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Tucson hip-hop sensation Lando Chill finds his purpose

Catch enough fleeting glimpses of your purpose in life, and you might finally lock your sights on it for good. Epiphanies spring from experience. And while the 25-year-old Tucson poet and musician often speaks confidently about pinpointing his raison d'être as he made his new album, The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind, Lando Chill also acknowledges that he didn't embrace his true purpose instantaneously.

That first glimpse was in church, though not via celestial vision. Fifteen years before his career officially launched with the 2014 joint "Stay Gold," Lando, born Lance Washington, was making—and even recording—inspirational, socially-conscious music.

As a youngster growing up in Chicago, Lance and his family attended Lincoln Park's Church of the Three Crosses, a progressive congregation that also included one of the longtime luminaries of children's music: Smithsonian Folkways recording artist and Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award recipient Ella Jenkins.

"There'd be times in church where all the children would come up and Miss Jenkins would have us all clap and sing along," the rapper says. Jenkins' repertoire included songs from many different cultures. She rejected the notion that children ought to be seen and not heard; the world should listen closely to its little ones, she insisted.

"I saw the power of what she was able to provide children—and people in general—and thought 'I want to do that.'"

And he did, in a small way. Jenkins was tight with Lance's mother, Chicago Children's Choir director Jacquelyn Washington. As a result, Lance got to visit Jenkins' recording studio from time to time. Listen closely to 1999's Ella Jenkins and a Union of Friends Pulling Together. Among the vocal ensemble on this collection that includes protest songs by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White is the little boy who grew up to be Lando Chill.

Before he'd even started third grade, Lando Chill had experienced the power of music and art to inspire and inform the world around him. But he didn't embrace it as his calling. Not yet. After a heart attack killed his father in 1995, a compulsion to simply entertain his peers, at any cost, gripped Lando.

"Social currency was the only worth that I deemed valuable as a kid," he admits. "My family was amazing, but not having a father left a void that I believed I could fill with other people's adoration or admiration."

He became the class clown. "It was a mask I wore in order to get through school and social situations that made me anxious." Yet despite the ease and vulnerability Lando displays onstage today, it was all an act back then. "The more I forced myself to be the one who'd always jump in the middle, the showman, the more I realized that I wasn't that person at all."

And when he started his new life in Tucson as a UA freshman, he got a rude awakening: making others laugh or smile wasn't enough. "People don't give a fuck about you in college," he sputters. "Class clown my ass, you're one person out of 50,000. You have nobody else but yourself."

Finding a new purpose in life didn't come easily. Having started in UA film school, he switched his major to journalism, then again to anthropology. Reconnecting with the love of poetry instilled by his mother, finally gave Lando some direction. "That became a way to express myself, to fill that void that I had always filled with bullshit, either vices or self-deprecation. That's really how the music started."

Seven years after arriving in Arizona, Lando expresses gratitude for the struggles he's endured. "I was 18 when I got here and I'm 25 now. That's one of the most important periods ... it's when you make the greatest amount of mistakes in the shortest amount of time."

"Tucson gave me the opportunity to be able to spread my wings," he continues. "The opportunity to work with a lot of different people, and the financial freedom of decent rent and not having a full-time job."

Would he have found his calling as a musician if he'd landed someplace else?

He shakes his head. "I honestly don't think so."

A fast-rising profile in Tucson's burgeoning hip-hop scene put Lando Chill on the radar of Mello Music Group, who signed him within weeks of releasing his 2016 debut For Mark, Your Son.

"Lando's music spoke to me immediately because of its emotional honesty," says Michael Tolle, the label's Director of Operations. "In a genre driven by posturing, his voice and ambitions reflected clearly someone working on breaking down who he was—digging in and using his art to discover something deeper about himself." (For further reading, check out the Tucson Weekly cover story, "In at the Chill," Feb. 25, 2016)

"Do you believe in fate?" Low and foreboding, this question rises out of the miasma of the new song "Take It Slow." In 2014, a customer asked the same thing to Lando Chill while he was working at Oriental Express in Market Square. No, he replied. The startled patron promptly loaned him a copy of The Alchemist, the 1988 novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo.

An international bestseller, Coehlo's allegorical tale of a young shepherd's quest encourages readers to follow their dreams; if you commit to your true path, the universe will help you achieve your aims.

"Before reading that book, I felt like I was at the mercy of life," Lando says. "It became a catalyst for my entire career."

The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind unfurls Lando Chill's odyssey of self-discovery, layering inventive beats and rhymes with heady flights of mythology and bracing, earthbound politics. Across 15 tracks and 45 minutes, the album refutes what Coehlo characterized as the world's greatest lie: "At a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate."

"Being able to grasp the idea that we are here for a purpose, one that nobody else is going to hand you or create for you, is an idea that's freeing." He believes most people learn this right before dying. "They realize their purpose at the precipice of their demise, and it comes as a relief but also an eternal sadness. That's something I never want to feel."

It's Sunday evening, June 11.

Thirty-five invited guests sit semi-circle or lean against walls, bathed in the crimson radiance of R Bar. This is the listening party for The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind in its entirety. As he so often does these days, Lando opens the evening by paraphrasing "the greatest lie," then tees up what he's about to unveil. It was "inspired by some hard shit," he confesses. "This is what happened when I had to survive."

Before the album begins, Lando acknowledges a small cohort of like-minded locals who helped him articulate the album's messages of personal and spiritual transformation. Bassist Chris Pierce ("that bearded gentleman over there") perches on a stool at the bar. Producer Altrice, who helmed the sinister-sounding "King of Salem," stands towards the back. Tom Johnson, of Headlock and Rap Van renown, sits near the turntables; under his Triceratop moniker, he's credited for producing the album's first two singles, "Break Them Shackles" and "No Paz." Only Benbi, who crafted "Ain't For Us" and "o sicario o padre," is unable to attend.

A slender figure in a baggy button-down shirt standing by Lando's side is singled out for special praise: Lasso, aka Andy Catlin. For all the talent assembled in this room, it's the creative partnership of Lando and Lasso that fashioned The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind into a cohesive whole over the course of a year.

Lasso had already engineered last year's Madera Canyon EP and was playing in Lando's live band. Thanks to the aforementioned productions, plus Lasso's track "People Are Evil," the core for a new Lando Chill album was already in place. But after the backlog of material was gone, both men felt it was time to dig deeper. Instead of just laying down vocals over existing beats, why not build songs from the ground up?

As Lasso remembers it, "I pinned Lance down and said, 'You're a vocalist, you're not an emcee. Your voice is an instrument, let's treat it as such." Listen to The Boy Who Spoke to the Wind on headphones and you'll understand what he's getting at. Sometimes eerie whispers peek out from around the edges of Lando's direct, pointed delivery, creating a kind of vocal penumbra. Conversational asides and somnambulistic mutterings weave in and out of the mix. There's even a moment of smooth soul vocalizing at the end of "Take It Slow." All the voices in Lando Chill's head spill out on the album, oftentimes several at once.

By the same token, the further afield Lasso's germs of musical ideas were from conventional hip-hop productions, the more interest Lando showed in developing them. "I wrote a bunch of these tone poems," says Lasso. "I made a lot of rap beats, too, but that's not what Lance chose for the album." Ideas bounced back and forth, and songs unfolded organically. They'd spend hours rolling tape as they improvised and experimented live, then they'd edit the highlights into something more structured.

With songs like "Freedom" (featuring the shouts of civil rights demonstrators in the background)," the bumping "No Paz," and "Black Boy Run," the first half of the album emphasizes social justice. Ella Jenkins would no doubt appreciate the messages of protest and unity Lance Washington promotes today. The latter half of the record trades immediacy for intimacy, progressively growing more fragmented and experimental. The beats-in-space atmosphere and sparse arrangements of "Broken Worlds" and "falou com o vento pt. 2" invite comparisons to James Blake or Bon Iver.

That sonic progression, with tracks ready to burst forth from a booming club P.A. gradually giving way to selections better suited to headphones, was crafted very intentionally, to mirror the narrative.

"It moves from up here," says Lando, indicating his head, "and being very cerebral, political, and provocative ...

" ... to a place which is very primal and natural," as his hand spreads over his chest. On the album's final track, "HeartSpace," Lando Chill affirms his purpose: "this is why I exist/to be a beacon."

"People who I would've never thought would sit down and listen to my music will come up to me after shows and say things like 'this is so inspiring,'" he says as our interview winds down. "That's exactly what I want to do. Through whatever I'm able and privileged to do—and right now that's music—I was put on this earth to inspire."

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