Hip-hop and electronic dance music have a lot in common – more than you might be aware of at first blush. Obviously, they share roots – both cultural and geographical – growing out of New York’s dense urban center to become internationally ubiquitous. They were both started by DJs in the inner city using innovative techniques to transform existing genres like disco, soul, and even gospel to offer an outlet for communities that were often ignored and oppressed.
They are both, at their cores, protest music, even when they don’t seem like it. They are a protest against that oppression. They are demands to be heard. They are revolutionary in that they invite their practitioners to defy the obstacles set in their path by system and circumstance. They feed the fire in the hearts of those looking for an escape, for liberation, even if it’s only for a moment or a night.
Nobody knows this better than Chicago rapper Ric Wilson. Like the shared history of the genres he blends together like coffee and cream, his name might not be familiar to you yet. But, if there’s any justice in the world, it will be. And it’ll happen soon; in just over two weeks, Wilson’s dropping a new EP, CLUSTERFUNK, with collaborators A-Trak and David “Dave 1” Macklovitch and Patrick “P-Thugg” Gemayel from Chromeo, three of dance music’s most prolific and respected producers today.
The nine-track project finds Wilson, who garnered critical acclaim in 2020 with his and Terrace Martin’s joint EP They Call Me Disco, branching out from the nu-disco elements that defined his early work and first put him on tastemakers’ radars, incorporating A-Trak and Dave 1s electro-funk sensibilities. But as their chunky bass licks and glittering keyboards move listeners’ butts, Ric aims to uplift spirits and raise awareness with his revolutionary-minded raps.
It’s a combination that sets him apart from his contemporaries in both hip-hop and dance; while similar artists like Channel Tres and Duckwrth also combine dance and rap, rarely do they sprinkle in references to collective economics and curses on unabashed capitalists like Elon Musk. The challenging political material might turn off listeners in another context, but Wilson hopes that the toe-tapping beats will be the sugar to help the medicine go down.
“That’s the content that I always was talking about my music,” he tells Uproxx while sipping an Orange Sunrise smoothie at Kreation juicery in Hollywood. He first began soaking up progressive politics at an early age, courtesy of Chicago Freedom School, a program that teaches teens in the Windy City about past social justice movements and teaches them to organize in their communities.
“My first performances, I was performing at protests,” Wilson recalls. “And I realized that I was starting to get on stages or panels and I was just talking about Black Death and it was just taking apart on me at some point. So I wanted to not keep talking about this oppression stuff. I want to talk about this real shit but then also feel like, ‘How can I do this in a way that I don’t feel so sad all the time and what’s the way that I would want to digest this and what’s something that I haven’t seen yet?’ What if we take Azealia Banks type beat and I talk about Black liberation, what that means to me? Or my own liberation or talk about things around me. So, that’s essentially where that idea came from. And sooner or later, that’s the thing that did make people notice.”
Among those people who noticed were Fool’s Gold founder A-Trak and the guys from Chromeo, who learned about Ric’s music through the rapper’s manager. The musicians connected during the pandemic in 2020 and started working together throughout the quarantine, finishing the project in the past year. “It was nice to have someone like A-Trak guiding me through a project,” he says of the collaboration. “He was able to hear things and bring out certain things that I couldn’t even hear.”
The growth is evident in songs like the title track and the Zapp-influenced opening track, “Whiskey In My Coffee,” over which even the usually jubilant Ric sounds invigorated. Then there’s “Git Up Off My Neck,” featuring a surprising guest appearance from Dead Prez rapper Stic.man. It’s a voice and subject matter you might not have expected when you first hear the beats, which beg for dance floors to fill before Ric and Stic take advantage of the captive audience to spit some real Fred Hampton shit.
“I feel like in 2020, n****s as artists were important people, especially because niggas had to make a choice,” he explains of the potent move. “It was either literally fascism or talking about my version of what you think liberation is, and then the snowball effect into n****s looking into communism and socialism and all that. Because everyone’s like, ‘What’s the solution?’ You ask a n**** to ask questions and critique sh*t and ‘what’s the solution’ for so long, they’re going to try to look for it.”
It’s a much more proactive approach than a number of artists who got politically active in 2020 – and given the timing of its release, potentially even more effective. But he’s not going to stop at just one EP. He says he’s got a full-length release lined up for after CLUSTERFUNK drops, and he plans to play his first headlining shows in Los Angeles and New York soon as well. Like the dance musicians and rappers that inspired him, he continues to look for ways to spread the message of liberation. And he might have found just the right time for his unique blend of sounds, as the past year has seen a renewal of interest in the Black roots of EDM thanks to projects by Beyonce, Drake, and more.
“For sure Drake and Beyonce were listening to Kaytranada and Channel Tres,” he jokes. “But then what I also thought was really cool though, both of them tapped into a lot of people that have been doing this for a while. Drake tapped in with Black Coffee. I did a lot of sh*t with Defected, and I was working Huntington John and Luke Solomon and them, and Beyonce tapped into that scene. Got so many young Black writers that are in the dance world that now have a Grammy.”
And while those were revolutionary works in their own ways, what Ric Wilson is doing is shockingly original. Maybe enough so to help spark a major shift in awareness of dance-rap, to guide hip-hop as it incorporates sounds and sensibilities from its cousin genre, and to wake audiences up to the possibilities of liberation.