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May 30th, 2012 CASEY JARMAN | Music Stories
 

Divide, Conquer

Illmaculate’s long-delayed debut album has guts—now can it find ears?

music.bigbox.ill_3830ILLMACULATE - ILLUSTRATION: Adam Krueger
Greg Poe hasn’t grown any—height-wise—since gracing the cover of WW in 2009. The Portland MC, better known as Illmaculate, is still 5-foot-5 with a crooked Blazers cap. And while he jokes about his progress (“Everything has changed,” the 25-year-old says. “I’ve been living in the West Hills.”), Illmac’s artistic growth as of late has been profound. He has won more high-profile battles than any other MC in the past decade, but he’s no longer known exclusively as a battle rapper. His last year has been one long chain of mixtapes, singles and videos. In April, he finally dropped his debut full-length, Skrill Talk. The disc easily exceeds whatever hype Illmac has built around his battling. 

Whether Skrill Talk will be widely heard is still in question. Poe is certainly being watched.

In a way, there are two Illmaculates. One is a graceful MC who commits his innermost hopes and fears to record. The other, dedicated to eviscerating opponents in verbal battle, is a legend in his own time. The latter Illmac—the one with no filter for the kind of violent, ugly, downright tasteless assaults-in-rhyme that earn Poe pretty good money—garners millions of views on YouTube and works in a growth industry. Not too long ago it was a commonly held belief that battle MCs seldom became good recording artists. But “that stigma is becoming less and less prevalent,” Poe says. That’s because battling has become less dependent on improvisation and more like recorded hip-hop. “It’s so prepared these days, and what I see is a transition where a lot of people who would have been fans are stepping in the ring. I’m not saying it’s some sacred hallowed ground where no one should be allowed unless they’ve walked the lyrical gauntlet, but oversaturation is a problem. It always happens in cycles. Battling is on the come-up right now.”

In 2009, Poe thought of battling as a springboard to making his own music. Instead, he’s developed it as a promotional tool with the help of his manager, Terrence Scott (better known in these parts as Cool Nutz). “It’s something I struggle with, but I can’t deny the impact,” he says. “I had three or four battles around that time Green Tape came out, and it did amazing. There was fresh content for people who just had seen the battle.”

It’s hard to ignore that the battle scene is crawling from the fringe into the mainstream. A handful of promoters are now fighting over increasingly high-profile match-ups. Last year, hip-hop superstar Drake co-hosted a battle put on by Canadian promoter King of the Dot. On June 10, the same company is promoting what may be the biggest ticket since Eminem’s heyday: Canibus, a commercially successful MC revered among battle fans for his late-’90s beefs with LL Cool J, is returning to the circuit in a $30 Internet pay-per-view match against California MC Dizaster. Illmac is in the undercard bout, and if he wins he’ll collect around $7,500. Poe says he’s heard rumors of bigger names returning to the battle scene later this year, which will only help his own bottom line.

Poe was practically born a battle rapper, but it’s the other Illmaculate who shocks fans these days. 

There have always been vulnerable moments in Illmac’s music, but it was while recording a 2011 album, Green Tape, that Poe changed his working method. “You can’t battle over Al Green,” he says of the G_Force-produced effort, released for free because all of its songs sample the famed soul singer. “It used to be about making words fit. But with Green Tape, I got comfortable with letting the music tell it and go with it.”

If Green Tape was an artistic awakening for Illmaculate, Skrill Talk is a statement of purpose. Built piece-by-piece over the last six years, Illmac says the album represents less a “caterpillar to butterfly transformation” than a map of where’s he’s been. It’s also a map of St. Johns. On the majestic “Lost Our Soul,” he tries to reconcile the goofy Portlandia image of his city with his reality of growing up broke in North Portland. On “Cooler Than Cool,” he introduces another bright St. Johns MC, 21-year-old Vinnie Dewayne, to a larger audience. Dewayne sent Illmaculate a track when he was 17, and “ever since then he heard potential and kind of took me in,” Dewayne says. “He still gets me shows lined up to this day.”

When it’s not repping for St. Johns or holding the door open for the next generation, Skrill Talk is a largely personal, even confessional record that often finds Illmac beating himself up over past relationships and career decisions. “Nearsighted” is one long apology to friends he’s neglected (“If you know me then you learn my flaws/ And I promise I’ma work on returning calls”); “The Making Of...” is an emotionally stark analysis of the growth that came out of breaking up with his high-school sweetheart, and Poe leaves ghostly spaces in his verses to genuinely moving effect (“Things you thought would always be there will be gone in an instant/ It ain’t seem fair, it was an honor to live it/ We shared our thoughts and our visions/ They didn’t fall on deaf ears, I consciously listened”). 

With such a strong album to support, one might expect Poe to put his energies into touring behind Skrill Talk at full force. That’s not exactly how it has worked out. Illmac has spent the last month touring Europe, but not solo—he’s battling and appearing with his group Sandpeople on what amounts to that collective’s comeback tour. 

That may seem like another misstep in a young career that has seen Illmac’s albums delayed and focus diluted over the years. But Poe says he’s on the right path. “It was…I won’t say now or never, but now or when,” he says of the Sandpeople tour, which sent half of the 10-member collective on the wrong side of the road in Europe. “If you look at the numbers, this has been the most successful music we’ve all been a part of, by far. So whatever helps the group definitely helps me.” Besides, he’s grown up as a member of Sandpeople. “I’m finally mature enough to get what my band members were talking about that I wasn’t before,” he admits. “I feel like I’m ready to make a Sandpeople album now.”

That doesn’t mean Poe is unhappy with his solo work to this point, but he sees a lot of room for expansion. “I’m not dissecting social issues, I’m just dissecting me,” he says of songs from his last two mixtapes and Skrill Talk. “I think, subconsciously, I needed to understand myself before I could even start to examine other things with any depth.”

That kind of growth is what drives Poe. “I’ve said it in songs, but if you ain’t growing and learning, you’re just treading water and waiting,” he says. “That goes for life and music. I’d rather be heading in one direction, good or bad, then just sitting there in the middle.”  


SEE IT: Illmaculate plays Branx, 320 SE 2nd Ave., on Saturday, June 2. 9 pm. $7 advance, $10 day of show. All ages. 

 
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