By Mark Guarino
Talking to you, Rhymefest locks his eyes into your own. He leans at the edge of his chair. He touches your knee. He tells you to turn your cell phone off when it chirps because he hasn’t yet finished a thought. When he makes a point, prepare to wince — Each syllable is accentuated by the clapping of his hands inches from your head.
Tony Robbins isn’t this intense. But motivational gurus could learn a lesson or two from rappers hungry for recognition. Rhymefest, a 28-year-old Chicago native named Che Smith, believes his music has a higher calling and there is convincing evidence — he won a Grammy for co-writing “Jesus Walks,” the Kanye West smash that has the singular distinction of being played both in clubs Saturday night and in churches Sunday morning.
The experience launched West’s career but as far as Rhymefest was concerned, “no one cared.” Fest, as he’s known to associates, insists he’s not seeking out praise but it is difficult to mask his laser focus on coming events that have the possibility of lifting him from anonymity once and for all. In July, J Records will launch “Blue Collar,” his debut album, he has a video is rotating on MTV and BET and at the Intonation Festival, the indie rock festival held in the West Loop this weekend, he is one of the major headliners.
Spending time with Fest means watching him fall victim to shameless hype (he greets and later sends this writer off with the release date of his album) and mind-boggling contradictions (after denouncing rappers who boast of riding Bentleys, he brags he just bought an Escalade). Yet he delivers every point with such charm, you are hesitant to hold it against him. Like any successful motivational speaker, he has his talking points organized and he likes to hit them often, but there are moments where he’s caught up in the flow that he regroups to a central theme, what he calls his “mission” to bring balance to hip-hop.
More hype? Possibly. Then you hear the album. The sunny combination of 1970’s-era horns, guitars, strings and organ melt behind Fest’s nimble mic skills and emphasis on pop melodies on songs where a requisite stripper hit is outnumbered by other real-life fables with a political and social conscience. Despite the Kanye connection, the album seems designed to separate Fest from the current glut of mainstream rappers obsessed with luxury and guns.
“We’ve become caricatures,” he said. “We talk of gold grills sold to us by Paul Wall, we talk about chains sold to us by Jacob (the Jeweler), we talk about Bentleys sold to us by Mercedes — these are things that somebody else is selling to us saying ‘this is who you are’. It’s against the community and we buying it. Not only us, but your kids are buying it too. And the world is buying it.”
In terms of world attention, Chicago hip-hop can be broken down into two bookends: Before Kanye (B.K.) and After Kanye (A.K.).
The B.K. era of the 1990’s was relatively quiet. Except for a prodigiously active underground of battle rappers, mixers, magazines and graffiti artists, Chicago produced just four notables: Speed rapper Twista, gangsta rap trio Do Or Die, female rapper Da Brat and conscious rapper Common, previously known as Common Sense. Although all four achieved a certain level of success through gold and platinum album sales, none were able to carve out a sound that could ultimately define the Chicago scene much in the same way the major stars of New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New Orleans branded their hometowns.
At WGCI 107.5-FM, mailboxes are routinely flooded with demos by would-be rappers and producers hoping for a big break. But to those with the unenviable job of listening to them all through the years, there came an obvious divide: Kanye West. West, a South Side native, quietly worked as one of the industry’s hottest producers in the late 1990’s, creating an original sound that featured chirpy soul music samples set to unpredictable beats. Unlike a lot of producers at the time that preferred grittier production, West arrived with a fresh pop sensibility, streaming reggae, jazz and rock into songs that rippled with radio friendly hooks and irreverent humor. By the time his debut album won three Grammys at the 2005 awards, West became the face of Chicago hip-hop, elevating everyone who worked there both before him and just coming up.
“In the five years I have been here, the material from Chicago artists was kind of appalling, really. They were talented but they really missed the mark,” said Tiffany Green, WGCI’s music director. “When they saw Kanye do what he’s doing, it inspired them and made them really work hard to fine tune their craft and take it seriously and take the necessary steps to get it done. He has really inspired the Chicago artists to step their game up.”
Fest met West when both were working Chicago’s battle rap scene, a time when West was making beats for rappers on their way up. “He was so arrogant, I didn’t even like the guy,” said Fest. A collaboration was “inevitable,” he said, due to the “the fact we did the same thing with the music and the fact we did it better than a lot of our peers.”
Before both friends were Grammy bound, Fest took a few left turns. Raised in the Jeffrey Manor neighborhood on the far South Side, he lived in a home with a mother only 15 years older then him and an aunt he calls his sister. Both women struggled with drug addiction.
“I felt like I was different from other adults. I felt like I didn’t connect. I felt as though I had something to offer that was not being offered. I had to develop and cultivate what that was. I had to pray, I had to work,” he said.
He dropped out of South Shore High School when he was 15, the same time he started developing his own style as a rapper. One song, “How We Chill,” became popular on the club circuit, bolstering his confidence. In 1997, the same year he met West, he placed second in Cincinnati’s Scribble Jam, beating an unknown rapper named Eminem.
Plans for getting to the next level were put on hold when he moved to West Lafayette, Ind. with his girlfriend and their son so she could pursue a degree in chemical engineering. Fest, who earned a GED and later studied at Columbia College, started a round of jobs — court bailiff, community service supervisor, janitor — to support his young family. It wasn’t until a stint as a substitute teacher that he realized his true calling.
“I would spend a whole day in class with a shortie … by the end the day, he would be thinking. I was planting a seed in him! The next day the parents would unravel all of that (expletive). He wouldn’t have ate breakfast, he would be agitated, he would be tired, he’d be angry and I would have to start from scratch with planting another seed. I got tired of throwing seeds on concrete. They don’t grow! But I saw that soil was music. Those kids would come in to me and they knew the raps, they knew them songs from front to back and they discussed and debated them. So at that point, I thought, ‘I rap. I rap pretty good. I’ve known this guy Kanye since I was a teenager. I want to plant them seeds where they count’,” he said. “And that’s when I decided, ‘I’m going to go get a record deal’.”
In 2001, Fest hooked up with West who produced his debut album, “Raw Dog” independently. Through a mutual friend, his demo ended up in the hands of Mark Ronson, the New York producer and DJ who operated Allido Records which had a distribution deal with J Records, run by music industry impresario Clive Davis
“I had a friend who used to work at EMI in New York who moved back to Indiana. He was always playing me these groups who were quite average. By the time he pulled (Fest’s) demo out, I was ready to shut my ears. He played the demo and it was instant. The song itself was a hit but (Fest’s) voice obviously had so much charisma. I was in this tiny production room … and his voice filled the whole room. That’s how big his personality is on the mic,” he said.
Fest signed to Allido and soon appeared on Ronson’s album, later joining Ronson on the road in the U.K. and Europe, opening dates for Justin Timberlake.
“All eyes were on him,” remembers Ronson. “There was a giant banner behind him that said ‘Mark Ronson’ but people thought Fest was me.”
Back in the U.S., Fest built a word-of-mouth buzz through several mixtapes he released on the underground circuit. Then came “Jesus Walks.”
Fest said he found the song’s bedrock sample from “Walk With Me,” a song by the Arc Choir, a Harlem gospel group consisting of recovering addicts, and after working it into a song with West, wrote the first verse and co-wrote the chorus.
“I gave it to Kanye and he (said) ‘I’m going to put this on my album, it’s too good!’ Since he had a record deal, I was fine with it,” Fest said.
The song’s success gave Allido the momentum to approach Clive Davis on Fest’s behalf. The sell proved easy. Davis, a veteran responsible for the careers of many major stars from the past five decades from Janis Joplin to Alicia Keys, was immediately impressed.
“(Fest’s) so infectious, he had everyone singing the hook. He had Clive singing during the call and response. You couldn’t have done any better if you had one shot,” Ronson said.
“Blue Collar” indeed has its Kanye moment (he cameos on the infectious funk anthem “Brand New”) even though the album warrants its own attention. Fest’s husky vocals channel melody and personality through scorching blockbusters (“Fever”), glittery soul (“All I Do”) and big band jump (“These Days”). Based on a stuttering sample from none other than The Strokes, one sunny track (“Devil’s Pie”) tells Fest’s life story about life as a struggling young father. “Sister” turns to his aunt’s addiction and although the strings, handclap beats and background singers summon old school soul, it’s Fest’s straightforward lyrics that bring the real pain: “love don’t love nobody/drugs don’t love nobody/so why you put that (expletive) in your body?/now we can’t have a decent conversation/because she’s always shaking.”
Since getting divorced, Fest returned home in Jeffrey Manor with his seven-year-old son, Solomon. A convert to Islam when he was a teenager, Fest said that strangely enough, it was a song about Jesus walking for souls that made him more serious about how prayer can change the big picture. He is ready, he is motivated, to make this happen. But first, there are records to sell.
“That wasn’t my song, that wasn’t (Kanye’s) song … but that was song delivered to us and we give it to the world,” he said. “It shows if a Christian and a Muslim can come together and agree on a song like ‘Jesus Walks’ and the world can benefit from it, why can’t a Palestinian and an Israeli come together and make something more beautiful?”