If Atlanta's left-of-center hip-hop scene was a high school popularity contest, Spree Wilson would be a shoo-in for least likely to succeed.
For one thing, he just doesn't look the part. Dressed in a black Mr. Rogers sweater buttoned over a plaid collared shirt, with his great-grandfather's fedora hanging off the back of his head in a decidedly un-hip-hop fashion, the Nashville native rears his head back and belts out a few lines from the Beatles' classic, "Eleanor Rigby."
Ahh, look at all the lone-ly people.
"If you can't feel that, you just ain't got no soul, man" says the 26-year-old MC, producer and multi-instrumentalist, laughing in spite of himself.
In a close-knit scene where even the best acts still struggle to form an identity beyond the shadow of OutKast, Wilson really is an outcast. Despite the wide range of influences coursing through the disparate veins of Atlanta's latest ground-level movement – from electro-punk to retro-'80s rap – an MC who hits the stage with an electric guitar strapped to his chest doesn't quite fit the bill. In other words, dude is out with the in-crowd – or the out-crowd, as it were. Confused? Imagine how Spree Wilson feels.
"It's just super weird. If you ever want to know what irony is, hang around the scene and be yourself," he says. "I feel comfortable in my own skin, but when I walk in those places I feel like, man, I don't belong in here."
Now that it's hip(ster) to be square, "those places" Wilson speaks of (such as Drunken Unicorn on any given weekend) increasingly play host to local rap cliques and behind-the-scenesters who have co-opted the outsider aesthetic, embossed it with a glossy finish and branded it hot shit. And it threatens to leave one of the city's most unique, uncompromising voices out in the cold.
A big part of Wilson's appeal is his vocal delivery. Reminiscent of the Pharcyde, it sounds as carefree and breezy as the alternative rap group did in the early '90s. But Wilson actually points to former rapper Queen Latifah's personable vocal inflections as the inspiration behind his flow. "That's why when I rap, I move around," he says. "It's just the energy that it gives."
In a move to energize the scene, Wilson began seeking other ground-level acts to perform with over the past year. He'd already stirred interest among major-label subsidiaries such as Sho-Nuff Records, Rowdy Records and Def Jam South while still a student at Clark Atlanta University. But his industry résumé garnered little play from local show promoters.
So Wilson crafted a new approach: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em. He formed a loose affiliation with a handful of other misfits, including rapper Small Eyez and post-punk band Tendaberry. They branded themselves the Radiant Kidz and called their Lenny's performance in March "the anti-scene show," Wilson says.
"We're in a school where we're looked at as uncool. But the irony is these people think they're not cool. They think they're the geeks," he says, referring to the absurd sense of exclusion. "We're the people being shunned."
As a youngster, Wilson was often labeled a "sellout" for listening to acts such as the Beach Boys, R.E.M. and Nirvana. But maybe he was destined to go against the grain, considering his godfather Billy Cox was the bassist for Jimi Hendrix' Band of Gypsys.
Beneath his rubbery, animated flow, Wilson teeters between despair and hope while mapping the road less traveled: "I guess I stay to myself 'cause these peers of mine/when I tell 'em these things don't appear so kind/so I gotta dig inside myself, my own mind/and imagine all these friends that I hope I find," he raps on "Inspiration."
Though he's more likely to lift a sample from Bob Dylan than George Clinton, he believes his blues-inflected, folk-infused rap will one day make him "the biggest artist in the world." His verse on "I Am" from the soundtrack to the recent blockbuster film 21 places him alongside heavyweight Talib Kweli and Rowdy Records signee Novel (whom Wilson also collabs with in Knives Out). It's a bigger stage than most within the local scene have stepped on to date.
And if that makes him more of an outsider, he couldn't care less.
"I always cared about what other people thought," he says. "Then in the last couple of months, I just came to a point where I don't give a fuck. And you know what I realized? It makes my music better. When you're fearless, it makes your music better."
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