Who is Rhymefest? You’d never know from some press accounts

March 2, 2011

One would expect 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran to be talking crap about Che Smith: The former police sergeant has been forced into a runoff he never imagined he’d have to face, thanks to the votes garnered in round one by the rapper better known as Rhymefest.

Of course, Cochran is trying to portray his opponent as part of the problem, not a competing solution. “When you’re in a position where you influence people and you use it to bring a scorn on our society and you promote ‘get your gun’ [and] calling people bitches... what makes him think he should make decisions for the community?” Cochran said Tuesday in a Sun-Times article on the race. “That’s what he says in his music—how to be contrary to the law, and now he wants to be a lawmaker.” 

Far more troubling, though, is that the Sun-Times willingly played right into Cochran’s hands, cheerfully equating “rapper” with “gangster, drug dealer, lawbreaker, gun-toter, misogynist, homophobe,” and, we might as well add, public nose-picker, just like any tone-deaf, culturally ignorant, lazy, and uninquisitive idiot spouting nonsense on the level of “rap isn’t music, it’s just noise.”

Witness the lede of the story written by Mark Konkol and Abdon M. Pallasch:

In his songs, Grammy-winner Che “Rhymefest” Smith spits and stutters curse words, homophobic slurs and the N-word.

He sometimes busts rhymes about shooting guns and selling drugs.

In his song, “Chicago” — a tale of his hometown where he’s running for 20th Ward alderman — Rhymefest raps, “Ain’t sorry that I did it/ I’m sorry I got caught.”
Smith’s opponent in the April ballot showdown, incumbent Ald. Willie Cochran, says the rapper-candidate’s lyrics bring “scorn on society” — and Smith’s rap sheet convictions for misdemeanor weapons and domestic battery are the kind of things that keep other people from working at public schools and park districts.
 A point of disclosure: Konkol was a colleague for whom I never had anything but respect when I worked at the Sun-Times, while Pallasch unequivocally ranks as one of the best and most diligent reporters in Chicago, as well as someone I consider a brother, seeing as how we worked side by side for eight years on the most difficult story either of us ever tackled, slogging through hell in the process. But, really, boys: You blew it on this one, big-time, and no, one quote from me included in a lame attempt at “balance” did not cut it. You got Rhymefest all wrong, or at least allowed his obviously biased political opponent to carry the day with unjust and factually dubious slurs.
 
The Sun-Times isn’t the only news organization falling short here: Many have portrayed the race as a simple novelty story—Rapper runs for City Council!—a la this short piece in Time magazine. In light of this, cudos to the Tribune yesterday for noting, however briefly, that Rhymefest has been endorsed in his fight against Cochran by all three of their former opponents knocked out of the race on Feb. 22. The guy must have something going for him, above and beyond the fact that he isn’t Cochran, and that would be obvious to anyone who actually bothered to listen to his music, because it’s all there.
 
Yes, Rhymefest has on occasion complained with harsh words about mistreatment at the hands of women, though that hardly is unique in the last century of popular music. He has at times portrayed characters who deal drugs or resort to violence—but missing the fact that he was playing characters is a sin as unforgiveable as thinking that Denzel Washington actually is a drug kingpin merely because he portrayed one in “American Gangster.” The artist’s rap sheet is the artist’s rap sheet, and he has many times addressed and explained the incidents that his opponents are dredging up. And, it cannot be denied, Rhymefest can cuss.
 
Does the latter human shortcoming have anything at all to do with the ability to govern? Golly gee willikers, no! If it did, perhaps our profane prince of a mayor-elect would not be our mayor-elect.
 
Would Rhymefest make a better alderman than Cochran? That’s not a question this blog is qualified to answer; it’s not based in the 20th Ward, it’s not eligible to vote there, and it’s not familiar enough with Cochran’s record to say. Nor, for that matter, would it endorse any candidate. Criticize, yes; endorse, no. 
 
What I do know is that as someone who has covered him closely throughout his musical career—one that is far from dead—I don’t recognize the Rhymefest I’m often reading about in the accounts of reporters who don’t seem to be listening to what he’s saying, and who certainly aren’t listening to or understanding his music—from his brilliant, deep, and nuanced 2006 debut “Blue Collar,” my choice for one of the 10 best albums that year, to the admittedly slightly more vulgar and pandering follow-up “El Che” in 2010, with his unforgettable “Man in the Mirror” mix tape standing in between as one of the most compassionate and insightful commentaries encountered in any medium on the sad plight of Michael Jackson.
 
Here is the profile of Rhymefest I wrote for the Sun-Times before the release of his first album. I haven’t heard him say a word since, in his art or in his interviews, that has made me think that Cochran’s attacks have a shred of truth, or that has lessened my opinion of the rapper as an inspiring artist and individual.
 
* * * * *

Rhyme time

July 9, 2006 

Among the hip-hop acts on the bill at the recent Intonation Music Festival in Union Park, the biggest buzz was Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco, who’s already scored a hit with the skateboard-themed single “Kick Push,” and who’s gearing up to release his debut album “Food & Liquor” on Aug. 8. 

A fellow veteran of the local underground hip-hop scene, Rhymefest certainly gets his props: After all, he did co-write Kanye West’s phenomenal 2004 hit, “Jesus Walks.” But unless they’d seen him before, few in the Intonation crowd of more than 10,000 were ready for the ferocity of Rhymefest’s performance. Despite an always gruff voice grown even more hoarse and raspy from non-stop touring, the 28-year-old rapper gave his all for 45 minutes on songs such as “Bullet,” a galvanizing jam inspired by army recruiters at a local mall who offered the chance to “Drive a Hummer for the summer” without mentioning that it came with a ticket to Iraq. He fired off not one but two mesmerizing freestyles—bolstering his rep as one of Chicago’s best battle rappers—and then, to top it all off, he threw himself into the crowd, evoking images of other all-or-nothing performers such as Iggy Pop and Kurt Cobain. 

Backstage a few hours later, when I told him it was one of the best hip-hop shows I’d ever seen, Rhymefest seemed surprised. “You really thought it was all right?” he asked, though he’s usually only slightly more self-effacing than his notoriously boastful friend, Kanye. “I tell ya, I gotta give it my all up there, ’cause that’s the only way I’m gonna get people to pay attention.” Here, his eyes twinkled and his trademark, wisecracking sense of humor returned. “After all, I’m not as much of a dandy as Kanye!” Indeed, if Chicago’s earlier hip-hop superstars all have their distinctive personas—Kanye as the natty, egotistical playboy, Common as the mystic, Twista as the class clown, and Lupe as the geeky nerd—Rhymefest is a hip-hop everyman, a hardworking, perpetual up-and-comer who honed his craft while toiling at a series of day jobs including bus driver, janitor, prison guard for a highway cleanup crew (“It was all white guys, and they hated it ... I felt like Colin Powell,” he jokes) and counselor at a day-care center.

Not for nothing did he title his debut album “Blue Collar.” Now, after a decade seeking a major-label record deal, and nearly two years after he was finally signed, his album is coming out Tuesday on a subsidiary of Clive Davis’ J Records. Rhymefest’s moment has at long last arrived, and he couldn’t be more prepared. 

A revolutionary start 

Born the day after his mother celebrated her 16th birthday, Che Smith was largely raised by his grandparents in the South Side neighborhood of Jeffrey Manor. They named him after the South American revolutionary Che Guevara: As the rapper tells it, his grandfather was part of a platoon that was ambushed on patrol in Vietnam. When one of the Vietcong saw that the soldiers were all African-Americans, Latinos and poor whites, he spared them, saying, “This is not your war.” This spurred a family interest in revolutionary politics that was one of the key parts of Rhymefest’s upbringing; another was a genre-blind love of music. He talks with considerable knowledge and infectious enthusiasm about artists ranging from the smooth crooner Nat “King” Cole to the soul legend Stevie Wonder, and from alternative-rockers the Strokes (whose “Some Day” he samples on the song “Devil’s Pie”) to the underground electronica of the Scissor Sisters and Air, not to mention early hip-hop heroes such as Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and Biz Markie. 

Rhymefest loves to tell the tale of his first rap performance. The year shifts in different versions—sometimes it’s third grade, sometimes fifth, occasionally fourth—but the point is always the same. Asked to deliver an oral essay, the aspiring rapper rhymed about the merits of scholarly diligence: “You should do your homework and do it right/You should do your homework every day and night/Y’all know that homework is always due/Listen to me, this rhyme is true/When you grow up, you’ll be so glad/Homework is good, and it ain’t too bad.” His classmates loved his flow and his audacity; the teacher loved his message, and a career was launched—though it would still be a few years before he adopted his stage name after a friend told him he was “like a festival of rhymes.

Marshall’s forces 

Rhymefest first won attention outside Chicago in 1997, at the Scribble Jam in Cincinnati, Ohio, when he battled Michigan rapper Marshall Mathers. Rhymefest won, but Eminem was the first to achieve multi-platinum success and stardom. “Rhymefest should have blown up years ago,” Scribble Jam co-founder Mr. Dibbs told Newsweek. “He deserves it more than half the people out there making millions.” 

In the late ’90s, the rapper moved to Indiana while his wife was attending Purdue University, earning a degree in chemical engineering. The couple divorced two years ago, and he now has two apartments, one in Chicago and one in Indianapolis, where he is raising their young son. He released his first album, the independently issued “Raw Dawg,” in 2001, but he was still searching for his own style, and the disc was rife with gangsta cliches. (“‘Blue Collar’ is really my first album,” he maintains.) A number of mix tapes and demos followed, one of which included a track called “Jesus Walks.” The song was partly prompted by a sample of a gospel choir, and partly the result of “divine inspiration,” Rhymefest says. He had been interested in spirituality since age 9, when he attended Mass at a Catholic church. “They were singing a hymn, and I started to cry,” he recalls. “It overwhelmed me and filled me with a spirit that I’d never felt.” Then, at age 14, he became a devout Muslim. Now, he often performs flanked by members of the Nation of Islam, but he says he is not a member of the group. “There are some things I do disagree with as far as [Minister Louis] Farrakhan is concerned. I don’t believe that white people are devils, or that they were created by a mad scientist.”

 ‘Walks’ the line  

When Rhymefest wrote “Jesus Walks,” he considered it a metaphor for God in all His guises: Christ, Buddah, Allah or whatever the faithful choose to call Him. When West heard the song, he was inspired to add his own spin, recording it for his debut album “Late Registration.” Somewhere along the way, the verse that Rhymefest added in the studio was cut, but the song’s co-author insists he doesn’t resent his friend’s success. “I had the ‘Jesus Walks’ sample and a dope idea/If K hooked it up this could be the song of the year/So I gave my nigga the sample and the joint took off/But the verse that ‘Fest did somehow got lost,” Rhymefest raps in a post-Kanye version of the song, released on the mix tape “A Star Is Born, Vol. 1.” “Homie, I ain’t mad at ya, doin’ your thing/Let every man be his own king.”

That version of “Jesus Walks” was recorded by Mark Ronson, the New York DJ, producer (his credits include Nikka Costa and Jimmy Fallon). The two hooked up when Rhymefest appeared on a track called “’Bout to Get Ugly” from Ronson’s 2003 album “Here Comes the Fuzz.” (“Rhymefest’s voice—it sounds corny—[but] it jumped out of the speaker,” Ronson told Newsweek.) Later on, when West offered him a deal on his Good Music label, Rhymefest opted to stick with Ronson and his new company, Allido, which is distributed by J Records. 

The rapper began recording “Blue Collar” in 2005, drawing on help from producers West and the underrated but immensely talented No ID, who produced Common’s first three albums. “Brand New,” which features a guest rap by Kanye, was released as a single in February, and versions of the album have been floating on the Internet ever since, but Rhymefest continued to tinker with the final cut as the release date was pushed back again and again. (Only two weeks ago, he replaced “These Days” with the newer track “Stick,” which he fought the label to push as the second single.) 

Rhymefest says the delays were his idea. “I didn’t feel like the anticipation was built up enough, or that the buying public was aware, and what good does it do for me to have a song like ‘Bullet’ or ‘Devil’s Pie’ if it sits on a shelf and no one knows who Rhymefest is? I had to do things like Intonation, the AOL sessions, the TV appearances and most of all the touring. Part of the magic is for people to meet me—not just to hear the music but to actually see Rhymefest do his thing.” 

Doing his own thing 

The finished version of “Blue Collar” has been worth the wait, and it does Chicago proud, with plenty of shout-outs to local neighborhoods (as well as a dis on suburban Schaumburg) and props to the Windy City hip-hop hierarchy. One reason the local scene has never been as widely lauded nationally as Atlanta or Houston, let alone New York or Los Angeles, is that there has never been one identifiable Chicago sound. But there are similarities in terms of an earthy attitude and a wide-open approach to the music. 

Like West, Rhymefest finds unforgettable hooks in samples from unlikely sources, including the Strokes, the singer-songwriter Citizen Cope (who powers the chorus of “Bullet”) and the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” (“Build Me Up” is a duet with the late Russell Tyrone Jones, a. k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard from New York’s Wu Tang Clan). Like Common, there is plenty of political awareness. (“Dimebag-ass niggas ain’t large/When the Patriot Act come hit they ass with a terrorist charge/And we is what they made it for/You think it’s all about Arabs? It’s a war on the poor,” he raps on the opening “Dynomite.”) And like Twista, there are occasional forays into the realm of the politically incorrect—though Rhymefest’s sense of humor and Regular Guy attitude save him from sexist pandering or empty gangsta boasting. That humor couples with his relentless enthusiasm to form two of the three keys to his appeal.

The final factor: his work ethic. You just have to root for guy for whom nothing has ever come easily. “This has truly been a blue-collar grind from day one,” Rhymefest says. “Let me tell you all the things I was competing with: ‘A battle rapper can never write a song.’ Then I gave them ‘Jesus Walks.’ So people said, ‘Well, that’s Kanye; Rhymefest will never get a deal.’ Then I got a record deal. And it was, ‘He got a record deal because of Kanye.’ Well, I went into that office with Clive Davis, and he said, ‘Let me see what you got.’ I said, ‘I’ve got a song with Kanye.’ And he said, ‘I don’t want to hear about Kanye! Tell me what you’ve got.’ And I had to do my thing. “Now people say, ‘His album will never sell.’ So now what do I do? I get out here and I hit the road -- I perform and I prove them wrong. Every part of my career since the day I started writing has been a challenge, and I don’t expect it to stop now. But I can’t stop, man. This is what I do.”