zelooperz, the björk-loving rapper redefining detroit's sound
Get to know the Danny Brown disciple taking cues from punk rock, abstract art, and the Icelandic mother of electronica.
At 6'7, Walter Williams is more than capable of dishing out a dunk. In fact, when we shoot his portrait at a sleepy basketball court, he soars above the net and swings freely from the rim while a neighborhood dog nips at his Rick Owens sneakers. In spite of his NBA-ready measurements, the 21-year-old insists that ball is definitely not life. Williams is better known as Zelooperz, the Detroit-born artist who freely oscillates between honing a distinctively gritty hip-hop sound and making expressive paintings. "I go about my music the same way I go about my artwork -- abstractly," Zelooperz tells me. "There's not a definite flow; it's crazy and all over the place."
"All over the place" is as much a description of his creative process as it is of his upbringing. Zelooperz was born, raised, and still resides in the 313; his family frequently moved throughout the midwestern metropolis in his youth. One neighborhood he did settle in, however, was Detroit's Downtown Arts District, where he began attending Detroit School of Arts to focus on drawing. His first project, Coon n The Room: Eating RamenNoodles While Watching Roots on Bootleg, was recorded in a similarly transient state -- it stitches together sessions recorded at both his mom and pal's house. This home-cooked effort arrived in 2011, and eventually attracted the attention of one of the city's most respected rappers: the iconoclastic Danny Brown.
"I had just dropped a project and was all over Twitter like a corny ass little kid!" Zelooperz chuckles, recalling his poor PR strategy. Brown took notice, but Zelooperz bravely conceded he didn't even know who the Adderall Admiral was. So he started diving into Brown's out-of-the-box back catalog, and cites the gap-toothed spitter's outstanding effort XXX as an enduring influence. Brown even brought him up on stage at one of his shows before mysteriously splitting, leaving Z to hit the strip club with his pals in his place. "He was just like a brother to me at first, no weird, fake type of shit," Zelooperz says. Eventually, Brown began bringing Z along to the studio and enlisted him as the youngest member of the Bruiser Brigade, a collective merging Detroit's bubbling underground talent. "They're like my family," Zelooperz says.
Brown's own style is wildly inventive, to say the least. He crafts compelling narrative arcs not by doling out jabs of braggadocio, but by twisting up aggressive, acerbic imagery with shoutouts to Hot Pockets or "Squidward and his clarinet." The random bits never knock Brown off target, only affirm his singularly flexible flow. So it's not actually that surprising when Zelooperz tells me that Danny is "constantly studying." "Even writing is secondary to the process for him. He mostly inspires me to study my craft so that when I get in the studio, I can really form it," Zelooperz says. "Danny has analyzed a lot of my music and pointed to some influences -- put me on to certain shit -- which has helped me understand my own stuff better." Influences like punk, or, you know, Björk.
"When we were on tour, he put me on to Björk," Zelooperz tells me. "I came in the bus and just thought, 'what is cuz listening to?' He was sad as fuck!" Turns out, Icelandic electronica. "That's what really helped me with my new project. I was trying to get smoother and I was just wondering how her voice was so graceful, but almost raunchy at the same time," he says earnestly.
His new effort is called Bothic, an album slated to arrive this February. He plays me some snippets and already, it's living up to his mentor's penchant for dealing deftly in the unexpected. One track, "Pay Pal," serves up shout-outs to both Vivienne Westwood and Hot Topic (it's also laced with dolphin sounds). On another, Zelooperz notches up the energy with a harcore-inflected chorus: "Elevator up… down!" That line alone has a legacy that far exceeds hip-hop. Before it became the soundtrack of Kenzo's fall/winter 12 fashion show -- an outing which saw Karlie Kloss boogying on an escalator to the beats of DJ duo Nguzunguzu -- the chorus appeared on German techno group Interactive's 1992 single of the same name. It probably goes back even further.
Zelooperz knows all of this (even the Kenzo part), but the line might be more at home in his track than any. "On this album, people should expect some very low lows and very high highs. It's an escalator of music," he explains. "The album builds on my life, it's the next level of my life. Once you keep doing something for a while, you get better and better as long as you practice -- you keep working. It's another stair in my life," he says.
It's a stair in his life, but music isn't his only climb. He didn't abandon his artistic ambitions once Brown co-signed his rhymes; rather, Zelooperz alternates freely between painting and performing. "I'm one of those dudes that's pissed off a lot, so I just take my time and calm down by working on art or music. Most of the time I'm just sitting, smoking weed, and painting -- that's my first go-to. But when I get fed up, that's when I go bust some bars," he explains.
He sells a good amount of work (Earl Sweatshirt even hit him up on Twitter to purchase a piece), but will make swaps, too. He once traded a painting for a cult Gosha Rubchinskiy hoodie -- or was it for the fuzzy plaid jacket he covers up in at the court? It's hard to remember, since he gushes about thrift store finds with the same gusto as designer hookups. Given how little attention he pays towards distinctions in his artmaking, it isn't irreverent -- it's process. "I never think about doing a certain type of song or painting," he says. " I'm just searching for a new way of going about things."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen