Four years ago Rhymefest, aka Che Smith, seemed poised to be Chicago’s next breakout hip-hop artist. A nimble lyricist with a sharp wit coloring his conscious streak, he’d shared a Grammy with Kanye in 2005 for cowriting “Jesus Walks,” and he was scheduled to release his first proper album, Blue Collar, on Allido, an imprint of J Records run by DJ and producer Mark Ronson. But Blue Collar was met with a collective shrug when it came out in July 2006. Now freed from his major-label contract, Smith is in the driver’s seat of his career, and this week he drops his long-delayed second album, El Che, on the indie dNBe Entertainment. He hosts a combination listening party and record-release show at the Shrine this Thursday.
The first time I saw you play, at Intonation a few years ago, you shouted out for people to throw their hands up and represent for each side of town—including the east side. I’ve never heard anyone reference the east side, so I thought maybe you meant, like, the people who live in the fancy building where Oprah lives by Navy Pier, or people who live on boats in the lake. Where did you mean?
Well, it depends on if you consider Hammond, Indiana, to be part of Chicago. [Laughs.] It gets blurry. Depending on where you are, east could be anything past 71st Street. It’s confusing where the east side is.
What part of town do you live in?
I live on the south-south side—I live where a lot of the violence is taking place. I have the nice building in the hood, but the building right next to me is infested with “the element.” I live by Washington Park. It’s funny because I live in the hood near Barack, you’d think we’re doing good—but the amount of violence that happens in a ten-mile radius of here, it should be embarrassing to him. He should have more to say about the violence around his hood.
They were fixing things up around here for the Olympics and were going to gentrify the area. I just wonder: How do we get so much money for an Olympic bid, for this Olympic committee, but there is no money for teachers? How is there money for all these new police trucks, money for assault rifles, when we don’t even have enough police in the city? . . .
They are firing teachers! . . . We are trained to devalue our educators now. But firefighters are heroes—they are, and the police are treated like they can do no wrong—but we have to “hold teachers accountable”? And now we have meters in front of churches? You gotta pay to pray! I see it in Hyde Park, south and west side—but recently I been eating lunch over in Bridgeport—
I go to Ricobene’s, on 26th Street, and they’ve got no meters—why is that? That’s the place where the mayor is from. Over in Bridgeport, they don’t have those red-light cameras, but up and down Stony Island you got them, policing the poorest of the people—and the city, they do it because they can. They can do it because we feel helpless. We don’t demand anything because we feel helpless, and so public officials can get away with it. This city is mistreating its citizens. I know I’m a rapper—maybe this is not in my pay grade, or my academic or political capacity—but I know what I see. I know when I am cheated and how it feels.
You wrote the other night on Twitter that you had a million dollars and you realize now you should have kept it in your hood—invested it in your hood. What did you mean by that?
I have made and spent a lot of money, and I would’ve been better off if I had invested in my community—rather than in myself.
What made you realize that?
I was thinking about Robin Hood. Thinking about the concept of taking something from [J Records exec] Clive Davis and giving it to the single mom with two kids who doesn’t have a fresh grocery store in her hood, so she shops at the gas station. So instead of buying a Cadillac Escalade, I should’ve set up someplace with fresh fruit and veggies. I don’t even know where that Escalade is! [Laughs.] I could have made a difference!
Did this revelation come from having your career back in your own hands, being responsible for your own record?
Yes. They say athletes who are 33 or 34, whatever league they are in, are old. It doesn’t matter if they are still fast. In music, it’s even worse. Everyone’s got some new 17-year-old they’re promoting—it doesn’t matter that they have no talent, it’s that they are young and new.
How old are you now?
I’m 32. I have to do my art. I can’t be 16, can’t act like that. I am not going to invent a dance for you. [Laughs.] I will pull your heartstrings, but I may not be on the popular radio station or on TV at this point.
How do you feel about that?
It’s the way it is. Bought and sold in America, that’s capitalism. I can’t be bitter; that’s how it is. You don’t give up, but you don’t stake everything on it or chase it—if you do you will be bitterly disappointed. I realized chasing things is bad. You can have a mission, wake and sleep thinking on it, but when you chase it you are not seeing certain things—whereas if you move toward it at a pace, you see things that help you make better choices. . . . I just don’t want to sound bitter.
To be a rock star, a king—a leader—you have to be a bit narcissistic. You gotta believe in your 15 minutes; you have to be into the illusion. This is how America was made—someone who believed the impossible could happen! But one thing I understand now is that the label doesn’t make that happen—you make it happen. This is the way it is today—you have to be famous to be signed. Has my narcissism left? Hell no! [Laughs.] I’m just not fooled anymore. I know I am the best! [Laughs.] There is no rapper in Chicago who can bring what I can. Not even Kanye.
What I bring to the table as a rapper comes from speaking to Cabrini Connections, talking to high school students every week. I am having a private party for the best 25 students from South Shore, Whitney Young, and we’re having a raffle for who gets to come with me when I do a concert with Nelly. I do mentorship. I’m releasing my own music. I’ve sipped tea with [new British prime minister] David Cameron and talked music and politics! [Laughs.]
That’s at least one thing no other rapper can claim. Why do you think it is that for such a big city we have such a small hip-hop scene?
To be crass about it? There’s a lot of dick riding. Like the song says: we hate ourself and love they wealth. People ask me all the time—how do you get started, what’s your advice on how to blow up. They hate my answer because it doesn’t give you a quick fix to get rich and it doesn’t have anything to do with finding a manager or a label. I tell them to get with someone else who raps or sings or produces and set your neighborhood, city, state on fire—
Which isn’t the new, YouTube model of overnight fame.
People like things now simply because they’re popular. Everything is numbers. We are truly in a capitalist society—it’s all about quantity. Welcome!
What do you want people to get from El Che?
I want it to be theme music for whatever you’re going through. Like, “I remember when El Che came out, and I went to the park and I was playing it on my iPod and I met her and she liked the song, and we would drive to Six Flags and play this song and now we’re married—that was our song.” [Laughs.] Or “I remember when I got my car towed, and I didn’t have a job and it was $200 to get it out of the pound, and I lost the best car I ever owned and my Rhymefest CD was in there.” [Laughs.] I want it to define your life.
What are the songs that have defined your life? What songs have done that for you?
I know this sounds bad, but I don’t even listen to new music. Yesterday I listened to “Kissing You” by Keith Washington—it made me think of an old girlfriend, man, we had fun, that was our song. I listen to “Vapors” by Biz Markie and think about jobs I worked at with people I hated, like, “One day I’m gonna be a rap star and you’re going to be working at this same movie theater.” [Laughs.] Or “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” by Geto Boys—and thinking about the line “Real gangsta-ass niggas don’t run for shit / ‘Cause real gangsta-ass niggas can’t run fast.” I’m old, I can’t run fast anymore, but I am still a gangster like that. [Laughs.]