Chance the Rapper: changing the face of hip hop

A young Chicago rapper is showing aspiring youths how to establish their voices in the hip-hop world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 7:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 7:11pm


On a brutally cold late winter afternoon, an open-mic event at the Chicago Cultural Centre was packing them in. More than 250 high school students lined up to enter the Claudia Cassidy Theatre, where their school IDs were checked by young adults wearing black "Social Experiment Staff" T-shirts.

On stage, the first performer found himself standing in a familiar position, one he had occupied for years when he was a no-name would-be rapper from 79th Street on the South Side of Chicago. Once again at the microphone with all eyes on him, it was time to show and prove. Only this time Chancelor Bennett - aka Chance the Rapper - wasn't nervous, but peered out from beneath his black baseball cap with a broad, welcoming smile.

"Young creatives!" Chance shouted over an eruption of cheers. "In life, it's important to have a democratic means to talk to people … so become acquainted with each other. This is your own space, and you should be able to say what you want to each other."

The 21-year-old MC, with poet Malcolm London at his side, was carrying on a tradition that had become like a second family to him. It was here on these impromptu stages at Chicago's Harold Washington Library YouMedia Centre, Columbia College and elsewhere, under the tutelage of such community builders as the late "Brother Mike" Hawkins and Kevin Coval, that he found his voice, and attended workshops that helped him record his music - music that is now transforming contemporary hip hop.

[Chance’s voice] was against the grain and required more work from listeners

"I started hitting the open mics when I was about 14, 15" and a student at Jones College Prep High School in Chicago's Loop, Chance says. "I got into competitions, I learned about the business, I learned how to present my music and make it pop. I learned how to spoon-feed my music to people who were open to hearing it."

Now Chance is one of the most talked-about new voices in hip hop - all without selling any albums. His free mix-tapes 10 Day (2012) and Acid Rap (2013) created such a stir he played sold-out club and theatre concerts throughout the country last year, while gaining nearly 900,000 Twitter followers.

He closed the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago last summer, and he's headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago in July with his band the Social Experiment. Any day now, there'll be a new Social Experiment album, Surf, released under the name of Chance's trumpet player, Donnie Trumpet, aka Nico Segal, another veteran of the Chicago open-mic scene.

Chance initially struggled to find his voice, but he was industrious, producing a mix-tape for each year he was in high school, recording under pseudonyms such as Instrumentality and Chano.

However, it was a tragedy that put Chance's future in deeper focus. He had been friends with another local rapper, Rodney Kyles, 19, and the two were walking through a Lincoln Park neighbourhood on a late summer night when they were confronted by a group of young men. A brief scuffle broke out and Kyles was stabbed to death.

"He showed me his new mix-tape that night," Chance says. "It was a wake-up call: 'What is your purpose?' I had to confront realities that I was not aware of. I was young, and you realise there are people who don't ever fully become adults. That was a moment where you realise you need to grow up.

"The idea of having friends who passed before they were 16, 17, you realise other people who aren't from here aren't like that, and they fear us. In Chicago people are afraid, too. So to say, 'I know you're scared,' it's a kid speaking to an adult, to anyone who is outside this. He's saying, 'I'm in the same position, I'm scared, too.' I can't be inattentive or unprepared. Because they could pull on me at any time. It's fear of the next step.

"If everyone would stop and say how they feel, we might realise we have a lot more in common than we thought."

Kyles' death focused Chance's determination to make his 10 Day mix-tape his break-out project. With a mixture of rowdiness, off-the-wall humour and introspection in heavy-hitting songs such as Missing You and Hey Ma, Chance merged his skills as a lyricist and arranger with the musicianship of collaborators such as Segal and keyboardist Peter Cottontale, another future Social Experiment member.

The music was more diverse, the subject matter less brutal than drill, the prevailing sound of Chicago hip hop at the time, as epitomised by Chief Keef, King Louie and others.

"Some people had problems with Chance's voice; it was different and the music wasn't something you could pop with the drill drums," says Alex Fruchter, editor of the influential hip-hop website Ruby Hornet and founder of the Closed Sessions record label. "It was against the grain and required more work from listeners. I would bring up his name at [tastemaker magazine] Fader and certain record labels - 'I think this kid is really good' - and I got laughed out of their offices."

But some critics and fans paid attention, and they liked what they heard. "Drill was a snapshot of what happens in an impoverished area, and it was shocking, raw," Fruchter says. "What Chance was able to do, he showed Chicago, but also the larger music scene, that's not the only experience for youth in this city. This is what it could be if you seek things out."

Chance expanded his live set-up in 2013 to include a full band, which he dubbed the Social Experiment, including a triumphant homecoming show at a sold-out Riviera Theatre. The following summer he played a prime-time Sunday-night slot at Lollapalooza, and he and the band - Segal, Cottontale, Fox and drummer Greg Landfair - forged a bond that carried over into studio recording. An EP that Segal was plotting as the debut Donnie Trumpet release morphed into Surf, a full-blown album with the other four Social Experiment members supporting the trumpet player.

The Social Experiment has evolved into a shape-shifting, genre-leaping show, with improvised solos topping a solid foundation of melodies and Chance out front showing a wider range of vocal styles and dance moves. The revenue rolls in from the shows and a booming merchandise business, but the recorded music continues to flow in a steady stream notable for its quality and mind-bending diversity, and not its chart-topping sales: Surf, like the other Chance projects, will be a free release.

For Chance, the idea behind the Social Experiment is that it is more than a band, it's something of a mission statement. It's the open-mic events, it's building a community in which artists talk to other artists, where everyone is both a consumer and a creator, and it's about a business model that puts the "young creatives" in charge.

"People say, 'Why'd he put this out for free?'" Chance says. "Why? Because it puts the focus on the music instead of the money behind it. We're trying to bend genres, play with time and presentation. It makes people want to dive in. When people have that interaction, it's healthier for the artist and the music.

"There will be a lot of kids who will want to play the trumpet because of this project. Music was a first-person experience before the industry came along, and it will be again. We'll be a success because we're early in recognising that. The revolution is coming. Where do you want to be when it happens?"

Tribune News Service