What do Chance the Rapper, Rockie Fresh and Vic Mensa have in common, other than being Chicago rappers garnering national attention?
They've all worked with Closed Sessions, meaning that Michael Kolar and Alex Fruchter, the team behind the Humboldt Park-based record label, might be the most important names you've never heard in the Chicago rap scene.
Before you get your "Fire Ernest Wilkins" campaign ready, recognize that almost every important non-"drill" rap release to come from this third wave of Chicago rap (1994-'96, 2006-'07 and 2012-present) was either curated, recorded, mixed or mastered by the Closed Sessions folks. In addition to the aforementioned artists, that also includes collaborations with Lil' Durk, Young Chop, Rhymefest, Tree, Mic Terror and ShowYouSuck.
J.R. Bang, a program director for online radio station WindyCityUnderground.com who has witnessed the rise of multiple acts that worked with Closed Sessions, thinks the label's consistency is a blessing for the city's music community. "The records Closed Sessions has released from [Alex] Wiley, ShowYouSuck and Tree in the last year alone have given the music scene here a bigger push just by having a home record label that is releasing quality music and developing artists," he says. "In order to keep getting better overall, the Chicago music scene needs a Closed Sessions."
With endorsements from industry tastemakers and a staggering output of quality material, it wouldn't be a stretch to paint Closed Sessions as a modern equivalent of the early days of Def Jam Records, whose start included releases by future stars LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. And they aren't slowing down: The current focus is on Wiley, the buzzworthy 20-year-old Hyde Park native whose "Village Party" tape arrives in early June. Having listened to a decent chunk of the project, including the first two singles "Vibration" and "OVA," I expect this release will catapult the rapper to national awareness. Closed Sessions has established itself as a hub for local acts to refine their skills and expand their brand in the music community. But, more specifically, how are they doing this?
"[Fruchter] does the hard work. I just sit down here, drink espresso and make rap music," says Uptown-raised Kolar, the technical arm of the Closed Sessions team, at the label's Soundscape Studios.
He's being modest. The 35-year-old whiz works on all things production from recording to mixing to mastering, and is directly responsible for making sure the Closed Sessions releases sound crisp and clean. (Quick lesson: Mixing is when you take all the instruments/beats, combine them with the vocals, add effects and make it sound balanced and appealing. Mastering is when you take the finished mix and maximize it for best listening, including sequencing the songs.)
Having previously worked with acclaimed Chicago groups like punk band Secret Agent Bill and rappers the Molemen (as well as funk legend George Clinton), Kolar met Hyde Park-raised Fruchter in the dressing room for Chicago native Kidz in the Hall rapper Naledge in 2008. Fueled by Fruchter's work as a DJ and head creative for local rap site RubyHornet, the duo teamed up for a project called Digital Freshness that would bring buzz acts like Curren$y, Mike Posner, Mac Miller, Yelawolf and Action Bronson to Chicago for the first time.
While in town, the artist, for no charge, would record an exclusive track at Kolar's studio. The first of these came in July 2009; shortly afterward, Closed Sessions became its own company. The first official release, "Closed Sessions Vol. 1," arrived in 2010, and two more volumes followed in the next two years.
Now that Closed Sessions is his full priority, Fruchter, 30, works as both A&R and promotion man in addition to teaching at Columbia College Chicago. "Alex sits at that desk for 10 hours a day and emails every single blog [and record] company to get the word out about our artists," says Kolar. "There's so much music out there, and getting people to connect with it and care is the most valuable service we can offer."
Day-to-day work at a rap label is less 24-hour champagne diet and more number-crunching and paperwork. "These are the things people don't see," says Kolar. "Getting the songs onto platforms like Spotify and stuff like that. What it means to get songs featured in the iTunes store, the nuts and bolts boring stuff that needs to get done. Scheduling, this goes here, that goes there. I think one thing that tanks a lot of people is that they don't have the strategy to build excitement and buzz. For example, we made an alternate version of [Mic Terror's recent release] `Fresh Prince of Darkness' with extra verses, different mixes and that kind of stuff."
The question remains: Why would someone choose to sign with an indie label? Both men believe in the power of the long game versus immediate reward. "We do all the things that a major label does, just on a smaller scale," Fruchter says. "There's only two of us, but that allows us to be nimble, and we can mold what we do to the person we're working with. We get to work fast, but we also get to take the time to develop these acts. That's something that's sorely missing from music right now. How can you make meaningful music that lasts a long time? Artist development is the work that gets done before the hype ever happens."
Currently, the guys are all-in on making a superstar of Wiley, who's focused and confident in the studio, willing to hear suggestions but always in control of his music. We asked to stage some photos of him at the microphone. He turned it into an impromptu freestyle session using a made-up character. The rhymes are fun and silly, but it's wholly obvious that he can flip the switch and kill it any time he wants to. That kind of intensity, combined with an ear for melody, led to Wiley getting looks from magazines like XXL and Complex. One of Chicago's rising stars has no plans to head to the coasts, though.
"I don't think you need to move to do what you want to do [in the music industry] anymore," Wiley says, reclined on the studio couch. "I went out to L.A. and it was great, but people acted like if you weren't there, you were tweaking. A lot of times, people are out there in the scene and they get lost in the shuffle for two years. Meanwhile, we're here in Chicago getting it done. The whole country and the music listening world isn't a place like L.A. It's like this. These days, the same way you don't really need major labels? You don't need the city that those labels built. "If you have a strong following, all you need is a WiFi signal."
Both Fruchter and Kolar nod and clap. One makes a mic-drop gesture. The Closed Sessions team is determined to make Chicago a place for music to thrive again. At this rate, they just might do it.
A timeline of Closed Sessions releases:
- "Swagger Like Chi" a song that featured Naledge, Marvo, Really Doe, Bump J, Mikkey Halstead & GLC
- Curren$y, "Rapper Weed" (first official Closed Sessions song)
- "Closed Sessions Vol. 1" featuring Tanya Morgan, Kidz In The Hall, Chip Tha Ripper, Skyzoo, Curren$y and others.
- Rockie Fresh, "Rockie's Modern Life"
- YP, "No Sleep"
- GLC, "Love, Life & Loyalty"
- Rhymefest, "El Che"
- "Closed Sessions: ATX" featuring Freddie Gibbs, DJ Babu, CurT@!N$, Million $ Mano, Rhymefest, Emilio Rojas, 6th Sense, Scheme and others.
- BBU, "Fear of A Clear Channel Planet"
- "Closed Sessions Vol. 2" featuring Action Bronson, L.E.P. Bogus Boys, Freddie Gibbs, Treated Crew, Raekwon, DJ Babu, Vic Mensa, and Rockie Fresh
- Treated Crew, "TreaTed"
- Tree, "Sunday School 2"
- Chance The Rapper, "Acid Rap"
- Alex Wiley, "Club Wiley"
- Vic Mensa,"INNANETAPE"
- ShowYouSuck, "Dude Bro EP"
- Mic Terror, "Fresh Prince of Darkness"
- Alex Wiley, "Village Party"
In addition, acts like Young Chop, Lil' Durk, Lil' Reese and Hollywood Holt have either recorded with Closed Sessions or had the group do post-production for projects.
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