Nasim Williams Credit: Gabriel Canon

In fall 2015, Chicago DJ and producer Nasim Williams (or “Na$im,” as he prefers it) played at what turned out out to be the final CMJ Music Marathon, putting an explanation point on his return to music. His work teaching and coaching—and the birth of his twin daughters earlier that year—had made it more difficult for him to find time to make beats. To make matters worse, his laptop had died a few months before, and he’d stopped DJing. Williams says having kids helped motivate him to work on his music, though, and he had help from Randy Ojeda of Tampa talent agency Cigar City Management—he helped Williams book the CMJ gig, a late-night slot sandwiched between Chicago rappers Martin Sky and Roy French at East Village venue Drom. And in August 2016, Ojeda arranged a distribution deal for Williams with independent publishing company Kobalt Music Group.

Williams’s resumé as a producer includes work with Chicago rappers such as GLC, Vic Spencer, and Mano (he’s a member of Treated Crew, which Mano cofounded), and last month the 25-year-old released a collection of solo instrumentals called Sometimes God Has a Kid’s Face. Williams has also made connections outside the city, including with rising Harlem rapper L’s. Williams and the MC’s go-to producer, Ly-key on the Beat, recently made a track together that features no less a star than Cam’ron contributing a guest verse—and because L’s recruited Cam so late in the production, Williams didn’t even find out till after the fact. The finished song, “Want It All,” drops today, which gave me an excuse to talk with Williams—I called him up to discuss the new song, his coming of age in music, and his role in the local scene.

Leor Galil: How did you wind up making a track with Cam’ron?

Nasim Williams: I’d been going back and forth to New York—the reason why I started going to New York was because BET wanted me to work for them. We was working on an internship, but I needed money, so we couldn’t come to an agreement. A lot of doors opened for me out there—I started performing, things like that. When I did CMJ, I met L’s’s cousin, and they was pretty much telling me about L’s and everything. We finally linked up with each other.

One track I heard from his main producer, Ly-key on the Beat, I wanted to touch, so I coproduced the record. Then out of nowhere, he had hit me up and let me know Cam’ron was on the joint. I was like, “Man, that’s crazy.” Pretty much an eight-ball verse from Cam’ron. The epicness of the record—it’s big bass, crazy hi-hats, it’s a real Chicago-meets-New York sound. The way Cam’ron flowed on the track, it was just crazy to me.

Let’s go back to the beginning—what got you interested in music in the first place?

I’m from the West Town neighborhood of Chicago, so coming up, it’s a real diverse neighborhood. For the most part, the neighborhood really appreciates music. My mom, she had me at a real young age. She was like a teen, but mind you, it’s the 90s, the golden time of hip-hop—you got Tupac, Biggie. My grandmother raised me too, so my grandmother was more old-school.

I also played in the band when I was, like, ten years old. I used to play clarinet and percussion. The fact that I was in the band—I already knew how to write music. My mentor, John Lester, taught me how to produce music on software. We had a hip-hop club in the West Town community at the time. It wasn’t funded through After School Matters until like a year into the program actually doing numbers. Everyone in the community, from adults to kids, came into this community room trying to record—raps, poetry, or just music. Without these people I wouldn’t be DJing. I wouldn’t be producing music.

Tell me about John Lester—how did you guys meet?

John Lester was pretty much the guy. He’s from Chicago originally, but grew up in Detroit. John came back after he graduated from college—came back to Chicago, decided that he wanted to work with the youth. The neighborhood where I’m from, we had after-school programs on every corner—every block was an after-school program at the time. He chose the program I was in. I’m from Northwest Towers’ Erie building, but we had a hip-hop club—I’m trying to think of the acronym.

He used to tell us he didn’t get paid much at all, but he just loved to teach us the fundamentals of hip-hop and music in general. He was 24, coming back to Chicago—real young, not even knowing he’s about to spark the next big thing in the city. For a very long time my friends and I, my family, we were recording music—but back in like ’03, ’04, ’05, the city wasn’t really active. You had Kanye, Twista, Bump J, R. Kelly, guys like that, but it’s not flourishing like it is now. We pretty much was another act under a rock, just doing something just for fun. My neighborhood, they had so much faith in me. I used to literally sit in this community room every day in the summer and make music all day, whether I was on my instrument or on this software.

John was actually with me, telling me, “OK, let me teach you how to sample—I know you know how to play music, but I want to teach you how to sample.” I didn’t like to sample at first. I didn’t like the method that John was teaching me. But he was actually teaching me hip-hop things that made me to the musician I am now. He gave me a solid understanding of what hip-hop really is—the culture and everything. It’s not about the violence, the flash, and the money.

John wound up having a son when I was a junior in high school—I was going to Noble Street College Prep at the time. John had his responsibilities, which is understandable; the job wasn’t paying him much, so he had to move on. I would talk to him every once in a while—I was fortunate enough to meet his family as well. The communication died down. He kind of went on a hiatus, I’m not sure why, but to this day he still reaches out to us. When he reaches out he’s like, “Man, bro, I’m glad to see you doing your thing.” Out of everybody who’s doing music, I’m still that guy—I’m the chosen one that my neighborhood said I would be. I still got a lot of things I need to accomplish, but for the most part, I’m sticking to my role. I appreciate John so much—if he didn’t spark that bug, I don’t even think I would be here.

What about the lessons John taught really spoke to you?

The elements—there’s five elements to hip-hop, but he also got in-depth with different things. He taught us rap doesn’t have to be gangsta, it doesn’t have to be intimidating. John taught us that you should know how to use your voice to move a crowd, how certain scratches and certain mixes trigger people. John taught us, again, the elements of hip-hop—the chemistry, the science behind it. This isn’t something where we all just woke up out of bed and went, “Oh, we’re just gonna bang on some drums, or a drum machine, and get it started.”

John pretty much taught me how to make that feeling come to life and make it a quality product. It’s almost like training an athlete. It’s kind of hard to describe—once you see me in my work process, you would understand. Without John, I wouldn’t know the elements and the culture of what hip-hop really is and the positive side of it. I would’ve always been looking at it more so as a commercial side, and the vanity of it. I wouldn’t have been looking at it as a life-changing situation.

When did you begin to see your voice come through in the music you were making?

When John left, I stopped being in the band and I stopped producing music, but I always had the drive in me. I was focused on being a teacher at the time—I was about to graduate high school. I was playing basketball at the time too. I wasn’t the best athlete, but I did have walk-on positions at different schools.

What really made me realize, “OK, I can do this,” it was around Thanksgiving of my sophomore year in college. My good friend Doc, he was like, “Man, what are we gonna do? I don’t want to work a regular job anymore—you shouldn’t, you’re talented.” I told him, “No, I’m done with music.” He was like, “What, you’re done with music?” I never got in an argument with him ever, and that day was the day I started arguing with him. He was pretty much insulting me, telling me, “If you quit, you’re gonna be a loser.” And he was telling me, “Your sound is needed.”

That was the end of 2011, so coming up to 2012, that was the start of “Nasim Williams.” Before I even decided to be Nasim Williams, I was DJ Profits. I was working with DJ Lil’ John from WGCI—I would DJ for Xbox and Microsoft events at Navy Pier, things like that. I was involved, but I wasn’t fully involved—like, understanding that this could potentially change my life. So 2012 was pretty much the year that really started it all.

How did you get more involved from that point, in the broader Chicago hip-hop community and elsewhere?

Sending free beats, man—showing face. Man, 2012, I just want to say—I haven’t experienced nothing like that, ever, in the city. I DJed a few big things ever since then—that was the year when I feel like everyone in Chicago was like, “OK, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna make the city on fire, we’re gonna burn the city up, like in a good way.” You got different artists coming up, you got different athletes poppin’ out, different publications, everything. I was pretty much showing face, just being authentic with people, letting them know, “Man, I want to work with you, I’m a fan of this, I feel like I can benefit you in this way, I need your help with this.” Pretty much being straight-forward and paying homage to people, you know.

I was reaching out to the veterans of Chicago, like the Mic Terrors, the Manos, the Holts—guys like that. Treated Crew, they embraced me. My advice to producers coming up: Don’t try to sell your product too much, ’cause you still got a lot to prove. Once you start making certain songs with people, and their following gets up on you, the money will start rolling in afterwards, ’cause the product is hot. Everyone is like, “OK, I like Na$im’s beats.” I got good blog posts too—2DopeBoyz, XXL, Fake Shore, things like that. But my actual placements need to get up a little more.

What does it mean to you to represent not only Treated Crew but also Chicago?

It’s an honor, because I know this city has always had its controversy and it’s always had its great things. The only thing that concerns me is the violence, man. When I go other places, people are so amazed—they ask me, “How do you survive?” And I tell them, “Man, Chicago, it isn’t—you won’t get shot. You just gotta really be on point.” I’m a focused young man. I’ve got twin daughters, I teach, I coach, I work on music. I really don’t have any time to stray off into any negativity—not at this point in my life.

I love representing the city because it shows people, like, the strong survive. If you’re doing what you need to do, then you don’t have to worry about harm coming to you. I understand Chicago’s a tough city, and I think I’m wearing the cape pretty proudly. And showing people it’s not only Chance the Rapper—I appreciate everything he’s doing, but it’s bigger than him too. We got other musicians really trying to bring change to the city.

How do you balance it all?

At first it was hard. When my daughters were born in 2015, it was difficult. I wasn’t DJing anymore at the time. My laptop had burnt out on me. I still wasn’t really getting the placements I wanted. I didn’t have time to produce—I had been getting into teaching and getting into coaching. But my daughters motivate me. Chicago being such a hit-or-miss place, I want to be able to take my family somewhere they can be comfortable at, where we don’t have to look over our shoulders. So 2015 was the year I really had to figure it out, like, “OK, what money can I make? What time do I have?”

Coming into 2016, I just set certain goals for myself. Which brought me to, like, 2017—it’s gonna be a monster year. I got the track with Cam’ron. I just came off DJing Fake Shore Drive’s Sirius XM show on Shade 45 last night. My distribution deal with Kobalt Music. My daughters are my inspiration too, and my family in general—my mom, my grandma, my friends. I just want to put the many people I love in a better situation. And I also want to help Chicago. Chance is a big inspiration to me as well, seeing what he’s doing for the city—there is no limit to the positivity that you can spread out here.