Midwest BSFA member Mildred “Ill Mil” Fallen, host of Deeper than Atlantis: Diggin’ In Da Crates on Soul Public Radio, is one of nine MCs featured on Gamma, Cincinnati hip-hop producer Homage-CVG’s concept album centered around The Incredible Hulk. Fallen is on the roster among rhyme veterans, including Kyle David (Five Deez/Sons of Silverton), Boogie Bang (Red Eye Blue), Vibe One (Watusi Tribe), and Citoak (Watusi Tribe/Sons of Silverton). We talked to her about her Gamma contribution, her hip-hop background and her foray into comics.
Midwest BSFA: Tell us about your background as a hip-hop head.
Fallen: For me, being into hip-hop was a natural progression that occurred from embracing black culture and feeling free to express pride in it. It was part of my sensory experiences long before I knew it to be a genre or a culture. It was in everything I absorbed. From the metronome clicking of heels against the pavement, handclap songs bequeathed to us from previous generations, to me imitating grease popping and the crescendo noise when Grandma turned the chicken over—these were part of an inherent language I understood, like it was always here in some form, embedded into my DNA.
I loved Sanaa Lathan’s character in Brown Sugar because she and I were similar, beginning as a casual observer to coming of age with it as a participant to being a journalist writing about it, then feeling disconnected with it at some point. The first rap song I remember liking was “Smerphies Dance” by Spyder D, which came out in 1982. My mom and I lived in Lincoln Courts at the time, and somebody put a speaker in the window, bumping full blast. I’m looking out the window at the “big kids” showing out; a few kids joined in a circle and clasped hands doing The Tick and The Wave to the breakdowns, cow bells and programmed claps, chanting loudly, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes/Smurf that body, across the flo’.” That was the first time it looked like a culture to me and not just songs.
By the next school year, I endured an hour-long school bus ride that educated me because the 4-6 grade boys held court in the back of the bus. They spewed overly observant caps at any and everybody and endless verses of “Ding-Dong/Yo’ Mama Don’t Wear No Draws” the entire way. Depending on if their humor was aimed at you, it was either entertaining or humiliating. As much as they capped on me at first for trivial stuff, like wearing “a big ol’ coat/big as a boat,” they heard me rap against some boy (who bit his verse from “The Show” and I called him out for it), I was invited to sit back there with them. I wasn’t unlike others who found validation in hip-hop and it helped me build self-confidence and assert myself in uncomfortable situations. A lot of us were smart and our fear of being dissed for being smart was anti-intellectualism, a symptom of racism, but you could counter that by channeling your abilities in supernatural ways that outsiders didn’t understand at the time. It was like cracking a code or something. Even the production on most of the music we listened to was next-level and sampling wasn’t even prevalent yet. I just remember us wanting to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
I don’t remember there being much gender divisiveness because a lot of girls were into dancing, rapping and beat-boxing just as much as boys. It was still a shadow culture, which brought kids together and we were young enough to absorb it like a sponge. The first hip-hop tape I bought with my own money was Radio by L.L. Cool J, and I knew it front to back. We’d all seen Beat Street and Breakin’ and adapted everything we saw the popular rappers doing into our little repertoire and repartee. I had a few pairs of fat laces and begged my mom to buy me a red bucket Kangol like Kurtis Blow’s, that I sported proudly on top of my curl. At that point, it was so experimental and I wanted to try everything associated with the culture, scribbling fat letters in my notebooks and composing these elementary raps with unisex “crew” that didn’t last past first quarter. We used to get the Scholastic Books flyers in class, and I bought this instructional guide that supposedly taught you how to “breakdance” as demonstrated by members of The Rock Steady Crew. What I learned was that you can’t learn how to move from no book. The dances I could do I taught myself from watching music videos.
I spat occasionally as “Millie D” in junior high and high school, but I didn’t push myself in the direction of being an artist. My heart wasn’t in that. I knew I wanted to be in the business, but in high school, I wanted to become an A&R rep for a label like Uptown Records, Andre Harrell’s label that signed Heavy D & the Boyz and eventually artists like Mary J. Blige. When I did rap, my point of view was Afrocentric, which reflected what I listened to the most: Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, everybody in Native Tongues, X-Clan—artists that made me reexamine what I’d been taught up to that point. I was more into reading and writing about the culture than wanting to be a performer. I used to write for Greg Reese Jr.’s hip-hop newsletter, The Diamond, which was Cincinnati’s first hip-hop publication and it covered local and national hip-hop. As music changed, I didn’t feel I fit with where it went and vowed not to rap unless I had some real spit to share that wasn’t degrading. The path I eventually ventured into was music journalism. My example was the revolutionary discourse from all The Source and Vibe writers like dream hampton, Danyell Smith, Chairman Mao and author Joan P. Morgan. And women who wrote about the culture were fewer than the female artists, so I wanted to contribute and help document what wasn’t being acknowledged. As far as rhyming—I did a few cuts back in the day produced by Chestah T (who knows what or where those are); and as Ill Mil, I did a track with PhiYah, one with Mahogany Reign and Abiyah, and one with BJ Digby, aka Holmskillit, produced by Boogie Banga. And now, I’m featured on Gamma.
Midwest BSFA: How did you get involved with Homage-CVG’s project?
Fallen: Homage-CVG and I have known each other since taking journalism classes together at University of Cincinnati. I didn’t know he was a producer with a few albums out until recently, and he reached out to me on Facebook like, ‘Someone told me you could rap. I’m looking for a female to be on this project I’m doing about The Incredible Hulk.’ Honestly, I almost didn’t do it because I hadn’t written a rhyme in a long time. But it sounded like fun and I figured, ‘Don’t think too hard on it…let whatever comes out be what you do.’ He explained his vision and sent me a few tracks to choose from. I let him pick the track and we took it from there.
Midwest BFSA: What did you think when you first heard about the concept (being framed around the Hulk)?
Fallen: I thought Homage-CVG was onto something unprecedented and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to be part of the project. Even though I didn’t grow up being a fan of The Incredible Hulk show or reading the comics, I was intrigued because it sounded like a unique approach to have nine MCs present this fluid melodrama. Gamma is only 22 minutes long, much like a television episode, which is a really dope concept. Concept albums are what Homage-CVG is known for, and he used snippets from old Hulk radio dramas that directed the moods of each track.
Midwest BSFA: Are you into comics? If so, what comics do you like and why?
Fallen: No, not in the sense of collecting them. I couldn’t afford to devote to that and buy music and magazines, too. Because I was a frequent patron, the librarian at Lincoln Park branch bought me a subscription to Ebony Jr. Magazine, which was for black youth age 7-12, and the closest thing I had to a comic book. On Sunday morning, the comics page was officially “my part” of the newspaper and I traced outlines trying to teach myself how to draw figures. When I was a little older, I was into Mad magazine because I liked the satire. I used to buy Brother Man comics in the ’90s until they became hard to find. I think Boondocks was the only one I kept up with from newspaper to live animation. I admire different graphic art styles and I used to sketch a little bit when I went to School for Creative and Performing Arts. I also enjoyed the Luke Cage series on Netflix and it made me go back and look up the history from the 1970s and how the character evolved through the decades. I watched a documentary recently about a black cartoonist named Floyd Norman, who worked for Disney and on most of the cartoons we grew up on in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I learned he also worked on the Soul Train cartoon intro with the moving train and a pilot for Fat Albert.
Midwest BSFA: Did your knowledge of comics help shape your lyrics for your Gamma track in any way?
Fallen: I would never have thought to write about a comic hero. I think that’s what made the project interesting to me because I wasn’t a fangirl with all this insight. I looked up Hulk’s traits to make sure I understood the essence of who he was and I thought it would be cool to embody his predicament somehow, so my intent was to make Hulk into an avenger of color (like him, since he turns green when he’s angry) reacting to injustice but in a constructive way. That’s why I say, “attributes: super hue-man black woman,” because we are not destructive; we are life-bearers and earth protectors. At first, I struggled to come up with a verse that fit the dark, brooding mood of the track, but I knew I wanted to make the Hulk reactive, or make him angry, so I wrote it while I was angry. I wrote my verse the week that police murdered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and it’s intended to forewarn that the tide is turning, we aren’t the minority; people of color are mighty as a unit and will rise up and fight back. The catalyst for the lyrics came to me when the anger and disappointment in me boiled to a point where it felt like I’d explode from the inside out if I didn’t express myself.
Midwest BSFA: In what way did your extensive knowledge of hip-hop help you with your lyrics?
Fallen: I think that unconsciously, I study songwriters in general. I never force myself to write but usually the beat drives the inspiration. If I’m feeling something, I chant it like a mantra so I don’t forget and then it takes off from there. If it makes me want to write it down, that’s a good sign to keep going. Or I might write bits and pieces and reconstruct them where it makes chronological sense to me. I’ve always used metaphors and similes because I am a visual person and rappers who are good visual storytellers . With this verse, I didn’t worry about how many bars it was, I just wrote until it felt complete.
Midwest BSFA: Name your top five hip-hop albums (and why).
Fallen: I don’t have a top five but here are a few of my essentials:
Eric B & Rakim – Follow the Leader
This album expanded hip-hop’s lexicon light years beyond being party rap and a fashion statement, which ironically is where it is now. Rakim introduced us to a lot of Five Percenter terminology like “Gods” and “Earths” and was the first I heard to break down concepts like Africans being the Earth’s first inhabitants and us having untapped supernatural traits that could elevate us out of disparity. And “Mahogany” was a subtle, sexy track without being misogynistic or crude. His voice was so buttery on that!
Pete Rock and CL Smooth – Mecca and the Soul Brother
Grown folks’ music meets hip-hop. It was like Blaxploitation flicks: folk storytelling over break beats. The liner notes pointed me to a certain style of jazz, basically late ‘60s and ‘70s Blue Note and CTI, or anything produced by Larry and Fonce Mizell. This was like beginning digging for a lot of us who were a little younger and didn’t grow up hearing the originals they sampled.
Public Enemy – Fear of A Black Planet
This is one of those albums you can go back to today to reference because it was unprecedented to speak this candidly against white supremacy on a hip-hop record and make it the entire theme. What Chuck was talking about, Dr. Francis Scott Welsing wrote about in the 1970s in her book, The Isis Papers. This album challenged me to look outside of my school’s curriculum and its “alternative facts,” read other sources and find truth on my own.
Queen Latifah – All Hail the Queen
Counting DJ Mark the 45 King’s production input with the samples and scratches, this was one of the most well-rounded, funkiest hip-hop albums of 1989. Furthermore, it solidified Dana Elaine Owens as an MC. She didn’t have to release anything else after this. A dynamic personal statement that’s still iconic.
Outkast – Aquemini
Funk is my favorite music. I loved how seamless this album was and their compatibility as a duo really shined on this album.
Common – Like Water for Chocolate
Lyrically and musically, Common was in his bag. There’s not one bad song on it, and the Soulquarians’ production was impeccable. This was around the time when neo-soul and hip-hop courted and put out some classic projects.
Midwest BSFA: Do you listen to anything “geek-themed” hip-hop (aka nerdcore)? Why or why not?
Fallen: I’m not familiar with this genre, so I don’t know much about who or what’s considered nerdcore. I understand it’s artists that rhyme about comic culture and sci-fi themes, right? Artists like MF Doom, Dudley Perkins, Kool Keith, Hieroglyphics or Del the Funkee Homosapien, who may fit this category today, were simply considered underground. But as far as who’s specifically nerdcore, I need to get hip and see who’s out there. I read an article recently where there are some female rappers trying hard to break into that genre because it’s male dominated, but that’s no different with hip-hop in general. The difference is that I imagine it’s easier to break into wherever you see yourself fitting and set your own definition. Look at Issa Rae or Childish Gambino/Donald Glover.
Midwest BSFA: Anything else you want our readers to know?
Fallen: First, thank you Midwest BSFA for the interview and shout outs to all the talented MCs featured on Gamma. I’m grateful to have been part of such a phenomenal collaborative and Cincinnati really put it down on this. You can stream Gamma by Homage-CVG on SoundCloud and Bandcamp.