The moment Thomas Iannucci had been working toward for five years was upon him the night of May 19. His blood, sweat and yes, tears, went into his album, “Makana.”
They were about to announce the winner in the Best Hip Hop Album category at the 41st Na Hoku Hanohano Awards at the Hawaii Convention Center. Some 1,500 people were waiting, wondering, none more on the edge than Kauai’s 25-year-old Iannucci, joined by his parents, sisters, girlfriend and other friends.
And then, they announced the winner’s name.
It wasn’t Thomas Iannucci.
But wait a minute.
It should have been.
Seems the announcer was having a little fun by tossing out another name of a well-known Hawaiian musician who, of course, would not be in the Best Hip Hop category.
So, a moment of defeat was followed by a well-deserved victory celebration for the man who goes by “Illtalian” in the music world.
“Makana,” by Thomas Iannucci, was indeed the winner.
Life was good.
“To win the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for ‘Best Rap Album of the Year’ was surreal, like a dream come true,” Iannucci said. “To be honest, I didn’t think it would happen. People from Kauai rarely win, and making Christian music didn’t seem like it would help my chances much; I was just happy to be there. To get the win is humbling and leaves me speechless.”
The annual awards ceremony, also known as the Hawaiian Grammy, is the most prestigious musical event in Hawaii, and serves to recognize and celebrate the best music produced in the state each year.
Iannucci was the only Kauaian to take home a Hoku, and a first for any rapper from his home island. He is a born-again Christian, the son of a pastor, with explicitly Christian lyrics in his music.
“I’m pretty sure I’m the first Kauai rapper to ever win the hip hop category,” he said with a big smile.
For Iannucci, the win was especially gratifying because it honored the memory of his friend, the late Lucas Makana Riley, whom the album was named after. Lucas Riley died in a car crash in 2016 when his car was struck by a drunken driver in San Diego. Riley, a 2010 Kauai High School graduate and graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University, was 24.
“Being able to pay tribute to Lucas in that way was beautiful. I’m so thankful to Jesus and everyone who voted for the album, because it felt like the perfect way to honor my friend and one of the best men I knew,” said Iannucci.
“The whole thing is in memory of him,” he said.
“Makana” was released in December. It features some of the biggest names in Christian hip hop, including 1k Phew, Swift, Gemstones and Je’kob, as well as production by Big Juice and Spechouse. It was produced by Ariki Foster, and is out now.
When asked where he goes from here, Iannucci was happy just to bask in the moment.
“I’ve already finished recording the next project,” he said. “I’ll be dropping something soon. But for now, I just wanna enjoy this moment that God has blessed me with. With any luck, it’ll be the first of many more to come.”
What was your reaction when you won?
I was just stunned. How can I put this? The woman presenting the award saw some opportunity for some comedy — and the appropriateness of the occasion will be decided by people other than myself — and decided to call a name other than the winner, Keali‘i Reichel.
It took me a few seconds to process. I just knew it wasn’t the Illtalian, it wasn’t me. I was like, wait a second, she was joking. It took everyone a second, people aren’t familiar with the names of too many other rappers.
Then she goes, “No, just kidding. ‘Makana,’ Illtalian.” We all started freaking out, crying and laughing. I jumped up, screaming, “Yeah!” Prior to that point it had been liner notes and graphic arts of the year, very staid, quiet.
I ran all the way up, and that got people enthusiastic, as well. It was pretty cool. I was having the time of my life. It’s something I’ve been working the last five years toward this goal.
My previous album didn’t even get nominated, it was rejected. This one got a nomination, and was accepted. Two years of my life on that album. It was insane.
Very emotional, very happy, very blessed and humbled. God is really good.
Did you have a speech all ready to go?
Kind of. I’d been practicing beforehand, but when you get up there, it goes out the window. The bigger thing you’re trying to remember is keep it very short, 45 seconds at the max. The group before me had gone over, so I was very sensitive about not going over. It was down to me thanking everyone, Jesus, my producer, our production company, my girlfriend, family. And I got to shout out to Mark Reilly and Tammy, and Lucas, which was the whole point, to honor Lucas. So at the end I told him, “I love you, I miss you, I wish you were here.” Real short and sweet.
What did you and your family do to celebrate afterward?
We went out to have a celebratory meal at 7-Eleven. Everything else was closed.
What does this mean for your career?
This is huge. I got to meet Jack Johnson. He congratulated me. He’s the man. I got to meet some people that are big in the Hawaii music industry. I’ve got my following outside Hawaii and on Kauai, but I’m finally starting to break in a little bit to this kind of Hawaii music industry.
So this opens some doors for you?
If you walk into a place and you’re a Hoku winner, people take you a little more seriously. I might be able to make some connections. I’ve love to do some music with some established Hawaiian artists. Now maybe if I try they might return the call.
I want to bring my music closer to my roots. I grew up in Hawaii. I was born and raised here. So this helps, gives a little validity toward that goal.
Were you confident you would win?
The further away it was, the more confident I was. The closer we got, the more I was like, you know, maybe not. This is a pretty big deal. I believe God wanted me to do this and I thought for sure I was going to win, I would get nominated and win. The closer it gets, the more I realize what a big deal this is, I’m probably going to lose. I don’t deserve this, all the doubts, the nonsense. I was like, ‘It’s not going to happen. Who am I kidding. I’m just some kid from Kauai.’
I was already prepared to give a speech, “You know guys, it’s just an honor to be here. We’ll get them next time.”
By the time it happened, I was very much planning on going home without an award. So, it was doubly sweet.
Where is the award now?
Sitting on my shelf. The Hoku itself is blank. My name is not on it. An independent firm does the award calculations, so no one knows who won until they open it up. So they’re going to mail me a plaque with my name on it, and my album. l’d like to put it in a display case or something.
What’s next for you?
I actually have finished recording my next CD. It was a crazy time. My sister graduated from college, we went to her graduation, went to New York, came back, we’re home for five days, in that time another one of my producer friends flew down from LA, picked him up from the airport, we just recorded for five days.
We were barricaded in a room, set up a little makeshift studio, put a bed up against the door to soundproof everything, we recorded all the tracks. So he’s now working on that and I’m working on what’s coming after that CD and trying to always keep going.
Why do you think you won?
A couple things. First of all, God is good. That’s the biggest thing. I think the fact that Kauai is really good about rallying and supporting their own. My category was pretty wide open. I’ve always been very lucky to network a lot with great musicians. To be honest, of all the other rappers I was the only one who was drawing that connection to Hawaii, my album had a Hawaiian name, “Makana,” I was very much referencing Hawaii, that sort of thing. The others were the more standard rap name.
In terms of career highlights, where does this stand?
By far, this is it, the peak.
Are better things to come?
Oh yeah. I’m praying so. I’d like to work toward some Grammys, eventually.
What is it about rap that you like?
I think it’s uniquely suited to expressing yourself.
A rap song is you talking. It’s poetry. You can say whatever is on your mind as long as you can make it rhyme. And it’s just helped me so much on one end to express my innermost thoughts, and help me cope with a lot of stuff. It’s also a really great way to reach other people.
I can tell you straight up what I’m trying to talk to you about. I don’t have to make it like a subtle thing. I can be in your face about it. There is room for nuance but it doesn’t always have to. I love the creativity, the directness and the way you try to craft a clever punch line or the way you make rhymes like a puzzle. It’s very deep.
It’s is a thinking man’s genre. It’s a very intelligent kind of thing and I really enjoy the challenge.
Are people recognizing you when you’re working at Pietro’s Pizza Kauai? Do they know about your award?
A few people. My phone blew up the days after the award. But I just went back to work. You work to support your art until your art can support you. And that’s what I will continue to do.
Does this encourage you to keep going in the music industry?
Yes. God’s really reinforced me at every turn. This is what I called you to do. Keep the faith, trust me. Give him the glory and he’s going keep taking me in that direction.