To Space and Back: Meet AniLi Mars, Philly's most tripped-out hip-hop auteur - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
AniLi Mars | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN

“Just blink twice and I’m there where you are / I was off the radar cuz I had to go to Mars / and them faces on the surface told me / Ms. Mars you an ancient, you an O.G.”

On her single, “Ego,” Philly-based MC / producer AniLi Mars delivers confident, stream-of-consciousness raps that range from cocky posturing to space traveling and sci-­fi adventuring. Mars’ confident, rapid-fire flow dances over a bed of thick 808, trap drums and dreamy, reverb-soaked vocal harmonies. Peruse her Soundcloud, you’ll find dozens of catchy songs of light and self-actualization filtered through colorful, self­-produced tracks and a youthful, futuristic aesthetic.

Born in Upstate New York and spending her teen years in Philly, Seattle and Atlanta, AniLi Mars began experimenting with musical instruments and software in high school. Despite being so young, her entrance into music was intentional and self­ motivated.

“I made the decision to start making music on my last day of class in 10th grade,” she says. “When I was 16, I moved to Georgia and that’s where I started learning how to use [production and DJ softwares] FL Studio and Virtual DJ.”

Like many new wave hip-hop creatives, Mars found early musical inspiration from Kayne West’s genre-boundary-breaking electro­soul opus 808’s & Heartbreak. With her own swaggy, imaginative rhymes, ambient synth textures and auto­tune melodies, the aesthetic blueprint laid down by West can be found throughout Mars’ work.

AniLi Mars | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN

AniLi Mars | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN

“I was inspired to [make music] by my friend that was a DJ, and Kanye’s 808’s & Heartbreak album,” Mars says. “That album came to me at a point in my life where I was literally transitioning from Philly to Georgia in the middle of high school so it kinda was the soundtrack to my emotions at the time. I just wanted to create something like that. It was so interesting, the sound just spoke to my soul, the dark melodies, drums and auto tune, distortion all that, something told me I could do that too.”

Whereas West’s vision was crafted in the comforts of high­ end recording studios in Honolulu, Hawaii and Southern California, Mars’ music is completely produced by herself, diligently working in her own home studio. Her work ethic has already resulted in a healthy catalog for the 23-year-old auteur totaling seven projects, four beat tapes and three mixtapes EPs. There’s the My Side of the Universe instrumental tape trilogy, InvasionXX (an instrumental tape), Systematic, After The Trip, and most recently Hocus Pocus Focus.

“Basically I try to make something every day, when I can,” Mars says. “Even if it’s a beat or recording a song or writing, I try to stay productive.”

After years of honing her studio craft, producing instrumentals and attempting to work with other rappers, Mars took it upon herself to start fleshing out her beats with her own songs.

“Writing and rapping didn’t come until a couple years later,” she says. “I used to just make beats and that was where my focus was, but I reached a turning point where I didn’t wanna just do beats. No artists I came across really understood my beats and couldn’t create songs how I imagined on them. So I figured it was my turn to try.

“I started writing out bars and ideas,” she continues. “I recorded my first song and was really satisfied so I decided I was gonna be more than simply a producer. I officially started rapping.”

She developed a skillful and accessible rap style with lyrical themes that touch on self­-empowerment, as well as magic and space travels fantasies reflecting her own personal journey of self­-acceptance and experiences as a creative outsider. “Tell me where you came from, yeah, you are a strange one…” she sings on the breezy, upbeat electro­pop gem “Foreign (Origins).”

These themes blossom on Mars’ newly released, ambitious 27-track project Hocus Pocus Focus. After an initial attempt at recording her songs in a professional studio, Mars gathered up her home recordings and released the project as is.

“I had recorded a lot of the songs at home and had re­recorded some in another studio but they were deleted so I ended up just releasing everything I recorded at home,” she recalls.

AniLi Mars | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN

AniLi Mars | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN

Indie rock has a long, well-recognized tradition of home recordings. The image of the lone, gifted auteur locked in their bedroom studio, tirelessly piling on layers of sound has become one of pop music’s most readily available cliches. This image of the self­-determined studio savant is less commonly associated with hip-hop, despite the fact that many of the genre’s greats — Pete Rock, Marley Marl, Madlib and others — have created some of the genre’s defining musical statements in relatively lo­-fi home studios.

Full of lush synths, pounding drums and robotic choruses, the songs throughout Hocus Pocus Focus touch on a range of moods and stylistic forms. From the dark and swinging trip-hop bounce of “Run Back” to the dreamy cover of Drake’s “Houstatlantavegas,” Mars invites the listener into her hazy world of sound and enchantment.

Throughout Hocus Pocus Focus, Mars’ use of rap’s common braggadocio is a means of self­-validation as much as it is a means of self­-aggrandizement. Ultimately, the message of personal discovery through music rings loud and clear.

“The concept of the album is all about the magic of creativity and getting in tune with myself and the journey it takes to create music and express myself,” Mars says. “Growing up, I didn’t really have the highest self esteem, so music kinda made me realize my own awesomeness in spite of my insecurities. Hate to be cliché, but music saved my life.”

Listen to AniLi Mars’ Hocus Pocus Focus and grab a free download over at Soundcloud.

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