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Rhymefest feature

| June 30, 2006

Keeps His Head Up

Rhymefest is no ass-kisser. In addition to having come up in the formerly overlooked Chicago market, his refusal to bow to anyone in the music industry is largely why it has taken this animated MC so long to get heard. It also explains why he has been fired from most of the 50-plus jobs he has held while trying to make music. But his stubbornness is precisely what helped turn ‘Fest from rapper by night to full-time recording artist.

“Usually, the problem was with me,” ‘Fest says of his employment woes. “I used to think, ‘Why is it that I can’t hold a job?’ I used to feel like a loser until the day I said, ‘Forget these jobs. I’m gonna rap.'”

While ‘Fest has been making tracks since the mid-’90s — the Molemen-produced Chicago anthem “How We Chill” being the first — it wasn’t until he began putting 100 percent of his energy into his music that he truly became noticed. Sure, his accomplishments over the past decade run deep, from his defeat of Eminem at the Scribble Jam MC battle in 1997 to winning a Grammy for co-writing Kanye West’s 2004 megaton hit “Jesus Walks.” But only recently has ‘Fest become “buzz worthy.”

Not that this MC’s working relationship with West has been anything but beneficial (how can a Grammy hurt?), but thanks mostly to NYC DJ/producer and Allido Records owner Mark Ronson, ‘Fest finally got a real shot of his own. “If you want to know the truth, Mark Ronson has helped me out more than Kanye. I toured with Mark Ronson around the world. We’ve been to Switzerland, Ireland, London — all types of places. We toured with Justin Timberlake and Sean Paul and Erick Sermon. So Mark Ronson taught me how to be a global artist.”

When ‘Fest was living in Indianapolis with his then wife, coming back and forth from Chicago to record, his demo was passed to Ronson through their mutual friend, DJ Indiana Jones. Once Ronson heard the demo, he was impressed enough by the charisma and wit he heard from the MC to head into the studio with him. “Rhymefest’s voice was just immediate,” says Ronson. Of all the artists Ronson worked with on his genre-bending party album, Here Comes The Fuzz, and elsewhere, it was ‘Fest who became the inaugural act singed to his Allido imprint. “With Rhymefest I knew there was something a little bit quirky and I could put him over a remix with the French band Air or take him to England and do these big dance festivals with 30,000 people. His appeal and his sense of universal-ness in his music is what was really appealing to me about him.”

‘Fest certainly has come a long way with his appeal since emerging with the Molemen a decade ago. On the subterraneous 1997 cut, “Keep The Fame” (with Vakill and Percee P), he openly denounced the spotlight of the industry; almost 10 years later, ‘Fest is ready to step out of the shadows. On his long overdue solo debut, Blue Collar (due July 11th on Allido/J), this South Side native is connecting with a variety of top-shelf producers, including West, No ID, Cool & Dre, and Ronson, to craft accessible hip-hop with a sense of humor and, usually, a message. With this album ‘Fest gets a little braggadocio (“Fever”) and even points out his own contradictions (“These Days”) — all atop an onslaught of radio-ready beats. “I definitely know that good music, period, is catchy,” says ‘Fest.

Above catchiness, however, this MC does feel a certain amount of responsibility to give listeners an alternative to the one-dimensional raps that currently flood the mainstream. “My thing about Blue Collar is that this is a new kind of working man,” ‘Fest says of himself in the third person. “This is a man who works for his community; this is a man who works for the hood. I don’t poverty pimp. A lot of dudes is out here talking about the hood — they talking about, ‘Yeah, we can sell drugs and pimp hoes and whatever they say in the hood ’cause that’s where it’s all good at.’ But they don’t live there. I live in the hoods of Chicago. I be on the West Side on Hamlin [Avenue]. I’m there — I’m in these classrooms speaking to children everyday. And these rappers that some people are liking, are really pimping them and exploiting them. So *Blue Collar is the new type of revolution, a new type of grind — a new type of work that I’m trying to get across and that’s being able to work for your community.”

As a lot of his raps are personal, ‘Fest is providing an example for the people as an MC who got to where he is by working hard, not by taking the easy way out — a rare occurrence in this day of get-rich-quick hustlers turned rappers. But that doesn’t mean he’s trying to be the one guiding light for the working-class community to follow. “I don’t know if I wanna give hope or inspiration — all I know is that if you wanna work, if you wanna achieve, if you don’t want to go to jail — know that that option is available too. And I don’t think rappers often give us many options. That’s what I’m doing that’s new and that’s unique to hip-hop for today.”

Perhaps his civil service-like approach helped entice J Records owner Clive Davis to ‘Fest — J being the label that will distribute his album and make his music within arms reach of just about any consumer. But in reality, it all came down to his mass appeal. In recalling the day he met with Davis and the staff at J, he says, “Some of the other A&Rs were like, ‘We don’t know about this guy,’ but when Clive met me, he looked at me, he listened to my music, he looked at me perform and he said, ‘Kid, you’re a star, and I know a star when I see one.'”

But even after getting the stamp of approval from certified tastemakers like Davis, ‘Fest says being in the same room with industry luminaries isn’t any more extraordinary than being in the presence of everyday people. Again, ‘Fest is by no means an ass-kisser.

“People ask me: ‘What’s it like to work with Kanye?’ ‘What’s it like to meet Clive Davis?’ — I’m not that type of person to be like, ‘Man, it was the greatest thing and this person is so godly,'” declares an agitated ‘Fest. “These people are men just like us. The problem with people is we don’t realize our potential. We don’t realize who we are. We look at other people as greater. We look at other people like mystical, magical, extra human people [like] Clive Davis and Kanye West, when really, that’s you! And if people stopped imagining other people as celestial beings so much, then we would realize who we are and we would all be celestial. We would all be Clive Davis, we would all be Kanye West — we would all be Rhymefest.”

And these are the words coming from a man who won’t admit to being inspirational. But in time, Rhymefest just may give Kanye a run for his money for being the most thought-provoking MC to hit mainstream airwaves in years.

Max Herman

Category: Features, Monthly

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