By Seth Mayer
Rhymefest really thinks you need to hear him. And he isn’t afraid to tell anyone, including the people who interview him, that his recently released CD “Blue Collar” demands a listen. “If you would’ve said no [that you hadn’t heard the album], I would’ve said: ‘Shame on you!’” he shouts. “You’d be surprised how many journalists get a ‘shame on you.’” It’s as if he’s sincerely worried that someone might go on living their life without hearing what he has to say. “If anybody hasn’t heard this album, they gotta get into it quick,” he says, like he’s giving a warning.
While speaking with Rhymefest, it’s difficult to keep up with the sense of urgency and missionary fervor that accompanies the answers he gives to questions. “It’s about more than rap. It’s more than sales. It’s about changing lives. It’s about being in the community and coming into my role as a role model, as a leader,” says the Chicago MC, “which I am whether I sell 30,000 records in a week or in two weeks or a million records. That means that there are 30,000 that when I speak, they will listen. That being said, that means that I have to do something with that.”
Recently, more and more people have taken note of Rhymefest’s message. After picking up a Grammy for co-writing “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West and releasing “Blue Collar,” his critically acclaimed debut album on Allido, the responses he’s gotten seem to confirm the sense of responsibility he expresses. “What I find generally is that people are not writing me and telling me ‘I liked this song.’ ‘This song is hot.’ People are saying things to me like: ‘Stay strong.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘Keep up the good work.’ ‘We’re praying for you.’ The comments that I’m receiving are more than just ‘yeah, you’re a good rapper.’ It’s like, ‘you’re the type of person that we need in hip-hop.’”
For Rhymefest, it seems he wants his music to provide a kind of antidote for rap music and the world at large. “Part of the problem with us as rappers and with the rap community is that we are spineless cowards,” he says. “We are cowards. Spineless. It’s horrible…we do anything for a check and a pat on the back. Even the so-called conscious and aware rappers are not doing what we’re supposed to be doing by the community. And it’s despicable. You know, right now music is not missing music. It’s missing spine. We know how to dance, but it’s five years since 9/11. Nobody has made a commercially viable song talking about the effects or the actions of 9/11. Nobody. It’s a year since Hurricane Katrina—we’re acting like in the rap community who it affects the most like we forgot.”
This Saturday, Rhymefest opens the Wu Tang Clan show, a group he says is doing something right, in contrast to the “spineless” rap he hates. “What I love about Wu Tang Clan is that Wu Tang has awareness, and consciousness, but they’re not soft. You do think one of them dudes might knock you out if you walk up on ’em drawn.” On “Blue Collar,” the late Wu Tang member, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, contributes to the final track. “Workin’ with ODB was a pleasure. It was like working with, you know, a hero, that was in a comic book that you thought, man this can’t be real. Superman, c’mon. C’mon Big Baby Jesus—what is this?”
Rhymefest laughs when talking about the rapper who belted lyrics from the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” for the chorus of the “Blue Collar” closer, “Build Me Up.” “He was real. Everything that I thought was crazy and all the antics—that was really this guy! It was real and […] it inspired me to intensify my character. Intensify my powers. Learn my craft, you know.”
“Blue Collar” has a diversity of sound, pulling from various genres such as soul, crunk and even rock on a song that samples The Strokes. A lot of this has to do with the all-star list of beatmakers involved with the record: No I.D., Kanye West, Just Blaze, Cool and Dre, and especially the owner of Rhymefest’s label Allido, Mark Ronson. “When you hear like ‘Devil’s Pie’ or ‘Tell a Story’ or ‘Build Me Up,’ Mark and I are preparing to work on our own album together, an independent project. We’re going to progress; we’re going to push the envelope of music with his sound and my sound.”
He describes the upcoming show in exuberant and populist terms: “My thing is to be here for the people. Basically a Rhymefest show is sheer energy and its intimate at the same time. The crowd and I form a relationship. We talk; we have conversations. I jump in the crowd and freestyle, you know what I mean? Everybody’s invited. It’s a party!”
Rhymefest plays August 12 at Congress Theater, 2135 North Milwaukee, (312)923-2000, at 8pm. $35-$40.