We arrived in front of his apartment a few minutes earlier than expected, on our way to Los Angeles to catch the album release show for a hip-hop collective called LA Symphony. Timmy offered to jump in the backseat, a courteous extension, one that was met with trepidation on my part, as we both wanted our new friend to feel comfortable. "He can sit in the back," I said, thinking this will give him maximum leg room, and somewhat keep him out of the potentially awkward eye of the Third Wheel storm. As Timmy exited the vehicle, not phased by my backseat option plan, he opens the back door of my powder blue '95 Camry, and says, "Hey man!" to someone approaching from behind.
Zee Will has arrived.
I first heard of Zee Will while recording the Gentle Jamie record Survivor Series. The engineer, Jukebawks at 707 Studios, was finishing a session with him right around the time that my session was set to start. We met in passing, he cordially extended his hand, gave me eye contact, and said, "Nice to meet you." He then tidied up his business with Juke, and made his way out of the door. He seemed like a nice kid ("nice kid" is a phrase you start using in your early 30s, when you see your youth in the rear-view. Trust me - you'll do it to).
Now we're here, taking a road trip together.
At this point I almost exclusively knew Zoe (his birth name) through catching a few of his shows, doing shows together, and getting into his sound. Also, I only knew him as Zee Will at this point. I call him The Future, that's a nickname I've coined for two artists in the Central Valley, the other being Sahab, because I believe these guys have the type of talent, charisma, and showmanship to transcend the "local" tag, and "make it" (whatever that means.) This is saying a lot for Will, since he has only been MCing for roughly 4 years.
We need to get on the road.
The first 20 miles or so, roughly to Selma, Ca., were spent small talking. Timmy is great socially, where as I, contrary to popular belief am a bit clumsy with it all. I either appear as standoffish, which I can be, and stay quiet, with no eye contact, or I dominate the conversation, hold court like Rocky at Adrian's, and turret the shit out of the room with my loud, "fact"-laden rants. If you've been to Livingstone's on Monday nights, you've heard me. If you've seen me alone in public places, you haven't heard me. That's generally how it works.
You guys hungry?
We stop along the 99 highway at a spot called AKAL, your typical gas station with adjoined food spot, in this case Subway, and a lesser known chicken franchise called Chester's. We all loaded up on Subway, took a seat, and began to chat it up about music. At this point I kept thinking what I already knew -- this is a nice guy. That needs to be prefaced, by saying that some, dare I say a lot of rappers are tough to take road trips with. Rappers have a tendency to carry themselves in a manner that is what I would call less than authentic. Lots of controlled, sound bites, and rehearsed catch phrases, and slang designed to keep the character looking good, while simultaneously appearing to be humble, and engaging. It can be sad, the feigned humility, and graciousness, especially when those attempts appear to be wrapped in a protective cocoon of "cool."
Just be yourself.
Zee Will is Zoe Zee Cooks. The two are interchangeable, which is a very good thing. You never feel yourself being abandoned by Zoe, for an embellished character when his fans are around. Zee remains Zoe, and treats his fans with the same respect as he does his friends, and new road trip acquaintances, that would soon become friends.
We load back into the car, and continue our conversation about music. Zee has a deep appreciation for 2Pac, and begins to explain how that differs from being into 2Pac's shit. Everyone loves 2Pac, not many take the time to understand the complexities of Tupac Shakur as a person, and how he chose to use his art as a platform to convey this complexity. It took almost 2 decades for me to see this. Zee Will saw it in his youth. He talked about a desire to make an impact with his music, not just rock shows, and live the prototypical rap life. He spoke with conviction, and at length about a specific thing Tupac once said, one that he now uses as a mantra for his career in rap, and it's this: I may not be the direct reason for positive change, but I would like to be an influence on it.
You're too nice.
Zee Will has heard this throughout his young rap career. He's heard from people of all stages of influence that he is too nice, and that people will take advantage of his kindness. Kindness is not weakness, kindness is a virtue. If Zee Will had an affinity for caving in to shitty demands, and undercutting his hard work by operating in a naive way, that would be a direct reflection of his weakness, not his kindness. Zee Will is not "too nice," he is just a good guy, that cares about his fans, his craft, and himself. Hip-hop, as I stated earlier, has an issue with authenticity, an imbalance, a persona over person mentality. There are those rare artists that throw that outlook out the window, and operate on their own - those artists, in the past, were labeled as "conscious hip-hop." If you have a micro-fiber of pulse in the area of authenticity, you are perceived as being conscious. Huh? Zee Will IS conscious, authentic, AND nice. He is also a monster on the mic, and on stage, whose one concern is making sure that his show hits so hard, that you have a hard time looking good after he is done. He didn't say that, I did. I've seen it. It's real. Zee's upbringing is one that many young African-Americans experience in contemporary America. He's faced a litany of adversity, and shined in spite of it. When his home life took a downturn, he galvanized, and worked that much harder in his life to become a beacon. When his health failed due to asthma, and he had to move from the Fresno area to San Jose, he turned that into an opportunity to show-out on the basketball court. He won Defensive Player of the Year in his area, because fuck limitations on my health, that's why. He still gets up at 4am to make the 5am pick-up games at Buchanan High School in Clovis, Ca. knowing that no one is there to bask in the glow of his hard work. Weak people do not do things like that.
He previewed music from his new album on the trip, one that will feature a wide range of styles, and emotions, one that will surely catapult him even further towards his dreams of making an impact in music. For being so new to rap, roughly 4 years, he has a firm handle on the art of rap, and a deep love for the craft. This guy is a gym rat for hip-hop. He never limited his tastes in music to regional sound, or genre, and his growth in hip-hop might be a reflection of that choice. He is about as well-rounded as you can be at this stage of his career. The next time Zee Will is forced to leave town, it might not be asthma that forces him away, it might be stardom.