Hip-hop often goes hand in hand with progression. From its inception on the New York street corners of The Bronx to the current TikTok music revolution, the genre has always been keen to evolve and expand with the times.
Few emerging rap stars have championed this journey quite like the Orlando, Florida-born artist 454. Born Willie Wilson, his music lands somewhere between the Y2K-era style raps of Lupe Fiasco and the glitchy, post-trap tidal wave that’s been dominated by Lil Uzi Vert in recent years. Equipped with beats sweet enough to induce a sugar rush and a retro PlayStation 2-like aesthetic, Wilson stands tall in a lane of his own: take his December 2020 single ‘4 LIFE’, which features low, rumbling drum patterns and J Dilla-inspired neo-soul quirks. On the other hand, though, there’s Wilson’s recent single ‘SKITTLES’, which pulls from scattershot drum’n’bass tempos and pitched-up hyper-pop stylings, demonstrating how, when it comes to Wilson’s music as 454, there really are no boundaries.
Wilson exercised such creative freedom on his debut project ‘4 REAL’, a glitchy, distorted and R&B-sampling sound collage of woozy trap crooning that arrived in March 2021. The long journey to ‘4 REAL’ started in his teens, during which, amid spending countless hours on FL Studio, he found inspiration from the chopped-and-screwed practices of the late DJ Screw, the Tony Hawk’s video game series and his own father’s music career. In 2018 he relocated to New York to further his music career, a move which has more than paid off. Since moving to the Big Apple, Wilson has performed live alongside super-producer Kenny Beats in Central Park and landed a show-stealing feature on Denzel Curry’s March album ‘MELT MY EYEZ SEE YOUR FUTURE’.
As the rapper has continued to network across NYC’s vast creative communities, he’s even crossed paths with the ever-elusive Frank Ocean. 454’s track ‘4 REAL’ found itself soundtracking Ocean’s Homer, the “independent American luxury company” he launched back in 2021 which apparently draws inspiration from Greek philosophy, fantasy and Ocean’s own childhood. The exposure catapulted Wilson to a whole new audience as he became the subject of Reddit theories and music blog posts from those tracking Ocean’s every move.
NME caught up with 454 recently to discuss what it was like working with Ocean, as well as finding out more about his career beginnings, his love of skating and going on tour with Aminé and AJ Tracey.
NME: How did you get your name 454?
454: “My name came from my dad. He had a Chevrolet Caprice: it was his project, he put a lot of work into it. I remember he had, like, a 454 big block engine. As a kid, I loved the sound that it made when it started: there was something about it that was kinda monstrous. Ever since then, the name just stuck.”
You were born in Florida, but moved to New York City a few years ago. What impact have these two areas had on you musically?
“New York is the mecca of hip-hop. I feel living there really made me go back and do my research into the legends. I feel I try to find that spark of what makes them work and incorporate that into my own style. In terms of my own music, New York really helped me to broaden my horizons and made my style pivot a little bit. Since I moved, my sound hasn’t completely changed, but I feel it’s been refined since I’ve been in New York. Living in Florida is cool because I was always [on the] outside taking things in. In New York, though, I feel I’ve just soaked things up and broadened my horizons, because there’s always something crazy going on.
“I also feel like skating and meeting a lot of people in New York really improved my performing skills. I’m starting to connect with some skaters who make music or vice versa, which is really cool. I feel like the scene I’m in right now with skating and music is pretty small. Getting the chance to connect with dope, like-minded people has really helped me out a bunch; it’s comforting. I think skating overall has massively improved my confidence as an artist.”
What was the recording process like for ‘4 REAL’?
“When recording started for that project, the pandemic had just hit us over here: everything was locked down. The skeleton for ‘4 REAL’ was kind of there: I had a couple of tracks in the vault, and I would wake up on the weekends and try to make a beat. With ‘Late Night’, I made the beat that morning and worked on the track while ideas were still fresh in my mind. It wasn’t always that easy, though, not every day was like that. Right now, I’m really trying to hone my craft and focus on my mixing skills. I think learning how to mix properly will help me figure out how I actually want to sound, and which direction I actually want to go in after ‘4 REAL’.”
“I want to enter Frank Ocean’s world”
What kind of expectations did you have before ‘4 REAL’ dropped?
“To be honest, I just wanted people to hear it. I wanted people to hear my tape and take me seriously. I feel like people who skate and have made music over the past few years can get shunned, but when we compare two art forms like acting and music, they often go together without people questioning their integrity. But after I released ‘4 REAL’, I was like, ‘Man, it would be sick even if just my friends listened to it’. I knew the project was something [special], but I didn’t expect it to reach so many people. I would’ve never thought someone like Frank Ocean would’ve taken me in.”
Everyone is dying to know: how did you and Frank Ocean start your creative partnership?
“The collaboration was a pretty long process. I got in touch with someone from his camp in 2020, right around the time I dropped ‘Late Night’. We chopped it up about different stuff, and I sent them some tracks off ‘4 REAL’ and a couple of demos to listen to. A couple months go by, and Frank’s team contacted me regarding a shoot in London, but sadly I couldn’t go. Fast forward a couple months later, and I get another call and they’re like, ‘Yo, we’re about to launch the [Homer] site and Frank wants to use your project’. I gave them the green light.”
How did you feel meeting Frank for the first time?
“Oh man, Frank is so humble. He’s a chill dude. We met when his team was working on Homer. I went out to where his creative team was shooting, and got to meet him there and see him in action. I’d love to work with Frank in the future, of course – that’s beyond a dream! I’m hoping, somehow, we can work on more of a musical level, or just something out the box and creative. Right now, our work is strictly fashion-based.”
What do you think a collaboration between the two of you would sound like?
“I don’t even know, man [laughs]. I guess we only have his  stuff like ‘DHL’ and ‘In My Room’ to go off. I think something similar to ‘DHL’ could work. I’d want our collab to be subtle, maybe I’d do some background vocals, you know? I wouldn’t want to see ‘454 featuring Frank Ocean’. I want to enter his world instead.”
You collaborated with Denzel Curry earlier this year on his album ‘MELT MY EYEZ SEE YOUR FUTURE’. What’s your working relationship with him like?
“Denzel has been an artist I’ve been watching for a minute now. He was someone I always wanted to work with. I got in touch with his manager, and they hit me up one day and told me to pull up. We headed over to Quad Recording Studios – the same place where Tupac was shot [in 1994] – and locked in some recording time. The end result was ‘Sanjuro’ – it’s some pure Florida shit, man.”
You supported Aminé on ‘The Best Tour Ever Tour’ with AJ Tracey across North America earlier this year. How was that experience?
“My first thought was like, ‘Wow, these guys already got their feet running and I’m just learning how to take off!’. It was a dope experience, and I felt like I learned how to be a better performer by the end of the tour. We linked up with AJ out in Canada and hung out for a minute, but all of those guys were all so welcoming. To this day, I still talk to Aminé. He really instilled a lot of shit into me.”
454’s latest single ‘Thankful’ / ‘Skittles’ is out now