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New Interview! How Rapper/Producer Zilla Rocca does life…10 / 17 / 2017


This idea came to me in a meditation. I am constantly trying to find the magical work/life balance formula particularly when it comes to musicians. I find us to be the most interesting case study because We are all juggling a tremendous amount of tasks, are intensely emotional AND most of us hustling a full time job or multiple streams of income in order to feed ourselves invest in our art. Basically we’re (very tired) superhero- hustlers.

It’s nearly impossible to do everything well at the same time while also maintaining a personal life and a self care practice. That being said, from the outside looking in, I have a few friends who “do life” pretty well and I want to know how they do it so I can share it with YOU!

Case Study: Zilla Rocca

I chose my friend Zilla Rocca as my first interview subject because he was the one who inspired this very series! I’m constantly in awe of his ability to consistently create and release (high quality) content, whether it’s dope music (he’s an mc AND producer) or articles (so many articles!) AND he’s a new dad, happy husband, practicing buddhist AND has a full time job.

Fuckin superhero!

This brief chat I had with Zilla is full of wisdom and amazing life hacks. I definitely was onto something when I asked him to do this with me!

CC: Hey Zilla! What are your slashes?

ZR: I think about this a lot – we are living in a world of slashes because no one can survive doing one thing anymore. There’s even people on LinkedIn where they’re byline is “Educator/Director/Dream Inspirer/Freelance Cook/Videographer”. It’s pretty silly. I long for the days when Raekwon said his occupation was “Crazy Rhyming”. He wasn’t driving an Uber too. My slashes by default then are husband/father/rapper/producer/writer.

CC: How many hours of sleep do you get on average?

ZR: I learned years ago how important rest is, something that’s really taboo in the world of entertainment, and rap specifically. I get 6-8 hours of sleep every night because I’m an adult and that’s what I need to be good. Years ago, I remember thinking I wasn’t grinding enough, not doing enough, and purposefully made myself do music and my day job on exactly 4 hours of sleep. That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done because you physically can’t be your best. We all get tricked by Puffy and Kanye and that idea of “grinding while you haters are sleeping!” that somehow sleeping was a sign of weakness and laziness. Those guys are just freaks. I had a rap friend who passed away prematurely talk about that on his hospital bed, how the life of an artist isn’t thought to be one of good health because then it makes you feel like you’re losing your spot to someone else. He was barely over 30 years old. I also think it’s about time management – you should have a system in place that helps you accomplish things while still sleeping like a normal human being.

CC: Where have you had to financially cut corners in order to invest in your career?

ZR: 2016 year was the first year since 2004 where I didn’t directly invest in my career. I had to lose out on the normal adult things people use their money to accomplish – vacations, getting out of debt, buying a house, investing in stocks, etc for 12 years straight. I’ve lost a lot of money doing rap music and I’m paying for those decisions right now. But it’s ok – it lets me know realistically what I do that will make me money versus losing me money, so I make my choices around that now. That means I do less stuff in the public’s eye, but whatever I’m doing isn’t going to hurt my pockets. The only thing I will knowingly lose money for is something that’s just really cool or an experience I wanted to cross off my bucket list. I’ve lost less money since I’ve made those determinations and stuck with them, whereas in the past I thought I needed to be doing everything (paying for merch, paying for my own studio, paying to tour, paying for videos, paying a publicist, etc)

CC: What do you think you’ve sacrificed the most in order to make time for your priorities?

ZR: At this stage in my life, I’ve sacrificed doing rap everyday. From 2005-2016 I did rap almost every single day in some fashion, whether it was making beats, recording, performing, sending out emails to promoters or bloggers, hanging out at shows, etc. I just have less time as an adult with a family and a job to be ciphering outside a show for an hour. But my lack of time lets me trust my instincts and my past workload so that when it’s time to turn the rap machine on, I won’t be this old dusty cornball who is out of touch. I still listen to tons of music, I still give advice to fellow artists when asked, but my rap muscles aren’t as strong as they once were. And I’m ok with that because I’ve been rapping for almost 20 years and I know myself now, so i just do stuff that hide my weaknesses and maximizes my strengths. I’m like my own Gregg Popovich.

CC: What takes top spot on your priorities list?

ZR: My family is obviously #1 now – I like being a husband and a dad more than I ever liked being an artist. When I first started dating my wife, I had just turned 30 and realized she was the first person I wanted to spend time with by far over writing/recording/performing. She made it easy for me to transition to this place I’m in now with our son. Before that, all women came second to music because that’s what I thought would help me make it (more foolishness from Puffy).

Number two is myself – eating right, going to the gym, having a spiritual purpose. I’ve been a practicing Buddhist since 2011 and it really helped me calm down and be ok with letting go of things. It’s been harder to keep up my practice but the work I put it in before have kept me sane — I now have the tools to navigate stressful situations. That was a big decision as well, because back then I made that time a hard lined thing – no one could book me, or have me rap in person anytime I had a class at the Buddhist center. Everything in my life was off limits during that set time each week. It’s important to do that and say no to things in order to put your well being first.

CC: How do you make decisions based on those priorities? I assume you say no to a lot more now that you’re a parent?

ZR: Yeah I only say yes to things that 1) are exciting or interesting 2) will make me money or not cost me anything and 3) can be done on a date that doesn’t conflict with family. I just had to turn down a show because it was the same day as a wedding. Other times, I’ve turned down shows because there’s other family stuff scheduled (lots and lots of kids birthday parties, I’ll tell you). In the past, I’d be afraid that if I said no to things, nothing would come next. But now I know that I’ve worked hard for a long time, I’ve made music I consider to be not-wack, and have developed enough respectful relationships with awesome people literally around the world that more unexpected stuff will come to me in the future…and it usually does. It just takes longer, but I’m more patient now and occupied with other things, so I’m more grateful when people think of me now. When I was rapping all the time, I expected all of this shit all of the time and was pretty annoyed or angry when it didn’t happen.

CC: What’s your definition of self care and what does it look like in your life?

ZR: I’ve touched on this a few times already because I’m long winded and don’t look ahead on email questions so I apologize for being redundant here. After applying myself so much to music, all day and night, for years and years, my life wasn’t balanced. I was a shitty person because rap was my only refuge, but rap also doesn’t attract the most wizened people who have all their issues sorted out. I saw a therapist when I was 25, and then off and on for a few more years. That was a great experience. But that didn’t feel the void, plus it was expensive. So in 2011 I went to a meditation event a Buddhist center near my house and my entire life changed after that. Everything the teacher said about suffering was my life to the “T” at that time. So I became a student of the practice, just like becoming a student of rap, and started spending time around people who had the same intentions, except they didn’t know who DJ Premier was. Now I try to meditate a few times a week just to keep that balance up. I listen to buddhist podcasts, but I also read a lot about leadership, about parenting, about history, about politics. I also eat better solely because of my wife and have lost over 30lbs the past 2 years. My wife takes self care very seriously too so she keeps me inspired.

CC: What keeps you up at night?

ZR: Nothing – I’m up everyday at 5:30a and completely crash every night around 10-10:30pm. I spend about 2 hours a day commuting. And I love sleeping so the only thing that would keep me up at night is if I ate something that gave me wild heartburn, like a pepperoni pizza with buffalo wings and beer.

CC: What keeps you from throwing in the towel on this (very challenging!) music career thing?

ZR: Just being more grateful about things I wouldn’t quantify as success when I was younger. The reason I know you, or Curly Castro, or Small Pro, or Elucid, or Blockhead, or Blueprint or anyone else I’ve befriended over the years is because one day, as very young people, we all chose to love this and do it for real. I don’t care anymore about blog coverage, or how many people are on my mailing list, or how old I’m getting in relation to where my career should have been compared to someone else. I just really enjoy things unrelated to that. One thing I absolutely love is coming to New York now literally just to hear billy woods speak. His actual voice, his phrasing, his stories and observations are completely opposite to me but they’re so damn funny and brilliant! There’s no other reason in the world someone like him would be friends with someone like me without rap music! Dude is a brilliant writer from Africa and I worked at a pizza place in South Philly for 15 years and we text each other about sports or argue about Nas. When i was 25 I would have hated on him because he gets press at outlets that never cover me – think about how stupid that is. But now I get to be friends with him forever.

CC: What do you think were some of your biggest time/money/energy wasters from when you were starting out in your career? How do you do things differently now?

ZR: I wasted time plotting and planning everything. A plan is just a list of things that won’t happen. It’s good to be organized – i’ve always been extremely hard working, professional and organized because I like structure. But in music, almost no one is like that. That administrative mind wouldn’t be there along with “rapping off the dome with ease”. I wasted so much time reading and studying other people who were successful and trying to take pieces of what they did to replicate it. That was a waste because whatever they did only worked one time ever…just for them. Now I just trust my instincts and my confidence to complete things and align with people who will do what I want. I also wasted so much money mailing out CDs and shit to defunct labels/promoters/booking agents. I wasted money being in producer conferences to hobknob with industry people. I wasted energy surrounding myself with highly toxic people who honestly didn’t like the same shit I did — if I love Edan and you love Beanie Sigel, it’s probably not a good match.

CC: What are some of your get-shit-done and stay sane life hacks?

ZR: There’s no real trick I have besides being disciplined. And that comes earlier in your life. I’ve never met more lazy people in my life until I started doing rap heavily. I grew up around people that all worked 40-80 hours a week, that started businesses, that had multiple jobs. And that’s how I was because that’s all I knew. One of my closest friends works high up the ladder in the music industry now and said the same thing: “All of these motherfuckers do is smoke weed, bum around the studio, and steal other people’s ideas. They’re lazy as shit.” Everything I’ve accomplished in my life was born out of grinding it out, day after day, year after year. I’m willing to do that. I’ve cleaned toilets, lifted furniture, cut meat, delivered packages. I was working 2-3 jobs all through college. And now I write for websites while I write my next album while I work a dayjob and have a family. The multi-tasking has been an everyday thing forever so it’s easy for me to handle a big workload. Other people just can’t do that in music because they can’t do that for themselves in their daily lives. None of us indie artists really get credit for our work ethic.

CC: Is there a question I haven’t asked you that you’d like to answer that pertains to how you do life?

ZR: Ok I just thought of a trick – it’s like how doctors do triage in the ER. They break down every situation in 3: Now, Delay, Avoid.

Now–something that needs immediate attention

Delay–something that should be handled but isn’t pressing

Avoid–something that might be resolved on its own or isn’t worth your time at the moment

I really do life this way. Most shit falls under “Delay” – getting a new toilet for my spare bathroom (not incredibly urgent but should be done), picking up protein powder for lunch, check some random rapper’s album for the first time ever, etc

“Avoid”: self explanatory. I avoid more shit than ever, including things that will annoy me and serve no purpose beyond that (arguing about rap on twitter with people who won’t bend for example).

“Now” – that’s for tight deadlines for freelance work, a paid opportunity I want to confirm, picking up my son at daycare, etc

After all of the Now stuff is completed, I take care of the Delay stuff, and then once that’s done, I check back on the Avoid stuff just in case something changed and it becomes more important.

Ok that’s it!

For more Zilla Rocca, check him out on the interwebs: