The breakout success of the Chicago rap scene last year—headlined by the buzz and controversy of Chief Keef--;exposed America to new faces creating sounds unfamiliar to the current rap landscape. Played-out narratives of cars, women, and money were replaced with introspective tales of family, friends, and dangerous surroundings.
Enter Chancelor Bennett of Chatham, who raps under the keep-it-simple-stupid moniker Chance the Rapper. With his 2012 mixtape "#10DAY" (The name is a reference to a 10-day suspension he served at Jones College Prep.), Bennett carved a very specific path that both takes part in and contrasts with the drill scene stereotype of Chicago that is perpetuated throughout the rest of the country.
He has released a number of tracks from his forthcoming mixtape "Acid Rap" (out Tuesday) and is fielding the kind of label bidding war that has come to define the modern rap scene. Young lyricists release a song or mixtape, exhibit a little Internet savvy and find themselves deluged with mainstream attention alarmingly quickly. His unorthodox rap style and nasal flow make him a standout, especially when compared to other rap acts on the rise like Joey BadA$$ and Casey Veggies, whose deliveries are more traditional.
His growing stardom has expanded his reach to audiences and media outside Chicago.
"Chance had a lot of buzz last year," says David Drake of Complex magazine. "But I definitely think there was maturity in his tracks like [new mixtape single] "Juice" that people outside the city bought into immediately. As soon as that video dropped, it seemed like interest in him just popped across the country. In reality, there was a lot of groundwork—opening for Childish Gambino, building up local buzz. But I think people were waiting for him to deliver on the promise, and once that video appeared, it was game over."
RedEye sat down with the rising 20-year-old rap superstar (who will perform at Lolla this summer) to pick his brain about his performance style, his unusual influences and the state of Chicago hip-hop.
I was in the crowd at your SXSW set. The performance was … weird. Rap shows aren't usually known for rambunctious energy and audience participation past the usual tactic of pointing at the crowd and yelling, "Make some nooooise!" Why do you feel like rappers don't feel the need to bring energy to stage performances?
I think certain people aren't into performing, honestly. There are many aspects to being a musician and I think that some people don't focus on [live performing] as much. I just happen to come from a background where I grew up watching James Brown and Michael Jackson, Kanye West. Just a lot of musicians who have had a big stage presence, and that's something I've always tried to make visible in my sets.
At one point during that set, you stopped performing completely because the crowd wasn't loud enough for you.
Yeah, people can tell I have a high energy and without that, the crowd isn't going to respond. I really want to get across to people that I feel the music, and that they should feel it and be inspired. Rapping live is the best part of rapping, short of writing the song in the studio. Until you're live on stage reciting these words you wrote to people who might have never heard the song, it's like being an orator. The fact that I get to dance along with it is an added bonus.
Who inspires you? You mentioned James Brown and Kanye West.
Those two, Michael Jackson, Queen. I don't know man. [Laughs] Kendrick [Lamar]. Beirut has a crazy live show …
You might be the first rapper on Earth to list Beirut as an inspiration.
[laughs] They're super-dope. Man, I try and explain to people that I have vast musical interests, but when it comes to straight-up influences, it's MJ and Kanye. That's all you really need. Study Michael Jackson long enough, that's all you need.
I sensed a bit of frustration when I acted surprised about the Beirut thing. Does that happen to you a lot? Do you feel pigeonholed because you're a rapper, and that people don't expect wide musical tastes?
Yeah! People don't give rap the credit it deserves. It's weird. When it comes to rap, when you come out with anything that doesn't sound like what's being played on the radio, people try and typecast it as something that's not "rap." They don't want to call it rap music.
Funny you mention that. A guy who's definitely a victim of what you're talking about is a guy you've worked with, Childish Gambino. Did you see any pushback like that when your music came out, be it from media or just other rappers?
I've been rapping forever. I mean, I'm only 20 so like I've been rapping for 75 percent of my life. For a long time, my "audience" consisted of my family, schoolmates and people I could reach. Now I'm being introduced to a mass audience. I'm kind of getting to a point where I've earned enough respect that the pushback isn't happening. I mean, if someone gets introduced to my music, it's already someone who has kind of decided that they think it's going to be dope. Also, the thing about Childish is that he's an amazing artist and producer, but people were only introduced to him as a comedian and an actor. People don't like it when you succeed in more than one thing at once. [Laughs]
Talk to me more about that bigger audience. I've noticed that you're embracing your growing popularity through social media and things like showing up at high schools to meet fans. Is that something that's important to you as a performer?
I mean, the grassroots connection I have with my fans is something that I've wanted as a fan. I mean, I've never met Kanye. For me, it's like every fan wants to meet their favorite artists and laugh and take pictures and talk. As soon as I got to a point where there were people I didn't know who knew my music, and me, I wanted to meet them and break down barriers like the Internet. I'm a real person, you know?
You've been outspoken about supporting other Chicago rappers, name-dropping them in songs and giving them shout-outs in interviews. Growing up here, I never saw local rappers really supporting each other. Are Chicago rappers now more unified as a whole?
Definitely. The reason why Chicago music wasn't succeeding back in the day is because there was no community. Even more than that, there was no business behind it. Chicago rap shows used to consist of 15 acts. It's a "showcase." You have to pay to perform, you only get four minutes … it wasn't legitimate. It was the radio too; the DJs didn't want to play local music. The newspapers would call everyone a "local rapper" and it took this new Chicago movement that started with Keef to change that. That's why I'm always shouting him out. He came in and was the face of Chicago for a good amount of time and it made people take notice of the culture of Chicago, not just rap but the violence and the schools shutting down.
How do those things and the culture of the city in general affect you as an artist? You're a direct link to these kids; hell, you ARE one of these kids. They listen to your music. They wear the same clothes.
It makes me want to watch what I say, you know? Not like censoring myself, but making sure what I say means something. Be it positive or negative, everything I say can have an influence on a group of people. Everything going on in Chicago affects me as an artist, but it also affects me personally. I'm from here. I live here. I just turned 20. I know a lot of dudes that didn't. It's cool because I get to sit up in this office and talk about it, but I can't seriously explain to you how scary it is going into the summer. You know what it is when it gets hot in Chicago. A lot of kids don't come back from summer break, you know?
Have you personally experienced that?
Yeah, man. I mean, I went to a good high school where a majority of the kids weren't from the South Side or West Side, but grade school or middle school. You work a summer job and there are kids that don't come back to work the next day. This [bleep] is like this: If you live in Chicago, you know someone that got shot or died. That's just how it is. A lot of places aren't like that … It's really [bleeped] up.
Chance the Rapper appears at the "Acid Rap" release party 5 p.m. Tuesday at Jugrnaut (427 S. Dearborn Ave.). Free.
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