Marlon "Solitaire" King, co-owner and lead engineer of Insomniac Studios Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Just beyond the edge of the south side, the city of Blue Island borders Chicago neighborhoods such as Morgan Park and West Pullman. “The Wild Hundreds,” as part of the area has been nicknamed, encompasses the communities of Pullman and Roseland, and nearby staples include the Kroc Center—which calls itself Chicago’s largest community center—and reliably yummy sandwich shop Home of the Hoagy. Insomniac Studios sits at 127th and Western in Blue Island, across the street from an outpost of a favorite midwestern chain, Beggars Pizza.

Founded in 2010 by Marlon “Solitaire” King and Martin “Shadow” Johnson, Insomniac is a Black-owned studio on the top floor of a two-flat apartment building. King, 46, and Johnson, 49, got acquainted in the 90s, when they were employed together at Ford Motor Company in Chicago Heights. Johnson still works at Ford, so he’s not at the studio full-time, but they both pitch in as producers and engineers.

King and Johnson bonded over their similar taste in music, and their enduring friendship led to the business partnership that forged Insomniac Studios. The dynamic of that friendship is apparent as they talk about growing up in the golden age of hip-hop: they both wrote rhymes at work, while King fell in love with the art of production. They reminisce about being teenagers and pooling money with friends to book time at professional studios that charged $125 per hour. “Everybody knew their lines and their songs before we got to the studio,” King says, “because nobody wants to be the guy that gets to the studio and wastes everybody’s money.”

King and Johnson say they had to travel far north from their homes in Roseland and south suburban Harvey to record at professional studios, and their experiences on those visits often left a bad taste. “We saw how we got treated when we were in certain studios, and nobody looked like us on the boards,” King says. “And it always seemed like they were trying to hurry up and get us out. So we say we’re going to do a studio—we’re going to do it our way, to make people feel at home.”

  • D. Lylez, a contestant on The Voice last year, recorded this song at Insomniac in 2017.

Through a program offered at Ford, King was able to earn a master’s certification in music production from Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2008. He attended Berklee online for four years and also took music-business courses. From 2007 to 2010, he worked as an apprentice at 35th Street Studios in McKinley Park, where he learned to run sessions and sharpened his skills as a producer and engineer. When that apprenticeship came to an end, he had the perfect opportunity to act on his dream of opening his studio.

King and Johnson were able to lease the Insomniac Studios space because of a relationship they had with the owner. “This was a studio before we took it over, and the previous guy running it didn’t get along with the landlord,” King says. “It was just a perfect-timing type of thing, where he left and a friend of mine offered it to me. We came up here and we said let’s try it out.” Ten years later, the studio remains in the same location, with creatives from all over Chicagoland coming to record and hone their craft.

Martin “Shadow” Johnson, co-owner of Insomniac StudiosCredit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Insomniac Studios doesn’t just stand out because it’s located in an area with very few recording facilities. It’s also set apart by the extent to which it focuses on building the next generation of creatives and teaching those who want to learn. As soon as the studio was well established, King and Johnson started an internship program—they wanted to share information, not hoard it. Both of them have encountered people in these spaces who don’t want to share, whether out of insecurity or territorialism. “Even if we go to an apprenticeship program, certain gentlemen just didn’t want to show you anything, whether it was white power, being a little bit racist, or them just not wanting anybody to take that spot,” Johnson says.

“When people have a goal or they have an agenda musically or professionally, they will step on and look over people,” King adds. “That made us definitely want to deal with people on a personal level and create an atmosphere where you felt at home, where it wasn’t a trip. We’re just here to have fun, relax, enjoy yourself, and work on your craft.”

  • Another Insomniac production: “It’s being played on radio right now!” says King.

The story of how Insomniac project manager Brian Sykes came aboard is an example of the warm and inviting environment at the studio. It started in 2015, when he’d drop his sister off for the internship program—he would come in to check on her, and King would ask him to stay. Sykes soon became involved with the artists, and he’s been working for the studio full-time for about four years. “I got pulled in, which I greatly appreciated Marlon and Shadow for,” Sykes says. “Because, oftentimes in our lifetime, especially dealing with our community, we can see each other have talent, or we can see each other having dreams and goals and won’t foster them.”

The internship program at Insomniac helps King and Johnson stay true to their mission of building bonds and creating trust with those who use their services. The studio brings on five to ten interns per year to learn production and engineering. It takes 140 hours to complete the program, but interns are free to put in those hours at their own pace. People learn about the internships mostly through word of mouth, and Insomniac’s website has a sign-up page.

King brought on the first intern, Keenan Davis, about eight years ago. “He was an artist at the time, and he did a session,” King says. “When the session was over, he asked me if I took interns—I had never even considered in terms of apprenticeships, anything.” Since then, Insomniac has steadily brought on interns, some who stay for a little while and some who’ve been there for years.

Insomniac apprentice engineer Low, also known as DJ JamesCredit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

One former intern and current apprentice, who goes by Low, speaks fondly of his time at Insomniac. He says he learned about the opportunity from Davis while the two attended Rich Central High School in Olympia Fields. Upon entering the internship, Low had no knowledge of the technical side of the music industry, but he’s since learned engineering skills—including how to master and develop a trained ear to understand frequencies.

Low’s relationship with King means a lot to him. “If I didn’t spend so much time here, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” he says. “Because I was definitely doing things I shouldn’t have been. And this man kept me out of a lot of stuff, not even knowing it.” Low’s own father hasn’t been present in his life, and he looks at King as a paternal figure who kept him on a steady path.

Interns can move up to the apprenticeship program once they complete their 140 hours and demonstrate a thorough understanding of the curriculum. Apprentices learn to run studio sessions, which can land them jobs as independent contractors at Insomniac Studios and elsewhere once they’ve absorbed enough to supervise a recording by themselves.

Recording artist Mykah Estelle, part of Insomniac’s IS Pro TeamCredit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

In addition to offering internships and apprenticeships, Insomniac also teaches artists literacy in the music business, a program they refer to as the IS Pro Team. Mykah Estelle and Sonny Trill, from the west side and the south suburbs respectively, are part of this free program, which teaches them (among other things) how to affiliate with performance-rights organizations in order to receive broadcast royalties. “I didn’t realize how much money goes into it,” Estelle says. “I didn’t realize how much time could have gone into it. Like you have to be set up with two or three different organizations to make sure you get money and all that—I was really uneducated on everything.”

  • Recent tracks by or featuring two of Insomniac’s IS Pro Team artists, Mykah Estelle and Sonny Trill

The staff at Insomniac Studios decide who to take on for the IS Pro Team based on the relationship they have with the artist and the potential they see in each one. Sykes is working on partnerships to get IS Pro Team artists’ music licensed for movies and TV shows and played on local radio stations. He’d also been preparing a showcase concert for these artists that would double as a celebration of Insomniac’s tenth anniversary—but it all got postponed due to COVID-19.

Insomniac Studios has already made a mark on the Chicago music scene: the likes of G Herbo, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Shawnna have all recorded there. And the studio continues to cultivate new talents who are making waves, most notably Brittney Carter.

  • Insomniac’s first intern, Keenan Davis, made “Wild Horses” (with BJ the Chicago Kid and Ashley Washington) at the studio in 2013.

Even so, Johnson and King say they feel like they haven’t yet made the impact they want to on their community. They would love to expand to multiple studios on the south side, increasing their reach in an overlooked population. But the two of them aren’t blind to what Insomniac has already done for the many creatives who see it as their haven. “We wanted to make sure we had a place to feel safe and secure and where [artists] can do what they need to do,” says Johnson. “So it’s gratifying.”  v