It's 4 in the afternoon, and clearly he's famished. Haphazardly dumping powdered cheese and milk into the pot, he's playing beat-the-clock before a Greyhound ride to his hometown of Dayton. But when he finally gets to relax and talk about why he's re-releasing his CD, Illumination, and how he transitioned from battling regionally to negotiating a national distribution deal, Ill Poetic's hunger seems synonymous with perseverance.
"I'm a lot more confident (with the new version) because with any album, it's supposed to capture a moment in time," he says. "Most of the original songs on the album were written in 2003, and 2003 was a fucked up year for me, and a lot of those songs reflect that fucked-upness. 2004 was a better year, so the newer material came from '04 and '05, which has been really cool ... so far."
So far, so good.
Two days before, a phone call offered a distribution deal.
"It's such fresh news that I don't wanna say, 'Aww, I got a label,' " he says. "It took me to hell and back to get there, and I'm not even all the way there yet."
Illumination is a rite of passage that freed his stream of consciousness, which he poured into free-written compositions drawn from gazing out of bus windows.
"I do much of my songwriting on the Metro, and it feels like I go through damn near half the neighborhoods in Cincinnati," Ill Poetic says. "Looking out the window, you see such a wide spectrum of people and places, and daily it changes."
An example of his open window introspection is "Cinciluminati," a cozy cut of cryptic metaphors compiled off the head, all capturing snapshots of Cincinnati like a roving reporter. While riding buses, he envisioned the entire song and completed it before he reached his house. Lines like "turning churches into Urban Outfitters" and a reference to Price Hill as a "melting pot" when Queen City Barrel burned chronicle local infamy and irony.
That track will be marketed separately from Illumination, but the cuts on the album also have cryptic messages he says even his closest friends can't always encode, some spawned from personal pain and an unforeseen recording sabbatical away from his Hip Hop duo, Definition, with regular co-conspirator Zone Ill. These factors helped Ill Poetic define identity outside of the battling ciphers. For him, weekly battles became passé.
"Battles got so big when 8 Mile came out, you had articles about it, battles on 106 and Park, Ricki Lake battles and all this bullshit, and everyone got so overexposed on it," he says.
Still, his attention-grabbing appearance at Scribble Jam 2004 exposed Ill Poetic's music to a wider audience, which he realized when a kid at a show in Evansville, Ind., recognized him from the most recent Scribble Jam DVD. For him, the experience was surreal.
"I've had artists I looked up to for years who were more local then moved to national, who metaphorically passed the torch to us, like, 'Y'all are next up,' " he says. "You had the Mood/Wanna Battle/Five Deez generation in Hip Hop, and then you have the next generation in Hip Hop that comes after them, like Piakhan, King Solomon and Holmskillit. When I came here in 2000, those were the names locally who were doin' it. I don't see us at that position yet."
Since he self-manufactured, wrote and produced Illumination, Ill Poetic is glad the painstaking process finally brought distribution. But he reiterates that he's broke.
"Shoot, I'm probably broker than you are," he says, scraping the remainder of his noodles. "As far as they know, they just think, 'They're onstage, I really like their shit.' But when I come off, I'm trying to plan my next move ... to not have a part-time job anymore and be able to live off this."
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