[Listen to the podcast version here]
As I get ready to explore the creative process behind Lillian, I thought I’d write a little about how I got into Alias, the rapper-turned-producer behind that song.
I first heard Alias in 2005 when my friend Nate put together a little 2-disc “intro to hip hop” package for me, after I admitted I didn’t listen to any rap and probably should. The first disc was a sampling from the 90’s with names like Nas, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, and Canibus. The second was Alias’ album The Other Side of the Looking Glass.
Rap was a real paradigm shift for me. The fact that I’d spent my early teenage years growing up in rural Illinois did nothing for my acculturation into the world of hip hop in general. I struggled to listen to a lot of what my friend had burned for me, especially because a lot of the songs he chose were lyrics-focused with no-frills beats. Ironically some of these songs would later be among my favorite music, but it would take me years to acquire the new tastes that let me fully appreciate them.
Part of me wishes I could go back and rewire my brain, make myself listen to these lyrics and hear them like I do now. But it would be naive to think that slow process wasn’t necessary, that it wasn’t part of my growth as a listener. So I’ll just be open about that fact that at the time, the stories these rappers wove and the taunts they unleashed on my ears went largely ignored.
Alias’ The Other Side of the Looking Glass was a different experience. I was immediately attracted to its vivid and melancholy beats, which fixated me enough that I enjoyed listening to somebody rap against them. As someone who’d so far grown up with favorite artists like Radiohead and Massive Attack, Alias’ affinity for an electronic, often sentimental soundscape helped to bridge the gap to my slow appreciation of rap as an artform.
The Other Side of the Looking Glass was obviously not a typical rap album, even to an outsider like me. Looking back on how I first listened to it, I see myself wandering through it like a foreign city, slowly familiarizing myself with its symbols and conventions. The lyrics were brooding and introspective, but for a young me it was the sound that stuck in my mind. It always seemed like it was raining in that album.
It wasn’t until late 2007 that I looked up Alias’ other work. I downloaded his two albums Muted and Lillian and started listening to them together. It was the first time I realized instrumental hiphop could be a genre in its own right, and not limited to the lyric-less versions of rap songs I sometimes found on EPs.
I played those albums consistently throughout my college years. The formulas behind the songs were simple to understand, but their composition resonated. I became familiar enough with each album to appreciate its differences. Muted was pure Alias, with samples of speeches, rants, and his own live introductions rubbed into gritty breakbeats and ambient tones. Lillian added a whole new layer of instrumentation, with Alias’ brother Ehren playing beautifully on the flute, clarinet, and saxophone. With this added element Lillian was a rich experience, as the voices of Ehren’s instruments crooning from the patchwork of Alias’ jagged synth gifted that album with a color and mood that Muted had only hinted at with tracks like “Beginagain” and “Sixes Last”.
Altogether, Alias’ sound was a new flavor and texture that provoked my imagination. Like a lot of my favorite artists’ work, his albums founded a new space in my mind – a distinct world in which each song was its own place and concept. Over time, a few of these ideas would sharpen into detail, becoming paiges. Among them was Lillian.