John Walt performs as Dinner With John during a Pivot Gang showcase at Lincoln Hall on January 6, 2017—about a month before he was killed. His mother says, “That was one of the best days of his life.” Credit: Courtesy of Nachelle Pugh

Walter Long Jr. dies at the end of Saba‘s “Prom/King.” In the penultimate song from Saba’s raw and vulnerable 2018 album, Care for Me, he raps about his kindhearted cousin—best known by the stage name John Walt—for seven and a half minutes. The track begins with Walt finding Saba a date for prom at St. Joseph High in 2011. It portrays their deepening friendship as founding members of hip-hop collective Pivot Gang, which formed less than a year later. As the song ends, Saba receives a call from Walt’s mom on February 8, 2017, asking if he’s heard from her son. In “Prom/King” Saba doesn’t say what happened that day, but on Care for Me‘s opening track, he’s already told us Walt was killed.

In the hours after Walt died, the news spread fast, and Saba was far from the only one grieving. He and his older brother, Pivot Gang rapper-producer Joseph Chilliams, were supposed to perform with Noname that night at Metro, but they never made it. The next morning, “John Walt” was trending on Twitter in Chicago, and by the afternoon, Fact magazine and the Fader had published obituaries. The following week, his family held a memorial at Young Chicago Authors, a West Town nonprofit that helped nurture Walt, his Pivot pals, Noname, and countless other stars in the city’s hip-hop and poetry scenes. So many people filled YCA’s second-floor space that members of Walt’s family had trouble getting in.

Among the many homages to Walt is the high-profile release Care for Me. Since dropping the album in April, Saba has earned Best New Music from Pitchfork, received a glowing Rolling Stone profile, and performed its songs for an NPR Tiny Desk concert. At the end of this month he’ll embark on his first tour of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea, and he’s already announced a European tour for 2019. Throughout this banner year, as Saba became one of Chicago hip-hop’s newest crossover stars, his cousin, collaborator, and best friend has never been far from his mind.

Just as important to Saba as his own career is the John Walt Foundation, which he launched last year with Walt’s mother, Nachelle Pugh. The nonprofit aims to provide money, mentoring, and other support to young Chicagoans in the arts, and though it’s starting small, with no office or paid staff, Pugh has big ambitions: inspired by YCA, she’d eventually like to help build a youth creative space in Austin. Last month, the foundation announced the inaugural class of five John Walt Foundation Fellows, each of whom was awarded a $1,000 grant to further their creative careers.

The nonprofit’s fund-raising efforts include soliciting private donations, hosting benefit dinners, and throwing a big annual show called John Walt Day around the time of Walt’s birthday. Last year’s John Walt Day sold out the House of Blues and doubled as a launch party for the foundation, which got its 501(c)(3) certification in January 2018. Saba, Chilliams, and Pivot Gang comrades MFn Melo and Frsh Waters performed at the first John Walt Day, and they’ll all return for the second one at Concord Music Hall on Saturday, November 24.

John Walt Day with Saba, Joseph Chilliams, MFn Melo, and Frsh Waters

Sat 11/24, 6:30 PM, Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee, sold out, all-ages

The members of Pivot Gang have appeared at huge festivals—Lollapalooza, Mamby on the Beach, Pitchfork—but John Walt Day matters more to them than all those put together. “I’m trying to figure out a way to make it the best show that I’ve ever given,” says Chilliams, who’s also a cousin and collaborator of Walt’s. “These are the biggest venues that we’ve ever done, and we’re selling them out, for him. It definitely helps put a smile on all our faces, and we get to take some time to reminisce. And people who never knew him, at the very least, know how much he meant to us.”

Even in a hip-hop scene overpopulated with larger-than-life personalities, Walt made his presence felt. Though often shy with strangers, with people he trusted he was warm, gregarious, and fiercely loyal. He never achieved Saba’s level of success, but he tirelessly supported his friends—and he showed great promise as an artist himself. In the early 2010s, a few of his songs became favorites with the teen open-mike scenes at YCA and the Harold Washington Library’s youth-oriented creative space, YouMedia, and in 2013 his track “Kemo Walk” was a minor local sensation. In 2017 he changed his stage name to Dinner With John, and he was about to drop his first mixtape under that name when he was killed.

Walt’s family knows hip-hop too. In the early 90s his mother, Nachelle Pugh, performed as a dancer with two future members of Chicago’s rap royalty—Never of Crucial Conflict and DaWreck of Triple Darkness—in a group she’d rather not name. “She was like my sister, so she was easy to work with,” DaWreck says. “I was basically doing all the choreography for the group—they had to do all the moves I made up. She was pretty cool.” Pugh left when she became pregnant with Walt, the first of her three children, and he was born November 25, 1992.

Growing up, Walt gravitated more toward sports than music. Chilliams’s first memory of him involves a wrestling match when Walt was four and he was six. “An older cousin of mine was like, ‘Y’all should wrestle,'” he says. “I wrestled many a time, wrestling was very popular, but halfway through I realized that this was not like normal wrestling. I was getting balled up. He was serious—the real deal.”

Walt lived in Austin with Pugh and his stepdad, Tyrone Jones, a few blocks south of where Saba and Chilliams grew up in their maternal grandparents’ house. Pugh’s uncle is Saba and Chilliams’s maternal grandfather, so the kids weren’t especially close cousins—they’d only see one another a few times a year for big family events. When Saba was six and Walt was eight, they were far from friends. “He used to push me around and take my shoes,” Saba says. “That was our relationship for years—he was my older cousin who I damn near hated ’cause he used to bully me.”

Walt attended St. Malachy School, a Catholic elementary and middle school on the Near West Side. “He’s always been that kid that everybody know in school—he was in kindergarten and he was friends with the eighth graders,” Pugh says. “He really wanted to be a basketball star. He was always gonna buy me a house and a red car.”

By middle school, Walt was already tenacious about pursuing his goals. When a basketball friend who’d hit a growth spurt insisted it’d happened because he ate lots of tomatoes, Walt decided he wanted a piece of that. “I’m like, ‘Walt, I’m not buying tomatoes, because Josh did not get that tall because he was buying tomatoes,'” Pugh says. “Every day he was eating tomatoes, and, you know, ‘Can we stop at the store and get tomatoes?'”

Walt was about to release his first mixtape as Dinner With John when he died.
Walt was about to release his first mixtape as Dinner With John when he died.Credit: Courtesy of Nachelle Pugh

Pugh describes herself as overprotective, and she thinks it rubbed off on Walt; even as an adult he’d tell her his plans for the evening, and he’d ask his friends to do the same for him. Pugh says her son was sheltered, and when as a kid he found himself in a situation that made him uncomfortable, he’d call her to come get him. One day in high school, Walt wore a leather coat his father had bought him and attracted the wrong kind of attention on his morning CTA ride. “He called me: ‘Mom, can you pick me up from school today?’ He said so many people kept asking him where did he get that jacket from, and it scared him,” Pugh says. “The people that was asking him wasn’t other kids—it was adults that looked kinda shady, and he thought that somebody was gonna try to rob him. He never wore that jacket again.”

Walt attended Gordon Technical High School (now DePaul College Prep) until his senior year, when he lost his Link Unlimited scholarship and his parents could no longer afford the school—at that point he transferred to Austin College & Career Academy. Saba, who’d started his freshman year at St. Joseph High in west-suburban Westchester when he was 13, had the same scholarship, intended to provide resources and mentoring to African-American high school students. Saba and Walt saw each other during Link’s Summer Learning Program and occasionally through other Link activities. They both graduated in 2011, when Saba was 16 and Walt was 18.

“The thing that brought us together would be girls,” Saba says. Shortly before graduation, Saba was looking for a prom date, and Walt set him up with a childhood friend. Walt was preparing for prom too—his second of the season—but Pugh didn’t want to pay for it. “I’m like, I’m not buying another suit, shoes, haircut—none of that stuff,” Pugh says. “If you’re going to this prom, better figure it out.” Walt managed to Frankenstein together a suit from pieces loaned by friends, and he asked Saba if he could borrow $30. Saba had to share his address with Walt so he could walk over to get the money—they’d never seen each other’s houses before. “After that we were pretty much locked in as BFFs,” Saba says.

Walt had a scholarship to play basketball for Saint Louis Christian College in Florissant, Missouri, and before he left in fall 2011 he spent much of his time on the court with Saba and Chilliams. That same summer, Walt also discovered that his cousins had started a hip-hop crew—but he wouldn’t join them for another few months.

The core members of Pivot Gang on a recent trip to Los Angeles: Joseph Chilliams, Dae Dae, Frsh Waters, Squeak, MFn Melo, and Saba
The core members of Pivot Gang on a recent trip to Los Angeles: Joseph Chilliams, Dae Dae, Frsh Waters, Squeak, MFn Melo, and SabaCredit: Blair Brown

In 2008, long before Pivot, Saba and Chilliams cofounded a group called the Rally with four other St. Joseph kids (including MFn Melo) and a cousin they lived with named Von. The Rally recorded in a studio Saba and Chilliams built in their grandparents’ basement. “It’s a grind, and we didn’t know that starting out—we figured you make music, it’s good music, you put it out, you become famous,” Melo says. “We wasn’t even putting it out, we was keeping it, so why do we feel entitled to have anything happening for us?”

Walt wanted in, even though he was about to leave town. “We were like, ‘No, we were already doing this thing, why would we let you in? We haven’t even heard your music—we don’t even know how serious you are about this,’ but he made a mixtape damn near the week after,” Chilliams says. “We were like, ‘What. The fuck.’ When he puts his head down and gets to work on anything, it’s getting done. And at that time it was like, ‘OK, we can watch and see.'”

At SLCC, Walt kept at his music during spare hours, sharing it with his friends and his mom. Pugh would offer constructive criticism. “I’m like, ‘I have no idea what you talkin’ about—can you use a different word here?'” she says. “He’d be like, ‘Ma, it’s not school!’ And I’m like, ‘I know it’s not school, but you have to be creative and utilize your vocabulary.'”

By the start of 2011, most of the original members of the Rally had stopped showing up, and the group began a transition. Frsh Waters, a friend of Von’s, became a regular presence in their basement studio shortly after Walt moved to Missouri. His first day there, he and Chilliams used a beat of Saba’s to record the song “Chill Taught Me.” “That was pretty much the first Pivot song, but it wasn’t Pivot at the time,” Chilliams says.

Frsh soon heard about Walt. “They had a folder in they iTunes, like, ‘John Walt,'” he says. “He had, like, five mixtapes in that bitch. I’m thinkin’ it’s, like, somebody that’s bussin’, just an emerging artist or something. They like, ‘Yeah man, that’s our cousin. He at school right now—he gonna be back, though. He be knockin’ out work.'” Walt lasted only one semester at Saint Louis Christian College, returning to Chicago in December 2011 and enrolling at the downtown campus of Robert Morris University, across the street from Harold Washington Library and YouMedia. By 2012, he was part of his cousins’ new group, christened Pivot Gang after a gag in a 1999 episode of Friends: as Chandler and Rachel try to help Ross move a couch up a stairwell, he barks at them to “Pivot!”

In 2011, Frsh had introduced most of Pivot Gang to the two open mikes that’ve been most important to current Chicago hip-hop: WordPlay at YCA and Lyricist Loft at YouMedia. As the crew became regulars at both, they tapped into a community of collaborators, some of whom Saba began recording in Pivot’s basement studio: Noname, Mick Jenkins, Alex Wiley, Lucki, Jean Deaux (another cousin of Walt’s), Dally Auston, Vic Mensa, Chance the Rapper.

It was tough to break in at Lyricist Loft. “A lot of times you go to the open mike and it’s 50 names on the list, and there’s only time for 20 people—a lot of us don’t get called,” Saba says. “Walt was the one who, like, if I write my name on the list and he saw that they wasn’t about to call me, he would go and have a talk with the host. ‘Hey, you about to call his name next,’ like that. We had to, like, bully our way into the space, and it worked—it was crazy. That’s kind of where Pivot became an outside thing—like a thing that left my grandma’s basement.”

Walt’s steadfast support for his friends extended beyond Pivot. “He was a lot of people’s biggest fan,” says YCA artistic director Kevin Coval. “His championing of young artists and established artists helped people continue, ’cause you felt like he was genuinely excited, down, interested in what you were doing. I think that that also began to influence what he was doing.”

In February 2012, Frsh became the first Pivot rapper to get a Lyricist Loft feature, which is a 15-minute block instead of the typical one-song or one-poem slot. “When Frsh did that, it was just like a Pivot feature—we all were on there, rapping all of these songs,” Chilliams says. “It felt like people believed in what we were trying to do, believed in Pivot, and Pivot was bigger than just us. From that point on, we just started trying to fuck shit up.” By the end of the month, Saba got a Lyricist Loft feature, and Walt had his booked for early March.

In early 2013, Frsh began serving a prison sentence, from which he wouldn’t return till July 2017. The collective won’t say why he got locked up, and because he doesn’t share his government name, it’s tough to find out. “When Frsh went away—that’s a defining moment in our relationship with each other,” Saba says. “We definitely became more of a family after that.” Frsh asked Pivot to look after his younger brother, Squeak, while he was gone. In January 2013 the crew had started using their first outside studio, and soon Squeak was driving them there—it was inside the Fort Knox space in Old Irving Park and run by video-production company Heart of the City (cofounded by Jon Cuevas, one of Pivot’s managers at the time).

Squeak hadn’t shown much interest in music, but a single day in the studio with Pivot changed that. “I’m listening to what they all made that day—I was like, ‘Wow, they’re actually talking about shit,'” Squeak says. “I was like, ‘All right, I just don’t wanna be around just to be around—I have to do something.'” He tried his hand at engineering, and in 2015 he took up producing and DJing. His first DJ gig was with Walt at North Bar in October 2015. “Whenever he’d get a show, I was there right with him,” Squeak says.

In October 2013, Pivot Gang dropped the collaborative mixtape Jimmy in honor of Frsh. Walt also began to flex his muscles as a solo artist, first with the song “Liu Kang.” “Whenever he did it at YouMedia, it was like a party,” Chilliams says. “Watching everybody just instantly get up and start dancing, asking him to do the song over—it’s an open mike, you only do it one time—it was very inspirational.” Walt uploaded “Liu Kang” to Soundcloud on November 6, 2013, and a couple days later Fake Shore Drive named it the best song of the week. “You know how pop stars focus on the single? Walt could make hits, more so than any of us,” Chilliams says.

“Liu Kang” came out in the run-up to Walt’s December 2013 mixtape, Get Happy 2.0, which he celebrated by headlining Tonic Room with Saba, Chris Crack, and Mick Jenkins. Walt’s ferocious rapping on that mixtape, sometimes bordering on the west-side chopper style, reminds Saba of Walt’s uncle, who rapped under the name Tha Heartstoppa. (“We used to have to steal his albums, ’cause our parents didn’t want us listening to it,” Saba says. “It was some super gangsta shit.”) Get Happy 2.0 closes with the bittersweet, ebullient “Kemo Walk,” which hinted at the melodic blend of R&B and rap that Walt would experiment with for the rest of his career.

By early 2014, the members of Pivot had begun branching out to professional studios beyond the Heart of the City space, though no one did so as tirelessly as Walt. “If he wasn’t trying to get in with somebody else around the scene that was doing something—getting in their studio—he had an app on his phone. He’d go in his garage, and he’ll do it on his own,” Melo says. “He gonna make it work—he’s gonna find a session somewhere.”

For about a year Walt was a daily fixture at the Wicker Park home of producer Dae Dae, then half of beat-making duo Chad (he’d eventually work on Care for Me). All of Pivot came through for sessions in Dae Dae’s basement—one of his roommates, Ken Ross, produced a couple tracks on the 2014 Saba mixtape Comfort Zone. “Walt would write to everything, all the time, no matter what beat we were making,” Dae Dae says. “It didn’t even matter if it was terrible.” Walt encouraged Dae Dae to try new experiments and even to sing (he contributed vocals to Care for Me tracks “Calligraphy” and “Smile”).

“Walt would always be there and be hyping me up,” Dae Dae says. “I was doubting myself a lot, and Walt would just always be like, ‘This is fire, dude, you’re going crazy!'” That year Dae Dae got to know everyone in Pivot, but he got closest to Walt. He remembers Walt impishly pecking out the melody to 2 Chainz’ “I’m Different” on a piano and deliberately screwing up the end. “He purposely would do the last one wrong, over and over, to piss everyone in the room off,” Dae Dae says. “He was always just doing some funny-ass dumb shit.”

As prolific as Walt was, he released just a smattering of singles after Get Happy 2.0, among them the first song Squeak produced, 2015’s “Work for Me.” As Walt smoothed out the aggressive rapping and rough-edged percussion in his music, he changed his stage name to match; in 2016 he became Dinner With John. He planned to release his first Dinner With John mixtape in January 2017, just before a Pivot showcase at Lincoln Hall—it would be Saba’s first big hometown show since dropping Bucket List Project, his national breakthrough. Saba cautioned Walt to wait. “I was like, ‘You don’t wanna drop a surprise album after your name change. It’s gonna take people time—maybe just drop a single instead,'” he says. Walt took Saba’s advice, and Pugh bought him new clothes for the show. “That was one of the best days of his life,” she says.

Walt decided to drop his mixtape the following month. On February 7, he was hanging with Saba when they noticed a Timehop photo of the two of them on Facebook. “We just started talking, in detail, about everything that led us to where we were at,” Saba says. “And then he died the next day.”

This John Walt memorial mural, by artist Jake Merten, went up in August 2017 near Milwaukee and Attrill in Logan Square, across from the L Apartments. It had been covered up by October.
This John Walt memorial mural, by artist Jake Merten, went up in August 2017 near Milwaukee and Attrill in Logan Square, across from the L Apartments. It had been covered up by October.Credit: Courtesy of Nachelle Pugh

On the afternoon of February 8, Walt was stabbed to death in the Fulton Market District. He’d been riding the Green Line to Austin when he allegedly got in a scuffle with a man named Kevin Alexander, who’s since pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and is being held on $500,000 bail. Melo says Alexander had previously tried to steal Walt’s coat, and when Walt spotted Alexander on the train, he texted Melo in case anything happened.

At the YCA vigil for Walt, Kevin Coval recalls, Pugh first publicly expressed the desire to build something to honor her son. When Saba came to her house for a CBS 2 interview about Walt’s death, Pugh floated the idea of a foundation. “He said, ‘I want you to get together with Kevin, ’cause Kevin can show us what to do,'” Pugh says. “I’m like, ‘OK. I guess that means you’re my cofounder.'”

In April 2017 Pugh began talking to YCA executive director Rebecca Hunter about launching the John Walt Foundation. “Her ideas were already pretty formed,” Hunter says. “Really all she needed, in the first phase, was to have a fiscal sponsor to begin to house any money she was fund-raising.” YCA stepped into that role. Pugh and Saba also received advice and feedback from Ayesha Jaco, who’d cofounded Lupe Fiasco’s nonprofit M.U.R.A.L., and from Donnie Smith and Che “Rhymefest” Smith of Donda’s House (now Art of Culture).

After the John Walt Foundation received its 501(c)(3) certification early this year, it began soliciting applicants, ages 14 to 23, for its inaugural grants. One hundred and sixty people applied, and this past summer Pugh asked for help selecting the final five—among the people she consulted were DaWreck, poets Britteney Black Rose Kapri and Raych Jackson, and Frsh Waters. Frsh says he helps Pugh however he can. “I been surprised just to see her strength, and that’s given me strength to go hard,” Frsh says. “These challenges that we face, they could make or break you.”

In March 2017, Walt was supposed to go on Saba’s Bucket List Project tour with the rest of Pivot. His friends dealt with their grief differently—Saba says he didn’t face it fully until he began working on Care for Me. “It was such a therapeutic process,” he says. “I was able to talk about things and kind of use the words that I didn’t even know that I had. It felt like I was channeling some other shit, just writing things, and not trying to overthink the music.”

In August 2017, Saba and Dae Dae flew to Oakland for their first session with Care for Me coproducer Daoud. In a few months they made about 90 instrumentals, and Care for Me began to take shape that winter—that’s when Saba says “Prom/King” came into focus. “It was still summer when I was like, ‘All right, I got a ten-minute song, tell the whole story,'” Saba says. “I wanted to take some of the stories that involved me and Walt’s relationship together. And be able to give people a glimpse of who Walt was, what he was like, what he was received as, what other people viewed him as, in this song, while telling the story of how it felt.”

The surviving members of Pivot plan to release Walt’s Dinner With John mixtape—and they’ve got hours and hours of additional material he recorded. Right now there are only a handful of songs on Walt’s Soundcloud account, two of them released posthumously. More people know him through Care for Me than through his own music.

Saba has yet to perform “Prom/King” live, and he says he’s only been able to listen to it a few times. The last voice on the track is Walt, from the hook to a song he and Saba worked on in 2014. “Just another day in the ghetto,” he softly sings. “Oh, the streets bring sorrow / Can’t get up today with their schedule / I just hope I make it till tomorrow.”

While Walt was still alive, Pugh began paying the fees for his Soundcloud account, and she’s made sure it remains active. She also responds to listeners who try to message Walt through the site. “That year leading up to when he passed, he told me, ‘Ma, just believe in me—we doing big things, just believe in me,'” Pugh says. “I said, ‘OK,’ and I believe in him. I still believe in him.”  v

John Walt in December 2016
John Walt in December 2016Credit: Tom Vin