This summer, for ILL Doots, has been all about preparation—like a volcano building magma before it explodes. “On the surface, it may seem like we’ve been kind of quiet,” explains Anthony Martinez-Briggs (stage name: Phantom) over drinks at Boot & Saddle. “But there’s so much going on behind the scenes.”
By “kind of quiet” of course he means “kind of quiet for ILL Doots,” who have spent the past 6 years playing, dropping tracks, and hosting workshops in Philly and beyond—with nary a sign of slowing down. Their “quiet” period included a handful of live performances, curating shows at their South Philly home, affectionately known as “Tasker House,” and writing and performing the soundtrack to the Wilma Theater’s production of An Octoroon—in addition to recording and preparing for tour. Octoroon’s soundtrack drops later this week, and this Saturday they’ll kick off a 3-week, U.S. tour with a show at Boot & Saddle; while on the road, they’ll also host a series of free workshops teaching music to kids.
If it sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. But the dudes of ILL Doots—”ILL” being an acronym for “I Love Learning”—have never been ones to shy away from a challenge. Since coming together in the U Arts dormitories back in 2009, the Philadelphia eight-piece has consistently challenged expectations of what it means to be a hip-hop band today, marrying cool raps and fresh production with a focus on collaboration, community betterment, and positivity. Originally conceived as a jam sesh between roommates Jordan “Rodney” McCree (drums) and Scott “Sly Tompson” Ziegler (bass), the band added emcees Martinez-Briggs and Kirschen “Tex” Wolford soon after, then slowly grew to the monolith it is today.
These days, ILL Doots is a growing force on the local scene, whose stock continues to rise. Before heading out on tour, I caught up with 4/8th of the band—McCree, Ziegler, Martinez-Briggs, and guitarist Sam “BPAD” Borrello—to talk weekends in the Wissahickon, classic summer jamz, and what they’re most psyched about this fall.
The Key: So the summer is nearly over. What’s the best thing that happened to you this summer, either individually or as a band?
Scott Ziegler: I got engaged…
TK: Congratulations! That sounds like it will be hard to beat.
Anthony Martinez-Briggs: As a band, we’ve been preparing for tour—and beyond. You may not have seen that much happening from us, but there’s been so much happening behind the scenes.
Jordan McCree: We’ve been playing shows…and we did a play—
AM: The play was amazing. We’re still riding off that high. The soundtrack for the play will drop September 9 and will kick off our tour.
JM: We’ve also started hosting 4th Friday shows at our house again, Tasker House.
AM: We curate the performers, and there’s a resident DJ—and a house band.
SZ: It’s a party, basically.
JM: [Nodding]. It’s a party, and a lot of the performers are people we know, doing dope things in the music scene.
TK: How would you spend your perfect summer in day in Philly?
AM: I would have to say—getting out of Philly! [Everyone laughs, and agrees].
SZ: Summer is actually my least favorite season in Philly. The other day it was Trash Day and it was so particularly disgusting…all kinds of air quality alerts popping up on my phone… [He laughs].
AM: I swear we don’t mean to hate on Philly. It’s just summertime here…it’s rough out here.
JM: Of course, we tend to tour in the fall when the colleges are in session, so as a result, summer, when it’s the most disgusting out, is usually when we’re all stuck here. [He laughs].
AM: One of my favorite things to do in Philly in the summers is get out to the Wissahickon. Not only is it cooler out there, because of all of the tree coverage, but the oxygen is fresher. It doesn’t smell like dumpsters. You need that, after walking around Philly all day…you need some nice Wissahickon oxygen. Otherwise, it’s all Septa fumes.
SZ: Remember that summer day in Asheville? That would be like a model summer day. [He pauses]. We had a day last summer where we were pretty much playing the same city 2 days in a row, so we just had a whole day to chill out. We were in Asheville, North Carolina…and basically, we bought a bunch of food and barbequed with friends; then later we recorded a track from their porch surrounded by mountains. It was a great day of day-drinking and having a grand ole time, then playing a show at night. Also, there were bears there—I’d definitely say our ideal summer day includes bears on the periphery.
[General discussion about bears and bear-sighting persists; McCree jokes that bears are the band’s “omnipresent protectors”].
TK: What was some of your favorite music to listen to growing up in the summers?
SZ: Definitely “Ridin’ Dirty”—that song was super hot the year my older brother got his license, and we would ride around town, smoking Black’n Milds, listening to that track. It was very memorable. Also, Donuts by J Dilla.
AM: When I was young, young-ass summers, I think about The Isley Brothers, and “Summer breeze, makes me feel fine…” [He hums a few bars]. When I was in high school, whipping my mom’s mini van, during that time I was listening to The Ecstatic by Mos Def. Also definitely Rage Against the Machine a lot of times in the summer. I would roll the windows down and blast Rage Against the Machine to let motherf*ckers know where I stood. I remember driving my sister to summer camp with it blaring…
SZ: That reminds me: when I finally got a car I had two cassettes I used to play: the Yellowjackets’ self-titled LP, which is crazy, cheesy fusion, and Jaco Pastorius’s self-titled LP. So that was my shit. Then I got an adapter, and I used to pick up my sister playing All Eyez on Me, loud as shit, my friends and I showing up with bandanas on…
JM: The summer shit I remember was Common, Finding Forever—that was like my junior year in high school. When I was driving my mom’s min van [yes, 2/8 of ILL Doots used to drive their mothers’ mini vans], I was always blasting early Fresh Geeks.
Sam Borrello: I definitely went through a phase when I was playing Little Brother’s The Minstrel Show. I got into Method Man & Redman for a year too. And also Quasimoto…
AM: Sublime…lots of summertime Sublime.
JM: When I was in eighth grade and going to music camp I got really into the record Blue Train, by John Coltrane…
SZ: I had a Zeppelin summer no doubt…
JM: I had a Who summer…
AM: I had a Revolver summer…the last summer I lived in Maryland. That was trippy sh*t to be going out on. Also J. Dilla, Donuts. Donuts and Revolver was literally that summer.
TK: What about childhood summers do you miss most now that you’re adults?
SZ: Skateboarding. I used to skateboard 16 hours a day when I was younger, and I really miss it. I actually bought a skateboard again last February. I ended up busting my ankle—but before that, I swear I was better now than I was back then. Also, just spending the day playing music…
SB: Playing basketball outside with friends, and playing music for fun.
JM: For me, it was getting away. My family is super spread-out, so during the summers we would take road trips to see other family, and then eventually it would just be me traveling by myself. I remember the first time I flew all by myself—I was in 5th grade and flew out to California. It was the first time I had been to the Bay Area and it was dope: there was so much dope music out there. Also, summers I could just play my drums and watch TV all day.
AM: During the summer, I worked. I really liked having money, so for me the summers were about working with no school to get in the way. I worked in the mall; I sold sneakers; I sold shirts. I sold those iron-on shirts—that was popping at the time, so I sold them to the homies. Also teaching summer camp…
JM: I went to band camp too in the summers… [Everyone starts to tease him]. Unfortunately none of the band camp stuff you hear actually happened at band camp. [He pauses]. That stuff happened at football games and on the bus. [He laughs].
TK: What about summers do you NOT miss?
JM: The worst summer for ILL Doots was the summer of our sophomore year in college, when everyone went home for the summer, so we weren’t doing anything as a band. That was a hard summer.
SZ: I don’t think I hated anything about summer—I rocked with it all day. I had a really shitty but easy job as a janitor at the beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where I grew up. I had to clean the bathrooms, which really sucked, but most of the time I would just sit inside reading books and listening to music. Then I would get my pay check and would go buy used CDs. I lived at home with my parents so I had no expenses.
SB: I don’t miss summer reading… [Discussion breaks out about summer reading, and avoiding it at all costs].
AM: I worked at Forever 21 for a couple of years. I learned so much about women working there. I played a variety of different roles and had a lot of different relationships with my co-workers: whether I was the little brother, or flirt-bait, or just the guy who would do all the manual labor, like sweeping the floor or whatever. The store only sold women’s clothes, and it was mostly women who worked there, besides me and my homie. I was raised by women, so I’m used to it—but it was definitely an experience. When I first applied to work there, I was 15 years old, and there was a box on the application you were supposed to check to confirm you were at least 16, which was the minimum age. And my friend and I just left that box unchecked…then got hired anyway. Eventually they realized we were 15 so we both got fired. We ended up getting re-hired again a few months later…But yes. That store shaped so much about me, including my relationship with women, my relationship with fashion…
TK: Would you still shop at Forever 21 today?
AM: My girlfriend still shops there…
[General discussion about cheap clothes and jennings occurs…]
TK: What tastes, smells, and sounds do you associate with summer?
SZ: Chlorine, and jumping in a pool.
AM: Barbecue…burgers, dogs, pork chops, ribs…
JM: Potato salad, corn, shrimp on a skewer…
AM: I’m a Maryland person, so definitely crabs…
SZ: Fried clams…
AM: Cut grass
AM: More music—I feel like in the summer people had their windows open and you would hear music coming from everywhere: out of windows, and car windows…
SZ: I had a neighbor who was Jamaican growing up and I remember hearing distant reggae at all times in the summer…
AM: Younger siblings screaming—I feel like my siblings were always running around the neighborhood yelling in the summer.
JM: That was me. I’m the youngest and I was definitely one of those noisy kids.
TK: So we’re approaching fall, which means back-to-school. As a part of your upcoming tour you’re going to be hosting music workshops. Tell me about this idea and how it came to be?
AM: So the “ILL” in our name is an acronym for “I love learning,” and part of our band mission is to promote collaboration and creativity. So we came up with this idea to host workshops while we are on tour. The specifics of each workshop really vary depending on the community: we’ve hosted after-school programs, we’ve done workshops for a church group, we’ve hosted college prep classes; we’ll be doing a master class at a piano institute on tour. At the low level, it’s more of an interactive lecture about how our live show comes together—with older kids, it’s more individualized. We ask people ahead of time what interests them and what skills they have—and then when we get there, some kids will be working on guitar, some will be working on drums, some will work on vocal performance. So we’ll work with them all individually and at the end of the session, we’ll bring everyone together to create a full performance. So it’s a lesson in community and a lesson in how the different parts can come together and make something even greater. What’s most important to us is that people are affected, whether it’s just for that day, or for the rest of their lives.
SZ: When we’re on tour, we have nothing but time on the road. So it’s pretty cool to empower kids and teach them that anyone can do this, and give them the experience. For many of us, we had to create those experiences ourselves growing up. And fortunately for us, it all worked out…but it’s nice, for example, to give a kid who has never rapped before the experience of being backed by a full band.
AM: I think every single one of us in the band wishes we had this experience when we were growing up. I know I do.
JM: [Agrees]. Those whole thing really allows kids to lose their inhibitions and do something creative. There was this kid in Rochester, New York who was just the smallest kid, and all he wanted to do was get on the mic and rap…
AM: He was so nervous about it, he was literally dry-heaving into the mic. He had two bars to rap, and the entire band just kept holding this loop, waiting for him to rap these two bars. We must have held it for 5 minutes—and I don’t mean, it felt like 5 minutes because it was so excruciating. We were all just waiting for him to get out these two bars…
SZ: He had the whole school gathered around him, just waiting for him to stop dry-heaving. Everyone was like, crouched down, waiting. And when he finally did it, the entire crowd just jumped up and exploded. It was a crazy moment.
SB: We want to create an environment where kids can come out of their shell and feel safe doing something like that.
TK: What’s coming up next for ILL Doots?
SZ: Well, we have the soundtrack for Octoroon coming out on September 9, then tour kicks off September 10 with our show at Boot & Saddle. Then we’ll be back in Philly September 30 for our homecoming show at MilkBoy.
AM: We have lots of things on the horizon. Our forthcoming record is close to being finished—although probably it won’t be out until the spring, as we want to shop it around a little. Other than that, we’re working on a new play with director Joanna Settle [who directed Octoroon]. And we’ll have more band announcements soon.
SZ: We’re playing some exciting places on this upcoming tour—of the 12 cities we’re hitting, eight of them are new. We’re looking forward to seeing Middle America, and driving…
[General discussion about driving across America follows; the band tells me they drive a 12-passenger van nicknamed “The Dillapollo 20,000”; their original van (RIP) was “The Dillapolla 10K”].
AM: We’re really hoping to affect positive change with this tour. We refer to tour as a mission, and our band as a tribe because we feel really strongly about it. We want to show how each individual can make a difference, and encourage people to create an opportunity for empathetic love in the midst of despair. This idea is very important to ILL Doots—we wouldn’t have it any other way.
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