A conversation with 607 zigzags all over the map, especially when the conversation’s soundtrack is music from the 1990s.
Kicked back at a table at a local restaurant, wearing a black T-shirt with an uber-cool design, red pants and black net gloves, 607 — real name Adrian Tillman — cannot help but kidnap your attention. One nanosecond, he’s praising ’90s Swedish band The Cardigans; the next, he’s discussing the longevity of No Doubt and analyzing what anyone ever saw in the band Sugar Ray. And that’s just in the span of a few minutes. This guy knows all things music. In fact, many people in Little Rock call 607 a musical genius.
At 36, 607 has released 43 albums, on which he has written, recorded, produced and mixed all the music — and played almost all the instruments and created his own beats. He controls his social media, and he produces his own videos. He’s a one-man operation most of the time, and it’s hard work.
“I’ve accidentally figured out that I have many voices that make my work even richer,” he says. “Like, nobody’s beats complement my raps like my own. Nobody’s engineering paints my voice like my own. Nobody’s video editing complements my songs like my own. Doing it all myself is giving my art its own unique personality that people really respond to. So I keep doing it, no matter how much it gets on my nerve.”
He isn’t just prolific. He’s savvy in branding. Let’s just start with his stage name, which is a mysterious code with an enigmatic past.
“It’s a 16-part code for fans to figure out,” 607 says. “I like numbers, and I’m a nerd.”
And that’s all he will say about that.
His music is a blend of rap, hip-hop, techno, electronica — a brilliant mishmash of cool urban hipness — with lyrics about love, women, sex, life, world affairs and politics. He often writes songs using “palingraphs,” in which the rap makes sense forward and backward. Once, while performing in a music showcase, 607 presented a large sheet with the palingraph rap so that his audience could understand.
His musical peers have long been impressed with his myriad of talents.
Lee J. Woodward, whose stage name is Sutter Kaine, met 607 in 2000 with Woodward’s group Ncahootz in Little Rock. Woodward, who now lives in Memphis, says 607’s longevity is not to be dismissed.
“607 has been doing music for about 20 years, and the quality is still high,” Woodward says. “He will tackle any topic and do it well. The brilliance lies in his desire to grow and change to reach not only his core fans, but newer and younger listeners.”
The music business, which can devour creativity and demand conformity, doesn’t affect 607 at all. He doesn’t let it. Almost single-handedly, 607 has built a brand, organized a die-hard fan base through intense marketing, toured nationally and internationally, especially in Russia, and recently shot a video in sunny Puerto Rico.
“All I ever wanted to do was rap,” he says. “I started doing all the other things when it became cheaper or when the people I was paying couldn’t meet my expectations. I’m a hard worker, and when people I pay don’t work as hard as I do, I fire them and pay myself.”
Oh, and he appeared on CNN in 2008 as part of the station’s Black in America series to talk about his music. He’s indie to the core. His ambition is keen, and his attitude is refreshing.
“We are vessels receiving creativity through the universe,” he says. “The minute you start wondering what people think, that’s when you start losing things.”
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The artist grew up in Little Rock’s roughest neighborhoods and began rapping as a teenager. He credits Spice 1, Brotha Lynch Hung and MC Eiht as early influences, and he knew music was his calling. While a senior at McClellan High School, 607 began recording CDs on his own indie label.
However, 607 knew that living in a city haunted with a racist past could possibly hinder him. People would try to keep him in a box. White people might not listen, and black people might get upset if he sold out. Did he care? No.
To build a solid brand, 607 decided to go everywhere, places where black artists might not have gone in the past. Say, like playing a car show in Northwest Arkansas, political events and clubs where more white acts perform than black ones. His plan worked.
He gained white and black fans from myriad socioeconomic backgrounds. He slashed stereotypes and crushed the racial divide that often plagues Little Rock’s creative scene. People liked him, and they liked his music. Simply put, he earned respect — much like Prince did in the 1980s.
In fact, Amy Pannell, a local comedian and host of The Pow Wow Podcast on KABF-FM, 88.3, says 607 is a lot like Prince.
“People rarely understand Prince’s musical genius, but they know that they love the music that made him a legend in their eyes forever,” she says. “I’ve known Adrian — yes, I call him by his government name, not his alias — since 1996, and he has been consistently unwavering in the pursuit of his art. His art is more like who he is, there’s no separation of the artist and the man. If you go into his home, his studio is the living room; he doesn’t take time off.”
He shrugs off the “genius” label.
“I thank people very kindly who think I’m a genius,” 607 says. “But my credo doesn’t allow me to believe them. I believe that everyone is born with talent. It takes courage and consistency to turn that talent into skill. They mistake my skill for genius because it’s a road less traveled. If I bought into the exclusivity of the genius perception, I wouldn’t have faith in people and would have no reason to communicate with them through music.”
And in 607’s world, the most important thing — other than his daughter, who lives in Russia with her mother — is creating.
This summer, he released his 43rd album, Revenge of the Nerd. He produced videos for it and pulled no punches with lyrics about the state of world affairs, including topics as serious as police brutality and as vain as selfies. One lyric notes: “The quiet desperation of your selfie tells me you’re rich, but you’re not healthy.”
Currently, he’s working on a new project set for release near Halloween, his favorite holiday. He’s invented a character named Brozart, and the music consists of 607 playing piano over trap beats with deep bass lines with rapping over it.
“Brozart came from challenging myself and adapting to the times,” he says. “In a world where anybody with Wi-Fi can upload a video and call themselves an artist, I have to keep thinking of ways to separate myself. It’s also good for me anyway because after all the content I’ve produced, a theme gives me a basic skeleton to decorate.”
The artist thrives on keeping people on their toes.
His muse is, surprisingly, singer Fiona Apple. Every day is Halloween for him. On any given night for a performance, 607 may wear bondage gear or no shirt at all. He can rap X-rated for the over-21 party crowd or PG-13 for teens. He possesses a dark Goth side for one set of fans and a party persona for people who want to dance and drink.
“A lot of my fans who like my different stuff don’t like each other,” 607 says. “People who liked my dark stuff won’t listen to my pop stuff.”
A few years ago, 607 focused on releasing four albums a year. Now, he’s down to two — not because he doesn’t have the material, but it’s the way fans are absorbing music in the vast world of social media. More of his energy goes into marketing all aspects of a project, including the experience of making an album, filming videos and generating fan interaction. He’s on YouTube, Facebook, Periscope, Twitter and Bandcamp, which he prefers over all the rest because it gives him valuable stats that tell him about his base.
“I need more time to juice the album,” he says. “To get people interested. The album is just the beginning. Now, everyone wants to know the story behind the album, and they need some sort of filter system.”
It’s refreshing that fans now want to know everything about the creative process and that artists can share their processes with them, 607 says.
“It blows away the smoke and mirrors,” he says. “It’s creating a healthy amount of elitism. You learn that Drake has a ghostwriter, and you have to rethink him.”
He uses Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey as examples. While he says he isn’t bonkers for Carey, he gives her deep props for her songwriting and explains that she has to be taken more seriously as an artist than Houston because Carey is first and foremost a songwriter.
“This is the information age, and that goes for music, too,” he says. “When you pull back the curtains from the glass, I’m going to get all A’s for my process.”
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If fans don’t want politics in their music, 607 isn’t the guy for them.
Being a Southern rapper means that the issue of racism must be addressed, especially amid the current volatile political landscape of the first black president, Confederate flags and white police brutality against blacks.
“I think Arkansas is one of the places in the deep South that is still struggling with racism, and it’s a problem,” he says. “And it probably can’t be fixed. There’s not enough black people to go clean up tornadoes in Beebe and Vilonia to change some minds. We’d have to change inside the black movement, and there’s a lot of division in it.”
Struggle, he says, is part of the black experience. Sure, he voted for Obama, but he has issues with him. He says the president hasn’t been bold enough on many issues, and racism is one of them. He would like to see Obama be more aggressive on police brutality and was extremely disappointed when Obama referred to the protesters in Baltimore earlier this year as “thugs.”
“I kind of wonder if he is going to get the ball really rolling [on racism] before he leaves,” 607 says with a tone of doubt.
Politics and life offer plenty of fodder for 607’s lyric writing, and that includes Obama. Soon after Obama was elected, 607 wrote a short song called “We Haven’t Won Yet.”
But it’s his home state that he believes has stories yet to be told through rap and music. Arkansas rappers have a gift for “elite storytelling” that is missing in other rap scenes, he says.
“We aren’t Atlanta or Vegas, but we have armchair wisdom and stories from our grandparents, fathers and the straight characters in our lives,” he says. “Those stories have been missing in rap.”
And if Atlanta or Los Angeles calls, 607 has no plans to leave his home state.
“I travel inside and outside of the country frequently, and I still haven’t been able to physically take my music more places than the Internet has,” he says. “Leaving your hometown to go pursue your dreams in a saturated market is a tired cliche that was killed by the Internet. In a world where most people are catapulted to the next level because of followers or views, leaving my family and my network would be a most unnecessary thing.”