Joseph Chilliams has never been one to settle for conformity. Even in his earliest releases, his endearingly inventive spirit beamed through oddball rhymes. Over the years, personal growth and a supportive circle of creative friends pushed Chilliams’ art to become more inclusive. In turn, his debut project, 2017’s Henry Church, was rich in hilarious pop-culture references and nuanced challenges against gender norms, bigotry and inequity.
Following Henry Church, the West Side native decided to push himself further away from his comfort zone. Attempting a different creative process and bigger thematic risks, he arrived at The Plastics —four tracks of melodic experimentation—inspired by the classic movie Mean Girls.
Previously, Joseph Chilliams’ approach to songwriting had been unrestricted. He’d often start writing a song without a concept and let it form itself. Now, tied to a main motif and working with multi-instrumentalist Sen Morimoto, the EP served as a fun exercise in conceptual songwriting over dreamy synths and breezy singing.
The opening track “Unfriendly Black Hotties” was originally released in February as a one-off loosie in honor of Black History Month. But as Chilliams toyed and tinkered with new ideas, it became the bedrock of the oddly ambitious EP. The rest of the songs were composed from the perspective of different characters in the Mean Girls universe without sacrificing Chilliams idiosyncrasies. His penchant for examining society with funny yet thoughtful observations is still prevalent, but this time he utilizes different personas to tell the stories.
Chilliams always wanted to write a “love song about eating ass,” so he did as Regina George’s boyfriend Aaron Samuels in “You Think You’re Pretty.” “Karen’s Song” is a breezy summertime ballad sung as if he was the dopey Karen luring her cousin. And finally “Burn Book” offers a look inside Regina’s Machiavellian mind as she set out to cause chaos at the expense of her former friends.
Days before the release of The Plastics, I sat down with Chilliams to talk about the EP, working with Sen and pushing boundaries. Check out the conversation below.
I’ve seen people on Twitter come up with odd song and album ideas in the past, but they rarely make it happen. What was the process behind you actually making a project inspired by the Mean Girls?
After I released Henry Church, I wanted to focus more on love and melodies. I was just writing “If you’re not wearing pink you can’t hang with us…” in a rap and then I was like “Wait, everybody loves Mean Girls. I fucking love Mean Girls. It would be really cool if was able to make a whole project inspired by the Mean Girls.” When I first started writing, I was keeping it casual, just mentioning some references. But when I made “Karen’s Song,” I wrote that from the perspective of Karen and that changed the whole project. I’m like “Oh I really have to dive into this movie now because this song has to be the standard for it.” I don’t know how I ended up doing it. I never think about anything beforehand, I just write and see what happens. So it was fun to play with that process and have an idea stumbled upon and follow through.
I heard that you normally don’t have a concept going into a song. Did you find it difficult this time around or was it an easier template to follow?
Writing anything is difficult. You have to find that moment. This was interesting because I can write a whole song –I could fuck with the song–but it could have nothing to do with the Mean Girls theme and it’s like “shit, I have to rewrite.” Way more rewriting and editing during this just to make sure everything goes. It got to a point where I figured it out. When I first started writing, I was just trying to write as someone but it was very important for it to still feel like me. Once I figured out how to rap as someone but still have it be through my lens, it really helped with the process.
I noticed that on “Karen’s Song.” It has a lot of her lines and references but through your lens. Prior to listening to the song, I was expecting raps but you did more of a sing flow instead. Did this EP allow you to experiment more outside of what you normally do?
Yeah, I’ve never done anything like this at all. My whole process is a lot different now. I just wanted to focus on melody way more this time around. I work a lot with Sen Morimoto now and we just bounce ideas off each other. This is the music I always dreamt about making and I’m finally able to make it.
The pairing with Mean Girls makes perfect sense because you’re both able to talk about serious topics, while at the same time inject humor into it. Especially about self-discovery, which is something you explore a lot, not only with your music but also when you talk in interviews.
Yeah, I feel like if you’re making music and you’re really being honest, you should’ve been finding out something about yourself in these songs. There are times when I’m writing and I run into situations in my life that I hadn’t thought about in ten years and it’s like “Damn, that did happen! I wonder how I really feel about that.” Music can be very therapeutic in that way. That’s why it’s really cool to see all these people relate to whatever it is that you’re passing along. How people feel about Mean Girls and about whatever it is that I’m doing, it’s genuine support. Because it’s so challenging and out there if you like it, you really like it.
I would say that right now, you don’t necessarily have the biggest fan base, but truly one of the most passionate ones. They ride for you and support everything that you do.
I’m not going to say that it makes it all worth it because you want to think that you get started off and you want to see where it goes. But it’s very motivating and a beautiful thing to see. This past tour I had a conversation with people saying “Thank you for being you, you helped me be me” and that’s the coolest thing to me. It’s leading to people to feel much stronger about themselves.
Through your music and performance, you push a lot of boundaries, especially in the male-dominated Hip Hop sphere, what kept you going and pushing those boundaries rather than conforming to the norm?
I’ve always tried to push boundaries just because I want to challenge myself and other people in a necessary way. Mostly it’s positive, but sometimes it leads to crazy interactions. It’s just a growing process. My music early on wasn’t aware of how many different types of people are in the world. How many different viewpoints and perspectives there are. When I first started rapping, it was solely from my perspective, my worldview and it was severely flawed. But I was always trying to push boundaries and as time progresses, I’m more aware of what’s going on in the world and the music reflects that. I’m able to incorporate all these different themes and subjects. I feel like, and I’ve always felt this way, with rap and music in general, there’s hella shit that’s never been discussed. I want to turn over and talk about as many things as possible, especially if I feel like it’s necessary.
What’s the song you’re most excited for people to listen from the EP?
The “Karen Song” I was very excited for people to hear because that’s nothing like I’ve done. But there’s a song called “You Think You’re Pretty” with Sen Morimoto that I intro’d it during this last tour with “I always wanted to make a love song…about eating ass.” It’s from the perspective of Regina George’s boyfriend, Aaron Samuel. It’s a fun-ass song. The EP is really short and I’m excited for people to hear all the songs and everything that we did, all the little easter eggs and see if somebody can find all of them because there are so many references. I had so much fun making these songs, production wise, I worked with Sen Morimoto, Dae Dae and Cory Grindberg.
How does your partnership with Sen work? Do you guys bounce ideas off of each other or do you bring him a skeleton?
Sometimes I brought him skeletons, sometimes our conversations would just turn into music which is crazy. My chemistry with Sen is what I’ve been looking for my whole life.
Your synergy is so seamless.
Yeah, it’s so fucking cool. I’m over at his house damn near every week working. We click on a crazy level and we trust each other’s ideas entirely.