Smino is poised for a big 2017. The 24-year-old St. Louis (via Chicago) rapper is a vibrant standout in the Midwest hip-hop scene, the kind of talented artist who seems perfectly capable of achieving mainstream success—if he wants it. With a commanding sense of melody and a dense, poetic flow, he’s the latest purveyor of a developing Chicago sound, alongside compatriots Chance the Rapper, Noname, and Smino’s Zero Fatigue crew. Over the past few years, Smino’s been steadily building up buzz, but now, with an album on the way, he’s poised to break out. Get to know the rapper who’s next up, in the wake of a performance at ComplexCon.
You’re grouped in with the Chicago hip-hop scene, but you’re from St. Louis, originally. How did you get your start?
Yeah, I’m from the Lou. I started rapping hella early, like probably age 7. I had a big cousin—he was like a real gangster rapper or whatever—and I start rapping. He put me in the studio on one of his songs, and I was always outside rapping and motherfuckers just knew me. You know how it’s the dude that just hooping and shit? I was like, “Rap against me right now.”
When I was in St. Louis we had this crew called YDOC: Young, Dumb and Out of Control. I produced everything, I booked the shows, made the tickets, burned the CDs, mixed the songs, all of that shit. Just trying to be my own little Indie thing or whatever, because I always wanted to be an indie label. We looked up to like Wiz Khalifa them, like how Rostrum Records was. Our music sound real artsy and experimental, so St. Louis kids were like, “Damn this shit hot,” because it still had that bounce to it, but it's abstract.
I didn’t realize that you produced the music.
I was making beats. I was literally producing beats the entire time I was rapping up until I met Monte [Booker, Smino’s producer]. I stopped making beats because I met Monte.
When did you make the decision to move to Chicago?
Man, I was living in fucking Ferguson and I was staying in this crib. My cousin randomly rented it out to like some prostitutes, I guess he just thought they was strippers and they lived upstairs from me. I was actually living upstairs and nigga was like, “I got some people moving in today,” and I’m like, “Alright, cool, we good.” I wasn’t thinking nothing of it so they get to the crib and I’m like and I can kind of see it on them and I’m looking like shorty definitely look like she be up to just no good. So lo and behold they fucking niggas out the crib, really selling pussy out the crib and this my aunt house and I’m downstairs.
Anyway that shit just got so stressful I told my ex one night, “I’m moving to Chicago tomorrow.” I packed everything and I moved, because my aunt drove down from Milwaukee and you gotta pass Chicago so I was like, “Just drop me off.”
I moved into Chicago into this booth at this place called the music factory. I can’t even describe how small the booth was. It halfway fits a person. You lay down all scrunched up. So I was living in this booth inside this studio room which was smaller than the room I live in right now. Of course I went to Columbia and dropped out, so I already knew the city a little bit. I went back to what I knew, pretty much. I was living in that booth, but I was going to Classick Studios and then my big bro who's my manager now—Chris Classick—he had turned the studio up into like three big beautiful rooms, and said, “Just come do what you do best.” I went in there, every day, every night, rapping and recording.
I'd see Chance coming through—this was right around the time actually when Chance was about to drop Acid Rap. So I'd be in the next room hearing "Chainsmoker" getting mixed and shit, like damn, like truth this shit low-key sound hard as fuck, this nigga finna go crazy. I know he don't remember, but I remember— gave that nigga my number like "I got some beats for you bruh." He was like, “Bet," on some G shit, took my number and texted me, "Yo this Chance." The next day, or a few days after that, Acid Rap came out and I ain't see that nigga again. It was just ironic that we came back full circle like that, like we ended up working again. I see all of these different artists when I go to Classick, and it kinda kept me in Chicago because it was inspiring to just be like, "Alright, I feel like I’m somewhere where progression is being made.”
Is that how "Zero Fatigue" got started?
Zero Fatigue started at Classick Studios in the Red Room. Monte went to school—he stayed up all night, made this hard ass beat—he went to school, gave me the beat. It's like 10 a.m., 11 a.m. I went in the booth and I was just like "Zero Fatigue/I'm out of my league" and I was just doing it on this song. We sent the song to Monte and the nigga drops out of school. Drops out of school that day. Drops out of school. He literally was like, "I'm bout to come up there, and I'm finna call up the school and I'm dropping out right now." From that day forward, me and Monte made music every day. Every day we had a new song, a new something. And it kind of helped me, you know, get my sound together and shit.
How would you describe your sound?
It's dirty disco, it's futuristic funk, it's revolutionary R&B, feel-me passionate pop, whatever you want to call it.
What kind of career path you see yourself being on?
The reason I like Three Stacks, man, is he ain't ever rub nobody the wrong way for real. I mean like, as a fan. He never felt like he had to put music out. He put music out because he wanted to put music out. He hops on the songs he wants to hop on. I don't force shit. Whoever's the least forced releasing music type of artist, that's the kind of legacy I want to leave. No matter how long it takes to create something is worth the wait if you get it right.
At your shows, the one thing that really sticks out is that you have this trick where you flip the microphone—it looks like an old-school bandleader trick—where'd you learn that?
Band. I marched, snare drum. Basically this nigga Nick Cannon stole my whole life and made a movie out of it. I was the freshman—but this was the high school version he turned it to college—I was the freshman on the drumline, fell in love with a color guard dancer girl. I was marching a lot, I'm a full-fledged drummer, I really play, so flipping the mic, it's so easy.
And you've got an album coming out soon—can you tell me what it sounds like?
Honestly, I've been listening to it over and over, and it really sounds grown as hell. Like, I can't explain what that means, but it sounds like—your parents wouldn't tell you to turn it off but neither would your little sister.