Blue Chips is a monthly rap column that highlights exceptional rising rappers. To read previous columns, click here.
Soon, a music critic will write an essay on the glut of “new” artists copying their influences wholesale. Said critic could quickly point to the hordes of double cup-clutching Future aspirants with higher chances of rehab stints than platinum records or the Young Thug-clone industrial complex. To offer an antithesis to the plague of parodies, they might look to Juwan Elcock, the 25-year-old frontman of BLK ODYSSY. Inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Elcock wades deeply into personal, cultural, and sociopolitical waters while deftly fusing decades of Black music on BLK ODYSSY’s 2021 debut, BLK VINTAGE, and late June’s BLK VINTAGE: THE REPRISE.
“[TPAB] really changed my perspective on music,” Elcock explains over Zoom in late July, the New Jersey native still riding the high of attending his first Kendrick concert the previous evening. “It created this want for me to have the same impact on other people.”
Elcock moved to Texas in 2015 and speaks from the back of a Lyft en route to an Austin recording studio, his braids dangling from underneath a navy blue Dodgers cap and his gold chain glinting above a white tank top. Most days, he makes this same studio-bound trek from his home in Lakeway, a waterfront city along the drought-plagued Colorado River. Before the sun heats the arid landscape to scorching temperatures, he goes for morning jogs along the local dam.
“I was always in the city my whole life, so this was a nice chance to disconnect and have a change of scenery,” Elcock says. “When it’s time to stop working and get away from the whole music industry, I like to disappear into this area of town.”
BLK VINTAGE’s 10 tracks and the five additional songs on THE REPRISE, nearly all of which have play counts in the hundreds of thousands, stemmed from a year and change in the studio. Elcock worked with the BLK ODYSSY band to create complete suites and produced beats in Logic from their sessions, both compositional approaches resulting in immersive hybrids of funk, hip-hop, neo-soul, jazz, and more. Expansive, almost cinematic instrumentals envelop Elock’s sparse yet pointed writing as he moves from a falsetto that sits between Curtis Mayfield and D’Angelo to a half-rapped delivery reminiscent of Anderson .Paak weighted with Lamar’s heightened emotional intensity.
“I was never referred to as a rapper [before], but I’m listening to the records that I’m working on and I’m like, ‘I’m kind of rapping on that,’” he says. “I’m just embracing it at this point.”
BLK VINTAGE and THE REPRISE embrace various strains of Black music without losing cohesion. The sensual, Parliament-meets-Voodoo “Funkentology” coexists with “Murda,” an Afrobeat protest of police murder. “Suicide Doors” is more rap-centric, finding Elcock melodically spitting lines that seem empathetic toward and critical of self-medication and materialism as coping mechanisms for cyclical Black-on-Black violence. Many songs, like the Benny the Butcher and George Clinton featuring “Benny’s Got a Gun,” are third-person narratives with the tenor of Greek tragedy, but they don’t sacrifice soul or swing. “Drinking Good,” on the other hand, is a pained first-person requiem for Elcock’s older brother, who was killed by New Jersey police in 2010.
“The biggest lesson I learned from my brother being killed was forgiveness. I had so much anger for a long time when it came to the police, and it made me act a different way… I had to give it to God and convince myself to forgive those officers,” he says, reflecting on the song. “I was like, ‘I’m going to take the craziness of that catastrophe and turn it into something positive for real.”
In hindsight, Elcock seemed fated to create BLK VINTAGE and THE REPRISE, their many influences soundtracking Elcock’s childhood. His father, a former pro basketball player in Europe, drove him to school and basketball practice while playing Erykah Badu, Outkast, Parliament, and Marvin Gaye on their Volvo stereo and put him and his brothers to sleep to Miles Davis. Elcock’s neighborhood in the predominantly Black Plainfield was replete with local musicians, including Garry Shider, the guitarist and musical director for Parliament-Funkadelic known as “Diaperman” for the diaper-like loincloth he often sported on stage. Elcock stepped away from music after a short but harrowing middle school experience at the American Boychoir School, which shut down following decades of sexual abuse allegations. But he and Shider’s nephew spent their extracurricular hours off the basketball court making music on Shider’s instruments and posting the results to SoundCloud throughout high school.
Elcock briefly played basketball at Kean University in nearby Union, but he realized he’d never make it to the next level when someone blocked his shot so hard that he thought he’d broken his arm. After leaving school, he hoped to break out of his musical circle in New Jersey.
“I needed to get in an environment with people who didn’t know who I was and build value from there,” Elcock says of his decision to leave. “That’s how you really know if you’re doing the right thing. Strangers won’t lie to you like your friends will.”
During his lunch break from a department store, Elcock met guitarist Alejandro Rios at the nearby pizza shop where Rios worked. The pair soon convened to work on music and form the band that became BLK ODYSSY, briefly recording songs that leaned toward rock and Americana as Sam Houston (Elcock’s former pseudonym) & BLK ODYSSY.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Elcock ditched the former sobriquet and locked in for a year of recording BLK VINTAGE, which they released independently through Alpha Pup, the L.A.-based label helmed by Grammy-winning engineer Daddy Kev, whose work on albums by artists like Flying Lotus and Thundercat directly fed into TPAB. When the album dropped, the A&Rs who Elcock had messaged in years prior were suddenly in his DMs.
“[We never thought], ‘We need singles, we need hits.’ We never thought about that at all,” Elcock says. “We just wanted music that’s going to resonate with people,”
Rather than jump right into his second album, he and BLK ODYSSY refined and expanded tracks left on they’d left on the cutting room floor, working with Elcock’s childhood idol, George Clinton, and believing that the public needed more time to discover and digest the album in either iteration. They were right. Even before releasing THE REPRISE, he received interest from influences such as The Alchemist and Terrace Martin, the producer, saxophonist, and TPAB composer. In the wake of THE REPRISE, Elcock and BLK ODYSSY are going on a two-month U.S. tour this August and talking with Kendrick’s longtime collaborator DJ Dahi. He’s still reeling from impacting the very people who inspired him.
“I’ve been amazed by some of the outreach,” Elcock says before heading into the studio. “I’ve been amazed by the community that’s still growing with it. It’s been beautiful for me.”