Rory Ferreira, an eccentric and philosophical 25-year-old hip-hop artist who goes by the rap name milo, was described by LA Weekly as “ready to take over the art rap scene” in 2013.
Art rap, or hip-hop music as high culture, has been long associated with his musical career. Since the nod from LA Weekly, milo has released three albums, plus more under the moniker Scallops Hotel. His latest, Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!, was listed as one of the most anticipated rap releases of the year by Rolling Stone. It’s clear when speaking with milo that being well-studied has helped his transcendent weirdness feel sacred.
His music is best understood after multiple listens and with a nearby dictionary on hand. Be prepared to accept that there is holiness in the unknowing if you can’t understand his sometimes whimsical message filled with metaphors and myths.
The lyrics are loaded with so many pop culture references it almost feels like a meme in a rap form. They range from the porn star portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights to the experimental Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Ghiath Matar, the first person mentioned on this album, was a Syrian activist who gave roses to soldiers in tanks.
“I’m not so different,” he tells DJBooth. “I’m doing the same shit. I’m about to be in the deep south rapping these lunatic songs. And I rapped in Charlottesville at that chapel earlier this year. I’ve been in open-carry states where a fellow with a gun on his hip comes up to me and asks me what my agenda is after a set.”
While milo doesn't necessarily have an agenda, his music does serve a greater purpose. These days milo raps for his son, who is nine months old. Before, he says, he just rapped for himself. Perhaps that’s the biggest difference on his new project. In this way, his album feels like his version of what Ta-Nehisi Coates did on the New York Times Bestseller and 2015 winner of the nonfiction National Book Award: Between The World And Me.
“It’s activated and digested in a different way,” milo says. “I’m sure there’s plenty of people who read Mr. Coates on the daily. But people wake up and bump this shit. They brush their teeth and go about their days and these words embed themselves in their mind and blossom.”
Coates wrote his book, described as a meditation on black identity, in the form of a letter to his son. On the back cover of Between the World And Me, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison links Coates to iconic writer James Baldwin who took a similar strategy on The Fire Next Time (1963). Likewise, the first track of the new milo album samples an interview with Baldwin.
“For me, it’s just as much about leaving letters to the younger generation as it is honoring James Baldwin, Hank Dumas, Sun Ra, John Gilmore and all these great minds that came before me.”
Five years after Baldwin released The Fire Next Time, esteemed 33-year-old black poet Henry Dumas was murdered by transit police while on a train in New York in a fatal case of mistaken identity.
Five decades have passed since Dumas, who milo describes as his favorite poet, lost his body. On his new album, he does not hesitate to compare himself to Dumas.
On the first stanza of the track "Call + form (picture)," he makes a direct allusion to the most famous work of the poet:
“I rode in on a Ruby Yacht, that's the Ark of Bones.”
Ruby Yacht is the record label milo founded in January 2015. The name derives from the Persian word for a collection of poems: rubaiyat. While many encouraged him to sign a deal with a bigger company, he preferred the autonomous freedom. Merchandise, album art, music videos, travel arrangements and everything else in between keep him busy. In exchange, he doesn’t compromise the intentionality and magic-like qualities of his sound.
He takes inspiration from his father. His self-employed dad encouraged him to be his own boss. He tells DJBooth that hustle makes him stay somewhat financially stable.
“I have to make a living with this. And making a living means there’s an audience that supports it with their dollar. All the work that proceeds it gives it context and helps it make sense,” he says. “A lot of rap listeners disqualify themselves because they feel they just like the beat and can’t relate. I’m trying to make music all people can live with.”
Storytellers will relate to when he encapsulates life as a writer and nods at a famed novelist, a rapper and a religious historian in the same breath on The young man has a point (nurture):
“Spit like Zadie Smith with a Jay Z lisp, or like / J.Z. Smith, you can take your pick / The point is my vocabulary pays my rent”
Through his collection, milo deliberately pays tribute to those who have come before him. For example, he was once in the Hellfyre Club collective in Los Angeles which has included major influences on him like Anderson .Paak (who he calls one of the “hardest working cats”), Open Mike Eagle and Busdriver. He appears along these three rappers on Worlds To Run.
Eagle is a friend and mentor to milo, who has always known he wanted to be a rapper. He says that he would send him lyrics from as early as when he was 11.
Busdriver, who has a verse on the last song of this album, helped give milo the confidence to continue his career when he recognized him by his rap moniker in 2012, shortly after his first solo mixtape. Both are “art rap” pioneers in the rap canon.
“I got love for all those dudes. We provided a necessary function to this genre that nobody can fill except us,” he says of Hellfyre Club. “I’m proud to be of that lineage and of that pedigree.”
These days, he tells DJBooth, there is an instinctual desire to get away from it all to places that do not exist on maps after his upcoming tour. The Chicago-born musician believes there is importance in the urban sprawl of a city. But he was also raised picking blueberries and running with his dog by the lake in a pastoral scene reminiscent of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
That stark contrast is one of the biggest factors why it’s best to let his work, which is deep in abstract storytelling, speak for itself. Reluctant to agree to interviews despite making time for our conversation, milo believes writers have three weapons: silence, exile and cunning. After his tour, he will return to exile somewhere you’ll never find him in Maine—away from his keyboard.
“It’s necessary. I feel it in my soul. I really have to drop off. I started rapping in my dorm room and put everything I had into that first mixtape. And I just kind of looked up now and I’m on the phone with DJBooth,” explains milo. “Now I know what it means to be an artist and put yourself out there. I’m going to give myself time to let that sink in and just raise my boy.”