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Omar Apollo
Omar ApolloPhotography Aidan Cullen

The new lo-fi DIY sound of America’s Midwest

A wave of artists like Omar Apollo, VICTOR!, and Family Reunion are making music that’s warm, intimate, and real

With more tools to write and release music than ever before and idiosyncratic tastes increasingly becoming de rigueur, many of America’s most creative young musicians have learned to create intimate, honest, and sweetly homespun songs by the brittle light of their MacBooks. Freed from tired genre constraints, able to easily work with artists hundreds of miles away, and encouraged by a more transparent culture to share their true identities and insecurities, this movement has found an eager audience who feel reflected by musicians who truly don’t live lives much different than their own.

While the US coasts are producing plenty of notable acts like ClairoBane’s WorldCuco, and Gus Dapperton, a vibrant, diverse scene is also brewing in the American Midwest. One of the most ubiquitous figures in this scene is Billy Lemos, an Iowa-based producer who recently released his second EP, Awkward. He’s been the connective tissue between indie rock/R&B hybrid Omar Apollo, gritty singer-guitarist Family Reunion, and pitch shifting chameleon Victor Internet, among plenty of other acts on the forefront. The loose collective of tech savvy teens and 20-somethings of varying ethnicities, genders, and sonic preferences are collaborating and releasing tunes at a furious rate.

Just as happened with hip hop in 2013, this Midwestern scene, which centres around Chicago, is drawing attention through a blend of rapped and sung vocals, dreamy jazz inflections, washed out guitars, and buoyant percussion. Lemos says many in the Midwest look to the sonic palette established by artists like Chance the Rapper and Noname, who’ve specifically worked with producer Cam O’Bi to craft tracks that are heavy on live keys, horns, and drums but retain a buoyancy and light touch. “It’s a style of production that we haven’t heard before underneath rap,” Lemos said.

That is on display on Lemos’ second EP Awkwardwhich features his Midwestern peers like the melodic rhymer VICTOR!, psychedelic singer-guitarist Family Reunion, and neo-soul crooner Kopano. And it’s also evident in the warm, authentic, attitude-filled music of his peers, along with their emphasis on saturated surreal collars and penchant for either all caps or lowercase letters. All of this is why we asked Lemos to pick and discuss a few of the most essential tracks from his region’s nascent DIY landscape.

SON!, “LINGO”

With its lonely synths and thumping low end, “LINGO” has shades of Brockhampton, with Son! proving himself capable as both an MC and a singer. “Used to think I’d die by my 21st birthday / But I’m still alive, even I couldn’t hurt me,” he says with an air of weary triumph. Many Chicago rappers have spoken candidly about mental health, with artists like Saba, Chance the Rapper, Noname, and Vic Mensa all unafraid to discuss their personal struggles, and Son! seems capable of carrying that heavy burden.

Lemos says he first heard Son!’s music “reposted on SoundCloud of Fresh Finds”, and was intrigued by the way he used his voice as a synthesiser. “His synth shit is super interesting,” he says. “He’ll use his voice as a synth in his production. He covers a bunch of genres with his music. He’s really genuine.”

OMAR APOLLO, “ROKIT”

A versatile, multi-faceted artist, Omar Apollo has steadily built a strong following with his blend of indie R&B and dreamy alternative rock. “rokit” is an early cut from before his breakout project Stereo, but it illustrates the sweetness and melancholy of Apollo’s music, which frequently features ambulatory bass lines and rich, dusty percussion. The warm instrumentals of tracks like “rokit” and “Ignorin” allow Apollo to experiment with his delivery and reach into an intriguing falsetto. Apollo, who frequently sings in his first language, Spanish, is one of several prominent Midwestern artists with Latinx roots (others include VICTOR! and the singer Kaina).

“rokit” is one of Apollo’s older songs, originally appearing on his SoundCloud before he dropped his debut EP Stereo. “(This song) is crazy shit,” Lemos says. “I remember when I first found him, he had, like, 500 followers, and this was one of the songs on there. It had no plays and I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ It’s just early potential from Omar.”

BLAKE SAINT DAVID, “FIND ME A GIRLFRIEND YALL”

Built on warm organs and thick snares, Blake Saint David’s “find me a girlfriend yall” is a charming, low-budget recreation of a blockbuster love song that hinges on the vocalist’s charisma. Of their music, Saint David, who is non-binary, has said in a press release that “I just want to show people that it’s okay to be themselves, and talking isn’t the only way to effectively commun their feelings.” Often opting for rich, low keys, Saint David gives ample room to their versatile, emotional voice, which is as powerful crooning as it is rapping or cloaked in Auto-Tune.

“Blake Saint David is one of VICTOR!’s friends,” Lemos explains. He has a lot of potential, and I don’t know, I feel like it’s a unique sound. It sounds like some Justin Timberlake shit, but it has its own production to it.”

VICTOR!, “U GOT MY”

Intimate yet urgent, “U GOT MY” is powered by VICTOR!’s falsetto, which raise the stakes of the song’s fairly straightforward message: call me. The 17-year-old VICTOR! (who also goes by Victor Internet) crafts love songs for warm nights and musty basement parties, equally inspired by R&B and dance pop as they are by lo-fi indie rock. “This song is Childish Gambino-influenced, but once again with the drums and the way the synths are and his cadence are all his own. VICTOR! is wild,” says Lemos.

FAMILY REUNION, “HOW I FEEL”

An entrancing singer and guitarist whose sweet songs have a serrated edge, Family Reunion’s music has the most alternative rock shades of this group, at its best recalling a more uptempo version of UK artists like King Krule or Nilüfer Yanya. “How I Feel” is dancey, with flecks of funk guitar, but the burning truth at the center of the track is belied by her vocals. “I wish that you loved me for the right reasons,” she sings on the hook.

“Her sound is cool because it’s definitely super alt-rock; I think she was in a punk band before, and so she has very different influences than most of the people making DIY music,” Lemos says. “Her vocals especially come off very differently, and her usage of the guitar.”

SEN MORIMOTO, “PEOPLE WATCHING”

“I write songs everywhere I go, everywhere I land / I don't have a band, I don't need a band / I wrote songs in Japan on my Grandma's baby grand / She was dancing, clapping her hands.”

“People Watching”is one of the standout tracks from producer/vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Sen Morimoto’s gorgeous grabbag of an album, Cannonball!, and the lyrics above sum up the prolific Morimoto’s ethos. It’s a 2018 Chicago music cram session, one in which the same tracks can contain elements of footwork, horn-laden gospel rap, and laidback indie rock in their four-minute runtime.

Morimoto has worked with Midwestern artists from cerebral rapper Saba to eclectic multi-instrumentalist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya to rising singer Kaina, with his boundless versatility perfectly embodying the city’s DIY spirit. He’s also affiliated with the influential 88rising crew, which champions Asian acts in hip hop and R&B. “This dude is super well respected within Chicago. He’s just super talented,” Lemos says. “He has a bunch of diverse shit and can be very experimental, but this shit is cool.”

SÓL, “ARIES”

A gifted singer whose music blends singer-songwriter warmth with the sleek bounce of modern indie R&B, Sól has hit upon a beguiling sound that is on full display with “ARIES.” She’s still new to music, but in a crowded subgenre has put her own spin on an oft-used style by making lush yet lo-fi harmonies. “That’s somebody I found out about through VICTOR!,” says Lemos. “I think I’m going to make a bunch of music with her. Her voice is really cool, and the production choices are interesting. She’s just starting out, but I feel like she has a lot of potential.”

Listen to Billy Lemos’s Awkward EP below: