As frontman for Knoxville indie-pop fixture Senryu, Wil Wright has a decade's worth of hooks, industry contacts, and tour tales to look back on. But the story he seems most eager to tell these days is about his most recent show, as part of the opening act for the Animation & Gaming Ohio 2012 fan convention in Cincinnati earlier this month.
"We thought booking cons would be hard, but really, you just call up and say, ‘I rap about blank' and they're like, ‘Great!'" Wright says. "They did put us in one hotel room with 11 other nerdcore acts. All those other guys seemed super-unhappy all weekend, complaining about the size of stage, and the room. But we were like, ‘Hey, we're here getting paid to rap about wizards.' So it's alright."
That's right, wizards.
When the normally prolific Wright went through a songwriting dry spell last summer, he took the opportunity to go out of his element with the help of ostentatious Knoxville DJ Tom Ato; the eventual result was Lil Iffy, a "spell-rich" MC who blends aggressive rap braggadocio with the oddly compatible lexicon of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.
"Tom makes these great tracks, and we wanted to take on all these rap cliches, but it felt ridiculous for me to write about that sort of stuff," Wright says. "I needed to write about something else I knew a lot about. For me it's a shorter trip from Hogwarts than from the streets."
The substitution of "wizards" and "witches" for two of rap's key lyrical standbys is as elegant as it is obvious, but Lil Iffy's November debut Wandcore earns the joke by leaning heavily on sincere fan-service. From the Death Eater-taunting chant in "Patron Us" to the horny Hogwarts sex jam "Room of Requirement" ("I require that shit to be intimate") it's clear that Iffy and his Dude Source hype crew are the real magical deal. It also doesn't hurt that Wil Wright is an unexpectedly talented rapper, with a nimble but laid-back flow and a quiet wit; Iffy's references are more likely to fly under your radar than go over your head.
Still, as a relative newbie to both worlds, Wright is conscious of maintaining such a specific balance between flashy rap and rabid geek culture.
"I feel like a tourist sometimes, like I'm just watching all this from the inside of a costume," he admits. "In a lot of ways writing the material is like a Mad Lib. The books are just a source of language. It's really about the game, which everyone can relate to."
Wright is candid about the frivolity of the whole thing, and it's hard to interpret as anything less respectable than being in on a good joke. (As for the "character" of Iffy, Wright laughs off my presumption of a magical backstory; the name is a well-worn goof on white rappers.) What matters is that Lil Iffy and Dude Source are telling the joke well, and the momentum continues to build. From CMJ 2012 and a rare Daytrotter hip-hop session to a surprisingly attended national tour, Wright and a rotating cast of close friends with names like Playboy Manbaby have had a strange and eventful winter.
"I don't have to carry any amps, I don't have to feel anything. It's super-efficient," he says, contrasting Iffy's material with his own decidedly vulnerable guitar pop. "But every guy who's ever been in a band and every guy that writes a song, what you are addicted to, what you are emotionally attached to, is getting people pumped up."
It so happens that the target audience for mudblood hood rap are the sort to get pumped up about things, for better or worse.
"With the Lil Iffy video the comments were like, ‘F--k you,' followed by ‘This is the greatest thing I've ever heard,' and it's all awesome," Wright says. "All the hate feels good, all the love feels good, and it's a fun thing to experience, being polarizing."
The members of Dude Source have been hard at work on their follow-up, Wand Ambition, which promises to build on the growing number of goon-rap tropes Iffy can't help but try on, including "everyone I went to junior high school with gets a verse" epics and, of course, more Auto-Tune, which he dubiously claims to have "underused" on the first record.
"The theme of the record is one of the most important cliches," he offers. "Rapping about being a rapper, and more specifically a wizard rapper."
But even wizard rappers can be realists.
"I never planned to write song two, never planned to tour, never planned to do a video," Wright says. "With all of it, I've told myself, ‘If this doesn't turn into a hilarious success, I won't do the next one.' And it's worked out so far. It's a way for me to do all of this stuff, and to perform with friends I wouldn't have gotten to perform with. And this is like the summer of love for ironic white hip-hop."