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Interview: Willy Northpole – Hip-Hop Artist

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Willy Northpole's presence on the mainstream rap scene is a testament not only to his talents, but also the groundbreaking arrival of Southwestern hip hop. In fact, the way in which Willy made his mark from Phoenix, Arizona, as a musical "connect," may be a sign of things to come – especially in the digital music landscape.

As the newest member of Disturbing Tha Peace, Willy Northpole has obtained the support of Christopher "Ludacris" Bridges, who was largely responsible for putting the South on the national hip hop map. So with proper label support, a noteworthy debut from Willy may – for once and for all – put a permanent spotlight on the Southwest's hidden talents.

Upon the release of Tha Connect, Willy Northpole managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on "Body Marked Up," the death of his cousin Salt, and the current state of hip hop.

The first single off your debut album, Tha Connect, is "Hood Dreamer."  In the music video, you begin with the following words: "based on a true story." With that in mind, what does that particular song mean to you?

That video was actually shot at my grandmother's house. When you watch the video, you're going to notice that a guy was murdered in the video. The guy that was murdered, Salt, that was my cousin. The truth behind that story was when he died in the 90s, he had a son on the way. His son is actually the guy in the video who re-enacted his dad's death. On top of that, my grandmother was in the video. So everything about that video was taken directly from my life and gives everyone a snapshot of my past.

Looking back, what did you most admire about Salt?

His lyrical skills. That's who actually helped me write one of my first raps. He was well-respected on the streets. He was a young gunner. He was way ahead of the game. He was a good guy but deep down inside, there was a dark side. Whatever happened, happened for a certain reason. His legacy lives on in my music as far as what I represent.

As you continue his legacy, what's your ultimate dream for your music, and what have you found to be your definition of success?

Success is word-of-mouth, man. What you got to understand is this is my first album. This is my Reasonable Doubt. This is my Ready to Die. I'm from that cloth in the '90s when good music was still around. So this album, I promise you, is going to be a certified classic.

That's all I want. I want people to respect this album. I don't want it to be ten years later and they say, "His first album? That was the s**t." I want you all to see out the gate when you hear it. Anybody that knows real hip hop and knows what it's supposed to sound like when it comes to storytelling concepts, funny skits, great production, great lyrics, you're going to know that the album's going to be a certified classic. That's the other reason I called it Tha Connect. There's never anyone from Arizona. There's never been somebody to come out and put an album out at the national level and connect you to where you're from. That's me. At the end of the day, man, I just want people to respect my body of work and understand that I'm a real artist.

Looking inside and outside of the music industry, what have you found to be the biggest obstacle that you've had to overcome?

Being the only artist from Arizona and being the first artist from Arizona. There were artists that came out and people assumed they were from Arizona. But from the streets of Arizona born and raised, never lived anywhere else but here, I'm the first. That's the biggest obstacle – just getting out of my state, man, and making it happen myself. 

You've gone on record to say that "Body Marked Up" was the song that got you signed. Is there a particular string of events that led you to DTP?

"Body Marked Up" is the Arizona anthem! [laughing] I shot that video for $1,300 out of my pocket. That video made it all the way to MTV and BET. It caught the attention of G-Unit. Hot Rod was getting signed from Arizona. He lives in California but he was living in Arizona at the time. I went all the way to G-Unit's base. I was actually living at 50 Cent's house for awhile. That didn't work out. I addressed that in my album in a song called "The Story". I just went on, man, to make the best of my situation, to try to come up with my own plans.

We worked hard every single day. We both had a dream we believed and we just worked our hardest. Six months later, I find Disturbing Tha Peace. Ludacris coordinated the whole deal. I had the labels looking at me. He was friends with my manager, Tiffany J. She just referred me and they heard my music. When they heard it, I was instantly flown out to California. Ludacris was shooting a video with Fergie called "Glamorous." I flew out to L.A. and I met ‘Cris out there during the video. We just shoved it up, man. We made six demos and I had them all locked by the second, third demo.

As a manager, Tiffany J has been very instrumental in your career. What's the best advice that she has ever given you?

Since the day I've been signed, I haven't gone one day without talking to Tiffany. So for me to pick out the biggest advice she's ever given me, it would be impossible. The one thing I get is don't stop regardless of what the situation is, the money we're working with. We'll live in the car if we have to make it happen. She can't use her son as an excuse. I can't use my daughter as an excuse. Nothing matters but this and that's how we need to go. Every single day we're moving forward. We just don't stop. That's what she said all the time. We live this s**t. That's her little thing – she says, "We live this s**t."

How did the two of you link up?

I've known her for a long time. I used to go to summer camp with her, man. I was eight years old. She dated my cousin for a couple of years. We became family, pretty much. We kind of lost contact for about six years. She was living in Atlanta. She kept hearing about a kid named Willy Northpole. This was before the G-Unit situation. She was managing me around the time when I moved to 50's house. It's a small world, bro. It rotates. It went from us going to summer camp together as kids and me going off to her cabin, to her managing me as a national recording artist. 

When you made he video for "Body Marked Up," you said that you wanted to show the world that blacks, whites, and Mexicans can have unity. What other messages do you want to share with the world?

There's so much I want to say, man. Every day you wake up is obviously a new day, right? Some people go to work. Some people hustle. But in another 24 hours, there's going to be another day. So what are you going to do to move forward in those 24 hours? Are you going to be the same or are you going to move forward? That's how I am. My whole life is about moving forward. Tomorrow, I don't want to be where I'm at. I want to move forward. That's what people have to understand. The moment you stop, somebody's going to catch up.

When you were in jail, everybody around you was listening to the whole LA sound, but you posted pictures of Jay-Z and DMX on your jail cell wall instead. Why do you think your interest was so radically different from those around you?

Because I grew up with the music. I was just secluded to one sound. Don't get me wrong, we did get the West Coast. I just always admired hip hop, the lyrics. When that whole West Coast thing was going on, I had Jay-Z posters up in my little cell and things like that. Those were my young juvenile years. I wasn't one-sided. I was secluded. I never cliqued up. I've always been my man Willy. 

When did you first fall in love with hip hop?

There was the East Coast All-Stars. I was a child, probably like four or five. The East Coast All-Stars came out with something called "Self Destruction." There were probably about 20 different artists on that one record. It was Flavor Flav, Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, you know what I'm saying? I had to learn all their lyrics and perform it at a talent show. That's what really, really got me involved.

In the early years, how did your father's love of music influence you?

He played all kinds of instruments and I've always been inspired by the drums and s**t, beating on s**t, making loud noises. He used to rehearse when I was a child and I used to just beat on the drums, offbeat. I eventually grew into – I'm not a professional drummer – but I can beat the drums. I've always been inspired by instruments, strings and things like that. A lot of kids would want to play football but I want to play the guitar. 

Eventually, you would link up with an engineer that taught you how to make beats for yourself. Tell me about that.

Yeah. I didn't have money for production. I like the beat styles. I started producing beats without touching the keys, telling him you should do this and you should do that. I was coming up with the best f**king sounds. I still think I have it. I just haven't done it in a long time. You know what I'm saying? I started producing all my records. All my old demos, if anybody owned any of my old demos, they'll tell you, "Willy will go in, he'll make the beat and then rap over the beat." The s**t was always fine. The thing about me, I used to hire a keyboard player to come if I couldn't play a certain note. I'll have the keyboard player find the note for me so the beat is coming full, solid and professional. 

How did you first meet?

When I got out of jail, there was an Arizona Cash Money Records sort of thing and he was a part of that. It was a whole bunch of street ni**as. It was cool. It was a lot of money. He was their main dude. I used their studio to record my demos. He used to try to get me to sign for their label. I never signed for their label but we've just kept playing, you know what I'm saying? I was smart enough not to sign anything. My mother always told me, "Never sign anything unless it's official."

In your video for "Southwest Celebration," there was a line that stated that you weren't trying to be king, but you're most qualified in your eyes. Elaborate on this quote for me, please.

This was my statement. I don't want to be known as the king of Arizona. I don't want to say I'm the king of Arizona. I want the people to call me king. I've done everything a king is supposed to do. I'm the only artist out here that's sold out. I'm the only artist out here that's on the radio. I'm the only artist out here that has a national record deal. So am I the king of Arizona? No. But if you ask somebody who Willy Northpole is, they're going to tell you exactly who I am. You know what I'm saying? The reason I'm not calling me king of Arizona is I got to lead Arizona to become that. What goes on at home stays at home. The love is there; it's never going to stop but I have to branch out and get more love from other people.

How do feel about the current state of hip hop?

I think it's coming back. I think it's definitely better than it was a year ago. You know what I'm saying? The thing about it is we have these new heavyweights. These new MCs coming up that are getting a lot of respect. For awhile, we got lost. Hell, for years, we were getting lost. Around the time Nas was saying hip hop is dead and all that, we were really, really lost. Now, here comes Willy Northpole. Here comes Lil' Wayne. Here comes Drake. Here comes Kid Cudi. Here comes Ace Hood. This is what we need. We need young and up-and-coming Kanyes and T.I.s and Jay-Zs. We're in that generation because those are the guys that sell records. You understand what I'm saying? Real hip hop sells records. I love where hip hop is. I got a lot of work to do, though. I got to definitely stamp where I'm from, a whole new state, a whole new region: the Southwest – consisting of Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Vegas, Wyoming – areas that never been touched. That's what I'm doing. I know what I'm bringing to the table.

Do you ever wonder why the Southwest doesn't get a lot of love?

People follow what's hot. We never had a void. It just takes a void to put it out there. I think the reason we've never had that shot is because nobody ever cared. I'm sure there's talent in Little Rock, Arkansas. The best MC in the world is probably there. But the only way you're going to find out is if they have a story… You just have to be at the right place at the right time. You got to have the right story. That's all it is. 

I got to know your music without meeting you and without ever having to buy a CD. All that is to say is that the Internet has been a really powerful marketing tool for you. What role do you think the Internet is going to play in the careers of young artists like yourself?

The Internet is one of the best tools out there. Anybody who thinks otherwise is crazy. Who saw a video on TV today? No one, but I bet they saw one on the Internet. At the end of the day, you have to get on there and utilize what you have. This is all we have – the Internet. Think about it: who plays videos on TV right now? None of the major "music channels" seem to play a whole bunch of videos anymore. I don't think it's ever going to be the same again.

For more information on Willy Northpole, visit his MySpace page.

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About Clayton Perry