Although hype for Rhymefest's major-label debut, Blue Collar, officially got going last fall with the single "Brand New," anticipation (and expectations) for the Chicago rapper's ascent to the big time began growing long before he stepped into the studio. A longtime staple of Chicago's underground hip-hop scene, Rhymefest (born Che Smith) famously defeated Eminem at the 1997 Scribble Jam. Around that time, he also became friends with Kanye West. Rhymefest owes much of his current status to that relationship, but he's carefully avoiding West's coattails. After all, he helped create West's success; he co-wrote "Jesus Walks," from West's The College Dropout, and both of them took home Grammys when it won Best Rap Song in 2004. Two years later, Rhymefest has finally struck out on his own, and Blue Collar was worth the wait. Although the album seems rife with contradiction—it's light-hearted and witty, but serious and insightful, and lascivious yet conscientious—Rhymefest would argue that's just how life is. Before Blue Collar's release, he spoke to The A.V. Club about Kanye, dumbing down hip-hop, and his love of crack babies.
The A.V. Club: Your relationship with Kanye gets a lot of attention. How do you find a balance between letting that help you, and exploiting it?
Rhymefest: Well, number one, I'm not signed to Good Music [West's label], and that's obvious—because we're friends and I didn't want to exploit my friendship. Number two, it's not like I met Kanye once he blew. I was part of the machine that made Kanye West. I say to everyone: There's a Kanye around you right now. You find them, and you make something happen. I hang around talented people; passionate, talented people are drawn to one another. Now, I see new people coming up, and I'm hanging with them, building with them. Kanye is grateful to me, so Kanye calls me and says as a brother and a friend, "What do you need? How can I help you?" And there's been a lot of times when I've been like "Nah, it's cool. It's something I have to do." There's been times when he insists, "No, I have to be. Do you know I'm Kanye?" It's funny, the other week we were talking, and I was like, "When did you realize you were famous?" He gave me a classic Kanye answer. I thought he was going to say, "Man, I came off stage, and I looked at the crowd, and it was amidst the smoke, and God's grace coming down." I thought he was going to say that, and he was like, "Kindergarten." [Laughs.] I was like "Dude, you still you." [Laughs.] So with a guy like that, I don't want to ask him for too much, because obviously he already feels as though the show revolves around him. [Laughs.]
AVC: You've said that when people found out Kanye was going to be on this album, producers gouged you for beats.
RF: Have you heard that song where I dissed all the producers? This song is called "My Beat," where I made my own beat. I was like, "I'm tired of producers trying to charge me a whole bunch of money for tracks, so I made my own beat, and I'm going to rap over it."
AVC: That isn't on the record, is it?
RF: Nah, this is something I did. The beat's kinda wack, 'cause I made it. "All lot of people trying to gouge me on beats and tracks and features / you know who you are / we started with open budget / and they thought it was open season on Rhymefest / So I'm going to tell you exactly who it is that you shouldn't fuck with / I made my own track, man, check it out…" And then I go on to be like, "Yeah, Dr. Dre, you wanna to do beats for me now, fuck that, it's too late, the album's done. And ?uestlove, you wanna play drums while Rahzel play the guitar? Nah, fuck y'all, my album done, y'all never charge me."
Number one, I'm tired of producers running up on me with CDs with beats. That ain't how you make music. Quincy Jones didn't run up on Michael Jackson and be like, "Yeah, I got this beat for this song called 'Thriller'!" They sat in the studio, and he was like "Hmm hmm, girl," and Quincy was like, "Oh, hold on, I'll clear this shit." That's how you make music. That is how I made my album, with producers in the studio with ideas. I got Cool & Dre, Kanye West, No I.D. basically produced it, Mark Ronson, all making music. This is not a compilation record or a mix-tape. This is an album. Why should people buy Blue Collar? Because it's balanced, it's refreshing, it's music, it's entertainment, and it's a message of substance. I feel like producers sometimes get over easy. But the reason I made my own beat is because I knew it wouldn't be that great, and it showed that artists need producers too. It's kind of cynical on me. Joke's on me at the end—it ain't a hit record. It's kind of like I'm also saying even though I'm talking all this shit, at the end of the day, Nas needed Premier, Q-Tip, and all those people that helped do Illmatic. Jay-Z needed Kanye to help him do The Blueprint. You need producers—but I'm also saying, don't give me a CD with a track on it, and I rap over it, and they be like "That'll be $50,000."
AVC: How does Chicago affect how you write?
RF: I think Chicago is not a sound. Everyone asks about "the Chicago sound," but no one can really describe it. Because there is no sound. This is not like Atlanta, where you got crunk music. This is not the Bay Area, where you got hype music. This is Chicago, where it's a soulful sensibility. That's what music is like. This is the home of the blues. This is the house of house music… When you ask "Where does the writing style come from?", you have so much to choose from in Chicago. You have neighborhoods—Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the world, and I have been around the world, so I can say this from experience. You go to Indianapolis, Indiana, where the Klan formed, and you go through neighborhoods, and you see black people, white people, and everyone is living together. You come to Chicago, and here I am, I have a Grammy, and I walk across the street and I hear [car] doors lock… This is that place, where there's hate and love and everything in between. This is the middle, so you get everything here.
AVC: Is that why Chicago has become a center of socially conscious rap, like Common, Kanye, Diverse, and Psalm One?
RF: I do feel as though Chicago is not just conscious. You're leaving out Twista, Crucial Conflict, Do Or Die. Like I said, it's a sensibility. Even Da Brat is from Chicago. I feel as though everyone doesn't have to be that. But what Chicago is doing is, it has a flag in the ground for hip-hop. You have to have a certain standard to even break out from here, and even the ones you say "That ain't my kind of music," you can't say they're wack. They rap good. So Chicago, in my opinion, the artists, we are the last stand of hip-hop in the world, and I been around the world, so I can say that. You gotta talk about something. It has to have some type of substance, and that's what we stuck to. Chicago rap was no lie. Some Chicago rappers, that's their downfall. They concentrate too hard on their pain and their struggle, and not on the triumph that comes out of it. But that's what we are: We're soulful people.
AVC: So it isn't just the socially aware thing.
RF: It's not just that… This is not a game, this is our life, this is what we're bringing. How can the home of the blues produce rappers? True rap that describes what's going on is blues revisited. So how could the home of the blues produce rappers who don't show that same sentiment? They can't, 'cause that's where we come from.
And that's part of the reason I named my album Blue Collar. This is a blue-collar region, this is a blue-collar country, this was the country that was built by blue-collar workers. My thing is, this album represents the struggle, the work it that takes to become a superstar, that it takes to change your community. Because I am not out here trying to hurt people, sell people drugs, pimp nobody. For those who say, "That backpack rap, that's not really the hood," let's talk about that. These are lines and divisions that were drawn up by labels in order to market and sell to certain audiences easier. So now we're caricatures of ourselves and what they made us? We're going to label ourselves? If you go to the black community—we can go where I'm from, 95th and Jeffery—you won't see one person on the corner selling drugs. But you may see seven people at the bus stop going to work.
So what's really hood? Who's telling their story? We talk about glorifying selling drugs, we talk about glorifying going to the club. Our whole life is based out of the club. We talk about that, but who's talking about the mothers that leave their kids at home, and the 5-year-old is the oldest one taking care of the 3-year-old and the 2-year-old? And the mother is on the drug binge, so the kids are eating the paint chips off the wall. Who is talking about that? There used to be a debate in hip-hop. There used to be like, "Don't do drugs, we know that they're in our community. We know there are drug dealers, but drug dealers are really wack." That's not even a fucking debate anymore about it. It's like, "You gotta eat, G. You gotta do what you gotta do." That's bullshit. We talk about strippers in the club—I got songs about it. Everything I am saying to you, I am guilty of, and I'm bringing around to the point.
We talk about strippers and how girls shake their shit, but who is talking about the fact that 75 to 80 percent of strippers were molested or sexually or physically abused? And sometimes when you go smack that girl's ass, and you think, "I'm having a good time," you are just another abuser in her life? Who is telling her story for real? I'm not saying that it's wrong to enjoy yourself or to go see strippers. I am not even saying that it's wrong to sell drugs. Some people feel like, "There is nothing else I can do, and I want to be a provider, and this is the only thing I think I know." I am saying that in music, we need balance—and if you're going to talk about this, [then] talk about this. On the Blue Collar album, whatever you choose to call me, whatever label you choose to put me on, I'm creating something that is fresh in hip-hop, which is balance. You know the humor, the cynicism, the seriousness, I know it's complex, and they say "Dumb it down."
AVC: Why is that?
RF: They say "Backpackers don't sell records. That ain't what the radio plays." Let's talk about the numbers. Let's look at the reality of it. You may have a song that's like "Booty booty booty booty rockin' everywhere." If you compare the first week's sales to that of Ghostface, who didn't really get that much radio play, Ghostface fared better than that. You may have a song like "Laffy Taffy"—everybody upset because it's on the radio all day, number-one ringtone download—but why are you upset? [D4L] can't even go gold. But then you take somebody like Kanye West. They didn't really play "Diamonds [From Sierra Leone]" on the radio for a long time—they only played it on the basis of his name. But had it been anybody else, they wouldn't have played it at all. They play "Gold Digger," but that because it's a negative connotation of a woman. He sold three million records based off substance, based off people were drawn and liked him. You could go on and on: OutKast. Who knew "Hey Ya!" would make it in urban radio? Ten million records. Where's J-Kwon at? Where are all these other guys? They got all this radio play.
What I'm saying is that we sell records, but somebody is scared somewhere of having these guys as a commercial force. I don't know why, and I don't know who, and I won't say "they." We in hip-hop, especially the purists, like to complain a lot. Before we complain, look at the fact that people with substance, they haven't had a record on the radio for five years, and they still tour and have a career and make lots of money. We're the ones that are the feet of the culture and the music. We are the one who people are buying the records. So I submit that there is a place for people with substance. The only problem is this: that we don't come back to the community, so the community doesn't relate to us in the same way. Artists have to jump out of the videos, off of the stage, out of the big screen, and back to the 95th and Jeffery, 87th and Stony, 63rd and whatever. We have to, so that the children can look at us and see us as an option of how they can be. If they only see us on TV, they're going to be like, "Oh, that ain't hood." That's what part of that comes from. Part of that is our problem, is all our fault. It ain't all radio, it ain't all TV, it ain't all media. You can see these guys in the community, and they may not be doing good things for the community, but we are where? We can do good things—why aren't we doing them? Sometimes we're just as bad under the self-righteous act.
AVC: That community focus leads to something else about you. A lot of the press for this record has been, "He's anti-bling. He's not singing about drugs." "Oh, here's a rapper who isn't singing about crack babies!" You've gotta pick up on the condescension in that.
RF: I think they try to make it like "Oh, he's a good guy, you should like him," but they don't realize that they're fucking flushing my credibility down the toilet. I love crack babies! [Laughs.] My Cadillac Escalade is parked downstairs. It's not that I'm not for it. People always think that either you're for it, or you're not for it. Either you're this or you're that. But we know, even from looking at what's going on with these Marines in Iraq. They're like, "Well they're good military," but sometimes slaughters happen.
We know that things are not black and white. But we want to make our artists like that, our music like that. Man, that's such a problem in America. Either you black or you white, either you Latino or you white. Either you're Irish or you're Jewish, or you're white. African, you black. I enjoy bling, I want it, I want chains. I can't afford it right now. I am not taking all my money and buying a chain—it is not the smart thing to do at this point. I bought a house, I got health insurance, I got car insurance. I got a car, I got a child that I provide for. While I do want chains—in the next album, you will see the chains, and I will move up from blue-collar—I have to work in order to get there. And that's part of what Rhymefest is about. Balance. You know, I like the ladies, I am not this asexual dude who is like "Black power!"
AVC: You're not dissing that lifestyle.
RF: The Rhymefest message may be a bit complicated, but it's just as complicated as the lives that we live.