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Tornup: “There can be a fine line between paying tribute and grave robbing.” Photo by Peter Wierenga

In the spring of 2012 at the exorbitant California music festival Coachella, a surprise guest appeared onstage with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Though he had been shot and killed in a drive-by shooting on the Vegas strip 15 years earlier, Tupac Shakur accompanied the famous Death Row Records tandem for a pair of songs. Some were intrigued — if not having their disbelief fully suspended — by the holographic display. Others bemoaned the cheesiness of the stunt. Tornup shared in those opinions, but more significantly, the Fort Worth hip-hop artist was also disturbed by the whole thing.

“The concept of the Tupac hologram was always kinda funny to me,” he said, “but it also kinda gave me the creeps. The nature of a business that produces such a thing seems worth investigating. Art isn’t always taken seriously as a profession, but at least a mechanic gets to stop working when he dies. To me, there’s something allegorical between the hologram entertainer and Frankenstein’s monster.”

That sort of allegory rattled around latent in Torunup’s subconscious for years until it suddenly manifested itself again by pure chance. One day while freestyling over his Roland SP-404 (a digital sampling music workstation), a peculiar yet deceptively poignant phrase leapt out of the void.

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“I was just having fun,” he recalled, “and the line just came out of thin air: ‘I’m a solid damn dude / In a solid damn mood / When I die, they gon’ put me in a hologram zoo!’ I almost fell out of my bed from laughing so hard. I was like, ‘What the hell is a hologram zoo?’ Then I spent the next six months of my life trying to answer that question.”

That answer came late last month in the form of Tornup’s latest album. A wildly creative and ambitious project, Hologram Zoo, Vol. 1: The Crypt is the first of a planned trilogy of concept albums. Part hip-hop record, part Orwellian radio play, the tracks alternate between songs and scripted skits that unwind a narrative that explores a sort of hyper-commercialized dystopian future.

“The story revolves around an app development company that is stealing the content of dead entertainers to create personalized, holographic performances for consumers,” he explained. “The app devs pick the wrong grave to rob and wind up haunted by a rap persona more hungry for clout than they” are.

Don’t let the Black Mirror-esque plot devices obscure the very real and serious systemic issues that Tornup is trying to address. Concretely established with 2019’s stirring You Will Never Understand (the State of Soul), Tornup has garnered a reputation for vividly and evocatively tackling socially relevant topics.

“I definitely think it’s a common thread in my work to deal with how social issues or societal happenings affect our collective ways of thinking,” he said. “I want people who think contemplatively about things to feel less alone and have their imaginations activated with my work.”

Hologram Zoo is a parable about the “exploitation of artists — especially Black artists, many of whom die young or before their time” by predatory music industry moguls.

“When I hear the prospect of holograms becoming more commonplace — and I often hear those prospects centered around Black artists — I tend to interpret it as Black exploitation. There can be a fine line between paying tribute and grave robbing. The language in a bad contract can sound so insane. It’s hard for me not to chuckle when I hear a phrase like ‘… to use your name and likeness in perpetuity throughout the universe.’ Doesn’t that already sound like the basis of a sci-fi horror story?”

On Hologram, Tornup once again worked with engineer Peter Wierenga (Siberian Traps, Joseph Wayne Miller), with whom he’s worked almost exclusively throughout his career. For the beats, he recruited the sound of underrated producer Phil Ford, who works under the name BLKrKRT. Ford’s unique psychedelic, multi-genre-inspired amalgam lends Hologram a fitting cyperpunk quality.

“Phil is a goddamn genius.” Tornup said. “I appreciated his sonic palette already when I was choosing these insane beats he made that make up the songs on Hologram Zoo, but when I heard the individual sounds separated from the total mix, I began to understand just how far ahead this guy’s thinking is. This guy has oceans of details beneath the surface of what you hear when it all comes together.”

As Tornup explains, the Hologram Zoo project looks to become only more ambitious as it ventures into the forthcoming volumes.

Vol. 1 had more of a social thriller/horror movie tone like Get Out. Vol. 2 should have a more action/sci-fi/blockbuster tone like Independence Day. Vol. 3 will round it out with more of a historical, psychological, supernatural base like Beloved a la Toni Morrison.”

Vol. 2 is tentatively slated for a mid-summer release with Vol. 3 following near Halloween.

Tornup doesn’t want fear of Big Tech’s inevitable use of their digital prowess to prey upon creatives to be a deterrent to their being creative. The value of the work still transcends the monetary.

“I just want to encourage everyone, especially Black people, to make art,” he said. “These are challenging times, and having any kind of art piece that you can look at that looks back and says, ‘I understand you’ is priceless.

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