How one Monroe native is forging his own path while taking on the Miami hiphop
scene, one battle at a time.
article by Michael DeVault
In a single breath, he talks about Lil Wayne and Huey P. Newton, peppering his conversation with references from history, pop culture and the current state of politics. Whether he’s discussing some contemporary theme in stump speeches or busting out a few quick lines of rhyming verse, Miami rapper Top Billion has a singular thought in his mind: music.
Still growing in both audience and listeners, Top Billion’s work is far deeper than it first seems, thanks in no small part to the influence of his parents, Monroe residents Franz Hill and Dr. Ellen Noguera-Hill. The story of Top Billion’s path to the world of hiphop begins long before he walked across the stage at Neville High School, and he understands just the level of impact his parents have had, crediting his mother’s political science background with instilling in him the drive to be aware in the world.
“To this day, I’m into politics and into understanding the world around me,” he says. “I listen to NPR. I read the newspaper. I follow the news.” These influences are apparent in the lyrics to any number of his songs, works that delve into the complex world of race, gender, politics and what it means to be black in today’s America. But be forewarned. Judging this book by it’s cover would be a mistake.
What this young rapper lacks in age, he more than makes up for in confidence, as evidenced by the opening lines of the title song from his 2015 album Noillib Pot, a song in which he proclaims, “My name is Top Billion, and I’ve got nothing to prove.”
With what some might say is a touch of hubris, he goes on to outline just how highly he regards his skills on a microphone. Some might say it’s ego, but only if they don’t listen to the rest of the album. Spanning a trilogy’s worth of songs, Noillib Pot takes listeners on a journey through Top Billion’s life, from the streets of Monroe where he spent time in the Booker T community to the pinnacle of the Miami battle rap scene. YouTube videos featuring his performances at numerous rap challenges are nothing short of epic, and his talent with words is on full display on the album, too, in songs such as “The Whole World’s Mine,” which includes a lyric proclaiming his “New York dreams and an L.A. state of mind, Detroit hustle and Atlanta Grind,” a wordplay on not one but four well-worn tropes in music. No sooner does he incorporate these kinds of recognizable metaphors into his work, he turns them on their ear, putting his spin on a thought, an image, an idea, making them his own and, in the end, underscoring a talent that is at once raw and refined.
Monroe is never far from his words, either, as he frequently discusses life in the Twin Cities, growing up in the sometimes confined, sometimes stifling, but always supportive atmosphere in Monroe. He graduated from Neville High School in 2009, a turbulent year in the Hill household that saw his father’s business expanding and his mother serving not once, but twice as an interim councilman on the Monroe City Council.
All the while, he knew where he was headed, what he wanted to be doing, and he was pretty sure he knew the path that would take him there.
“Growing up there, you always have this feeling that you want to do something that will make your hometown proud, that I’m going to be remembered for it,” he said of his work and of what motivates him. “When I write my music, I’m thinking about that constantly.”
Listening to “Life is Crazy,” it quickly becomes apparent that he lives his life to the pace of his music. “It doesn’t take long for me to finish a song,” he says. The song goes on to underscore how crazy life is and how quickly situations can change. “Don’t want people stepping on your toes? Be careful where you put your shoes,” he suggests.
“Growing up in Monroe, you get this sense that you’re constrained and confined. But you also feel like you grew up in a place where everybody has your best interests out there, from your teachers to the police,” he said. Whether he would have been able to create the songs that he’s becoming known for while still being in Monroe is an open question, though he speculated that his career was always going to take him away from home. “It’s a tight knit community, but it also is a community that feels like you can only go so far in it.”
But it’s not like he took a direct flight to Miami Beach the week he graduated. Like the words in his songs, his path to music was just as surprising. He graduated from Loyola before relocating, a testament as much to his commitment to knowledge as to his parents’ strong influence. His mother emigrated from Belize when she was a teen, going on to earn a Master’s Degree in political science before beginning her career in education.
“I guess I look at myself as a first generation American, to a certain extent,” he said, noting that his father was born and raised in Alabama. If he takes a sense of the importance of knowledge and learning from his mother, from his father he draws his independence. “He owns his own company and he hasn’t worked for anybody else in over twenty years.”
Top Billion seems to be following in those footsteps. He is the founder and owner of Cipher Music Group, the label through which he released his previous albums. He also has operated his own recording studio. And he continues to promote his work through numerous appearances in the battle rap community, the challenging, sometimes daunting world in which rappers meet and freestyle in competitions at open mics.
Though his music is not for the faint of heart and it certainly earns an age-appropriate warning in places, Top Billion’s songs aren’t what one might consider typical rapper fare. There are mentions of women, but absent are the largely misogynist undertones so prevalent in other contemporary hiphop. Throughout his works, he talks of law enforcement with respect and courtesy, and he has at least two songs that extol the virtues of hard work and consistent drive as tools for achieving success. But he insists these messages, which seem contradictory to contemporary hiphop culture, are good fits with his rapping colleagues. The ideas of overcoming otherness, pursuit of success, and the trappings that go along with achieving it are all there. But there’s something…different.
“The history in this country has always pitted authority–police–against the minority community,” he said. “It’s that type of history playing out within the music. It’s a larger conversation going on within the song.”
That animosity doesn’t come across in his music. For his part, Top Billion takes a decidedly different approach, one in which he praises hard work and respect for authority. For him, it’s a different vision of the world around him.
“I’m approaching them in a different way, from a different perspective. I think hiphop overall is about the little man and the aspirational side,” Top Billion said. “I relate to people who don’t have it yet. I think current hiphop talks to the people who went through the struggle and then got it–mainstream hiphop that is. But I like to talk to the people who are working for it and will get it.”
He counts among his influences Tupac, Jay-Z and Biggie, and he even credits Lil Wayne for inspiring his own path into the music business, adding quickly, “I think Lil Wayne is one of the greatest artists of all time.”
In fact, a 2007 appearance by Lil Wayne is what started his journey into the world of hiphop. The rapper appeared as the headliner of DeltaFest that year, and Top Billion was in the audience. “That’s when he was on fire. He was the biggest artist in the world. You’d never think he would do a concert there. But there he was.”
The message stuck, and if Lil Wayne can come to tiny Monroe for a concert, Top Billion won’t forget home, either. He’s returned numerous times to host Cipher Music, a battle-style open mic event. He also returns regularly to perform concerts for his home communities when time allows. And he’s looking forward to more opportunities as his career continues to develop. When pressed to explain why he thinks other artists don’t spend more time focused on their roots, he takes a moment. “Maybe they didn’t grow up there, didn’t go to school there, didn’t go to prom there,” he said. He referenced Huey P. Newton, who was born in Monroe but who grew up in California. Monroe was a part of their past, but perhaps not a large part. “I don’t think most people try to hide it, but maybe that it’s not as big a part of them.”
For Top Billion, though, Monroe is a huge part of who he is, and it’s a lesson he’s not likely to forget anytime soon. “A lot of people forget about these small towns,” he said, though he insists he won’t be one of them. Working through his label and through the numerous battle efforts, he’s steadily growing an audience, which is good considering the body of work he’s already produced.
“I have so much music out there that I feel like the world needs to catch up to it,” Top Billion said. Only recently have his songs started to climb in play counts on Spotify and other streaming sites. He’s optimistic. “I really feel like the world is starting to come around.”
Meanwhile, if his message doesn’t quite jib with the rest of what people are hearing in contemporary hiphop, he’s not making any excuses and, instead, refuses to make apologies for the influences in his life. After all, he doesn’t see his message as any different than the rest of hiphop. He’s just coming at it from a different angle.
“Being a ‘black person in America,’ you can’t help but feel that influence coming through in your song,” he said, though he points out his music doesn’t glorify violence or racial discord. “I am about peace, justice and authority and advocate for it in my music.”