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With Fusia Fest, Larry Morris of iLLPHONiCS elevates St. Louis hip-hop

Larry Morris, MC of iLLPHONiCS, sits in auditorium seats looking at the camera.
Freddy D Angelo
Larry Morris is the MC of iLLPHONiCS and the creator of Fusia Fest in St. Louis.

For Larry Morris, Fusia Fest is about more than just music; it is a gift to the St. Louis music community. The MC of the St. Louis hip-hop band iLLPHONiCS designed the festival to fill in the gaps that exist in the St. Louis music scene — especially when it comes to live hip-hop fusion bands.

“The thing about St. Louis is [that] the potential is there,” Morris told St. Louis On The Air on Friday. “The pieces are here… we’ve just got to fill in the holes. I believe in my city.”

Fusia Fest specifically elevates live hip-hop bands, and Morris said there is a distinct difference between what these bands provide and hip-hop played on the radio. “It's not an MC with a band —the MC is an instrument within the band,” Morris said. “When you put [them] together, you are able to create a sound that's so unique.”

St. Louis has a robust live hip-hop band scene. It just doesn’t get a lot of attention. “A lot of people just don’t know [the scene] exists,” Morris said. “They don't know that we're here.”

Part of the problem is that most people don’t know that different hip-hop genres exist. “Everybody thinks hip-hop is all the same," Morris said. “They don't see the subgenres. They don't see the different categories that spin off of the subgenres.”

Morris decided to do everything he could to fix that — starting with Fusia Fest. Every band on the bill is part of a different subgenre of hip-hop, and, apart from Morris’ well-established band iLLPHONiCS, they are all rising in the industry.

“The Greater Good and Retro [Champ] have more of that rock influence, but I feel like it's more modern,” Morris said. “Then you have groups like the Domino Effect. They're very introspective with the lyrics, plus they're very conceptual. Dre’Co has been around for a minute. [In] his last album, ‘Therapy Sessions,’ he's talking about his aspirations [and] dreams. Native Sun, [from] Indianapolis, has been out for a long time. They are very strong in mixing jazz and hip-hop, but it kind of gives you that 90s hip-hop vibe at the same time.

"And LOOPRAT is the true embodiment of what it was [like] to grow up in [University] City. U City has birthed a lot of MCs and a lot of [the] hip-hop community in St. Louis.”

Morris has developed Fusia Fest for at least four years. The death of his mother in 2018, followed by the coronavirus pandemic, meant that he had to put his plans on hold until now. Morris said that Steve Pohlman, owner of the venue Off Broadway in St. Louis, was committed to making Fusia Fest happen once venues and stages started to open back up. While the location and capacity at Off Broadway were important factors, Morris ultimately chose this venue for deeper reasons.

Larry Morris speaks with Rod Milam about the nuances of St. Louis hip-hop

“In St. Louis, a lot of the urban genres don't have places to land,” Morris said. “A lot of people have this misconception [that putting] hip-hop in [their] venue is going to bring a certain crowd. The reason I bring that up is because [Pohlman] has been very intentional in making sure that he's trying to create spaces for all genres of music in our scene. … [Pohlman] has shown up in ways that I think a lot of people who talk about diversity, equity and inclusion have not — and he's really there. I want to support venues like that.

“Spaces like [Off Broadway] matter in St. Louis,” Morris added.

The pandemic had a negative impact on live music in St. Louis, and in some ways, made existing problems in the community worse. “People need to be reminded that this is important,” Morris said. “We [need] spaces for different artists, and I'm not even just talking about urban music. I'm talking about the LGBTQ community, I'm talking about so many different things.

"Everybody should be able to express themselves in different venues with no issue. It's just very important that we allow different types of music to flourish in our city.”

The history of live music in St. Louis is rooted in jazz and blues, and Morris said these genres are still important. “But how do we make new history?” Morris said. “How do we move our city forward? We have to be able to embrace younger artists. We don't always have music infrastructure here in St. Louis, and that's why people leave.”

Morris is working to change that. “[iLLPHONiCS is] going to take what we've created, in the spaces that we would normally have for ourselves, and allow new acts to come on and be introduced to the [connections] that we've built over the years,” Morris said. “If a band doesn't have to wait [for] years to [play] a decent venue, that might encourage them to stay in St. Louis and keep playing.”

Morris added that there are ways non-musicians can help keep the hip-hop scene alive in St. Louis. “I've also noticed in every city that really supports [their] music or culture, they lean in. And what I'm trying to get people in St. Louis to realize is, you have everything you need here to create the same scenario [as other cities]. You just have to lean in the same way.”

Related Event
What: Fusia Fest
When: July 2
Where: Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Ave., St. Louis, MO 63118

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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