Text: Monica Uszerowicz
According to ancient Vedic mythology, Vritra, the drought demon, is a dragon (or serpent) that blocks waterways, dries the land, and is ultimately killed by Indra, who later becomes King of the Gods. It’s a story incongruous with the idea of smooth flow in music, but rapper and producer Vritra—formerly known as Pyramid Vritra—finds inspiration in the myth itself, maybe in the duality between movement and stillness. Born Hal Williams, Vritra’s been producing music since he was just ten years old, later forming his own label and collective NRK (Nobody Really Knows), collaborating with Matt Martians—of Odd Future and The Internet—on the Jet Age of Tomorrow, then moving from Georgia to Los Angeles to help produce the The Internet’s album, Purple Naked Ladies. His new record, Yellowing, marks his debut with a new name, on his own label—NRK—with a drastically different perspective. Yellowing is simultaneously minimal and expansive, with an emphasis on its smartly accessible lyricism. From what we’ve heard so far, he calls out bros, critiques modern surveillance, and solicits the titular character in “Gypsy” (a bell-and-keyboard-inflected gemstone).
Ahead of Yellowing’s release on July 22, we spoke to him about these changes, his history, and why he started making music in the first place.
You’ve been writing since you were ten years old, maybe even longer. What was that like?
I’ve been producing since then; I started rapping in high school. When I started I went by “Gullie,” from Kash & Gullie, a little group my friend at the time, Eric, and I started. Then I went by “Donell Proper.” I was rapping about skateboarding and fashion shit. People caught on, and “joined” NRK (then a skate team and fashion design group). Not many people were skating or dressing like we were at the time, at least not in Powder Springs, Georgia. That’s how I met most of the people in NRK, including LuiDiamonds and Coodie Breeze from Awful Records. We would skate, smoke, go make beats to skate to, and repeat. My mom was always supportive and my basement became the studio and idea spot. We went from FL Studios and a Walmart microphone to some official shit later on. Good times.
Yeah, I read you partly started making your own music because there was nothing to skate to.
Yeah, at first it was just stuff for us to skate to, things we wanted to hear. Of course, there was stuff we were really into, like N.E.R.D. and The Neptunes. Honestly, In Search Of… put it in my mind. I saw them like, damn, these dudes are representing people like me; I could do that, it’s possible. We finished a few mixtapes as The Bandits. We shopped it a bit, and it got on some blogs and we started taking it a little more seriously. It wasn’t until the second Jet Age album that we started making money and it was real.
What did you listen to growing up, and how did your surroundings inspire you to become a musician?
I moved a lot growing up. We lived in Louisiana, Florida, and Illinois before moving to Georgia. My dad listened to No Limit, Cash Money, and local Baton Rouge and New Orleans artists. My mom listened to a lot of ’90s R&B—R Kelly, Sparkle, Avant. In middle school and high school, I got more into rock, alternative, and pop stuff, like 3LW, Total, The Mars Volta, John Mayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chevelle, System of a Down, Megadeth, Black Sabbath, Partyshank—I don’t know if anyone remembers this from Myspace, but if you do then kudos, you’re awesome—Uffie, Ninjasonik, Amanda Blank, Spank Rock. A lot of stuff; too much to go on about. I was all over the place.
You changed your name from Pyramid Vritra, you’re on a new label, you’ve refined your sound. It’s obvious you’ve gone through a transformation. What inspired the name change?
Pyramid Vritra, I feel, represented a younger me, unrefined. I was just making stuff, learning as I went along. From Jet Age to my solo projects, I was producing and writing from a different mindset. I’ve gotten more comfortable with who I am—I have a son now, I’m getting married soon, I’ve been with and without, I’m just in a different headspace now. My production style has changed, my beliefs have changed, and my writing has matured. I’ve been going by that name since the beginning of my career. ’Twas time for a change. I still consider myself independent, NRK is independent, and I’m technically on a label for distribution, but with full control and the ability to release under something that’s my own. The name change felt like a necessary progression: a new, more focused, chapter of creation.
I’ve been meaning to put a little more of my opinions and my life story into my music, but wasn't confident enough to speak up. There’s too much filler music out there that no one can relate to. I couldn't continue being part of that; I had to say something. What you leave behind is your legacy. This is mine; I'd rather it have meaning.
Why the move from Stones Throw back to your own label, NRK?
I was actually part of NRK before Stones Throw, Odd Future, and even the first Jet Age Project. After performing at Low End Theory a few times, Daddy Kev offered us a distro deal supporting NRK and our future releases. As far as leaving Stones Throw, it wasn’t necessarily my decision per say, but it just wasn’t that great of a fit for the direction I wanted to go. For the best, I believe. I’m eternally grateful to Peanut Butter Wolf for the support at the time.
How has your personal process changed as you’ve grown? I’m curious about what you’ve been listening to and reading that helped shift your approach.
I’ve always been really into religious studies. I’ve been reading more into Hinduism and meditating more, but who hasn’t? Everyone thinks they’re “spiritual” now. I’ve learned a lot from experimenting with psychedelics and just living life. But music-wise, high-key all I’ve been listening to is like, ’80s pop and R&B and late ’90s dance music, bossa nova, jazz—a lot of Swing Out Sister, Basia, Lisa Stansfield. And also, my go-tos, like the Mars Volta, Paul McCartney, Esperanza Spalding.
Why is the album called Yellowing? When something yellows with age, it indicates its growth.
That’s exactly why I named it that. I’m a totally different person than I was five years ago. I’ve grown; my perception has grown. Yellow like plastic on old video game consoles, yellow like age. You got it.
The production on Yellowing really emphasizes the lyrics. Can you tell me about this? Who did you collaborate with on production?
The majority of the album is self-produced, aside from “TWLV WKS” which was produced by Lance Neptune, and “Gypsy,” produced by Tyler Major. The decision to focus on lyrics more was a personal one. Up until now, lyrically, most of my lyrics were “Typical Rap Nigga Lyrics,” like flashy things, braggadocious phrases and whatnot. I’ve been meaning to put a little more of my opinions and my life story into my music, but wasn’t confident enough to speak up. There’s too much filler music out there that no one can relate to. I couldn’t continue being part of that; I had to say something. What you leave behind is your legacy. This is mine; I’d rather it have meaning.