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IshDARR Carves His Own Path to the Top

Nov. 15, 2016
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ishdarr
Photo credit: Weston Rich
The hardest part was telling his mom. Just a couple months into his first semester of college, IshDARR was struggling to balance school with his fledgling rap career. He decided he needed a break. “I had to tell my mom that I gotta try doing this music thing,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’m always missing class because I’m off doing shows and stuff.’”

It’s not something he did lightly. He was fully aware of the old cliché: Overly hopeful artist drops out of college in pursuit of a pipe dream and ultimately ends up with nothing to show for it. But in IshDARR’s case it looks like the gambit paid off. As his party single “Too Bad,” the breakout banger from his 2015 full-length debut Old Soul Young Spirit, blew up online—it’s now generated somewhere in the ballpark of three million streams—IshDARR decided to double down on recording and touring.

“I just needed a semester off, and it worked out to be a definite blessing,” he says. “It just let me focus more so on my craft, to polish it up more. I was able to put more time into it. I landed my first European tour. And once I did that, my mom started seeing the dream unfold and came around. She was like, ‘Wow, keep it going, stay focused.’”

These days school is back on his mind again. “I’m about to get some online classes going at least,” he says. “While I’m doing shows, it’s not like I’m doing anything during the day, so why not read a couple chapters or go to school for the day?” But he accomplished what he aimed to do during his break. Although he doesn’t say it himself, IshDARR is now, by online metrics at least, Milwaukee’s most popular rapper, reliably raking up thousands—and sometimes tens of thousands—of streams within just hours of releasing a new track. He doesn’t just have a hit. He has a following.

Last month, IshDARR released his second full-length project, Broken Hearts & Bankrolls, another collection of wily, sticky, triple-caffeinated hip-hop. Perhaps inspired by the success of “Too Bad,” it’s even more uptempo and party-minded than his debut—though it never goes full-blown EDM, several songs are set to a thumpy, club-shaking pulse.

More so than any of the other top talent bubbling up in Milwaukee’s suddenly red-hot rap scene, IshDARR has always been more in touch with what plays for college crowds, and that was reflected by his recent tour. Titled “The ‘Locals’ Experience” after Bankrolls’ monster lead single, it was a series of weekly house shows for crowds of 150 or so in campus towns around the state. “We sold out five of them,” IshDARR says. “Whitewater was the craziest, I think. We sold that out in three minutes. The shows are just crazy parties. We bring our own lights and DJs and basically just let the kids party. I host it and perform three to five songs, then just sing along with the music and do a live group shot with everybody and just try to get pictures of everybody who comes out. Afterward the kids say, ‘Yo, I met IshDARR today! I partied with him!’ It’s a real experience.”

It’s also great marketing. The kind of direct outreach to fans that some rappers have gotten lazy about in the social-media age. “The followers and feedback that we get from it is enormous,” IshDARR says. “It works for us, because we never want to overdo it with the promo. Good music should move on its own. You can’t force it by overly pushing it, or tweeting it every day. You just gotta drop it, then go M.I.A. for a while and let the fans figure it out.”

Perhaps that’s what’s most interesting about IshDARR’s rise: He’s done it by carving his own path, defying some of the conventional wisdom that other Milwaukee rappers hold as truth. While much of Milwaukee’s top talent collaborates with each other, sharing shows and tracks and the same network of producers, IshDARR has largely stayed separate from that inner circle, preferring instead to build up his own network.

It’s not that he doesn’t respect the rest of the rap scene, he says, or even that he’s completely against it (he recently finished recording with another local A-lister, and though he doesn’t want this article to spoil the surprise, let’s just say if you follow the local scene, it’s probably the rapper you’d most want to hear him with). But for now he’s trying to avoid too much outside influence.

“I don’t want them to think, ‘Why don’t you do more shows with local rappers?’” he says. “It’s just that you gotta move different. A lot of people are using these same producers, these same sounds, and that’s cool. But I believe you’ve got to create your own sound first. You’ve got to stay unique.”

IshDARR’s Broken Hearts & Bankrolls is now streaming on Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Music.

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