WKNH Music Director
Rory Ferreira, AKA Milo, AKA Scallops Hotel, might be an art rapper, as some call him. But really, he isn’t. He’s a rapper. Like all rappers, he practices a type of verbal magic which, when done well, can transmute rhymes into keys to unlock the chains which hold us in bondage. Rap is liberation music—though there is a broader conversation to be had about homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in rap to be had. It was born in the Bronx, made of equal parts youth culture and racial oppression by way of the displacement caused by the Bronx Expressway.
Rory practices rap for the sake of rap. He has been branded with the label of art rapper for the brunt of his career, a label which I must admit I have found useful. I am here to make a case as to why it is only limitedly so, if not down right detrimental, and why Rory as an artist is doing the most to subvert the hierarchies being an art rapper implies. This delineation is not in and of itself harmful; it is all that it brings which is. A discussion of a similar time took place in the midst of rap’s “golden age.” As De La Soul were blowing up, the media changed them from what was known as “gangsta rap” by labeling them as “conscious hip hop.” The Wu Tang Clan’s song “abbot” RZA spoke out on this, deriding the delineation as ignorant, saying that all rap is conscious in its own way, depending on its situation. Bless to the forebears, the transcendental Wu. In this way, we can see the phrase of art rap similarly. Is rap not art at its core? Some rap is certainly more commercial than others. Rory’s work is about as uncommercial as it gets. It’s jazz.. It’s Alice Coltrane playing raga jazz with a harp and a sitar, an unapologetic stretch to greatness. In this sense, and especially in the wake of rap’s great commercial boom of the late 90s, this puts Rory in opposition to a certain element of rap’s cultural place, which is as pop music. But this leads us to Rory’s place within this system. We live in a racist, white supremacist society, and rap, an art form born of black and brown oppression, is the dominant cultural mode today. There is an inherent contradiction here, and from this we can look into the phrase “art rap” more deeply and more specifically in its relationship to Rory.
It should be stated that I am a white girl. I live on the other side of this paradigm. I am here to highlight an artist I think deserves it, has inspired my life, and whose relationship to these systems serves as a great illustration of ideas and movements.
The “art rap” label makes some sense. Rory doesn’t rap to get views or clicks. He does it for ham, and that pays his bills, feeds his family. He started in rap in 2011 with “I wish My Brother Rob Was Here,” an ode to a dead friend. The record was dense with reference to obscure, geeky pop culture and philosophy. He rapped about anime, cartoons, and other “nerdy” activities. He did so with humor and skill, using these references to paint a picture of loss and isolation and insecurity. He gathered his following, but with the buzz came the backhanded compliment of “he’s not like other rappers,” “he isn’t like those other rappers.” The couched subtext of all this could be that he isn’t as black. He doesn’t talk about all that stuff other rappers talk about, like money or drugs. Rory, in an interview he did with fellow “art rap” luminary Open Mike Eagle for Eagle’s podcast ‘Secret Skins,’ talked about how that attitude decontextualized his artistic lineage. The idea that he is seperate from the art form of hip hop based on vocal tone and subject matter is inherently racist, as is the idea that an artist of sensitivity and of a philosophical bent can’t be steeped in a black culture and art—especially a black art form which flies in the face of white notions of decency. Rory noted a phenomenon in which people would say he rapped like Bob Dylan or Sufjan Stevens or any other white folk singer. In effect, this transmutes Rory’s excellence to a white excellence. The beauty in Rory’s career and particularly everything that he has done with his label Ruby Yacht (stylized as rbyt) is that it’s a conscious rebuking of this whitewashing of his being. His beats got more minimalist, they got harder, snappier, he swore more. Whatever you thought of him before, well, he’s still not like the other rappers. He’ll tell you. He’s better. But he sure as heck isn’t gonna keep calm. Rory’s work breaks these hierarchies of race. It challenges them. From my point, it is hard to say he’s similar to a lot of the rap filed, even the likes of his direct peers, Open Mike Eagle or Elucid or Serengeti. But what one can’t argue is that he is not a rapper, and a rapper born from the lineage of all rappers, from Kool Herc and Coke La Rock, and then from the greats after them. More specifically to Rory is the importance of the Freestyle Fellowship and the Goodlife vegan cafe open mics that redefined L.A hip hop in the 90s.
“Art rap” as a term has a sense to it. The way it makes things high or low art, and removes contexts that are essential to the thing itself is damaging, is uncool. Rory’s music subverts this and does so with funky sweet tunes. He does so because, as he said in the Open Mike eagle interview, “You wouldn’t let me do my whimsys.” He was removed from the context of his art and self by a white supremacist society. In the pursuit of his own art, the whimsy became subertive of this power—at least, one can read it that way. Check out Rory’s various names on your music streaming service of choice.
Coraline Seksinsky can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org