Adrian Villagomez is a bank manager at Suburban Bank & Trust in the Chicago suburb of Bourbounais. The 33-year-old married father of one wakes up around daybreak every morning, checks on his daughter, puts on a suit and handles transactions, customers and all that goes on in a house of finance. After five though, Villagomez takes on a different persona. Loosening his tie, tossing on a pair of sneakers; Adrian Villagomez becomes A-Villa.
“I go to work from 8-5 everyday, kind of do the promotion a little here and there when I have some time,” said A-Villa in an interview at Soundscape Studios late last month. “Right after I leave, I take my suit off, put it in the trunk, put on a more casual look, some Jordans and I go into the studio and I make music.”
To be sure, Villa’s story is an antithesis to the typical Hip-Hop narrative. In the contemporary “come up” an artist starts young, often in high school and grows his fan base until he can succeed on his own. A-Villa, who released his star-studded debut project Carry On Tradition Tuesday via Chicago independent label Closed Sessions, has a story that’s almost the inverse.
A-Villa is a bank manager with Big K.R.I.T. on speed dial. When, in our interview he proudly asserts, “I’m a boss,” the statement has a certain authenticity, weight, that is missing from Rick Ross’ rendition. A lifelong Hip-Hop fan, Villa saw the first wave of Chicago rap that reached national levels with Crucial Conflict, Twista, Common and co. It wasn’t until 2010 that he decided to give the craft a try, teaching himself basic production tactics through YouTube videos.
“I just went out and got myself an MPC because that’s just what I had seen everyone working off of,” A-Villa says with a laugh. “I was just bored with the 8-5 grind, I needed a creative outlet and then Guru of Gang Starr died in April of 2010 and it kind of spurred me to really chase that dream.”
Soon, on the encouragement of friends and colleagues, he embarked on his four-year journey to create a project that embodied his understanding of rap music, curated by his own production. In the age of SoundCloud, this isn’t a new revelation. However, Villa didn’t just recreate hits from his childhood. Instead, he created a personal masterpiece complete with features that span a generation of Hip-Hop. Included on Carry On Tradition are verses from Action Bronson, Inspectah Deck, Rapsody, Big K.R.I.T. and Freeway, and that doesn’t even begin to do the tape justice.
Interestingly, Villa put skills he learned everyday at the bank to use when piecing together the features that would make Carry On Tradition one of the best collaboration projects I’ve heard this side of DJ Khaled.
“Just taking that business approach from my work in a business industry, the finance industry. I’m out there hustling everyday in a suit and tie, eight to five and at night, I switched to the rap career,” said Villa. “I met Big K.R.I.T at a meet and greet at Jugrnaut and the next day I had a verse he recorded on his tour bus for ‘The Collosseum’ so it’s been pretty crazy.”
The transformation was a real one. The album becoming a personal goal that saw his nine-hour workday stretched to twelve and thirteen-hour sessions, two lives that mirrored one another in the absence of sleep. The blue-collar aesthetic inherent throughout the creation of the project shows through on the final product. Heavy drums and samples torn from the pages of ’90s era boom-bap pace the album. Absent are Auto-Tuned vocals, gunshot ad-libs or two-bit hooks.
Instead, it’s hip-hop the way old heads remember it, while staying progressive enough to be legible today. On “Collosseum,” he artfully bridges the gap between the distinctly Southern stylings of Big K.R.I.T. with the historically East Coast stalwarts Inspectah Deck and Termanology by crafting a beat that sits at the intersection of both. It’s hip-hop, across generational lines.
Villa has broad shoulders and his story represents Chicago as a city and a people. Putting his family and needs before his musical ambition, Villa is a 33-year-old rookie in the hip-hop game. When asked if he has any ambition to move forward, drop the bank gig and produce full time, Villa shakes his head, already knowing the answer.
“Nah man, that’s not the goal at all,” he says with a furrowed brow. “I did this because it was something I wanted to do for myself and for my family. It was a personal goal that I’m proud to say I achieved, but this is my one and done. I wanted something I could leave behind, a legacy, and I feel like I achieved that with Carry On Tradition. I feel proud of what I’ve made here.
Family is obviously still first. His daughter Avalyn is a large part of the project, appearing both on his cover with her father and on the final track of the project, “Never Give You Up,” which features a pair of firsts. Villa, forever looking for specific sounds, recorded his daughter’s first noises after she was born, using them as a personal sample on a track that also finds his first recorded bars. Listening to the track, it’s increasingly obvious what the driving force behind all of it has been.
It’s that mentality that makes Carry On Tradition remarkable and notable. There’s no waiting for the next project, wondering where the development will go. Simply, the LP is one man’s take on an art form he grew up loving, an ode to the music that has been the soundtrack to his own story. For Villa, it’s not about the money or fame. Instead, he spent the last four years working on a singular project so he could leave something behind, a sort of portrait of his take an an art form he felt so passionately about, something concrete. Instead of money, chains and women, Villa points to texts from DJ Premier and RZA or memories of crate-digging with Pete Rock as the affirmation of hard work realized.
All that said, at the end of the day, A-Villa knows he made something that can stand the test of time, embodying that distinctly Chicago confidence.
“I think I made a great album,” said Villa. “It’s not coming from an egotistical standpoint either. I love it, I made it, I want to hear it. I made the best possible album I could make and I’m going to continue to listen to it. It’s the shit.”