What If

The best part about talking to Willie Evans Jr. might be his optimistic absurdity. In his world, anything is possible, because if he sets his mind to it, whatever “it” is, can happen. The rapper, deejay, producer and designer keeps his hand in multiple fields, because his brain works in multiple modes. He won’t tell you that directly, though. You’ll figure it out in conversational asides, like, “Now I’m teaching myself how to code.”

Evans, among the most influential and lauded hip hop artists in Northeast Florida, has toured the world, participated in projects like Asamov and Dumbtron, and authored the upcoming album Beat Tape from Mars. Alongside Shannon Coleman and Dillon Maurer, he recently co-hosted a celebratory memorial for the late Duval legend Paten Locke. It was a labor of love for his best friend and musical partner.

This summer, in the weeks after Locke announced his terminal diagnosis, Evans grappled with grief and creativity, wondering what his musical future might look like. But even so, he–along with J-One-Da, Dillon, Basic and Jay Myztroh–conceived and recorded the single “One Time (Paten Locke Tribute).”

Evans has an agile mind that absorbs information and spits out projects. One idea–actually multiple ideas–have been under refinement since about 2002: an audio-visual beat set. That is, he takes “video clips, whether created or found, and puts them together in the same manner as a beat set.” The idea was born when he was a member of seminal Jacksonville hip hop crew Asamov. In those early days, he spoke in terms of “What if?”

“I was pacing around like a madman saying, ‘Listen, guys, I do this thing. What if we added a video component to the show?’” At the time, his bandmates weren’t too receptive.

This spurred Evans to invest in a secondary character, a solo alter ego called Jeff Devo. By 2004, he’d developed a story and image for Jeff. He’d show up for solo gigs with a small television, and perform a huge disavowal of Devo. “I’m not Jeff Devo,” he would declare. “Everyone thinks I’m Jeff Devo!” He’d exit the stage, but not before pressing play on the TV. It wasn’t a seamless method, but it was the very beginning of what would be a project he’d take across America.

As he toured, he continued to play with the idea, refining various methods for syncing up music and images, and building a library of imagery and sounds. “What if I took a video of a person playing a piano [and] what if I could manipulate and chop it up the same way I do a sample?”

Early attempts included haphazard timing and the sort of mismatched equipment that now prompts a roaring laugh from the musician. Later attempts have resulted in the successful custom syncing of drum machine technology to deejay software. The days of attempting to hit two record buttons at the exact same time are over.

Touring was followed by a terrible car accident that spurred Evans to return to school to study digital media. With the encouragement of his professors, the student moved into evermore hypothetical territory.

Now, post-college, Evans continues to explore experiential modes of working. Sometimes the projects might feel wrong or go awry, but for the artist, unexpected results are part of the reward. “I like to leave things not completely figured out,” Evans told Folio Weekly. “I’ve gotten it to the point where I know what to do and when, so I’ll introduce new things.”

Aesthetically and ideologically, this new iteration of performance aligns Evans with artists like Rashaad Newsome and Emergency Broadcast Network. The New York Times described Newsome’s work as an overlap of contemporary black culture with canonical art. Evans’ work, however, raises the question of canon in contemporary black art–especially as hip hop aesthetics and approach have arguably defined popular culture for the last 30 years. In presenting video within the same performance lexicon as mixing and sampling, Evans is juxtaposing the imagined against the seen. He’s employing the often-deeply playful language associated with hip hop with his individual, collector’s penchant for things rare and obscure. His risky conceptual performances achieve a kind of inter-connected expansiveness that typifies the best parts of rapping, beat-making and hip hop.

The style has earned him an opening slot for GZA at St. Augustine’s Sing Out Loud Festival. Like Evans, The Wu-Tang Clan founding member is also an iconoclast. But Evans said he’s always ready for potential “zombie stares” of incomprehension, often followed by fruitful after-show conversations. At worst, he laughed, “I’ll be the palate cleanser before.”