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'Gran Torino' Rapper Elvis Thao Gives Singing a Shot

Oct. 26, 2011
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“I bet this is the first time you've ever talked with an Elvis,” Elvis Thao says shortly before we hang up, and he's right. Even if I had ever met Costello, that's not what his parents called him, and there hasn't been anyone else. So, there's my answer as to whether that's Thao's real first name.

Thao has called Milwaukee home for most of his life. The young Hmong activist and artist had his acting breakthrough in Clint Eastwood's 2008 hit Gran Torino. Though most of his music experience has been with his old hip-hop group, Rare, he will make his singing debut at this Saturday's “Rock for Recovery” concert at Shank Hall, a benefit for programs helping women to kick drug and alcohol addiction. At the show he will release The Water Street Experiment, his first album as the leader of Elvis Thao and The Creatives.

It may have been rap that led Thao to a contribution on the Gran Torino soundtrack, but Thao's first love lies closer to the diversity of sounds on The Water Street Experiment.

"I've always been into rock first," he says, his appetite whetted by bands with high regard for hairspray. "I grew up on Skid Row and Whitesnake, things like that.

“Later in my teenage years,” the 29-year-old Thao continues, "I met all my cousins and was more involved in the streets and the rap influence."

After success with Rare took group members from being a favorite among listeners of their own ethnicity to a broader platform, where they opened for national acts including Ludacris, Thao admits, "I grew tired of the club scene," though he also gives hip-hop credit in that "it helped me find myself, and I culturally grew."

Rhyming without the lilt of song in his voice had been fine by Thao because, until meeting producer Mark Shurilla a couple of years ago at the event “Artists in Music,” Thao says he “was always too embarrassed to sing." After vocal lessons at Shurilla's mentoring behest, Thao displays a tenor that, though still a work in progress, certainly shines with enthusiasm and sincerity on a "solo" debut in a wide variety of styles. He still raps a bit on Experiment as well.

Engaging as his album is, Thao might not have gotten that shot without the assist of his heightened profile due to that fortuitous break from Eastwood. Playing a gangbanger in Gran Torino's tale of righteous indignation and vengeance was a life-changing event for him.

"He couldn't find any Hmong actors in California," Thao says of Eastwood's Minnesota open audition that brought Thao his biggest role to date, adding that he admires the actor/director for hewing to cultural authenticity by not using just any Asians to play Hmongs. "My life has changed since then," he says, "mentally, financially. I probably made more money from that than my whole rap career.”

makes for a different kind of album, too, seeing as it's kind of a Milwaukee all-star outing. Former Violent Femme Victor DeLorenzo, members of Kings Go Forth and Beatallica as well as the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Choir number among Thao's Creatives. "The Creatives are really no set band. It's about bringing people together. This thing can constantly reinvent itself and be something else in another five or 10 years," Thao says.

As for the cause to which he will be lending his talent Saturday, Thao has some personal experience from which to fuel his gig. "I battled alcohol a lot in my younger days. I've had a couple of friends die (because of it) and an auntie trying to recover," Thao says.

The tragedy of addiction is doubtless one of the sadder things that can fuel his artistry, but whether it's by his acting or music, he comes from an honest, positive place when he states, "I just want to capture real-life stuff and capture people's stories."

Elvis Thao and The Creatives perform at the “Rock for Recovery” benefit concert at Shank Hall on Saturday, Oct. 29, along with Willy Porter, Married to the Sea, The Blackholes and DJ Paul Finger.


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