The Supa Friends producer opens up about the creative process behind his debut solo album, “Behind Closed Doors.”
Tavian Walker, otherwise known as Hardface The Pilot, likes to keep his surroundings colorful. On his solo debut, Behind Closed Doors, released last December, the 20-year-old in-house producer for Madison hip-hop group Supa Friends uses an old-head mentality to display his creativity. His ear for high-octane rhythms weaves its way into old jazz and funk samples, contorting them into the album’s storyline in a way that still honors their space. Each song is a facet of Walker’s daydreams set on a loop, his fantasizing stitched through the unmistakable imprint of reality.
Walker’s fascination with music began in his pre-teens, when he and another Supa Friends member, Alex Driver (a.k.a Al D), began poking around with a multimixer audio interface that Walker’s dad—a musician and an avid Deadhead—bought for them. They’d mix Driver’s percussion with Walker’s guitar, an instrument he says he was assigned to learn around the age of eight, and began experimenting with different layering patterns.
“There’s a CD of that somewhere,” Walker says. “Who knows where that is.” Growing up in an environment where Frank Zappa, west coast rap, and WSUM reggae shows played freely, Walker developed an early affinity for the funkier corners of music. During his teens, Walker also began to dig deeper into musicians who championed independent music, from Elephant 6 Collective bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel, to sample czars like MF Doom, J Dilla, Madlib, and Flying Lotus.
“One of things that drew me to hip hop was how I couldn’t figure it out,” Walker says. “I’m a half-assed musician—I can play some instruments, but not incredibly well—and I understand music theory when it comes to traditional rock music. But the things that Madlib and J Dilla were doing? I couldn’t get it.” The learning curve was steep, but nothing his growth-oriented mindset couldn’t handle. “Being an artist is what I’ve always wanted to be, not just a musician,” Walker says. “I draw, and attempt to write things, which is hard for me, since I didn’t fully learn how to read until I was around 11.”
Sampling gave Walker the means to explore and assemble music that captured his full range of interests—a gateway he didn’t so much open, but crash into while attending the Clark Street Community School (CSCS), an alternative public charter school in Middleton, where he transferred after spending a year at James Madison Memorial High School. “I’d just never go to class,” he says. “When I got to CSCS I still didn’t go to class. There was a lot of partying in my life at that time, just a lot of meeting and interacting with many different people.”
While floating through the CSCS curriculum, he gravitated towards a course offered there about beat production and the history of rap music. Here, he met some other musically inclined Friends: Corey Dean (Soup The Fifth), and Tyler Brunsell (Tyrel The Well Treated), who were in their final year at the charter school. “We were always cool in high school but not super close. We kind of formed our friendship through music,” Walker says. When he turned his back on the 2016-2017 school year, he made sure to stay in contact with his classmates, deciding to sequester himself in his polychromatic room and become serious about producing music.
Around fall 2017, Walker began helping Dean and Brunsell set up the Goodman Community Center’s PA system for the Supa Friends’ regular open mics. Having by now incorporated James Horton Jr. (SooDoNiM), Justin Watts (Maruchan The Chef), and Al D to add their own unique tint to the rap sessions, these five joyful rappers would become the catalysts in helping convert Walker’s still life into an action piece. They’ve influenced his overall sound and creative approach, helped him formulate concepts for records, titles for songs, and even a stage name. “I didn’t choose the name [Hardface The Pilot],” Walker says. “I was struggling to come up with one, so I asked the Supa Friends group chat to help me. I’m still not sure what it means.”
Since then, the tight-knit and heavily collaborative crew has released a debut studio album (Super? No, Supa), five solo projects (with Soup The Fifth’s project set to drop some time this year), and four Hardface beat tapes. Walker’s family home operated as the initial HQ for all Supa Friends-related shenanigans. If his bedroom walls could talk, their words might be muffled behind the extensive amounts of doodles and spray paint that’s been layered on them over the years. “Everyone I knew would come through to add onto those walls, both good friends and people I’d never see again. The whole room ended up getting painted. It helped me gain a sense for community,” Walker says. This DIY gallery surrounds the Supa Friends in their first music video for their song “Potluck,” where the group’s five MCs rap in a cipher behind sunglasses and wide smiles.
After his parents sold the house, Walker took his sense of color with him to a small apartment. The dwelling is loose and frivolous—where John Coltraine plays out on speakers Walker found on a curbside, as clacks from domino matches between the Friends rattle out, video games beep, and smoke from Walker’s trusty pipe clouds the room (demonstrated on a loopclip for “Clock Out”). “I tried vaping, but it’s just not the same,” Walker laughs. “It’s all about analog dude, we don’t use digital.”
In the past decade, modern rap, like most things, has stepped away from the traditional. Its original parameters were simple: take something real and spin your own perspective on it. Samples are still used for bulking up twenty-first-century beats, but in a way that now allows artists to skirt copyright law. While this elevates the rap producer into a more musical role, it’s become slightly harder for producers to achieve notoriety. Walker decided to face this head-on by making it obvious who he samples, opting to place his taste into the foreground instead of keeping it subtly embedded. “Sticking to releasing music on platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud for free limits any issues for us,” Walker says, “but the worry is always there. The way we look at it is: if we ever get a letter threatening to sue, that means someone’s paying attention.”
It’s this time-honored, roll-your-own-smoke mentality that spins fanatically throughout Behind Closed Doors. Walker dedicated the album to Daniel Dumile (MF Doom’s government name), who sadly passed away last October. Doom’s concept record MM…Food is a cult favorite among dedicated hip-hop fans, and an album Walker considers to be sacred text. To fully express his vision, and to properly honor Doom, he turned to his Supa Friends collaborators to help him grip the easel and flesh out his vision. Walker had a major hand in the production process for Brunsell and Driver’s solo projects, helping them sketch out each concept before coloring in the lines. The release dates for their solo projects were organized meticulously, with Walker’s being the group’s exclamation point. “I wasn’t at the meeting where we decided those dates,” Walker says, “so when they told me mine would be released around New Year’s I was like ‘okay, lets go.’”
From the start, Walker knew his project would consist entirely of instrumentals. “Obviously,” he says, since he doesn’t rap. Some of the beats on Behind Closed Doors were recycled from Walker’s original idea for his solo project: a chronological descent into U.S history through his own eyes, starting from the turn of the century—his birth year—and ending towards 2020’s chaotic political climate. He got near the start of the Obama administration before scrapping it altogether. His trigger for throwing away entire projects is usually pretty quick. “Sometimes I’d rather just start fresh,” he says.
Behind Closed Doors opens with “Intro”, where we find Hardface in the middle of a deep, languid snore. The circadian rhythm behind his slumber mimics the intensity of his dreams, as loud knocks resound from outside his apartment, attempting to splash a bit of reality onto him. “He can’t keep missing meetings like this man—we need beats,” complains one of the many voices Walker acted out throughout the album. “Guess we’re going to Justin’s again,” groans another.
It’s a fitting introduction to Behind Closed Doors and a sly testament to an artist who’s prone to being wrapped up in his own domain. “It’s not entirely autobiographical, but I do sometimes focus on music so much that I’m not always an active member in my loved ones’ lives,” Walker says.
Once distraction fades away, and after Hardface, presumably, hits the snooze button, we settle deeper into his instrumental mural on “Sleep.” “I kept listening to that track. It felt like I didn’t make it. The drums were so right and the harmonies fit so perfectly that I sort of just let them run as is,” Walker says, calling this song, simply, a “glorified remix.”
All rested and alone, rubbing the dreams from his eyes, Hardface decides to start his day the only way he knows. “Having A Party By Yourself (She Always Makes Me Dance),” portrays the glory of a perfected morning ritual, permanent in ways that no sort of self-sabotaging lacquer could ever remove. “I wake up, put on whatever record I’m feeling, take a shower, smoke, and make some music. I’m ready to party,” Walker says, music, cigarettes, and alone time being the most important part of a well-rounded Hardface breakfast.
“Pinch Myself” reflects the J Dilla ethos of forming a sonic jigsaw puzzle from a myriad of split-second samples. This amber-toned beat reveals Hardface’s drive for fulfilling his dreams, even if it takes a hard nip of reality to get him to sit down at his workstation and make them happen. On “Untitled,” Walker lays out his artistic blueprint. “That beat is reminiscent of my starting point: kinda jazzy, no a cappella, just a plain and simple beat,” Walker says.
From here, the album’s inward-facing narrative takes a turn. As Hardface holes up with his jazzy surroundings, the Friends wander around, unaware of the dangers that await them. Enter: Softface, a tense, stereotypical mobster with a pinched voice and candor similar to The Godfather’s Don Vito Coreleone—the antithetical to Hardface’s carefree personality. Softface sends his two bovine goons, one of which being his nephew, to get rid of their rivaled Supa Friends, permanently.
The three lofty beats that follow paints a picture that flows natrually and poetically: a confident stance from the Supa Friends that challenges their enemies and critics to try them however they wish (“Holla At Us Homie”), the goon’s act of snooping and rummaging for the Friends (“On The Hunt”), and the high-gloss, lo-fi handwringing of “Teach You A Lesson,” all of which leading into the album’s second skit, “The Assassination.”
“Aren’t there supposed to be six of them?” one goon barks at the other, as they size up the Supa Friends from afar. “Yeah, Hardface, the producer; he’s not with them, but he doesn’t really matter “ (Walker based these two off of Gin Rummy, a Boondocks character voiced by Samuel L. Jackson). It’s not Supa Friends’ first time comically riffing on crime-thriller tropes—last year’s combination video for “Halfway Crooks” and “Blackheart” features Walker as a police chief berating his ineffectual detectives before being assasinated from afar.
“I don’t really have much of a reason for the Behind Closed Doors storyline. It was based on my love for crime dramas, but also playing on how we, the Supa Friends, aren’t that kind of rap group,” Walker says, explaining how the group’s members consider themselves lovers and not, in any way, “hard” people. “What I love about art is how a single piece could have many specific concepts that are intentional from the artist, and how the viewer could still interpret it differently. I haven’t really pried into what it all might be about, since I’m not entirely sure myself.”
“Who Shot Ya,” “Dead,” and “Taking Care of Business” jolt Behind Closed Doors through a dramatic section that finds the goons murking the Friends, the emcees’ panicked death spiral, and the goons’ triumphant ride back to the boss—an episode rich in ‘90s-inspired nostalgia. We finally hear from Hardface on “Phone Call,” left once again with no one to talk to but himself. He leaves a bit of a misguided voicemail for his Friends: “I know I haven’t been coming to our meetings or saying anything in the chat, just cuz I’ve been working on this album but, I don’t know…… hit me back. I’m trying to have everyone over on New Year’s for the release party.”
Once Hardface is all caught up, he copes with his grievances on “All My Friends Are Dead,” built around a sample from an iconic rap/pop song from early 2017. While providing reasonable fidelity for the album’s narrative, it’s also a distinct and curious splat among the album’s more traditional influences. It forces the listener to ask “why?” “The main lyric to that song is the only reason it’s on there,” Walker says. “It popped into my head and I thought, ‘Let’s see how we can make this work.’”
Through a mournful voice hooked over a drained beat, “Funeral” expands upon the loneliness Hardface feels now without his Friends, leaning into a storyline that’s seemingly destined for a somber conclusion. But, like any good storyteller, Walker finds a way to circle it back to Softface’s office on “Softface Two,” where the mob boss fumes at his goons’ incompetence for not getting rid of every last one of the Supa Friends. “Looks like I’ve gotta go take care of this ‘Hardface’ fellow on my own,” the mobster groans.
“It sets up the possibility for a sequel, but it also depends. I sometimes just have to move on. That was then, and whatever comes next is now,” Walker says.
Consistency is now a part of Tavian Walker’s life. A new year and a new job mean fresh beginnings for the young producer, allowing him enough time and money to concentrate on his craft. “I don’t know where my sound is going,” Walker says. “Most of the music that I’ve produced so far I personally don’t think is that good,” citing some volume issues on Behind Closed Doors as something that’s in need of some fine-tuning. “This project is something I did for myself—to document my skills at this moment in time.”
“I want to be the greatest,” he continues. “Music is what I want and need in my life. I’d like to use my interests to make good things happen, and I’m striving to get there someday, but, right now, the core goal is to focus on making dope beats.” And while he claims to be not much of a writer, the realized ingredients of isolation, loss, and idealized scenarios that helped shape Behind Closed Doors could already be adapted into its own movie—possibly a musical, which Walker would like to produce someday, if the opportunity ever presents itself.
“A big focus of mine for a long time was finding ways to loop sounds like Dilla; and I still love that, but I want to start doing more complex things with melodies, work with actual musicians, and pay attention to how things should move and transition within songs. I just gotta keep practicing,” Walker says, as his friends continue to cackle jokes and ideas in his homely living room while he rummages through his small, but impressive, record collection. “I also need new records,” he says. “A lot of these have paint on them.”