On a brutally cold late winter afternoon, an open-mic event at the Chicago Cultural Center was packing them in. More than 250 high school students lined up to enter the Claudia Cassidy Theater, where their school ID’s were checked by young adults wearing black “Social Experiment Staff” T-shirts.
Onstage, 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. 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 the Harold Washington Library’s YouMedia Center, 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.
“I started hitting the open mics when I was around 14, 15” and a student at Jones College Prep High School in the 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 mixtapes “10 Day” (2012) and “Acid Rap” (2013) created such a stir that he was playing sold-out club and theater concerts throughout the country last year, while accruing nearly 900,000 Twitter followers. He closed the Lollapalooza festival in Grant Park last summer, and he’s headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park 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.
As the parade of rappers, break-dancers, folk singers and poets performed at the Cultural Center open-mic event, Segal served as one of the black-shirted Social Experiment ushers, and then later took the stage to wail a few solos. He’s not just one of Chance’s closest friends and collaborators, he’s also part of a broader community effort that is reaching across geographic and racial boundaries in Chicago.
“I knew Nico as a friend before I even knew he played the trumpet,” Chance says. “At the open mics, that’s when I realized Nico does music.”
“Sometimes you fall flat on your face,” Segal says. “But those experiences shaped the musician I’ve become.”
Failure, false starts and tragedy helped shape the artist that Chancelor Bennett would become. He grew up in the Chatham home that had been in the Bennett family for decades, the oldest of two sons born to Ken Bennett, deputy chief of staff in the Chicago mayor’s office, and his wife, Lisa, who works in the Illinois attorney general’s office.
Young Chance was doing a Michael Jackson knock-off as a preschooler, an incorrigible entertainer who delighted performing in front of people, according to Ken Bennett. He was bowled over when he first heard the music from Kanye West’s 2004 debut album, “The College Dropout.” He heard an “individuality” and “innocence” in West’s music that fired his ambitions to become a rapper.
“As he got older, Chance said he wanted to be an entertainer and rapper,” Ken Bennett says. “I’ll say at one point I didn’t take that as being serious.”
Chance struggled to find his voice, but he was industrious, producing a mixtape for each year he was in high school, recording under pseudonyms such as Instrumentality and Chano. His style was still taking shape, but Alex Fruchter, former editor of the influential hip-hop website Ruby Hornet and founder of the Closed Sessions record label, saw him for the first time as the opening act on a local hip-hop bill at Subterranean in July 2011. “That was his first show outside the open-mic scene, and there were maybe 10, 15 people there,” Fruchter says. “Some new artists might have gotten very down, or thought of it as a personal slight that there were so few people there, and that disappointment can show in the performance. But he performed as if there were 100 people there, with energy and enthusiasm, and the songs, the voice … there was a rawness to how he told his story.”
A few months later, a tragedy 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 neighborhood 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 mixtape 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 realize there are people who don’t ever fully become adults. That was a moment where you realize you need to grow up.”
That reality hit home the next morning when he and his father had their first heart-to-heart in months. Their sparring about Chance’s future had escalated after his high school graduation.
“I wanted him to go to college, he wanted to do his music,” Ken Bennett says. “And then Rodney is killed, and you realize nothing is promised to anyone, especially these days. What really got me was that Rodney was a young man who enjoyed the arts. He was attending Roosevelt University. Here was a young man doing everything that I thought Chance should be doing, and still this young man wasn’t going home to his parents that night.
“I didn’t want to keep arguing with my son over what he was going to do with his life. I at least wanted him to know that Lisa and I were going to stick with him, no matter what. I said, ‘What if I give you a year?’ He said, ‘Dad, I can do this thing.'”
Chance had already started working on the mixtape that would become “10 Day” while he was suspended for smoking pot from Jones Prep a few months earlier. Ken Bennett had Chance report to his office downtown while his son was on suspension, to ensure he did his homework.
“Nine hours straight each day he’s working at a table across from me,” says Ken Bennett, who was working in the U.S. Department of Labor at the time. “I check with his teachers when he gets back to school and they say he still hadn’t turned in his homework assignments. I didn’t find out till several months later he was working on that mixtape.”
Rodney Kyles’ death focused Chance’s determination to make “10 Day” his breakout project. It started out as a joke named after his 10-day school suspension and turned into a yearlong project that wasn’t completed until the spring of 2012. With a mix of rowdiness, off-the-wall humor and introspection in heavy-hitting songs such as “Missing You” and “Hey Ma,” Chance merged his skills as a lyricist and arranger with the masterly 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 epitomized 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,” Fruchter says. “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 a number of 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.”
After “10 Day” was released, Chance forged a connection with Pat Corcoran, 25, a DePaul University student who was working behind the scenes for up-and-coming artists such as Kids These Days and Alex Wiley. Corcoran became his manager, even though he had no previous experience in the role, but Chance and his father had a hunch. “We had interviewed other candidates and they all wanted to know how Chance had built up a following,” Ken Bennett says. “It sounded like they were trying to learn from Chance instead of the other way around.” An impromptu conversation with Corcoran at a radio station impressed Ken Bennett, who saw the newcomer as someone who knew how to reach Chance’s fans because Corcoran was already one of them.
“Mr. Bennett was saying, ‘You’re not a pro, but you guys will learn together,'” Corcoran says. “I was blown away.”
Corcoran went to work on promoting Chance’s headlining concert at Lincoln Hall on June 8, 2012. It sold out, a rarity for a relatively unknown, 19-year-old local rap newcomer. At the same time, offers started trickling in. Chance opened a series of shows for rapper Childish Gambino, and hired one of the most respected booking agents in hip-hop, Cara Lewis. He reserved studio time three days a week in Chicago and began building musical and business relationships outside his immediate circle of local friends, including Los Angeles-based producer Nate Fox, who contributed key tracks to what would become Chance’s next release, “Acid Rap.” With heavy seasoning from keyboardist-producer Cottontale, as well as cameos from Chicago MCs such as Vic Mensa, Twista and BJ the Chicago Kid, “Acid Rap” was lyrically richer and more accomplished musically than anything Chance had done previously. Alongside the playfulness of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” the woozy “Juice” and the impressionistic “Acid Rain,” the suite-like “Pusha Man”/”Paranoia” was as incisive and moving a perspective on Chicago’s poverty-stricken killing zone as any piece of art released that year.
“I heard everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring / I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared too,” Chance rapped, as if reliving the death of Rodney Kyles.
The harrowing poetry of “Paranoia” “did a lot for me, did a lot for the kids in Chicago,” says Segal, sprawled backstage at Metro after a Social Experiment rehearsal. “It put into words what a lot of kids were thinking but didn’t know how to express. It (the high Chicago murder rate among young men) gets confusing for people who aren’t from here, but that song explained it.”
“You have to be around it, you get sensitive to the sound and sight of a fight, the way a gun sounds — it doesn’t sound like the movies,” Chance says. “The idea of having friends who passed before they were 16, 17, you realize 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. That song is saying if everyone would stop and say how they feel, we might realize we have a lot more in common than we thought.”
The bridge-building didn’t stop with a song. Chance expanded his live set-up to include a full band, which he dubbed the Social Experiment in the fall of 2013, 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.
It’s a sprawling album, encompassing Segal’s Cuban family roots, gospel, doo-wop, the avant-jazz of ’70s Miles Davis, Chicago juke and dub reggae. The focus is on Segal not just as a trumpet player but as a songwriter and producer, and he proves to be a fascinating talent in his own right. On “Surf,” Chance handles a heavy load as a rapper and co-producer, but he describes his role as the vocalist in Segal’s project, and future recordings are slated to highlight other members of the Social Experiment.
“With the voice and reach of Chance, it makes it easier for us to do what we want to do,” Segal says while previewing tracks for the album at Cottontale’s North Side apartment. “Rap started in small rooms and was built into huge arena music. … This is more of a personal adventure, a headphone record.” He’s not one for labeling music, but if pressed, he’d call it “world music.”
The sprawling “Surf” is another left turn in Chance’s trajectory. If the rapper were playing by the normal industry rules, he’d be working on his solo album follow-up to the celebrated “Acid Rap.” Corcoran acknowledges that “of course I want Chance to work on his own music, and he still does, there will be a Chance the Rapper album in the future. But they were having so much fun on the road and creating so much music together, it was an unstoppable thing.”
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 adding an increasingly confident array of dance moves. It turns out that early fixation on Michael Jackson did not go to waste. 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 consistent quality and mind-bending diversity but not its chart-topping sales. “Surf,” like the other Chance projects, will be free.
“What we’re doing is building a bunch of opportunities to work on other records, it will open doors,” Chance says of the new Social Experiment project. “But if I brought ‘Surf’ to a label, they’d say you can’t do this.” That explains why despite being courted by top executives at virtually every label, including Epic’s L.A. Reid and Interscope’s John Janick, over the last two years, Chance and Corcoran said no thanks. Instead, Corcoran oversees the business out of a North Side office with a half-dozen employees.
“Our mentality is this is open, this is free,” Corcoran says. “We’re not a major, we don’t have investors and parent companies that need to meet monthly profit margins. Chance has never sold a record, but I guarantee you he makes similar if not more money than some of the bigger acts. It’s not traditional, but it’s what feels good to us.”
For Chance, the idea behind the Social Experiment is that it is more than a band but 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 are gonna 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 recognizing that. The revolution is coming. Where do you want to be when it happens?”
Source: Chicago Tribune