People have been good at guitar before. People have been good at rapping before. People have also been good at singing and songwriting before, and producing. But how many people can claim to be good at all of these things?
Madison, WI’s Chris LaBella can. After a hectic week in Austin networking for SXSW, I was able to catch up with LaBella right before he made the long car ride back to Wisconsin. The multi-talent is a product of his diverse musical tastes, which range from rappers and producers such as Kanye West, 9th Wonder, J Dilla, Outkast, and Jurassic 5, to reggae and grunge legends Bob Marley and Kurt Cobain, to the psychedelic rock god Jimi Hendrix.
“First came the songwriting, it must’ve been around fourth grade,” says LaBella. “I was just messing around with kids in history class writing songs about [Francisco] Pizarro and shit. Then a few years later in eighth grade I started playing guitar. That really took off through high school.”
Once LaBella began to focus on guitar, his love of hip-hop started “falling by the wayside a little bit,” but was reenergized by Kanye’s Late Registration, specifically “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” “That’s when I really wanted to start doing production… what really drew me to hip-hop was not having to rely on other people who don’t necessarily have the same work ethic or drive or vision.”
Now that he has lots of experience with both guitar playing and rapping, the next challenge for LaBella is refining his unique sound, which avoids categorization. “Music is music. It’s all the same twelve notes. There’s infinite ways to combine those twelve notes, so it’s all the same to me, really.”
LaBella’s first step on his journey is the Flyaway EP, a six-track project which he released last November. His manager, Maphia Johnston, describes the EP as “block party music.” “It’s not genre specific but it has little accents and flavors of a lot of different kinds of things,” he says. I would have to agree.
Johnston compared Flyaway’s amalgam sound to LaBella’s hometown of Madison. “What we do better than anyone else [in Madison] is adapt to other cultures and make it our own… That’s a lot of Chris’ sound. Fusion.”
As of the time of this writing, Flyaway was number 13 on the CMJ (College Music Journal) hip-hop charts. Check out the video to one of Flyaway’s standouts below, the song that shares the same name as the EP. It won the award for video of the year at last year’s Madison Hip Hop Awards, and is at once a nostalgic ode to his hometown and a mission statement for his desire to see more of the world.
(Sidenote: LaBella claims that the video to “Living On Dreams” technically won the award, but the “Flyaway” video is “more involved” and thematically resonant, and he’s fairly confident that the voters thought they were voting for “Flyaway.”)
As good as Flyaway is, LaBella promises that it’s only a start, even going so far as to say that he wasn’t content with the end result. “The fact that I did the whole EP myself gives it its sound, but I’m definitely trying to work with more producers now… It could’ve been way better than it is, but it’s a starting off point.”
Noting that being a jack of all trades has made his artistry and vision stronger, LaBella still recognizes how crucial the element of collaboration is for musicians. “It’s really cool when you can rely on your own shit, but you seek that other element,” he says.
Nevertheless, Flyaway, coupled with his inherently entrepreneurial spirit, has opened doors for LaBella in a short amount of time, most noticeably by way of a budding friendship with one of hip-hop’s all-time great tastemakers, Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua, one half of the management and production company Hip Hop Since 1978. LaBella met Hip Hop at SXSW last year.
Even if you don’t know who Hip Hop is, you know what he’s done. HHS78 has been down with Roc-A-Fella Records since its inception. Hip Hop and his partner Gee Roberson negotiated Kanye’s signing to the label, and their first official project was his debut album, College Dropout. Since then HHS78 has (at one point or another) managed the careers of not only West, but Lil’ Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Drake, T.I., Young Jeezy, Just Blaze, and Noah “40” Shebib.
LaBella speaks a lot about timing and the overall karmic powers of the universe.
I guess when a Kanye album rekindles your love for rap music, and then ten years later you befriend the man who Kanye owes so much of his career to, you would probably see things through that lens as well.
“I was just chillin’ backstage at an event next to this older dude and all of a sudden a beat comes on and I just start rapping. I didn’t even know who he was still. He asked me how long I had been rapping, and we just started talking. He hit me up a couple days later and that was kind of it. He likes the Badgers, and he’s a huge college basketball fan, so we kept in contact through that.”
Although it’s a cool introductory story, the important thing is how much wisdom and game LaBella has already soaked up from the OG. “I learned more from just being around Hop for a few days than I have in years. I’m feeling more motivated, focused, and inspired than ever right now.”
LaBella definitely made the most of networking at SXSW this year, despite the fact that he didn’t even perform. In addition to hanging out with Hop, he was able to get face time with Earl Sweatshirt and Earl’s manager, Peter Rosenberg and his assistant, and Prince Charlez (Beyonce’s songwriter), amongst others.
LaBella also took full advantage of having an artist badge. “Make as much face time as you can,” he says. “How many artists [with a wristband or badge] actually went to the conferences that they’re allowed to go to? How many of them made the effort to be front row at the panels? If you do happen to fall in with somebody’s crowd, go to their show the next night, and the next night. Make sure they remember you.”
Johnston echoed LaBella’s sentiment by saying, “A lot of guys make the mistake of bringing all their buddies along… you’re going to get a lot of doors closed on you that way.” LaBella, on the other hand, went at it alone, which granted him access to places and groups of people that would’ve otherwise been hesitant to have him and all of his friends tag along with them.
It remains to be seen if LaBella can leverage his knack for networking into collaborations that can get his music in front of more ears, but one thing that is for certain is that he is going about it the right way. I am personally excited to hear what he’s cooking up next, seeing as though Flyaway is such a great project and he’s not even content with it (I guess you can have worse problems than being a perfectionist).
Stream the Flyaway EP on LaBella’s SoundCloud below, or on Spotify, or head to iTunes to purchase the project and support independent music. Follow Chris LaBella on JamFeed for all of his up-to-date news.