The TroubleShooters are the duo consisting of int eighty from Dual Core and Mikal kHill. They released their first full-length album this year, Production, six years after their first EP. They took the time earlier this year to sit down with us and talk about that project, their working process as a duo, and discuss who the best rapper in the No Friends collective is, among other things.
Scratched Vinyl: Let’s start with some basic background. It’s clear that y’all were traveling in the same circuit, but what was the first time that you officially met each other?
Mikal kHill: I think it was 2009. At the time, me and Sean [Sulfur] were doing The Thought Criminals – we had another guy rapping with us, and we had a huge band. We were booking a lot of shows for out of town people, and we had started being called Nerdcore, because of playing with MC Frontalot, but also because we were nerds.
int eighty: The use of video game samples had nothing to do with it.
Mikal kHill: At the time, I was literally playing Nintendo with a mini-controller as part of the performance while I was rapping, so it was inaccurate. But I was just like, “Hey, are you interested in playing here? There’s a cool historic punk venue here that lets us throw rap shows in Charlotte. It would be cool if you came down.” I just messaged him on Twitter, I think, in the DMs.
int eighty: I thought it was an email. Anyway, I lived in Cincinnati, so I just drove fourteen hours to Charlotte to play the show. I remember getting to Charlotte, and I think we met up to get some food or something, before the show, and Mikal was like, “I gotta warn you – this place, it’s not like a fancy venue, it’s sort of a hole-in-the-wall dive bar, but the sound is amazing and the people are amazing.” And I was like, “This sounds exactly like the place I grew up rapping in in Cincinnati.” And it was! It’s one of my favorite places to play. And that was our first time meeting.
SV: So you basically cold called?
Mikal kHill: Yeah, which was pretty typical of the time. We were just getting on our feet with doing stuff with The Thought Criminals, so it was how I reached out and became friends with a lot of people. I would just be like, “Hey, I can get shows put together in Charlotte, would you like to come here and rap?” That kind of worked with a lot of people.
int eighty: My MO for rap is I just want to play and make music for as long as I can, so I have no status about who I’ll play a show with, pretty much – if you’re a terrible person, I will not play a show with you. But dive bar in Charlotte, North Carolina? Sure! I would love to do that.
Mikal kHill: Definitely, I’ve always been similar. And we hit it off well, at the time, though we didn’t really full on start working together until many years after that.
SV: Do y’all remember what the first track you did together was?
Mikal kHill: It was a Thought Criminals song – “All the Coins.” At the time, me and Sulfur – I had kind of disbanded The Thought Criminals, and then put it back together with just me and Sulfur. I was writing all the parts, but we had a live band for shows. I had researched “Nerdcore,” because people had started calling us that, and I was definitely afraid of the moniker, because up to that point, I had done some stuff for Sage Francis, playing basslines on his live album, I had done a remix. Everybody who knew who I was back then was indie rap people. When people started calling me “Nerdcore,” I was immediately apprehensive about it. But then I started researching it, and finding what I liked about it. I made a CDR that had Dualcore on it, which is int eighty’s project he’s most known for. It had Beefy on it, it had Mega Ran, but back when he was Random. And some other people like that…I found all these other people that were obviously rap fans that happen to be nerds and also really good at rapping and stuff. So once we were making our album, Cold Winter, I went through that mixtape and was like, “Well, I know I want these rappers to rap on the record.” So I reached out to them. I reached out to int eighty with “All the Coins.” I knew he was into hacking and stuff, so it seemed like a natural fit. We were going for some sorta gangsta-stealing-your-shit vibe, and that works well with infosec vibes at the same time. Me and Sulfur finished our verses first, and then I sent that to int eighty, and then he sent us back his verse. Immediately, I was like, “Ah, I need to rewrite mine,” because his verse was so good on it. But in classic Mikal kHill fashion, I did not.
int eighty: And continuing with my philosophy of just being excited to make and create music, I didn’t care that I hadn’t heard of the Thought Criminals, I was just like, “Oh, cool, I get to write a rap verse on this song that sounds fun.” I think around the same time, but it might be before…Mikal had sent me some beats and remixes that he had done. And one was a remix of an El-P song, and I was like, “Wow! You are a brave individual to remix an El-P song.” I was already impressed – I mean, he did really well, it was a great remix, but I was like, “Great, cool. You and I will get along.”
Mikal kHill: Actually, you guys had a song that was about breaking – I’m blanking on which song it was.
int eighty: “For Real,” on Lost Reality.
Mikal kHill: Yeah, and I ended up remixing it because I loved that song so much. And Chris’s scratches on it. Again, I love people who are into nerd stuff, but also clearly respect hip hop. It was important to me.
int eighty: That’s the long and short of it.
SV: When did the idea of TroubleShooters first come together? When did y’all move from “We’ll be on each other’s projects” to “Let’s do a project together!”
int eighty: I think it was – we were playing shows together already, right?
Mikal kHill: Yeah.
int eighty: So Lead Time was 2017, right?
Mikal kHill: Yeah.
int eighty: And it was recorded in 2017, so I want to say early 2017, so the writing would have started late 2016. I know that at that point I was in a funk, where I just wasn’t excited about writing. Part of it was technical difficulties on my part. It was very strange, because I love solving technology problems. I have an interface that wasn’t working with my computer anymore, because of operating system updates, and driver incompatibility. And I was like, “I don’t feel like solving these kinds of problems, I just want to make music.” And then since I was doing all this stuff like debugging and trouble shooting and not fixing the problem, I was like, “This is not how I want to use my time. This is not the best use of my time.” So then I was like less inclined to rap. And then there was discussion about what kind of music we should be making for Dual Core songs, what’s the perception that we want people to have of us. I’ve never really cared about that – I just want to write about the things I want to write about. I get how Mikal said he was initially concerned about the “Nerdcore” moniker - c64 wants to be considered a serious hip hop artist, and I get it, because he’s a really talented producer. So I was in a weird funk, when Mikal was like, “Let’s write some music together, and it can be whatever it is!” It doesn’t even have to be published, we just get up and write. That was really refreshing and relieving for me.
Mikal kHill: We actually wrote like a whole album’s worth of stuff before we recorded the EP. But once int eighty got to my place in the mountains of North Carolina, we just threw it all in the trash and just wrote new stuff. Like from the ground up. We finished that EP in like a week together. Just hanging out here. I think I made the beat for “Dull Futility” on the spot. And then we just wrote to it right afterward. I just flipped some jazz sample, I don’t even remember what we were listening to.
int eighty: I want to say one song that we had previously made carried over onto the EP, but I can’t remember which one it was. I do remember specifically for “Dull Futility,” that we sat down, and I was like, “Make something that’s very disastrous, or sad, something like that.” And then, because Mikal is known for being the human disaster – his album is Human Disaster – having sad content, whenever we play live shows, I’ll be like, “This is a sad song that Mikal kHill made us create.” Even though it was literally my idea for the song!
Mikal kHill: That’s by far my favorite song on the EP. And it just came together super easily. It’s funny, too, because when we sat down to make the beat, where I initially had the sample, I remember int eighty didn’t like it. But after I chopped it, he was like, “Oh shit!” That was the song where you were like, “Oh, you’re like a hacker for music.”
int eighty: One other note that’s very key, very crucial for the original TroubleShooters EP is that Mikal and I became very intoxicated and played Nintendo together. And I whipped his ass at Tecmo Bowl! Like 100-0, or something.
Mikal kHill: I couldn’t figure out how to pass.
SV: Original Tecmo Bowl?
Mikal kHill: Yeah…I thought he whooped my ass so bad because I was drunk, but then when we were recording this album, I didn’t drink the whole week, and he still whooped my ass! That’s when I realized he was just supernaturally good at old school video games.
int eighty: Or maybe you just had room for improvement!
SV: Once you got in the same place to start working, when did y’all realize there was a certain vibe to creating in the room together?
int eighty: Not to burst your bubble, but we did a lot of the writing on the Internet ahead of time. We’d get on Discord, and write on the same Google Doc, and we’d talk to each other and demo the verses as we were there. So then we get feedback right away, like “This line should be this way,” or “How do you feel about this thing?” I think one of the things that makes us adaptable and gives us that cohesion is that we’re open to that feedback. Whenever one person says, “I don’t necessarily like what you wrote, or I’m not feeling it, can you try it this other way,” we’re open to trying it and seeing what happens. I know for sure that I’m the better rapper of the two of us, but I’m not perfect. So when Mikal says, “Try this thing,” it’s worth trying.
Mikal kHill: I’ve definitely worked with people who if you suggest they change a line, they immediately get cagey, and I don’t feel like there’s any of that with us. Writing together on the Internet, we’re still in sessions like we’re talking to you right now – even when we’re not talking out loud, we might mute so we can hear the music we’re working on, or whatever, but like having that experience of writing in the same document – I think that’s one thing, in particular – me and Sulfur used to write together in notebooks, because we’re old. But when you’re doing that, you’re still on separate pieces of paper. It’s really fascinating when you work in a group setting like we do with TroubleShooters, or No Friends, when you’re in a Google Doc at that same time, you literally see someone as they’re typing. You can scroll up and watch what they’re doing. And you really get a perspective that wasn’t possible thirty years ago. You get to see how the other person you’re working with thinks – how their mind works…I think that’s really fascinating, it’s really interesting process, to watch how the other person is formulating their stuff in real time. It goes beyond being in the same room – you’re really getting into each other’s creative process in a way you didn’t used to be able to.
int eighty: However, to your point, Chi Chi, I think there is a certain sparkle that’s added to the album that comes out in the sound that took being together in Austin. We did the demos separately, but the chemistry isn’t there like it is in the final product when we’re in the same room together.
SV: And that’s what I’m getting at – like you can feel that energy of one of you finishing a line and the other one jumping on the mic, that it’s not cut and paste.
int eighty: Just to nerd out about the setup for a bit, we had two separate mics set up, but only one was truly recording. The other was there for getting the feel. We were both rapping at the same time on songs, but only one person’s vocals were getting recorded. I think on “Hot Takes,” we rapped it like seventeen times. Because we were having so much fun doing it, we kept doing it over and over. We’d be like, “That was a good take – let’s do it again!” Eventually, my voice started to go, so I had to be like, “OK, one of these is good, we have to move on.”
Mikal kHill: Yeah, that one in particular, I can’t wait to do that live in front of a crowd.
int eighty: “Hot Takes” live is going to be so much fun.
Mikal kHill: Yeah, the back and forth stuff is going to be awesome.
SV: The EP came out in 2017. Obviously, y’all have your own projects that you’re working on. How did everything line back up so that y’all got back together to make a full-length album?
int eighty: The pandemic finally started to recede, so we finally started playing shows again last year, in 2022. So we were in Vegas, playing shows at Defcon, the world’s largest annual hacker conference. Mikal brought his MPC and was making beats, so we wrote “Spotlight” while we were there…After Decon, after Vegas, we just continued. We were like, “Let’s get together every night at this time, and we’ll work on music together.” During the pandemic, remotely, we had written an entire album’s worth of music again. But there was no impetus to release it, because we couldn’t go play shows. So in Dual Drive, there’s a stash of random lyrics and beats, but no recordings. So we ended up using - “Breeze” and “Bosch” were the two that were previously written during the pandemic, but not recorded. Other than that, “Spotlight” was the spearhead that pushed or invoked the creation of the TroubleShooters album.
SV: Going into the album, was there a different or specific approach to the songwriting, or was this just a continuation of what y’all had always done?
int eighty: I think consistency is the biggest influence. I think that we were getting together every night to work on music, that was the real change. With Lead Time, we had a lot of fun making the album together, but it feels more like a bunch of songs that we randomly made and put together. Whereas Production has this really cohesive feel that we always envisioned TroubleShooters would have.
Mikal kHill: Yeah, I feel like it definitely evolved from like a fun side project to TroubleShooters is a real group over the course of making this album. The EP has some really good songs on it, but it doesn’t feel cohesive the way that the album does. The album feels like we really started gelling and finding our actual sound. I had been working on my solo album for a long time…with my solo stuff it’s a lot of live instruments, and I had been focused on a lot of soul and garage rock. Getting into the TroubleShooters stuff, it was such a comforting return to this boom bappy hip hop sound, the stuff that I loved growing up. It just vibed in such a way that felt great to make it…I’ve been really MPC-focused with my production…and I think this album reflects the sound that I’ve grown into.
SV: Because I now y’all are both big rap fans and take this very seriously, are there any particular rap duos or groups that you are a fan of that provided the framework of what y’all do as a duo?
Mikal kHill: I know for me, growing up in the ‘90s, I was super obsessed with Soul Assassins. It’s probably obvious to anybody that knows ‘90s rap and knows myself, but DJ Muggs is like probably my biggest influence as a producer. Cypress Hill, House of Pain, Funkdoobiest, all duos. Funkdoobiest had a third member sometime, but mostly just two dudes on the raps…Cypress Hill was probably the biggest [influence], since that was DJ Muggs’ actual group.
int eighty: I tend to think of Mikal’s production as having a lot of live instrument-influence to it, which then brings to mind Run the Jewels for me, personally. In the dynamic of Run the Jewels, Mikal would be El-P on the production side, and then on the mic I have the combined powers of Killer Mike and El-P. I think I’m good at rap, in case that wasn’t clear.
SV: You mentioned earlier that you feel like this album allowed you figure out what TroubleShooters really is as a project. What was it about the approach that helped you make this really well-rounded album?
Mikal kHill: It was really natural. I’ve definitely had albums where I had a formula, where I was like, “I need x number of songs that invoke this emotion, x number of songs that are this…” But with this one, it just really fell into place on its own.
int eighty: Yeah, it was very rapid. We just went song by song and – We knew going in that we were like, “Let’s aim for ten songs, I think that’s a structure that makes sense.” Then me wearing my leadership hat, I was like, “Let’s aim for twelve songs!” If we aim for twelve and we have ten, we’ll be pretty happy with it. And we actually ended up writing a thirteenth song somewhere in the middle, or towards the end I think. It’s actually a really great beat, but I wasn’t feeling the song overall. I wrote to it, but I didn’t think that my lyrics were anything special, and I wasn’t super excited about it. And because we’re very open and give direct feedback to each other, I was able to tell Mikal, “This isn’t really working for me,” and he was like, “Cool – we’ll ditch it and just move on.”
SV: You mentioned earlier that y’all had been sitting on material because you couldn’t play it live. Now that we can have shows again, what’s your plan for live TroubleShooters?
Mikal kHill: We have multiple shows planned, though most of them are hacker conferences. We do have a show in Charlotte that we’re doing with everybody in No Friends in July. No Friends is Tribe One from Remnants crew, Sulfur, who is in Thought Criminals with me, int eighty, myself, and cecilnick, who is from autocorrect, which is an avant-pop live group from Columbia, South Carolina. So we’ve all been making music together for a really long time. cecil mixes and masters the music from everybody in the group.
int eighty: cecil did a lot of additional programming on the TroubleShooters album as well.
SV: I was gonna bring that up – cecil’s like that secret sauce.
Mikal kHill: Basically, whenever I’m done with a song – you know how [Dan the] Automator never puts a fade out on anything, and things end at the wrong place? That’s me. I’ll send things to cecil – it’s very punk rock, the way I produce. I have all the melodies in place, the bass in place, the drums in place – everything as I planned it. Then I send it cecil, who skews it in just the right way. cecil has been involved more than anybody in my production process for the last ten years. Now cecil has a company called mono no audio, so you can hire them to do this for you. cecil will add a lot to what we do…probably their presence is felt most on the last track of the album, which is “A Thousand Days Have Gone.” They added all kinds of vocals and a crazy outro to the record –
int eighty: Which I love!
Mikal kHill: That song, when I sent it to cecil, was pretty much a loop. It was a call back to the two weeks notice record, “Ten Thousand Miles,” which samples the same folk group from the ‘70s. Not gonna say their name. But it’s a sample from the same group from the same live performance, with the other elements constructed around it, which ties it all together in that way.
SV: So you’ve got the No Friends show…
Mikal kHill: We’ve got the No Friends show that’s going to be in Charlotte at The Milestone. We’ve got multiple conference appearances coming up, and then we have discussed doing some mini-tours, but we haven’t hammered out the details yet.
SV: Any other projects coming up that people should be looking out for?
Mikal kHill: int eighty has Loyalty 2 coming, which is an EP that we did during the pandemic.
int eighty: It’s about Full Metal Alchemist, as is the first Loyalty EP.
Mikal kHill: That’s coming out very soon, and then my solo album is still in the works. It’s going to have everybody from No Friends on it, in theory it’s going to have Ceschi on it. AEW wrestler Colt Cabana makes an appearance on it. It is very rooted in soul stuff that I’ve been listening to. Lots of live instruments. I’ve been repeatedly re-working it, which usually curses the project to take six years to come out, in my experience. Hopefully I don’t fall into that loop and it actually comes out at the end of the year, like I’m hoping.
int eighty: Mikal mentioned the No Friends show, which will actually be following a No Friends extravaganza, where we will be renting an Air B&B, so we will be in the same place at the same time for up to nine days, and the attempt is to create an entirely new No Friends album with new music and new raps. And again, I will try to prevail as the best rapper of the collective.
Mikal kHill: I mean, Tribe One is the best rapper out of our group, but…
int eighty: How dare you!
Mikal kHill: But we will all make our Herculean effort to be the best.
SV: Well, if the rap duo album is an endangered species, the rap posse album is even rarer…
Mikal kHill: Yes. Get a bunch of rappers who are all convinced that they are the best rapper in the same room, and then try to write a song. But speaking of these duo projects, it’s so easy for me to write when I’m just feeding off of everybody in the room. It takes everybody up a level. It’s usually easy for me to write in these circumstances. And I think probably for everybody else in the group, too.
SV: Finally, who are three artists that you would like to work with that you haven’t worked with before?
Mikal kHill: So there’s the big one – for me, it’s Dan the Automator. I would love to work with Bosco Mann from Daptone Records. I would love to have him produce a record for me. Let’s see…the band Fucked Up. I would love to collaborate with them.
int eighty: I’m going to give you an answer that gives you two out of three, but then gives you a good fill for the third part. I hack computers – I always wanted to create this album that has this superstar cast of features, and so I do this – was it Henry Kissinger? I don’t know – I do this round robin approach of dependency chain. So using open source intelligence techniques, I find Daveed Diggs – the rapper from clpping – I find Daveed Diggs’ personal email. I email Daveed Diggs and I say, “What’s up? I’m making this album. Run the Jewels is on this album.” So Daveed Diggs says yes, and he does a song with me. Then I contact another artist, and I say, “Do you want to be on this album with me? Daveed Diggs is on the album with me. And so is Run the Jewels.” So then I work through this chain of other artists that I want to work with, and eventually I get to a point where I’ve got Daveed Diggs plus n-1 other rappers. Then I contact Run the Jewels and say, “Hey! Run the Jewels! You should be on this album with me. I’ve got Daveed Diggs plus all these n-1 rappers, it will be an amazing album, all we’re missing is you!” So Run the Jewels fulfills the prophecy and we complete this amazing album of features. That’s my psyop rap album.
Mikal kHill: That’s kind of what I did with Nerdcore, but on a much smaller scale. On Cold Winter, I lied to everybody and told them I already had everybody else on my record.
**To listen to their new album and find other information about The TroubleShooters, visit: https://thetroubleshooters.bandcamp.com/album/ **