A conversation with ILL DOOTS, Philly’s most idealistic hip-hop collective

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Ill Doots
Ill Doots | Photo courtesy of the artist

Philly hip-hop collective ILL DOOTS wants to start a movement. An ILL movement.

The ILL is an acronym, and according to Anthony “Phantom” Martinez-Briggs – one of the group’s emcees – it has three different meanings: “I love living,” “I love learning,” and “I love lessons.”

“We feel as though we can’t help but be creating this often, really having interactions with people that honor what their natural impulses are in life,” Phantom explains. “And it doesn’t just have to be art. We don’t want to alienate a member of our audience who writes, plays basketball, or who wants to be a great mother. If that’s what makes you feel alive, if that’s what gives your life worth, that’s what our music is all about.”

ILL DOOTS first began in a stuffy dorm room at the University of the Arts with Jordan “Rodney” McCree and Scott “Sly Tompson” Ziegler jamming together and playing lots of J Dilla. Over time, the group slowly added more members – Sly Tompson discovered Phantom at a UArts open mic, Phantom brought along Kirschen “Tex” Wolford, and so the chain continued until the band reached its current tally of nine members.

The group is able to draw from a wide range of musical influences, thanks to the sheer number of personalities and brains involved in the project. Anybody with an idea can propose it to Ziegler, the group’s bandleader. Because of this, it’s tough to isolate one true “ILL DOOTS sound.” Phantom, for one, rejects the notion that there should be a unified ILL DOOTS sound. “We are just trying to cultivate the honest process of artistry,” he says. “That’s why we’re so accepting of every idea that comes to the table.”

If ILL DOOTS is diverse musically, their extra-musical activities are equally varied. All of the group’s members are teaching artists in one form or another, whether it be in theater, hip-hop, songwriting, or production.  Seven of the nine are also involved in the theatrical production of An Octoroon at the Wilma, which runs from March 16 to April 10.

ILL DOOTS became involved with An Octoroon through Joanna Settle, the play’s director and head of the theater program at UArts. While it may seem like a peculiar collaboration, both Tex and Phantom studied acting in college. After ILL DOOTS worked with Settle on a previous theater production, she became convinced of the group’s artistic prowess, telling them, “You guys need to be working artistically, not 9-5 jobs that have nothing to do with your craft.” She helped provide that artistic work, inviting them to collaborate with her once again on An Octoroon.

In preparation for the show, ILL DOOTS has been working around 30 hours a week. Not only are they composing original music for the play’s soundtrack, but they will be onstage, interacting with the actors for much of the play. “Some of the creating happens right on spot, alongside the actors,” Tex explains. “The process is very organic – it matches well with the way we work as a collective.”

Despite all of the group’s commitment with An Octoroon, ILL DOOTS is still managing to prepare for the release of their fifth or sixth album (there have been so many releases over the years, they’ve lost count). This record, however, is particularly special. It’s the first release where the band has tried to capture the energy of their live sound in the studio. “That’s really when you get the rawest version of what people would call our sound,” Rodney says.

In the meantime, ILL DOOTS is still releasing new music. Their Back2Back 3EATKRACK (pronounced “beatcrack”) project, a series of two track mini-EPs, is a perfect creative outlet for the group. “We compare it to a coal versus a diamond,” Phantom explains. “The coal being the raw form, the diamond being the refined. What we’re interested in is what’s in between, the pressure that creates that diamond, and takes that coal and changes it, and what lives there.”

One of the crucial ideas of 3EATKRACK is the concept of unity in seemingly disparate elements. Every release is made up of two songs, released on separate days. On the surface they seem distinct — the tracks even have different album art.

The group’s most recent release, the “Cars In The City” / “Tearing Me Apart” duo, is a case in point. “Tearing Me Apart” contains no rapping whatsoever, its introspective calm channeling the Gorillaz at their mellowest. On the other hand, “Cars In The City” is an exercise in playful hip-hop funk fusion, featuring verses from Tex and Sly Tompson.

But while the songs may sound different, they’re actually two parts of the same whole.

“We think of the songs not as an A and B side, but as two songs that are sharing one idea,” Phantom says. “When you put the two album artworks together, they form a whole. It’s this idea of juxtaposing ideas as well as juxtaposing music, beyond just the a-side b-side.”

It’s an apt metaphor for the entire work of ILL DOOTS. Their musical influences might vary song to song, but everything is linked back a unifying whole: the ILL movement.

“We’re really about making life more of a collaborative experience, rather than taking what’s given to you and rolling with it,” Rodney says.

Phantom quickly jumps in, adding, “We can build communities like that. The ILL movement is a group of people that believe in the ability to build a community through art.”

 

ILL DOOTS will take part in the Wilma Theater’s production of An Octoroon running now through April 10th. The band will also be performing on April 22 at the second annual Key Fest. You can grab tickets here.

 

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