Hip hop's new court jester talks acid, Chi-raq and the road to MVP
Seated outside a hotdog shop in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, Chance The Rapper is telling me how it feels to be on acid. “It makes you ask a lot of questions,” he says in a nasal, almost cartoonish voice. “You always want to know where your jacket is, or if everyone knows you’re on acid, or if they should know you’re on acid, or if it’s OK that you’re on acid.”
He pauses, slurping his neon-pink strawberry lemonade. “Acid opened me up, that’s really what it is. Like shrooms with less visuals.”
Quick-witted but hazy-eyed, 20-year-old Chance has come straight from an all-night studio session in downtown LA. His buddy Skrillex has offered a place to crash in his nearby loft but Chance opted instead to steal some recording time in the midst of an increasingly insane schedule. Less than a month after his mixtape Acid Rap was downloaded 50,000 times in the first night of its datpiff.com release, the unsigned Chicagoan is in high demand: calls from Mark Ronson and Diplo, dinner meetings with Q-Tip, record-label execs hovering like hawks.
Easygoing Chance takes it all in his stride. Mention a recent shout-out from one of his biggest influences, James Blake, and his face splits into an endearing fanboy smile — “Crazy, right? Crazy!” — but otherwise he’s unfazed by the trappings of his newfound stardom.
“I’m kinda numb to all the extras. As a music fan, it’s ill — I’m taken aback by working with certain artists or performing in certain places — but as an artist, I kinda got past being surprised last year. When I jumped on tour with (rapper) Childish Gambino, that was the most amazing thing that could happen to me.” Gambino, who signed Chance to last summer’s Camp tour, returns the praise: “Chance has got the verbal ability and he’s a performer. That doesn’t happen all the time.”
If Chance’s 2012 debut mixtape 10 Day was “a very strongly worded resignation letter” produced by an angry (if eloquent) schoolboy during a ten-day suspension from high school, then Acid Rap is a powerful statement from hip hop’s most promising valedictorian. “When I made 10 Day I only listened to Eminem and Kanye, because those were the two rebellious, school-related artists that I liked and wanted to present,” Chance says. “With Acid Rap, I allowed myself to be really open-minded and free with who I allowed into my musical space. I wanted to make a cohesive product, but I also just want to make a bunch of dope songs inspired by whatever sounds I liked.”
Despite insisting that he’s “far from a hip hop historian,” Chance’s references stretch far and wide. On the freewheeling Acid Rap, he resurrects his hometown’s rich musical past with Kanye-style soul samples, energetic juke and footwork soundbites and R Kelly-esque R&B breakdowns. He acknowledges that hip hop’s 90s golden era was “where I got my style from,” citing LA alternative rap collective Freestyle Fellowship’s 1993 Innercity Griots (released in the year he was born) as a defining influence on his own melodic flow.
“(Freestyle Fellowship rapper) Aceyalone was the first person I heard use melody in hip hop, and I was like, ‘This is rap. Not even rap; this is jazz. But I’ll accept this as rap.’ A lot of people want to separate the two.” He launches into Aceyalone’s intro to “Inner City Boundaries” by way of illustration, sing-scatting his way through the mellifluous tangle of words with ease.
There’s an improvisational streak to his personality, too. “He’s dynamic, fun loving, very happy-go-lucky,” says his gentle, 23-year-old giant of a manager, Pat Corcoran (aka Pat The Manager), “but he’s also very cranial. He’s thinking a lot – and deeply.” When we arrange to continue the interview at Gambino’s Pacific Palisades base camp later that afternoon, Chance insists on dipping into one of Venice Beach’s brash tourist shops to buy me a bikini so I don’t miss out on a chance to swim in the infinity pool. “That’s part of his purpose, to make people happier,” observes Corcoran. “It helps him to get what he wants, too. He has his way with people.”
Bouncing along the boardwalk, Chance’s open, welcoming energy attracts a never-ending procession of Venice Beach weirdos. Some ask to bum one of the Marlboro 27s he smokes incessantly and dispenses freely; others try to hawk CDs. Chance stops each time and listens patiently to their weak sales spiels, perhaps recalling a time not so long ago when he and Corcoran would put on free shows in local high schools and dispense copies of 10 Day outside Columbia College Chicago.
“Listening to Kanye was euphoric, like tripping for the first time. I could feel this anomaly in music, something I’d never heard before. I just felt that he was rapping about me”
At one point, an awkward teenage boy lumbers over to let us know that The Game is working out at a nearby open-air gym. Ever inquisitive, Chance saunters over to the bench where the former Dr Dre protégé is recovering from his pull-up session amid lycra-clad females and lingering fans. He cuts through the crowd confidently and sticks out his hand, “Nice to meet you, man. I’m Chance.” The Game peers up from beneath a towel and shakes it without a glimmer of recognition, but the younger rapper is unfazed. He lights another cigarette, nods back in the direction of the boardwalk. “Shall we skate?”
Born Chancelor Bennett in Chicago on April 26, 1993, Chance The Rapper’s backstory offers some explanation for his chameleonic persona. “I grew up between two places and that made me who I am,” he says, referring to his upbringing in the South Side hood of West Chatham and his education at the prestigious Jones College Prep High School. “I went to school downtown, a gifted school, and experienced a lot that made me grow into a multidimensional person.”
Raised on a strict diet of Michael Jackson and Prince, Chance’s first taste of hip hop came in 2004, when his parents allowed him to buy the clean edit of Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout. The ten-year-old Chancelor was hooked from the start. “It was euphoric,” he says of the experience, “like tripping acid for the first time. I could feel this anomaly in music, something I’d never heard before. I just felt that he was rapping about me.”
A few years later, Chance found his own voice through the YOUmedia Lyricist Loft, an open-mic event held every Wednesday at his local library. Delivering rap freestyles and spoken word in front of a regular audience gave Chance the opportunity to hone his now impeccable performance skills – onstage he jerks and fizzes with a vibrant energy that eludes many of his hip hop peers. “When I saw his live shows, I was really amazed,” says Gambino. “You don’t see a lot of rap acts, more so young acts, that can perform on that level.”
For Chance, there is little distinction between the open mic sessions of his adolescence and the stages he performs on today. “(Rapping) is being an orator: it’s public speaking. All the emotion you were trying to get across in the booth is right there again, but you have the ability to use your arms to say something.” His biggest oratorical inspirations are assassinated 60s civil-rights activist Medgar Evers and his own father, Ken Williams-Bennett, a government representative and former campaigner for Barack Obama. “My dad used to speak at events and he was so regal. He could say shit that translated everything he was as a man, and I’ve always wanted to do the same thing.”
Despite a slew of young rappers speaking for Chicago right now, Chance has proved the city’s most stirring narrator. Acid Rap might tell colourful tales of puppy love and LSD highs, but it also unveils the dark side of the city dubbed “Chi-raq”. “It wasn’t until I left that I realised it’s not weird to grow up in certain cities and, by the age of 27 or 28, for all of your friends to still be alive. I can think of a lot of kids that I knew in Chicago who were supposed to grow up but didn’t.”
One such kid was close friend Rodney Kyles Jr, a 19-year-old philosophy honours student who Chance watched die in a street stabbing in late 2011. On Acid Rap’s anthemic “Juice”, Chance laments things not being the same “since Rod passed”, and today he pinpoints his friend’s passing as the moment he lost his innocence. “Things were just better when we were kids, right?” he says, echoing a nostalgia for Nickelodeon videotapes and grilled-cheese sandwiches that permeates the entire album.
Despite a deep-rooted pride in his hometown, he remains realistic about Chicago’s bleak state of affairs. “There’s a lot of conflict and paranoia that plagues the city. That’s what perpetuates the violence – the fear that someone is trying to get you.” On Acid Rap’s haunting hidden track, “Paranoia”, he raps: “They murkin’ kids / They murder kids here / Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here.”
American media, he says, are wilfully ignoring an epidemic of grave proportions. “Cause we’re just poor black kids,” he shrugs. “Fuck the attitude of the nation — that’s just the attitude of the world: black kids are supposed to kill other black kids.”
Then, as if to avoid any accusation of pretension, he swiftly changes gears. “I’m not trying to be the new world leader or anything,” he insists, despite declaring himself Captain Save the Hood in his lyrics, and acknowledges that “...there’s a certain responsibility that comes with rap. I know that and I recognise it.” He sees music as a rare common denominator in one of America’s most segregated but culturally rich cities. “People (in Chicago) live separate lives but there’s certain shit we can connect on. I try to make my music one of those things.”
“There are so many questions that I'm trying to ask, and I'm still so far from being done saying what I gotta say”
In that spirit, he refuses to diss Chicago’s other young rap upstart, Chief Keef. There is a clear disparity between Chance’s soulful, sophisticated storytelling (“He could write about a doorknob and make it fascinating,” notes Skrillex) and 17-year-old Keef’s rudimentary drill music, which celebrates the gun culture that Chance condemns. Still, Chance insists that Keef’s nihilistic tales of hittas and “snitch niggas” – delivered over producer Young Chop’s menacing, trigger-happy beats – are just as valid as his own.
“Coming from my city, I can tell you he is not bullshitting about anything,” Chance insists. “He’s telling a story and he made a living off of it — a killing off of it — and I’m proud of him.” Chance rejects any comparison of their styles: “People want there to be two sides because they like the destruction of things, but we’re from the same place. Chief Keef is from Englewood, 69th and Normal. I’m from 79th and Princeton. We live 12 blocks from each other. It’s not like we’re coming from two different sides of the world at all. We’re just two different people.”
Later that day, Chance The Rapper is a world away from 79th and Princeton, having travelled up the Pacific Coast Highway in pilgrimage to The Temple, the rented hilltop mansion in the Pacific Palisades where Gambino is recording his new album. Engraved on a wooden placard by a vast bronze Buddha at the entranceway, the rules of The Temple are clear: “No shoes. No Tweeting or Instagramming. Work starts at 10am.”
In the late afternoon glow of LA’s cinematic golden hour, work – or some semblance of it – is in full flow. A large production team is filming a behind-the-scenes mockumentary about The Temple’s surreal shenanigans, and Chance has a starring role. On the mansion’s lush lawn, ATL rapper Trinidad Jame$ holds a stopwatch as Gambino and Chance engage in a push-up competition, puffing on a weed vaporiser pen and collapsing in laughter onto the grass between rounds.
Although he still hasn’t slept, Chance has knocked back four shots of 50 Cent’s Street King energy drink and his dreamy earlier fatigue is long forgotten. He bounces around the grounds performing like a seasoned pro, totally at ease with the camera. “He’s really good at a lot of things: singing, rapping, dancing,” observes Corcoran, watching through the house’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “I know he wants to win Grammys and host Saturday Night Live. He has very awesome aspirations. His dream wasn’t just to get signed, his dream was to be better than Jay-Z, Elton John and Michael Jackson all combined.”
“It wasn’t until I left Chicago that I realised it’s not weird to reach 27 or 28 and all of your friends still be alive. I can think of a lot of kids who were supposed to grow up but didn’t”
In the pursuit of this goal, Chance and Corcoran are regimented. “We run it like a team,” the manager says. “We make sure we practice: we focus and we visualise. We set goals. We train every day – if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse.” Earlier in the day, Chance had drawn a similar sporting analogy. “The weird thing about rap is that you don’t get compared in the same way that athletes do, even though it’s probably the most competitive sport in music. In basketball, they look at a player and say: this guy was the best in his prime at this sport. But in rap it’s not until you’re dead or retired that people think about it like that.”
Intent on becoming the “biggest rapper in the world,” Chance is wasting no time on the road to MVP. The rest of the year will be spent on tour (America with Mac Miller this summer, supporting Macklemore & Ryan Lewis in Europe in the autumn), with studio time and festival appearances snatched en route. In August he’ll headline a stage at Chicago’s Lollapalooza, describing the prospect as “a very powerful and inspiring thing.”
Although pretty much every major record label is knocking on his door, he’s in no rush to make the call. “At this point I’ve been wildly successful without having to actually sell an album,” he says. “Eventually I’m going to want to continue the growth, and be able to package and sell my shit overseas to a wider fanbase. But as for right now, everything’s cool.”
Back at the house, the shoot has wrapped and Chance is decompressing, watching the sun set over the Pacific. As we float in the infinity pool in our absurd Venice Beach swimwear – Corona-logo trunks for him, a tie-dye bikini with Jimi Hendrix logo for me – Chance becomes introspective again. “There’s a hunger in me that always wants to be creating and orating,” he says, “telling people something and giving them information and getting feedback.” He looks out from the pool’s edge at the darkening sky. “There are so many questions that I’m trying to ask, and I’m still so far from being done saying what I gotta say.”
Hair Shingo Shibata; make-up Aye Yokomizo; photographic assistants Jerome Corpus, Kit Leuzarder, Karen Goss; styling assistants Katelyn Gray, Julia Sanchis Meseguer
Taken from the August 2013 issue of Dazed & Confused