Timing, they say, is everything. When it's on an artist's side, he can ride that wave effortlessly upward; when it isn't, he's thrust to the sidelines, marginalized instantaneously. It makes or breaks careers. You could fill 200 iPhones with the music of rappers who couldn't deliver on their promise, no matter how substantial their talents. All because of timing.
At least, that's what they say.
Maybe it's time to rethink the old cliches. Hip-hop fans have always focused on measuring success. It's no surprise; after all, you're talking about an art form where something was created from nothing, unheard voices alchemized experience into therapeutic autobiography, speculative fantasy, and floor-filling entertainment. This is why the gold chains make sense; the fruits of this invisible labor have to be substantial, or it may as well never have happened. There's an irrational, contradictory logic to this arrangement. On the one hand, if an MC records great art in a forest, does it make a sound? And on the other: whose fault is it that the rapper's art is in a forest in the first place?
Vic Mensa visited Complex the morning after headlining a workout of a show at the Knitting Factory last November. It was one of those lineups that only makes sense in New York, where three rising artists with substantially different fanbases—in this case, Deniro Ferrar, Ty Dolla $ign, and Vic Mensa—perform for the benefit of the media. Vic was supporting Innanetape, his celebrated 2013 solo record, his first since the break-up of acclaimed hip-hop band Kids These Days. In Kids These Days, he was the rapper and frontman.
Innanetape was produced primarily by Cam Osteen from Justice League, Peter Cottontale (best known for his work with Chance The Rapper), and Vic himself. The tape suggests Vic has a strong sense for songcraft, with smooth neo-soul hooks and beats rooted in an '80s funk/R&B tradition. It's shot through with experimental flavors (like the drum'n'bass-style groove on "Lovely Day") and features guests like L.A. experimental jazz-fusion bassist Thundercat and Neptunes-affiliated pop eccentric Kenna.
Despite some adventurous choices, Innanetape is musically tasteful, even serene—cuts like "Hollywood LA" and "Orange Soda" are relaxed and comfortable moments of family barbecue-friendly positivity. But Vic's live performance, at least at the Knitting Factory that night, had a serrated edge, amplified by stage dives, rock guitars, and a mosh pit. Going back to the tape after seeing him perform, the restlessness under the surface became more apparent; a barbed, nervous energy surfaced in his lyrics. On "Orange Soda": "Know when you want it, but just can't have it?/Especially as an artist, don't that shit make you mad/Just breathe... breathe... breathe, it's all in your head/Know these labels wanna sign me for an arm and a leg."
There's an elephant in the room here, and that elephant is Chance The Rapper, Vic's good friend and a recent Justin Bieber collaborator who has been propelled from Chicago's vibrant music scene to the top of the major labels' most-wanted list. For national listeners, unfamiliar with Chicago's deep bench, there's a perception that he did so in a lane that is a little too similar to Vic's own; as if there can be only one conflicted, thoughtful, skilled-yet-streetsmart backpacker. Sure: Vic's a kid from the South Side who came up on rock music and hip-hop, and whose parents had high expectations—his father has a PhD in economics, and his mother is a physical therapist in the Chicago Public Schools. And like Chance, Vic gripped perfectionism, becoming one of Chicago's most lyrically creative teenage rappers, even as he bucked his parents' prescribed route in favor of an independent path.
Vic created this path, even before Chance The Rapper released a song. Before Chief Keef was signed by Interscope, Vic was 16 with a solo mixtape and being sought out by the major labels. As a member of Kids These Days, he played Lollapalooza a year before Keef and two before Chance. But while Chicago was having its biggest moment since the arrival of Kanye West a decade earlier, Vic was caught up in the turmoil surrounding Kids These Days, the hip-hop band to whom he'd thrown his loyalty and several years of his life. While they spent a year gearing up to breakthrough within the proper industry channels, they felt the strain of internal tensions about the band's direction. While numerous Chicago hip-hop stars capitalized on the buzz, one of its most talented, most promising voices was on the sidelines, his group in stasis. But his story isn't anything like Chance The Rapper's—even though, to a national audience, he still has to prove it.
When Vic first arrived at Complex, he seemed tired and withdrawn—likely because of the previous night's late performance. As he spoke with Complex, while his friend fell asleep face down on the table beside him, he opened up considerably; he had a lot to get off his chest. An hour and a half later, when he left, it seemed like a weight had lifted. Open and honest about the internal turmoil that led to the break-up of Kids These Days, his frustrations, and his confident personal and musical philosophies, the conversation felt as much like a therapy session as an interview.
If timing is everything, though, Vic might have some hurdles in front of him. He is a prodigal talent; give him a space to create, and he'll fill every inch of that canvas, and do it with more color and more creativity and a stronger sense for an emotional truth than anyone around him. He's used to being the best in the room. But what happens if he's in the wrong room at the wrong time?
As Vic left Complex, the reality of an uphill climb was still ahead. But if anyone can find his way out of that forest, it's Vic Mensa.
Interview by David Drake (@somanyshrimp).
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What was your life like as a kid?
My neighborhood is mad diverse and also divided. It’s called Hyde Park. On one hand, you have the University of Chicago. That’s a community in and of itself. And on the other side you have Hyde Park, which I separate. People classify Hyde Park based on the side they’re looking at.
My dad used to work at University of Chicago and I was born over there. Hyde Park—I grew up around a lot of different races and a lot of different types of people. My first friend was a Jewish kid, I went to a Jewish pre-school, but it wasn’t all Jewish kids. It’s just like that in Hyde Park. Now, I live in a cul-de-sac of townhouses that’s one block away from gigantic houses, four or five blocks from Barack Obama’s house. And it’s also a block away from section 8 [affordable housing], and four or five blocks away to what would be the equivalent of the projects. So that’s how Hyde Park is and I’m somewhere in the middle of it all.
When I was in grammar school, up until like 5th grade, I didn’t really vibe with hip-hop. I just didn’t understand why n****s was so mad.
What expectations did your parents have of you growing up?
All parents have expectations. My dad especially, he’s from Ghana—super educated man. So education has always been huge to him. I never was too much into school, but I didn’t have problems getting good grades. School was easy for me. I always did well, but I always got in trouble, and as I got older the trouble just multiplied.
From the first time I got suspended in sixth grade, I just kept getting suspended, at least once a year until I graduated high school. It’s easy to cheat in school. And it’s also not hard to do the shit you have to do.
My parents wanted me to go to college and a lot of things that didn’t happen, but at the same time as those things were falling to the wayside, music was steadily rising. And it was something they could see and recognize. So they were understanding in some ways, but less understanding in others. They weren’t ever super rigid, like "We’re going to kick you out the house if you don’t go to college."
What are your earliest memories of music?
I was heavily into rock and roll. That and African drums. I remember my father used to play African music all the time. The Beatles are probably some of my earliest memories from my mother, and Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis.
Backstreet Boys in first grade, I remember Backstreet Boys and N'SYNC and Spice Girls and shit like that. I wasn't really into the Spice Girls, but I was definitely into the Backstreet Boys. When I was in grammar school, up until like 5th grade, I didn’t really vibe with hip-hop. I just didn’t understand why niggas was so mad.
I think some of the first rap I liked before I started liking rap was Eminem, just because there was an African kid I knew that was older than me who knew my sister, who told me Eminem was cool. When you’re a little kid and someone tells you something’s cool, you just go with it.
I was really into Guns N' Roses and AC/DC and all of that classic hair-rock shit. And then I found out about Nirvana, and I was a gigantic fan of Nirvana around 5th grade. I found out about hip-hop through skateboard movies, because I had been skating since I was like 10. I really started fucking with rap off this Zoo York VHS tape. KRS-ONE, “Step Into A World,” that was the first rap song I remember finding myself, and being like, "I fuck with this heavily." And then I got put onto 106 & Park by my homie, so at the same time watching that—when Westside Connection and Destiny’s Child were on TV.
But I really got into hip-hop through skateboarding and breakdancing and graffiti. Me and my man Nico [Segal]—he plays the trumpet—we used to go to the hip-hop shop in his neighborhood. It was called The Bassment, and we would buy paint markers to write on shit. They sold spray paint under the table too. We would go there and get Run-DMC albums and fuckin' old shit like Grandmaster Flash and breakbeat records, and we’d set up linoleum in his basement. He would DJ and I would breakdance, or he would DJ and I would spit.
That’s how I got into it. I just kept going to the record shops and shit and working my way up almost from the beginning of rap, through Slick Rick and stuff like that up to around The Blueprint. I also really fucked with Illmatic. Before I went to high school, I listened to so much rap music from the internet, from LimeWire and shit.
Who was your favorite rapper when you were first getting into rap?
2pac. I always loved 2pac. I just connected with him emotionally. I was a young kid, you know. When I would have my petty problems in life, I felt like it related to me. Getting suspended from school and shit and just hearing 'Pac like, "suspended from school, I was a fool," just had me like, "Man I know. I know what that feels like."
What were your raps about, once you started writing?
Similar shit to what they’re about now. Raps I wrote when I was 15 are on the Internet. Also just being a graffiti kid and a hip-hop kid and general asshole. I was all over the city, as opposed to kids who might’ve stayed more in their neighborhood. I used to ride the trains just to ride the trains. I went to the end of every line and witnessed those neighborhoods and ran from the police and got arrested and did a bunch of shit by the time I was 14, 15.
My raps were about neighborhoods, the city, community, disparities and injustices and shit. They’re really about the same shit I write about now, with the exception of having traveled. But I had already traveled with my family, so honestly, like a lot of the earliest Kids These Days verses from their first EP Hard Times, I wrote those when I was 15 years old. I used to just write all the time on paper. Not even to beats and shit. I used to just write raps.
At this point, were there rappers you wanted to emulate? Whose styles did you learn from?
Jay Z [and] Nas. Nas is a person I can really really remember truly, truly trying to be like. Also Pharcyde and Souls of Mischief. But Nas I can remember—I used to have these exercises I would do down in my basement. I would take a Nas song like “The Message.” And I would print out a sheet of the lyrics, and write a rap next to it with the same patterns, but change all the words. I clearly remember counting syllables a lot, too, as a younger rapper. There’s somewhere between 10 to 15 syllables, 11, 12, 13 syllables in most lines that I would spit. I wonder if that’s still relevant. But that was then. I took Nas’ raps and put them on a table and emulated them to the syllable.
How did you first begin to record?
The first real recording I did was through Vic Spencer, from Chicago. Vic Spencer told this guy named Naledge from Kidz in the Hall about my shit. Naledge was making this crew called the Brainiac Society. I think Kidz in the Hall had a song around the time called "Driving Down The Block," they had some shit going for them, I was in high school, I was geeked. I was like, "man, they want me to be down with the crew and shit." At the same time as I was doing that, my man Devin's older brother is this rapper named Dave Coresh. Dave came out with a mixtape at the end of my freshman year. Right around the time Save Money formed. Dave was the hottest nigga in the city. He had punchlines for a million years. His mixtape was called Lyrically Legal. We all thought he was signed. He was just rapping like he was famous, he was so damn good when he came out, Cassidy-type punchlines. He was a fool with it.
Devin was my homie, so I ended up recording shit with Dave. Dave was the first person I ever really went to the studio with. So me and Dave had some joints. Back then I had lyrics to go. I just had raps on deck. A million verses I had written on paper. The first songs I really recorded were feature verses on Dave's shit. I remember one session, I had this joint, I think it was the first song I recorded on my own. This joint I wrote over the Young Jeezy “Bury Me a G” beat. I think J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League did that beat. [They did. —ed.] The beat was crazy as fuck. I was never really a Jeezy fan, but the beat was just crazy, and I think I heard someone else rap on it. So, I wrote a song on it. The first lines were like, "'93 and a child is born/From the South Side of Chi, in the eye of the storm."
I don’t regret anything that I’ve done because I like what I do now, but thinking about it, I was on some really, really dope sh*t as a 15-year-old kid. Had I continued to do that, I’d be doing some insane sh*t.
That was the first time I ever recorded a song of my own. It was at the end of the session. And I had done a couple verses. I was like, "Man, let me just record this joint. I promise you It’s only going to take me like one take. Take like ten minutes." It was like a three-minute song of rapping.
Then the whole Vic Spencer/Brainiac Society thing came together. Me and Vic Spencer did this song called "Good Morning, Goodnight." I wonder if that shit is still online. [It is —ed.] Because Naledge wanted to see If I could write songs. So, I wrote this song down on my fucking PC computer in the crib, "Good Morning, goodnight girl/I’m on it all night." I had some hot lines in there, too. Something like, "Like a blood transplant, because you just my type."
A lot of shit happened the same summer I started recording with those guys. Cherry-picking people's sessions and shit. Hopping on other people's songs. The same summer I started hustling, selling weed, and so once I was doing that, I was able to get my own sessions. I made a mixtape, Straight Up, and put it out during the next year. Then Kids These Days made an EP of music.
The band started moving once we dropped that EP, Hard Times. We were getting label attention. It was all at the same time. I put out Straight Up before the the band’s EP. Atlantic Records flew me out to New York City when I was like 15 or 16.
How did Kids These Days form?
Four of us went to school together. Me and Nico were best friends, the rest of them were all jazz musicians. They went to an after school and Saturday jazz program, where they met and the drummer Greg, Liam on guitar, Lane on bass, and Nico formed the band and went to Nico’s basement. They got J.P. on the trombone, because he went to jazz with them too.
They knew they wanted to do a funk/hip-hop/jazz thing, and they tried out a couple of rappers. I was recording shit at that time, too. I just ended up being the rapper in the band. I was Nico’s best friend.
I was recording crazy shit. Honestly, some of the shit I was recording on my own before the band, to me, looking back at it all, was already better than what the band was about to do. I had this one song called "Sneakers," I think it was over a Raekwon beat. It was this crazy story that followed the life of a shoe, off the shelf to the person who bought it, who got robbed for it. Then that person got killed for it, and those shoes ended up laying out on the block and then somebody found them and sold them. Around the time when I was a big Nike head. We used to save money and stack up allowance and buy shoes and steal clothes and sell that. And at the end of the story, the sneakers got sold. It was like, “if OG sneaks is your interest, you should see these like Memorex," and that was the phone call to me.
I don’t regret anything that I’ve done because I like what I do now, but thinking about it, I was on some really, really dope shit as a 15-year-old kid. Had I continued to do that, I’d be doing some insane shit. But yeah, the band started like that, through Liam's basement.
What happened with the major labels interest in you?
They tried to sign me to some terrible deal. I wasn’t into it, anyway. But people were already like, this is the hottest kid out of Chicago. Like, of the whole young-Chicago-rapper wave, I was undoubtedly the first one. The first person that Andrew Barber was like "Oh, man, this nigga’s the future." I was the Chicago young rapper. I was the original one. So I had labels at me. And Kids These Days had the labels at us, as a product of that. The same people that were looking at me once I got with the band really started taking that matter seriously. I was just like, this is what I’m doing, I’m not going to do solo thing with you right now. Those people kind of shifted it over to the Kids These Days. It was really just about videos. We were shooting videos and we had a couple hundred views on Youtube and shit when we were in high school.
So, that was all around when I was 16, so that was around 2009-2010. The band started moving from there. We pretty much talked to most people in the business. We talked to Sylvia Rhone, talked to Warner Brothers, what was Atlantic at the time. Started getting booked for shows. We were getting on because of the Internet, because we had videos that people fucked with. But, as the Internet evolved, and Kids These Days took too long... Just too many peoples’ opinions, you know what I’m saying? And we took mad long to make this album that we thought was going to be the height of everything. This shit called Traphouse Rock.
Some the first songs we ever made were mashup type joints. Like James Brown with a bunch of shit. Like, Common "Be" with Dizzy Gillespie. I was like, "Yo, we should make a project that’s all us taking old joints and flipping them." Kind of like sampling them. The original idea for it was to record it garage style. I was really into Rage Against the Machine. I knew that they recorded Evil Empire in their rehearsal space. Traphouse Rock really came from when we flipped this Crucial Conflict song called “I’ll Stay." We flipped it, and it was like this whole new energy for us. It was just rocked the fuck out. The energy with the band used to be insane. Since it was in one room, you could really fucking feel that shit. It shook the walls and knocked shit off the shelves.
That was around the time I came up with the name Traphouse Rock. I was like, "Man, we should record this shit all in the 'trap,' in our rehearsal space. And we should just record it ourselves." If we had done that, it probably would have done a lot more for us. Instead of what we ended up doing, which was taking a couple more years to get what we thought was real management, out in Los Angeles. And go through a bunch of these motions and link up with producers and engineers to make this grand project that didn’t do shit for us. And we had just grown apart. So, that’s around the time that all this shit in Chicago just started to move. I was the first young Chicago rapper. And then Kids These Days was pretty much the first as well. Kids These Days—even up into last year—would be called by Complex top whatever rappers of Chicago, you know? Kids These Days wasn’t a rapper, though.