Fest by Midwest: An Interview with Rhymefest

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By Matt Gonzales

I’m riding with Rhymefest in his black SUV on the outskirts of Indianapolis, Indiana. A Chicago native, Fest has lived in Indy since 1998. What keeps the talented rapper here when history has proven (see Babyface, Kurt Vonnegut, David Letterman) that to get famous, you have to leave?

His seven-year-old son, Solomon.

As Rhymefest plays me a few tracks from his upcoming album, Blue Collar, Solomon sits in the backseat with headphones on, watching The Simpsons on the flipdown TV screen. We pull through a Dairy Queen and Fest twists his head around to ask Solomon what his poison is.

“Cherry blizzard.” Solomon says.

“You don’t want that,” Rhymefest countered. “The have Butterfinger, cookie dough, Oreo, Reese Cup—”

“Oreo,” Solomon chimes in.

Rhymefest, born Che Smith, has no interest in being a part-time dad. Indianapolis is near enough to his native Chicago that he can get there quickly whenever business requires it, he tells me. And living here hasn’t stopped him from winning a Grammy for co-writing “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West.

Fest’s new single, the West-produced “Brand New” has been getting regular play on radio stations, and the video has been in regular rotation on mtvU. And Blue Collar is tentatively scheduled to drop in mid-April. In addition to featuring West, heavy hitters Common, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Mark Ronson and the deceased Ol’ Dirty Bastard also appear on the album.

With a Grammy on his shelf and a host of A-list hip-hop stars in his corner, chances are that if you haven’t heard of Rhymefest yet, you soon will. And as he himself will tell you, right now, hip-hop needs him just as badly as he needs it.

Blue Collar was originally supposed to be released last year. Why the delay?
I want the right amount of awareness to be built up; I want to feel the anticipation in the air. I am not just trying to release this album so I can get to the next project. This record is very important to hip-hop. It does something that no other hip-hop album is doing right now, in my mind, and in the minds of others who I’ve let listen to it. It’s creating a balance that Kanye didn’t create, a balance that Common didn’t create—a balance in hip-hop that I believe is necessary.

A balance between what exactly?
Songs on this album talk about the war in Iraq. I have songs on this album that don’t only talk about going out to the strip club—they talk about what these women are really feeling, in a way that is funny, but it’s also true, you know what I mean? I have songs talking about the military—I went to the mall one day, and there was an advertisement on a Hummer, and it said drive a Hummer for a summer. So I walked up a little closer, and it’s bumping Chingy out the back of the truck. So I walk up a littler closer, and it’s a recruitment for the military. And it’s telling kids, “You can drive a Hummer for a summer.” But you might not come back—they don’t tell you that part. But my thing is, I’m not making any judgments or anything, I’m just telling the story. And this is the reason I named my album Blue Collar. These are the stories of everyday, real people. I believe it’s what’s lacking in hip-hop, and what’s necessary. And that’s why when this album comes out, in my opinion, it has to come out at the right time, when people are ready to receive it.

Do you think the hip-hop audiences are going to embrace this type of storytelling?
Well you know, there’s not a formula to how to do things so that a mass amount of people gravitate toward it. Well, there are formulas, but there has to be something special about it. And I’ll give you an example. When Kanye and I wrote “Jesus Walks”, we went to different labels, and I had it on my demo. And they told us “Is this what the street is doin’? Are people talking about Jesus walking? Is this what the club is gonna want?” They told us it would never work. But how can we progress as fans and music lovers if we’re scared? That’s the problem—hip-hop is supposed to be the new civil rights movement. It’s supposed to be revolutionary. But if we are too scared to stand out, I think hip-hop has lost its meaning. Hip-hop is failing.

Are you worried about being in the shadow of Kanye as you bring the new album out?
Whether I worry about it or not, that’s what they’re building it up to be. I don’t shy away from speaking about it, because I’m proud of that accomplishment. Should I not be? I look at it like this. Was The Game worried about being in the shadow of G-Unit? Was Eminem worried about being in the shadow of Dr. Dre? Was Kanye worried about being in the shadow of Jay-Z? You know, you do what you do to get out there. It’s who you know that gets you in the door, and what you know that keeps you there. And if Kanye’s name or popularity gets me in the door, then so be it, because I know that once you hear this music, you’ll know who Rhymefest is.

What producers do you work with on the album?
We had everyone from Mark Ronson, No ID, Just Blaze and Kanye West. Then you have your guest features like ODB—people don’t mention that I wrote for ODB before he died—Mario, Carl Thomas, and Kanye, of course.

Do you think your style—some would call it backpack rap like Kanye or Common—is going to go over in the urban community?
Well southern music has taken ahold of the country. Southern rap music. It’s funny though, because it hasn’t taken a grip on the world. The world is like, “Wait a minute, we’re not going for this.” But the black urban community has totally bought into it. And it’s interesting because when you look at the majority of the content, it’s ignorant. It’s strip club songs, it’s “I sell drugs,” it’s “I’m a pimp.” And to me, in my opinion, it’s the dumbing down of our people and our society. It used to be, they would play Cindy Lauper on the radio, and right after her, Public Enemy would come on, “Don’t believe the hype—uuhhh!” Then right after that Daryl Hall and John Oates would come on, “She’s a maneater!” There used to be a day when you would listen to Big Daddy Kane, NWA, Biz Markie—it was all rap music. Now it’s like, “If you like crunk music, we’ve got that. If you like conscious music, we’ve got that. And what it does, it makes dumber listeners. It puts us in a hole where people are like, “I’m going to listen to all crunk.” Well if you listen to all crunk, that’s what kind of person you’re gonna become. Music is influential. So you are going to become a person with this kind of lifestyle. And if your lifestyle says go to the strip club every night, get high, do this and that, then that’s what you’ll do. What’s funny about it is that I’ve tried that lifestyle. And what I found is it didn’t make me a very happy person. I don’t believe that I am less black because I don’t drink and I don’t smoke, and I’m not out here selling drugs.

So crunk hurts the community it appeals to.
They’re poverty pimping, that’s what they’re doing. They’re poverty pimping. And I don’t think that makes me less black because I love my people, or I love trying to be a better man. That doesn’t make me less black. Because I know where I’m from. I’m from the south side of Chicago, Jeffrey Manor, where it all went down. People in my family were drug addicts, women in my family were physically abused, I tried to gangbang for a little bit. It’s funny. My little sister is sixteen, and she never lived in the hood a day in her life. A day in her life. I grew up in the hood, but somehow, my little sister, because of the music she listens to, thinks she’s more hood than I am. And she grows up in Avon, Indiana, you know what I mean? And she somehow thinks she’s more hood than me. And I had to come from the slums and make it happen, so she wouldn’t have to live like that. It’s funny because I never thought I would see the day where being hood was pop culture.

Matt Gonzales is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Ind.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/rhymefest-060417/