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Ric Wilson: In Conversation At Pitchfork 2023

Written by on July 25, 2023

After he took the stage at Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago artist Ric Wilson met with Vocalo’s Nudia Hernandez to discuss his collaboration with A-Trak and Chromeo — plus a debut solo album in the works.

Ric Wilson exemplifies the multifaceted spirit of the Chicago music scene, skillfully blending funk, dance, hip-hop and electronic elements to create an unforgettable musical experience he describes as “funk rap.” 

Wilson’s journey began with Young Chicago Authors and the Lyricist Loft at YOUmedia, which also nurtured talents like Chance the Rapper. It was at those spaces that he decided to start rapping his poems to stand out more. His music began making waves on the scene in 2017 with his debut EP Negrow Disco, which paid tribute to BIPOC and LGBTQ disco artists and pioneers of the past.

Ric Wilson dances around stage during his set at Pitchfork Music Festival on July 21, his electric energy reflecting among the audience. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Fast-forward to March 2023, and Wilson treated fans to his latest masterpiece, CLUSTERFUNK, a collaborative effort with producer A-Trak and electro-funk duo Chromeo. The project had been in the works since Wilson first arrived at Chromeo’s Burbank studio in late summer 2020, but was put on pause when Wilson moved from Chicago to London for a year and a half. The work was finally completed in June 2022 at A-Trak’s New York studios.

“It was intense,” he told Vocalo’s Nudia Hernandez. “You know what I mean? Having A-Trak being the recording engineer for the whole session. He was making sure I was getting every f***ing take the best way … Dave [1 of Chromeo] was like, ‘No, you’re gonna keep these vocals, you’re gonna get it tighter, you’re gonna get it better.’”

Nudia Hernandez and Ric Wilson behind the scenes at Pitchfork Music Festival on July 22. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Despite being active in the music scene since 2015, it wasn’t until 2019 that Wilson first graced the stage at Pitchfork Music Festival. The set incorporated an off-stage dance party and an appearance from the Lane Tech Marching Band, and was lauded by Sound Opinions’ Greg Kot for The Chicago Tribune as one of the best live performances of the year.

“If I can get people to have fun and dance, like I want to dance and have fun at a show, then I know I’m putting on the show that I want to be at,” Wilson said of his live shows.

RELATED: Vocalo Radio Talks To Chicago Artists Ric Wilson And Tasha For Pitchfork Video Recap (2019)

Recently, Wilson was able to rock his hometown’s stage once again at Pitchfork Music Festival 2023. The following day, he chatted backstage with Vocalo afternoon host Nudia Hernandez. The pair discussed his time at the festival, the CLUSTERFUNK creative process, his fashion evolution, his debut solo album in the works … and cleared up rumors about moving to LA.

Nudia Hernandez: Hey it’s Nudia from Nudia in the Afternoons here on Vocalo Radio, live at Pitchfork 2023… here with Ric Wilson! 

Ric Wilson: Hey, hey, hey, we’re in the future, in 2023.

NH: Okay, quick fit check! Okay, fit’s looking right! All right, I see you! Okay, so you performed yesterday.

RW: Yes. 

RELATED: Pitchfork Music Festival 2023: Fashion Photo Edit

NH: And how was the energy on stage? How are you feeling about this year’s Pitchfork?

RW: It was feeling really good. We played the green stage really, really early in 2019. And it was crazy, because there’s a lot of people that probably haven’t seen me live since, because of the pandemonium. And so a lot of people’s last time seeing me live might have been here, because I’ve just been doing some street festivals and a lot of people only come in town for Pitchfork some years. So it was pretty cool. The energy was crazy. It was great. I brought my auntie out. It was nice. Yeah, I brought my auntie out, she did a poem. Which is really cool, she wrote it for her graduating class because she’s an eighth grade teacher. So it was pretty cool, yeah.

NH: I know! Because you said there was gonna be some special guests. You were teasing that a little bit before you were heading on the show. And I love how – some artists don’t really promote before their shows or before they’re gonna be at festivals, and I love your social media … how you shamelessly promote. You’re like, “Hey, I’m Ric Wilson. If you haven’t heard of me, here’s some of my songs.” I love that!

RW: Yeah, well … I think sometimes, as artists, we get caught up in our head that everyone knows who we are. But I think it’s always, it’s constant discovery, you know what I mean? And I feel like, if I’m not signed to a major record label, or to a major indie record label, then I need to promote myself, being indie so that’s what I do.

“Disco Ric” AKA Ric Wilson performed on Pitchfork Festival’s blue stage surrounded by silver spheres reflecting the band and the packed crowd. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: Okay, so we have to talk about the new album. I mean, I always have to be careful before I’m gonna say it, CLUSTERFUNK. Right? Okay. I don’t want to get canceled, okay! Just seeing A-Trak, Chromeo and you collab, it was the collab we never knew we needed, but we did really need it. What was it like working on the album?

RW: It was really cool. We did it all in person. We did it all at Chromeo’s studio in Burbank, California. One of my managers was actually working on a podcast with A-Trak, and Trak was familiar with the work and he reached out and asked if he could connect me and his brother, and it turns out his brother is Dave 1 [of Chromeo], I didn’t know at the time. It was pretty cool, P[-Thugg] and Dave would be in one room making the beats, and then me and Trak would be in the other room, literally tracking our vocals and whatnot. And it was pretty cool.

It was intense. You know what I mean? Having A-Trak being the recording engineer for the whole session. He was making sure I was getting every f***ing take the best way. Like, you can’t imagine how many times I’ve seen that hook from “Everyone Moves To LA,” but it was great. It was funny. I was singing all the hooks, and then I would go to Dave and I’d be like, “Yeah, Dave like you can sing these.” You know I mean? And then Dave was like, “No, you’re gonna keep these vocals, you’re gonna get it tighter, you’re gonna get it better.” So that was cool, that was cool. It was dope.

NH: I was gonna say, how long did this whole collaboration, this whole project take? Because I feel like this is four very creative people. And I’m like, I’m sure you guys could have been in there for years making music. 

RW: Yeah, I feel like … I don’t even know, I think it mostly just started like meet-and-greet and maybe do a track, and then it turned into a project, into an album, collab album. We started it in 2020, like in August, because … it was uprising, pandemic and then election that year. So it was a lot of s**t on my mind. And I used to organize … I used to be like a full-on organizer when I was younger. I feel like 2020, I got thrown back into organizing. Because there was a big awakening, like, summer.

When we were making it, it’s like two weeks, I went to LA, just to work on that with him. And then I moved to England for like, I don’t know, over a year, almost – not over a year, over half a year. So that kind of delayed a lot of s**t. And then when I came back, everyone was touring near the end of 2021, trying to get their money back. So then by the time we really was able to get back into it, it was 2022. And we finished it, did the final stamps and everything like in June last year in New York, at A-Trak’s studio.

NH: I was gonna say, before we started the interview, I was singing one of the songs, right? “Everybody Moves To LA.” Okay, so in the song, there’s a little phrase where you’re kind of calling out a girl – and yourself a little bit. Because you’re saying, you’re like, she feels like the city is holding her back. She felt like Chicago was holding her back, she’s like, “I’m gonna move to LA.” And you’re like, “No, it’s about the hustle.” Right? Do you really believe that? Do you believe you could hustle from anywhere, or people shouldn’t move to LA?

RW: I think Chicago is definitely a major city. I feel like you can definitely hustle out of Chicago, and a lot of people don’t know, before the pandemonium, you were able to fly to LA sometimes for pretty cheap. So like, there’s never no reason to like – you can have cheap rent, cheap mortgage or rent here, and then you just fly to LA when you need to work and then fly back. You don’t have to move to LA. I think that’s the craziest s**t ever, when people move to LA.  I did a whole project with Trak and Chromeo and I didn’t move to LA. I live here.

“If I can get people to have fun and dance, like I want to dance and have fun at a show, then I know I’m putting on the show that I want to be at,” Ric Wilson says of his live performances. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: I was gonna say, there were some rumors that you were living in LA for a minute, though.

RW: No! No. No, no, no. The rumors are not true. The rumors are not true. The only places I’ve lived is here and London. They’re the only places that I’ve been spending my time. 

NH: You’re putting those rumors to rest. They’re not true!

RW: They’re not true.

NH: You never moved to LA.

RW: No, no, no, no, no. If I’m gonna move to any other city, it’s gonna be London or Mexico City. I’m not moving to f***ing LA. Or New York. Sorry, New York.

NH: It’s all good. We’re excited here in the Chi. But how do you feel, I guess out of everything, out of all your accomplishments … did you ever think one of them would be being a fashion icon?

RW: [Laughs] No. No, no, I do not think that at all. I think, um, no. You know what was crazy? I used to like, like 2020, I started slacking off, right? And then, we were just talking about making the project with Chrome and A-Trak, Dave and P are two fashionable persons, the most fashionable people you’ll ever meet. And they would come to the studio: suits. They were coming in suits. And I was like, “Well, dang. Like, I gotta step this s**t up! I gotta step this stuff up. They’re coming in, I gotta step this stuff up.” [Laughs] Like, Dave would come in with full-on bell-bottoms and everything, so they kind of made me step it up a lot. Yeah. And then also living in London, definitely has a lot to do with it too.

Though he never saw himself becoming a fashion icon, Wilson is known for his eclectic style (and was featured in Vocalo’s Pitchfork Festival lookbook). Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: How would you describe your fashion?

RW: Uh … Free.

NH: Okay, that’s a good answer.

RW: Funky and free. 

NH: Oh, funky and free! Yes, I love that.

RW: Sounds like an album.

NH: “Funky and Free,” the next EP. So, again, you said you started off in activist work, which a lot of people might not know, when you’re really young. You were like a teenager. And then I heard somewhere that you had tried to do poetry, and you weren’t as good as everyone so you decided to start rapping and making songs? That’s true?

RW: Yeah! I would go to the open mic scene when I was at Lyricist Loft [at the YOUMedia space] and YCA [Young Chicago Authors]. Chicago’s got some of the best poets in the country, and spoken word poets in the country. So I had to figure out, I was like, “Well shoot, if I can turn these things into raps, then I can stand out a little bit more.” You know what I mean? That’s kind of how it started, and then I was going to rap shows a lot and people would just be like, “Hands up!” And I thought that was kind of boring. So I was like, “How can I make people dance?” If I can get people to have fun and dance, like I want to dance and have fun at a show, then I know I’m putting on the show that I want to be at.

NH: A lot of people, I read lots of articles, and a lot of people have trouble describing your style. They’re like, is it a hit between dance and – you like that! Is it a hit between dance and hip-hop? They don’t even know what to call it or what category. For people, how should people describe your music?

RW: People can describe it as however they want. You know what I mean? I leave it open to people to describe it however they want. You know what I mean? Yeah, yeah, it’s actually kind of funny to see how people describe it. You know what I mean? I think the mystery is probably … kind of the cool part. I feel like when you’re super-duper understood, that crap is kind of boring. You know what I mean? When people just know you for sure, know your box and everything, I feel like then they become bored with the artist. So I’m like, people can just keep figuring it out. It’s the funky, and then people can title it however the different type of “funky” they want to call it. You know what I mean? Funky house, funky disco. It’s all that. I just call it funk rap.

NH: I love that! Funk rap. And so I did want to get another question in about, you mentioned Young Chicago Authors, and so many important Chicago artists came from these programs. You’ve mentioned Harold Washington Library a lot in interviews and stuff. How important do you think those things — I mean, like, Chance [the Rapper], Jamila [Woods] – how important do you think these programs are to keep going in the city?

RW: I think they’re super important. It definitely had its moment – you know, with the come-up of Chance, and Saba, Noname and that whole, like, group. But I definitely see a resurgence of things happening. And I definitely think they need to be pushed more … I think there’s a gap that needs to be bridged, too, between the up-and-coming and what is already the Chicago scene. Hopefully I can help with that. But yeah, that’s what I’m thinking.

After his last performance at Pitchfork in 2019 was praised by music critics including Greg Kot, he returned to the festival’s stage on July 21, 2023. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

NH: So what can we expect from Ric Wilson next? What are you working on next? I mean, you did just release the project this year, you’re on the road a lot, but what else are you working on?

RW: I don’t have a debut album out yet. I’m working on my solo debut album, so that is next. That’s going to be this year. And then I’m going on tour with Chromeo, me and Chromeo are doing a tour. And we’re ending the tour at Salt Shed, which is kind of crazy! In Chicago! That’s gonna be fun. So I’m preparing for that, and that tour, and figure out how to release everything around that. And I think I’ve got to start doing some headline shows.

NH: Well, thank you so much, Ric, for speaking with us. We look forward to hearing more from you. And I was gonna say, in our Vocal studio, I look at this every day. We have a poster of you, and you signed it in 2017. You signed the year, 2017. And it just says, it’s the most, “R-I-C Wilson.” Iit’s just like you didn’t even try to do a signature. You’re just like, anyone could have wrote that.

RW: I failed handwriting in, like, elementary school. People was convinced my handwriting was so bad. I don’t know if it’s just like older people, like old Black people, they’d always be like, “Oh, you’re gonna be a doctor, look at their handwriting.” It was horrible handwriting. Thank God for the Notes app. I look back on some of my old stuff, I used to try to write it in a notebook when I was in high school. It was terrible. I don’t know how I was able to read it. That’s probably why it took me so long to get good at rapping, because I couldn’t read my own raps. [Laughs]

NH: I was like, “Who wrote this? Was it really Ric? Because I don’t know. This looks a little suspect.”

RW: 2017, yeah, that’s when I first started putting out music. Period. Yes. Vocalo’s been here since. That’s what’s up. 

NH: We have a bunch of your music in there! We have a bunch of your music in the system. 

RW: Oh wow. Oh, my god. Yeah, Vocalo, yeah. Wow. Yeah. That’s dope.

NH: Well, we’d love to have you stop by when you drop the first album, we’ll speak to you again. But thank you so much. Here with Ric Wilson, it’s Vocalo Radio backstage at Pitchfork. 

Listen to Ric Wilson on Spotify below, and keep up with him on Instagram and Twitter.

Interview and audio editing by Nudia Hernandez

Audio production by Ayana Contreras

Photography, video production, transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Video editing by Omi Salisbury

Written introduction by Omi Salisbury and Morgan Ciocca

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