Simeon Viltz is a local emcee who comes from a long line of proud musicians. As early as infancy his parents and grandparents (on both sides) nurtured his affinity for music, and that support has been the backbone of his work ever since.
For the past decade, Viltz has built a strong following as one half of The Primeridian, and he's worked tirelessly toward furthering his reputation as one of the most refined talents in Chicago. Since releasing the last Primeridian album, Da Mornin' Afta (under the All Natural imprint), Viltz has been hard at work taking on a staggering amount of collaborations, including ones with talented lyricists ADaD and Pugs Atomz as well as ones with superproducers Tall Black Guy and Kenny Keys. Viltz has been getting a lot of buzz for his night at Morseland with music aficionado Ayana Contreras (together known as Groove Conspiracy), and at this point it seems like Viltz is on a roll. Centerstage sat down with him to pick his brain about his various projects.
You grew up in a family full of musicians and music lovers. Who were the most influential people for you growing up and how have they contributed to the way you make music?
My parents and grandparents were very influential on me as far as my appreciation toward music in addition to introducing me to instruments. My grandmother, on my mother's side, was classically trained and played in the church. She was my first piano teacher. And my father, who was from New Orleans, was rooted in jazz and played trumpet with Chicago-based funk/jazz group Black Lightning. He taught and gave me my first trumpet as well as put together my vibes. He would show me how to play them through some of our earlier jam sessions.
My mother has been singing in the church (Maple Park United Methodist in Chicago) choir now for years and used to play Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder records all the time. I used to always raid her collection ever since I was 2-3 years old and would stumble across Alice Coultrane and Parliament/Funkadelic records, etc. My grandfather would always encourage me to integrate my trumpet and piano playing with my "rappin," "singing" and "beats" and also introduced me to the "grunt," which a lot of preachers would use to captivate their audience.
What was it about hip-hop that drew you in?
What drew me into hip-hop was the overall culture; the breaking, DJing, graffiti and emceeing, not to mention the overall style. The edginess was appealing, too, and the usage of familiarity amidst the artistic expression against oppression along with the spirit of having a good time. I will have to admit that even though I'd imitate Run DMC, LL and the Beastie Boys, when I first heard Rakim, that's when I first really wanted to become an emcee.
Another big influence early on me was Race from The Primeridian who was the first emcee I had seen rap in person with his own lyrics. He later would travel with Common and was in The Late Show with the legendary Twilite Tone. What made me want to make beats within hip-hop was the barrage of music that came out such as De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, EPMD, Gang Starr, BDP and Public Enemy.
What's your take on the local scene here? Some feel it's still a hateful place to create, agree/disagree?
I think it started out not so much about hate but more about competition. Everyone wanted to be the first to get "put on." Because there was no industry here, a lot of artists would go to New York or L.A. and try to get deals and showcase at various seminars. A few people were successful but there wasn't nearly as much camaraderie as there is currently. I will give a lot of the newer artists that are from Chicago, who are holding down the scene here in this city, a lot of credit for bringing about a more united front.
What about hip-hop as a whole, i.e. mainstream and underground's turbulent relationship?
I think when Viacom and Clear Channel seized more power over the music's media outlets the balance in mainstream music became less vast. No longer did we see the majority of uplifting messages and informative "edu-tainment" type songs but more cookie cutter, money, sex and drug influenced songs. More product placement, if you will.
I mean, don't get me wrong, we always had songs like "My Adidas" and Too Short screaming "B____" at the top of his lungs, but you had Queen Latifah and Poor Righteous Teachers and others to help keep it more balanced. Now the music with different creative or uplifting themes are now more under the radar while the more cookie cutter, "negative" themes are in the mainstream. The turbulence occurs as the youth are more influenced by the mainstream "art" as their parents/adults are more accustomed to the "art" being influenced by more real life. Music is very powerful so the influence is great and can be used to help heal and educate or pollute one's mind.
As a member of Primeridian, and as an individual, you've always been invested in the community. How important is it for you to give back to the city? Also, how has music contributed to your work with the youth?
I've seen the direct influence of music on youth. I literally saw a kid go from a class clown in seventh grade to a substance abuser and dealer by eighth grade because of his obsession with this one group who often spoke about cocaine in their raps. The kid was so into the beats that the lyrics sunk into his subconscious and like so many other youth I would see around that time, their lives would imitate the "art."
I also saw within my songs how some of my material could influence youth in a negative way and ironically enough, at the time, those songs were getting some attention from key people in the industry. I had to fine tune the catalogue so that we wouldn't be a part of the "problem." Not to mention, me being a mentor and a teacher I had to also be an influence.
In return, how has the city inspired and helped you as an artist?
This city's musical history is so large and vast that I could write several books on it. I will say that something about the different cultures, neighborhoods, and people in general all play a part in my artistic influence. The beautiful lake that we sit next to is unparalleled to anything I've seen in the world. That always puts me in a certain frame of mind musically, which is peaceful and tranquil, hypnotic even. That's why there's such a melodic undertone in so much of my music. The funk and grit comes out too as things can get funky in these Chicago streets. Through it all I enjoy enhancing one's peace of mind.
What's the status of The Primeridian right now, and is there a new project in sight?
The Primeridian is still making music and there are a couple of projects that are near completion and will be coming out soon. One is the "Crack a Dawn" mix tape that we are doing with The Hip-Hop Project (Cosm Rocks, 1nce Agan and Roper). The other is a project we have done with producer Tall Black Guy called "Darling Lure." We also have projects that we've started with Twilite Tone, Ron Trent, Black Spade, Rashid Hadee, Coolout Chris and The Produktionix.
Every third Thursday you're spinning with Ayana Contreras at Morseland as the Groove Conspiracy. How did you guys meet, and how did the night itself come about?
I met Ayana while I was working with the Digital Youth Network (DYN) and she was working at Vocalo radio. I was a music mentor and one day I had taken some youth down to Vocalo at Navy Pier for a field trip. We were introduced by one of the Vocalo staff and she initially spoke on how she liked one of our singles out at the time entitled "Trumpets of Zion" on All Natural Inc.
From there we'd see each other here and there and became cool. She has this plethora of knowledge on music, especially early Chicago music, and often we'd talk about how rich and vast the city is musically. We had a mutual respect on each other's record collections as she has many 45s and I have many records in general. From there she had a night at the Morseland Cafe on Morse Ave. where I also had a good relationship with the owner through shows with The Primeridian. One night she brought me in to DJ with her during a "One off" Friday in which we made a great impression collectively.
From there we came up with the name and description, which has been getting a lot of attention. I have been a proponent of the "land of 10 million grooves" for nearly a decade after having traveled throughout Europe with one of my mentors, Kahil El Zabar, as a part of the Juba Collective. The nights have been getting great responses. We both bring unique mixtures of songs that are both obscure and tastefully familiar that really take participants on a ride.
You've recently linked up with Kenny Keys and ADaD on a project, is there something bigger on the horizon for you guys?
I've known ADaD since we first joined All Natural Inc. around the same time in 2004-2005. We’ve built and had mutual respect since we released "Da All Nighta" and Eulorhythmics dropped their "Extended Play" album with the label. We had been talking for a while about doing a song together and this year that actually happened a few times. Some cases were impromptu and in the case that you mentioned, ADaD reached out to me with a track that Kenny did, which he thought we'd sound good over it together. He was absolutely correct, to say the least, and we shall see where things go. I am definitely open to many more collaborations with ADaD and with Kenny Keys. Kenny actually did a couple of tracks on The Primeridian album "Da All Nighta" and ADaD is one of the dopest emcees to emerge out of Chicago.
How's your relationship with All Natural going?
We've already done two releases with All Natural Inc. and are currently in talks about releasing a project with producer Tall Black Guy on ANI entitled "Darling Lure." We go back with Cap D and Tone B so we’ve always had mutual respect. I love the fact that they have been doing it for so long and have opened up their channels to other artists from Chicago and beyond.
Anything else we can look forward to?
Funny you should ask, last time I counted I am working on 36 projects this year. Seriously. This includes The Primeridian projects that I had mentioned in addition to a full length project called Ray Elementary with producer Mulatto Patriot. Also a joint project with producer Grant Parks and frequent collaborator Shev Rock called the Eargasmic Soul Collective (E.S.C.).
There is a project with Pugs Atomz (Big Cat) as well as one with producer Kenautis Smith. There is also a solo project that I am writing, producing and playing all the instrumentation on. A project with Tall Black Guy in which we are both bringing out more of our musicianship. A way out outside of the box project I'm working on called "Suburban Feel Good ... " I am also doing some production work for the legendary group The Pharcyde and have had many recent opportunities to play horns/vibes for other artists/producers. So I am very busy these days, to say the least.