Supa Bwe Credit: Photo by Kevin Serna

When I walk into Supa Bwe’s two-story Humboldt Park apartment, his big-screen TV is displaying a pause screen from the postapocalyptic shooter Fortnite—already hugely popular, it got another bump last month when Drake streamed it on Twitch with local gamer Ninja. The 28-year-old Chicago rapper (his stage name is pronounced “Supa Boy”) likes to spend as much time at home as possible, and when he’s not working on music in his basement studio he often burns hours gaming. “I’m a hermit,” Supa says. “I just be in my crib. It’s hard to be a successful socialite hermit. You can’t do it.” But playing video games doesn’t cut him off from the world entirely—in online multiplayer games, he can talk to other gamers who are also using mikes. Several times he’s encountered fans of his music in a game, and one story especially sticks with him. “He joined me on a party and was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m playing with you,'” Supa says. “He’s like, ‘This is my brother’s gamer tag. He’s not here—he died, he committed suicide. That’s how I got into your music. He listened to your music all the time.'”

Supa may need lots of alone time, but he’s nonetheless worked himself into an enviable spot in the Chicago hip-hop scene—insofar as it’s possible to tell who’ll break out next, he’s at the head of the line. He’s been making music for nearly a decade, and over the past four years he’s been steadily building momentum: in that time he’s collaborated with a top-tier roster of emerging locals and established veterans, among them Twista, Mick Jenkins, Chance the Rapper, and Saba, who appears on Supa’s debut album.

Supa self-released that album, Finally Dead, in early December, and it peaked at number three on the iTunes store’s Hip-Hop/Rap chart, beneath Jay-Z’s 4:44 and Fabolous and Jadakiss’s collaborative Friday on Elm Street. On the Lollapalooza lineup for 2018, Supa is one of the highest billed among the roughly dozen locals, below drill king G Herbo, rap prodigy Taylor Bennett, and indie-pop magician Knox Fortune. And on Friday, April 6, Supa will belatedly celebrate his album with a headlining set at Metro.

Supa Bwe, Kami, Joseph Chilliams, Duffle Bag Buru, Seb Torgus, Adot

Fri 4/6, 7:30 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark, $21, $16 in advance, all ages

Supa calls Finally Dead his debut, and that’s true if you consider only full-length albums—he’s been releasing singles, EPs, and full-length mixtapes under his own name since 2012, and from 2014 till 2016 he performed and recorded as part of the stylistically fluid hip-hop trio Hurt Everybody. That group was how he first caught the ear of Fake Shore Drive founder and editor Andrew Barber: “I saw them perform, and I was like, ‘Man, these guys are really unique,'” Barber says. “Each of them were all really striking, and they had something special.”

At that point in his career, Supa indulged his love of huge, glossy vocal melodies even more often than he does now. He’d belt them out like a pop star singing a gut-wrenching ballad, or he’d scream like a punk front man—though he usually softened those feral lunges with digital processing. “For so long everybody was just like, ‘Why are you screaming? Stop yelling into Auto-Tune,'” he says. “And now Tekashi, Trippie—you know what I’m saying?”

Supa sounded outre in 2014, but by bringing the cathartic melodies and sugary hooks of Warped Tour to hip-hop, he inadvertently provided a blueprint for present-day Soundcloud rap—a stylistically mixed crop of underground MCs whose major influences include 2000s pop-punk and emo. Supa’s vocal style was so particular that I almost didn’t know what to make of Trippie Redd when I first heard him last year—the 18-year-old from Ohio was doing almost exactly the same thing Supa had done in Hurt Everybody.

“His style has been very influential,” Barber says of Supa. “He should be getting more credit for what he brings to the game, as far as his delivery, how he kind of yell-sings on the track. I think a lot of artists are doing that now, and he was the first I heard using that style.”

But Supa is moving away from the sound that made him a phenomenon—and that other rappers have since rode to fame (or in the case of Tekashi, aka 6ix9ine, to infamy). “It’s crazy that, like, that’s an accepted medium now, and it’s sad ’cause I’m past that,” he says. “Well, not sad—it’s just one of those things where it’s like, ‘Damn, if this happened two years ago . . . ‘ But I’m just past that medium, and I’m trying to figure out what it is now.”

Supa Bwe outside the studio of photographer Kevin Serna on the Lower West Side
Supa Bwe outside the studio of photographer Kevin Serna on the Lower West SideCredit: Kevin Serna

Supa Bwe, real name Frederick McCulloch-Burton, grew up on the west side in Austin, where he was raised by a British mother and a Chicagoan father. His dad was also an aspiring MC. “One of my earliest memories is my dad being on a treadmill, writing raps,” Supa says. “I remember the cadence of it—and I remember him saying, ‘Once again in the fin,’ ’cause he was a Vice Lord. And it was raw as hell.” (“Fin” is a sort of shorthand for the five-pointed star that People Nation gangs, the Vice Lords included, often use to identify themselves.)

At an early age, Supa took after his dad. “Me and my little sister used to rap—freestyle,” he says. “[We] used to beat on pots and pans and rap for hours, till our parents would beat us ’cause we were too loud.” But rap didn’t take over his life till much later. As a kid, he favored rock.

“I thought rock stars were really the true geniuses,” Supa says. “As a kid I was sad, and rappers weren’t saying shit that I could relate to—I didn’t have no cars, grills, chains, all that shit. Like, ‘What the fuck you talking ’bout? I’m sad.'”

That feeling got worse after his family moved to Oak Park when he was 14. Supa felt ostracized and often got into fights. “People would just do slick shit, and if you check them just like you do in the hood, then everybody’s ‘Whoa, what the fuck is wrong with this guy?'” he says. “I had to just be like, ‘OK, let me contain this part of myself that I learned to survive for fucking 14 years. I guess that’s wrong.'”

Spending his teen years in a largely white and relatively affluent suburb also had more insidious long-term effects on Supa. “When I lived in the hood, I was carefree as shit—I didn’t know I was black, I didn’t know I was poor, I didn’t know I was anything. I was just outside, rolling in dirt—I didn’t give a fuck,” he says. “Then when I moved to the suburbs, different standards, beauty standards, and all that shit started coming around. You start to care about different shit that you never really cared about before. It kind of chips away at who you are on the inside—I feel like I’m one of the people who came out of that shit weird as hell. I have the voice in the back of my head that’s like, an adolescent, white suburban kid that’s just like, ‘Those are dirty-ass shoes, eww. Why do you fight so much? Eww.’ Just calling me ghetto and shit like that.”

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Toward the end of his time at Oak Park and River Forest High School (he graduated in 2008), Supa tried to start a couple different rock bands, but each time the difficulty of getting everybody to come to rehearsal ended up scuttling the project in a few weeks. He was already working on his own music at home, and that impulse caught fire in 2010, when he met Jungle Audio Engineering co-owner Excel Cruz. Supa’s confidence impressed him, and he began to mentor the young rapper. “He knew exactly what he wanted and the sounds that he wanted,” Cruz says. “It was easy for me as an engineer to work with him.”

“I was listening to screamo,” Supa says. “I was hearing someone, like, [growling] ‘Yeah yeah yeah yeah,’ then [high-pitched singing] ‘Yeeeaah!’ So I was making that shit, and it was cool.” He dropped his first mixtape, New America, on July 4, 2012—and he’s released music nearly every Independence Day since.

After New America came out, though, Supa disappeared from the Jungle for a few months. “I was off a whole bunch of drugs and shit, and I tried to jump on the train tracks,” he says. “My dad grabbed me and called my mentor. We were all on the phone, and my mentor was like, ‘Just come to the studio and record.'”

Supa did spend some time inside Serna’s studio too.
Supa did spend some time inside Serna’s studio too.Credit: Kevin Serna

Supa hadn’t wanted to avoid the Jungle, but he felt sheepish about reaching out—in part because he owed Cruz money for studio time. Cruz was more concerned about Supa’s well-being than about any outstanding charges, though, and he let Supa spend as much time in Jungle’s second studio as he needed—he even let Supa sleep there when he needed a place to crash. The karma Cruz earned with that kindness came back to him when Supa bought some of the Jungle’s equipment a couple years later. “He actually ended up saving my company,” Cruz says. “We were going through tough times, and we needed some extra cash. We ended up selling him our second-room equipment; with that extra cash we were able to stay afloat.”

With equipment of his own, Supa could assemble his own recording setup in the Music Garage, a complex of rehearsal spaces, studios, and shops in Fulton Market. When he bought the gear in 2014, he’d already started bonding with a couple members of local hip-hop group Supreme Regime: rapper Qari and producer Mulatto Beats. “Qari’s very mature for his age, and I’m immature, so I feel like we were all 23 at the same time,” Supa says. “We were all on the same shit—all that mattered was the music.” The three of them had officially formed Hurt Everybody on New Year’s Day 2014.

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Qari’s refined, nonchalant cool, Supa’s cathartic melodies, and Mulatto Beats’ electric menagerie of unconventional instrumentals soon made Hurt Everybody one of the most exciting new acts in the city. When the trio broke up two years later, in January 2016, it wasn’t because they weren’t succeeding musically.

“I was just being a bad friend—we were just all bad friends. Young people don’t know what we’re doing,” Supa says. In the past few months, he’s started working on repairing those relationships. “I saw Qari the other day at Soho House. Gave me a hug and shit. We talked—he was supposed to come over here before South By, eat pizza, play video games, but he was busy,” Supa says. “We trying to, like, not get the band back together or no shit like that, but just be OK with each other.”

The time apart has helped everyone grow, Supa says. It’s also possible that any lingering resentments Qari and Mulatto Beats may have had about the breakup have been eased by the successes they’ve enjoyed on their own. Mulatto’s solo debut, last year’s .22 Summers, features guest spots from local heavies such as Mick Jenkins and King Louie. And Qari’s imminent solo EP, No Time to Explain, includes a single produced by Mulatto called “Pants From Japan” whose video racked up more than half a million YouTube views in less than two weeks after it came out in mid-March.

Supa says he hit rock bottom after Hurt Everybody broke up, but that helped motivate him. “I learn from my lows,” he says. The process of working on Finally Dead, which he began in late 2016, helped him find his emotional balance. “By the time I finished Finally Dead, I actually felt happy,” he says. “I still struggle with things, I still am sad, but I don’t feel so alone and I don’t feel so inadequate.”

Last summer Supa was kicked into high gear by a distribution deal he signed with Empire, which has built partnerships with several hip-hop heavyweights, most notably Top Dawg Entertainment (home of Kendrick Lamar, SZA, and Schoolboy Q). He spent a large chunk of his advance on new equipment for his home studio, and he delayed Finally Dead for four months so he could rerecord most of the album.

In the process of finalizing Finally Dead, Supa shed some of its material. “I quit cigarettes at a point—it’s like, ‘This song about cigarettes don’t even matter no more, ’cause I don’t even fuckin’ feel this way about cigarettes no more,'” he says. “I met a woman I really love and just stopped doing all that shit and really cleaned myself up. I don’t want my music to necessarily be clean, but I just don’t feel that way, when I was out in the streets feeling that way.”

Finally Dead reflects Supa’s maturing worldview and the breadth of his musical palette. There’s less screaming into Auto-Tune (though hardly none) and more relatively clean crooning and straightforward rapping, all atop instrumentals that draw from R&B ballads, horn-heavy neosoul, and arty electro-pop. On the upbeat autobiographical number “Down Comes the Spaceman,” he raps about his strained relationship with the suburbs, but his light-footed delivery suggests that he’s no longer so weighed down by past troubles.

And Supa says he’s already moving in new directions, citing Erykah Badu and Michael Jackson as inspirations. He knows he’ll ruffle the feathers of entitled fans who feel a sense of ownership over his music, but he’d prefer to evolve. “You can’t just make the same shit—you’ll be Nickelback,” Supa says. “We all remember Nickelback. Fuck Nickelback. They were the greatest for, like, two months. Everybody hates them now for a reason—because they’re repetitive droning assholes. You can be an asshole, you can drone, but you can’t be repetitive.”  v