Sometimes really good things grow out of love when you least expect it.
For Wil Black, producer, artist and founder of Black Gypsy Music, the love of music, family, and extraordinary friends has transformed a simple desire to create into four successful CDs and a casual clothing line that has taken on a life of its own.
Black, born and raised in Pontiac, has always had a passion for music.
“I could play the drums before I could walk,” he says.
His dad, the late Willie Black, was a musician and promoter who worked with Detroit soul group Chapter 8 (fronted by Anita Baker before her solo career). Black’s kids also are part of Black Gypsy Music. His daughter, Brianna, is a graphic designer who created his album art, and son Cole is a songwriter and deejay who went to school for music management.
Black once thought he’d be a solo singer. However, advice from his mother led him on the path to be a producer.
“I was in this huge talent show at Pontiac Northern High School. It was the biggest show around every year. Two thousand people were there, and my mom was one of them,” he says. “I performed as part of a rap group and did a couple other solo songs. The girls in the audience were screaming. I thought it was great. I thought I was it. But my mom said after ‘I really like your songs, I don't like your voice. Maybe you should get other people to sing them.’ It changed my whole perception. I started writing more…I ran Brick House Recording studio with my best friend Diarra "Uncle P" Collazo -- who now owns Detroitrap.com -- for a while and I started watching people and listening and thinking.”
And then he took a break. A long break. He bartended, worked full-time jobs, lived a “normal”, non-musical life. Until one evening in 2012, when he sat in on percussion with a group of musicians at the bar where he worked, and he knew he couldn’t stay away from the music any longer.
“Something in me just said ‘Put an album out,’” Black explains.
Within months, he had created his first CD, Quantized Confusion. “Quantized means a shift in patterns, a shift in the beat to the next perfect beat. In this CD, I was taking the confusion out of my life and making sense of it.”
Tracks on the album include pieces titled “The Ballad of the Crow” and “Cole” – songs about two of his children with whom he was re-establishing relationships at the time and now works with on music projects.
Since then, Black has worked with musicians and producers across the country. These include Dallas's Ducado Vega, Pontiac's Grammy Nominated Melanie Rutherford, Keith "Bubby" Webb, guitarist Andre Frappier, violinist Evan Garr, Rah the Son, and Grov "GT" Tigue. He incorporates a mix of original sounds, influences and genres such as jazz, hip-hop, electronic, and house, that is best -- but not exactly -- described as “instrumental hip-hop” and “an eclectic mix based on the musicians who have trusted his vision.”
Over the next four years, Black produced three more albums: Mousai, Lucid Dreaming, and his latest, Gypsy.
He’s worked diligently, with the pace of music creation ebbing and flowing and then beautifully delivering on each new CD. In 2016, he won the Detroit leg of the standard Producers Showcase beat battle and traveled to New York City for the national competition. Last October, he performed music from his albums with a live nine-piece band in an hour-long set, an event called “The Gypsy Experience” at the Rochester Tap Room. They played to a packed house.
But what Black didn't know -- as his music was growing and evolving -- was that his passion for creating was inspiring his supporters. That inspiration led to a second, off-shoot business based on good, old-fashioned grassroots community. Black Gypsy Apparel – a casual clothing line that last summer had customers wearing logo t-shirts across the globe and posting on social media – began on a whim and now is so busy with orders that Black and his partner (in business and life), Shanon Chan, can’t keep shirts in stock.
“I had a showcase at The Grasshopper Underground in Ferndale. I wanted a shirt with my logo made for myself for the show. Shanon suggested we get five done so that she, and her friends that were attending, could wear them as well to show support...All throughout the event people kept stopping us to ask, ‘What is that?’ and ‘Where do I get one?’ ” Black says. “So we got their information and had more made. It just grew to the point our friend couldn’t make them fast enough. One weekend I had 50 shirts made and was scared I’d lose money, but I sold 40 in a day.”
As he continued to wear the shirts in public, more and more on-the-street customers turned this one-time gig into a booming business.
“It turned into a clothing line when I didn’t really want to do a clothing line. We didn’t think we’d have time to balance the clothing with the music,” Black says. “But then everyone I knew wanted one. And then, last summer, friends, and supporters started posting photos on social media of themselves wearing the shirts while traveling. Facebook and Instagram were filled with my t-shirts in China, Greece, Rome, Costa Rica -- all over the United States.
“It was amazing to have so much support from so many people. They weren’t asked to do it, they just did. And it grew like crazy. Every day I would see three or four more posts from someone wearing the shirts with the logo,” he said.
Last June, Black officially formed Black Gypsy Apparel as an offshoot of Black Gypsy Music. The company has since created an online ordering website, found a company that could handle the increased orders, and also set up shop at popular summer events like Dally in the Alley and pop-ups at Rochester’s Penny Black Grill & Tap, the Village of Rochester Hills and Metro D. In addition to the t-shirts, the apparel line now includes hoodies, hats, sweaters, sweater dresses and sweatshirts. Chan works full time in the business, just to keep up.
The Black Gypsy logo has been an evolutionary process. The design is a face, half filled in, half open, with a musical-noted-shaped tear cascading from one eye. It began about 26 years ago when Black was working in a record store.
“It was Halloween and I was supposed to go to a party but didn’t have a costume, so I had someone paint my face with a musical note with a tear flowing out of it – I thought it would show the emotions that come out through music,” he says.
Black didn’t think much more of it until photos from that Halloween event came back. In the photo, he was holding his then-infant daughter Brianna, who now often designs his album art.
Wil Black, Daughter Brianna Snitcher, Mia Senger, Shanon Chan
“That photo of my face has morphed into the logo, and it represents a lot of who I am. The dark side represents looking deeper into your life and relationships. The open side is about being open-minded about life, being non-judgmental, and to be able to receive and accept love and what comes into your life,” he explains.
For Black that has meant the beginning of an endeavor he never saw coming…while sharing his music with the world, the world shared its love right back with him.
For more information about Black Gypsy Music, visit http://blackgypsymusic.com/.
Susan Thwing is a Rochester-based freelance writer.
All photos by Doug Coombe.