Chicago's hip-hop scene had a banner year last year. As one of America's most segregated metropolises, the city underwent a renaissance in 2012 at basically every level. Chief Keef gained much of the initial attention, and he came from an entire scene that was flourishing, but Chicago—split by geography, race, economics, gangs and even tiered school systems—has a number of thriving hip-hop movements.
One of the most successful was that of Chance the Rapper, an especially skilled technician with a wide variety of influences, a sixth sense for melody and craft, and impeccable stage presence. He doesn't just rap; he's a songwriter, with a particularly smart, self-aware, and generally sincere approach.
His record #10Day was locally acclaimed, and deserved much of the praise it has received, but based on the songs that have leaked so far from his follow-up, Acid Rap, due out April 30, could end up being a big crossover moment. His style has matured, but he retains the hungry, excited feel that characterizes all of his best work.
But who is Chance the Rapper?
As told to David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
RELATED: Chance The Rapper: The Making of Acid Rap
RELATED: Who Is Chance The Rapper?
RELATED: Chance The Rapper: "Acid Test" (2013 Cover Story)
RELATED: More Chance The Rapper Content
RELATED: Who Is Kevin Gates?
Growing Up in Chicago
Getting Into Music
Being Influenced by Kanye West
“I remember I used to listen to hip hop on the radio when I was in the car with my mom and stuff, but the first time I really sat down and listened to an album, and was like, “this is my shit,” was fourth or fifth grade, when College Dropout came out.
“Kanye was just the shit. I’m a part of the generation that really experienced Kanye as more of an icon and a representative of Hip Hop, [rather] than [as] a newcomer. If you’re in a different generation, I wouldn’t really expect people to understand it, but that’s who I grew up listening to. That was what rap was to me. To a lot of people, I think, Kanye came into the game and did a lot of different shit that people weren’t used to. And people couldn’t really understand it necessarily.
“I remember I was at a lunch with my grandparents and mom, it was some place in Hyde Park. We were just sitting, and I used to have this little Walkman joint, the CD player, but it doubled as radio, because I had the juice, you feel me. And I was playing WGCI, and I think the first song they played was “Through The Wire.” And they were talking about the Chicago rapper, his album was just released. And I wasn’t really keyed into the radio, but when I heard that, it was just the soul sample, it was just the way he was rapping—his mouth was wired shut, but it was audible. I could really understand what he was saying, and understood the references. I felt like he was talking to me. And it was the different production. I was a kid, so that soul sample shit was easy for me to digest than some of the popularized shit then.
I was freaking out, I didn’t know what it was, but I thought that sh** was super dope. Listening to the radio all day that day trying to hear another Kanye song.
“I was freaking out, I didn’t know what it was, but I thought that shit was super dope. Listening to the radio all day that day trying to hear another Kanye song. And it was crazy. Within the same hour I want to say, they played “All Falls Down,” and they said who it was and I was instantly geeked about that shit. I remember begging my mom to get that shit. She would not get it for me, because she didn’t fuck with rap music.
“This chick I used to hold hands with in fourth grade, her mom got me College Dropout for my birthday on some “I’m not your mother but I’ll give you some shit”-type shit. But she gave me the CD, and I remember I had to hide it from my mom for a long-ass time, and eventually she made me throw it away and get the clean version. But it was some shit that I owned. Kanye is somebody, to me, that was telling me my story, about how much I hated school, and relating to me even though he was talking about a college experience when I was in fourth grade. The feeling of being rebellious and being different and the fact that it was some shit that was not allowed in my house made it sacred to me. It was my own CD so it was like I knew Kanye personally."
Other Musical Influences
“I would say I was a big Kanye head all the way throughout grade school, but right after Kanye, I started listening to Lupe [Fiasco]. All the Fahrenheit 1/15 joints were coming out around high school. I remember Revenge of the Nerds was some big shit when I was in seventh grade. Common, just a lot of Chicago rap really. And I also liked Lil Wayne when I was a shorty. I was super into the Hot Boyz and Big Tymers and the whole New Orleans movement. I was really on that shit when I was younger, Juvenile and all that shit, but that shit kind of made its pass. Early Eminem was some really big shit when I was going into high school, and I remember that was like, this nigga is crazy, this nigga is very clever with everything that he says and very meticulous in choosing what he says, and that was my writing style at that point.”
I started getting more into melodies later in high school and I started listening to Freestyle Fellowship and Souls of Mischief and just more melodic, jazzy rappers.
“I think I came up on Eminem the same way that anyone else who was that age was coming up on Eminem. It was via the radio. I didn’t know the coldest shit that he was making at the time. I was really into the Encore album and shit past that. Right after I found out about that shit, I kept reaching back until I found Infinite. I found Infinite pretty quickly, and that shit’s one of my favorite mixtapes. It was just his style and how descriptive he was, and the imagery that he used in his storytelling that made me feel like rapping stretched further, towards the poetry side, [rather] than just being rhythmic about it. I started getting more into melodies later in high school and I started listening to Freestyle Fellowship and Souls of Mischief and just more melodic, jazzy rappers. When I found out I can do that shit with the rhythm, I can break it down into 16s and 32s and be all over the place with the cadences. Right after that, I found out I could do that with the melodies too, and it became a chain that was really controlled and I could use very well.
Learning to Rap
His First Group
Building a Fan Base
Open Mic Nights at YOUmedia
His Performances and Poetry
“The poetry thing was a really big thing for me. I used to be at YOUmedia, Real Talk Live and WordPlay, and all types of dope Chicago poetry spots. Chicago has a super-rich poetry scene, it’s actually buzzing, with people that are well known. LTAB [Louder than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival] takes place in Chicago every year. Kevin Coval does huge stuff with Young Chicago Authors, and actually, those were my gigs for a long time. Right after high school, I would get paid, literally, to play these city-funded shows that were poetry readings for kids. It’s how I met a lot of my friends. The shows weren’t even that crazy—it wasn’t even like I would have a DJ or anything. A lot of times, I’d just be rapping acapella raps for like $250, and I would just pay that straight to the studio.
I’d just be rapping acapella raps for like $250, and I would just pay that straight to the studio.
“Between those poetry readings and random birthday parties and Reggie’s [Chicago concert venue], that was what it was for a long time. We were really strategic about having my first actual headlining show—we could have done it a while ago. We got Lincoln Hall last June, and it was my first headlining show and we were able to sell it out. It was during the time I was on the road traveling, so it was like a really quick stop, but it was some really clean, dope shit. It was ill because there weren’t a lot of shows done by Chicago artists that were selling out like that in all reality. It wasn’t really a lot of business going on in Chicago music for a minute, and I think it was a great time. Not just for me, but for a lot of people. All of our shows are crazy. I don’t really need to talk about the live aspect, but it’s a huge thing. A high-energy show is something we pride ourselves on.
“Every time I performed, I’ve gotten to add something to my show, but I’ve always performed pretty wild and erratically. It’s a very different feeling when I’m on stage. It’s something that takes over and allows me to tap back into the first time I wrote or recorded or thought of the song I’m performing. It’s not really like I get that same feeling when I just play it off the record, but when I get to perform it live, it’s like it’s all there and I get to make the song over in real time. I think that’s my favorite part of it.”
“#10Day was conceptual, it was a quick idea. That’s the best way I can say it. I knew I wanted to make music, I knew I was in this slump where I didn’t really know what was going on in high school. I knew I didn’t want to go to college, but I didn’t know if I wasn’t actually going to college. I didn’t have the grades to go to any good schools, I knew I didn’t want to go to school and I definitely didn’t want to go to a community college, but I didn’t know if I even wanted to finish high school at that point. I was just at a point where I hadn’t been making any new music and I definitely hadn’t been making any advances in my music, in terms of getting shows or just certain shit rappers gauge themselves on.
“It wasn’t really working and I was having a premature mid-life crisis. I just happened to get suspended, and it was kind of like a blessing. It was all the motivation I needed. It was damn near vacation, I got suspended the week before spring break. I got suspended for smoking weed off campus. Crazy shit right? I used to do all types of crazy shit in high school, I was an asshole and I kind of deserved a lot of shit that happened to me, but that specific situation? Come on. Smoking weed off campus? They might as well suspended me for not doing my homework or some shit.
“It was some shit that they knew I did. It was really on some targeting, ‘we need to find out what this nigga’s doing and fuck with his life.’ So it was some petty shit, but it’s cool. I’ve learned a lot from it and I learned that I was in the wrong. I was tweaking, I guess. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, I’m onto the next one.
They might as well suspended me for not doing my homework or some sh**.
“I just got suspended randomly. I was always super-smooth and out of the jam any time some shit was happening. I got suspended and ended up having to come to my dad’s office downtown everyday for like three weeks just sitting with him, going to work and sitting on my laptop and I had nothing to do but write songs. I remember the first day I got suspended, I wrote '22 Offs' and 'Fuck You Tahm Bout,' and I instantly knew that was what it was, how I was going to make it and release it in 10 days. And that shit definitely didn’t happen. It took me about a year. But I’m glad it did, because it gave me a chance to write about my high school experience, and something more than just the bias of real time.
"I got to write on it being out of school in terms of being suspended, from the perspective of being in school when I got back in school, from the perspective of somebody who spent the summer not knowing what they were going to do, in the fall, someone who decided not to go, and the spring, someone who has seen a whole year pass and still not dropped a mixtape. Then finally I dropped it, and I was writing for it all the way up until probably two days before the tape dropped.
“There were still songs, 'Nostalgia' and 'Long Time,' that I recorded while I was actually suspended, so I think it’s a really dope piece for me because it spans over such a long period of time. Everybody’s probably been suspended, and I feel like if they actually sat down and wrote a journal about it everyday or recorded it somehow, they’d be able to find out a lot about themselves. I get to still look back on it and see what I was so pissed off about or what I was thinking about or what I thought was a serious matter that needed to be talked about.”
Creating His Next Project, Acid Rap
“Acid Rap has a lot going on there, but it’s a lot jazzier of a tape, a lot more musical and it’s way more melodic. It pulls a lot from acid jazz and early 90s jazz-hip-hop. [Jamiroquai’s] 'Virtual Insanity' was the record that made me get up and decide that I wanted to make a certain style of music. It’s a faster drum pattern, a lot of really jazzy piano and a certain swing to it that a lot of my music on #10Day lacked. And just a happier sound overall. The Acid Rap joint is still very real, but the dope shit about it is that it’s me making music as a rapper, rather than an angry student that wanted to be a rapper. It’s me getting to finally just make songs and I still talk about my suspension and everything that’s going on in my life, but it’s the joy of making real songs.
“I think that’s what people are going to love about it. It’s still a cohesive tape, but it’s damn near just a collection of great music. It’s got a lot of influences from acid jazz, like I said, it’s got a soul to it, a disco sound, funk. It sounds a lot like Michael Jackson and sounds a lot like Eminem, Jamiroquai, it’s so many different sounds and such a vibrant album. And a lot of it I made when I was doing LSD, so it’s a lot freer. It’s a lot more free and it’s a lot more [of] me being able to speak from a less reserved standpoint, but a 'classy' standpoint. I don’t know, it’s the shit. It’s a very dope tape.
It’s got a soul to it, a disco sound, funk. It sounds a lot like Michael Jackson and sounds a lot like Eminem, Jamiroquai.
"I definitely did write it a lot differently. The #10Day tape was a lot of just two-track records, where I’d have the instrumental from the song that was already out, like I did with ‘22 Offs’ or ‘Fuck You Tahm Bout,’ or some of the songs were records where the producer just sent me the beat and then I wrote to it later. Some of them were entire songs I just rapped over. So it was my take on a lot of records, rather than with the new one, I’m in the studio building the songs with the producers, damn near producing the records."
[On the song "Acid Rain":] "In the fall of 2011, one of my homies passed away. We were in a fight, in the North Side of Chicago. Just at a party chilling and there was a big fight, and my friend Rodney got stabbed to death. It happened right in the middle of working on the #10Day tape. It was a big thing. I saw it happen, and it was something that fucked me up for a long time."