Private Stock founder Jason Valcarcel in one of the collective’s studios Credit: Bryan Allen Lamb

In the wee hours of August 9, 2016, beat maker and engineer Ivan “Ikon” Pryor left Fort Knox, a huge Old Irving Park building that houses a labyrinth of rehearsal spaces and recording studios, to buy Red Bull with a friend at a nearby gas station. He’d been hanging out at Fort Knox’s suite 42, home to local hip-hop collective and indie label Private Stock, and his friend had woken him from a nap to work on music. As they drove back, they saw fire leaping from the building’s roof—and though Ikon knew how close he’d come to dying in his sleep on a studio couch, his first thought was for the recording gear.

“I’m like, ‘Bro, we gotta get the computers, and our keyboards, and everything,'” he says. “We were running into the hallway—the fire hadn’t went through yet, so we had a little time. We opened the door real quick, grabbing our computers and whatever we could get that wasn’t stuck to the ground. We were running out, and we just start throwing everything on the ground and running back in again.”

Private Stock co-owner Herson Escobar, who’d left the building just before the fire, says suite 42 suffered more damage than any other space in Fort Knox—he guesses Private Stock lost more than $40,000 in equipment. “The fire was literally on top of our room,” he says. The collective could still use its second studio, which had opened a few months earlier elsewhere in Fort Knox, but losing its first home was a huge blow, both financially and psychologically. It also put a lot of strain on the new facility, which couldn’t do the work of two. “At that point it was like, ‘We can either stop or we can keep going,'” Ikon says. “We didn’t stop.”

Launched in 2013, Private Stock had become more than just a business for its principals—who include Escobar, co-owner Richard Molina, founder Jason Valcarcel, and more than a dozen others. And they’d come to see their coworkers as friends—at least three of the people I talked to at Private Stock called it a “dream team.” Few were close before they started working together, and several of Valcarcel’s recruits had yet to realize their potential when they came aboard, but each turned out to be a puzzle piece that helped complete the others. The chemistry among Private Stock’s personnel has helped them find new motivation and inspiration, in some cases reenergizing careers. “We wanted to build this incubator, and we wanted to have a positive vibe when people walked in,” says Valcarcel. “It felt like the right bunch of people coming together to do that.”

Private Stock consists of four studios (three built since the fire), a record label, and, to use a vague term that industry people love, a “brand.” It provides musicians signed to the label a vertically integrated cluster of services, including recording space, in-house beat production, engineering and mixing, management, and publicity. Valcarcel had started working with Escobar and Ikon years earlier, while running GoodLife Music Group, an indie label that he says “tanked.” And Private Stock’s studios weren’t the first he’d opened—they’re just the only ones he still has a stake in. Now that he’s found his dream team, he’s not about to let a fire destroy his ambitions. “We’ve always leveled up,” he says. “We don’t look backwards—ever.”

Part of the Private Stock extended family: from left to right, Papi Beatz, L.A. VanGogh (behind Papi), carpenter Eugene Julio Perez, Jon Cuevas, Ikon, Herson Escobar (in light blue shirt), Joe Rico, Astonish, Jason Valcarcel (behind Astonish), freelance writer Tara Mahadevan, Flex Lennon (in gold cap), Rob Lyrical, graphic and Web designer Brenda Zapata (facing away), Luis Reyes, and Richard MolinaCredit: Bryan Allen Lamb

Private Stock immediately began rebuilding and expanding—not just its physical space but also its roster. In August 2016 the team signed local group Chinza Fly, who’d been nominated for a Grammy for their production work on “Shanghai,” a bonus cut from Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint. That summer they’d been introduced to Private Stock by freelance journalist Tara Mahadevan. “My interview here was the day after the fire happened,” says Chinza Fly engineer Joe Rico. “I saw 42 once, I think, and I was like, ‘This place is awesome.’ Then I came back for my interview and they’re like, ‘Hey, we got some bad news—the place burned down.’ And I went in and there’s nothing but water damage everywhere.”

Rico introduced the Private Stock team to his longtime friend Eugene Julio Perez, a carpenter who was willing to help build its three new Fort Knox studios at a deep discount. Chinza Fly joined existing Private Stock artists such as Vic Mensa‘s right-hand man, Papi Beatz, who coproduced the 2016 EP There’s Alot Going On; beat maker Flex Lennon, who’s made a few big tracks with Saba, including 2013’s “Gurlfran” and the Comfort Zone single “401K”; and rapper-singer L.A. VanGogh, one of the most talented young musicians to emerge from the local hip-hop scene in the past couple years.

In November, L.A. dropped the EP Friends First, the third Private Stock release since the fire. In January he released the suave, R&B-inflected “Changed My Number Pt. 2,” whose Valentine’s Day video nudged it onto Billboard‘s Spotify Viral 50 chart, where it debuted at number eight for the week of February 25. Private Stock has more music coming from VanGogh as well as new releases from Ikon, local pop-rap group the A.S.A. Project, and Chinza Fly rapper Jofred.

Artists don’t have to be on Private Stock’s label to rent its studios, of course. This winter several members of Save Money have booked time there, including Towkio and Joey Purp. The week after the Grammys, Private Stock uploaded a slightly blurry Instagram photo from a session with Joey, Kami, and Chance the Rapper. “I think 2017 is a big year for us,” Escobar says. “We know what we have, but a lot of people still are asking, ‘What’s Private Stock?’ This is the year where we actually make a statement and show everyone what we really do. We finally got all the pieces plugged in.”

Private Stock started with an inside joke. “I used to tell the guys, if you post on social media with a consistent hashtag and you talk about something several times, it’ll pick up,” says Valcarcel. Months before the collective existed, he attached #PVTSTCK to every Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter post he could. “I started hash­tagging pictures—maybe thousands.”

Valcarcel, 32, has been in music all his life. He grew up in Chicago with a mother who sang in a salsa band and a father who worked as the group’s sound man. His dad also worked as an engineer for Latin label RMM, and Valcarcel often visited the studio. “They inspired me as a kid to want to have a studio ’cause I was in it all the time,” he says. “I was chasing that dream ever since.”

As an adult, Valcarcel went to work in telecommunications, but in 2009, while hanging on to his day job, he took his first big step toward a career in music: he launched GoodLife, and his northwest-side house became its headquarters. “I used my entire floor as a label,” he says. “The front bedroom, the graphic designer lived there. The middle bedroom, that was one of the artists who also seconded as the social media/marketing partner. My dining room had five or six computers I had built, and we used that for social media/marketing—whether that was Twitter, MySpace at the time, Facebook, and YouTube.” He turned the back porch into a small recording studio, and people slept wherever they could find a spot—Valcarcel says photographers and video­graphers sometimes crashed on the floor.

“We called it a frat house for a while,” says Private Stock co-owner Jon Cuevas, who’s kept his day job but also does A&R for the collective. “It was so many people coming through and stuff happening and being made.” Cuevas was a couple grades below Valcarcel at Lane Tech College Prep: “I knew Papi Beatz back then as well,” he says. “I knew him as the weird kid with the spiky pink hair.”

Alex “Papi Beatz” Baez and Herson EscobarCredit: Bryan Allen Lamb
Ivan “Ikon” Pryor with Chinza Fly producer Rob LyricalCredit: Bryan Allen Lamb

Papi Beatz decided to get into music after seeing Wayne’s World 2, and he spent high school playing what he calls “Blink-182 ripoff stuff” as a pop-punk guitarist. By necessity, he also learned about studio engineering. “No one in the band wanted to record us,” he says. “The drummer and the bassist already suck, and the singer’s too much of an egomaniac to do stuff like that, so I was like, ‘I’ll just do it.'”

Valcarcel recruited Papi to do engineering work by offering him a place to crash at the GoodLife house. “I was like, ‘I’ll handle the bills right now—hone in your skill,'” he says. “‘I know you want to do rock, but I’m heavily in the rap scene right now—I know that you can take it to the next level, and you can do whatever you want, so just stay with me.'” Among the first projects Papi mixed for Valcarcel was the 2011 album Astonishingly Odd by future Private Stock rapper Astonish.

In 2012 Valcarcel opened a basement studio, also called GoodLife. “It’s a factory that had a bottom floor that we were able to rent, and we remodeled it and made it into a studio,” he says. It wasn’t much, but it beat a repurposed back porch. At that studio, about five years ago, Valcarcel met another future member of the Private Stock crew: producer Flex Lennon, who at the time went by Born Ready.

“He was terrible at making beats,” Valcarcel says. “But this guy was so damn serious. He was there every day—I had to see him every day. Motherfucker would show up with an entire computer. Not a laptop—his tower. I was like, ‘Why do you keep coming with that? Don’t you have a laptop?’ ‘It’s broken.’ It wasn’t broken—it had a couple viruses.” But within seven months, Valcarcel says, Flex had transformed himself utterly: “Everything he was making was hot.”

Flex is still grateful that Valcarcel gave him a chance. “He trusted me and he saw potential in me before a lot of other people did,” he says. “When you’re starting out, you don’t have a lot of people in your corner. So to see him show belief early, that meant a lot to me.”

Shortly before he met Flex, Valcarcel had bought an interest in Heart of the City, a video-­production company founded by Jon Cuevas and his brother Jacob, aka video director Jay Caves. Escobar, who’d been part of GoodLife since 2010, became a co-owner of Heart of the City alongside Valcarcel.

The video company began sharing the GoodLife house with the label, and when Heart of the City scheduled an interview with fast-rising rapper Saba in 2012, Valcarcel invited Flex to drop by. “I was like, ‘Man, it’d be hot if maybe Flex and him did something,” he says. “They did ‘Gurlfran’ and it was a breakout song for Saba, before his Comfort Zone tape.” Jon Cuevas also ended up managing Saba for a few years.

Valcarcel’s magnet of a house likewise attracted Ikon, who’d met him by chance at Chicago Recording Company in 2011. “I told him what I did, and I couldn’t get rid of him,” Valcarcel says. “He started showing up at my house every day, knockin’, and I had to let him in, otherwise he’d keep ringing the doorbell. And he turned out to be great—he’s been with me ever since.”

Valcarcel was keeping a lot of plates in the air, and in July 2012, exhausted by the effort of running GoodLife, he folded the label. “I took on ten artists at a time, and it was too much work,” he says. It also frustrated him that he couldn’t help everyone he’d signed grow as he’d envisioned. “I kinda went through a depression, ’cause I needed to figure out how to take it to the next level,” he says. “It was hard letting go of my friends and taking this to a professional level.” In May 2013, Valcarcel quit his telecommunications job.

Rapper-singer L.A. VanGoghCredit: Bryan Allen Lamb
Engineer Steve AndersonCredit: Bryan Allen Lamb

That was when he started using the “Private Stock” hashtag, though it’d take him nearly a year to get things rolling in suite 42. Even before quitting his day job, he’d helped open LPZ Studios in the Fulton River District, which launched in November 2012. “That being my more serious studio to put Alex [Papi Beatz] in, in front of the right people—which is the Save Money cats, Chano, Rockie Fresh, and whoever mattered in the city at the time,” Valcarcel says. In January 2014, LPZ hired recording engineer Steve Anderson, a future Private Stock employee, who was coming off a decade at Chicago’s famous Studio 11 (which describes itself as a leading hub for “urban music”).

Anderson had gotten into hip-hop more or less by accident—at Studio 11, he’d worked with the likes of Rockie Fresh and King Louie. “I didn’t know what kind of music I was gonna be working on when I first started my career. I listened to everything. But I was given a handful of rappers and happened to do a good job, and my clientele snowballed from there,” he says. “That’s when I met Bump J and started doing all the Goon Squad stuff.”

While LPZ began to grow, Valcarcel was trying to make Private Stock something more than a hashtag. “I used to call it Private Ops,” Papi Beatz says. “I was at LPZ all the time. Then I heard about Private Stock—I’m like, ‘What’s this?'”

Valcarcel decided on a modest approach for Private Stock, because he didn’t want to get overwhelmed again. “I wanted us to be an incubator, initially,” he says. “I wanted to work with very few artists, because when we were running out of the back porch, I didn’t know how big it was gonna grow.”

Veteran Chicago rapper Astonish, one of the first to join Private Stock’s label, liked the idea of a small operation that could serve all its artists’ needs. (In October 2016, he’d release To Whom It May Concern on Private Stock.) He had plenty of experience in the local scene, and in the late aughts he’d signed with the label run by venerable underground hip-hop group Molemen. “Private Stock, it was something that a lot of us that had known each other for the longest of times pulled together and created,” Astonish says. “The industry, it can be a really shady place to be in. With Private Stock, we tried to make it something where we didn’t have to have the stress of trying to fit into the business aspect of it, and just be creative.”

Valcarcel brought Escobar into the Private Stock fold early, having collaborated with him on GoodLife and Heart of the City. Escobar had been working behind the scenes in the local hip-hop community since he was 16 (the same year he met Astonish), but at 26 he’s about five years younger than Valcarcel. “I needed to be more in tune with the youth, ’cause I was getting older,” Valcarcel says. “So I got Herson—who used to go to school with my sister—and I partnered up with him.”

Escobar recruited a couple friends from high school, Luis Arroyo and Luis Reyes, to work for Private Stock. Valcarcel took them under his wing. “I started training them on how to manage artists, how to do marketing plans, and how to manage social media—everything from top to bottom. Whatever it took,” he says. “I let them make a lot of mistakes so that they could learn from them.”

In 2012 Heart of the City cofounder Jacob Cuevas had moved that operation into suite 42 in Fort Knox. Private Stock took over the space in 2013 and got its recording studio up and running by March 2014. (Jon Cuevas, Valcarcel, and Escobar are no longer involved in Heart of the City.) Ikon soon followed Valcarcel’s lead and focused his energy on Private Stock—within a year, he’d quit the FedEx job he’d worked since graduating from Columbia College in 2013. “I just couldn’t do the winters no more,” he says. “I felt like I was suffocating, and I felt like, ‘I’m not supposed to be here.'”

Private Stock’s first release was Ikon’s 2015 EP Private Stock, which features appearances by buzzy locals such as Malcolm London, Noname, and all of Pivot Gang. “Opportunities just started opening up,” Ikon says. “We went to New York the year after, then we went to LA. It’s like, ‘Man, if I was at FedEx, I wouldn’t be able to do that—I’d be too tired.'”

By the end of 2015, Private Stock had started wooing L.A. VanGogh, thanks to a chance meeting the previous August between the rapper-­singer and Escobar’s old friend Luis Arroyo at a radio interview for Windy City Underground. L.A. liked what he heard from the Private Stock crew, and Arroyo would become his manager. “We had a lot of conversations about where we want to go, careerwise, what their passions were, music, and how that was gonna affect me as a creative,” L.A. says. “I didn’t meet one person that gave me a bad vibe. Everybody was really helpful, and the most important thing about it was that I trusted them.”

In March 2016, when Valcarcel left LPZ Studios, Anderson and fellow LPZ engineer Drew Leal moved to Private Stock. “The other partners, they just didn’t line up with my vision,” Valcarcel says. “So I decided to call it quits.” (LPZ folded within a month.) Anderson says he’d burned out working 12-hour days at Studio 11, but joining Private Stock re­energized him. “These guys breathed a new life into me just by making it more of a team effort, more of a community feel,” he says. “It made me excited about music again, so I decided to give it one more go—and I’m happy I did.” He also liked that Private Stock wanted to give more attention to fewer artists. After coming aboard, he cut his client list by half.

The transition wasn’t smooth for the engineers, but they both liked Private Stock enough to stick it out—Leal describes the move from LPZ as disruptively sudden, and their new home had only one studio. “I was getting the work, but I didn’t have the space to work in,” Drew says. Private Stock completed its second studio in late spring 2016, which alleviated that pressure. “We start picking up here, and then all of the sudden the fire happens—we’re only down to one room,” Leal says. “I remember having a conversation with Jason, and he told me the day that it happened, ‘Maybe this was the time to start new, or to actually be the fire under our ass that we need to expand.'”

Jason ValcarcelCredit: Bryan Allen Lamb

Chinza Fly helped with that expansion, and not just by bringing in a carpenter to help build out new studios—Eugene Julio Perez finished the fourth (and so far final) earlier this year. By all accounts, the group has turned out to be the missing piece whose arrival would complete Private Stock. Chinza Fly producer Rob Lyrical says he felt camaraderie immediately at their interview, which was basically six hours of sharing beats and smoking weed. “Once I met these guys, everyone just gave me good energy—everybody was working towards the same goal,” he says. “After that, pretty much every day, we were up here,” Rob says. “It got to the point where it was like, ‘Who are these kids?’ And now they see us like they see, like, an Ikon or a Herson or a Jon—or even Jason, even Papi.”

Private Stock is hardly huge now, but it’s grown to where a little more than 20 people are involved. Its label is gearing up for a big 2017—which might make the same sort of impression that Closed Sessions did in 2016. And its studio is attracting more artists—not just Save Money rappers but also Sasha Go Hard, Rhymefest, and Rockie Fresh, as well as out-of-towners such as Canadian up-and-comer John River, Rochester MC Ishmael Raps, and Los Angeles veteran Xzibit. But what makes Private Stock special isn’t who books time in its studios—it’s the personalities who’ve come together to make the collective work and the inspiration they get from one another. Anderson says he learns constantly from his colleagues. “I’m hearing different techniques that the engineers use that up my game,” he explains. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard that before, that’s something I want to try to emulate.’ It works both ways—you can pass down experience, but you can also learn from newer punk-rock methods. It’s a cool back-and-forth.” v