Even though Knox Fortune has mostly operated behind the scenes in his career so far, his contributions to Chicago music over the past few years have been front-and-center. The 24-year-old—born Kevin Rhomberg—executive produced both Joey Purp’s iiiDrops and KAMI’s Just Like The Movies (not to mention the majority of the duo’s collaborative effort as Leather Corduroys, Season), contributed production on songs for Towkio, Vic Mensa, and The Social Experiment. His most notable appearance to date, though, was his guest spot a the featured vocalist on Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book highlight, “All Night.”
But don’t let his résumé fool you. Despite winning a Best Rap Album Grammy for working on Coloring Book, Knox Fortune is not a hip-hop artist. As his excellent earworm solo singles like “Help Myself,” “Lil Thing,” and “Torture” prove this year, his musical sweet spot is in a more adventurous pop territory. Something like if The Beach Boys were raised on J Dilla, or the most eccentric entries in Beck's catalog, and you’re getting close to the 11 wildly-inventive songs on Paradise, Fortune’s debut solo project, which comes out on September 22nd. Back in May, Fortune invited Complex over to his new, instrument-and-art-filled Wicker Park apartment to hear his project and talk about his leap from producer and featured artist for seemingly everyone in Chicago to the next jump to solo artist.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’ve had your hand in a lot of different musical outlets so far in your career. How long ago did you want to put out a solo project, and how did you go about writing these songs?
I've been working on some of these songs for an incredibly long time. Some songs have probably been around for three and a half years. The opener, "No Dancing," is an example of an older one. "Lil Thing" might have been the last song written for this project, but so many of these tracks are kind of a blur. They've evolved so much since I started out with them, either writing in my house or in between studio sessions.
I really kicked it into gear after Chance's project came out and I realized that I'd be tweaking if I didn't pursue my own music. I was given this amazing platform and I didn't have material to follow that up. When we recorded "All Night," it was right before the project dropped and I had no idea it would end up on it. I'm happy I didn't put out what I had because it wouldn't have been ready. Realizing that was the turning point for me to really make a project I could be proud of.
It's been like this weird thing where I've been recording all these songs and accumulating songs and this is the first I'm really putting them out because I truly want to. Like "Seaglass," which I just released as a loose single a while back, I worked really hard on all of these songs and this is the biggest time I've been really proud of my solo work. This is some shit I would listen to all the time. I'm just ready to finally put it all out.
With you accumulating all these early songs that didn't end up making the final cut, what kind of standard did you hold for yourself and how did you handle the editing process?
It really just came out of making what feels like hundreds of songs, going back to them and thinking about which ones really hit me. The standard I kept in mind while making this project is that I'm introducing myself. These songs are the best introduction to me as an artist and a musician. I have more outlandish or strange things I could put out but this project is really about getting to know me and getting people drawn in. Songs like "24 Hours" or "Lil Thing" are pretty poppy and are pretty agreeable.
Where most people know you through Chance the Rapper or your work with Kami and Joey Purp, was there an effort to sort of distinguish yourself musically from those previous projects?
I think my approach was to just celebrate what makes me not a hip-hop artist. I love all sorts of music and I've never been the type to listen to one type of music. Our whole generation is a group of people who listened to so many different kinds of music, whereas our parents only listen to rock music or whatever. My songs are a reflection of all the things I grew up listening to and I tried to reflect that as much as possible. I know I'm not a rap artist and just wanted it to be as much of myself as possible.
I was given this amazing platform and I didn't have material to follow that up.
Did you ever feel creatively blocked or fatigued by having so much of your output be in the hip-hop world?
There's always a fatigue no matter what with me but that's what makes Joey Purp and KAMI's projects so great. It was our decision to do what not everybody else is doing. We could make so many trap beats but it wouldn't be satisfying for us or what we were trying to put out into the world. Both of their styles are so refreshing to me because they're so unique and boundary-pushing—it's music I really like. Being on tour and making those records, I have to listen to those songs all the fucking time and if they were at any point whack, it wouldn't still enjoy listening to them as I much as I do.
With Joey Purp's iiiDrops, it seemed obvious where we would take it. He did some amazing work with Thelonius Martin like [2013's] "Monologue" and "Chicken Talk" off the Leather Corduroys project, and those were always standouts to me. But Kami's Just Like The Movies, it was a ridiculous and risky decision for him to go in that direction—it wasn't a logical or expected next step for him because he's proven that he can rap his ass off. While we were making it, there was a moment where I was like, "wait, are we making '80s music right now? I think it's amazing that we did that. It never gets tiring working with them.
Do any of the songs stick out for taking a risk like you both did on Kami's project?
I'm not like a raw-ass musician. I'm not bad but I'm not like [Twin Peaks'] Colin Croom, [The Social Experiment's] Peter Cottontale, or Carter Lang—these amazing, technically gifted musicians. I'm more of a feel-guy. Some songs like "Strange Days" is very non-musical: the percussion is a spray can, the sample is just looping hypnotically isn't that musical and you can't play it on the piano. It's an experimental song but I just thought it felt really good. Some producers can't do that. I needed to let it shine that I can't do certain things so I can just focus on what I do best like what can I do that's just me and a complete sound?
Speaking of Croom and Lang, when "Help Myself" dropped you mentioned on Twitter that those two along with Ohmme's Macie Stewart, Cam O’bi, and more worked on the song. Who else took a big role in the project?
Carter Lang had a really big role. Even though every song was started by me, alone, I brought him in on a lot of them later on. He'd lend a lot of instrumentation ideas to the point that maybe one day my songs will start with Carter giving me a beat or something. Colin Croom, Macie Stewart, Nico Segal, and Lido were also involved—Lido plays the piano on "Keep You Close," we recorded that part while we were at [Rick Rubin's Malibu studio] Shangri-La working on Towkio's project.
Another huge one was Joey Purp—he does a ton of writing on it. Where I was his executive producer on iiiDrops, he's essentially my "executive writer" on this project. He was my editor where I'd show him lyrics and he'd tell me to replace a word or say the story in the track didn't quite work.
Did any of Purp’s writing suggestions completely change a song?
On "Lil Thing," he made a bunch of really awesome edits that took it to this next place and made me come to the story a little bit differently. The first line used to be, "it's always someone and I'm at it again" and when Joey suggested I change someone to "summer," that's when it all opened up. It now has a cool double meaning that Joey and I came to a conclusion on. I had kind of written it about a girl, like "she's my little thing." But the other side of it has this violence to it, like I'm talking about a gun: "It's the summer, and I'm at it again/She my lil thing, gets me out of the jam/Do your lil thing, put it all in the air/Show me something, they don't need to know what we do." But it sounds so pleasant and it sounds so romantic—it's a left-field pop song and is now my favorite.
It must be really rewarding to have a collaborator who has your back like that.
A big part of the reason why I was able to kind of create a style for myself and help create a sound for my friends was because they were super supportive. I remember showing Joey my songs for the first time maybe four or five years ago and he was like, “Wow, this shit is raw! Why are you our producer? Do this shit.” It never really clicked with me at first but then I was like, damn you can do whatever you want as long as you do a good job with it.