It is around 80 degrees outside but Wil Wright, part rapper and part rocker, enters the diner in a hoodie and jacket as if there were cool wind chills taking up the spring air. He wears sunglasses indoors and keeps them on for awhile, only taking them off mid-conversation.
He takes a plate of fried pickles and a Diet Coke without ice. The fried pickles were better at Tracy’s off of Western Avenue when they doubled up the batter, according to Wright. He sips the Diet Coke slowly, in contrast with LiL iFFy who downs alcohol.
Wright is calm and talks the in-and-outs of football and basketball at the University of Tennessee with the knowledge of a national beat writer while iFFy hits the stage with a fierce rumble. Both share one distinct similarity: making an impact on the audience. It is just in two separate ways.
The expression of Senryu, the rock band fronted by Wright, is different from the expression of iFFy for Wright. As iFFy, he hits the stage looking to do battle and pronounce his lyrics with a ferocious roar, while still speaking from the heart but in a different style. With Senryu, he stays personal but on a different level.
Because for Wright, it isn’t about separating a character from the real thing: it is about feeding two different animals.
“If you give yourself strict parameters and write within those parameters, when you take them away, you should be able to write anything,” Wright said. “I had never written any rap music but I understood it and really enjoyed it. But also it wasn’t quite strict enough so I said that we should write on a theme.”
Wright attributes his love for puns as another foundation for making these songs. As he looked more into rap and where he could go with it, he found that when popular rap songs came on the radio, he was able to make puns about Harry Potter within them.
Wright and his friends put together their first song and put it up on the Internet, as a joke.
Too bad others didn’t take it as one.
The response came flowing in with people from all over responding to the song positively. At the time, Wright was writing for a New York City blog that was doing a kick-off party and needed some more musical entertainment. They invited Wright to come perform, but he had one problem:
“I told them I only had one song,” Wright said. “But they said they would pay me money so I had to make more songs.”
LiL iFFy started from writer’s block. Wright, who develops original lyrics and songs for his band Senryu, was struggling to find the next step for the rock band. So he fell into his passion for Harry Potter, and that correlated into his first rap album, “Wand Ambition.” Since then, his rap albums have been skyrocketing faster than a Nimbus 2000 broomstick.
Wright said he made more songs because a lot of people loved the hits like “Wand Ambition” or “M Pomfrey” and they loved rap music so why couldn’t they come together. “It’s funny because they shouldn’t fit together but it’s not like a joke because I really seriously love the books and seriously love rap music, so it is only funny in how they come together. That is what makes it interesting.”
For Wright, the songs develop into something more than just an array of Harry Potter puns. Much like regular rap, they develop a personal connection with life — give or take a few wand rhymes.
“It may mean something different to you than it did with him, but he is ok with that,” Wayne Bledsoe, music writer for the Knoxville News-Sentinel and personal friend of Wright’s, said. “It’s open to interpretation but it is not just product, there is heart and soul beneath it.”
Not rap’s biggest champion, Bledsoe has found a love for the work Wright is doing not only because he finds the songs to contain more than the go for profit mixes that control the radio but they carry a personal touch that shows signs of a fantastic artist. Bledsoe spent time with Wright on his latest national tour with LiL iFFy and finds that the character on stage is someone people connect with.
Bledsoe said that one thing LiL iFFy had going for it was an already built-in fan base, not only of Harry Potter fans, but also fans of Senryu and Skeleton Coast, the two rock bands Wright is part of. “A lot of people who are iFFy fans are big Harry Potter people but, I mean I like Harry Potter, but a lot of the charm of it is that you don’t have to like Harry Potter to get it,” Bledsoe said. “Increasingly as the songwriting has gone on, its just more personal stuff about Wil.”
And as it becomes more personal, the Harry Potter edge begins to disappear.
Wright knows that as he shifts more to non-Harry Potter themed rap that his fan base will have to get used to a change in brand. But he also believes they will come along with the change. “While I’m not focusing on Harry Potter, I feel that my references are still palatable for that audience” Wright said. “But also our live show, which is what it is really about, we will still play those songs. I feel like even if I didn’t record a new album, we have given those people what they want to see, assuming at all that they don’t like the new stuff, but I think they will.”
While Wright has taken iFFy on the road to cities including Dallas, Athens, Ga. and Portland, Ore. and found a following, Knoxville is still the hub for the wizard rapper.
“Knoxville is about as small as a city gets or as big as a town gets,” Wright said. “We have the fewest number of venues a city can have or as large a number as a town can have and because of the weird size, we have one of everything.”
Everything being a niche group of music.
For Wright, everyone has their home they can go to when it comes to a genre of music and because of that it creates more focused music. “Each kind of music grows in a kind of even way. We have great blues musicians here, we have great country musicians here; we have great indie bands here. Even the rap scene I was unfamiliar with is pretty strong even though it’s kind of underground,” Wright said. “I feel like Knoxville is kind of rare in that it embodies the characteristics of all of those.”
What Wright finds most interesting about Knoxville is the people trying to do something different and cool. It has a strong following behind it because while it is a small place, they want to feel big.
And to feel big, Wright is able to use the antic of iFFy. As the off-the-wall behavior and insanity fueled performances bring people in to the local venues to see the wizard rapper do his thing.
“Wil likes the whole theatrics of rap culture, all the things about bragging on yourself and talking about this lifestyle. On some extent, he can live this lifestyle as iFFy and I’ve seen him,” Bledsoe said. “He can go crazy all night.”
Wright says there is a separation of character and person. “(They) assume it is just a character but it is really just a brand,” Wright said. “iFFy is a name that I put on the project and on myself because the person is the product in rap. It is a different thing but it is not a character.”
Wright says that he tries hard to be himself as much as he would be with Senryu or Skeleton Coast and he understands the differences between being iFFy and being the lead singer of one of his rock bands.
But when the lights go on and the bandanna is slid above his mouth, iFFy is there, and no groups of dementors are going to bring him down.