Following the release of his third album this year, we catch up with leading rap wordsmith Milo to talk about how jazz has influenced his music, why myth building is important in hip-hop, and why he’ll no longer be recording under the name Milo.
2018 has been a banner year for Milo. Renowned for his smartly-composed lyrics and experimental production tendencies, the MC and producer kicked things off back in January with the latest installment of his Scallops Hotel series of releases, sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face. After finding time to open the Soul Folks record store and community hub he runs in Biddeford, Maine, he delivered up the collaborative Nostrum Grocers project alongside ELUCID this summer. Now comes budding ornithologists are weary of tired analogies, which will be the last album be released under the name of Milo.
When did you start writing budding ornithologists are weary of tired analogies?
I actually started writing this before I was a rapper professionally. The title is something I’ve had since I was 16 years old. I was gonna name my first mixtape that, and there’s actually a song on my first mixtape called that, but one of my best friends died and everything changed. [In honor, that project was titled I Wish My Brother Rob Was Here.]
So you’ve had the title with you for all these years?
Yeah, I just feel like I’m in a place as an artist, seven years later, where I’m just now able to go back and be like, “Oh, this is what I wanted to do.” I mean I always wanted to put myself in league with [Ishmael Reed’s] Neo-HooDooism, like from the genesis, that to me was my world and that was what I came from. So this title, to me, communicates that perfectly. I thought that was something that was so cool when I was 16, but now I’m 26 and I still think that’s the coolest shit in the world.
When it came to picking the beats for budding ornithologists…, were you looking for a certain vibe?
Absolutely. I was angling towards the stuff I like to listen to and those instrumentals are things I can play around my son — there’s nothing too crazy, my heart isn’t going to fall out my chest, you know? It’s something that puts us in a good mood and I can play around my whole family.
” I was 16 and I thought Charlie Parker was the coolest cat”
Lots of the production sounds jazz-influenced.
Oh, definitely. I think that since I dropped out of college, jazz has been my primary influence. In every album it’s shown a little bit more as I’ve grown in my ability and I’ve been studying. I hope that jazzy vibe comes across.
What were some of the first jazz records or artists that got you into the music?
That’s pretty easy: I’m from Chicago so Kurt Elling is like my mom’s favorite male vocalist, so she’d be playing Kurt a lot growing up. That man has so much soul and charisma and cool. I’m thinking of Live In Chicago [recorded at the Green Mill], that record probably influenced budding ornithologists... a lot. Also, Man In The Air — those two albums really showcase what I think hip-hop should sound like! I mean they’re jazz albums, but to me it’s really the way he’s synthesized everything. I wish he had a sampler on stage — he only has a band.
Also, Phil Ranelin, his group The Tribe, they really impacted my hugely, just how he sings. And Leon Thomas, that brother right there, my god! It’s his use of just throwing his voice around, this total embrace of the full range of what his voice can do, not just the pretty stuff, and incorporating all of that is beautiful.
Would you ever see yourself recording an album with a live jazz quartet?
Yeah, I just don’t have any money and I don’t have any jazz quartets! But if some rich jazz quartet wants to do it I would totally be down. Yeah, that’s probably what I should do.
Does the reference to “ornithologists” in the new album title have anything to do with Charlie Parker?
One thousand percent. When I was 16, I came up with the title, and Charlie Parker I thought was the coolest cat. I was really into the whole shit he was doing.
“We have to go beyond literal, beyond the exact”
The album opens with a quote about myth building. Why does the idea of that interest you?
‘Cause that’s the only way to fight back as an artist, especially in the digital era where everything is perfectly recorded, snapshotted, memorized etcetera. We have to go beyond the literal, beyond the exact, because it’s all exact. You can be like, “I saw the tweet written, it said da-da-da-da-da.” But if I write it in myth code, in poetic talk, it gives me a pivot.
It’s interesting to me that this record hasn’t been as critically received as some shit I’ve done because, I think in part, the embrace of myth is something that sort of mocks criticism and scoffs at the idea of an exact telling. I like that myth moves like that — and ultimately that myth is all that any of this is going to be.
As an artist interested in agency and freedom and really trying to get to the meat and potatoes of what rapping is, I’d say it is myth building. Everyone may not be aware when they’re doing it, but I’m aware of it and I’m just doing it in public, making my process transparent.
Towards the end of budding ornithologists… you have a song based around the artist Reggie Baylor giving a speech about how an artist gets from one point to the next point. Is this something you think about a lot when it comes hip-hop?
No, I should think about it more. That’s why that struck me. I actually know the artist very well — he’s an OG of mine and someone I look up to — and hearing him discuss art like that inspires me. I don’t think about it enough, honestly, and I should think about it more. There’s times when it’s hard for me to think in points. I don’t know what my goals are in rap other than freedom, other than being able to execute the ideas as they come to me. When I can’t do that, I’m like, “Fuck, I need to be more point driven to get to this place.” But realistically, that’s not my process.
The album ends with a verse where you’re rapping a quote from Walt Whitman. What stood out about his words to you?
Yeah, I actually got that from Kurt Elling! He has this amazing record The Sleepers that’s based off a Walt Whitman poem, and there’s this flute playing and it sounds like a magical musical moment, but I just made it like a murky hip-hop one.
I like that we’re in such a referential time. People will call my music mighty referential – like all music isn’t at this point, like all media isn’t at this point. That’s something that really trips me up. In rap, for whatever reason, when you put a focus on that, it gives people pause so I like doing that now: I’m cribbing a line from three other cats. Like if I can skip one stone and as a writer have it hit three times, I’m into that type of shit.
From Milo to its future self
Is budding ornithologists… going to be the last ever album released under the name Milo?
What made you take that decision?
It’s a decision I’ve known since I put out who told you to think??!!?!?!?!. It just seemed like the arc was pointing towards that. [Milo] is a very humble project that started as an unchained wannabe and I love that about it and I’m interested in preserving that arc and I’m not that anymore. I’ve trained myself well, I know how to execute most of my artistic ideas, I know how to get an audience, I know how to make a living off this. I’m interested in working on something now that reflects that from the genesis.
When are people likely to see this next stage in your evolution?
I’m not sure because I’m not entirely sure what it entails. I’m not just talking about music. I run a record store that’s very cracking, I’ve hired two employees already and we only opened in April; I can’t keep enough records in here right now and it’s in Maine! Now I’m thinking about restaurants in Los Angeles, I’m thinking about a hideout in New York, I’m thinking about operating on a bigger scale now. I’m interested in taking my ideas way larger.