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"I was always called a weirdo," Adrian Tillman, aka 607, said. "I was always too hood for the weird people. and I was always too weird for the hood people."
That's as good a manifesto as any for 607's new album, "Nerd from the Hood," released on Halloween, the 39th album since 2000 for the most prolific (and many would argue the best) rapper in Little Rock. The 17 tracks — available for download (for free or pay what you want) at 607's bandcamp page, iam607.com — are punchy, literate and stylistically diverse. The most provocative song, "Kill Crooked Cops" is highly topical (more on that in a minute) but the album as a whole keeps circling back to the personal. Exploring questions of identity is rich ground for an artist as singular as 607.
"I always give people glimpses at me and who I am, but I wanted to give them a more in-depth look at how I perceive myself, and what I think my role is in society and people like me," Tillman said.
On the album's title track, he raps, "Some of y'all don't understand my energy/I told the hood it couldn't have my identity."
His experiences growing up poor, Tillman said, are a vital and important part of who he is, but don't define him. "I wanted to shed light on people like me," he said. "People who are from the hood but we're not necessarily gangsters. We're still heavy... . After music started selling millions of copies and the corporations got ahold of it, they really started only pushing urban people to be one thing. Like you need to be a gangster to have music out or you need to do this to have music out. The more eclectic people started getting neglected."
This album, and the entire career of 607, might be thought of as a primal scream against being one thing. As Tillman yells repeatedly on "Nerd from the Hood," "You can't put me in a box!"
He picks up musical styles and personas as the the mood strikes him. This is the guy who once "outsourced" himself, as he put it, travelling across the world to bring rap music to Russia. The guy who took a break from dominating the hip-hop nightlife to learn violin and cello. He raps "if I'm going to have dinner with God/I have to have breakfast with astronauts" and "I need a hearse for all the people I'm about to murder" on the same song, and both lines seem perfect and inevitable. They are both unmistakably him.
It's tempting to think of him as self-consciously iconoclastic, but it seems more like he simply has a contrary nature that pushes his art in unpredictable, and often glorious, ways. "If music starts getting too serious then I'm going to be that guy making ridiculous music," he said. "Everything has a place and a role. I'm all about balance, making sure everybody knows that rap music is not one thing. When I see that the balance is off, I know I'm an artist and I want to try to supply that balance."
Tillman is even resistant to labels he gives himself, like, well, "nerd from the hood."
"What I'm trying to do by calling myself that is I'm trying to put myself in a package that people can digest," he said. "People are not ready to process ... that's what racism and prejudice is all about ... people are not ready to process complex personalities. I'm trying to put it in a package for them so they can understand it."
So the guy hollering that he can't be put in a box is also trying to package himself in an easily digestible way. Is that a contradiction? Or how about that a rapper desperate not to get pinned down by gangsta stereotypes loves to rhyme about guns? Or that this album is 607's attempt to explain and categorize himself, a dude who has gleefully spent his life being inexplicable and unclassifiable? Well, yes, contradictions abound. That's part of the fun! 607 contains multitudes.
Whereas he used to put out an album around four times a year, Tillman, who turned 34 this year, lately has been releasing an album just once a year, on Halloween. He's gotten better, he said, and his songs have more staying power. In the early days, he was releasing so much music not just to improve his skills but because "people got tired of the songs — they didn't have replay value. So I needed to come out with something else so I could pay my bills. Now I'm learning how to make music better that lasts longer."
He makes a living off of his music and related work, a point of pride. More than a decade after he started, he's become perhaps the most recognizable face in Little Rock hip-hop, and no one has worked harder to build the scene. He sees himself as an elder statesman, a role he takes seriously. "It's come a long way," he said. "There's a lot of people who get frustrated with it, but when you're building something brand new from the ground up it takes a long time. I never wanted to be one of those transplant people who went to San Francisco or New York because the city was cool. I feel like I'm the type of person that I'll make a place cool. I want to stay here and build something here so cool people can stay here with me. I'm making music for the cool politicians... . It's a network of us. In the future, it's going to be a reason for all of this."
Tillman talks a lot about his love for Arkansas and Little Rock and the ways that it inspires his life and music — but on the album's opener, "Kill Crooked Cops," it's clear local events have also been a source of pain.
"This has been an emotional year, that's why this is an emotional album," Tillman said. The song is an angry recounting of police brutality and fatal shootings, with a heavy focus on particular cases in Little Rock. "Kill Crooked Cops," for all its bluster, is fundamentally about fear. Tillman is afraid of what the police might do: "I'm trying to teach my nephews right from wrong/but still as I write this song it got me crying/police might kill 'em and still don't get no time." He also laments that the police are scared of him. "Before you hire a cop see what they made of/cause they ain't gonna protect the people they afraid of."
That said, for all of the emotional appeals (and the "if you an honest cop you ain't got nothing to worry about" caveat), most listeners will probably zero in on the title and lines like "hunting season's open" and "shoot that bitch in the head."
Talking to Tillman, what becomes clear is that what upsets him the most is that police are misjudging him, or people like him ("I'm a citizen bro, I do everything by the book" he told me — or as he raps in the song, "they treating all black males like criminals/most of us make a living honest"). That's the tricky thing about a song like "Kill Crooked Cops" — its best insight is that tragedy happens when cops are afraid of citizens who they have no reason to be afraid of. But while no one has any reason to fear Tillman, 607's posture on the track is surely meant to inspire fear.
Of course, saying something on a record and real-life violence are two very different things. But what occurs to me hearing "Kill Crooked Cops" is that 607 at his best aims to transcend the heartbreaking misunderstandings central to those tragedies.
People are wired, he told me, to be uncomfortable or scared of the unfamiliar. "That's your brain, it's a survival thing," he said. "We have to program ourselves where we understand that and get around that."
I suggested that his music might help people re-program a little bit. "I hope so," he said. "I just want to change the way that people look at people and the way the hood looks at itself."
Adrian Tillman, the "nerd from the hood," is neither nerd nor hood because he's too much of a freewheeling oddball spirit to be either. He's one of a kind. May he make 39 more albums. My only prediction: whatever we imagine they'll sound like, they'll sound like something else.