On week No. 51 of his “Freestyle Fridays” video series, local hip-hop artist Philo Reitzel wrote, “My goals with my art form are as follows: Have fun. Make something I am proud of. Get better. Repeat.” The minute-long raps, which post on Instagram and YouTube weekly, now number in the 60s. But even though the one-year mark is well past, Reitzel promises to continue the project for the foreseeable future.
“It’s one of the most transformative things I’ve done in my life,” he says. “Not to mention the opportunities it’s opened up.”
The idea for the series evolved from an extensive Instagram scrolling session when Reitzel realized all the videos on the social media platform clocked in around 60 seconds. That’s no longer the time limit on Instagram, but it was the impetus for the local artist’s venture: “I wanted to make some music, but usually making a whole album is a long process and costs a lot of money,” he says. “I wanted some [way] that I could put out a product more immediately. It struck me, like, ‘Yo, I got a camera, I got beats and I got a studio. I could just write this rap real quick, record it, film it and put it out.’”
He began the first installment at 11 a.m. and released it by 1 p.m. the same day. While Reitzel admits it wasn’t his best work, it gave him a near-instant means to engage an audience. “Freestyle Fridays” quickly became a consistent creative outlet.
A Buncombe County native, Reitzel was introduced to hip-hop through albums such as Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy, Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. (“It seems reductionistic to mention any one-three groups,” he points out. “There are and were so many influences.”) In the early 2000s, he and fellow Asheville-based artist Gus Cutty launched a monthly endeavor called Rent Stick — EP-length recordings burned to CDs — “and then we’d just stand out on the corners on Lexington [Avenue] and sell them to pay our rent,” Reitzel recalls.
Soaring Asheville rents can no longer be raised through DIY album sales, and Reitzel has gone on to bigger and more fully realized projects: He currently performs with Beastie Boys tribute band The High Plains Drifters and his own Effigy Seed, a synths and vocals collaboration with the mononymous Linus. Still, there’s a through line from Rent Stick to “Freestyle Fridays” in the immediacy of both efforts.
“I don’t put much expectation on them,” Reitzel says of his weekly videos. “I’m pretty free with them, which gives me room to experiment. If one doesn’t hit that hard, there’s always next week.” At the same time, he’s able to gauge viewer response through views and comments and has garnered important information, such as that audiences like more cuts in videos, and comedy gets a better response than headier subject matter.
While Reitzel does take such feedback into account and feels that his video series has honed his skills in camera work and engineering, as well as producing beats, he doesn’t let viewer comments steer the direction of his craft. For example, “If you’re looking at lyrics in rap, it’s a whole lot of information in a short time,” he says. More complex raps might lose some listeners among the distractions and instant gratifications of Instagram. Plus, “What worth people put on art is such an abstract thing.”
Some of the lessons learned from the video series are being applied to the latest Effigy Seed album, Life in the Mirror, due out in October. “It’s my best work to date,” Reitzel says.
While he notes that his “Freestyle Fridays” are not freestyle verses in the 1990s-era “off the top of the dome” sense (though “I can do that,” he clarifies), the videos blend inspirations from the moment with the artist’s prolific writing skills. The year-plus of regular releases also document an arc in Reitzel’s own thinking and a continued move away from the violence and misogyny inherent in some of the rap music he grew up with.
“I’ve got four sisters, I’ve got nieces, I’ve got a mama. I don’t want any of that for them,” he says of the mainstream messages that denigrate women. “But it gets so normalized, you just don’t question it. … There’s a misappropriation of values, like you’re not street or you’re not valid if you’re not promoting violence and misogyny [in popular music],” he says.
“Why are we buying this? People get scared to do something else,” Reitzel continues. He does point out that for some rappers, making music about the problems of drugs and violence is authentic to their lives. He’s also quick to state he’s not a spokesperson for hip-hop music or culture.
But, when it comes to his own work and creative aesthetic, “I’m trying to make it a favorable thing to be seen as intellectual, to read books and think outside the box,” he says. “I’m trying to make that fly.”
Find “Freestyle Fridays” at avl.mx/6dr and avl.mx/6dz. Find Effigy Seed at facebook.com/effigyseed.