education of young people and art – which traditionally has broken down so may barriers? It just seems like such a hands-on hopeful thing. It inspires me immensely.
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