If hip-hop albums were measured solely by the production, then Portland’s best rap record was made not by Illmaculate, Lifesavas or even Cool Nutz, but by Travis “Chilly Tee” Knight.
Back in 1993, before he was an Oscar nominee and big-time CEO, Knight was just a 20-year-old white kid with dreams of a rap career. Of course, he was also the heir to the Nike fortune: His father is Phil “P-Money” Knight. Chilly signed to MCA Records and was paired with the Bomb Squad, the production crew behind just about every Public Enemy project, not to mention classics by Ice Cube and Slick Rick. The resulting album, Get Off Mine, is loaded with the Bomb Squad’s signature dense, gritty beats. But with titles like “Audi Like Jetta,” “Krisis of Identity” and, yes, “Just Do It,” there’s no doubt it’s a suburban Oregon boy behind the mic.
Chilly quickly vanished from the rap game, later making another name for himself as president of Laika animation studio. But with Get Off Mine reaching legal drinking age this week, it’s time to blow the dust off the jewel case. Chilly did not respond to WW’s interview request, but we did speak to Hank Shocklee, lead producer from the Bomb Squad, who, perhaps remarkably, remains proud of what he accomplished with this son of a billionaire.
Willamette Week: How did you get involved with Chilly Tee?
Hank Shocklee: I had a label at MCA records at the time, and the president of the company had a meeting with [Chilly Tee]. [Chilly] said he wanted to do a record, and they were looking for somebody to produce the record. The president at the time was Bernie Singleton, and he gave me a demo copy of the kind of stuff [Chilly Tee] was doing. He made his own beats. I think it was like a five-track demo. I listened to it because I wanted to find out what direction the artist is going. I wanted to make sure that he was more of a non-commercial artist. I knew he wasn’t going the be a street rapper or any of that stuff, but I wanted to see if there was an alternative slant to him. There was one track that I thought was really interesting, and when I heard the rap, where he was coming from, he came from a more serious perspective. To me, everything is all about where the artist is coming from. Is there some satire in there? Is there some comedy in there? Is this person strictly angry? What is the emotional content of it? He was serious about it, but at the same time he wasn’t angry and he wasn’t cocky. He was pretty confident. That’s what I heard, and I said, “This might be something that would be worth doing.” I just wanted to bring something a little unique to the table. I wanted to make it a little bit more entertaining, as opposed to being too serious. I still think that rap has to be entertaining first, and then you can get a serious message across while it’s entertaining. I didn’t want to make it too serious, but at the same time I wanted to make it a little sarcastic in a way. So that’s why the name of the album is Get Off Mine. In a way, it was almost very Jay-Z-ish back then. Back then, that style wasn’t really huge. I call it more sarcastic. It’s serious, but at the same time it has that element of it being sarcastic, so it comes across almost like fun. And that makes it entertaining to me.
Did you know at the time that he was heir to the Nike empire?
I knew that from the start. That was one of the things I was just like, “Oh boy.” I’ve had so many people that want to do records, whether it be Allen Iverson or Chris Webber or Kobe Bryant. This was before the time when rap had become celebrity-driven. It was still a street art form. Now it’s become very celebrity-, actress-, actor-driven. At that time, it was almost like a dis for you to have notoriety first, on any level. The whole key to rap was you were supposed to come from the hood, you’re supposed to be coming from the underprivileged areas, and so this was a test, because it didn’t have that. I’m used to working with west coast artists, so I kind of understood the West Coast vibration. Especially the Northwest, a lot of the artists there were making records that were not ultra-street, but kind of funny. It had a lot of satire in it. So to me, it had to have that kind of feel to it. It couldn’t be super serious, but at the same time it couldn’t be super-pop either.
Did it take any convincing to get you on board?
I wanted to meet him first. He came out to New York and we sat down and we started talking and kickin’ it and everything else. And then I started to understand that even though he was Phil Knight’s son, at the time, it wasn’t like he was coming from that perspective. That gave it a kind of authenticity to me, where it came across a little more genuine, as opposed to it being like, “I know who my father is and I’m gonna act like I’m a prince or something.” It didn’t come across like that at all. It came across like, “Look, that’s my father's company. I’m trying to do my own thing. I’m trying to make a name for myself, whatever I’m doing.” And he wanted to do a record and he was serious about it. That was the main thing. If you’re serious about it, and you want to do it, and you really want to be good at it and do it well, then let’s see what we can pull together. And I wanted to make it true. Most people would've made a pop record with him, and I didn’t want to do that at all. That wasn’t the idea. The idea was just to make a cool rap record, that was almost what Eminem would do. He’s never made a super-street record, he just made a record that shows off his rap skills. I wanted to create that kind of backpack rap, where it’s just cool for rap’s sake, something that has a cool beat, something that Talib Kweli would do, something that Kanye would’ve done in the beginning. It’s rap, but it ain’t talking about the streets, it ain’t talking about guns, it ain’t talkin’ about bitches and hoes. It was just talking about stuff that’s going on in the hood, but at the same time didn’t have any direction of being too street. It was basically talking about things he saw and how he saw it from his perspective.
How much time did you spend with Chilly Tee while making the record?
You have to understand that making a record is not that long of a process, so you don’t get a chance to do too much hanging out. But the time that we spent was mostly in the studio. He had a lot of material, but what I did was, I had brought in my brother and I’d brought in my other cousin as well to help him with the writing a little bit—that was Carl and Keith I brought in—just in areas that I thought he was lacking in, which was the development of choruses. He was good at writing the verses, but I thought he was a little weak on the chorus area. And the other part was, how do you bring the whole song together, what’s the idea of the song. The whole key to a rap record is in the concept and hook of the chorus. Everybody’s a great rapper when it comes to, “OK, I can rap verses,” but when it comes to making it all work together, and then giving that package a neat bow on the top of it, so that people can know that this is what it’s about—that’s what separates the greats from the people that are just OK.
It was funny, because just six months ago I happened to run through my CD collection, and I pulled that record up. And I just started playing it. And when I played it, I said, “Wow, this record still holds up. You can play it now and it doesn’t sound dated.” And I was surprised by how good it was. I thought it was a really good record. One of the reasons why it didn’t catch on was because it was one record that came out of nowhere, and rap is about building momentum. If he’d done a whole bunch of projects before then—the thing that everyone does today is, they build themselves up with mixtapes. Mixtapes are like albums to me, like an album release to the underground. If he’d had two albums before that, and he’d created an awareness base, then that record would have probably done much better. And it didn’t have what I consider to be radio-friendly records: no chicks singing on the choruses, didn’t have that R&B feel to it. It was more hip-hop-leaning, more like something that would’ve come off of Rawkus Records.
Why didn’t you handle production on individual tracks?
It was a chance for me to work with producers that I was training and bringing up. It gave me an opportunity for them to cut their teeth in doing stuff. I was always big on that. I still have to produce the record, I just didn’t have to worry about the smaller details like the making of the track. But I still had to worry about putting the track together. I went through tons of tracks to see which ones would work for [Chilly Tee], because he had a certain style that, to me, I wanted to stay with. I pretty much found all the songs that I thought would work with not only his vocal style but his vocal pitch range. [Chilly Tee’s] vocal is in the range of where all the cool parts of the instrumentation sits, so it’s easy for him to get lost vocally. And he’s not a guy that’s going to get excited, so his vocal is pretty monotone. He’s not going to inflect up or inflect down, which gives you some sort of character. So you have to do that with the music. The guys that I brought in, they didn’t really know how to do that because they’d never really produced a record before.
Why was there no Chilly Tee follow-up?
At the time, I was doing so much stuff, and MCA had changed and the president had moved on. The one thing about the music business is that it’s always constantly shifting, and unless you’ve had major success, you can get lost in that process. And then the other thing was, I don’t know if he was really interested in doing another one. I think that he wanted to do that one to see what it was like. But I think that what it did for him was, it gave him direction and focus as to what he wanted to do. Because I knew he wanted to be involved in the arts, and the question was, what art was he going to be involved in. I thought that the thing that was more true to his heart was more of his graphics side. I thought that him doing his graphics was the area that he was very interested in. That process might have led him to focus and bring that part out of him.
So you knew he wasn’t interested in rapping long-term?
I don’t know what’s harder: a kid that grew up with nothing, or a kid that grew up with pretty much everything. Because they’re both two extremes, and they both produce the same result, which is, what is it you’re going to do? He had pretty much all the comforts of life, but that doesn’t mean anything. The best part of living is having a focus, having a purpose. And I think that’s the area that he was struggling with. So it was kind of like, what do I do with my life, what do I want to be. And part of the biggest process was the fact that he was living in the shadow of his father, who’s huge. How do you create your own niche within that? How do you create your own identity? I’m not doing the work that my father did, and not many people follow their fathers’ footsteps in that respect. The majority of people, especially males, want to create their own vibration, their own destiny. They want to be their own man. This project was the project that let [Chilly Tee] understand who he was as a person and what he wanted to pursue as a career for the rest of his life. And I think that’s a great thing. We all should do what we want to do in our heart, because if you don’t do what’s in your heart, then you’re never going to be good at it.
For example, my parents wanted me to be a lawyer. So when I told them I was going to do music, it was like, “What? Are you crazy?” But that was the thing that woke me up everyday. It gave me a sense of purpose. So everybody has to find that within themselves.
Have you kept up on any of his work with Laika?
Actually I haven’t, and this is probably a good time for me to catch up on it. Somebody had sent me an article about him and his company, and what he was doing, and that was, like, last year. And I kept saying I want to reach out and see how he’s doing, but I haven’t had a chance to do it. And then you [called], so this is kind of like an omen for me. Not many people even know that he did that record, that I was even involved in that project. After I saw the article, I was really happy for him, that his company has become its own thing. I think that’s what’s cool about it.