When we met up with Milo after his show in St. Louis, he wasn’t too happy about the lukewarm response from the crowd, and rightfully so. Milo doesn’t just rap, he performs, pumping his heart and soul into his set, and even then Milo had to ask the crowd to come closer to the stage. “Come on fuck with your boy, have y’all never been to a rap concert before?” he asked, trying to come off as lighthearted as possible but clearly perturbed about the lack of energy.
However, the weird vibes from the crowd couldn’t break the 22-year-old rapper from Maine. His latest album, A Toothpaste Suburb, is gaining widespread acclaim, garnering attention from music media and new fans everywhere. Milo isn’t your average rapper, with a style drawing comparisons to spoken word poetry over Clams Casino-esque beats. Milo’s songs are influenced by everything from 6th century Buddhist monks, to racial discrimination, to Neil Young and John Denver. We conversated with Milo after the show to discuss his new label Hellfyre Club, weird things that have happened on tour, fake veganism, and his new album’s take on meaninglessness.
Let’s start with an easy question. What music did you grow up with?
Like specifically? Or just genre-wise?
Okay, I grew up listening to a lot of like – especially before I could develop my own taste – a lot of like Neil Young, John Denver, Biggie, and Tupac. It was a lot of like X Clan too, I guess. And then when I could finally develop my own taste around like 10, it was Open Mike Eagle, Busdriver, Del the Funky Homosapien, Mos Def, Dead Prez, all that stuff.
So this is like your dream come true then, being a part of Hellfyre Club with all of these guys?
Yeah it was a dream come true. Definitely.
How long ago was it that they added you?
Almost 2 years. They emailed me. But like, I had toured with Michael (Open Mike Eagle) before, I’d met Busdriver at one of his shows and he’d recognized me from the internet. So we kinda shot the shit a little bit, enough so they knew that I had an album and nobody wanted to put it out. And then they kinda just emailed me like, “yeah we’ll put it out.”
What was your initial reaction to that email?
I felt stronger, man. I probably got signed to Hellfyre like mid-November of 2012. I had a show December 7th, and that was the show where I announced my record and announced that I had gotten signed. And like, I just remember crying at that show and being like “I finally got signed, I’m with Hellfyre now,” and being just like, “Yeah!” you know?
Was it a more packed show than you were used to because of your getting signed and announcing your record?
No not really. Since I had been going to college and stuff I had been doing my own shows and I really built up a strong following in the midwest without any labels’ help. But it was the kinda following where like everyone is kinda rooting for the underdog, like, “Yo man keep it up! You’ll get signed one day! We’ll keep coming, you just keep doing it!” So finally at that show it was like all these people who’d been supporting and been coming made it feel like a celebration. And even this tour, like certain cities man, like Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, places I grew up at, they always have that vibe. That vibe of just like “YAAAAA” – I don’t know how you’d write that down (laughs).
What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened on tour?
Let me think… like there are certain levels of weird. Like there’s a level of weird where if my mom read this she’d be mad. So I gotta think of the appropriate level of weird so that you guys are like, “oh that’s pretty weird” but not so weird that people are like, “this guy is a fucking hooligan full of debauchery and nasty shit!” Honestly, the weirdest thing that has happened on this tour has been the number of times we have been pulled over. Just for like, being black. It was all in the South too. Like, Louisiana, Arizona….
And honestly, there have been some weirdos but I just don’t wanna put them on blast. But like last night after the show I was on the phone, and this guy came up to me and for whatever reason, maybe I did a moody set like tonight, and he was just like, “Are you feeling down? Like what’s up are you feeling down?” But he said it in this way that instantly pissed me off. I was just like you don’t know me at all man. It was such a mean thing to say.
Your style seems to be a lot like spoken word. Do you have any background in that?
No. It’s funny, people always say that about me, “Spoken word, poet guy”, and I just never did any of that shit (laughs). Like I just rap man. I just think of myself as a rapper. People are always like, “Hey come do this poetry thing with me,” and I’m always like “I don’t know anything about that.”
What do you care about most?
I care about black people a lot. I’m trying to think of how to say this succinctly…. I am concerned with defending, protecting, and furthering black culture. I’m obsessed with this notion of black art that was really started by Ishmael Reed and Amiri Baraka. And like the Umbra Writers Workshop, which was just like, a bunch of esoteric 60’s black writers and I’m just obsessed with them and I’m obsessed with their mission which was just like, making honest and difficult black art. Amiri Baraka talks about how we need poems that kill.
On this note, I know Evan’s read a lot about, and I (Pierce) have talked about how people don’t respect rap as a form of art enough.
I assume that’s because people don’t care about black people that much. I don’t really want respect from people who don’t think of rap as art. There’s a big trope in rap that’s like, where rappers say shit like, “I hate rap” or “I’m embarrassed to say I’m a rapper”. And all that kinda shit is stupid, you know what I mean? Because to me, what you’re really saying is that this art form that is commonly associated with black people, this black art form: I participate in it, I make a living off it, I’m embarrassed of it? That’s stupid. And I think that’s what we’re doing in Hellfyre Club. We’re working to give it more form, give it a more shaped aesthetic, put it in a historical context. But at the same time, we’re trying not to pander to any respectability politics.
What does a “toothpaste suburb” mean?
I’m always hesitant to answer those types of questions, because I think that any time that an artist is really good at explaining their own art… I’m always suspicious if it took them anytime at all make. Like when you’re wrestling with a really weird, primordial feeling and shit, and like artistic instinct, and you’re making these little decisions, if you can talk about them too fluidly it creeps me out.
But I guess a toothpaste suburb, in a very literal sense, is from a Don DeLillo novel called Cosmopolis, which is a really shitty Robert Pattinson movie now which you shouldn’t watch, but you should READ Cosmopolis. It’s about this dude who’s like so powerful in the business world, that he doesn’t really even have a home. He just lives in a limousine and he just gets driven around New York all day, and he just makes these billion dollar decisions. And he’s like crazy smart, and it’s just his life. And at one point he’s like on a highway and he pulls over from his like crazy mobile command center, and he just starts shitting on this view that he sees and he calls it a “toothpaste suburb”. And I was just like, that’s me, you know? Like, I’m the one on the receiving end of that guy’s gaze. Like the billionaire, often times white male, heterosexual, just like dominant force in society just gazing on me and just shitting on me. So I wanted to make a record about where that comes from. I’m just reppin’ the toothpaste suburb.
The record is obsessed with meaninglessness. Like what I was trying to do was like, as often times as there was an aphorism that really hits home, and for every line that just makes you say “Whew, damn!”, I wanted to write something that was maybe just like discursive. Or maybe, at face value, illogical. I was really influenced by this dude Dogen, who was like this 6th century Buddhist monk who was obsessed with language and kinda invented the Koan. You know, like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Those kinda things that we laugh at, but that he really was obsessed with. Because he thought that logic and rationality can’t explain everything and that there is something behind reasoning, and I just became obsessed with that idea. So I was like, “I want to do that, I want to write Koans.” I was just obsessed with this dude. And I never knew if I was in on the joke you know? Like I never knew if I was in on the joke or not. And that shit just sticks with you.
You talked about veganism in your set, and you said that “white people aren’t doing veganism for the right reasons.” What do you mean?
It’s just like all that shit that’s a social trend. Like, people who humble brag about shit and are like, “Oh man I just spent all day cutting organic cucumbers!” And I just think that like, [they] are the worst, you know? Like, you are feigning to be great, but you are actually the worst! (laughs)
I wanted to be vegetarian at a lot younger age, but I just have a very traditional dad. He would tell me that “men eat meat”. He told me in middle school, he said, “You will never be a vegetarian in this house.” So I just waited until I moved out. The last piece of meat I ate was a chicken wing.
That’s rather anti-climactic for being your last piece of meat.
I mean, eating meat is sorta anticlimactic. It’s just really bad for you.
If you had to explain your music to an old white woman, how would you do that?
It’s rap music. I make rap music. I make rap music that you’ve probably never heard before. I’m a black dude with tattoos, swearing on beat.
I used to be so obsessed with genre. I once called my music “computerized soul-folk.” I would come up with these fucking elaborate names because I was insecure and 19 and just trying to be different. But now I just say I make rap. If I met an old lady who was like, “What do you do?” I’d be like, “I rap.”