The leader of Chicago’s most exciting new hip hop collective on the importance of LGBTQ+ family, and imagining a future sound for the city
Erik Wallace always felt a maternal instinct. When the rapper, DJ, actor, artist, and co-founder of the Futurehood record label was growing up in Chicago, people used to remark on how closely they resembled their mother. Today, motherhood for Wallace takes on a slightly different form. “I’ve realised that, through my artistry and my expression, I’ve amassed a family,” Wallace says. “Not only do I look just like my mother, I’ve become her.”
It’s Black Friday when we meet at Barneys on Chicago’s Oak Street, and Wallace is taking three of their ‘daughters’, Elijah, Joy, and Skylar, on a shopping trip. Wallace started to take on the nickname ‘mom’ amongst Futurehood’s artists a few years ago thanks to the leadership role they occupy within the label, and the name has since been adopted by the wider Chicago queer scene that they’re a part of. It’s only appropriate, then, that the new album from Mister Wallace, their musical alter ego, is titled Cool Mom.
Mister Wallace has been a fixture of Chicago’s underground music and art scenes for a few years now, initially making their mark with Banjee Report, their duo with rapper, DJ, and producer Anthony ‘aCeb00mbaP’ Pabey. But it was Wallace’s 2016 debut EP, Faggot, that showed their talent as a solo artist. “It Girl”, an underground hit mashing together ballroom, house music, and more hard to classify experimental club styles, captured Wallace’s brash, confrontational rap style. Cool Mom, released earlier this month, is both a continuation of and departure from this sound – Wallace’s lyrics are as sharp as ever, but they move away from the more brash and upfront style of their earlier releases towards something more edifying and vitalising.
As Wallace explains, they’ve come to Barneys for inspiration. In a few hours’ time, they’ll perform at Subterranean, a dimly lit club in Chicago’s Wicker Park, as part of the city’s month-long Red Bull Music Festival. The event is a showcase for Futurehood, which Wallace set up in 2016 alongside their Banjee Report partner Pabey as a media platform and collective for LGBTQ+ rappers, producers, DJs, and singers, taking their homegrown talent to the world. Wallace wants to pick up a new outfit to wear on stage. Barneys itself is prohibitively expensive, but they might get an idea for something similar that they can pick up for cheaper down at the mall.
There’s another reason they’re here, too. Joy has never been to Barneys, and Wallace, like any cool mom, wants to treat them to a luxury experience. The group strut through the store’s five floors, checking out dresses, bags, and shoes from high fashion labels. Wherever they go, people’s attention follows. Wallace is hard to miss – they wear their hair with a 50/50 split dye, and they have a tall, slender physique, as if they’re about to step onto a catwalk – but the others are all also dressed to impress, and happy to cause a ruckus in the store. It’s something that Wallace seems to revel in: “I can get anybody’s attention,” they say later. “I’m a cool mom, but I’m also just a cool ass person. I talk to people, and I continue talking to them to the point where I can’t go out without people talking to me.”
Erik Lamar Wallace II’s path to making music was fairly straightforward for a high schooler growing up in a religious household: choirs, church, and musical theatre. In 2005, their senior year, they tried out for American Idol, but gave up on the idea of conventional stardom fairly quickly. They wrote poetry, too, which led fairly naturally to rapping – especially in Chicago, where genres like hip hop and house music are part of the city’s musical legacy. “It’s building blocks, like DNA,” Wallace says. “The majority of black Americans haven’t had access to generational wealth, but we are rich beyond our wildest dreams because all of the greatest American inventions – in entertainment, in sport, in everything – are our inventions and our legacy. They are our inheritance.”
“People who go through (trauma), it’s hard for them to give more of themselves because they’ve given so much already. They’re tired. I have a lot to give, and I’m going to continue to give it” – Mister Wallace
Growing up, Wallace remembers their grandmother’s interest in modelling, fashion, cinema, and ballet, something they passed some of that on to the rest of the household. Their parents would play Biggie and Tupac in the car, while an older cousin used to play Jay-Z records, and they gravitated towards female rappers like Trina and Lil Kim. Nicki Minaj was particularly inspiring, especially the way she engaged with different alter egos and characters in her music. “I was like, ‘Oh, maybe hip hop is ready for someone like me,’” Wallace says. It’s something that they bring to the Cool Mom persona, ostensibly a being from the future sent back in time to infiltrate the media and rectify the hate that exists today.
The fact that they were in a religious household caused some tension when Wallace came out, but they say that a lot of this was simply down to fear and ignorance, not hatefulness. One day, Wallace was wearing Versace shirt that they’d inherited from a cousin, who had tragically died from Aids-related complications. When their mother saw it, she freaked out. “A, it was a sentimental item,” Wallace says, “but B, it was me kind of stepping into that role. He died, she watched his mother bury him, and she didn’t want to do that for me.”
Ultimately, though, they overcame these conflicts. “I had a lot of negative experiences and trauma, as all people do,” they say, “but talking to so many of my daughters, who either don’t have parents because of tragedy, or don’t have a relationship with their parents because of their identities, I had to reckon with myself and say, ‘Girl, you didn’t have it that bad!’ And because you didn’t have it that bad, you are that much more ready to give more of yourself. People who go through it, it’s hard for them to give more of themselves because they’ve given so much already. They’re tired. I have a lot to give, and I’m going to continue to give it. That’s the way I was raised.”
After exhausting the options at Barneys, Wallace and their daughters head down to Water Tower Place, a shopping mall a few blocks over. Throngs of shoppers are flooding the mall’s forecourts, looking for Black Friday deals. After a few false starts, Wallace finds a store that works, trying on a few different boots and heels before finding a pair that comfortably fit. As they slip them on, they come alive, dancing and twerking around the store. Some silver leggings, a purple sequined skirt, and a metallic blue hoodie complete the look.
Fashion has always been one of Wallace’s major interests. When they were younger, a cousin introduced them to Oscar de la Renta’s website. “From there, it was, like, a world,” they say. Wallace has been collecting fashion magazines since they were 16, and they talk passionately about tomes like the since-shuttered NYC mag BULLET, and the all-black issue of Vogue Italia that they still have in storage somewhere, preserved in plastic. They talk about their dreams of being a designer, and their love of brands like Telfar, Hood by Air, and Loewe, as well as newer, genderfluid labels like LA’s No Sesso and local Chicago imprint Rebirth Garments.
Had things gone a little differently, Wallace might have ended up working in the fashion industry today. They used to work in retail, and by the sound of things, they were pretty good at it. At one luxury boutique, they sold over a million dollars worth of stock in their first year working there – but the racism and the homophobia of the customers took its toll, and they left. Later, they worked for a tailoring brand, even moving to Europe to train on their management scheme – but they were fired on spurious grounds. (Wallace describes their boss there as a “homophobic closeted queen”.)
“I aspire to be the life coach of the world. It’s me expressing parts of myself, and allowing myself to care for other people as if they are my own” – Mister Wallace
Being abroad had an upside, though, in that it gave Wallace the space to re-evaluate what they wanted to do when they got back to the States. Back in Chicago, Wallace decided to dedicate themselves to music, initially with Banjee Report and later with their Mister Wallace solo music. After releasing Faggot and getting some buzz around “It Girl”, Wallace and aCeb00mbaP did what lots of artists do to take their career to the next level – they moved to New York City. “I saw that people in New York were getting traction in hip hop and in the press, so I thought that would be the move for me,” Wallace says. “And it did work out for me, in a way. But I don’t know if I needed to go there to do that.”
Wallace elaborates on this later, when we stop off at a nearby Chick-fil-A for what they jokingly call “shameful chicken” (the owners of the fast food company are notoriously reactionary, publicly speaking out against gay rights and donating millions of dollars to anti-LGBTQ+ charities). “New York is fake,” Wallace says bluntly, sitting down to eat with Joy, Skylar, and Elijah. “Most of the girls are not even from there. Chicago is real.” Wallace motions down the long table. “These are my daughters. Joy has never been to Barneys, I wanted to give her that. That was a real experience. I’m real. I needed to come back to Chicago to be a real ass peron.”
Launching Futurehood was a way to reconnect with what’s real. The label has an egalitarian approach. “I don’t want to own your music, I don’t want to make money off of your music,” Wallace says, adding jokingly: “I am actually more talented than you, so I can make money off my own music. And I wanna do movies. So leave me alone!” While Futurehood does work with artists outside of the city, Wallace says that they wanted the label to be “a representative of Chicago”. This meant both building on, and breaking away from, what the city has done before. On the one hand, Wallace says that “house and hip hop are in my physical DNA.” On the other, they add, “I’m not confined by the word ‘hip hop’, by the word ‘house’. I’m not confined by the word ‘queer’. We’re beyond that, we’re moving forward. Let’s imagine new words, let’s imagine new ideas.”
This tension, of wanting to be a representative of your city while transcending it, of wanting to platform LGBTQ+ talent without being pigeonholed by it, is one that Wallace and Futurehood are navigating. Something that they return to throughout our conversation is their frustration with the term ‘queer rap’, and how it can be stifling even when it’s well-meaning. Until recently, there haven’t been many out artists in hip hop, but Wallace says they didn’t need these sorts of figures to be able to develop an original style. “There’s a lot of flamboyancy and charisma and animation in hip hop, like Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes,” Wallace says. “I didn’t need a gay version of Jay-Z to emulate. I’m creating an archetype.”
They talk about their desire to grow beyond the underground while still developing something that’s as self-sustaining as other black, queer scenes, like ballroom. Their hope is that they can make music that challenges people without them even realising. “I can get somebody to absentmindedly listen to me while I’m re-calibrating their brain,” Wallace says. “I’m an evil genius bent on world domination, so I feel like I’ve picked this medium because I knew that it would be impactful. The largest consumer of hip hop is white men, and that’s the person that I need to push the furthest. I’m definitely trying to articulate my experience and my point of view, and talk to my community and people who look like me, but it doesn’t end there.”
That’s something they wanted to challenge with their Red Bull show, too. “The idea behind the show was to bring the best and the brightest talent of Chicago together in one room, period,” Wallace says. “It’s not about being queer, it’s not about being black. It’s about being good at what you do, and proud of who you are.”
At the show itself, Mister Wallace gets on-stage after sets by Futurehood artists KC Ortiz and Roy Kinsey, and RuPaul’s Drag Race star The Vixen. The stage is set up to look like the bridge of a spaceship, depicting the cosmos ahead. “The thing I’m trying to escape is white supremacy,” Wallace says. “That’s the idea behind the sci-fi, to say ‘Fuck you. The gayest black people will be in the future, and we have our own fucking spaceship.” Wallace’s metallic hoodie shimmers from the projection. Closing the set with “Shoes On”, the final track from Cool Mom, Wallace brings their daughters to the front of the stage. The song addresses them directly in its melodic bridge: “I made this song for SkyShaker, and my daughter, Rozay Labeija,” Wallace sings, rather than raps. “My baby girl, Eli, we living this high life.”
Wallace may have aspirations as big as traversing the universe and dismantling white supremacy, but closer to home, what they really aim to be is the coolest mom. “I aspire to be the life coach of the world,” they say. “It’s me expressing parts of myself, and allowing myself to care for other people as if they are my own, as if they came out of my body.”