Jordan Ranft thought Jordan Peele’s ‘Nope’ was a compelling meditation on why we SHOULD continue feeding plastic to wild animals in their natural habitats.
The music of William Crooks is an exercise in craftsmanship and utter chaos. He’s a disciplined and detail-oriented producer who loves to blow the shit out of his CPU and fold the harsh clipping into the texture of his songs. A talented rapper and an ardent student of hip-hop who is as quick to spit something slick as he is to disregard the beat completely and complain about getting kicked out of Five Guys for not wearing shoes. He takes his music incredibly seriously, he doesn’t take anything very seriously at all. It is through these contradictions that he has been able to release music for over a decade that is aggressively fresh and surprising, and gradually build up a rabid cult following.
Crooks does not give out his real name, and so exists primarily as his strange, occasional balaclava-wearing, persona. Think of him as an avatar of 2010s-era DIY music-making. A ghost in the machine, stoned out of his mind and wearing a Wolf Hayley shirt, running rampant through the various genres of Post-hardcore, Dirty South, Boom-Bap, Hyperpop, and whatever else he stumbles upon and piques his interest.
His most recent project, Running as fast as I can, draws from ten years of experience producing, rapping, and making connections with a network of equally talented rappers and producers, to synthesize a work that is complicated and utterly compelling. Having come up as a DIY musician on the internet, this project feels like a nod to the Dat Piff mixtape filtered through a lens of psychedelic mania. 808s, pushed to their crackling limits, pummel relentlessly beneath the tracks as Crooks lithely switches cadences and vocal modulations before passing the mic to a stable of equally hungry features, Cookie and TYGO being especially notable for matching the energy. Everything feels as though it is mixed as it was meant to be, but there remains an aesthetic of inchoate rawness to it, and songs will sometimes abruptly transition with a “trapaholics” watermark. There is an impressive variety in this project. The opening track, “Walk it Off,” has Crooks rapping in triplets over a sinister, glitchy, beat produced by Thook, while three tracks later on “Still Life” we hear him frantically singing over a sprawling and dreamy chiptuned landscape. Whether he is rapping, screaming, singing, or speaking through an intoxicated slur though, Crooks sounds like he is having the time of his life.
I spoke with Crooks about this project, coming up on Soundcloud, his craft, and gardening over zoom at the beginning of the summer. Below is a transcript of our conversation that has been edited, and paraphrased in some parts, for clarity and brevity’s sake.
How’s the response to the new tape going?
William Crooks: Good. Yeah. Better than anything I’ve put out so far. I’m always grateful. Every project I put out does a little bit better.
I noticed you’re getting a couple of placements on the editorial playlist on Spotify.
William Crooks: So they did me dirty. They put one of my songs on Antipop for like 18 seconds.
William Crooks: Yeah, they put me on Antipop and I got an email about it, and I was like, “oh sh*t, I’m on Antipop. No sh*t.”
That’s a big one.
William Crooks: And it was just not on the playlist. And I was like, what the f*ck? And I like, looked at it and it had been put there the day before, and it only got like 18 plays. So they must have put it there just long enough to send the automated email.
I don’t know much about the internal workings of being an artist, or trying to get on to Spotify in like a meaningful way. In terms of like, actually getting onto the playlists or getting thrown up in the algorithm.. How does that work as an independent artist?
William Crooks: Unfortunately, I think it’s more payola than anything else. If you’re on a label, the label’s gonna have connects to the editors, and the editors are more likely to put your stuff on. But then I also think if it’s like my music where I have enough independent buzz, I think they’ll find you. I’m so disconnected from the inner workings of the way the industry is these days. Honestly, I just put the music out. I’m completely independent and a little cynical. I mean I’ve been in it long enough. I’m quite cynical about the industry.
I get that. I’m from the Bay and have written a bit about the corporate takeover of the independent music scene out there. It’s really a bummer.
William Crooks: Is this your first article for this blog?
Yeah. First piece since before COVID.
William Crooks: Funny. I just dropped another interview, something about this tape I guess. This other cat who made a pretty sprawling hyper pop documentary where he was just sort of covering the origins and all the different pockets of it. It’s on YouTube, his name’s Noah Simon. We did an interview and put it on YouTube. And he told me that it was his first one back in a while. He heard the new tape and was like, “I gotta talk to you.”
I mean that’s kind of how I felt too. It’s interesting you bring up Hyperpop. I feel like it’s the first new genre that’s shown up that I have a hard time understanding. Tell me a bit about your relationship to that genre.
William Crooks: I would say the genre tag is mostly one that was put in place by Spotify and it covers a bunch of pockets of different styles. It is very sprawling. I would say if there’s one piece that you may miss or doesn’t click with you there are likely to be other pieces.
Speaking of that.. I hear a lot of different influences in the music you’re making. I’m hearing some boom-bap, some Hyperpop, and also a little bit of DJ screw in some of the sh*t you’re doing.
William Crooks: I’m a big fan of the Houston sh*t.
Yeah. Some dirty South slowed down stuff. I also listened through like, a good amount of your discography and I-
William Crooks: Was about to say, did you listen to other stuff?
Yeah, yeah. I listened to Thunderbird, Water Boy, Flowers, and then the newest tape. Like, I was listening to the earlier projects and was picking up this post-hardcore sound too. Given that there are all these influences, if someone were to say “William Crooks makes Hyperpop,” would you disagree or attempt to clarify?
William Crooks: It’s funny, that was actually a piece of what we had talked about on the interview I’d done with the other homie. He’d brought me in for a Hyperpop interview. And it was one of those things where I was initially very resistant to the title. But now I just don’t really care. If that’s what you wanna call it, that’s fine. And sort of the ethos of Hyperpop, or what it really should be, and why it’s becoming so popular is that in its truest form it’s simply making pop music that is balls-to-the-wall and however you want to do it. And just bringing all this sh*t together and trying to find the different ways that it can work. I think it’s been TikTok and Spotify that have since boiled it down to a genre classification that has a hyperspecific sound like that song “Sugar Crash.”
Yeah. I think it also feeds into a much larger tradition where everything is cyclical. You look at the late sixties and seventies, and punk comes around as a response to the overly polished rock that’s coming out. You look at grunge in the nineties as a response to the overly polished glam rock that was happening in the eighties. And you look at the trajectory of pop music from like the mid-2000s and you have this rejection of that through the younger generation of “SoundCloud Rappers” and Hyper-Pop stuff too. So I think it ties into a legacy as well. I’m realizing this wasn’t really a question. (laughs)
William Crooks: That’s great though. I’m a huge fan of music, so I’m all about this sort of thinking, I haven’t heard anyone draw that parallel yet. That’s very cool. To answer the previous question though, I’ve never considered myself personally “Hyperpop” nor have I ever been striving to make something that I would describe as Hyperpop. During the early era of like, Waterboy and Thunderbird, there was definitely a lot of that word being thrown around with my music, and even a bit when I dropped flowers, but I have not seen a single person referred to Running [newest project] as Hyperpop, which is funny, because I think it actually contains some of my more Hyperpop songs, but you know…
Alright, first official question of the interview. It’s pretty general. Who are you? Who is William crooks?
William Crooks: Just a guy who’s been making music forever. I never know how to answer this question beyond that. I’m just a guy who makes music. I love it. I don’t know how to do anything else.
How’d you start?
William Crooks: I’ve always been a fan. I grew up with, as I’m sure most teenagers do, self-esteem issues. A lot of my friends were musicians in high school, but because of my own self-confidence, I put myself in a box where I was like, “oh, my friends make music, but I can’t.” So I’d sit in the studio and watch them play, but I wouldn’t participate. I just didn’t even try because I put myself in that space of like, “I can’t.” And then I watched a friend in high school who was really into rapping and he was wicked at freestyling. I remember watching him freestyle one time and somebody’s like, “you know, he is just making that sh*t up as he’s doing it.” And I was like, “there’s no f*cking way. You’re bullsh*tting. He’s not just making that up. That’s crazy.” And then one day we were in a session and he started just, as most freestyle rappers do, started making sh*t up off of like, things in the room. People started throwing words at him. I was like, “holy f*ck. He is making it up.” And I was like, “dude, teach me how to do that. That’s the craziest sh*t I’ve ever seen, teach me how to do that.” I was a rap fan already and I just started rapping after that. I was pretty bad at it. (laughs) Just like, imagine any 16-year-old who exclusively listens to MF DOOM would.
So just like me, when I was trying to freestyle as a kid…
William Crooks: Yeah. I mean, I had the pocket, but nothing that was coming out of my mouth was worth a damn. But it was my foray into music. And in fact, I ended up in high school joining the band as a rapper.
I love that.
William Crooks: And then from there, I think it helped break down that wall of me being like, “Okay, you can be a participant in this and you can do this.” Odd Future was just emerging at the time too. So you got Tyler doing a lot of that self-production. And I think that really spurred me to get into production. This would’ve been like, 2009-2012. I got a copy of logic on my laptop and just started f*cking around with beats. I didn’t really take it seriously at first, but I had some stuff in my life happen at the age of 19, that was just like.. It just made me realize I needed to focus and that this is what I wanna focus on. From there I just started being very dedicated to my production.
How old are you now?
William Crooks: 29. But yeah man, I just started taking it more seriously. Got into the SoundCloud scene. I was just joking with another friend of mine on this, we came up together, on the phone where it’s like, all my friends went to college and I went to SoundCloud.
Is that like, where the fan base comes from still for you?
William Crooks: No. God, no. I’ve been off of SoundCloud for years. I think it’s still like, where the new school forms. Every now and then I’ll go back to see what’s going on over there and I can tell that there are still active communities. They’re just not mine anymore. I mean, I have like, almost 20,000 followers on that account. I could post a song tomorrow and it would get, if I didn’t say anything, probably get like, 20 plays. So the 20,000 people who are following me are not there anymore.
When was your SoundCloud era, then?
William Crooks: I got it when I was still in high school. So like, 2010/2011. I think that’s just about the time when [Soundcloud] actually started. Wikipedia would tell you that it was like 2009, so around then. I was definitely a disciple of, I don’t know if you’re familiar with, Mr. Carmack. He’s an incredible producer. I would almost go so far as to describe him as like the J Dilla of SoundCloud. Just one of those cats who was just so far ahead of everybody and doing sh*t that… I think you can listen to some of the Carmack stuff today and it’s still just like, “How the f*ck did he do that?” His early sh*t was published there and SoundCloud gave us space to grow because it had that combo social network sh*t. It gave space for a lot of cats like myself who were starting out to find community amongst people who were just trying to make weird laptop music.
I wanted to ask, what is the influence of the laptop on William Crooks? I’ve looked at like, some of your social media posts and there seems to be this running joke about laptop speakers that are just blown the f*ck out.
William Crooks: So I accidentally destroyed the speakers on my laptop while mixing Running, which sucks, but it is what it is. But yeah, I have this dinky old MacBook and I think it’s kind of cool to me that, I don’t know, I mixed Running on broken headphones and like this old laptop, and I even would go so far as to say it factors into the description of what kind of music I make.
Your equipment was broken when you were mixing it?
William Crooks: I probably broke it in the mixing, but I knew what it needed to sound like. I know and trust my equipment. I have the same pair of headphones. I think it’s also why I’ve been so hesitant to replace them. It’s the same pair of headphones I’ve been working on this entire time. When I started making music very seriously, when I was 19, I bought this pair of Audio Technica M50s. Still have them. And this MacBook isn’t much older than that either.
I love that the laptop has become part of like, musical history too. Like it’s just there, you can use it to make music wherever. You know?
William Crooks: Yeah! It’s democratized music a bit. It’s also cool to listen to some of the major label records that have come out in the last year, like post-Running, and listen to what we did on Running and be like, “I made this literally on the floor of my bedroom with my laptop and my broken headphones.” I don’t wanna toot my own horn, but there’s some production from the major label records where I’m like, “Did we make more interesting production on like a $0 budget in my bedroom?”
When you say “we,” is there another person on the team?
William Crooks: Oh, I mean- I say “we,” as in all the producers who worked on the project. It’s not entirely self-produced.
Right, right. Yeah. I saw you worked with that guy Thook. That guy… Woah.
William Crooks: (laughs) Yeah, Thook is one of my favorites.
Did you just reach out to him for this project? Or did you know him before?
William Crooks: No. That’s the magic of SoundCloud. We knew each other from there. Pretty much every single person on this project and all of the producers I’ve worked with since I started doing collaborations are people I met through there. I was self-producing all the way up until 2019, but I decided that it would be fun to start bringing other producers in. Especially when other producers started offering me beats and I’d hear them and be like, “these are crazy. I wanna work on these.” Ever since I’ve just been bringing other people in. I mean, it’s really fun. I can produce for myself just fine, but I hear the songs that I make with others, and those records wouldn’t exist without ’em. So when I say “we,” I mean like the team on the record, which is nothing more than just friends of mine who are like, “I like what you do, here’s a beat pack.” And we take It from there.
Is your last name really Crooks?
William Crooks: It’s not. (laughs) I’m not gonna tell you my real name.
Totally fair. So I listened to the projects in order and it seems like with every project, whoever “William Crooks” the persona is has come more into focus. Listening to Running as fast as I can, whatever that character is much more front and centre than in Thunderbird or Waterboy. I was wondering if you could talk to me a bit about who is William Crooks, the persona.
William Crooks: Hmm. It’s not that thought out. It’s certainly an extension of me as an artist trying to just pull whatever is in my head at the time out. But that’s interesting. I understand what you mean. I think about something like Thunderbird, which was very much directly more me as a person. A lot of more personal sh*t on it.
Yeah. Like what’s being expressed on that project in songs like “LOVEYOURSELF” and “sameolsssshhh” about mental health and hating your job versus this new project, not to say this music doesn’t feel personal, but it’s very much more directed towards, not the author, but the speaker of the song. Like William Crooks, the wild dude in the Balaklava. You know what I mean?
William Crooks: Absoulutely. I think it’s always just serving the idea of just trying to further whatever the vision is. And I think having a back catalog now gives me ground to build off. I think maybe that’s why it feels more like a character within a developed world because there’s now a world that I can pull from. Whereas with Waterboy I was just starting. I wrote that in a week. I took a year and a half on Running.
Have you started the preliminary work on like, the next thing yet?
William Crooks: Of course, yeah, I’m always doing sh*t.
So that actually feeds into the next question. You’ve been doing this since you were 19, so for a decade, seriously. How have things changed or grown for you as an artist since you started making music?
William Crooks: Um, I think just working through the self-doubt and the lulls. ‘Cause the lulls used to kick my ass. I mean, sh*t, I almost quit after Thunderbird. But I got over it. I think just that time has really solidified how much I love what I do. Yeah. I think no matter where I am in my life, as long as I have the time and the ability to, I’m always gonna be creating, even if it’s little doodles music, there’s always gonna be something.
And so the goal is to just continue moving towards a place where you can sustainably do just this?
William Crooks: Yes, absolutely.
William Crooks: Absolutely.
I respect it. So you also talk on social media about like, the vibes of the music being the most important thing.
William Crooks: Do I?
There were a couple of posts.
William Crooks: I just say sh*t on there.
When you’re rapping, sometimes it seems like the point is lyricism. Then other times it seems like what you’re saying is almost like it could be any word because it’s trying to establish a rhythm or a feel. I was wondering is there a consistent vibe that you’re trying to hit with every project or does the vibe change?
William Crooks: I mean, I curate the track lists very hard and I mix everything myself. So there’s definitely like a lot of intention in the way things are laid out and the way the project’s supposed to be listened to from beginning to end. But there’s never really a grand scheme. I’d love to be in a position where I could. I have some friends of mine who work very intentionally that way who’ve taken two years off to workshop a project. To watch somebody with that kind of intention tackle art has always been something that’s very inspiring to me, but I don’t think I’ve had the prowess or ability to really feel like I can take that time. I’ve also ruminated on whether or not that’s the kind of art I make.
Running has been very successful, but there was no overarching concept. It was just, well, 2021 was harder than 2020 with the pandemic. Because 2020 was like, “okay, we’re in this mess, we’re gonna get through it together.” And then 2021 comes around. I was like, “Oh f*ck. We’re still in this sh*t.” I wasn’t really focused on music in the way that I was in the past, but I still kept writing. So honestly, Running is just an amalgam of a year and a half of me just trying to make it through my life and writing songs as I felt like they came. My homies would send me beats and I’d be like, “I love this beat. I have an urge to record to it.”
So, without overtly saying it, but just by nature of what was happening, this project responds a bit to the chaos that was the pandemic in 2021.
William Crooks: Sure. In the context of my life. I mean, I was living well. I was just stuck at my mom’s house in Georgia. Growing vegetables and living, but spiritually very much in chaos.
Have you been out in Georgia the whole time or have you been posted anywhere else?
William Crooks: For the most part, yeah. I’m in Texas now. I was born in Massachusetts. I’ve been sort of all over, but I’ve been in Georgia for the last decade.
Can you tell me a bit about clipping, bringing me closer to God?
William Crooks: I just said it on a record and I thought it sounded good. And then I put it on a shirt.
What’s clipping though?
William Crooks: Clipping is the distortion that comes from blowing your CPU out. There’s a very specific sound and it’s something that most music professors and mixing engineers will say is the biggest no-no you can do. You don’t want to clip. Because clipping is, to describe it, think of what a waveform looks like, yeah? They’re just like flatlined at the top. That’s clipping. Once you hit that ceiling, it’s clipping and you’re losing audio data and it’s giving you this crazy sonic and I f*cking love how it sounds.
Why do you think you like it?
William Crooks: I don’t know. I’ve ruminated on that myself.
It feels a little chaotic. F*cks with the fidelity a little bit. Makes it raw.
William Crooks: Raw. Yeah. I think it’s the same reason somebody probably had a clean guitar tone and was like, “what if I made this distorted?” I think it’s what made people go electric. Everyone’s like, “why are you doing that? That’s not how it’s supposed to sound.” No, but it sounds sick. It’s literally no more than that. Engineer sacreligion.
So talking about the mixing, at what point in making a song do you start thinking about the mixing of it? Do you find a beat and build a song or do you just get a tune in your head? How does that come together for you?
William Crooks: I think it just depends. It’s either somebody sending me a beat and then the beat informing where I’m going to go, which is why I like working with other producers so much. Or me starting a beat, usually, I just open up the comp and just like goof around. But sometimes, every now and then, I’ll have a concept and start there. That’s rarer though. It mostly comes from experimentation.
Do you like sampling or composing more?
William Crooks: I would say I’m probably a better sampler than I am a composer, but I do both. “Rainbows” for example is one that I produced and that’s all mid and no samples.
Are you doing any shows soon?
William Crooks: We got maybe a couple this summer. Trying to figure that out. Pandemic’s still very much happening, which sucks. And I’m self-financing. I’m working on merch right now. That’s actually the biggest next step. As any artist will tell you, the money is in the merch.
I saw you sold out of the last run.
William Crooks: I did. I did. And I’m doubling up this round. I’ve got the data. I mean, it’s still a very modest run of clothes, but I’m very much hoping that we can sell out again. The self-financing makes it so it’s nerve-wracking to buy and I like to pre-buy ’cause I’ve bought some print-on-demand samples and they’re just like crap. It’s cool if that’s what you wanna run. But for me it’s like, I’m very detail-oriented and my mindset is if I can provide people with memorable and good pieces of clothing, they’re gonna want to come back.
I’m noticing there is growing hype around merch and online sales. It’s almost like a new sort of exclusive market that grassroots artists can tap into.
William Crooks: You definitely want it to feel a little exclusive to generate excitement. It makes me feel more confident in my investment. I would much rather sell it out than be left with back stock.
Well, it seems like more and more people are paying attention to you. The fanbase is getting bigger.
William Crooks: Yeah, it’s cool. But I’ve really, in the last like two years, settled in the fact that I’m sort of a niche artist and settling into that pocket. But it’s- I don’t know, a different world these days.
Tell me about gardening and your relationship with it.
William Crooks: I just like being outside. I like making food. It’s hard to find good produce. Last spring was the first time I had really grown food like that. And if you grow your own food and taste it, it’ll piss you off when you go to the grocery store, it’s crazy.
Has there been any translation between learning to grow your own food and your creative process or life in general?
William Crooks: You get a life lesson out in the garden every day.
What’s the most recent one?
William Crooks: Patience. I’m keeping one down at the spot in Texas and it’s much easier to maintain. It’s only a couple of plants because if I’m traveling for music it’s hard to keep up. The last garden we kept though was more intense, and I was much more involved with it. Patience is really a big lesson. I’m really into botany and the cycles of nature. I think we, as modern humans, move far too fast and in a way that is like, against what living should be. I like gardening because you make decisions and you set things in motion that you’re not necessarily gonna see the fruits of for months. You could make the wrong decision, but you won’t know that you’ve made the wrong decision until much later and there’s nothing you can do.