Joseph Chilliams Credit: ARIS THEOTOKATOS

Chicago rapper Joseph Chilliams is one of the tens of millions of Americans for whom the night of November 8, 2016, was a nightmare. But Chilliams’s evening went south even before the election was decided. While walking home in Austin, he was robbed of his wallet and backpack (the latter empty but for a broken umbrella and some Altoids) and badly beaten. His assailants left him bleeding on the ground with a shattered face. “They had to do plastic surgery and put a plate in my cheek to give me a foundation, because it was totally broken,” he says. On the first night Chilliams spent at the hospital, his doctor tactfully pretended not to know the outcome of the election. “He didn’t want to be the person to break that news to me. I was dealing with enough,” Chilliams says. “It was definitely decided. He was like, ‘Oh, you know, they’re still counting.'”

Chilliams, 27, returned to the stage on December 5, when he opened for L.A. VanGogh at Subterranean; in January he performed a solo set at the sold-out Lincoln Hall release party for Saba‘s excellent Bucket List Project. Saba is Chilliams’s younger brother, and they’re both founding members of west-side hip-hop collective Pivot Gang, so when Saba toured in support of Bucket List later that winter, he asked Chilliams to open several shows. At that point Chilliams had basically finished his debut album, Henry Church, but he wouldn’t end up releasing it till August—as he puts it, “a lot of life happened.” And a lot of the life that happened forced him to confront death.

In February, Chilliams’s close friend Walter Long Jr., aka Pivot Gang rapper-singer John Walt, was stabbed to death in River North (Walt had recently started going by Dinner With John). In March, Chilliams and Saba took a break from their tour to pay their first visit to the new Arizona home of their paternal grandfather, former 24th Ward alderman Michael Chandler—and a week later, Chandler died of kidney failure. Chandler had given the brothers their first four-track recorder when they were growing up, and they’d used it in their pre-Pivot hip-hop group, the Rally. “Hella equipment that we had was because of him, and it just spiraled into something that he didn’t see coming,” Chilliams says.

Chilliams didn’t see it coming either—he never expected to become a professional rapper, but Chicago hip-hop is better because he did. Henry Church is an imaginative, inviting album where Chilliams uses pop-culture references to try to find his own niche in hip-hop—a place that he can make welcoming to listeners who might not feel like the genre speaks to them or respects their concerns. I talked with Chilliams last month, shortly before the album’s release, at Pivot’s studio in the basement of his maternal grandparents’ house in Austin. The following is excerpted from a much longer conversation.

Take me back to the beginning of Henry Church—what started it?

Joseph Chilliams: It started with me being, like, “Man, you probably should put a tape out.” I’m one of the people that has a million ideas—and every idea is like the greatest idea I’ve ever had, so I abandon the one I had prior to it. I’ve worked on multiple projects before this. They were all in the baby phases, because I was like, “Oh man—no, I can do this.” “I can do this.” “I can do this.” Then it was like, “You know what, just put something out.”

I worked on Henry Church for about two years. I was technically ready to drop it at the end of last year. But a lot of life happened.

What was it that made you go, “OK, let’s give up this pattern and focus now”?

At the time I was in school, and school was taking a lot of energy. I was working at the school—I was a math tutor. On some days I would be there from 9 AM to 9 PM. That shit just felt terrible. I wasn’t listening to music like I normally did. My creative mind-set was really drained. I was like, “Come on, you gotta do something.” So I wrote “Buck.” I was like, “Man, you need to drop this shit right the fuck now.” It was a snowball effect; I started really writing, and fine-tuning it, and getting it to what it is today.

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What separated that from all the previous tracks you’d been working on?

You’re a writer, right?

I hope so.

You write stuff. I would assume, if you go back far enough, you were writing like someone, or writing with a certain style in mind, looking to appease whatever values you deemed worthy. It wasn’t 100 percent you. I’ve been just trying to find myself for a long time—just figuring out how to say as much as I can with as few words as possible.

Let’s go to the beginning. What made you want to make music?

I just chanced upon it, really. My whole life I knew I was gonna be a professional athlete. I was going to a church camp—they had a basketball rim, and I didn’t have a basketball rim at the time. I was like, “Oh, I’m here. Whatever y’all need me to do, I can dribble this basketball afterwards—fine.” They realized all the kids were just playing sports. It was like, “OK, let’s give you some options”—like, a mandatory break from sports. You had to either go play board games or go to this spoken-word class.

All my friends went to spoken word, so I followed them. The teacher of the class, he was just telling us, “Hey, I’m from the streets like you. I do poetry now.” He started just spittin’ some shit. I was kinda skeptical. I wasn’t like, “Yes! This is my calling.” I’m like, “This guy’s kinda goofy,” but I feel like his heart was in the right place. He started giving examples of different ways of writing. He had us write at the end of the class. He was like, “Does anyone want to present it?” Public speaking has never been something that I struggled with. I was like, “I’ll get up!”

I say three lines—I only wrote three lines, ’cause I wasn’t taking it seriously. I was like, “Do you have a dollar I can borrow? / Call me tomorrow / And I’ll let you know if I got a dollar you can borrow.” And the whole place erupted with laughter, probably ’cause I said it goofy as hell.

That summer’s over; I went back to school. I realized basketball was not gonna pan out for me. I really couldn’t figure out juggling school, basketball, and life and shit, especially at that time—I didn’t really have strong guidance or anything. I really felt very alone trying to do that shit; it was a lot to handle. For a good two, three years I’m devoid of any purpose. But then I went to a retreat. We ended up doing a skit in our group. It was about family or something, and I felt like the skit was missing something. I wrote a fuckin’ rap about family. I delivered it and everyone was like, “Ahhh man!” Then I was like, “That’s it! That’s what I’ll do.” And I just started rapping—writing all the fuckin’ time.

My last semester of high school, any sort of freedom that I had to write, I turned it into a rap. I wrote a rap about Macbeth over [Jay Z’s] “Roc Boys.” I wrote the whole thing from the perspective of Macbeth and rapped it in class: “First of all I want to thank Lady Macbeth / The most important person with all due respect / Thanks to Banquo.” Then we started building this studio. It was so shitty at first. It was just like a computer microphone that we hooked into that little hole right there [points to a corner of the ceiling]. We just hung it in there, and tried to record our raps onto a four-track recorder.

Tell me about your days first playing out in Chicago. How did you get to the point where you are now?

You know in kung-fu movies, where they lose a battle and then they go on a mountaintop to meditate, hibernate, and shit? That’s what we were doing here for a really long time. Once we got it to where it’s like, “G, this shit might be dope as fuck,” we happened to run into another Pivot-er named Frsh Waters. He was like, “I know about these places that’s actually lit.” Those places were YouMedia and Young Chicago Authors.

That experience really changed how we even view music. You can see right then and there what works, what doesn’t, what they fuck with, why. A lot of the problem-solving that we were trying to do here, we could actually do it there. So we all got out of our heads and started going to open mikes. That’s how all of us built our following. Anyone really coming out of Chicago, they either went to those open mikes or they released music hella young and that shit was like wildfire—it just spread throughout all the schools. Or both.

So, Pivot—in Chicago, it’s not a household name. But when you say “Pivot,” someone be like, “I damn near heard of that before.” And that’s just because we’ve been yelling it at every show for the past four or five years. Being in Pivot has helped. Collaboration—more so than anything, probably—has gotten me to this point.

I’m blessed to have the friend group that I have, so I was on Sab’s Bucket List and I was on Noname’s Telefone. Both of those projects made Rolling Stone and shit. People rarely actually care about features unless they have some idea who the guy is, so a lot of people who are in Chicago are like, “Damn Joseph, you be spittin’—I ain’t know.” A lot of people thought I was a backup dancer.

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Looking at Henry Church now, what song most definitively represents you?

Probably “Fergie.” I made a whole song just about how much I like Fergie; that’s definitely me as fuck. All of this is really just about things that I like or don’t like and how that shapes my perspective. I’m kinda ridiculous, and I understand that, but people still fuck with me. Fergie is legit one of my favorite artists. I’m really lookin’ to blur the lines of what’s acceptable in hip-hop culture. I feel like there’s a lot that hasn’t been explored, that hasn’t been touched on at all, and a lot of identities that are left out and made to feel like they don’t belong. The whole point of everything I’m doing is just to make as many people feel welcome as possible.

I have a song called “Shake My Ass” with Jamila [Woods]. That song is about how dudes get out of pocket with women, just based off the idea that she’s doing something that makes them believe like she wants that type of behavior—like she’s bringing that on herself because she’s dressed a certain way or acts a certain way. I feel like if no one speaks out against this type of shit, it’s already embedded in society. That’s how top-to-bottom this shit is, but that doesn’t make it right. I made a song from the perspective of a woman that’s just going out, looking to have a nice time, and mufuckas are a lot more grabby than they should be.

“How to Not Be Memphis Bleek” is about what you set out to do as an artist; no one sets out to be anything else than the hottest mufucka. That doesn’t pan out for everybody. At the time, the only shows we were getting were as Pivot. I was barely even a solo artist—I did have songs, but I was still working on that. My brother had a couple songs, so people knew him, kind of—not even, really. Every show bill would be “Saba and Pivot.” And it was like, “But damn, bro—he just like us. It’s a group of us, we all ain’t shit as hell.” Especially at that time, the sense of value given to someone just because they’ve heard of you—it was like, “Damn, bro. I’m not settin’ out to be, like, ‘and Pivot.’ We Pivot as a collective, and I’m Joseph, and I need people to respect me as an artist.”

So “How to Not Ne Memphis Bleek” was me talkin’ about how I’m not settin’ out to do this to be anything other than my greatest self, and I really feel like Memphis Bleek. The song is a response to this Jay Z line, “Bleek could be one hit away his whole career / As long as I’m alive he’s a millionaire.” And I always felt like, “Man, Jay Z, that’s some cool shit to say, but I really feel like Memphis Bleek would feel like, ‘Damn, bro, it’s a brag, but it’s a jab at the same time.'” If it was like, “Yeah, man, [Pivot rapper] Melo could be one tape away his whole career”—he’s an artist too. He didn’t set out to be “one hit away.” So this is me going all in.

Finally, though, I’ll say “Charlie Murphy,” the song I got with Dinner With John, is really, really fucking cool. On top of everything that happened—losing someone who I actually make music with, dream with, and build with on a daily basis—I thought I lost that song. And it was one of my favorite songs. And I was like, “Fuck, no one’s gonna be able to hear it.” It was sad as fuck already, but it’s like, “Damn, bro, that hurts.” But I found that shit.

I really wanted people to understand how much of a character Walt is. I do my thing in there all the time, but I feel like he could open up more, and that was me trying to get him to have fun with this shit. It’s a voice memo. We didn’t have a place to actually record—Sab took the Mac with him to LA, so we was just here studio-less. We wrote this ridiculous song, and we were rapping it to each other, and we couldn’t even stop from laughing. The take that’s on the album, it’s our third or fourth time through it, because the first and the second time we just erupted with laughter—we couldn’t get through it. I really feel like that’s probably the most genuine and “me” on it. We’re really just having a good time and being goofy, shit that we always do, but we don’t get to capture it in audio form a lot of times. The last thing you hear is us laughing.

You finished Henry Church late last year, and you said you went through a lot of life after finishing it. How did that effect you getting to this point?

It was just setback after setback. I probably wouldn’t have dropped my album last year, ’cause you wanna build up to it. I was gonna shoot a video in November. And November 8, 2016, when Trump was elected, I got robbed and assaulted walking home. I walk that route all the time—I’ve done it hundreds of times, and just something special about that night brought that situation right to my face. I got hit really hard in the face with a gun—there’s no actual concrete evidence of what I was hit with, but given the amount of face that was shattered, I want to say it was definitely bigger than a lock.

Through all that, I was crackin’ jokes and doing shit that I would normally do. I was tryin’ to not freak out. I could’ve lost vision—I could’ve lost my eye. My face still feels kind of weird, but I can feel now, which is nice, ’cause that shit was numb instantly. I didn’t know what I was gonna look like.

After some shit like that happens to you, first thought is, like, “I gotta make music now.” But whenever I tried to write, I couldn’t. For me to write, I have to have a clear head—and that was not possible. I wasn’t able to block out all the, like, “Damn, bro, you really just got fucked up. What’s gonna happen with your life?” I wrote one song in late December, early January, just fuckin’ around. But that was really important—it was like, “Oh, OK, I can rap still.'”

January was the Pivot show at Lincoln Hall. I don’t know if that’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever rapped in front of, but it was one of them. I got up there and it was no different than rapping in front of ten people, but they all really, really fucked with it. The guy who shot my video for “B2KK,” he was in the crowd during that show and he hit me up. That was really big for all of us—we got to see where we stood. It was like, “OK, we gotta really start working now—we can build this shit up. This don’t have to be the pinnacle of the mountain and shit.”

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February 8, a couple months after I got fucked up, Walt got stabbed to death. When some shit like that happens, everything is put on hold. I wasn’t thinking about my music at all—I was thinking about his a lot. Like, “What’s gonna happen with his music? Where is all of it?” He recorded all the time, everywhere—we’re trying to track down engineers and trying to track down studios. “Was he here? What did he do here? Send us that shit.” Trying to track all that down and just do right by him and his family.

Walt gets killed, and then a spot opens up on Sab’s tour for Bucket List, all in the same month. He was like, “Yo, do you want to go?” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure, but this sucks so much.” It’s like, you’ve dreamed about this moment, but it comes to you at the worst possible time. Going on tour and seeing all those people—there’s people in all these places that knew me already, which I didn’t know. The Internet is a crazy place, but you never know how crazy till you really get out there—muhfuckas walking up to me in Albuquerque, New Mexico, like, “Yeah, man, we listen to your shit every day.” Mind you, this is me still prepping Henry Church, so they listening to songs that I dropped on Soundcloud.

While on tour, my granddad passed away and a very close family friend passed away—people who I talked about going on tour with, people who are hella active in my life. And all of a sudden to0—not like, “Yeah man, months of hospital visits and shit.” Somebody just collapse and that’s that.

It was like, “What the fuck? Well, what the shit? This is the saddest, happiest tour.” It was a lot to handle, ’cause every night everybody’s like, “Woo! Yaaay!” But then we go back to the hotel room and it’s like, “Fuck, man.” Life sets in. Whenever I wasn’t onstage, I was in the process of trying to not break down, for one of the many losses that I experienced during that brief amount of time. That was definitely a successful tour—we sold out shows, sold hella merch, I made hella bread.

When I got back from tour, it was like, “OK, how do I do that again?” Luckily, I had a project damn near done. I still had to get it mixed and I was still working on production, but at that point the majority of it was written—still had to record, work out kinks and shit.

Shit’s been very, very painful to live through, and very eye-opening. My life now is nothing like it was before I got hit in the face in November and Trump became the president. Henry Church is, like, a lot of life has gone into that project. I really feel like it has brought out the best of me, as a person—finally completing the project, ’cause that’s always been a difficult thing for me to do. I’ve been working on music this whole time, but now it’s like, “Nah, you have to, you can’t dick around, ’cause this shit not guaranteed.” It’s been a crazy 12 months.