What kinds of things do you think of when you think of Pomona, CA? Some immediate things that may come to mind are, of course, music-related. It’s home to great music venues like The Fox and The Glasshouse, and propping its ever-evolving cultural terrain is a blossoming hip-hop scene. One such emcee contributing to its growth is Christopher Trillo, otherwise known as CJ Trillo. The Pomona-bred MC has established roots everywhere in Southern California, from the Inland Empire to LA and Orange County. He’s also been writing music for years and gained a steady following under his former alias, “Sucka Free CJ.” Fans first caught an earful of CJ in 2011 on his Ars Gratia Artis mixtape, and have been treated to solid mixtape gems like Volume 1: Nostalgia and Heavy since. We were fortunate enough to catch up with CJ, as he prepares to put out his most recent album, Undrafted, slated for release on January 31. Hit the jump for the interview.
1. First of all, tell our readers a little about yourself, where you’re from, and your background in making hip-hop music.
Christopher J. Trillo is what my birth certificate reads. Born in Pomona, California. Lived in a small suburb outside of Chicago for a minute, but found myself back in Southern California soon enough. I’ve lived pretty much all over here: LA County, San Bernadino County, Orange County, Riverside County. The longest I had stayed in one place was Chino Hills for about 9 years. That’s definitely the place I consider my hometown. I didn’t start making hip-hop music until I moved to LA, though. I had been playing guitar and singing as a solo act from the age of about 14-18 and moved to LA when I was 19. I’m not entirely sure what brought me to Hip-Hop. I’m sure 99% of hip-hop artists can pinpoint the exact point in time in which they not only fell in love with it, but also decided to participate in the art form itself. For me, it was more of a gradual free-fall of love into hip-hop. I always had listened to hip-hop groups and artists growing up, but never really brought that particular genre of music to the forefront of my life until I started to make it myself.
2. One thing that immediately stood out to me about you is your traditional approach to hip-hop, which is hard to come by these days. You also hold a strong emphasis on lyrics based on personal experiences. What kind of things influence you to write, and who are some of your biggest influences in music, lyrically?
Off the top, I’d have to say that the traditional vibe you might get from my music is a direct byproduct of the first sounds of Hip-Hop I was exposed to. I think it stuck with me in a very peculiar way. A Tribe Called Quest & Arrested Development are probably the only hip-hop groups I can confidently say I was listening to from an early age, like 8 or 9. High school was when I got into artists that I think really started to influence my love for hip-hop. Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool was and still is one of my favorite albums. Kanye’s College Dropout & Late Registration were huge for me. Fuck, even Graduation was hella dope. Wayne was there too. But honestly, I still think that a lot of my early music had a huge influence on my love for lyricism. I listened to Ben Gibbard, from Death Cab For Cutie. My circle of friends were really into The Early November, and their lead singer Ace Enders. In retrospect, even though I wasn’t as big a fan as they were, he influenced me too. As hesitant as I am to say this, Chris Martin from Coldplay was probably the biggest influence on me and my love for lyrics. I probably just lost any street credit.
As far as artists who influence me now, I’d have to say J.Cole is big for me. The Warm Up was something of a spiritual awakening for me. On some of those songs off that tape, I felt like he got into my brain and was saying shit that I previously thought nobody else had ever wondered. Kendrick is big, too. Section 80 is probably my second favorite mixtape of all time,behind The Warm Up. But in all honesty, even though I used to be very particular to a certain type of conscious hip-hop, or whatever you want to call it, I listen to pretty much all of it now. From Drake, to Childish, to Fredo Santana, to Yung Thug. I just love all of it now.
3. Give our readers a little insight into what your songwriting process is like.
There’s really no crazy process, or anything. For the most part, Jimmie sends me an instrumental, and depending on the vibe, I’ll write accordingly. There are times where I tell Jimmie about an idea for a song that I want to write about, and he’ll hit me back with a beat that usually fits my ideas perfectly. But I mean other than that, it’s a pretty straight-forward process. No tricks or gimmicks. It fluctuates a lot too. Sometimes I’ll knock out an entire song in an hour. And sometimes it’ll take me 2 weeks to write one verse. I’m definitely one to take my time, though. For better or for worse, I’m definitely a perfectionist when it comes to my music.
4. You’ve mentioned before that your hometown is in Chino Hills, which is a bit of a drive from larger independent music communities in neighboring cities. As a hip-hop artist, do you think that growing up in the IE has caused you to form a stronger do-it-yourself approach to your music? If not, has your location had any effect on the way you’ve approached music over the years?
The independence of making my own music, doing the things I want to do, and doing those things within my own time frames, is something I truly love. I mean, I’m sure you’re right. The lack of a Hip-Hop community and market, being from Chino Hills, probably had a subconscious effect on me as far as that DIY mindset you speak of. But when you’re truly passionate about something, which in my case is audible art, nothing will ever stop you from making it. I spent plenty of time sitting in my room, losing myself in the music, to not ever notice that I wasn’t surrounded by other people who loved it as much as I did.
5. Speaking of the Inland Empire, the area has actually developed a very active hip-hop community over the years that many people are not aware of. Are there any artists from this community who you draw inspiration from?
I’ve started to notice that, somewhat. Stevie Crooks is dope. I played a show with him at The Roxy in LA once, and he’s a cool dude. There’s this guy named Corbin Howard, who’s actually from Chino Hills too, that I was listening to a long ass time ago, before I even started rapping. He’s in a group called $urreal, which is based out of Howard University. As far as IE rappers, he’s most definitely my favorite. Him and his homie, Brandon Beatnet, are the dudes I fuck with the most out of IE.
6. I’m a fan of the production on your Heavy mixtape, which was largely the work of Jim I.E. I know he also produced a lot of songs on Nostalgia. That being said, how did you link up with Jim? Also, how do you typically go about looking for new people to produce on your tracks?
Jimmie & I had first got into contact by a small Facebook message he sent me. My manager had a mutual friend with Jimmie, unknowingly, and that friend had showed Jimmie the “Good Girls” track I had released as part of the Trill Life mixtape. Jimmie liked it, found me on Facebook, and sent me a message. I would get a few messages a week from people reaching out to collaborate in one way or another, but Jimmie’s stood out to me, for some reason. I believe he said something along the lines of: “…I love your music. I make beats, no corny shit. Real instrumentals. Hit me up if you need some dope shit.” It was real short, but real straight forward. I liked that. Long story short, we linked up for Heavy, which in my eyes was a very ’trial-and-error’ type process for the both of us. We were individually good, but both of us knew that together, we could be great.
If you listen to Heavy, you can hear all the different sub-genres of hip-hop & rap that we were trying out. Some we excelled in, and some were more of a failed science experiment. I think we needed to go through this in order to reach the next level of improvement, though. It was a very educational experience as far as learning about how Jimmie works, and I’m sure the same goes for him about me. Our compatibility is definitely a strong link in the chain at this point. Jimmie is my go-to-guy as far as instrumentals, and a lot of that has to do with me feeling like he understands me not only as a musician and artist, but as a person.
That doesn’t insinuate that I don’t work with other producers, though. Some of my personal favorites are names that long-time fans might recognize, like Joey Pecoraro, and FcukNormality. In all honesty, I don’t really reach out to a lot of other producers. I definitely don’t shun anybody, in any sense of the word, as I welcome any and all producers interested in collaborating to send me a snippet. You might even catch me looking for random beats from random producers on a slow day. But I’m pretty comfortable with the small circle of producers that I’ve built a rapport with.
7. You have a new album coming out soon, Undrafted. What kind of things can we expect ? Will long-time CJ Trillo fans find any surprises?
It’s really hard to state how I feel about Undrafted. There’s a lot of feelings swirling around this project that I’m a bit apprehensive to admit to this early on into the stage. And don’t worry, I don’t mean “early” as in it won’t be here for a long time. It’s coming real soon. I just mean “early” as in it hasn’t been released yet. There’s work in this project that we’ve been sitting on for almost 2 years. There’s a middle-ground to this project that, when I listen to, gets me all emotional. There’s lyrics in here that I think are quite literally the best I’ve ever written…concepts that are quietly dark, concepts that are beautifully deafening. In all honesty, it could be received in an entirely different light once it’s released. I’m not afraid of that, not at all. That’s one of my favorite parts about art and how it can be interpreted by a million people in a million different ways.
With that being said, this is why I don’t really like talking about my projects prior to releasing them. I don’t want to give the people any preconceived notions as to how they should perceive this project. I want their listening experience to be completely their own. I’m just thankful to be in a position where I can release music to the world once again, and I hope the fans will love it, for reasons all their own.
8. Besides Undrafted, are there are any noteworthy upcoming releases or collaborations that we should be looking forward to?
Time will tell. Volume 1: Nostalgia is part 1 of a 3-part series that I’ve been working on. Maybe part 2 will be next, maybe not. It all depends on where fate has me in its plans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely one for setting my own sails, but I always pay attention to the winds.
Photo credit: Eduardo Ponce