Poet turned thriving member of the Florida hip-hop scene, Vinny Virgo has had a big year dropping tracks that have landed him in front of the likes of Talib Kweli on Rap Fix. Beyond that hype moment in time, there is a lot more to the mind behind the Smoke and Smile empire. The West Coast Florida emcee took a few off and connected with Chiefer Adam to talk about the changes he is seeing in his city, recent and future collaborations, SXSW, mind exercises, and way more. Roll up and get familiar with Vinny Virgo.
Written by Adam E. Smith (@theadamesmith)
Let’s start off with the origins of Vinny Virgo. You were born and raised in the city of Tampa, which now boasts a rising hip-hop scene. What can you tell us about the local scene you have come up in?
I would say with Tampa it is a lot harder in terms of being collaborative and networking. In other areas like Cali or Atlanta it seems like people work together, but this area isn’t really known for uniting to make the city shine. Lately that is starting to change as some guys out here are doing big things. I am feeling that vibe.
How important was your upbringing there to your decision to go into music
My music history is based mostly in rock, honestly, specifically indie and alternative like Radiohead and Postal Service, and I try to bring those origins back to my music. Get outside of the hip-hop bubble and genre boundaries.
What do you look for in those artists that you try to emulate yourself?
I try to relate to how different their sounds can be, but also I attempt to bring tracks that could appeal to two fans of different types of music, that can sit in the same room, and find a common ground with my music. It may not be every element from a particular genre, but it could just be the ambiance, the beat, the bass, or any tangible aspect of the song.
You’re unique in that you started off in the poetic realm and other writing outlets before diving into hip-hop. How does that influence your style and approach to defining your sound and song structures?
I have recently noticed how it has helped me a lot. When I was writing poetry before it forced me to break down the prose a lot more, almost like doing math in a way. Now when I write a 16 I might try to make it all different but still comes off as cohesive. Certain lines might be more complicated and their aimed at a certain listener, then the next two could be more easily digested but still have the same impact on another person.
Tell me about your group The White Kids? What’s the back story there and are you still a group?
Naw, we aren’t a group now, but we are still cool. In high school Sammy Mull and some other people were already rapping, and would be the one at parties in a circle beat boxing. I had never rapped in my life, and had only written poetry, but I would see them and thought ‘I could do that.’ So I started freestyling with my boys and they said it sounded good, so I did it more until I wrote a verse for a party that I knew everyone was going to be at. That was the first time I ever spit in front of anyone other than my boys, and I could see that feeling on people’s faces that I had felt from watching others do it. After that I was pretty much hooked, so we started the group.
Do you remember when that first time you performed took place?
[laughs] Umm, yeah actually, I think it was mid-October in 2008. It was my boy Mike D’s birthday at my friend Carly’s house.
You were working with Niko Is from Orlando on your latest webisode. What can we expect from that collaboration?
Yeah, for sure. We linked up recently so you can definitely look forward to some things dropping really soon.
Anyone else you’re working with that we should know about?
Yeah, I got some stuff with Goodie Drift from St. Pete that we are working on. Chester Watson and I got some stuff coming out pretty soon. Other than that, right now I am looking into collabing more with some rock artists that can bring their sound into hip-hop.
Do you have any rock artists in mind?
Pretty much some local kids around here. On my next project Owl I am going to bring in some different fields of music than I have touched on before, and this collab will be incorporating that 1970s psychedelic rock type sound.
When did you found Smoke and Smile, and what are your goals with that endeavor?
Sammy Mull and I were driving back from a meeting in Brooksville, and the guy we were meeting with was stressing that we needed some sort of brand to associate with our sound when people hear it. As I was getting off the interstate that name came to me and I sent our messages to everyone and they replied pretty confused. Now I know if I did the same thing they would know exactly what I am talking about. What started as a saying has now been incorporated into who I am as an artist. It’s my motto. In the future it will expand even beyond that and will include our independent label and distribution arm.
Speaking of smoke, we have to ask, what’s your favorite strain?
Right now, Casey Jones. It’s a Cali strain and everything about it is pretty awesome.
How’d you link with Josh G of Aqua Empire on production, and what is it about his beats that make you seem to gravitate towards them?
I had known Josh and Santos before just from coming up together, but when I first went solo I didn’t know yet who I wanted to go to for beats that would define my sound. Around that time Josh started sending me beats like “Riding High” and it immediately clicked. I was hooked. That beat stuck with me. He understands how to go outside of hip-hop, but still bring it back. He gets that aspect of it. He will go sample a random, ambient and melodic section from the 60s that no one has touched, and then put that on a hip-hop beat. The key is he is able to keep that unique feeling from the sample even when it’s laced with the beat. He gets it.
Has he assisted you in cultivating your total sound as a result of the beats he has given you?
Yeah, definitely. I would credit him with that 100%. On my tape he made over half of the beats, so I would give him credit for structuring the first blast my solo work.
“Wanting You” and “Mollywood, Part I” are the only two songs on your 20 track mixtape where you decide to sing on the majority of it. Was singing something you were testing out, or something you’ve been wanting to do?
At first it was experimental because I had never made a song like that. I had sung before, but never like that. I told myself I was going to try something different but with my elements added into it. I had no idea it would blow up the way it did. I remember writing it and thinking that it wasn’t even that lyrical, and I made it hard to understand exactly what I was saying as part of the experimental part, but it caught on. I made “Mollywood” after “Wanting You,” and I was a bit more comfortable with approaching a full singing type song.
“Wanting You” got a really good reception and was even the song that got you featured on MTV. Is the singing/rapping formula something you want to incorporate more into your next projects?
Yeah, in the future I’ll be doing a lot of that. I have a song now that I’m sitting on that I think anyone that liked “Wanting You” will really feel. That should be dropping real soon. You know, I had done hooks in the past but never truly sang, but given I fuck with so many types of music and songs, that might not be exactly note driven, I felt people would get the music element of me attempting that from a harmonizing perspective.
As I just mentioned you were featured on MTV’s RapFix and got some feedback from Talib Kweli. Was that moment a needed realization that you have something going here?
Yeah dude, I am still pretty humbled by it. I am confidant in what I do, but humility definitely came out there. I knew I deserved it, and being on MTV is a big thing, but I also know it’s not over yet and I have to keep going. The next step is to get on VH1 and BET and so on. That being said, I grew up watching that station so seeing myself on there was a big stepping point. I didn’t even think about it till afterwards, but during my heart was racing and I was stoned out of my mind [laughs].
Earlier you mentioned that song not being entirely lyrical, but there you are talking to Talib Kweli, who built his entire career on being lyrical, and even he was feeling the track.
Yeah, that was crazy. Like you just said, he is as lyrical as they come, and he is a legend in the game to say the least, so for him to say that made me realize what I have and what I am capable of doing if I continue to work like I am working now.
Tell me about the brain exercises.
[Laughs] Well, I recommend artist do those online for 30 minutes a day. Not saying they already don’t, but you’d be surprised how effective it can be. Our brains are capable of so much more than their limited use, so the more of these exercises you do the greater it’s capacity. It’s obvious how that can benefit a creative person like an artist.
You performed at SXSW, the modern mecca of creative people these days. This year was your first time going and performing. How was that experience?
Going into it you know it will be crazy before you get there, but once you’re there you see all the people and how Austin is truly awesome. Every show was going off and everyone showed love, and I was able to meet a lot of artists and industry people that resulted in positive talks. With anything industry, no one is going to hand you something, they want to see you work, but after SXSW they have their eyes on you. Coming from Tampa to being on 6th and Congress, walking down the street with Niko was one of those ‘wow’ moments for sure. I was fortunate enough to perform, but even if you aren’t performing I would recommend it for any artists to just go.