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The Reluctant Spotlight

Photos by
Jessica Lehrman

Travis Miller, aka Lil Ugly Mane, has donned numerous aliases. They're all names that reflect a specific space and time he's occupied during his 20 years of making music. The Richmond, VA native discusses the influence travel has on his ever-evolving sound, the currency of hip hop music, his journey with mental health, the acceptance of fans and his natural DIY approach to life. Photography by Jessica Lehrman.

CC: What’s up Travis, how you doing?

LUM: I'm doing alright, man. I'm just over at the studio right now in New York, going back out west on Friday. I'm just chilling right now, though. Kinda hanging out.

CC: How does living in one place while being from another, doing all this travel influence your work?

LUM: I like to keep it moving. I can't be in the same place for too long. You know, I'm from Richmond, and then I was in Philly for two years. I was in Baltimore for a year, but then before I moved out to LA, like two years ago, I'd been living out in the mountains in North Carolina just like on top of a fucking mountain on a dirt road.

When I was in the mountains, there was nothing there. I was completely by myself up there, and I didn't have cell service. Personally, I think you have more opportunities to do a lot more things in cities and shit like that, but I don't know if that's necessarily beneficial to what I do because I feel like I'm less productive. I feel like I do more things, but I'm still less productive because I don't have the time to just brew over something.

CC: Is that why your style and approach varies so much? You blur a lot of lines in your sound. 

LUM: No, I think that all my shit is just me. I'm intersectional. I grew up punk. I got into jazz and through that I got into hip hop. Through hip hop I got into all sorts of shit because I was obsessed with the idea of sampling. I love sampling. I think it's fundamental to what hip hop is. I think I'm just an amalgamation or culmination of a bunch of different shit. I don't really like to put a word on it. That kinda comes from the noise scene really. When I was involved in all of that, it was just a bunch of people that liked music. It wasn't necessarily people that loved noise, or loved experimental music. It was just people that like sounds, so it was just a community of people that were interested in sounds. And that felt the most like home to me, you know? So that's all anything is, just a cluster of sounds. 

CC: So when you make something and people interpret it a certain way, do you ever think, “No, that's not it. It's this way.” 

LUM: I think that if we're all being honest, most art is whatever it is. I've had enough friends go through art school, I've had enough people go through critiques and learn how to write artist statements. All of that shit is just a tool to sell your art to somebody else. Ultimately, what you do when you walk into a gallery is you look at a painting and it is what it is.

As far as the artist is concerned, they made that painting because they liked the way it looked. Any deeper, if you're talking about "Oh this is about, post-industrial America or blah, blah, blah,” that's just a tool to make the viewer or the consumer believe that you should have a job, that you shouldn't be a homeless person. That's all that is - you're trying to convince someone that you know something that they don't. Ultimately you like the way that it looks or you like the way it sounds. I don't think there's really any deeper meaning in most things. 

CC: How does that affect your music?

I put out noise tapes for years that literally had no information. There were no words on the entire tape. Unless you remember that you bought it from me and what my project's name was, you probably wouldn't even know what it was. That's always just been okay with me. And so the idea that hip hop has to be this certain thing where unless I'm posing against some wall with graffiti behind it or I'm wearing a certain outfit, I’m labelled as mysterious — I think is weird. I think our art is art. 

CC: You are mysterious to a lot of people, though. Even your listeners. You have a lot of aliases — too many to list.

The aliases for me are just, you know, “This sounds or doesn't sound like Ugly Mane to me, so I'm gonna name it something else. This doesn't sound like Bedwetter to me. So, I'm going to name it something else.”

CC: So who’s speaking right now?

LUM: I mean, it's all just me. If I was in any other genre, this wouldn't be a weird thing; but I think because hip hop is what it is and it's so personalized, I've always been classified as some sort of mysterious person or whatever. But I came from punk and hardcore and, you know, in the nineties we couldn't really get any information about something. You'd get a 7-inch, you'd get a tape or CD and the information held within the booklet is all that you're going to get. That's it. If you write to the band, maybe you can learn more about it, but ultimately what you're given is what you get, and that was always enough for me. If I got a seven inch and there was just a band photo in there, they didn't say who was in the band. I'd be like, “Well, I guess I don't know who's in the band,” and that's kind of the way that I've always approached it. 

I was Shawn Kemp before all of this. I was producing under that name, and I just kind of fucking hated working with people because they weren't really doing what I wanted them to do with what I was doing. 

CC: Can you go deeper on that?

LUM: I just started doing it myself. I mean, I would make a beat and I would hear exactly in my head what that song was, and instead of listening to my own intuition I'd be like, “Well I'll give it to another artist to achieve that,” but whatever I would get back wouldn't really be exactly what I wanted, so I just started rapping myself on it. And that's how Ugly Mane came about. The first Ugly Mane shit was all produced by Shawn Kemp. That was just because my beats were under Shawn Kemp, but I just made up this rapper to rap on it. It was out of desperation. 

I mean, the only reason I put it online was so I could have a link to give to my friends. I don't know, but that's the story. Then people started passing it around and I was like, “Oh, I guess this was cool or something.”

CC: You upload an entire album as one track, like a cassette, you press play and just take it all in. It seems as though that’s been the method to your entire career: release and get back to it. No promo. 

LUM: Exactly. I mean, that's why I don't tend to split up tracks and stuff like that, and that's why my identity isn’t important. Do you like the song? Okay, cool. Well, then why the fuck do you give a shit who I am? That's my identity as far as music is concerned, you know? I don't understand it. I've never been like, “I wonder what the singer of this band's like in person.” My brain doesn't work that way, and I think that's something that I've had to come to grips with — that my brain probably works differently, that everybody's brain works differently. I've had to accept the fact that people don't look at things the same way that I do.

Ultimately, if you don't give somebody anything, they're going to find something. That's why there was, like, years where I wasn't really doing much; where all the information about me is fucking wrong. It was just horribly wrong.

CC: Like what?

LUM: People who were writing biographies and stuff.

CC: Are you saying the Wikipedia page is wrong?

LUM: All sorts of shit is wrong. I can't think of anything specifically. 

I'm also super critical because I don't like the idea of a biography. I'm really into the idea of an autobiography, I'm really into the idea of a memoir. The idea of a biography where you're proposing how a person was feeling at the time that a person did something — I think it gets into a disingenuous territory.

It's not correct, you don't know what that guy was feeling. I don't really like to pontificate how somebody was feeling or like “Oh during this time…” I'm not really into the idea of a biography. That's part of the reason why I agree to interviews every now and again, just so at least there's some record of what I'm saying; not a bunch of people positing over it.

CC: You have this cult-like following online, and you do these intimate live shows. What’s it like to interact with fans at that level?

LUM: I definitely dealt with it differently in the past. I had contempt for a long time towards my fans. Like, I hated them, but it was just that the idea of fandom on a promotional level, it just didn't make sense to me. I didn't understand it. I think coming from punk rock, coming from what I learned at a early age, it’s that the band that's on the stage is going to be hanging out with you in the crowd for the next band. 

You know, if you want to go talk to them you could just be like, "Hey man, that was a good set," shake their hand and go away. The idea of any more interaction with that was completely based on the idea of like, “Do you think that we could get along?” I just end up always thinking of it like a peer group - we're all the same, we're all interested, we're all here because we all like the same thing and so therefore we have something in common and we're all friends. 

So, I've learned that I have to appreciate the fact that I haven't had a job in fucking seven years. I appreciate that these people are literally supporting me, and I think that's fucking awesome. I think it's fucking great. The other things that I've been involved in, the idea of supporting yourself with it was the most absurd idea. Like, my fucking shitty-ass performative noise project is just a bunch of bullshit, it doesn't make any sense. Like, nobody's going to support that. It's fucking stupid, you know?

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CC: For sure, people can feel how real your music is. You’re always changing the way you release music, which makes it feel like the music is more for you than anyone who may be trying to capitalize off a certain sound.

LUM: Oh yeah, it's just me. It's very narcissistic. 

CC: Narcissistic or therapeutic?

LUM: I don't know if I would call it therapy ‘cause it hasn't really helped a lot of shit. Well, it could be therapy, but really bad therapy. [Laughs] Like court appointed therapy where the therapist doesn't really give a shit. Like I said, I feel like it's almost the opposite of therapy, because it's a compulsion. It's a compulsion I'm not dealing with properly. Anybody else with any other type of compulsion would probably get on medication, but my compulsion is making music so everybody's like, “Oh that's totally cool.” But, I guess this doesn't hurt anybody so people are alright.

CC: You posted on Facebook about America’s mental healthcare system incentivizing violence and self-harm. Aside from your music, it’s probably the most you've opened up. Are you feeling better today? 

LUM: Yeah, I am. I had to get a grip with that, but, I mean, it's all anxiety. I have a horrible fucking anxiety issue; it's terrible for me, everything is terrible to me. So, even this [interview] was like, I felt like my stomach was in knots since this morning just getting on the fucking phone with you guys.

CC: You don't do this everyday. 

LUM: It's fine, I do it every now and again. I haven't done it in a while, but speaking to the idea that we mentioned before, if you don't give somebody anything they're going to make something up. They're going to find something and it's not necessarily going to be what you want. The way that I started dealing with all of that was I guess oversharing. Just like, I'm going to overshare, like if you want to know who I am, here I am. You’re probably not going to fucking like it. It's going to be horrible for everyone involved, it was just going to be a nightmare. So I've dealt with dark themes in my music since the beginning, and speaking to the fans I knew I had. I've gotten so many emails from kids that were going through horrible shit. I can't 100% say that some of them weren't larpers and shit that just want to connect with me on some like dark level, but the last thing I want to do is feel like I'm in any way responsible for furthering something.

CC: Totally. 

LUM: I mean, like when I was going through what I was going through, I felt really lost and I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I'm an adult. I have money. I can afford anything that I need to do, like, "What therapy do I need to go to? Should I go to a hospital?" It's not some issue, so when I felt like I was kicked out on my ass after that, I thought about kids that were hitting me up saying that they were all this and it's like they're kids, they're at their parents’ whim and they don't have the autonomy that I have to just figure out their own type of rehabilitation, you know? Like, they're kind of at the whim of whatever their parents believe or whatever the parents want to do so...

CC: Right. 

LUM: I think ultimately you just have to figure out what works for you and push through it. Make it better. It's always gonna suck. Everything's gonna be stupid. Nothing's ever gonna be exactly the way you want it. You have to figure out what's important and prioritize that stuff. And once you start prioritizing shit, nothing else really matters.

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CC: Is there anything that you want to say to the people?

LUM: I don’t know… I think we… here's something: I get emails all the time that are like, "Come to this state, come play here." Just, if you want me to come somewhere, figure out how to book a show. Do it yourself. It's really not that hard. 

CC: Are kids not doing that as much anymore?

LUM: I think people should be more proactive. If you want something to happen, you should just make it happen. Like, if you want me to come play fucking Idaho, fucking go walk around and find out where a show's happening in your town. What's going on over there? Oh, is there a guy that usually does it? Talk to him, see what's up. You know what I mean? Send him an email.

I think that everything is kind of diluted in the rap world. Everything's so official, but that's not what I do. I think that more people should be doing shit. I did that a couple of years ago with a compilation of people's first beats. I asked people to, like, if you've never made a beat before, try to make a beat and send it to me.

I got a lot of shit that was obviously producers trying to give me a beat, but I definitely got a lot of actual first beats and people trying to do stuff. The whole time that's been the way that I've tried to connect with fans. I'm just you, basically. I was a fan of music. I loved music. I wanted to be a part of it. And so I just started fucking doing it. 

I don't think it's that crazy of a concept. I don't think I'm any more talented or less talented or more competent at doing anything than anybody else; and I think that if you just decide to do something and put your mind to it, you fucking... it's easy.

I think that's the trick. I think that's the trick of modern society. I think that's the trick of the music industry. It's all a trick.

It's really easy to just do shit, you know?