For llyas Nashid, who creates augmented reality content as his avatar, HoodTRONIK, virtual reality unlocked an alternative career path after being laid off from a graphic design position in 2020. His animated videos on his Instagram account caught the attention of fellow content creators within the music industry, which led to him collaborating on animated music videos for Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, Future, Saweetie, and Pop Smoke.
“[The opportunity] was perfect, because I was already prepared,” explains the North Avondale resident. “All these music artists needed virtual work where they momentarily became virtual artists because they couldn’t build the video shoots, and I knew how to provide what they were asking for.”
Nashid, who began dabbling with video animation around 2015, broke out in the early 2000s as an original member of hip hop group Tanya Morgan before splitting from them in 2009. He, Donwill (who is originally from Cincinnati and now lives in D.C.), and Von Pea of Brooklyn, New York, established themselves in underground hip hop with their EP, Sunset, followed up by their debut album, Moonlighting, and finally, Brooklynati, which was lauded as part of XXL Magazine’s 2009 Freshman Class. By that time, Nashid could see the music industry was struggling to keep up with the evolution of technology when someone at their label asked them how to use social media.
“The funny thing is I always saw the wave of the future, especially when I saw the 2Pac hologram [from Coachella 2012],” Nashid remembers. “I was like, ‘Man, with the way tech is going, one day, somebody would be able to be in the studio and project their image all over the planet, and [perform] everywhere at once. So I was pulling that on that wave of, ‘OK, now I’m going to be a virtual artist.’ I’m older—I’m not trying to jump around on the stage anymore.”
Augmented reality isn’t new to music; in videos, the 2D and 3D animation side of it dates to early MTV-era rock groups like Pink Floyd, A-ha, and Duran Duran. Gorillaz were a virtual band of the 2000s, and this year, Super Bowl fans speculated if the 2Pac hologram would make a surprise appearance in Dr. Dre’s halftime performance. Because of the ubiquitous need to put out new music, even during a pandemic, it was only a matter of time before a major label decided to take advantage of virtual reality.
When the news broke last week that Capitol Records signed its first virtual rapper, FN Meka—which is created by a human and powered by artificial intelligence—the Internet had mixed reactions, including fear that computer-generated “rappers” will replace live ones. The cyber rapper, which was created by algorithms that construct songs based on recommendations from popular songs, already has 10 million TikTok followers and a trending single, “Florida Water,” through its collaboration with Atlantic Records/YSL recording artist, Gunna. (Editor’s note: Following backlash over the AI rapper’s use of racial stereotypes and slurs, Capitol dropped the FN Meka project Wednesday.)
Nashid says he began preparing for changes like this after his time with Tanya Morgan. Years of doing his own videography and being part of video shoots inspired the former MC to learn 2D and 3D animation online and discover his creative autonomy.
“When I was shooting videos, I started to get agitated because you set up a video shoot and there’s all these different moving parts,” Nashid explains. “You’ve got to have the makeup artist and you’ve got to have the camera person, the actors got to show up, and often, everybody wouldn.t show up after we scheduled the shoot. I arrived at the point where I was like, ‘If I can figure out this 3D stuff, I don’t have to work with nobody but myself, and I can do that with a computer. I could make all the characters. I could have complete control and not have to worry about anything.’”
Subsequently, the HoodTRONIK moniker became an extension of Nashid’s interest in Afrofuturism, which intersects African diasporic history with science-fiction and technology. “I love sci-fi, dark fantasy comic books, and anime,” Nashid shares. “I try to blend a lot of those elements into what I do, [as opposed to] what I would call “urban glam.” And if I do use any of those elements, I like to give it an edge, make it a little more dystopian, like cyberpunk. I love the cyberpunk look.”
Nashid originally coined the name HoodTRONIK to define his current music style, a fusion of urban, post-punk, and electronic. “It evolved where I was like, ‘I need a new character to represent this,’” he says. “I made this cyborg version of myself and that’s how it stuck.”
Back in February, his 3D art was featured in the city’s first non-fungible token (NFT) art show, UNFIT, hosted by NFTxCincinnati at Sample Space. Nashid thought it would take years before the concept of selling art in the metaverse caught on. But by April, Snoop Dogg announced plans to make Death Row Records the first NFT label, which would potentially grant fans the right to own, trade, and sell their NFTs of an artist’s work through a blockchain and make money from second and third publishing.
Though he didn’t sell any of his work, Nashid says that he was approached after the art show with numerous offers from people looking to use his skill set. And after months of sending out resumes, Nashid now works full-time as a graphic designer for a local civil engineering firm. The position embraces his experimental approach to VR and he’s free to be creative.
“I’m figuring out ways to incorporate [VR] into the technology of what they do there,” he says. “I could make it to where a client could walk through the building [in VR] before they even build it.”
“With Tanya Morgan, we came in with the birth of Web 2.0, with blogs and social media, but this is a new monster again with Web 3.0.,” Nashid says. “And it’s going to be other people on the forefront taking advantage of it and I plan on being one of those people.”