Minneapolis rapper Tony Wilson should’ve been more nervous.
Hector Miles wasn’t fond of unscheduled guests entering his London studio. He’s the kind of producer who prizes control and execution above all else. But after slipping down the escalator on the London Underground earlier that year and nearly losing his life, Miles was trying to be a little more easygoing.
Still, Wilson wasn't entirely at home in Miles’ dojo. He had nothing planned out. Hastily tapping bars into his phone, he asked Miles to get him an orange soda to buy time. When Miles returned, Wilson took to the mic, and what happened that day laid the groundwork for a partnership that would span the Atlantic.
“I just felt really comfortable on his beats,” Wilson says. “With Hector, I was able to find myself on his beats and really develop. Things were coming together one verse at a time, so I started to imagine what we could really do.”
“Afterwards, we went to the pub, and we sparked it off,” Miles adds. “You know when you bump into someone and the communication is really good, you’re just like, ‘This could work.’”
Wilson and Miles’ first meeting was back in 2014, and the pair have made multiple intercontinental flights since then to recapture the magic. In 2015 Wilson, now based out of New Orleans, flew up to Harlem to meet Miles, who was in New York for a wedding. The two holed up in an AirBnB, recording vocals in a closet, laying out the skeleton of what would become their debut EP as Wilson Miles, The Golden Handshake.
The influences that united Wilson Miles are clear and present on The Golden Handshake. Miles lays down energetic, Pete Rock-inspired boom-bap beats, leading Wilson to spin dramatic, rhythmic yarns. Their sound is so uncanny that Wilson Miles coined a new term to describe it. They call their music “boom dominion” -- a mixture of De La Soul, trap rap, spoken word poetry, and French hip-hop.
Perhaps the best expression of boom dominion is the debut single from The Golden Handshake, “Handle Your Business.” Over a snapping, generously sampled Miles beat, Wilson burns through bars with equal parts cockiness and eloquence. It’s an immediate head nod, undulating with the pulse of its late-80s rap forebears.
This May, when it came time to release a followup, Wilson Miles decided to take their craft in a totally different direction. Where The Golden Handshake is a glossy, radio-ready production built upon clean and recognizable choruses, the followup mixtape Where There’s Smoke is an amorphous collection of odds and ends strung together in a single 20-minute track.
Miles calls The Golden Handshake “a sketch in primary colors.” If that’s the case, then Where There’s Smoke is a charcoal drawing on a sheet of cellulose.
“The whole point of it was to transport you off and to another place,” Miles says. “All the influences and the samples are so far and wide collected that it was meant to completely be a departure from that first release. Where There’s Smoke was supposed to be like a dusty cassette where you go, ‘I don’t know what’s on here, but let’s see how far it goes.’”
The contrast is stark. The movements on Where There’s Smoke -- you can’t rightly call them songs -- drift in and out of being. Wilson’s verses are terse and braggadocious at times, reflective and coy at others. Meanwhile, Miles’ samples drift across film, television, and golden-age hip-hop, creating a piece of music that feels more like a broad scan of the duo’s collective consciousness rather than a cohesive statement.
But what links The Golden Handshake definitively with Where There’s Smoke is a sense of social responsibility. The Golden Handshake opens with a protracted sample from 1940 Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator espousing the inhumanity of fascism. Where There’s Smoke concludes with a speech from The Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man” echoing the same.
Wilson works with non-profit youth programs, and Miles teaches at an artist community. As educators they were compelled to use their music to express their mutual outrage at the socio-political climate. For Miles it’s Brexit and Theresa May, and for Wilson it’s #MAGA and Jamar Clark, but whatever the muse, the duo decided to do right by their students and create music that stood for what they believe in.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with lacing an album with some idealism,” Miles says. “I didn’t want us to come across as preachy, but as an artist, you are obliged to reflect the times you’re in.”
That theme of giving back is what’s drawn Wilson Miles to Wilson’s hometown of Minneapolis. This Sunday, they’ll showcase the fruit of their frequent flier miles at the 7th St. Entry -- their first-ever gig in Minnesota and the only planned show stateside this summer.
Wilson’s former student Tre Scott is hosting the show, and another mentee of his, Covenant, will be opening. For Wilson, it’s the ultimate way to give back through his music.
“This is home,” Wilson says, cracking with sentiment. “Minneapolis’ scene is just growing and expanding, and I wanted to show what I’ve been doing, because I still rep Minneapolis everywhere I go.”
With: Covenant, A.C.E., Kensoul, Tre Scott, DJ Tatoz
Where: 7th St. Entry
When: 8 p.m., Sun. July 2
Tickets: $5 advance, $10 door; more info here