Photo by Chris Casella

Across the Universe

“Everyone’s got different paths,” says Karrio Ballard, aka Zero Star, regarding his latest and greatest creation Digital Letters, “but as far as I’m concerned I feel I’ve figured out how the universe works.”

Those are bold words for certain, but they rightfully match Ballard’s even bolder new album, a record he’s been laboring with for nearly two years. These days, hip-hop is much more than just a game; it’s simply not enough to just be an emcee or a beat maker according to Ballard. To elevate oneself as an artist, you have to do it all. Maybe that’s why Ballard speaks with the cache of a philosophy professor rather than just someone who has played an integral role in evolving the Columbus hip-hop scene.

Perseverance, practice, and especially patience factor into the nearly Zen awakening Zero Star experienced in the making of Digital Letters. Since 2007 he’s had the beats, courtesy of producer Latimore Platz, but when Platz devoted most of his time to med school, the collaboration was halted. In the meantime, Ballard released Maybe I’m Joking, Maybe I’m Not in 2011. It was a slightly traditional hip-hop record, jazzy and soulful, but nowhere close to the chaotic patterns on the tracks that lay dormant in his hard drive. Revisiting Platz’s sonic schisms after that album, Ballard remembers spending hours and hours in his room finding the perfect foil to this new horizon of instrumental hip-hop.

“I don’t know how to explain it but it felt like Neo (from the Matrix) realizing he was ‘The One,’” says Ballard of the epiphany that came with bringing all of Letters’ disparate elements together. “He was flying and kicking agents’ asses, he was unstoppable. That’s how I felt.”

“Once I started to learn to use my voice almost as its own instrument, I could create this whole soundscape that was really out there.”

The long gestation paid off, as the record, which Ballard hopes to release on cassette only this fall, is brimming with unorthodox hip-hop. Songs coalesce through fragments, with bits and pieces strung together in sonic streams of consciousness. Beats and lyrics whiz in and out of the foreground, slowed down and sped-up, before segueing into introspective samples of conversations about child support and snowblowers Ballard recorded with his grandfather. Highlights like “Red Grapes” will sound downright surreal to the average hip-hop listener, like circuits modulating from the motherboard of the spaceship from a ’70s sci-fi flick. Elsewhere, his love of old-school and new environs battle on “Wednesday (Saturday Night Live).” Above it all is Ballard’s cadence, which by itself is wholly unique in that it lazily hangs on the beat, sometimes a nanosecond behind it, making for a woozy experience. It’s quite a trip, and much like the process in its making, it’s as exhaustive as it is rewarding.

Ballard sees Digital Letters as a time capsule. It’s a mix of topical cultural references and dispatches to the future. Hopefully, when someone listens 50 years down the road they’ll have an accurate picture of what was happening in the mind of its artist circa 2014.
“It’s something I had to step out of my usual boundaries to make,” says Ballard. “Even my DJ was hesitant to get with it at first. But that’s what it’s all about, bringing in people from all walks of life, all different tastes and backgrounds.”

Beyond his status as one of Columbus’ prominent emcees, Ballard’s also guardian of city’s most thriving showcase, Buggin’ Out. Now in its third year, the bi-monthly party at Carabar is a rightful successor to past in-the-round hip-hop nights – from the Groove Shack ciphers, to Sundays at Bernie’s, and Blueprint’s So What Wednesdays – that have shaped Columbus’ equally competitive and collaborative community of like-minded heads.

As contrarian to the normal pace of a hip-hop artist, Ballard isn’t in the business of either high praise or cold beef towards his Columbus peers. Again, his talk of neutrality – finding himself instead of seeking what others have to offer – is more in line with Aristotle than it is with KRS-One.

“Action gets you so much further,” he says in reference to how the Columbus scene can evolve. “Create something first, that you put yourself into, and then the rest of it will come.”

For more information on Zero Star visit www.zerostarmusic.com.

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