“[Drinking] Defines Me”: An Interview with MMG’s Red Pill

Max Bell interviews the Detroit rapper about his new album, Instinctive Drowning, and the depression and drinking that fueled it.
By    August 15, 2016

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Depression is fickle. Debilitating one day, destructive the next. The afflicted either can’t summon the energy to leave the house or is on the verge of burning it down. On good days, illness and anxieties are channeled into a therapeutic (read: probably creative) outlet. On the bad ones, it’s numbed by a preferred toxin. In far too many cases, the years of compounded misery prove fatal. You don’t have to tell any of the above to Chris Orrick. The 28-year-old Michigan rapper, aka Red Pill, has known his entire life. Depression and self-medication were practically his birthright.

Orrick’s second Mello Music Group (MMG) full-length, Instinctive Drowning, is an exegesis on personal and familial depression. It is a genealogy littered with broken bottles and flickering liquor-store neon, the family tree broken down from a worn bar stool, hollered while adrift at the bottom of a cheap fifth. Many of themes covered on Orrick’s first LP, Look What This World Did to Us, re-appear (e.g. the unending struggle for happiness, the false promise of the American Dream). The wounds, however, feel fresh. The directness of Orrick’s delivery and the emotion in his voice sew the familiar tissue with new stitches.

So it goes that Instinctive Drowning is hard to listen to on repeat. Orrick’s resolute commitment to introspection, the unflinching examination of his mother’s ultimately life-ending battle with alcoholism and depression, make the record as unsettling as the emergency room waiting room. The same can be said of Orrick’s unflagging self-awareness, which extends to race, profession, and the uncomfortable places they intersect. Nothing is said for the sake of pity, only transparency.

Throughout, Orrick’s lines are bolstered by Ohio producer/rapper Ill Poetic’s dark, expansive score. The album trades the fuzzy, warm, jazz-inflected boom-bap of Look What This World Did to Us for dynamic percussion, quasi-psychedelic guitar riffs, and a beautiful, arresting use of space and natural sounds (e.g. crashing waves). The latter, of course, leaves room for Orrick’s poignant divulgences. Together, Orrick and Poetic create a singular, cohesive album best listened to in its entirety.

Instinctive Drowning is out August 26th. It’s not going to the top of Billboard. In a just world, the album winds up at the top of iTunes. It is an answer for anyone who finds AA too religious. It is one of 2016’s most necessary rap albums, one meant to be shared amongst those wrestling with unappeasable demons and life-choking vices. It is the affirmation of what we know intuitively: communal healing begins with unfiltered personal revelation.

To shed light on a record virtually devoid of singles, I spoke with Orrick over the phone. Even for our second interview (the first is here), he was incredibly forthcoming. Speaking from his Hazel Park apartment, he answered any and all questions about his life, his music, and his ongoing battles with depression and drinking. Brief laughter often accompanied the grim. It’s the kind of disarming tick cultivated in the amid sirens literal and figurative. It’s, well, instinctive. – Max Bell


Our last interview was about a year ago. Since then, you’ve done your first major press run, tour, etc. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in going through all of that?


Red Pill: I think I knew this anyways, but now it’s hit even more – keep expectations low. It’s been my thing for my whole career. It’s been kind of an uphill battle to get people to give a shit about my music.

I went on tour with Murs in the fall. I really thought it was going to be huge – I’ve been fucking with his music since high school and following his career – and we had some shows where there were like 13 or 14 people there. I don’t want to put his business out there, but it’s kind of crazy to see a dude that’s at least ten years older than me out on the road still grinding it out. That’s not to say that he wasn’t killing it. There were some amazing shows, but I just had to temper expectations. As much as I feel like I’ve grinded it out for a long time, there’s a long fucking road ahead. I need to get ready for it.


To inject some levity into what promises to be a serious interview, does Red Pill have groupies? Did you sign any convex body parts on tour?


Red Pill: (laughs) No, dude. Not at all. There are definitely girls that talk to me that probably would never talk to me if I didn’t get on stage. It’s not my thing. I’ve been in a long term relationship for a long time. It’s few and far between. I’ve said this to my girlfriend, “With underground hip-hop, unless you’re Slug or Danny Brown, I think all it does is give you an advantage over some dudes in the audience.” But it doesn’t really do much other than that. Who knows? I might just be missing out (laughs).


Now that you have some distance from your MMG debut, Look What This World Did to Us, how do you feel about it? Have you sat down and listened to it again?


Red Pill: I haven’t in awhile. With my records, the flaws get more stark as I go back and listen to them. I do think it’s the first record that I can sit down and listen to and not cringe at parts. From start to finish, I’m happy with the product. For the people that liked it, it was an important record. I got to learn that on the tour. It was the first time that I felt that people are getting what I’m doing. Even if I only had 10-15 people at a show, they were diehard people.

Some people drove six hours because that was the show closest to their hometown. People have noticed that it’s a lot like old Atmosphere shit. And I didn’t mean to do that. But when I look back on it, I feel like there’s a heavy Slug influence. Even some Blu and Brother Ali and shit. I know what I was trying to do. I was trying to create a sound that was similar to that. But, from front to back, it’s something that I’m still proud of. There’s moments of it that do bum me out, but people fuck with it. So I’m proud of it in that sense. That’s awesome.


An artist’s influences are almost always most pronounced on their debut. With Instinctive Drowning, do you feel you’ve shed the Slug (Atmosphere) influence? In other words, do you feel you’ve truly found your voice? “Rum & Coke,” right down to the “God’s Bathroom Floor” sample, is about as reverent as it gets, whereas “Gin & Tonic” keeps the sample and even mirrors the rhyme pattern in parts but doesn’t feel nearly as reverent.


Red Pill: For me, this is the first time – and I hope I’m right – that I’ve done something that was uniquely me. There are parts of it where I knew what I was doing – on “Club Privilege,” I knew I wanted to write like Kanye, and on “The New Normal,” I wanted to write like P.O.S. But I do think that this is the most “me” album. You can’t really say that I sound like someone else at this point. People have done certain things before, but I don’t know that people have done an album like this. I don’t know that people have heard a record like this. I know that’s super egotistical, but it might only be my own ego saying, “You finally did something that is you. You took your influences and the pure moments that you liked from other artists and made them yours.” Hopefully, that’s what every good artist does in their career. I hope that I’ve done it with this one. But who knows? A year from now I’ll probably hate it (laughs).


How did you meet Ill Poetic, the kind and talented Ohioan behind the boards on Instinctive Drowning? What inspired your decision to work with him?


Red Pill: I went to Michigan State, and that’s where I got my chops as far as getting into music. Myself and collective that I rapped with, Blat Pack, were doing a show at Mac’s Bar in Lansing, MI. That’s home. That’s where I cut my teeth and was able to grow as an artist. Ill Po came up to do a show. I honestly don’t remember his set, but we were at a house party and I was talking to him for a few minutes, and we got on each other’s radar. Over the years, we followed each other on [social media], and I never thought about working with him.

Then my dude Charlie Beans, who I talk to about producers I should work with, mentioned Ill Po [for Instinctive Drowning]. Then Ill Po hit me up to say that he heard Look at What This World Did to Us and was super into it. Charlie had already told me to ask him for beats, so I did. He sent me a shit ton of beats. It’s not that I didn’t fuck with them, but they just weren’t what I wanted. I told him that. I said, “Why don’t you get it down to five or six that you think are the best.” But I still wasn’t sure.

Ill Po recently moved out to San Diego. The first stop of the tour was the San Diego show, and he came out. I kind of explained to him the sound that I was looking for. A week later he sent me the first beat, which was “The New Normal.” Then he sent me the second beat, which ended up being “Four Part Cure.”

Over the course of a few weeks he kept sending me shit, and I was really into it. In the back of my head I’m like, ‘Do I ask this guy to produce the whole record? Am I okay with that?’ Because it’s always a delicate thing when you’re working with a producer for a full project. That’s a lot of control to give to someone else that I still don’t really know well. Also, I didn’t want to make it a Red Pill and Ill Poetic album.

For me, I have to maintain the separate brand of Red Pill. It’s harder to tour and do everything. It’s a whole new thing and you have to re-brand it. So I was really scared to do it. But he just kept sending shit that made sense. He got exactly what I wanted. He was sending me some weird, sort of experimental, psychedelic, punk-influenced stuff, and eventually I asked him if he wanted to do it. He was down. That’s it.


The shift from the muted, jazzy boom-bap on Look What This World Did to Us to the darker, quasi-psychedelic, and more aggressive/percussive sounds on Instinctive Drowning is stark. Why such a dramatic sonic shift? Was that the plan from the beginning? Did the aural direction of one song influence the others? How involved were you with the production?


Red Pill: With Look What This World Did to Us, we reached out to a lot of people [for beats] and got turned down by a lot of them. People didn’t really care, but I get it. I was a completely no name artist, so people weren’t interested in working with me. What ended up happening, and this is not to say that we settled, is that I had to take charge of it. I had to say, “Okay, Duke Westlake is really dope. Let’s see what he’s got. L’Orange is really dope…”

L’Orange was probably the biggest producer name on Look What This World Did to Us. I love him as a producer, but people weren’t going to be like, “Holy shit, L’Orange is producing.” He’s a Mello artist, they expect that. Then I had some of my friends [produce]. I produced four tracks because I was looking for something that I couldn’t get out of other people. I’m not a producer. I can make beats, but they’re not going to be big. I’m going to chop up a sample, get some melody out of it, and throw some drums on it.

With this one, I wanted to make sure the production was on point. It had to be bigger, it had to hit and be fuller and more musical. I started being like, “There’s got to be a way I can do this.” When we got to talking about the album, [Mike Tolle] was like, “Let’s hit up a few people.” We hit up Exile and Black Milk. I got some beats from Oddisee. I got beats from all of those people.

It was weird. I sat with these beats for a long time, and I was scared to come back to Mike and be like, “It’s not that they’re not amazing beats, but they don’t fit what I’m looking for.” For me, I don’t think they were giving me their best shit. Black Milk is not interested in giving Red Pill his best shit. He just isn’t. I know Oddisee is shopping beats to pretty big artists. It’s the same for Exile.

To get beats from those guys, I know they’re not giving me lesser shit, but it’s not their best work. I didn’t feel slighted, but I didn’t want to make a record with somebody’s B-level beats. I want to make a record with somebody’s A-level beats. As long as they’re incredible to me, that’s all that matters to me. Hitting up Ill Po and getting these huge, lush productions, everything started to make sense. He’s had a great career, I’ve told him this and I mean it with all respect, but I knew he would be able to give me his best work. There’s a little more hunger in what he’s doing to work with Red Pill than there would be for someone like Exile, Black Milk, or Oddisee.


How are you coping with depression these days?


Red Pill: Depression is a weird thing. I think I’m finally getting to a point where I’m considering some real changes in health. I’m thinking about going to a doctor and talking to them about prescriptions. As dumb as it is to play up the album, the song “The New Normal” isn’t all that new in terms of subject matter. This has been my normal for a long time. For people that struggle with mental illness or depression, you kind of come to feel like this is it, this is how you’re going to feel.

My girlfriend has depression and anxiety issues as well, and she got on some medication for the first time. It’s a non-narcotic, and she’s seeing a lot of really good progress with it. It’s making me feel like, ‘Why don’t I deal with this shit?’ I’m not going to sit around and act like things are good forever. They’re not good. I don’t feel good all the time. (sighs) I don’t want to feel like this anymore. I know that sounds so whiny and shitty, but it’s a reality that people deal with, and it’s something that I’m trying to figure out. Am I at that point that I need to consider something serious? Do I need to talk to someone?

I’ve gone to therapists before, like in high school, and I liked it. I didn’t dislike it. But it’s expensive as fuck. I think that’s the biggest issue with mental illness in this country. Even as an artist on MMG, I don’t make a shit ton of money. I’m not insured right now. As easy as it probably is to get insured, I’m not. But I want to get better. I’m going to be 29 in the next few months, so that’s only 16 months from being 30. I want to make sure that I’m good to go and feeling better about life. I want to get out that funk that I’ve been in for a few years.


For you, does rap remain the best therapist?


Red Pill: Yeah. Maybe not as much as it did. I don’t write as much as I used to. I don’t know if that’s because of what I’m doing with my life. I don’t know if it’s efficiency, but it’s not this constant thing that it used to be when I was a teenager. I don’t have it as often. I think that it’s getting to a point where I need more than that. Music was able to be that for a long time, but I think I need more than that now.


Do you think depression is a common affliction amongst rappers, one that’s often unaddressed?


Red Pill: I think it’s this cliche shit of artists in general, but I think it’s real. I think it’s unaddressed in hip-hop especially, where it can kind of become this super masculine thing where you’re supposed to hide it and be a tough guy, which I don’t do in my music. But to speak outside of my own experience, I do think that that’s true. For people to even call what I do emo rap, I think that’s very silly. It’s still a hardened version of it.


The blue-collar midwestern attitude, at least in my experience, is to “buck up and shut up” when it comes to mental illness. How difficult is it/has it been for you to open up about these things? Do the people you consider family understand?


Red Pill: I’m lucky in that sense. Because it’s so prominent in my family, it’s something that people talk about openly. It’s like floating between two worlds. For the most part, we accept it. We know that mental illness drives people to substance abuse, or the opposite. When I was working at the plant, people would talk about their shit, but they’d get uncomfortable if you got emotional.

I’m the type of person that, whether you’re hanging out with me or doing an interview, I have no problem talking about my shit. I think people get worried and uncomfortable about that. When I was working at the plant, a co-worker said, “That’s not how everybody deals with their shit.” I get that, but, at the same time, I‘ve gotten so much out of being able to be honest about what’s happening with me and my brain and my life. It’s good for people to talk about it, but it’s not my place to say whether than can or not.


The album’s title track deals very directly with this and your mother’s early passing. When did you first realize that she struggled with mental illness and alcoholism?


Red Pill: As early as I can remember, maybe four or five. It sucks because, my mom was a really funny and nice person when she wasn’t drinking. Everyone says she was the life of the party; everyone liked her. But my earliest memories are just this drunken shrunken mess. Her liver had failed when I was seven-years-old, so she was 32 or some shit. That was the first time that they got everything ready, like, “Get a priest. Get funeral shit ready.”

She ended up pulling through, but she went right into rehab after. My dad had to go on some business trip that he had to go on. His boss was an asshole and wasn’t putting up with my dad’s personal issues affecting work issues. Myself and my two younger brothers were supposed to stay with my grandma while my mom was in rehab. But my mom, who was really manipulative, was able to convince the staff to let her out of rehab early.

My dad was kind of stuck. He was like, “You don’t need to stay with your grandparents now that your mom is home.” I remember this night, and I knew very well what was happening. We drove him to the airport, came home, and then when I’m in bed my mom starts yelling in the kitchen. She dropped a gallon of milk on the ground. She was like, “I have to go out now. I have to get more milk.” It’s like 11 at night, you don’t need milk. I knew she was making up some dumb ass excuse to buy liquor. Those are my earliest memories. We were always going to the store to get something that wasn’t alcohol, but I knew.


In addition to her attempt to hide her drinking, did she tell you to stay away from alcohol?


Red Pill: No, I don’t think she did. She was hardcore as far as being an alcoholic. I don’t think she ever really believed that she had a problem, which is crazy. There are times when I feel like I have one, and I’m not even five percent of the way she was. She was in and out of rehab, in and out of the hospital, almost dying and then eventually dying. We never really had that conversation.

The only time it sort of came up – I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody this but my dad – was in the last conversation I had with her before she passed away. She told me she was a bad mother because of what she did and how she was. I tried to tell her she wasn’t and blah blah blah. It was an awful thing to happen. I don’t say it for pity, that’s the reality of it. That’s the last conversation I had with her. But she never said it was because of her drinking. Everyone else warned [me] about it, but I don’t think she ever did.


Was it difficult to record “Instinctive Drowning” without breaking down in the booth?


Red Pill: I think it was more difficult for Charlie, who was recording the song. He was trepidatious about guiding me on how to record it. Usually, he’s like, “Do another take. That one wasn’t good.” And he was really tip-toeing around telling me how to record the song. In the middle I stopped and was like, “It’s just a song. We have to treat it like it’s just a song right now. I understand that you don’t want to tell me how to record it, but we want to make sure we’re getting the best version we can.” My voice cracked at one point, and I wanted to get rid of it. Charlie was like, “You’re keeping that shit. That’s important to the album.” To me, I didn’t want people to think it was forced or faked.


Do you think you’ll be able to perform it in front of an audience several nights in a row?


Red Pill: I don’t know. We absolutely plan on doing it. When I’m on the stage I get really intense, but I like that. I really don’t like touring. The only part of touring that I enjoy is the stage, getting on stage and having a great show. That’s the biggest high that I get from music. I’m able to put as much emotion into it as possible and give myself to the music. That’s the most therapeutic moment in music. The writing is great. A lot of recording feels like a chore. I don’t really give a shit about mixing. I don’t care about any of that. So I can’t wait to perform this song, get it down to the point where I feel comfortable with it, and put myself out there on stage.


When did you first think that your drinking was, for lack of a better word, problematic?


Red Pill: When I was working at the plant. It had become habitual. It wasn’t for fun. It was for no reason. Before that, I drank to have fun or because I felt like shit. When I started working at the plant I started drinking just because that’s what I wanted to do. I got off of work and went to the liquor store to get a fifth or a pack of beer and I drank. There was no reason. That’s when it started to hit me.


On album opener “The New Normal,” you discuss almost dying because alcohol abuse. How many times has drinking brought you close to death?


Red Pill: Here’s the real situation that happened with that. I wasn’t almost dying. People thought I was almost dying. I felt awful. I had these horrible headaches for a while when I was working at the plant. Again, I want people to know that this was two-three years ago, at least. A lot of where this record comes from is going back to a different time in my life. But I was having these horrible headaches and could not stop them. I was still drinking everyday because I didn’t give a shit. I felt I was trying to numb the headaches with drinking. It wasn’t working. It felt like I’d slept on my neck wrong. It became very clear over the next few days that it was something more, but I didn’t know what. Then I had a terrible fever.

I didn’t have insurance, so I went to urgent care. I’m explaining everything that’s wrong, and these were literally the words that came out of his mouth, “I don’t like what you’re telling me.” I was like, “What? I don’t like what I’m telling you, either.” He’s like, “They can’t find anything. There’s no infection. You need to go get an MRI, because you might have brain tumor.” I’m like, “Fuck you. You’re just a shitty urgent care doctor.”

I talked to my dad, and he was able to get me to see his doctor. She said the same thing. “My biggest suggestion, because you don’t have insurance, is to go to the emergency room and they’ll have to do all of the tests on you. It’s going to be crazy expensive, but you have to go. You might have brain tumor.” I left the place and I’m balling my eyes out in the car while talking to my dad. I call my girlfriend and I can’t even talk. Like, “What the fuck? All of this bullshit that I’ve been doing to my body, and this is how I’m going to go out?”

I went to the hospital, and they had no idea what was going on with me. They did a spinal tap, they ran tons of test. I ended up having viral meningitis. With that, there’s no test for it. You just have to rule everything else out. I was in the hospital getting tested all day, to the point that they were finally able to say, “It seems like viral meningitis.” I’m lucky it was just that, because if it’s bacterial [meningitis], by the time you start feeling it you’re pretty much dead.

They asked me how much I drank. I let them know that I was a drinker, but I downplayed it. There was a team of four or five doctors working on me, and all but one left. He was like, “You know that this doesn’t just happen to people unless you have a shitty immune system. You’re either young or you’re old” – I was 25 or 26 – “It doesn’t happen unless you’ve been drinking a lot.” That was the whole experience with that. I was basically bedridden for two weeks. I couldn’t sit up without puking. You have an infection in your brain, basically. I didn’t drink for a while, and then I started drinking again.


Have you taken steps to cut back?


Red Pill: For a long time. It’s an up and down thing. The thing I keep saying with this record is this: it’s a highlight reel of shitty moments in my life over the last few years. Because that’s when I’m drawn to write, when I’m going through some shit. I’m not the guy that’s trying to write happy songs. There are definitely in between moments where I’m good. Then there are times when it gets bad. Then there are times when it’s good. It’s an ebb and flow of mental illness that leads to drinking. Lately, it’s been a little worse. I’m working on it right now, though. This month is supposed to be a little better. I’m getting back to being a normal person for a while.


“Gin & Tonic,” the sequel to “Rum & Coke,” is ultimately a positive song, one with this sort of post-hangover optimism. Where and how do you draw the line between the positive/motivational and the corny?


Red Pill: Yeah, I don’t know. (laughs) I hope that’s where it is. I hope that I didn’t get too corny on that record. The beat is so happy to me. The 808s just carry the melody of the low-end, and there’s happy trombone and guitar and all this shit. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone once said, “Never trust a happy song.” That’s what I was trying to do. It’s not a happy song, but if you’re not listening to it I think you can hear a positive layer. The reality is that the lyrics are not that at all. I don’t think I’d be good at writing a happy song, so that might be as happy as you get out of me.


Will you ever let go of the self-deprecation?


Red Pill: I don’t think so. If I got totally sober, I still think it’s my personality. I’m not going to be out here being the ultra-positive dude. I think the self-deprecation will probably get worse if I got sober and clean. I’d probably just tear into the last ten years of my life as a drunken moron. As much as I’ve been honest about it, there are still things I could go after myself for. I’m going to save that for the future, the things that people don’t think about with alcoholism.


In terms of things that people don’t think about, how do you reconcile your race with your chosen profession? It’s something you address on Instinctive Drowning.


Red Pill: That’s what I’ve had to deal with a lot over the last few years. But I’ve always been able to recognize it. I’m a white, straight man in America. My life should be pretty fucking easy. And it hasn’t always been. But I’m still afforded more opportunities that aren’t white, straight dudes. My whole thing with it, and you can can talk about racial dynamics in hip-hop all day, is having that awareness. So many white artists don’t have that awareness.

As corny as Macklemore can be, and I’ve been one of his biggest critics, at least he’s trying. So many dudes aren’t trying. G-Eazy is the corniest piece of shit, and you know that motherfucker doesn’t care. That’s just not on his radar. Or Machine Gun Kelly. Ignoring race as a thing is just the most ridiculous thing. I really try to balance it. I try to be as upfront as possible about who I am and what I’m trying to do with my music. It’s tough, man. It’s not tough like, “It’s hard to be a white rapper.” There have been times where I’ve legitimately thought, ‘Is this even something I should be doing. Am I just a part of the whitewashing of hip-hop? Am I going to look back on my career and think that I was complicit?’ Because it’s happening more and more. There are white rappers taking over mainstream radio. At one point, there was just one white rapper: Eminem. They’re all over the place now.


Do you feel white rappers have an even greater responsibility to address racial issues (e.g. police brutality and white privilege)?


Red Pill: I really do. Otherwise, you are benefitting from a culture and not acknowledging the suffering of that culture. Whether or not I live through it – clearly I don’t live through the suffering of black people in this country – I do benefit from an artform that they have created and given to the world. I have to be on top of that shit. I have to be aware. I have to be a part of making sure that their voices are the prominent voices. Police brutality, white privilege, those are always going to be part of my art. One, because I’m a white rapper in a black artform. On the other side of it, just the fucking human aspect of it. Whether I was a musician or not, this shit is terrible. It’s totally unacceptable what’s happening in our country. I would want to acknowledge that anyway, just as a politically minded person.


To end on a lighter note – no pun intended – what makes you happy right now? Have you found any new methods to cope during the dark times that don’t involve drinking?


Red Pill: Well, no. No. That’s an issue. That’s something that I had to figure out for myself. Drinking is everything that my life is, it’s social, personal, it’s in the music. It defines me. In a horribly fucked up way, [drinking] defines me. Even when I hang with my brothers, I have to get a case of beer. When I’m going out to eat, I have to have a few cocktails or some beer. It’s so ingrained in my lifestyle. That’s a fucked up note end on, I guess.

But I do want better than this. My music can be dark and shitty, but [there are parts that stress] finding happiness in this life. I hope that people that get that from the record. Going back in and re-answering that question, my favorite things in the world are just hanging out with my girlfriend and our kitten. I never thought I’d love a cat like I love this little idiot. Those moments are important. Getting older, it’s just simple shit. It’s trying to find a way to be happy enough about that enough that you can live for that.