Referral code for up to $80 off applied at checkout

Ric Wilson’s Not a Leader, He’s the Mouthpiece

We caught up with the former VMP Rising artist on getting back into the groove at SXSW, his next project and what it means to be the mouthpiece for a movement

On March 24, 2023
Photo by Michael Salisbury

Picture it: It’s SXSW 2019, and Ric Wilson takes the stage at the Empire Control Room & Garage as part of the VMP Rising Showcase. He performs and starts a Soul Train line (the “best fucking Soul Train,” according to Wilson.) Four years, a pandemic shutdown and a stint in London later, VMP and Wilson reunited at the same venue ahead of his afternoon set to catch up on how his career, art and creative process have changed since that Soul Train line.

Taking shelter from the unexpected rain and chill outside, we settled in the corner of the leather couches directly behind Empire’s outdoor stage, the air a bit hazy from unidentified smoke and humidity, our conversation stopping and starting as venue staff filled a cooler with ice or we paused to listen to Y La Bamba and Bartees Strange (the first performers at the day party Wilson is headlining, programmed by BrooklynVegan and Resound Presents). Wilson is undeterred by the gloomy weather — dressed in black trousers and a denim vest layered over a turtleneck, with a single felt flower earring to brighten things up — and stresses that SXSW has “been good to us” this year.

For the first time since 2019, with lockdown and living in London preventing his attendance to SXSW in the intervening years, Wilson took to the stage in Austin, Texas, earlier in the week. He still does a lot of crowd work, but the pandemic has mostly put a stop to the Soul Train lines. “I might do one today,” he said, “It depends on the level of the crowd.” To prepare for the festival, he focused on rest rather than rehearsal: “I was resting up for this week, getting ready for this week,” he says, then adds, with a slight British accent creeping in, “’Cause I knew it was gonna be fucking mental.”  

The Chicago-made artist’s time in the U.K. affected more than his vocabulary, and was hardly a hiatus; he described it as opening up one of the most collaborative times in his career, which carried through to his work in the U.S. On earlier EPs like 2018’s BANBA and 2019’s Yellowbrick, there are features, but beginning in 2020, Wilson’s releases are either double or triple billed: He teamed up with Terrace Martin for 2020’s They Call Me Disco, then with Yellow Days for the next year’s followup EP, Disco Ric in London Town, and has announced an upcoming EP, this time joined by Chromeo and A-Trak.

The forthcoming release is called CLUSTERFUNK, the title a play on genre and slang that means exactly what it sounds like: These nine songs are about finding your groove in a turbulent world, your sound within all the commotion.

   Ric Wilson, Chromeo and A-Trak in the studio; photo by Marcus Lorenzo. 

The four artists — Wilson, Chromeo’s David “Dave 1” Macklovitch and Patrick “P-Thugg” Gemayel and Dave 1’s brother Alain Macklovitch, aka A-Trak — started working on CLUSTERFUNK in 2020, beginning the sessions with lengthy conversations about the politics (namely prison abolition) at the project’s core. They stayed in daily contact, coming back together in August 2021 and June 2022 to finish the EP.

A passage from organizer and abolitionist Mariame Kaba, who Wilson cites as a mentor, anchors the messaging in an interlude, in case listeners have been too busy dancing to the soul-, disco- and funk-inflected music to hear what Wilson has been saying all along: “I tell people that our criminal punishment system is racist,” Kaba says, “That it’s classist, that it’s sexist, that it’s transphobic and that it’s more. … We’re still a country that lives with fear. Always a lot of fear. And also a country that still feels unsafe, even though we lock up 2.4 million people in our country.” 

In an interview with VMP in 2019, Wilson said, “Maybe I can be a mouthpiece for whoever the next Mariame Kaba is… I think I’m just the mouthpiece right now, I’ll figure out one day where I’m supposed to be.”

Four years later, and he thinks he’s got it figured out: In our conversation, he echoes what the second-to-last track on CLUSTERFUNK declares: “I’m Not A Leader I’m A Mouthpiece.” To him, being a mouthpiece means working in the lineage of artists like Fela Kuti and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, “educating, [opening] people up, making people question anything, and not just be like, ‘It’s a great song.’”

Ric Wilson is the mouthpiece, and he’s getting through to people — at an earlier performance at SXSW on Tuesday, he explained: “This person from Singapore hopped the stage. They came back and they were crying and talking about how my lyrics were moving them, because they were a minority in Singapore. And that was crazy, like, oh my God.”

“That was a really beautiful moment,” Wilson added.

Later that day, I was front and center as Wilson, with trademark buoyancy, urged the audience to loosen up, guiding us in a simple groove, shuffling from side to side and front to back. Even though the energy wasn’t quite right for a Soul Train line, he still got us all to dance.

Profile Picture of Theda Berry
Theda Berry

Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the former Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.

Join the Club!

Join Now, Starting at $36
Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.

Continue Browsing
Similar Records
Other Customers Bought

Free shipping for members Icon Free shipping for members
Safe & secure checkout Icon Safe & secure checkout
International shipping Icon International shipping
Quality guarantee Icon Quality guarantee