Lots of people undoubtedly still picture a thuggish black dude in diamond-encrusted chains when they hear the word “rapper,” but over the past decade the face of rap has changed radically, and the public’s expectations are changing with it: witness the recent mainstream popularity of Asher Roth (a white-bread college kid) and Nicki Minaj (an aggressively eccentric young black woman with a serious postmodernist streak). But is rap ready for a black, bisexual video-game geek who’s into indie rock?
Fortunately rap still has a while to prepare. Emanuel Vinson, a political science major at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, is just 18, and he’s only been making music for the past three years. He and some friends at Morgan Park High School on the south side had a postrock band that he describes as a less-than-polished ripoff of Explosions in the Sky. They were called Christmas in the Attic, and Vinson played drums. “We got all of our gear and shit for Christmas,” he says, “and we played in my friend’s attic.”
He wasn’t much of a drummer, though, which is how he got into rapping. “When we first started the band, we’d jam, and I would get bored of not being able to play drums,” he says. During rehearsals he’d freestyle while he played to keep himself entertained.
Christmas in the Attic never went far—they played maybe five shows and recorded an album they tried to sell to their friends—but Vinson carried the band’s DIY philosophy with him when he started making proper rap songs. He didn’t exactly know what he was doing, but that wasn’t going to stop him: since he turned 17 he’s made six full-lengths, both albums and mix tapes, the latest of which, Special Moves, came out April 10. More of his tracks are built from samples of rock bands like Yeasayer and Boris than, say, beats jacked from Drake or Usher.
I ask how he developed his aesthetic. “I guess just being a kid who was obsessed with MTV, then MTV2, then Subterranean, and then ‘What is this Feist woman,’ and search that,” he says. “And then I started going on video-game message boards, and off of the nerds on there who were talking about Deltron and Sufjan.”
Vinson spent a lot of time on those message boards between the ages of 12 and 17—the peak years of a gaming habit that spanned at least half a dozen consoles—but he didn’t fit in with the culture there, which tolerates an alarming level of casual homophobia. “Everybody hated me,” he says. “They were all dicks, and I guess I was a dick sometimes. It was like bad chemistry.” He bailed after he figured out that his online arguments showed up in Google searches for his name.
By then he’d been out of the closet for a couple years, but he says he talked about bisexual sex in his lyrics a lot more than he did it. “I would always write about that shit like three years before I had sex,” he says. “I like fantasy or something.”
It should be said that Vinson has never tried terribly hard to fit in anywhere. “I think more when I was younger I’d get called an Oreo or something by some kids,” he says. By the time he got to high school, though, he was catching a different kind of flak. “I was so bizarre that it had nothing to do with race. I had an Afro and wore, like, skirts and Cure shirts to school. People liked me; they just thought I was crazy. It wasn’t a white or black thing.”
The influence of indie rock on Vinson’s music goes deeper than samples. His songs don’t boom or snap so much as crackle and buzz, like a four-track punk demo. A track he never got around to entering in a Major Lazer remix contest last year evolved into “Ghost de Megafloor,” where he raps over a slowed-down, radically degraded version of the duo’s twitchy, dancehall-influenced “Pon de Floor.” It sounds like a fourth-generation cassette dub dressed up with murky piano chords, hissing and buzzing of indeterminate origin, and a sample from Lightning Bolt’s “Mega Ghost.” Stripped of its manic energy and most of its low end, the song ends up hollow, staticky, and more than a little spooky.
“Ghost de Megafloor” is on Vinson’s previous collection, Blue Walls, the first album of his I heard. It’s definitely a rap record, but he samples everything from Bat for Lashes to Daniel Johnston. He also messes with syrupy lo-fi synth textures, playing with ambience and feel rather than crafting hooks—an approach that reminds me of the current crop of chillwave artists more than anything else.
As an MC Vinson flips the bird to virtuosity—the same kind of fuck-you that’s fueled a million basement hardcore bands. His delivery is decidedly unathletic; even when his rhymes are fast and dense, he doesn’t spit super hard. He makes goofy asides, and the reverb he often uses has the effect of bringing out the sound of his breath, making him sound winded whether he is or not. “When I first started writing,” he says, “a lot of my friends were rappers and I didn’t write like them. So when I started to write, my flow would be way off. I would just write whatever I felt like writing. Then it became more rambling and I just cultivated that.” He tends not to ride a beat so much as ping-pong around it—one moment he’ll be responding to the rhythm of the track, the next he’ll jump into spoken word or stream-of-consciousness interludes that bear no perceptible relationship to it. These verbal tumbles are deliberate, though, and he usually lands on his feet with the unexpected grace of a drunken master from a kung fu movie.
Audiences used to more traditional MCs might find this off-putting, but he’s not catering to them. He has crossover on his mind. “For the next album,” he says, “I’ve just been trying to think of anthems in my head, just trying to think of hooks and things people can connect to. Like I’ve been kicking around a song in my head for a while that would be a tribute to Harold’s,” the fried-chicken chain and south-side institution. His writing has become “less and less obtuse. I want to be able to be weird and also not seen as the Weird Person.”
He sees himself as on a mission to challenge preconceptions. In the hip-hop world, he says, he wants to confront homophobia and sexism and open people up to new sounds, “like how Kanye turned rappers on to Radiohead.” On the indie-rock side of the fence, he sees the problem as more about lack of respect for black culture. “I see people listen to rap ironically, and they’d put shit that I do on a different scale than what Drake or Lil Wayne does,” he says. “That’s one of the gaps I want to bridge. To get people to take hip-hop more seriously, not to think of it as a funny sideshow.”
Making music that’s equally invested in two forms long separated by racial lines, he says, is “an interesting dynamic. Like a lot of times I perform the people that respond are, like, white people usually. I don’t want to be in a TV on the Radio situation. I want to reach people I came from at the same time, the way Kanye does. I think he’s my favorite musician. I don’t want to be like Spank Rock or something. No black people know who Spank Rock is.”
But there’s still a lot of social conservatism in hip-hop—people may not know what to do with a male MC who raps to the track from Usher’s “Little Freak” and flips Nicki Minaj’s bi-curious cameo to propose a MMF three-way to his girlfriend. “If I’m just doing something with an indie crowd, no one gives a shit that I’m bisexual,” he says. “But if it’s in the black community or I’m sending it to people from my high school it takes a stance that I’m not a stereotypical . . . what someone thinks a bisexual or gay person is. I play sexuality up in my music. I just really wanna push norms, I guess, in all communities.”