On Friday, October 4th, veteran underground MC Ill Bill plays the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa, California. He's one of the few New York underground MCs to have a 15+ year consistent career as both a solo artist and in a group that's seen him outlast several generations of contemporaries and maintain one of indie-rap's most loyal fanbases. In honor of Friday's show, here's a look back at what makes Ill Bill so ill.
Non-Phixion featuring Necro – “I Shot Reagan” 1998
While he's had demo tapes in circulation since the early '90s, Bill first had a national platform as part of MC Serch's assembled rap collective Non-Phixion. Landing on Geffen Records, the group put out one single “Legacy” on Fatbeats before parting ways with Serch and mobilizing independently. Among their early singles, the group seemed to finally capture their sound on the 1998 single “I Shot Reagan.” Regularly seen in Best Hip-Hop Cover Arts lists, “I Shot Reagan” allowed the cult of Non-Phixion to begin brewing nationally.
Non-Phixion – “Rock Stars” 2002
After numerous delays and label changes, Non-Phixion's debut The Future is Now finally dropped in spring 2002. Widely considered a classic of the early-2000s underground rap era, it featured production from Large Professor, Pete Rock, Necro, The Beatnuts and “Rock Stars” produced by DJ Premier. The signature Premier scratch-hook acts as the perfect balance as each of the members play to each others' strengths and puts Bill's cynical brutality on full display.
Jedi Mind Tricks featuring Ill Bill – “Heavy Metal Kings” 2006
While not their first collaboration, Ill Bill's 2006 guest appearance on Jedi Mind Tricks' Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell album is important for a bevy of reasons. Along with being the first official Bill verse we heard following that summer's dissolving of Non-Phixion, it was the debut of the new grizzly style that would become his trademark vocals for the rest of the decade. The track would also become the namesake for JMT's Vinnie Paz and Bill's duo 2011 duo album Heavy Metal Kings. Bill would also spend that five year gap between solo albums recording with super-group La Coka Nostra.
Ill Bill – “My Uncle” 2008
A repeated theme in Bill's work is the depiction of his family environment. Whether drawing parallels with his own adult life or describing a situation that shaped him, the nuances he culls from specific memories have worked both as face value great lyricism or setting a specific tone for a track that goes deeper than the overarching theme. “My Uncle,” from his second official solo album The Hour of Reprisal, captures this as his oft-mentioned Uncle Howie's lifestyle and its impact on Bill takes center stage in an excellently executed animated video.
Ill Bill – “When I Die” 2012
Bill's latest album, The Grimey Awards, pays tribute to the artists and people who influenced both his style and how he is as a person over the course of his life's journey. When I spoke to Bill earlier this year, he divulged that the song he considers his own personal best is that record's “When I Die.” Bill's vivid detail on the pain of a loved one's closing moments and the subtle details of their remaining presence in one's life is among the most powerful artistic statements of his career.