“If It’s Potent, It’s Potent:” An Interview With UDABABY

On the duo's debut album, the sew the intertwining histories of hip-hop, literature, and Black Chicagoland.
By    September 15, 2021

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Davis had never recorded a verse before Joshua Virtue played the right beat to lead him into a makeshift closet studio. While they were roommates studying creative writing at Columbia College Chicago, “I always had a hunch that Davis would be a really good rapper if he tried to rap,” Virtue says. Hearing his friend’s bars after months of prodding, “in the moment I was like ‘Damn, this n***a can rap already? Like, shit.’”

Davis’ grumble proved to be a powerful foil to Virtue’s elastic voice, and the two rappers released a Virtue-produced EP of “anthemic diatribes by and for Black nerds everywhere” in January 2019. The duo named themselves UDABABY after their shared status as the youngest grandchild in their families, and formed the independent label / rap collective Why? Records with Ruby Watson and Malci later that year.

Their debut album UDABABY LP is sewn from the intertwining histories of hip-hop, literature, and Black Chicagoland. The two rappers trade verses every 8 bars like an old-school duo on opener “Gas,” complete with Virtue riffing on Outkast’s “B.O.B.” flow. Davis opens “Mark of Cain” with a prayer to African trickster god Anansi before visualizing an empire in decline as “the Mothman nibbling at your elbow-patch cardigan.” “Tiger Woods” is an anti-cop track dripping in sweat and venom, and the UDABABY chemistry is evident in the way each rapper starts his verse:

Davis: “Black cops are race traitors.”
Virtue: “I’m eating ass in a monastery.”

UDABABY has the same mission as their idols R.A.P. Ferreira, DOOM, and Wu-Tang before them: sharing their stories over the sickest shards of sound they can conjure. I met up with them in Virtue’s Rogers Park apartment in August to talk about maintaining independence, sampling X-Men dialogue, and performing at punk shows. – Jack Riedy

When was the album recorded?

Davis: The first song we recorded for this album was “2004 World Series of Dice,” we recorded that the same week the UDABABY EP dropped.

Joshua Virtue: So we were like, hot off the release and shit.

So you had the album done pre-pandemic and were just planning on how to release it?

Joshua Virtue: No. Basically we had all the roughs, everything basically finished. We tried to record final takes at a different studio that didn’t really work out. And then I thought that I lost everything. I left it on one of my hard drives, and I gave that hard drive to Sam [AKA Ruby Watson], they gave it back to me, and by then I didn’t even realize that it was still on there. So, one day, I was just like, “Yo, fuck it, I’m going to look what’s on this hard drive, maybe there’s some cool old songs.” And I find all the songs. So, then after that, he kind of just starts grinding like, “Yo, we got to get this out. When we’re gonna put this out?” I was like, “Eh, I don’t know, I’m not really that rapper anymore.”

Davis: Yeah, but the shit is still cold. Like, it’ll still knock, it’ll still be effective. You know?

Joshua Virtue: I would send him beats, like, “What do you think of this?” He’d be like, “Where’s the LP?”

Davis: “This is nice but…” I was adamant.

So what was the writing process like? Because Virtue, you’re always doing a thousand other projects and collabs. And at the time it seemed like Davis was a lot pickier with beats, and taking your time more to write.

Davis: I’m still like that. I don’t know if that’s a benefit or not. Fuck it, yeah, that’s a benefit. I’d rather take my time than just put some shit out that I’m not fully sure about, whether that be my lyrics or the beats that I’m rapping over. With that, I might go through thirty beats and like two. You know, that’s a necessary process. Like, if I want it to sound how I want it to sound, I’m not gonna be like, “Oh, I guess I can rap over this,” and then just do it and put it out there. That seems like hustling backwards to me. That’s not a full expression of myself, which is the point of all of this.

Were you just getting a lot of beat packs from Virtue at a time?

Joshua Virtue: Yeah, but it wasn’t like packs, you know?

Davis: It was like, come in the room, like, how does this sound for the album?

Joshua Virtue: I make a lot of different kinds of beats. But there’s sort of a Venn diagram where me and Davis’ tastes meet. Generally just like the grimy bag. “Nautilus” off the EP, I feel like that was a standard for what kind of sound that we wanted to have going forward into the LP. So, most of the things I made were more boom-bappy and just nasty and kind of gutter. Griselda was like really poppin right then, so I was just like, Yo, kicks, kicks, man. Fuckin’, boom boom boom!

When did the “Coinstar Blues” verses from Ruby and Malci get recorded? Were those at the same time?

Davis: That was back when we were doing the Drunken Bard sessions. Bring a bunch of rappers in, and just say, “Yo, we gotta beat, alright, we’re all gonna rap on this one tonight,” and just get like, very drunk. And maybe you get takes, maybe not. Malci’s verse from there was that night, so that’s probably the oldest verse on it.

Joshua Virtue: Jack Clements said about that verse specifically, and I still stand by this shit, “Y’all was doing good. But Malci dunkin’ from half court.” That verse is a monster, truly.

And he’s very polite about it!

Davis: Yeah, and he wrote it on the spot, too. Malci would come to the Drunken Bard sessions with a notebook, and he was like, “This is where I come to write shit,” like it was due that night.

It’s rare that all four of you from Why? Footclan are on a track together.

Davis: We like it like that though. Like, “Oh shit, this time? No way!” What’s that Jay Rock album where you got the Black Hippy song on it and you’re like, “Oh shit, Black Hippy what!” “Vice City.” It’s very exciting when you see that, or when you’re like, “Oh, shit, the whole Wu Tang is on this song.”

How did the punk scene in Chicago influence UDABABY?

Davis: The first show I ever did was at Rancho Huevos, rest in peace, and that was a UDABABY show. The punk scene was integral to us being UDABABY, I would argue. Very welcoming, not only in their welcoming of us as a musical act, but not a punk band. At the end of the day, I don’t know, I guess the emotion and the energy that is brought forth for UDABABY is very aggressive, which is inherently punk in itself. Not to say that, we’re playing guitar and shit, and drums and screaming – well, we are screaming at times on the album – but the core emotion of that scene and this album are hand in hand.

Joshua Virtue: UDABABY is also kind of a Black protest outlet. We specifically write shit that will feel more aggressive and more angry for UDABABY. If we’re not writing in that direction, we’re probably already leaning that way, just by virtue of what we always write.

Davis: By virtue of who we are.

Joshua Virtue: Yeah, it’s protest driven, it’s radically driven. It’s kind of “fuck white people” driven. [laughs]

What’s your favorite verse from the other person on this album?

Joshua Virtue: I’m probably stuck between “Tiger Woods” and “Coinstar Blues” for my favorite Davis verse on that album. I really appreciate your flow on “Tiger Woods.” It’s just kind of non stop, but also very effortless and laid back, you know, it’s rapid fire just fucking theme after theme that go together. It just made me excited. “Coinstar,” just the energy, man, like I could really hear it. We were talking about Ka earlier actually, trying to figure out the right word to describe a Ka song, and it’s weary. I feel like “Coinstar Blues,” that’s just in the name of the song. He came up with that name even, too.

Davis: That was the first funding for Why?. I had my Oberweis milk jar just full of quarters, and the first funding that we needed, me and him took an Uber to a fucking Jewel, the Jewel on Roosevelt because that’s the closest Coinstar that we could find. I got like $200 out of there, and that was the first money we had to put into Why?.

Joshua Virtue: Times be hard, you know. And you can hear that shit in his voice in that one. I was like, between jobs and shit all the fucking time, couldn’t hold anything down, fighting mental illness and that song really like encompassed the feelings of those times for me.

Alright, Davis, same question for you.

Davis: Mothafuckin’ “Caprese Bois.” Come on now. Came with fucking heat, not that we don’t have that usually, but just the bars on that shit. “It’s a crip walkin’ Chris Walken type beat, keep orthodox off the docket, this not a booth, this Machu Picchu, astral veil was often see-through, my phone on airplane mode, if you high enough I swear to God that God’ll reach you.” Come on!

Joshua Virtue: You can’t be rapping my song.

Davis: The beat for that shit, it was left field from him. Because it didn’t sound like anything else I had heard from him before. And not only that, it reminded me of some Just Blaze shit. And that’s why I was like, we ain’t never done no shit like this. We both gotta come fuckin’ harder. What’s another favorite? I mean, obviously you know I gotta say the “eating ass in a monastery” line, like we both come in with a bomb dropping, they’re different bombs. I love the way you come in though, it’s just like, niggas was not expecting that. Nobody was expecting that, at all.

Joshua Virtue: It’s funny because lines like that are the reason I was like, I don’t know if this album needs to come out.

Davis: When this shit dropped, what was half the tweets motherfuckas was quoting and shit? It was that fucking line. If it’s potent, it’s potent.

Joshua Virtue: I mean, I can’t argue with it. It’s definitely been the line that has been thrown back at me.

Davis: But I will say “Vitruvian Man” verse from Virtue is also very, very, very good. Just the story told is very clear and concise. It works very well, and just the last bit with the bird and shit. It just works. This man is ultimately a mentor to me. You know? Like, I wouldn’t be rapping if it wasn’t for him.

Virtue, what first made you think “I gotta convince Davis to be a rapper”?

Joshua Virtue: I mean, if I am his mentor as a rapper, in my own words, Davis is my mentor as a hip hop connoisseur. Davis has really opened up huge worlds for me, musically, just by just being like, “Yo, listen to this. This is good.” Or even just hearing him playing music in the living room or playing video games. And so I always had a hunch that Davis would be a really good rapper if he tried to rap. We also went to college as writers together, so I knew he was a great writer already, and all I needed was like, if you move that over to a beat, it’s gonna be sick.

Also it got lonely being in the house and rapping alone, being the only nigga rapping every fuckin’ day and shit, pouring my soul into that. So I had a beat that I kind of tried to sucker him in, I was like, he’ll probably like this one. I was like, “Hey Davis come in here. Davis, listen to this song I just made,” and I show him this song. And I was like, “What do you think?” And he’s like, “It’s heat!” And I was like, “Do you wanna get on it?” And he’s like, “Uhh…” and he just did. He was apprehensive, but I didn’t have to talk you into it that much, cause you had some bars that you had been toying with, right?

Davis: Cuz you had been pestering me for months. Yeah, so I was dabbling a little bit, I think. No one will ever hear that song.

Joshua Virtue: Even listening back to that song again when I found it the other day, I was like yes, this is definitely a new rapper, but in the moment I was like “Damn, this nigga can rap already?” Like, shit. The second song we did was “Situated,” and already he’s just in his Davis bag immediately. It was good. So my hunch was right!

Why? Records has gotten co-signs from Sooper Records, Lillie West of Lala Lala, and R.A.P. Ferreira’s Ruby Yacht crew. Tell me about what your musical community means to you.

Davis: Me and Rory have known each other for like a few years just off of the internet and shit. I was a fan, still am a fan, Virtue became a fan as well. In December of 2017, he performed at the Hideout – we didn’t find this out until Why? had been formed – but I was there, Virtue was there, and Ruby and Malci were also there separately. We had all individually gone to see that show. I was very charged, it was somewhat of a revelation for me.

This shit is actually feasible, we can actually put together a label of close knit homies. This music shit can work. That is a core aspect of Ruby Yacht, their independence, and obviously, that shit was built from the ground up, still chugging along, still going great. It made me realize the potential of what we were doing and how feasible it was to actually be able to do this and do it successfully. And obviously, Rory understands that independent spirit and the ingenuity that comes with that. So it’s just a matter of like minds, you know.

I imagine that has a lot to do with why you are exclusively selling, not streaming, the album.

Davis: Yeah, we have to make ours. I think I’ve gotten one check from Spotify at the end of last year, less than $1 for a few hundred streams. Nobody can live like that. That’s not sustainable at all. Nah, fuck that. And even when it comes to the Bandcamp shit, that’s still cool, but it would be even better if we had our own website, that way we are getting back fully what we are putting into it. Because obviously Bandcamp still takes a cut. I mean, it is what it is, you know, it’s significantly lesser cut than Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, all the other big streaming services. I refuse to let that take advantage of me.

Joshua Virtue: Early in my career, I thought that money was not important as an artist. It’s not important for creating art necessarily, but it’s really important for sustaining life, and if all I do with my life is make art, it follows that the energy I get back from it should be able to help me eat. That’s why our shit’s on Bandcamp. Also, you know, a pandemic will really fucking change your perspective on the world. Starting with [2020 album] Jackie’s House, people actually are willing to support, more than just listening.

I burned carbs at the fucking computer. It’s so much energy. It’s really rewarding, but it’s taxing. Artists support one another because it’s not just like, yo, look at this thing that I found, it’s also like, Yo, I want everyone else to know that these people are doing really hard, beautiful work here and they deserve to be healthy and supported off that. I think there’s a lot of other rappers that we’ve been fucking with in the last couple of years that feel the same way. Defcee has been in our corner, truly helping us to organize ourselves better and plan more.

Davis: Rich Jones as well. Both of them are like big brothers.

Joshua Virtue: They introduced us to a greater community of people who will support us. we’re kind of starting to link up with the old head scene more. The hardcore hip hop heads. Before we were sort of just floating in like, ambiguous DIY space. And now, with this record, we’re hearing a lot more and engaging a lot more with hip hop heads now. So that has been a significant form of growth in who we are as artists, to understand what we are doing in the context of our own genre. Ultimately our homies are our community all the time. People who end up on our albums are our community all the time. Like, I bought a Cordoba shirt on Bandcamp last week.

How are the reactions from hip hop heads different than listeners you’ve known through other scenes?

Joshua Virtue: Hip hop’s mean, you know what I mean? If you’re not gonna share some shit, you’re not gonna share some shit in hip hop, maybe not even just cause it’s your homie.

Davis: Unless you willing to ride for that shit. Like, truly.

Joshua Virtue: We didn’t used to play a lot of shows with the greater hip hop scene in Chicago. And now we’re beginning to more, and seeing that is honestly validating. We make the weird nigga shit. And not everybody’s gonna fuck with that necessarily. And a lot of people are here trying to make really weird shit. But just because it’s weird, don’t make it good. Now if you can make it both weird and good? You’re onto something. It’s like all the weird motherfuckers, weird hip hop heads that are sharing our shit. Particularly, Rory doing that shit. Like, that’s the fucking Lord Weird Nigga. It is validating. It is rewarding. It feels nice.

There’s a lot of little dialogue samples scattered throughout the album. How did you choose those?

Davis: I’d say it’s either 50-50 or 60-40, 60 leaning towards him. The Whitney shit, the Dick Gregory shit, that was him. Conceptually “2004 World Series of Dice” is almost all me. I titled it, the bookending snippets and shit. It just harkens back to what UDABABY is at its core, is just us expressing young nigga shit. I mean, it’s expressing other things as well, but that is definitely a core element. As young niggas growing up in the 2000s, of course we watched Chappelle’s Show. That was the shit at the time.

On “Casino,” there’s a Spiderman bar, then a Daredevil bar, and I think there’s a third Marvel reference in the line after.

Davis: There’s an X-Men: The Animated Series cut that comes in at the beginning of that song, actually. I think that’s why subconsciously I even put those in the song, wow.

Joshua Virtue: You gotta really listen for it. It’s at the beginning. Wolverine walks in on Cyclops and just fucking punches him in the stomach.

Davis: There’s a Bob Ross snippet in there at the beginning of “Vitruvian Man.”

Joshua Virtue: “Vitruvian Man” is kind of like the tearful shower of the album. After a really hard day of work. Beating the fuckin’ devil.

Anything else for the record before I turn my phone off?

Davis: Buy that shit. Literally. Bandcamp.

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