Philly Artists in the Time of COVID-19

Through a series of Zoom calls we spoke with some Philly-based or -raised artists to learn about their history, how the city shaped their music, and what they were most looking forward to after the stay at home order is lifted. Now that we are reaching the end of the stay at home order and businesses are reopening, it’s interesting to think back on how this pandemic has been impacting local artists. Armani White, Chill Moody, Nic Hanson, and Nick from Rubber were all kind enough to open up about their experiences in the city. 

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Armani White

What part of the city do you most identify with?

West. I grew up on 52nd street. And then I spent a lot of time bouncing around the city a little bit, but more or less my aunt lived on one block on Madison Street right by Malcolm X Park. And my dad lived by right down the street from her. So I just kind of ping-ponged back and forth, up and down that road.

How did you start making music?

I think it was more so an escape. Originally the idea was just to kind of get away from the world. To create what I would imagine my whole world would be. I really wanted to paint growing up. And I’d be an artist, drawing and things like that, and I guess I just wasn’t that good. And I didn’t really feel like waiting to get good. I heard an Eminem song that I thought was really cool and interesting. If I could just say whatever it was that I wanted to say or whatever feeling I had going on in my head, I could be as expressive and as openly honest about it, I thought that was interesting enough to make me say, fuck it, I want to try to do it.

What makes the Philly music scene so unique?

There’s one thing that I used to have a problem with but now I’m kind of proud of it. It’s that it doesn’t necessarily have one color. There’s not one shade to it. There isn’t a Philly music sound. Music sounds like whatever it’s like. For every different artist or different song that you may hear from the city, it sounds completely different. I think that allows Philly artists to be as creative as possible. I think the South has a sound. I think the West Coast has a sound. I don’t think Philly has that, and you get to try a bunch of different new things and just figure out who you are. I think that alone is really cool.

What artists, from Philly or not, inspire you and your music?

So there were some really local artists before Meek was popular, like Joey J and especially like Black Thought, artists like that. Once I got a little bit older, I got to really explore things and step out from the whole Philly ideology. My mom listened to a lot of James Brown when I was growing up. She listened to a lot of old Kirk Franklin. So I really drew inspiration from these kinds of artists. For most of it, that was the definition of music for me, music that sounded like church. It sounded like a lot of different horns, like live music sound. So when I would go in and make music, I would think of all the things that I related to as music growing up. As I moved into songwriting, there were like the Frank Oceans, the Bruno Marses and definitely the Kanye Wests of the world. And I’m glossing over Eminem because I already said it. But he was the first person ever who really gave me the courage to talk about whatever I wanted to talk about, be unapologetically myself and make a career out of music.

First experience or most memorable performing here?

My first show was awful, I can come clean and say that. It was on 16th and Ridge. I was fifteen, maybe fourteen years old, and it was a really bad show I did in there. I didn’t know how to hold a microphone. It was awful. But as time grew on I really got to learn how to articulate who I was as a person as well as give whoever is listening a show. 

What have you been doing during the st? How has it been affecting your music-making process?

So it’s allowed me to make more music. I was supposed to go on tour if coronavirus didn’t happen. So, that sucks for sure. But it allowed me to fall back and just make music, which was something I’d been wanting to do since last year but wasn’t able to do because we were on the road for so long. It allowed me to kind of finally park myself and really understand: “What’s the next thing, what does this song sound like? Let’s finish this idea.” And the main studio I go to, that got shut down. But even still, there’s another studio that I go to where I can still be creative, where I used to work when I was maybe 16 or 17. And I think that might have helped out a little bit, because it helped with relationships that I’ve been meaning to mend and get back together with. It’s definitely affected me, but it has its upside.

What has your experience doing online performances been like?

Yeah, we did a whole goddamn tour. We really were just having a conversation about potentially doing another. But I’m kind of burned out of it. We partnered up with the NBA and in total, we did about like eight shows on Instagram Live. This was an outlet to kind of like breathe on the idea that we were just about to go on tour. But it wasn’t like real life at all. There’s no crowd. Interaction is like, you know, even if I wanted to do like a call and response, I’m reading comments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun. It’s just not performing in real life. The whole time, I’m trying to make sure they can hear me and it doesn’t sound too crazy. Yeah, there’s a lot of things that I just don’t feel like I shouldn’t be worrying about while performing. Real-life shows always will be a different thing. 

What’s the first thing you plan on doing when the stay at home order is lifted?

You know, there’s a bunch of different things I want to do, but it’s like, “What should I do?” is more so the correct question. And actually the response to this is: do we just carry on as if it never happened or do we still take necessary precautions? I don’t know. I really just want to hit a beach or something. I really would have wanted to go on tour. But me, my brother, and my D.J., the whole gang started our own little personal bowling league. So all of us go bowling every Monday. And now, you got to think about all the sanitary restrictions of like, putting my fingers in a hole of a ball that somebody else put their fingers in. Can I do that still?

Any tips for aspiring musicians from the city?

I wanna say be yourself. I think that’s the blatantly obvious thing to say. Matter of fact, my biggest tip for aspiring artists is to trust your ideas. I think that’s something that a lot of people struggle with. A lot of people have too many cooks in the kitchen all saying different things. And, you know, they’re not listening to themselves all day, and the only opinion that actually matters isn’t being taken into consideration. 

Find Armani White on:
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Chill Moody

What part of the city do you most identify with?

I’m from West. I associate the city with my strong family, and outside of just immediate family, to community and things like that like. 90% of my family lives in West Philly so you know it’s strong family values, seeing your cousins and hanging out with them and, you know, just learning from them. Everything was just family for me really coming up.

How did you start making music?

I come back to that family thing, you know, trying to keep up with my older cousins and just trying to learn as many raps as I could. I had to be able to name all the members of the Wu-Tang clan and be able to write my own lyrics word for word so I could hang with them. I needed something to make myself cool to hang around my cousins and I always had a passion for music. I used to write poetry as early as the second or third grade. I was always expressive and in touch with my feelings and found different vehicles to kind of express myself. So I picked up hip hop and rap specifically as my art.

What makes the Philly music scene so unique?

The majority of our artists are very transparent in their lyrics and in their music. You kind of get a glimpse into not just that person but that person’s view of the city, their vantage point. You hear the stories of Philly which are the same stories for African Americans. So most Philly artists especially hip hop artists hone in on telling their version of our story. And we don’t take no bullshit. You gotta kinda have some qualities, you gotta really hone in on your craft to even be accepted and to be a champion in the city. So if you make it here make it anywhere in the city because like I said we don’t really take no bullshit. 

What artists, from Philly or not, inspire you and your music?

I model a lot of what I do after artists that found ways to turn the music into other revenue streams and grab more attention because of their music and show more of themselves. Once you focus on them from the music you can jump into other platforms and genres and things like. So guys like 50 Cent who expanded his brand, I kinda did that. Snoop Dogg is another one who I’ve watched turn from just rap into so many other things. Ice Cube is another one who does it. Philly artist I’m inspired by, like my peers in the Philly music scene more than probably anything just because we really have a lot to put us on. Brianna Cash is probably the most inspirational friend and musician. I just know her story and watching her flourish is super inspiring.

First experience or most memorable performing here?

Roots Picnic 2012. I performed on the first day, and I think the only day to extend the Roots Picnic to two days, and the headliner was Kid Cudi and I’m a huge Kid Cudi fan so it was big just for me to share the stage with him, but he ended up not showing up for the show which was kind of wild until I saw him with Tyler, The Creator later. But anyway that day was literally like a monsoon, like torrential downpours during the festival and it started raining right when I got on stage and I was performing in the tent while people were just seeking refuge from the rain. So what would have been maybe 1000 people I was performing in front of turned into like 4000+ ’cause everybody wanted to get under the tent. I put on the show of my life at that time and Billboard Magazine wrote up a piece about me and I wasn’t even selling music at this point, I had no music in the marketplace, other than these CDs I was handing out and things like that, but digitally and actually like in stores there was nothing in the marketplace. So for Billboard to write an article and say that I was one of the show stealers and speak about my performance at length was kind of crazy.

What have you been doing during the stay at home order? How has it been affecting your music-making process?

It’s affecting my music-making process positively, which is weird to say, but it’s affecting me personally. I’ve had adverse reactions to it, and because of that I’ve been writing a whole lot so it’s bad on one side but the good is I’m writing some of the best shit that I’ve ever written so I’m excited to get back in the studio. Once this is all said and done I’ll get some new music and some of these new thoughts out. So creatively I’ve hit a stride.

What has your experience doing online performances been like?

Yeah so, I did a performance for the NBA on their Instagram Live that was my first live performance during this whole situation and it was really weird. It was an amazing experience and shout out the NBA for, you know, even reaching out and continuing to reach out to me, I’ve been building a pretty good partnership with them but it was weird. So as a musician I know all the words already so I don’t have to think of the words, I’m thinking other shit that’s going on, and if I’m live on stage that translates into me watching the audience, seeing who’s paying attention, knowing who’s in the audience, knowing the bars that’s about to come up in front of this group of people who really like this. But the transition into these Instagram Live performances has been me rapping and reading the comments at the exact same time and it’s a little bit of overloading, so I didn’t particularly like performing on Instagram Live. I recently did a show for PHL International Airport, it was a big music festival with I think like 25 airports in North America and there was one artist representing each airport and so we got to film it and send it in and I was a little easier. That was pretty much like shooting a music video, so I like that, but the live performance is a little difficult ’cause you perform and then you read what people are saying and you’re responding and it takes a little bit of time.

What’s the first thing you plan on doing when the stay at home order is lifted?

I think what’s gonna happen is we’re going to have like a big cookout with the family or a little game night or something like that. We’ve been doing virtual game nights with all my cousins and it’s like 15 of us on Zoom, just playing Taboo, so I think once it’s all over we’re all going to just link up and get back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Any tips for aspiring musicians from the city?

My advice for artists has always been the same thing, especially up and coming artists. It’s always been to find someone who has nothing personally invested in you and get their take on your music. So not someone that owes you money or a family member. Somebody who has no choice but to keep it real with you. Find a person or a group of people like that and see what they think of the music, be able to take that criticism and build from that. Everything else you kind of learn as you go. A lot of people give advice and experiences, but you know, experiences are unique to individuals so it’s kind of hard to give advice. Like I can give great advice on what to do when it rains at your show, but it might not rain at your show. So, what I would say is find somebody who has nothing personally invested in you and see what they think about your product and build from that.

Find Chill Moody on:
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Nic Hanson

What part of the city do you most identify with?

I grew up in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, and I guess those two places are what I would most identify with. I think in general, Northwest Philadelphia is definitely what I would most identify with. But they’re all such different neighborhoods, so sort of the conglomeration of them all.

How did you start making music?

I started as a rapper back in junior high school and selling CDs at school. And, you know, making songs with my friends and producing beats. I started as that, but I was singing in a choir also at the same time and getting into the piano as well. So the combination of those three things still speaks to lots of the kind of stuff that I make.

What makes the Philly music scene so unique?

Oh, man, it’s history. First of all, there’s such a deep tradition of certain kinds of music for sure, such as Soul and Hip Hop and a lot of Gospel. But the other thing that I think right now makes the Philly scene so interesting is its DIY attitude. It’s easy to have an idea and manifest it very specifically and quickly to a niche audience that will get it. Like, I think the reason the punk scene in Philly is thriving and the reason that a lot of underground scenes in Philly are really thriving is because you can have an idea and then turn it into an event and then turn it into a thing that people talk about really quickly, whereas in a lot of other cities it’s much harder to do. The other thing is that it’s not a city like New York where there are so many things involved that you’re unable to stand out. But in a city like Pittsburgh, if you have a thing then it’s the thing. Philly is a good middle ground. 

What artists, from Philly or not, inspire you and your music?

For me specifically, I think there are certain songs. There are certain songs and many of my favorite songs just have a Philly feel, a Philly pocket. It’s hard to put into words, but especially a lot of that neo soul stuff, which is possibly my biggest influence, like Soulquarians, Music Soulchild, Jill Scott, The Roots also. I’m a big proponent of attaching music to a place, and I think that a lot of times like it’s very situational, what I want to listen to. It depends on where I am, and I think so many of those songs from Philly artists, particularly the R&B artists- it just feels appropriate to me to listen to them in Philly more than anywhere else. And that kind of music even from a very young age really influenced me. And I think it’s definitely reflected in the music I make.

First experience or most memorable performing here?

One of my favorites was when we took the club Coda. And this is a great example of this DIY thing. So the club Coda was very much, still is I guess, big for house, dance, electronic, and EDM. But we took it on a Monday and just turned it into this crazy hip hop show. And there were hundreds of people, all coming out to a free show and everybody was having a great time. And I performed at Coda also doing house music. And that’s really dope too, but for us to be able to take that space and turn it into basically the equivalent of a basement or gallery DIY party and show and totally packing it out in this venue where none of these people ever go was really, really cool to me.

What have you been doing during the stay at home order? How has it been affecting your music-making process?

So I was making a living as a musician before this situation and now I’m not. All the gigs that I had and the tours that I had planned and everything got canceled. So I’ve been working at a liquor store where I was working before I was making money as a musician. And that’s been such a blessing. Everybody there is the best. And then I’ve been recording so much. I mean, writing a lot and collaborating, which is such a big part of what I do, has really been amazing during this because everybody has their own kind of setup in their bedroom in Philly and in New York also and in other places. I’ve been working with some people in London. There’s so much sending back and forth, you know, “Oh, can you put a bass on this?” “Oh, can you record drums on this or  record vocals on this?” The cross-collaboration that people typically do in person is now just super remote, but it’s awesome. I mean, like waking up and getting an email that says, “Hey, man, I just put bass down on this track of yours. Let me know what you think. Also, I have this idea. It’s just a beat, if you wanna put a vocal on it or something like that would be great.” That’s such a great feeling. Just because everybody’s so good, I’m super blessed to have super talented friends and it’s such a many-heads-are-better-than-one situation. It’s pretty cool.

What has your experience doing online performances been like?

It’s definitely weird. The performances vary a lot. Some of them have been amazing. Some of them have been a little more questionable. One of the most frustrating things is that the technology isn’t there. Zoom I think has been really good. The Zoom shows that I’ve done have been better than, for example, the YouTube Live shows that I’ve done. Some are just there, for whatever reason. Some of the technology is better than others and my favorite one that I did was put together by my boy Ardie Fritato, who organized it for a class that he had or something, but it was sick and there was one hundred and fifty people all in this Zoom, all like talking over each other, but not in a bad way. Like the right people were on mute and you really felt the community. It was a bunch of people who all knew each other in real life- not everyone, but a lot of them did. And it was great, it was very vibrant, and it didn’t feel like I was performing to a computer. I feel like when you don’t see anybody’s reaction and you don’t see shit, it’s like “Well, this is just weird.” It’s kind of like talk show hosts, I guess, doing their shows but with no audience. It’s not the same as performing in person, but it’s OK. It’s OK.

What’s the first thing you plan on doing when the stay at home order is lifted?

The first thing I plan on doing when the stay at home order is lifted is definitely either having or attending an event. It’s going to be getting everybody together and having a jam/party/kickback/show, just seeing everybody again. I miss people. The first thing I want to do is something social.

Any tips for aspiring musicians from the city?

Yes. Try things. Try it. If you have an idea, do it. This is really for musicians from anywhere. But, there does tend to be this mentality, particularly in Philly, in my experience, of sometimes people wanting to hold other people back. There’s a feeling of competition, slight negativity. Fuck that. If you think of something, if you have an idea, you can manifest it. It’s not difficult to do. If you just do it and if it doesn’t work, then keep going. Just don’t stop doing it. I think that’s the best thing I can say for anybody is to try it.

Find Nic Hanson on:
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Rubber

What part of the city do you most identify with?

I grew up in Burholme, up Cottman avenue in Northeast Philly, and so did our singer John, he’s my cousin. Cody moved to Philly when he was 21 from Allentown, when he moved into a house I, and then John, lived in in Fishtown.

How did you start making music?

We met at KFN, a punky club in Fishtown, we both worked there. Dave had been living in South Philly for several years. He had a lot of musician friends, knew lots of other people who moved to the city.

What makes the Philly music scene so unique?

At some point, like a year and some months ago, people started sending us info of this duo performing under the name “Rubber.” We would mess with them online- often our stuff or photos would be posted to shows they were going to perform. People would ask us why we were playing some weird thing for us. Eventually, I reached out to them personally, like we make a pretty particular poetic thing, we weren’t aiming to “sing our hearts out” and follow along some tired melodic path, we were well aware of the small reputation we’d ever make for ourselves but thats all we really had. I said something like “Doesn’t it bother you from an artist’s standpoint, like style and everything to have people mix us up?” They didn’t respond. I was told two different promoters told them it’s kind of messed up for them to be performing as Rubber, when there’s a Rubber that’s been performing around Philly for awhile, but again they didn’t care. So in terms of a musician’s community, I guess those two guys believe everyone is beneath them. I did run into their “manager” at the bar I worked at and asked him about it and he said we made them mad with the stuff we’d post to their Facebook.

What artists, from Philly or not, inspire you and your music?

We did open for Lydia Lunch Lunch and also Dan Melchoir during this time frame [when we started performing.] I can’t imagine you’re a fan of Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, but Lydia is a hero of mine. We were talking to Richie Records about doing a release- then Dave passed. 

What have you been doing during the stay at home order? How has it been affecting your music-making process?

The truth of the matter is Rubber was preparing to record our last effort which would have been our first LP. Last August, Dave, our drummer, died. He grew up in Camden. John, Cody and I had been preparing all our outstanding material with his friend Avery filling in for Dave since around October, and were planning on recording around now. Obviously we haven’t been able to keep practicing every week because of COVID. Losing Dave was really hard for me—the four of us really got on well. Not even being able to meet with John, Cody, and Avery to tighten up the material for recording in honor of Dave has been pretty hard too but everyone knows this strange individual exile. I come from a mindset of practicing technique everyday and learning everyday so I’ve been keeping busy doing that. 

Rubber will now be continuing on with other projects after the passing of their bandmate Dave. 

Find Rubber on:
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