Fess Grandiose Credit: Pen/Carlson

For five straight summers, DJ, producer, and rapper Fess Grandiose helped put on Kimball House Rock, a daylong DIY hip-hop festival he hosted in the backyard of his Logan Square home. Though Grandiose, 30, was raised in south-suburban Hazel Crest, he’s completely embraced his new neighborhood: the final Kimball House Rock, held in 2014, offered a snapshot of the alternative-rap acts operating on the northwest side. The bill included rappers Angel Katz, Auggie the 9th, and Rich Jones; DJ Sev Seveer of beat-scene collective Push Beats; nomadic multi-instrumentalist Netherfriends; and now-defunct hip-hop group Hurt Everybody. Grandiose has continued hosting his own events since retiring Kimball House Rock, and earlier this year he debuted Open Beats, a live beat-making showcase on the third Friday of every month at Cafe Mustache.

Grandiose is so fascinated with the beat scene—loosely speaking, a community of producers focusing strictly on instrumentals—that he’s made a hip-hop album without any rapping. The self-titled full-length drops digitally and on cassette this Friday, September 30, on local label ETC, which was founded by DJ and producer Radius. I called Grandiose to talk about what inspired the album, his transition away from rapping, and Chicago’s beat scene.

Leor Galil: How long have you been working on the album? What inspired you to put it together?

Fess Grandiose: I’ve been making beats since I was in high school—it’s probably about 15 years. Only within the past, like, ten years have I really been comfortable enough with my production to put lyrics on ’em. I was also a rapper as well, at one point in my life. One of my first ventures was this completely self-produced rap album that people can still find. But between that and also DJing, which is sort of my main craft, I just figured that for me, and me aging and whatnot, going the production/DJ route is just better for the longevity of my career and getting more exposure. It kinda started from that.

It’s mostly what all I listen to now—instrumental albums from various artists. You’ve got the bigwigs, of course—J Dilla, Madlib—but guys that aren’t really heard of much more as well, especially local cats. Dibiase, Radius. I feel like Chicago has one of the better live-beat, live-PA scenes in the nation. It’s kinda really booming: everybody’s got Ableton, everybody wants to come out and play beats off their [Roland] SP-404 and jam out. I got caught all into that, and so it was only right to put it all together in album form and re-present myself, at least to the rest of the world. People who know me locally, they’ve always known what I was doing and capable of, but this is me kinda taking a step forward and really trying to get out there.

You mention the live beat-making scene around here—tell me more about that. Who in the scene here has been inspiring and has wanted to make you contribute?

Primarily Push Beats. Push Beats and my friend Radius, who runs ETC Records. Radius, he’s taken this live-PA game and really toured the world with it. He’s in Europe right now—Berlin exactly, got shows he’s playing out there. He’s been a direct inspiration ’cause of the way he moves independently. Not just here—like, nationally, internationally, he’s kind of all over the place. And then here primarily was Push Beats, ever since they started their weekly back at Lokal in Wicker Park, which was at least five, six years ago at this point. Raj Mahal, Cos, Bounce Handler, Krush Love—those cats really embraced me whenever I would come through to play some beats and whatnot. Plus I really just enjoyed what they were doing: taking their production, made from the bedroom, out onstage.

That’s really what I’m all about. My live set consists of mostly non-computer, non-laptop gear—an MPC, a Roland SP-404, a few loop pedals. It’s not like I don’t like laptops, ’cause I use ’em when I do video DJing. But as far as live PA is concerned, using more of what I actually use in the studio is a better show than me just setting up my laptop and pressing buttons on a MIDI controller.

You have some residencies around town. How have you contributed to this scene?

I started an event this January at Cafe Mustache in Logan Square—it’s called Open Beats. It’s like an open-mike night for live beat makers and live PA. For the first couple hours, from nine to 11 pm—this is on every third Friday of the month—the stage is literally open for producers who come through, and they can play about ten- to 15-minute sets. Then we go into our featured sets for the night. I try to feature at least two to three different producers, alongside myself, to cap off the night.

That event has really taken off the past three months, especially this past month. I get to Cafe Mustache around 8, 8:30, and there’s already five or six producers lined up to play some stuff—so the scene is definitely out there. It’s very interesting. I wish I was old enough to see the thriving jazz scene in Chicago in the 40s, but I can’t help but feel that way with this beat scene. We all support each other. Push Beats still has its monthly as well—I’m actually playing that October 7, at Door No. 3. Everybody’s just real supportive, and it’s really awesome. Open Beats is just my contribution to that.

I didn’t expect it to grow as fast as it has. And thanks to Cafe Mustache for holding that too, ’cause I’ve been kinda working with them for a little bit. I was tryin’ to do an all-vinyl dance-party night there, and on this new Logan Square strip—that’s right where Milwaukee and California meet—it’s a lot of competition over there with the dance parties. Somethin’ just told me to maybe just do what I’m trying to do—that’s live beats. So I just started that night, and it’s really taken off.

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Have you connected with any aspiring producers through the series?

Oh, tons—so many I can’t even really remember. Like I said, since the summer, it’s been so many producers coming out. I wish I could name a few off the top of my head, but it’s been so much talent. This city is so full of musical talent—it’s kind of overwhelming at some points, ’cause where there’s talent also comes competition. But I like to fancy this event as not being like a beat battle, per se. It’s just a place where you can go, play your stuff, and receive criticism if you want to. And if not, just enjoy yourself. Cats always gave me pointers on my sets, and I try to do the same for those who seem receptive to it, especially when we get to talking about gear and everything—trading ideas about what we use live.

Cats really take an interest in my sets, because I don’t use a laptop at all when I’m doing the live-beat thing, and a lot of people want to know different processes of doing that. People who do use laptops with their live beats—I’ve seen very, very well-put-together beat sets ran off of Ableton and just a MIDI controller, and I don’t wanna say that I can do what they do, just like they probably wouldn’t want to say that they can do what I do. We all do what we do and make it work onstage, and that’s what’s beautiful about this whole live-beat thing that’s happening right now.

You’ve been involved in hip-hop in Logan Square for a little while, with Kimball House Productions and your various monthlies. How has the hip-hop scene in this neighborhood changed since you’ve been involved?

I’ve been living in Logan Square for about six years now. When I moved over, here I moved from Hyde Park, and I was still really aspiring to DJ and do things within the scene when I was living down there. Things didn’t really seem to increase for me, as far as shows and as far as a fan base, until I actually moved to Logan. It seemed like as soon as I moved here, everybody started moving here. Next thing you know, we’re the hottest neighborhood in Chicago, and that seemed to blow up right there.

I’ve also been DJing at various venues around Logan. My first main one was Bonny’s, the old 4 AM, and that was thanks to my big homie Major Taylor, who had the Saturday nights there. He took off for a world tour, and I, alongside DJ Lani Love—we took over those Saturdays and closed it out. That was probably three or four years ago; from that moment, the DJing didn’t really stop for me, locally. I’ve happily played gigs at most of the venues in Logan today—East Room, Slippery Slope. I’ve done plenty of stuff at Cafe Mustache, played at Cole’s.

It’s interesting seeing that this is the hot spot now, because when I first got over here it was kind of a struggle to get my friends up here to do things, just to hang out and check out shows. I just stuck to the neighborhood, and that really worked out for me.

For about five years straight, me and my girlfriend, who I live with, were throwing backyard jams at our house. From the nature of a lot of people coming over and hanging out, and it being on Kimball Street, it just became Kimball House. I took the name that it already had for itself, and that’s the name of my production company. But for those five years, it was pretty awesome that we were able to do essentially a day festival in the backyard and not really have too much static from the neighbors. The cops were always cool too. It’s hard having DIY venues in the city, but it worked out. But I stopped doing that, ’cause as Logan Square got more popular, Kimball House got more popular—more people kinda knew where we were at, and knew what we were doing. I attempted to run a studio out of our basement, and I had to close those doors within a couple of years because of business stuff.

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It just got too hot, basically. I think that had a lot to do with Logan Square in general being more on the map for people cut from our cloth, young and old. I grew up on the south side, man, I remember my dad telling me, “Never go up to Logan Square or Humboldt Park.” I remember in high school, I was trying to go to a breakdancing battle that was at Logan Square Auditorium. I was 16—I think I just started driving. I told my dad where I was going, and he’s like, “You’re going to where?” I’m like, “Logan Square Auditorium.” He just gave me this real oddball look. And now I live up there. It kinda still blows my mind that I live as far northwest as I do, being a south sider. I go back to the neighborhood all the time, and it’s all, “Aw, you live up north now, you’re a north sider.” It’s like, “Man, I still got love for the south side. South side all day.”

Shortly after you moved to Logan, you released Life in Lo-Fi . . . Vol 1. You mentioned earlier in our conversation that you were a rapper—but you’re focusing more on production and DJing for the longevity of your career. What do you mean by that? At what point did you say, I think I need to pull back from rapping?

I don’t want to close the door fully yet, ’cause I might still have stuff in the works, lyrically, down the line. But my focus shifted to DJing and production more because, quite frankly, DJing is the first thing I fell in love with. My parents could tell you—from age nine all the way up through high school, I used to get these pro sound and lighting catalogs, and every year before Christmas, I was circling turntable sets to get me. My parents really couldn’t afford it, so when I had my first job at, like, 16, 17, I bought my own Technics. Eventually I bought my own Numark mixer and took my dad’s old records. Even though I was rough around the edges and more so into rapping at the time, I kinda always knew from that point on that I really just wanted to DJ—I just enjoy playing music for people, making people feel good through music.

I consider one of my first DJ gigs being when I was about eight, nine years old. My grandfather, when I was over at their house for the weekend, he would come in from wherever he was at and have a 40-ounce of Budweiser and give me $5 to play the same B.B. King blues record. When he would have more of his beer and nod off a little bit more, I would switch up some of the CDs and tapes and play other CDs and tapes that I knew he would like. From there I just kinda knew what I wanted to do—make my own mixtapes and everything. So DJing has just always kinda hit that nerve with me—I just felt more passionate about that than I did with writing lyrics and trying to sound like the coolest guy in the room.

I don’t take anything away from rappers, because hip-hop is where my heart is. But especially as I got older, I didn’t have the same passion and drive as rapper peers of mine would, to come out with five or six mixtapes before I even drop an album—or write 30 songs for an album just to put out only half of ’em. Any song that I made that I wanted to record raps on, I wanted to take that as actual material to put out, and not just be so disposable as rap has become in this singles-driven market that’s around now. I grew up embracing albums, embracing concept albums, and as rap got away from that more—and became more about the better singles, the better songs, the better mixtapes—I kinda just lost my drive and passion for contributing my art to that part of hip-hop. I felt better suited being a DJ for rappers that I know, making their live sets better.

It’s what Life in Lo-Fi was all about. I produced all the beats on there except for the few J Dilla tracks I rapped over just for fun. The tracks on there were mainly tracks that I was trying to shop around to local MCs, and it just never really came to fruition. So I just said, “Well, fuck it, I’ll just make these tracks myself, and make these raps myself.” It was good, it was well received. I can’t really say that there’s not gonna be a follow-up to that.

But as of right now, I really just want to focus on being more of a heavy foot and more of a known entity with the DJing and the production game, ’cause that’s where my heart is. I look at my homie ShowYouSuck, and his output of material is just, like, insane. I have so much respect for him for that, because I feel like we’re definitely from the same style of lyrics but his imagination is so far beyond anything I could ever come up with and comprehend. I want to be able to be in a position to hopefully work with him in a creative sense, as far as production is concerned, instead of trying to go bar-for-bar with him—he’s just one of the greatest local MCs out right now. It goes back to me just feeling like I didn’t have that same drive to even keep up lyrically.