Around a carpeted stage off Virginia Ave in Hollywood, musicians, poets and comedians flock to an open mic every third Thursday of the month in a small family room turned music venue. On one particular Thursday night three years ago, when eager faces gathered to listen to the souls of expression, a hip-hop artist named Voli took to the stage and changed my life forever.
You’re never sure who’s stepping onto the stage at an open mic and that’s what makes them invigorating, especially in Los Angeles. I’ve listened to old men in Topanga Canyon play banjo with multiple personality disorders. I’ve rocked with transvestite screamo trios in a restaurant basement in Chinatown. I’ve seen countless artists from around the country come to L.A. to try and make it in this city. But the general crop of brave performers, even when talented, often lack their own sound. It’s that the feeling of, I’ve heard this before… They remind me of (fill in the blank).
Yet on this chilled night, $3 whiskey and soda in hand bought from the bootleg garage bar, Voli rises to the stage with a classical guitarist and hand-drummer. “Good evening everyone, thank you for being here. My name is Voli. This is my guitarist Jorge Gavidia and drummer Paulie Nassar. We’re going to be performing some songs for y’all. Hope you like it.” What came next was a high paced ensemble of rap, spoken word, reggae and classic-rock infusion with lyrics that spoke to the African-American experience.
“Never be the tutor, just let him be the future / Instead of being the ruler, you can set him free to do the things he never dreamed sooner.”
“Where do I belong? The Black Student Union had me feeling I was wrong.”
“You be hatin’ on these songs / They ain’t black enough, they ain’t black enough / All these labels they want labels.”
Voli delivered each line like a jab to the heart. This man who, just seconds before was jovial and filled with lilt, tapped into an austere rhythm that filled the room from the first line. I remember the audience members looking around at each other like, “You hearing this? This is incredible.”
After the set, I immediately introduced myself and asked Voli to sign his CD I purchased on a hunch it would be worth something someday. I didn’t know it at the time, but Voli had already been working as an artist and producer with musicians like J. Cole, 9th Wonder, BeBe Rexha and Young Guru. It’s no surprise the disc still lives inside my dashboard, frequently played.
I am proud to say Voli and I have formed a real friendship over these few years. As I’ve seen him perform at venues across Los Angeles, I’ve gotten to know Voli, the man and the artist. Now, through this spotlight for Behind the Setlist, I also got to know Voli, the engineer and producer.
I first ask Voli about his background and how he got hooked up with J. Cole. “We met on an online rap forum as teenagers and almost ended up in a rap group together,” he laughs. “When he had just signed to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation, he had a party, and I remember telling him how inspirational it was for me.
“I had been mainly focusing on production at the time, rapping less. He pulled me aside and said, ‘Yo Voli, if you ever need anything… You were always the dopest rapper that I knew personally.’ And I was like, ‘Man, thank you. Thank you so much.’ But at the same time, it was his usage of the past tense that caught me. It hit me because I was like, ‘Man, I’m still dope. I need to get back in this!’ It really jumpstarted me, got me back into the artist side of things.”
Voli’s process of returning to the path of artistry was a destiny of creativity. He began rapping in high school, but it wasn’t until college, while pursuing a film degree, that he started producing hip-hop tracks. “I always had an interest in the arts,” Voli told me.
“Going into college, I thought I was going to be a film guy, a director or screenwriter, and I may still end up doing that at some point in my life. But that all subsided as my love for music grew. Even when I was [studying] film, I looked at composers from classic films and the way they crafted dynamics and diversity of different instruments into their work. It’s what made their music incredible in my opinion. That always resonated with me and my music.”
While attending Clark University in Massachusetts, Voli found himself on the receiving end of rap fate. He met 9th Wonder at a Little Brother concert on campus and asked the now legendary producer-DJ-rapper, known for his work with Nas, JAY-Z, Murs, Mary J. Blige and Talib Kweli, to come to his dorm and check out some of his music.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Voli is co-producing alongside 9th Wonder and Young Guru for Rapsody, a newer Roc Nation signee Grammy nominated for this year’s Best Rap Album. Voli says, with a smile from ear to ear, “I’m amazingly proud of Rapsody and Young Guru. Shoot, I mean, I might end up with a Grammy statue if the stars align. Can’t wait to see what happens with that.”
Many artists come to California hell-bent on fitting the mold they cast for themselves. Voli has been successful by doing the opposite, remaining flexible and open to musical transformations. It’s not like he left anything behind, more that he took more in. Listening to Voli’s music, every project exhibits musical dynamics and diversity.
“With music in general, I like dipping into different genres,” he explains. “My music is what I call a constant fusion, always evolving. It takes pieces from alternative rock, classic rock, hip-hop, reggae. So I can’t say what defines my sound right now because I’m working on so many different projects that have different styles. It’s really a free-for-all. I call it predictably unpredictable.”
After college Voli’s music shifted from hip-hop to a more modern pop sound as his pallet changed and his producing abilities expanded. Some hip-hop heads would consider the move unpredictable, to say the least, but Voli’s ability as a dynamic producer has led him to connect with myriad artists from different genres. The evidence is clear when looking at his relationship with pop singer BeBe Rexha. “I knew BeBe from trying to get song placements and writing together on the East Coast,” Voli reminisces. “After touring in a band with Pete Wentz [Black Cards], she started focusing on herself as a solo artist and we collaborated on some songs.
“She’d take a train from Staten Island all the way up to my studio in Connecticut and we’d work on stuff. Eventually, we released ‘Ride Till You Die.’ She’s incredible and seems like she is happy to be where she is. That’s the greatest thing, because this industry can really chew you up and spit you out. She seems incredibly happy, so I’m incredibly happy for her.”
In a consecration of his past, present and future self, Voli recently formed a music group with his frequent producing partner Young Guru called Coup de Grace. Young Guru has worked as a producer and engineer with JAY-Z, Common, Young Jeezy, Snoop Dogg, Ghostface Killah, and more (the list spans 20 years). Plain and simple, if you know hip-hop, you know Young Guru. And if you know Young Guru, you’re about to know Voli.
Made up of Voli, Young Guru and Jorge Gavidia, the classical guitarist I first saw play with Voli at the open mic, Coup de Grace has been in the works for a few years now and is set to release new music in 2018. “It’s basically a statement on everything that goes on in the world,” Voli says. “It has a rebellious nature and a throwback vibe, ‘70s, early ‘80s, cause we’re all from the North East. We’re all from Jersey.” After a short pause, Voli adds, “Well, Guru is from Delaware, but he’s honorary Jersey [laughs]. It’s super gritty and we’re super excited about it.”
Like all great artists before him, Voli’s music is a representation of who he is as a person and the relationships he’s formed with life and those in it. When taking a look at his unpredictable path as an artist, he stands out with a narrative of empathy and the human condition. And when I first heard Voli perform, that’s what struck me the most. “I love being creative,” Voli explains, “but at the end of the day, it’s more about the content than the style. I like to speak to people’s experiences, globally and locally. I believe in empathy. I believe people need to understand each other, understand each other’s experiences to the best that they can. I try to do that with my music. That’s what I try and represent.”
Voli uses art as a means of driving success, pushing creativity via production, engineering and performing. It ensures the passion he pours into his art will garner recognition and is exactly what 2018 needs—a dedicated artist in the game for all the right reasons.