If you’re putting your music out to the masses, hate should be expected; it comes with the creative territory. And yet, if you do so in high school, and in the era of social media, that adds another level of hate that can stop many people before they truly start.
For Dillon Houston Church, a singer and rapper from Concord who performs under the name MoonLander, the bashing he took when he kicked off his career was merciless. It didn’t help that he started under the pseudonym Lil’ Pickles in 8th grade.
“The Lil’ Pickles thing, instantly people were making fun of me — instantly,” he recalls, laughing. “I would say, ‘Hey I rap, my name is Lil’ Pickles,’ and they’d be like, ‘I’m not even going to listen to that at all.’”
As he entered Jay M. Robinson High School, he shook the briny name and went with MoonLander, building off his middle name (“Houston, we have a problem”) rather than his first (Dillon/dill pickles). Still, he found hate at every corner.
He recalls a mixtape promotion for which he bought 100 t-shirts with his own money and handed them out for free as long as people promised to tweet about it. That campaign backfired on him.
“People would just tweet videos of them burning the shirts,” he says. “I don’t know, people were just mean at the time, but that’s high school.”
MoonLander stuck with it, driven by a Confucius quote used by Will Smith while promoting his 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness: “The man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right.”
“I locked that into my mind then, and I was like, ‘This is me, I’m going to the grave with this. I’m either dying or I’m going to be famous,’” he says. “So that’s when I started taking everything real serious.”
A decade after making that realization, MoonLander continues to shoot for the stars, each year setting new goals and tackling them at any cost — sometimes literally. In 2018, MoonLander bought his way onto the Breakaway Festival after DMing the CEO and offering $3,000 for an opening slot.
It was his last shot at the Breakaway stage after spending the spring DMing anyone who had anything to do with the touring hip-hop fest, and it garnered a response. After all, money talks, he explains.
“Sadly, and I think a lot of people are missing out on this, if you really want to be something and if you’re starting off and you don’t have a fan base, you’re going to have to put money down,” he says.
A spot on the bill opens local doors for MoonLander
MoonLander was placed on the bill for Charlotte, and he used that opportunity to open more doors, joining the lineup at Breakaway Fests in other cities and opening on tours with Kid Quill and Mike Stud.
In 2020, he signed with Breakaway’s management team, Prime Artists, and prepared for an even bigger slate of shows around the country. But alas, as with musicians everywhere, he was stopped in his tracks thanks to the pandemic.
“I had just signed a deal and I was already booked for six Breakaways, I had some other festivals, I was going to go on some tours, so I was like, ‘This is about to be my year,’” he says. “Obviously, it wasn’t. I got stuck in the house.”
Yet MoonLander isn’t one to sit around, grounded. He released Houston 97, a 10-track album of what he felt was his strongest music out of around 100 tracks he had recorded over a five-year period. Even without the constant touring, more people began to find his brand of pop rap, building his monthly Spotify streams to more than 10,000 listeners.
Now that he’s back out, MoonLander is looking to takeoff all over again. He recently released “Brightside,” which pushes the positive message that got him to where he is today, relying more on his natural voice than the autotune that has saturated much of his earlier work.
“This year I just really want to focus on showing a true artist and my growth,” he says. “It’s a totally different sound. I just tried to focus on vibes last time, but I want to be talking about something now.”
In August, MoonLander plans to launch a tour with Brice Vine, as well as perform at Breakaway Fest in Charlotte on Oct. 2. He also has a Halloween costume party concert that he planned alongside local musician and friend Natalie Carr scheduled for Oct. 28 at Neighborhood Theatre.
While he’s found early success touring the country, MoonLander hopes to plug in more with the local scene this year, building on relationships with local musicians like Carr, Yung Citizen and Chris Buxton, who he says share his mix of drive and optimism.
“If I can see that your heart is 1,000% in it, it’s just nice to see people respect themselves as an artist and be like, ‘This is what I want,’” he says. “We all have our different ways of making moves, but I just respect people that respect themselves.”
It’s that self-respect that brought him from Lil’ Pickles to the big stages.