Eugene Willis, who performs as Blacknerdninja, has been an active and important player in Athens’ hip hop scene for more than 15 years. Coming up on a dual mixtape release and listening party at Hendershot’s, Willis spoke with Flagpole about his musical past, his goals for the future and how the Athens hip hop scene has evolved over the last two decades.
While he has been performing in some form since his early childhood, Willis’ hip hop career started after he graduated from Cedar Shoals High School in 2000. Initially performing under the name Lil Gene, Willis made his name with several hip hop and jazz bands. For about six years he performed with musicians like Scott Low, Marvelous Projections and, later, his own group, Common Enemy. According to Willis, it was at the tail end of those six years that he decided to make a change.
“I made a change in my life and stopped drinking,” he says. “At the time, everybody and their mama was doing music and trying to get signed. I was obsessed with that idea of needing to ‘make it’—it wasn’t fun anymore. I had reached the point that I was bitter and angry about making music and decided that I just needed to stop. So, I took four years off from rapping to try and get in touch with who I was and decide what kind of music I wanted to make.”
Four years later, Willis reemerged with a new identity. “I decided I was ready to come back into the scene on my own terms and reinvent myself,” he says. “I couldn’t come back as Lil Gene, because I was older and not so little anymore. So, I came back as Black Nerd. I started getting buzz under that name for a little while. Then I found out there was another guy using that name who had a really popular YouTube channel. He was cool with it, and we actually became friends over Twitter, but I knew I had to change the name because people were already confusing me with him. I already had “ninjas” in my Twitter name, and it sounded kind of cool, so I decided to just push it all together into the persona of Blacknerdninja.”
Since adopting the moniker, Willis has become a central figure in Athens hip hop. His upbeat performances, unique lyrics and positive perspective have made him one of the go-to names for festivals and showcases across town.
As an Athens native, Willis has seen the hip hop landscape change drastically. “I grew up listening to the ones who came before me and who’ve been going longer than me,” he says. “Ishues, Big Earl [and] Elite tha Showstoppa, to name a few. As the scene was coming up, there was a divide between more turned-up country-style artists and artists who considered themselves ‘conscious.’ There was a lot of bickering between the two sides initially, and then the scene became stagnated for a long time. I would say within the last few years we’ve all really come together in an effort to move the culture forward.”
Part of that, according to Willis, is making sure artists are focused on building and maintaining their brand. “Before, everyone was rapping, partying or doing their own thing, but a lot of people weren’t thinking about booking shows or being professional about it,” says Willis. “That’s what I set out to do—to be more conscious of my surroundings. Not just doing shows to get drunk and have a good time, [but] to add a level of prestige to the brand. Now, a lot of people are about their business, and the quality of the shows has improved.”
On a personal level, Willis is putting all of his focus on taking his brand and making it bigger. While he loves his hometown, Willis’ ambitions are bigger than having a career as an “Athens rapper.”
“I’m trying to go international,” he says. “It’s gonna take money, but I’m trying to build a lifestyle. In the future, kids are gonna be talking about, ‘You do music, cool, but what else?’ You have to have more going on now; you’ve gotta have a whole lifestyle for people. It’s not just about rapping anymore. It’s about building within the community.”
Willis’ new mixtapes The Uncanny Blacknerdninja and Robots, Monkeys & Microphones will both see release on May 29, with a third tape set for release later this year. The dual mixtape strategy was inspired by one of Willis’ favorite comic book series.
“Back in the day they would release The Uncanny X-Men and its sister series, X-Factor, as two different comics, but with covers that went together in the storyline. So the idea behind [Robots], which is more energetic and nerdy, and [Uncanny], which is more message-based, pure hip hop, was to release two different projects where the cover art would go together in the same way.”
As for the overall message of the two tapes? According to Willis, it’s simpler than it may appear. “With each project, I try to say something different. Right now I’m all about the message of making better decisions. Making yourself a better person. But underneath that message, really underneath the surface of every one of my projects, there’s a layer of unconditional love.”
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