Every spring, seniors at Evanston Township High School start coming to class wearing clothes bearing the names of the colleges they’ll attend the next fall. In 2015 the Washington Post ranked ETHS the 17th-most challenging high school in Illinois, and its students end up in colleges all over the country. But last year, when rapper and producer Kweku Collins was about to graduate, he couldn’t join in that tradition—he remembers seeing “hella U. of I. shirts”—because he wasn’t pursuing a traditional higher education at all. Though he’d been accepted to Columbia College, he decided not to go. Instead he showed up at ETHS in a T-shirt advertising an institution that admits fewer people each year than any school: Chicago indie hip-hop label Closed Sessions.
Closed Sessions signed Collins last March. Fake Shore Drive broke the news in April by premiering his song “Start a Fire” alongside a get-to-know-him interview. Since then the 19-year-old MC, raised on poetry, West African percussion, and Bob Marley, has contributed vocals to several Closed Sessions releases, usually working with in-house producers OddCouple and Boathouse: the OddCouple full-length Chatterbox in July, the label compilation Spicy Caliente in September, and the Boathouse EP Hibernation in February. Collins has also kept busy with solo work, dropping singles like a trail of bread crumbs for his fans—most recently “Ego Killed Romance” in late March—and the July EP Say It Here, While It’s Safe, his first for Closed Sessions. In the process Collins has become a marquee artist for the label, which has been an integral part of the local hip-hop scene since it launched as a multimedia experiment in 2009.
In January, ABC daytime talk show Windy City Live dedicated about eight minutes of airtime to Closed Sessions, and Collins ended the segment with a live performance of “Memorial,” a heart-wrenching tribute to his late great-grandmother. His smooth, slippery flow nearly cracked with emotion, and he sauntered around the stage with the poise of a veteran in time with the song’s polyrhythmic percussion. A few weeks earlier Collins had performed during a Closed Sessions set at Chi-Town Rising, Chicago’s first outdoor New Year’s Eve party, and in October the label had partnered with international pop-up party Boiler Room for a show in New York, where Collins shared the bill with the likes of Chicago hip-hop star Saba and New York underground rap heroes Mr. Mfn Exquire and Your Old Droog.
Fake Shore Drive founder Andrew Barber thinks the Closed Sessions folks know they’re on to something special. “They’re at a point where they’ve had some success with a number of artists,” he says. “I feel like they feel like this is the one, and I think Kweku can really stand out.” Collins hopes to make the most of his increasing visibility over the past year with the release of Nat Love, which came out on Closed Sessions last week—he’s celebrating with a headlining set at Reggie’s Rock Club on Friday, April 15.
Kweku Collins, Qari, Ric Wilson, Boathouse, OddCouple
Fri 4/15, 7 PM, Reggie’s Rock Club, 2105 S. State, reggieslive.com, $12, $10 in advance, all ages
Collins was born into music. His 65-year-old father, Stephan, grew up in Indianapolis surrounded by professional musicians—his mother was a jazz singer, and her father was a jazz saxophonist and bandleader who Stephan says played with legendary bebop trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. A drummer uncle gave Stephan a pair of bongos when he was ten, and by the mid-70s he was working as a jeweler in Madison and gigging at bars and hotels. He attended an open rehearsal led by jazz trombonist Jimmy Cheatham, who’d played with Ornette Coleman and Duke Ellington and was teaching at the University of Wisconsin at the time. Cheatham introduced Stephan to the school’s wealth of resources, and he eventually got hooked on African and Latin percussion and started working with an African theater group.
In 1988 Stephan went to SUNY Brockport to join a former UW dance professor as the African drum master for the dance department. SUNY Brockport had a relationship with the University of Ghana in Accra, and Stephan convinced the school to send him to Ghana for four weeks. “That’s when I saw, ‘I’m in the land of drums—let me take some back,'” he says. “I bought some drums, I shipped them back, and it dawned on me: ‘Wait a minute, there’s a business here.'” In the mid-90s, Stephan launched a company called Afena Akoma African Imports. At SUNY Brockport he also met a 19-year-old dance student named Frances, who would become Kweku’s mom. Kweku is Stephan’s seventh child, but his first with Frances—he arrived about five years later, on September 18, 1996.
“I was playing drums with my dad before I could walk,” Collins says. When Stephan traveled to Ghana for work, Collins would make do with a 35-minute instructional VHS his father had made for Afena Akoma, Basics of African Palm Drumming. “Mom would put the video on and he would sit, listen, watch, and play,” Stephan says. Collins also learned capoeira—a Brazilian martial art blended with dance—and listened to Brazilian music. Stephan says his son was joining him during percussion performances by age six. Frances, who’s now an elementary school teacher, got him hooked on poetry. “She was always the one encouraging me to read, to write,” Collins says.
When Collins was four, he moved with his parents from upstate New York to Evanston, in part because Afena Akoma was in financial trouble; Stephan says he shuttered the business around 2001. (Collins has a tattoo of Afena Akoma’s logo, a heart and sword, on his left arm.) In 2004 Collins fell for hip-hop after hearing Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” His parents didn’t know much about hip-hop and worried about the bad influence it might have on an eight-year-old, but Collins found a way to listen. “I had this little portable radio that somebody gave me as a present—they didn’t really know that I had it,” he says. “I’d go to my room, pop in my headphones, and I’d quietly listen to ‘Jesus Walks.'”
Collins started rapping in eighth grade. He released his first mixtape, Freshman Year, in spring 2012, during his first year at Evanston Township. He recorded most of it in a single night at his friend Charlie Culbert’s house. (“I don’t even think that shit’s on the Internet anymore,” he says.) Collins tried out a couple stage names—”Ell Purp’s” and “Black Belief”—and occasionally performed at nondenominational charity events at a south Evanston church called the Vineyard. Early in his sophomore year, he joined the ETHS slam-poetry team competing in the Louder Than a Bomb tournament.
Collins had his first talk with his parents about his rap dreams when he was 15. “The question was asked: ‘Son, what do you want to do after high school?'” Stephan remembers. “And he says, ‘I want to be a rapper.’ Well, mom just about curled up into a little pelt.”
His parents decided to encourage him, though, albeit cautiously, and they started to provide him with recording equipment. “I’m about passion, but positive passion,” Stephan says. “We said, ‘Well, Kweku, that’s all cool, but we want you to be positive.'” In September 2012, shortly after he turned 16, Collins impressed his parents with a posi ditty called “Young & Wonderful” that he uploaded to YouTube. “The boy’s got talent,” Stephan says. “I’d been in the business long enough—I know what a good singer sounds like, I know what good lyrics are, and he’s got it.”
It wasn’t till his junior year that Collins began to take hip-hop seriously, retiring his stage names and drawing on the art he’d grown up with—drumming from dad, poetry from mom, and music from around the world, especially Brazil and West Africa. “I started producing my own music and really delving into my craft,” he says. “‘Oh, I can take these rhythms that I’ve known my whole life and the type of music that I’m most comfortable playing, and I can transition into this.'”
In November 2014 Bryan Zawlocki, editor in chief of local hip-hop outlet Elevator, wrote about an eight-song Collins release called The Valley, the first in a trickle of blog write-ups and a major turning point for the young rapper. After Daily Chiefers wrote about him in December 2014, he remembers, “My mom was like, ‘You should actually [take] at least take a year from school and try this.'”
In late January 2015, Collins sent Closed Sessions cofounder Alex Fruchter a short introductory e-mail, including a link to the new EP Worlds Away. When Fruchter listened to its gentle opening cut, “Life,” he’d just talked to label cofounder and Soundscape Studios owner Michael Kolar about bringing new artists to Closed Sessions. “I just remembering sitting there—like, ‘Damn, this is dope,'” Fruchter says. “It just brought that sunshine or that energy I was hoping to find.”
At Fruchter’s invitation, Collins went to Closed Sessions’ East Humboldt Park headquarters above Soundscape, and Stephan came with him. He began a series of tests with Kolar—he’d have to pick a beat from the label’s library, for instance, and record a song on the fly, writing his lyrics on the spot. Not all Kolar’s tests were musical, though. “One of my favorite things to do is turn off the heat. It’s, like, really fucking cold—’Are you gonna tough it out?'” Kolar says. “I never told Kweku that was a test. Long after we signed him and he was squad, he was like, ‘Man, I remember that first time with Mike, it was so cold in the studio—white people just like shit so cold.'”
Closed Sessions was at a crossroads when Collins came into the picture—Fruchter calls 2015 the label’s YOLO year, because he and Kolar had decided to take bigger risks. They’d been self-financing a small number of releases, and they wanted to put out more music by more artists, hoping they might make some money back. “We looked at our roster—we had one signed artist, a bunch of side projects. Looking at the future, where’s the sustainable growth that’s gonna allow us to have this label for 20 years, raise a family off this label, work with more artists, supply them with resources?” Fruchter says. “Some things were make or break, and we kept that in mind the whole year: Go big or go home.”
Collins passed Fruchter and Kolar’s tests and impressed them as a person. And as Kolar explains, Stephan’s involvement cemented the deal. “Working with Chance from obscurity—like pre-#10Day to now—Chance, he’s got it, he’s the golden kid, he was gonna make it. But I guarantee a big part of how quickly and how high he got was having the support of [his father] Ken [Bennett] and his family,” Kolar says. “If you’re gonna take flight at a young age—at 17, at 18, like when Chance started to really become something, and like Kwkeu now is starting to become something—if you have good family support, man, I really feel sky’s the limit.”
Fruchter and Kolar signed Collins just before South by Southwest. His arrival helped start a transformation for the label: since then Closed Sessions has closed deals with OddCouple and Boathouse; parted ways with its only previous signee, Alex Wiley; brought aboard its first out-of-state artist, Cleveland rapper Kipp Stone; and signed Jamila Woods, one of the go-to vocalists in Chicago’s hip-hop scene.
Collins’s Closed Sessions connection started to work for him immediately. Barber remembers when Fruchter passed along Collins’s music. “I’d never heard of him before, and he kind of just came out of nowhere—I think Alex in particular has been really good at discovering talent within this city early on,” Barber says. Fruchter’s history of highlighting local talent, both as a DJ and as former editor of hip-hop site Ruby Hornet, has helped give Closed Sessions its cachet: “When they put their stamp on somebody, it means something,” Barber aays. And these days, the quality of Collins’s work reflects back on the label. “It definitely caught my attention because of the melodic type of vibe to it,” Barber continues. “It definitely doesn’t really sound like what a lot of people are making around here. It’s kinda fresh and it’s fun, and almost has a Native Tongues type of vibe.”
Stylistically diverse and conceptually coherent, Collins’s new Nat Love has 11 tracks that total 40 minutes, though last month MTV News writer Carvell Wallace called it an EP. “It’s a cohesive statement—it’s an album in every way that I understand what an album is, going back to when I was 11 years old going to Rose Records,” says Fruchter. “I think he should be proud to call it that.” (Nat Love isn’t free, either, which suggests it’s not a mixtape.) Collins produced most of the album, and the handful of beats from OddCouple or Boathouse fit into the tender, dreamlike aura he creates. His alluring, often intricate production layers minimal percussion lines like a raft woven of branches, and though it’s hardly airtight, it’s more than sturdy enough to support the tendrils of synth, nimble acoustic guitar, somber piano, and various twinkling accoutrements that dip in and out.
Collins’s inviting, fluid rapping and singing (and a sort of hybrid of the two that he often uses) pack a wallop as his words sink in. On “Death of a Salesman,” which turns samples of Solomon Linda’s “Mbube” (aka “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) into a chirping, humming tapestry, he squares off against America’s legacy of racism: “See, I got this Uncle Sam / And I know he hates me too / Told me I was only good / If I was rapping and shooting hoops.” And over the celestial thwomp of “Ego Killed Romance,” which suggests a Rube Goldberg device in its animated complexity (the song also features vocals from labelmate Jamila Woods), Collins raps about balancing dreams and desires: “For something so easy to see / I didn’t have the right clue / Something just might tear it to bits / I may not have the right glue / To make a mental collage / A physical effort too.”
Collins still has room to grow as a rapper, but he’s in a much better position now than he was when he signed his deal. Strangers stop him on the street to talk about his music; last summer he played a ten-year-anniversary show for venerable hip-hop blog Passion of the Weiss, alongside Saba, acerbic underground phenom Open Mike Eagle, and ascendant Long Beach rap king Vince Staples; and his music has been covered by Billboard and Pitchfork, the latter a first for a Closed Sessions artist.
Collins poured a lot of energy into Nat Love—in March, he spent the week before Closed Sessions needed a final version of the album sleeping at the label’s offices and finessing the music. It’s a big step for him, but he has modest goals for it. “I hope people hear some of these songs and don’t feel so alone, ’cause I know what that’s like,” he says. “I try to convey a certain sense of empathy in my music—just, like, somebody to walk beside. That’s what I really want for this. I want people to be able to feel like they know me as a friend.” v