Von Alexander Looks Inward on 'MAYHEM1993'
By the summer of 2015, things were going well for Vonny Del Fresco. His singles were drawing more ears than ever, he was attracting strong press from both inside and outside of the city and he’d just released one of the strongest Milwaukee rap albums of that year, Memoirs, a sophisticated, modernist update of the classic slice-of-life rap albums of the ’90s. He had name recognition. And then he did something that many managers might have advised against: He changed that name.
He now performs under the moniker Von Alexander—a rechristening that goes deeper than just branding: It’s symbolic of his new approach, he says. “It’s all evolving, you know, the music, the sound, just how I’m viewing things. I just wanted to shake things up and go by something that was a little more personal,” he says. Hence the stage name that’s closer to his birth name: His first name is LaVaughn and his middle name is Alexander.
For all the praise that Memoirs garnered, there was one criticism that stuck with him. “Somebody pointed out to me that they didn’t know who I was from listening to my music,” he recalls. “So that’s what I wanted to tackle with my newest project and with the name change. I wanted to just open the door a little more and make a connection between me and the listener. I decided to sit back and reflect—to put some perspective on where I am, what I want to be and what I’m surrounded by. I let all those things become an inspiration.”
And sure enough, he took his time working on his follow-up album, MAYHEM1993. It’s not a concept album, he stresses—each song is its own self-contained statement—but it frequently touches on his experiences in Milwaukee, growing up on the cutthroat North Side and then trying to carve out a place for himself in the city’s similarly cutthroat rap scene. His recent move to the East Side has only given him more perspective on all that, he says.
Interestingly, Von Alexander is part of a generation of Milwaukee rappers—very possibly the first generation—who play on both the North and East Sides. Fifteen years ago, an invisible wall separated each neighborhood’s rap scenes. North Side rappers never played the East Side; East Side rappers never played the North Side, and the two scenes barely even knew of, let alone acknowledged, the other’s existence.
Like a lot of his peers, though, Alexander swims so fluidly between both scenes that he can’t even picture a time when that would have been unheard of. “I’ve heard people mention that there’s more of a connection between the two sides of town now, but I hadn’t realized it wasn’t always this way,” he says. “I’m 23, so I mean, I came up watching Klassik and everyone before me and didn’t even notice any separation. I just noticed the music.”
Alexander is unique from most Milwaukee rappers in that he’s not trying to stand out—at least not for anything other than his talent or the strength of his songs. His flow is precise but unflashy. He’s mostly disinterested in modern production trends. He leans toward beats that sound great and flatter him but don’t make strong sonic statements. He’s not trying to call attention to himself; he’s just trying to be. And, as on Memoirs, that almost Zen-like presence makes MAYHEM1993 go down easy. It’s an all-purpose rap record—as suited for lazy nights at home as it is for car rides and barbecues—the kind of record that would have sounded as good in 2012 as it does in 2017 and will probably sound just as good in 2020.
“It’s like some artists, they feel like they have to try a little too hard to do things, to make people enjoy what they’re putting out and creating,” Alexander says. “For me, what’s most important is just doing what you want to do. So for this project, I wanted to be able to share my story without changing people’s moods too much. The songs might talk about certain feelings and experiences, but the vibe of the songs might have a whole different feel. I’ve got that song, ‘Hard to Tell,’ for instance, where I’m expounding on my story, but the beat doesn’t tell you that. It doesn’t tell you how to feel. It just creates a vibe you can enjoy.”
Von Alexander’s MAYHEM1993 is streaming at soundcloud.com/whatsupvxn.