Still from "Sorcerer" video

How to Rap with a Sword: milo, Rapitalism, and Feeding Hunger with Thingness

Few of us devote much time to thinking about what a lifetime of labor is, especially creative labor. Milo is the kind of artist who invites us to think about it.

Why’s your favorite rapper always bragging about her business acumen?
Like we asked ’em? Like we asked ’em?
Why’s your favorite rapper always babbling about his brand again?
Like we asked him? Like we asked him?
This the last call for those real emcees
milo, “call + form” from who told you to think??!!?!?!?! (2017)

About 20 minutes into his December 2017 set in front of a packed Hideout audience in Chicago, milo (a.k.a. Rory Ferreira) asks the sound guy, Nick, to cut the lights on stage. “It’s just, I’m fucking chopped, and I wanna rap in the dark,” he says. It’s a sold out show, and scallops hotel (also Rory Ferreira) has already performed, which means that Ferreira technically opened for himself. Or at least another version of himself. And yes, he does appear to be “chopped”—maybe he took one too many hits in the green room during the five-minute intermission between sets—but it’s difficult to tell how much his half-baked, interludial ramblings are part of the act, especially when he snaps back into focus so sharply the moment the beat drops. Another few songs go by, and a man just behind me shouts out a song title from milo’s most recent album: “the young man has a point”! Another man yells, “I can’t see nothing,” probably hoping that milo will turn the lights back on. There’s a brief pause, and then the silhouette on stage raises the mic to his mouth:

You couldn’t see anything before anyway… Just being truthful… You gotta cover one of the senses so the others become heightened. You’re in the Wahoo Monastery—just don’t speak, just look, observe, learn, you know what I’m saying? Just catch a vibe. This ain’t your typical rap show. I don’t need any feedback. I’m so ill, it’s like, please… I know what the fuck I’m doing… If you just relinquish your fucking big head for like an hour, you’ll leave here, like, ‘Damn, this motherfucker grabbed me, I feel inspired, I’m gonna go do my art thing’… But if you just come through here with all these preconceived notions, and you keep interjecting, it just fucks with my rhythm, my fucking timing, my mind. I don’t like being yelled at, you know what I mean?

Surprisingly, the mini-rant doesn’t come off as all that confrontational or egotistical. It’s just, well… honest. Sure, some fans perk up a bit after milo’s initial comeback, but no one in the audience has any objections when he boasts about how “ill” he is. In fact, the point is pretty hard to argue with if you’ve been in that room for the past hour. As one attendee puts it on Twitter after the concert: “not every day you get to see a living legend rap s/o @yomilo and the hideout for once in a lifetime show.” Milo retweeted it—an endorsement of the message. As someone who once told an interviewer, “I’m already one of the greatest living rappers at 24—by 30 it’s going to be a wrap, bro” (Blanchfield), Ferreira isn’t exactly heeding the words from the chorus of Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble”. And that decision—the decision to abandon what he sees as unwarranted humility—relates to a sentiment he expressed more recently in a Vulture profile: “‘Humility services society. But if I live in a white supremacist society that hates me, it would never service me to be humble'” (Thompson). It’s hard to believe that Ferreira is the same guy who rapped the line, “these songs aren’t worth the paper that they’re written on” on his 2011 mixtape debut as milo. There were certainly traces of conviction in his early work, but these days his conviction is impossible not to notice.

Ferreira’s attitude toward the crowd’s unsolicited hollers calls to mind a moment from “an encyclopedia”, a song off the 2015 milo album so the flies don’t come (Ruby Yacht, 2015). Halfway through the track, the beat cuts out and a hive of layered, interwoven voices enters, each voice repeating at varying speeds, “People of color are coloring, people of color are coloring, people of color are coloring.” The voices continue repeating the line for just over 15 seconds before being interrupted by an angry shout: “HEY! YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” It’s the kind of shout that makes you wonder whether Roger Waters’ ornery Scottish schoolmaster in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” has a steroid-guzzling American relative. Rather than channeling schoolhouse tyranny, though, the voice in milo’s song is an unmistakable, unadulterated embodiment of reactionary white rage, whose self-appointed task is to keep blackness in its place. Its message is clear: The person of color who colors—who explores, who creates, who expresses—is coloring outside the lines by default, and thus crossing into forbidden territory. Despite the resounding clarity of this message, the loud and heated reminder doesn’t garner the compliance it demands; instead, immediately after the shout ends, the drone of ad-libbed voices once again fills the void—”People of color are coloring, people of color are coloring, people of color are coloring”—a refrain of defiance. It’s already happening, the mantra’s present progressive aspect tells us, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

You can’t do that, milo

I guess I’m stupid
Following a rule is just too hard for me
It’s hardly me
milo, “song about a raygunn”, from so the flies don’t come (2015)

Turning the lights off on stage is far from the only “transgression” Ferreira has committed as an artist. While many musicians aim to be as widely visible and accessible as possible, Ferreira exhibits few qualms about creating, performing, and selling his music in a way that ignores visibility and accessibility—in other words, fuck your sightline. That’s a counterintuitive—some might say stupid—strategy in an increasingly fragmented market whose consumers’ attention spans are getting shorter and shorter by the decade. In 2017, blockbuster rap artists Drake and Chris Brown released intentionally overstuffed albums (with 22 and 45 songs, respectively), ostensibly in an effort to game the Recording Industry Association of America’s and Billboard’s new methods of counting Spotify track streams toward album sales, thus allowing their records to reach gold and platinum status all the more easily (Lockett).

When, on the other hand, he first released his own 22-track album too much of life is mood a couple years back under his scallops hotel moniker, it was available only in limited numbers and on cassette tape, a format the New York Times had pronounced dead in 2008 (Newman). And once he finally did make it available as a digital release on Bandcamp (but never on Spotify) in late 2016, he posted the entire 22-song album as a single 41-minute track. A note on the album’s Bandcamp page reads: “[T]his work was intended to be a cassette only release and is formatted accordingly.” Much like an actual cassette or a vinyl record, there’s no easy or precise way to skip tracks, and unless you have access to digital audio workstation software and feel like putting in the effort, there’s no way to isolate one of the 22 tracks and add it to a playlist with songs by other artists. It seems as though Ferreira’s fans haven’t been put off by it, though. One Bandcamp user named Steve (aka “ersatzsmile”) even wrote in his review, “There’s something about losing the convenience of skipping tracks that shapes a listening experience. Having this as a single 40 minute mix reminds me of that, and I love it.”

This retraction of convenience is an intriguing strategy, if one can even call it a strategy. The darkened stage, the single-track digital album download, the embrace of a “dead” format — these clearly are not “intended” for the audience’s convenience, or for thoughtless consumption. In fact, they’re antithetical to the way that popular music is typically presented and/or packaged. When asked in 2015 what he found appealing about the cassette tape, Ferreira responded:

Have you ever listened to a tape? Then you already know why. There’s a feeling, especially when you’re alone listening to tape music, of being in a treehouse with that person. The music’s battered, there’s this hiss, it’s warm. It reminds me of being a kid.(Blanchfield)

Ferreira’s nostalgia-fueled affinity for the cassette tape runs counter to how many audiophiles feel when presented with objectively higher fidelity alternatives like vinyl, lossless digital, and even the now-maligned CD. In a piece for the New York Times, essayist Rosecrans Baldwin doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to his feelings about tapes:

As a format for recorded sound, the cassette tape is a terrible piece of technology. It’s a roll of tape in a box. It’s essentially an office supply.

The cassette is the embodiment of planned obsolescence. Each time you play one it degrades. Bad sound gets worse. Casings crack in winter, melt in summer. Inescapably, a cassette tape unspools: It’s only destiny. Fine, death comes to us all. But just because we can anthropomorphize a gadget doesn’t give it a soul.

It’s true that the cassette tape is portable, affordable, disposable. But so are floppy disks and folding street maps. And condoms made from lamb intestines. All were sufficient technologies at the time — I’m not sure about the condoms — but they’ve been improved upon for the public good.

Whether or not degraded sound is your thing (or lamb intestine condoms), Baldwin doesn’t even get into whether the average person even has the means to listen to a cassette tape. Not only have most living room entertainment centers — at least the ones that still exist—long ago shed their tape decks, but it’s already been eight years since the last remaining car manufacturer finally decided to eject tape decks from their new cars (Michaels). (That manufacturer was Lexus, by the way, a company that’s not exactly known for pumping out Model Ts for the masses.) Perhaps the waning accessibility to cassette players is why Ferreira felt compelled to begin his answer with the question, “Have you ever listened to a tape?” To be fair, though, Ferreira did claim in another interview that “everyone [he] know[s] has tape players, in [their] broke-ass hoop-dees.” But when pressed further on the practicality of tape, he changed his tune a bit:

I think tapes aren’t gimmicky. I think that tapes are really cool, because they cost, what, 80 cents a pop, blank? … A guy like Safari Al, for example, he can order 25 tapes, dub them himself, paint on them, customize the j-card, et cetera, sell them for 10 dollars a pop, and you’re buying more than just a physical, let’s be real, any physical right now is sort of beside the point, so why not do a tape, I guess, is my point. (Shaner)

Aside from his initial defensiveness about whether or not tapes are “gimmicky”, there’s a dual admission here. First, there’s the overt acknowledgement of the cost benefits of tapes for independent, DIY artists who are looking to sell their music in a physical form on the cheap. But second, and more important, there’s the recognition that “any physical right now is sort of beside the point.” (Ferreira also showcased this recognition when, on the Bandcamp page for the 2015 scallops hotel album Plain Speaking, he marketed the cassette version as a “physical relic”, emphasizing in the item description the “outdated non digital format.”) The reason that physicals are “sort of beside the point” is that most new tapes these days, just like most new vinyl records, come with a link to a digital download—you know, the format that requires a simple click of the play button on your computer or cell phone—no rewinding or anti-static brushing or storage shelf building required. Which, in a way, means that the cassette tape and the vinyl record are formats for listeners who derive a certain kind of pleasure from self-imposed inconvenience. For others, the collection of physical forms of music is more about the visual and tactile aesthetic, about being able to read the liner notes as the music plays, but that’s a well-worn idea. I’ll leave it to theorist Bill Brown to explain “things” (like cassettes and vinyl records) with a bit more nuance:

You could imagine things… as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects—their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems. Temporalized as the before and after of the object, thingness amounts to a latency (the not yet formed or the not yet formable) and to an excess (what remains physically or metaphysically irreducible to objects). (5)

Perhaps the fetishization of “thingness”, as Brown describes it, is why a cassette version of scallops hotel’s 2015 album Plain Speaking sold on Discogs for $175, or why a 2017 vinyl repressing of milo’s 2015 album so the flies don’t come sold for $195. But what is “thingness” exactly? If we subscribe to Brown’s idea that it “amounts to” both “a latency… and to an excess,” and that it is “[t]emporalized as the before and after of the object”, we are left largely with the nebulous, intangible perception (read: illusion) of the essence of an object, product, or work. It is a perception informed at once by process, the imperfect memory of that process, and the selective re-telling of that memory. Thus, the fetishization of thingness is in large part a romanticization of historical uniqueness and/or rarity.

While Ferreira doesn’t profit directly from the secondhand sales/fetishization of his physical albums on sites like Discogs, he does seem to be astutely aware of how to leverage the power of “thingness” in a way that allows him to make a living off his own firsthand sales.

Latent rewards

I flourish in the lag time
–milo, “sorcerer”, from who told you to think??!!?!?!?! (2017)

My destiny is to write four bars
In black licorice
Convert that to one stack
Then set out to redefine the term ‘nigger rich
–milo, “an encyclopedia”, from so the flies don’t come (2015)

“Quality over quantity” is typically how the saying goes. But with Ferreira, it’s quantity that’s often at the forefront of his salesmanship. In early 2013, two of the items listed on milo’s Bandcamp merch page (both corresponding to a pair of EPs entitled Things That Happen At Day/Things That Happen At Night, Ruby Yacht) were entitled “quite rare cassette recording of tthad//tthan as well as other items of interest to fans of my music” and “slightly less rare cassette recording of tthad//tthan as well as other items that are also slightly less rare yet still of interest to fans of my music” (Tabernus). Later in 2013, the description for the cassette version of scallops hotel’s poplar grove (or how to rap with a hammer) began with the simple phrase “100 only.” And when he released his 2014 album a toothpaste suburb on vinyl, the description read: “my first vinyl. i’m selling 50” (leaving out the fact that Hellfyre Club, the label he was on at the time, pressed a total of 300 copies, a typical minimum at vinyl manufacturing plants). This past year, he even sold (for an undisclosed price) a one-of-a-kind cassette tape (and by one-of-a-kind, I truly do mean only a single copy in existence) containing the early instrumental versions of the songs from his album who told you to think??!!?!?! (Ruby Yacht, 2017) On the tape’s j-card, he wrote, “these instrumentals hold incredible insights. please play responsibly. also: no jacking” (Discogs).

There’s a certain transparency in sharing the number of units with fans up front, but the advertisement of rarity, of extremely limited stock (e.g., “100 only”), shows that he knows his physical album offerings are disproportionally low for an artist with tens of thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers. Interestingly enough, Ferreira has expressed tinges of buyer’s remorse about going the route of selling anything at all. He shared the following sentiment about selling his music on Bandcamp with Interview Magazine:

There are many business models to being a person who makes a living off of music, and sometimes I wonder if I fucked up. I immediately cashed out, from the jump… Bandcamp helps me pay every single bill. But maybe I sacrificed something by not giving things away for free. You think about that business model, with people like Chance, Mick Jenkins, these guys are all flourishing off this free model. It’s helped me make money, but I think it’s also maybe helped me not get big… or get bigger. But I don’t really wanna be any bigger, so it’s at a good place right now. (Johnson)

What’s especially interesting about the emark at the end (about not really wanting to be any bigger) is that it doesn’t come across as all that convincing, at least in the transcription. There’s even a hint of envy about Chance the Rapper’s and Mick Jenkins’ successes, presumably because both of the Chicago rappers have blown up without needing to worry about the typical backlash that occurs when an artist reaches a certain level and fans start accusing them of selling out. The reason for this is that it’s nearly impossible to accuse an artist of selling out if they’ve been giving away their music for free from the start (no matter how many Kit-Kat commercials they’ve appeared in); in the eyes of fans who don’t have to think about how their favorite artists make a living, it’s the purest proof of artistic authenticity. I’ll leave it to business and marketing scholars Bridson, Evans, Varman, Volkov, and McDonald to explain:

Musicians do not come with a certificate of authenticity; it is a classification or [sic] the worth attributed to them. The benefits of acquiring worth are broad, including high sales, positive word-of-mouth, event attendance and engagement in traditional and social medias [sic]. Despite these market-based benefits of worth emanating from loyalty that accrue to the music industry and artists, consumers may also have alternative notions of worth and view marketisation or spread of market forces as detrimental to authenticity.

The only thing Bridson et. al are missing is that hip-hop has arguably developed its own ethos with regard to authenticity and worth. In Geoff Harkness’s essay “The Spirit of Rapitalism: Artistic Labor Practices in Chicago’s Hip-Hop Underground” Harkness identifies the “tension between authenticity and going commercial” for musicians, a tension which is obviously not unique to hip-hop. The manner in which rap entrepreneurs navigate this tension, however, is unique, according to Harkness. It requires a “delicate balancing act of behaving in a thoroughly capitalist manner while maintaining a sense of street credibility” (263). The key word here is “act”, which points to the performative nature of the endeavor. This is admittedly a grand oversimplification, but in hip-hop you can either be a platinum-selling major label rapper who plays up his/her street cred long after becoming monetarily successful (like Jay-Z, who was raised in a Brooklyn housing project and sold crack as a teen, or Kendrick Lamar, who, like countless other rappers, has roots in the notorious city of Compton), or an independent rapper who exploits underground elusiveness and notoriety to his/her advantage (like DOOM, who wears a mask at all times in public and has even been known to send other people to perform at shows in his place). Chance the Rapper and Mick Jenkins, as socially conscious/activist rappers who give their music away for free, have arguably paved the way for a third option. The problem, though, is that if you get caught anywhere in between those three options for too long, you risk becoming irrelevant.

Ferreira has found himself somewhere between the latter two identities (the elusive underground rapper and the “woke” rapper), but his music isn’t nearly as accessible stylistically as Chance the Rapper’s, so giving it away for free probably wouldn’t do him any favors at this point. He’s seemingly realized the need to play up his underground cred by emphasizing the rarity of his merchandise, all so he can build his fanbase and sell more music in the future. (There’s also the line “that’s the way it goes / when you under the underground” on the new, self-titled Nostrum Grocers album, a lyric which doesn’t exactly call attention to the exposure milo received from an interview in Rolling Stone just last year.) But if he sells too much or too often, he may risk being perceived as more capitalist than artist. Hence the controlled quantities of physical albums, as well as the decision to divide his prolific output (a whopping 15 albums in seven years, and more on the way) among five different artistic monikers/projects (milo, scallops hotel, and one-offs with RED WALL, Nom de Rap, and Nostrum Grocers), which not only serves different creative itches and purposes, but also allows him to avoid overexposing “milo” and/or over-saturating that project’s fanbase.

Ferreira himself explains the reason for the existence of both milo and scallops hotel in several different interviews, but the following explanation is arguably the most compelling:

The distinction between milo and scallops hotel usually comes down to business. Class, again. This is me making a class distinction internal to myself. scallops hotel is the engine of my DIY ethos. scallops hotel is the reason I hand-dub my tapes, screen-print my own shirts, get my own hats. milo is when I want to go and participate in a conversation nationally—I have to go hire a studio engineer, I have to go get my distributor to pass along records to a vinyl manufacturer. When the process has to be bigger than myself, that’s milo. If I can contain it all and do it on my own, then I will, and that’s scallops hotel.

But they have such different end products that I realized people would be mad if I made it all milo. Even worse, they would think that they could be predictive. If I had dropped too much of life is mood as a milo record then people would think “oh, he dropped this fly, clean record and now he’s on this dirty lo-fi thing” and they would think of it too linearly. I needed to break up my releases so they weren’t linear. (Blanchfield)

He goes on to explain that when “you’re not a millionaire like Kanye”, you can’t completely change your sound with every album, because “your armor, your insulation from the effects that has are fucking thin. I mean, one write-up could still ruin my shit. I’m never sending press an advance song… because I can’t afford to be misunderstood right now” (Blanchfield). Ferreira’s explanation sheds light on how his different artistic monikers are in part vehicles for radical creative shifts. But his self-described lack of Kanye-like armor is especially illuminating; the vulnerability of his artistic career serves as justification for the need for caution when making decisions about things like how many physical records to order, just in case an upcoming project turns out to be a failure sales-wise.

Of course, the limited quantities of physical albums, especially early on in Ferreira’s musical career, may simply have been due to him not having enough up-front capital to order more. For example, in late 2012, over two years before he’d release one of his records on vinyl for the first time, he told an inquiring fan on Twitter, “i can’t afford vinyl at this point man.” And in an interview on Kinda Neat the next year, he explained that the only way he was able to sell cassettes for his double EP Things That Happen At Day / Things That Happen At Night was because his grandmother lent him $800 to make the tapes (Shaner). Aside from a tweet in 2014 that read, “my mom pays my phone bill #indierapperconfessions”, this admission is one of the few instances where he’s ever discussed getting financial help to sustain or support his career. That’s probably because Ferreira’s parents dropped out of high school around the time they had him (and later divorced), so the consistent financial support of a middle class nuclear family wasn’t ever on the menu for him (Blanchfield).

It’s no surprise, then, that Ferreira’s various identities as milo, scallops hotel, and Ruby Yacht founder are all wrapped up in DIY ethics, and thus diametrically opposed to the stereotypical Billboard-charting, bling-wearing, major label rapper who goes everywhere with an entourage. “It’s weird to think that people go to studios,” reads one of Ferreira’s tweets from early 2012. “Like, why not buy sub-quality gear off the internet and record in your bedroom? DAS WHAT I DO.” While the last couple milo releases were recorded in studios, all of Ferreira’s scallops hotel records have been self-produced affairs, recorded in the bedrooms of places he’s lived. In 2015, when a fan tweeted to Ferreira that his return to Milwaukee from L.A. was “Lebron-esque” (referencing Lebron James’ 2014 return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after having left to play with the Miami Heat for four seasons), he responded, “i make a living off my art. i can’t afford la. if that’s lebron-esque then OK tho my understanding is he is a millionaire.” Ferreira has only gotten more blunt in the past year when it comes to distinguishing himself from the wealthy and asserting for the record his independence and self-reliance. He posted the following tweet in late October 2017: “my label, my career, my record store all from my wallet. never had a 3rd party multinational noface capitalist suckass company behind me.” A week later, he tweeted, “white people will critique you for using art to advance notions of agency. meanwhile i’m 25 and opening a record store totally self funded.” And one month after that, he tweeted about his record who told you to think??!!?!?! being listed as one of DJBooth’s top hip-hop and R&B albums of 2017, pointing out that his was the “only album in the top 10 not attached to a major or multimillionaire… 100% independent.”

These tweets, which span between 2012 and 2017, mark an evolution in Ferreira’s expressions of pride: Early on, they were focused on the creation of self-made, DIY music (recorded with limited resources), but they’ve shifted more recently to his broader entrepreneurial success and independence. It’s worth noting, however, that as Ferreira’s projects have gained in popularity and critical recognition, his statements about entrepreneurial success have been increasingly in service of promoting his authenticity as an independent artist, and by extension, an underdog. Everybody loves an underdog, but of course, every underdog needs a marketable story.

Folk Metaphysics

I’ve been gathering
Gathering more and more of the less-and-less
–milo, “napping under the echo tree”, from so the flies don’t come (2015)

“Yo, so rap music is black music… It’s folk music. Think about the origins of the banjo, [they’re] not white people. Consider that… You think that’s a white people instrument, but it’s actually a very African instrument. Rap is folk music. I’m obsessed with that connection… so, like, on over the carnage rose a voice prophetic, I did a cover of a Johnny Cash song, I did a song for David Crosby, I’m like obsessed with that connection, but them motherfuckers be hating, they always hate on rap, like ‘that shit ain’t music,‘ but it’s like, your shit has no swing because you don’t know what the fuck your origins are.” milo at The Hideout, December 2017

At the risk of sounding like a cheap Jeff Foxworthy knockoff, you might be an underdog if you’re a half-black, half-Portuguese “nerd” born in Chicago to high school dropouts and then raised in Maine, the whitest state in the US. You’re an underdog if your first mixtape, I wish my brother Rob was here, was inspired by your close friend from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who tragically drowned in a public pool. You’re an underdog if you can’t get a label to take notice, even when your music’s garnering plenty of buzz online. You’re an underdog (and an especially sympathetic one at that) when you dedicate an EP called Cavalcade to your dying, folk music-loving grandfather, and pack it with samples from his favorite band, America. And even when you’re picked up by Hellfyre Club, a label/collective boasting a roster that includes some of your rap idols, you’re an underdog when that label goes defunct just after releasing your debut LP and never pays you a dime for it (allegedly).

You’re an underdog when you’re living and recording in an L.A. garage that doesn’t have a proper bathroom. You’re an underdog if you’re priced out of L.A. and decide to set up your hip-hop headquarters in locales that aren’t exactly known for their burgeoning music scenes (Milwaukee and coastal Maine). You’re an underdog if you start up a small record label (focused at the outset on cassettes alone) named partly after your grandmother Ruby Underwood, who lived — you let Chicago fans know at the Hideout — all the way down at 86th and Ada. And even if you’ve been in Rolling Stone, you’re still an underdog when you’re regularly playing 150 to 200-capacity clubs.

You get the sense, though, that Ferreira thrives on being an underdog. As much as he wants to make music for himself, fulfilling his own artistic whims regardless of what potential fans might want to hear, he also signals an interest in being an artist of the people and for the people. Take, for example, an excerpt from milo’s bio on the website of his booking agency, Diplomats of Sound (his booking agency, which also represents acts like KRS-One, Saul Williams, Pharoahe Monch, and The Sugarhill Gang):

This is rap by and made for the working class. In no way does that implicate art rap as a misnomer. This is magnanimous rap that will not tolerate. It goes, “motherfuck a gatekeeper.”

milo is one of many vehicles of Rory Ferreira. There is also Scallops Hotel, the citadel of self-sufficiency where Ferreira produces and demos. Here there is always vacancy for free thinkers. Ferreira reinstates leadership into rap music. His self-sufficiency extends beyond self-interest. This is the purpose of Ruby Yacht, his imprint and flagship. Ruby Yacht prints, it presses, it manufactures, and it does not outsource. It is a guild of builders.

“Working class”, “gatekeepers”, “self-sufficiency”, “manufacturing”, “outsourcing”, “builders”—these are the kinds of words and phrases you’d expect to hear from someone running for political office. But you certainly wouldn’t come across the line about “self-sufficiency extend[ing] beyond self-interest” in a GOP ad (or the “motherfuck a gatekeeper” line, come to think of it). This is blue collar art, the bio tells us in no uncertain terms—vaguely anti-capitalist, sure, but more rooted in practical, artisanal subsistence than anarchy. Less “This rap is your rap, this rap is my rap,” and more, “This mic kills fascists.”

Fortunately, the bio’s purpose is not to create a contrived portrait of blue collar authenticity (i.e., to prop up the image of a corporate “folk” band like Mumford & Sons). Contrary to popular opinion, the spirit of folk didn’t die when Dylan went electric, or with the unfortunate reintroduction of the fedora at acoustic open mics nationwide; instead, it lived on in those who still had something to say (Dylan included) about the oppression of common people by those in power. And if you’ve listened to milo’s “an encyclopedia”, you know that his “something” is worth hearing:

Today they shook me down to my core / It’s nigga killer galore out there / The truth is a golden rectangle I tried to swallow / Look at the mouth tears, my nigga / I’m really out there / All five fifths of my personage / What kind of burden could be worse than this? / How can I carry all these dead people of color? / All these black and brown and yellow bodies / Darrien Hunt cosplaying was killed for his hobbies / And I love Mugen too / And that’s the thing / I love Mugen too / They gave us Mavis Beacon and slavish deacons / Who predicate upon / Who pontificate upon / Who conversate upon / But never hand-grenade a palm / They find refuge muttering / “The patriarchy is on auto-pilot” / With prayer beads and solemnity / We, Urban Outfitters, would like to make a t-shirt / Out of your just-born soliloquy

Watering the fields: or, so the flies don’t come

It’s about if you can work a simple hustle
Turning rap insights into economic muscle…
It’s never art for art’s sake
Despite whatever the corpse of a Marxist thinks
–milo, “song about a raygunn”, from so the flies don’t come (2015)

Fuck your notepad,
Wrote a poem with a tool kit
–milo, “poet (Black bean)”, from who told you to think??!!?!?!?! (2017)

The point is, my vocabulary pays my rent
– milo, “the young man has a point (nurture)”, from who told you to think??!!?!?!?! (2017)

In an interview with The Needle Drop prior to the release of his 2015 record so the flies don’t come, milo explained that the album title stemmed from “confronting the ‘ugly'” both inside and outside himself “as it relates to color in this country and as it relates to class in this country and as it relates to education… The title…is about…what… you do, so these ugly things that signify death, what… you do so they don’t come” (“Ep. 16: Milo”). Although Ferreira is speaking quite literally in this instance about what poor people of color must do in order to, at a minimum, stay afloat and survive in America, there is also the question—one that’s not necessarily as important, but that’s more relevant to the subject of this paper—of what a worthwhile artist on his/her grind needs to do to stave off the looming demise of his/her creative quest. While it shouldn’t be much of a secret that we don’t make it easy in this country (a country that doesn’t value arts education, let alone government grants for artistic work) for artists who are looking to make a living off their art, it still comes as a shock when an artist like milo drops a blunt line like this one in the middle of his song “true nen”: “And I write rap songs for a living so I don’t have health insurance.” Not only is the line a non-sequitur, but it also doesn’t rhyme with the ones surrounding it, which means that the endlessly analytical Ferreira probably placed it there on purpose to stand out.

In that same vein of making artistic struggles heard, Ferreira has gone on record multiple times about the need to “demystify” the labor of music making. In the aforementioned interview with The Needle Drop, he provides insight into why we need to talk about music and musicians differently:

This is just a job, man. Like, a really dope one, one that I’m passionate about, and was groomed to be good at, but at the end of the day, it’s just how I earn a living, and so to talk about it any other way is to do it a disservice, you know? And especially when you start talking about it in these weird, clouded ways, I just don’t even understand why. I guess if you’re very wealthy, that would be why, but the majority of rappers I know aren’t [wealthy], and they kind of try to hide that maybe, or not talk about it as an occupation, which I think is part of the reason why especially independent rap is the way that it is today, because constantly you have the people doing it telling you not to do it, that it isn’t lucrative, that it is a loser career… And you wonder why I’m ten years younger than the youngest homie in the crew. It’s like, you didn’t water the fields. (“Ep. 16: Milo”)

What’s ultimately being said here is that when we as a society refuse to think of music as labor (“It’s just a hobby” or “It’s something you do on the side”), we deny its creators a certain dignity, and we grow accustomed to unwittingly exploiting the laborers, regardless of how thoroughly we enjoy the fruits of said labor. Most consumers in 2017, rather than directly purchasing the art and/or entertainment that artists put a great deal of time into crafting, now stream that art/entertainment, not realizing (or caring) that the money isn’t being shared with artists at a fair rate. Just to provide an example of what streaming revenue looks like in the present moment, my band Sunjacket received a total of 419,513 plays on Spotify and other streaming platforms in the period between July 2016 and early October 2017, according to the metrics provided by our digital distribution service TuneCore. With that many plays, it may seem like we would see a decent chunk of change (that could help recoup the cost of recording, manufacturing, and promoting our debut record), but all those streams amounted to only $1977.48 in revenue. That comes out to $0.00471375 (less than half a penny) per song stream, which means that if you were to listen to a typical 10-song record on repeat, you’d have to stream the entire thing 484 times to ensure that the artist received a mere $20—that’s about a 40-hour “work” week of pure streaming on repeat. Considering that Spotify Premium listeners (full disclosure: I’m one of ’em) get unlimited, ad-free streaming for $9.99 a month, it’s an incredible deal for listeners, but an abysmal one for artists.

These sorts of financial realities pervade all aspects of the business of music making—from rehearsing to recording to selling to performing—and because of this, milo’s path to even middling financial success certainly hasn’t been an easy one. When asked about whether up-and-coming rappers could use his path as a template to get to where he is, Ferreira said, “Nobody could follow my path, it’s the winding path… I did a month of shows, every single day, for $100. Rap is the sport of luxury and there’s no rapper who has so little dignity or ego as I did to do that shit” (Blanchfield). Ferreira has been both self-deprecating and boldly transparent about how his prolific output as an artist stems from such economic realities. In November 2013, he posted the tweet, “poplar grove or how i plan to pay my rent in december” (riffing on the title of his then-new release poplar grove (or how to rap with a hammer). Two days later, he tweeted, “#1 rap record on bandcamp. i’m about to cash out in Noodles&Co right now.” And in late 2016, he tweeted, “open a bill then i write a record hahahaha.”

Fortunately, Ferreira’s records sell, which is something the vast majority of aspiring artists can’t say for themselves. It’s impossible to gauge exactly how much Ferreira makes selling his records on Bandcamp, because most artists, including him, give fans the option of paying more for an album than the set price. It’s also impossible to tell exactly how many sales he makes, because while Bandcamp does show a list of album “supporters” (registered Bandcamp users who’ve paid for the album and made their purchase history public), it doesn’t reveal how many non-registered guest users have purchased the album. With that said, the list of supporters can give us a limited idea of how much he makes in music sales.

As of mid-December 2017, there were 939 listed supporters of the scallops hotel album too much of life is mood (discussed earlier). Each one of those supporters paid at least $5 for the digital version (or at least $10-15 for the cassette tape), but if we go with just the digital price and take out the 15 percent that Bandcamp deducts for its revenue share, Ferreira’s cut comes out to just under $4k. With his most recent milo album, who told you to think??!!?!?!, 1,623 supporters purchased the album at the price of at least $10 (along with many buying CDs, cassettes, and vinyl records for more money), which comes out to just under $14k. If you pair these digital sales for roughly two albums each year with physical album sales and merch sales at shows, at stores, and online; touring revenue; and revenue from Patreon subscriptions (in December 2017, he had 53 patrons on the creator-funding website, giving him a total of $427 per month); it adds up to a living wage, but one that’s not entirely stable. And it doesn’t take into account costs like mixing and mastering, physical manufacturing, distribution, PR (assuming he hires a firm), and the cut that goes to his booking agent.

It’s a monetary situation that has improved considerably since he started rapping as a philosophy undergrad, but it still puts pressure on Ferreira to create (and to do so prolifically). “I never thought I would be a professional, career rapper,” he told Noisey in September 2017. “Now, it’s like, as long as I wanna do this, it’s gonna feed me… I never expected to be there, especially not at 25” (Schube). But the stakes are higher than they were when he was 18, since he isn’t just feeding himself anymore—his rap career also needs to feed his wife and their young child. “i forget how to write if i’m not physically hungry,” he tweeted in November 2017 from his scallops hotel account, perhaps documenting a newfound problem in the wake of his recent success. “most of my rhymes get done in the morning cos of that.” The pattern of Ferreira’s life these past eight years has been that whenever a “hunger” arises, it results in a song or album or tour. “‘My career has been making albums to accomplish life goals… I need money, so I need to make a record,” he told Vulture. In the Vulture profile, he details a couple of instances in which that hunger produced creative results. In one instance, he was living in a garage in Echo Park with Safari Al (now a Ruby Yacht label mate) months after his sudden fallout with Hellfyre Club:

With barely enough money and weed for one more week in L.A., they wrote, produced, and recorded a 20-minute record called (Boyle) and Piles EP, crediting themselves as RED WALL. Released less than three months after A Toothpaste Suburb, it marked a radical shift in tone for Ferreira: the self-deprecation melted away, he got sharper, more serrated. “We made that EP in less than a week — dropped it on the sixth day, got the overnight sales, dipped up to Oakland for a weekend, crashed at a homie’s spot, got those weekend sales, used that money to get back to Wisconsin,” he recalls. “That was our escape rocket.” (Thompson)

In another situation, he and his wife wanted to avoid going to a hospital for the birth of their son, because of the disproportionate risk that black women have historically faced and continue to face as expectant mothers in the American healthcare system. After making the decision with his wife,

[Ferreira] got to work immediately, telling his booking agent he needed to make at least $10,000 before the baby boy was due. They made it happen, through a punishing and precise tour schedule. “I had a baby at 24 and paid for it with rap,” he says, beaming. “I felt and still do feel like I’m the fucking man.” (Thompson)

It’s unclear whether reliance on that kind of problem-to-project hustle is sustainable for Ferreira, someone who now sees himself as a “professional, career rapper.” It certainly isn’t sustainable (or even an option) for the vast majority of aspiring musicians, most of whom can’t even imagine breaking even on a national tour. But milo has put in the work, and has repeatedly made lifestyle sacrifices that most artists aren’t willing to make.

While Ferreira seems energized by the sacrifice it took to “pay for a baby with rap”, there are other times, like in one of his half-baked interludial monologues at the Hideout show, that he sounds more jaded about the whole endeavor. The words seem especially cogent, not to mention vulnerable, coming from a new father who realizes he’s more dependent on music now than ever before:

Yo, motherfuckers in this art game will have you fucked up. Yo, take it from me, I was fucking regular, man. I was degular like a motherfucker at one point… When I wanted to be a rapper, I got on this fucked up quest, I’m in this fucked up rap game for life now, man. I made these pledges, these allegiances I can’t never take back. I’m in this thing forever. And you don’t even think about that when you buy your first sampler, you know what I’m saying? You don’t even think about shit like that. You don’t even think about what a lifetime is. You don’t think about what a lifetime is on all these motherfucking highways.

He’s right. None of us devote much time to thinking about what a lifetime of labor is, especially creative labor. We’re all in the dark. And maybe that’s the problem.

* * *

Works Cited

a toothpaste suburb vinyl“. Bandcamp. 30 March 2015. 15 Nov. 2017. Internet Archive.

Baldwin, Rosecrans. “The Curious Comeback of Cassettes.” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) ed. Dec 24 2015. ProQuest. Web. 3 Dec. 2017.

Blanchfield, Corrigan. “‘I’m Already One of the Greatest Living Rappers’: An Interview with milo.” Passion of the Weiss. Passion of the Weiss, LLC. 10 Oct. 2016.

Bridson, Kerrie, et al. “Questioning worth: selling out in the music industry.” European Journal of Marketing. Vol. 51, Issue 9/10. 2017, pp. 1650-1668.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry. Vol. 28, No. 1. Autumn 2001, pp. 1-22. JSTOR

“Ep. 16: Milo.” The Needle Drop. 30 Aug. 2015.

Ferreira, Rory (scallopshotel). “i forget how to write if i’m not physically hungry. most of my rhymes get done in the morning cos of that.” 25 Nov. 2017, 10:25 a.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “@A1var3z7 i make a living off my art. i can’t afford la. if that’s lebron-esque then OK tho my understanding is he is a millionaire.” 1 Mar. 2015, 2:46 p.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “@PajamaHive i can’t afford vinyl at this point man. i got a loan from my grams for these cassettes.” 19 Dec. 2012, 1:05 a.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “#1 rap record on bandcamp. i’m about to cash out in Noodles&Co right now.” 19 Nov. 2013, 1:02 p.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “It’s weird to think that people go to studios. Like, why not buy sub-quality gear off the internet and record in your bedroom? DAS WHAT I DO.” 9 Jan. 2012, 9:37 a.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “my label, my career, my record store all from my wallet. never had a 3rd party multinational noface capitalist suckass company behind me.” 25 Oct. 2017, 2:04 p.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “my mom pays my phone bill #indierapperconfessions.” 5 Feb. 2014, 1:18 p.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “open a bill then i write a record hahahaha.” 29 Dec. 2016, 1:20 p.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “poplar grove or how i plan to pay my rent in december.” 17 Nov. 2013, 11:58 p.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “white people will critique you for using art to advance notions of agency. meanwhile i’m 25 and opening a record store totally self funded.” 2 Nov. 2017, 10:42 a.m. Tweet.

Ferreira, Rory (yomilo). “‘who told you to think’ only album in the top 10 not attached to a major or multimillionaire backing me. 100% independent. thank you for hearing my shit, i got a lot more music to make. 1luv.” 4 Dec. 2017, 4:28 p.m. Tweet.

Harkness, Geoff. “The Spirit of Rapitalism: Artistic Labor Practices in Chicago’s Hip-Hop Underground.” Journal of Workplace Rights. Vol. 16, No. 2, 2011/2012, pp. 251-270. EBSCOhost.

Johnson, James. “Discovery: Milo.” Interview Magazine. 22 Sept. 2014.

Lockett, Dee. “Chris Brown’s Terribly Long New Album, Explained.” Vulture. New York Media, LLC. 31 Oct. 2017.

Michaels, Sean. “End of the road for the car tape deck.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 9 Feb. 2011.

“Milo (34) & Kenny Segal – so the Flies Don’t Come.” Discogs. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Milo (34) – A Toothpaste Suburb.” Discogs. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Milo (34) – Who Told You To Think Beat Tape.” Discogs. N.p., n.d. Web.

“milo is creating art.” Patreon. Patreon, Inc., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2017.

milo. “an encyclopedia.” so the flies don’t come, Ruby Yacht, 2015.

milo. “call + form.” who told you to think??!!?!?!, Ruby Yacht, 2017.

milo. Concert. 8 Dec. 2017, The Hideout, Chicago.

“Milo.” Diplomats of Sound. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2017.

milo. “napping under the echo tree.” so the flies don’t come, Ruby Yacht, 2015.

milo. “poet (Black bean).” who told you to think??!!?!?!, Ruby Yacht, 2017.

milo. “song about a raygunn.” so the flies don’t come, Ruby Yacht, 2015.

milo. “sorcerer.” who told you to think??!!?!?!, Ruby Yacht, 2017.

milo. “the young man has a point (nurture).” who told you to think??!!?!?!, Ruby Yacht, 2017.

milo. “true nen.” so the flies don’t come, Ruby Yacht, 2015.

Newman, Andrew A. “Say so Long to an Old Companion: Cassette Tapes.” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) ed. Jul 28 2008. ProQuest. Web. 3 Dec. 2017.

“Plain Speaking, by scallops hotel.” Bandcamp, 5 May 2015.

“poplar grove (or how to rap with a hammer).” Bandcamp. 7 March 2014. 15 Nov. 2017 []. Internet Archive.

“Scallops Hotel – Plain Speaking.” Discogs. N.p., n.d. Web.

Schube, Will. “milo is Here to Tell You You’re Wrong about Rap Music.” Noisey. VICE Media, LLC. 18 Sept. 2017.

Shaner, Lee. “Episode 89: Scallops Hotel (aka Milo).” Audio blog post. Kinda Neat. 11 August 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2017.

“Tabernus“. Bandcamp. 2 July 2013. 15 Nov. 2017. Internet Archive.

Thompson, Paul. “Milo Is Building an Indie Rap Empire.” Vulture. New York Media, LLC. 15 Nov. 2017.

“too much of life is mood, by scallops hotel.” Bandcamp, 26 July 2016.

vaquerit0. “not every day you get to see a living legend rap s/o @yomilo and the hideout for once in a lifetime show.” 9 Dec. 2017, 2:44 a.m. Tweet.

“where’ing those flowers, by Nostrum Grocers.” Bandcamp, 3 Aug. 2018.

“who told you to think??!!?!?!, by milo.” Bandcamp, 11 Aug. 2017.