An artist who can wield their sound with intention has a kind of superpower. In a 1995 interview, DJ Screw discussed the particular feeling he wanted to elicit from the then-nascent genre of chopped and screwed. "The Screw sound is when I mix tapes with songs that people can relax to. Slower tempos, to feel the music and so you can hear what the rapper is saying." After joining 2 Live Crew, Luther Campbell developed the sound of Miami bass by using his experiences hosting parties. “If you’re a [DJ] like myself,” he said in 2015, “and you want to stay true to what you do, if I’m gonna make songs, they’re gonna go boom boom boom with heavy bass in it.”
The disparate sounds of these giants are captured in the creations of 454, a 24-year-old rapper and producer whose music grooves between the borders of Screw’s slowed-down fog and the balmy, bruising pace of Miami bass. Born Willie Wilson in Florida and now based in New York City, he treats every aspect of his own music with Screw and Campbell’s same clear-eyed purpose. When we speak over Zoom, I ask him about the relative lack of profanity in some of his songs. “At first when I put out music, I wanted to not swear,” he says. “Not keep it clean, but keep it minimal to get my point across as simple as I can.” As he speaks, Wilson smiles meekly from behind a crush of braids; he is swathed in a pristine white hoodie, and red fingernails grip a pen that seems to be doodling offscreen.
The “point” is not to create PG-13 rap for the post-Nickelodeon market. Quite the opposite: 454’s music is doe-eyed psychedelica, distinct from any fad in online rap. Its most immediate quality is the use of pitch-shifting, where suddenly an entire song is run back at a quicker or slower place; Wilson discovered this vocal technique through his insecurities about his voice, unwittingly linking himself to Screw’s philosophy. “I felt like a slower version would give the listener another chance to actually hear what I'm saying,” he says. With the same disregard for genre as most producers his age, Wilson lists off a variety of additional influences that includes jungle, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and cloud rap. “Every day I try to hear something that I haven't heard before that could help me open a new lane for myself,” Wilson says.
“I realized how alone I really was at a point. Right now, I’m just starting to come out of my shell.”
Wilson has happy memories of Longwood, the suburban town outside of Orlando where he spent much of his childhood. His family moved there in 2007, four years after his father completed a six-year prison bid. With both parents working, Wilson spent his free time outside of the house skateboarding, developing his skills enough to be featured by the venerable skateboarding magazine TransWorld in 2016. Today, skateboarding plays a significant role in Wilson’s life and the aesthetic of 454: clips of Wilson skating are spread across his Instagram account, and the subculture’s puckish vibe help define the music videos for “LATE NIGHT” and “FACE TIME.”
At home, music was a constant presence; his parents would play the Isley Brothers and Prince, and Wilson discovered acts like Project Pat, Tricky Daddy, and the Hotboyz through his uncle’s CD collection. Wilson’s father invested money in a music group in Orlando and would bring him and his sister (who also raps under the alias Pig The Gemini) to the studio. At age 12, Wilson began rapping and making his own beats as Squills, inspired by the “futuristic sounds” of Lil Wayne and his own life as a high school junior, which mostly involved going to class and buying Jordans. "We had a telemarketing headset, but we were able to record through it," Wilson says. "I went to a pawn shop and got me a keyboard, and that's how I started producing.”
The days in Longwood still hold a powerful influence over Wilson. His father was shot in 2008 and died ten months later. Relocations to Tampa and Orlando would follow, further shattering the stability that was so important to Wilson. “[We went] from having been so family-oriented and then a few years later, no one really is keeping in touch. It's always on my mind.” The alias 454, coined in 2017, is a tribute to Wilson’s father and his love of cars. “There was this engine he put in a car, a 454 engine. That thing, it was just so crazy. Super loud, and it was fast.”
“Crazy, super loud, and fast” would be apt descriptors for “LATE NIGHT,” 454’s breakout song. Released three years after his move to New York, “LATE NIGHT” rides a Brent Faiyaz sample to alternately speed then crawl through the ecstasy of the witching hours, all while nursing a pained heart. “Peace and blessings to my family up in heaven, lost a couple few,” 454 raps, “I lost my pops in 2009 my heart that shit cut right through.” It was in New York City that Wilson built a strong community around his dual passions for music and skateboarding, a foundation that would help the creative blossoming found in “LATE NIGHT.” “I realized how alone I really was at a point,” Wilson admits, tussling his hair. “Right now, I'm just starting to come out of my shell.”
The popularity of “LATE NIGHT” inspired Wilson to work on a full-length. The resulting project, 4REAL, was recorded between his apartment in New York and his girlfriend’s parent’s house in Florida, and recalls elements of Pi’erre Bourne’s solo work, as well as the underrated Chicago rap duo Sicko Mobb. 454’s demure yet ambitious free association in sound and lyrics on the project always feels natural because the 454 moniker has helped Wilson to feel at home in his own skin. “I feel like it allows me to speak more about myself,” Wilson says of his alias. “It gives me the comfort to do that.”
Wilson refuses to limit 4REAL to one particular direction. On “FACE TIME,” Wilson keeps romance on his mind as he dives between flexes and threats over cooing synths and boisterous drums from producer L.J., while the self-produced “ANDRETTI'' dissolves tension as effectively the strain of weed it’s named after. Wilson describes the vibe that unites these songs as “airy,” and credits it to his surroundings in New York. The tracks completed in Florida explore new energies: trap-inflected junior mafioso (“GEORGIA”), effortless double-time lyricism (“BRAZIL”), and all-out lothario (“KOBE,” which features Pig The Gemini, the project’s only guest). No matter the style, each song on 4REAL crackles with a raw, almost callow energy, like painting studies that are more satisfying than the “finished” product.
In our conversation, Wilson speaks with the glow of a naturally shy person who has just discovered a font of confidence. His ambitions for 2021 are to play live shows when it’s safe, and to collaborate with other artists as much as possible; he doesn’t want his music to stagnate now that he’s able to wield his sound exactly how he envisions. “[I want] a person to listen to it and have a joyful feeling,” he says of 4REAL, “as if they got cotton candy, or seen a rainbow, or seen a cool sunset. I feel like when people listen to it, they'll have that feeling.”