While the artistic origin story of Emmitt James begins in Milwaukee, the bulk of it has taken place in Los Angeles to this point. Since heading out west after finishing college about a decade ago, James has learned it’s possible to make a living off music and other creative endeavors if you work hard and diversify your output. During his eight years in L.A., the hip-hop/jazz musician has shared the stage with legends like The Pharcyde and Yasiin Bey, merged elements of sketch comedy and short film into his inventive music videos, and released a ton of music between frequent tours.
Last year, James moved back to Milwaukee to find a thriving arts scene and ample support from the local music community. Since returning home, he’s been playing out regularly and has been putting the finishing touches on a new album with a different approach and direction than much of his previous material. Prior to celebrating the release of that record—entitled Undeniably Ground-Breakingly Excellent—at The Back Room @ Colectivo on Friday, May 26, Milwaukee Record asked James about his time in Los Angeles, his return to Milwaukee, the process of making UGBE, and what’s ahead.
Milwaukee Record: I first saw you last year at the Third Space Presents series, where you revealed you were planning to move back to Milwaukee. After eight years in Los Angeles, what are some lessons you learned and some highlights? And what ultimately brought you back here?
Emmitt James: In L.A. I learned you can make a living off art. It took me six years to finally take that leap of faith, but it showed me it’s possible. In L.A., people often wear many hats that translate into multiple hustles. You could run into someone and find out they work at a restaurant, teach yoga a couple times a week, and on the weekends they alternate from DJ to part-time photographer. Although the cost of living is much higher than in a city like Milwaukee, I discovered that the “artist living class” is a real thing.
What brought me back is the rent being $13 here back home. On a serious note, Jamai—my girlfriend—and I did a lot of touring last year. One day, we sat down and had a talk about what we pay for rent and how we are often not even home. After that talk, we decided it would be best to move somewhere that was less expensive. Being that I am from here, Milwaukee was at the top of the list. We are a few months in and I’m glad we are here. In addition to our expenses being lowered, the art scene here in Milwaukee is thriving. It’s much stronger than I remember it being from music, to fashion, and theater. I’m looking forward to contributing to that in a more hands-on kind of way.
MR: How has Milwaukee—and the local music and art scenes—changed during your time away? And how do you feel you’ve changed as an artist over that span of time?
EJ: Being back for me has been interesting because I never lived here as an adult artist. I went to UW-Stevens Point for college and I moved to L.A. after. So being here now makes me feel like the scene has grown. However, the way it is now could have always been the case and I wouldn’t know, but some of my artist peers and friends have echoed that it has gotten better. What I can say is, I have enjoyed what’s been happening here and the amount that is happening.
As for me as an artist, I have sharpened a few tools in my shed. That includes music and the content created around it. Being in L.A., I’ve grown to love film more as well—both still and moving images. Because of that, I’ve added skits and short filmmaking into the mix. Ultimately, I like to see myself as a creative director. In some ways, the end goal outside of music is to be a Creative Director for a large brand or brands.
MR: Was it hard to adjust, get shows, and meet other musicians when you moved back or have you stayed tight with other artists throughout? What was the reintroduction process like in general?
EJ: Even while living in L.A., I did a lot of touring and Milwaukee would often be a stop on the tour. So due to that, I’ve always stayed connected with artists and musicians. However, I decided to treat the move back to Milwaukee like I did L.A.. I wanted to be humble with my approach. I decided to treat it like no one knows who I am and continue to build.
MR: It seems like you’ve been busy lately by playing out a lot, writing new material, and recording. Can you talk about the new album, ways it differs from previous releases, and what people can expect to hear?
EJ: Oh yeah, I’ve played a decent amount of shows since I’ve been here. I’m grateful to everyone who has hit me to play. As of the last two and a half years, I’ve been a full-time artist on a very independent level, so it all helps me maintain a healthy relationship with the landlord. In some ways though, the shows have all been leading up to May 26, where I will be playing my new album Undeniably Ground-Breakingly Excellent—or UGBE—live at The Back Room @ Colectivo.
UGBE differs from other releases simply based on how it was conceived. July 2021, myself and a group of friends rented a house in Desert Hot Springs, California, where we would stay for three days to start the album. About 40 percent of the songs on UGBE were created at this album retreat. I remember watching the Coltrane doc on Netflix, Chasing Trane, where I learned Coltrane locked himself in his attic for days. When he finally came out of the attic, he had his most famous work, “A Love Supreme.” I wanted to mimic this idea in my own way.
Also, the album title was inspired by advice I got from a music critic back in 2019. Their feedback on one of my previous albums was that I am good, but now I need to go be “Undeniably Ground-Breaking Excellent,” hence the title of the album and choosing to lock in on a different level with the homies. Sonically, the album dips in and out of multiple genres from hip hop-jazz, to straight up jazz, more trap-like influences, and more. In addition to the music as a whole, the album is meant to play like a movie or short film.
MR: What was your motivation for wanting to do the release show at The Back Room @ Colectivo? And why was it important to have NilexNile and A.C. The Ruler involved in the event?
EJ: I’ve been wanting to play The Back Room for a few years now. I’ve always heard great things about the sound and the fact that it is in a coffee shop always was fascinating to me. I later learned they operate separately, but as a musician who used to be a barista part-time, it’s two worlds of mine colliding and I think the two make for a good pairing. As far as looking for support for the show, NilexNile is on the album. So in that regard, it only made sense and I’m a fan of his work. A.C. The Ruler, I’ve been wanting to play a show with for a while. I’m also a fan of his music and whenever I would see clips of him performing, it would remind me to lock in with him some day on a show. I’m glad it worked out this time around because we dropped our new albums on the same day—May 12. I dropped UGBE and he let the world know Everything Is Fine.
MR: After the release show, what does the rest of 2023 hold for you and what are some long-term plans or goals?
EJ: One of my main goals is to extend the life of UGBE for as long as I can. After the release show, I’ll be doing a summer tour supporting UGBE. The next show I’ll highlight is Sunday, June 11 at 5 p.m. On behalf of myself and Lilliput Records, we’d like to introduce you to “Fluorescent Pink,” an intimate cassette release in celebration of UGBE being on cassette tape. There will be limited copies in fluorescent pink, as well as an open cereal bar. The show will be “pay what you want,” but the first 10 people to pay $15 or more will get a tape with their entry. I’ll announce more details on socials after the release show. In the meantime, I’ll see you Friday, May 26 at The Back Room @ Colectivo. Doors at 7 p.m., music at 8 p.m., and it’s all ages!