One of Chicago’s most accessibly bizarre musical collaborations of 2019 began at a Burger King in Evanston. A couple years ago Maxwell Allison, who makes experimental music as Mukqs and helps run the eclectic Hausu Mountain label, was walking past the fast-food joint when he spotted rapper Brian Wharton, better known as Sharkula, sitting inside.
Wharton says they cut a deal: he gave Allison a couple of his CD-Rs in trade for a fish-fillet sandwich, or maybe two sandwiches. Wharton doesn’t mention which albums they were, but if they’re anything like the Sharkula CD-Rs I’ve bought, each one came wrapped in a sheet of photocopied paper densely covered in his erratic but detailed cartoons and jumbo bubble letters. Before Allison left, he suggested that the two of them record together—something he’d been thinking about for a while. Though he and Wharton never subsequently discussed what their collaboration would sound like, they stayed in touch to reassure each other it was happening. After Allison finished the beats—it took him about a year—Wharton recorded his vocals last May in Allison’s basement studio, finishing every song in a single take. The Sharkula x Mukqs EP Prune City comes out February 1 on Hausu Mountain.
Allison and Wharton come from different scenes—more accurately, Allison comes from the experimental electronics scene and Wharton is an idiosyncratic loner who doesn’t belong to any single scene at all. Since self-releasing his 1997 debut, I Wonder, Wharton has built a career selling homemade CD-Rs hand-to-hand on Chicago’s sidewalks and train platforms. Also known as Thigahmahjiggee or Thig and (less frequently) as Dirty Gilligan, he’s probably the only rapper still running that hustle who can also sell you a DVD documentary about himself, 2010’s Sharkula: Diarrhea of a Madman. Because he’s spent so long hawking his music directly to fans (or to people who’d never heard of him before but liked his pitch), he can seem strangely omnipresent, despite a highly sporadic performance schedule. In 2017 a meme made the rounds online that framed a photo of Wharton with the words “When your friend says he’s well versed in Chicago rap / But he can’t even tell you who this is.”
Wharton has stayed underground for decades, and though he might like to be more popular, he’s definitely not willing to change his scattered, unconventional, sometimes off-the-beat flow, his anachronistic love for a grimy boom-bap sound redolent of 90s hip-hop, or his fascination with lyrics about bodily functions. He’s also in his mid-40s—hardly the age when most rappers break out. But Wharton’s loose-limbed, unpredictable rhymes have earned him fans in unexpected places: in the past couple years, he’s appeared on Hannibal Buress‘s Handsome Rambler podcast, recorded with legendary rap weirdo Kool Keith, and turned up repeatedly in Gabby Schulz’s graphic memoir, A Process of Drastically Reducing One’s Expectations.
Allison says he first heard about Wharton in 2007, when he moved from Elmhurst to Evanston to attend college. In 2012, about a year after relocating to Chicago proper, he debuted his most notable project to date: the improvising noise and ambient trio Good Willsmith, in which he partnered with Natalie Chami (aka TALsounds) and Doug Kaplan (aka MrDougDoug). He and Kaplan launched Hausu Mountain that same year, and the label put out Good Willsmith’s first physical release, the cassette Is the Food Your Family Eats Slowly, in July. Hausu Mountain, also known as HausMo, has grown into one of the most important new experimental labels in the country: it’s released music by pop-folk-electronica iconoclast Eartheater, misfit free-jazz-inspired noise improvisers Moth Cock, freakout genre collagist Fire-Toolz, and mesmerizing postrock duo ROM (Matt Crum and Roberto Carlos Lange, aka Helado Negro).
HausMo has handled subsequent releases from Good Willsmith too, as well as from the solo projects of its members, though it’s not the only home for any of them. The trio’s other partners include celebrated Mexico City label Umor Rex, which in 2018 dropped Exit Future Heart, an album-length collaboration between Good Willsmith and the long-running team of composer Takako Minekawa and guitarist Dustin Wong. With Good Willsmith and through HausMo, Allison has begun to break out of the greenhouse of the experimental scene, attracting press coverage from outlets that rarely pay attention to his kind of music, including NPR and Fact magazine.
Like many experimental musicians, Allison always seems to have 19 projects going at once: last year he not only released Exit Future Heart but also two outre-dance cassettes under the name Mukqs and the debut of Crazy Bread, his duo with guitar maestro Ryley Walker, titled Vocoder Divorce. As varied and strange as his output has been, though, it hasn’t had much overlap with hip-hop, which he describes as foundational to his perspective. “Hip-hop was some of the earliest shit I ever listened to,” he says. “I had an old MP3 player when I was growing up—it had ten songs on there, and they were all Snoop Dogg, Jurassic 5.” Allison swears by Three 6 Mafia in particular, and he rhapsodizes about contemporary rappers via Good Willsmith’s insightful and endearingly silly Twitter account. “That’s in my DNA,” he says. “But of course, it’s harder for me to relate to that world without someone like Brian to be there to do it, really—to rap. I don’t rap. I don’t do that, and I’m not trying to, because I don’t think I would add anything.”
“He’s not Ronald Reagan,” Wharton interjects.
“I’m not Ronald Reagan, that much is true,” Allison replies. “I’m not trying to add anything to the conversation as an MC, ever. That’s not my life.”
Allison had experimented with hip-hop production before working with Wharton, but the results never saw the light of day. He also knew Wharton before the Burger King rendezvous that led to Prune City—they’d crossed paths at concerts and parties. “Brian is a creature of the night—so am I,” Allison says. “I go to three shows a week, no matter what. I don’t really hang out too much at bars just to hang out at a bar—I’d go to a show, pretty much.”
Wharton lives in Rogers Park but regularly commutes to Logan Square (where Allison lives) and Wicker Park to sell his music at night. I’ve run into both of them along the strip of bars and venues on Milwaukee between California and Fullerton. When the three of us met for this story at El Pecado in Rogers Park, Wharton walked in with a limp—a side effect of all the miles he puts in selling his music. Last week he was hospitalized overnight due to fever and exhaustion. “It’s draining,” Wharton says. “I know that in order for me to keep my reputation alive, I gotta keep on going.”
The Prune City EP, which is already in stock at Galerie F in Logan Square, consists of seven tracks totaling about 33 minutes—its production only took Allison so long because he had other irons in the fire. “I always go with the ‘first thought, best thought’ kind of vibe,” he says. “Whatever I make up front, I don’t really edit it or fuck with it.”
“Yeah, that’s why we get along,” Wharton says.
“I’m not poring over it and trying to make it better,” Allison says. “Every beat that I made for this album, even though it took me like a year, they were all single sessions for each track. I would take a couple days to work on one—”
“I feel really special,” Wharton says.
During the year or so Allison worked on the tracks for Prune City, he’d occasionally meet up with Wharton to eat Mediterranean food or drink beer at Cole’s or the Owl. They never talked about their collaboration. But once Allison had finished about 40 minutes of material (they didn’t use it all), he e-mailed it to Wharton. His bonkers beats include charred drums and what sounds like a computer malfunctioning (“Screamin’ on Your Booty”), a spooky, minimal piano melody cut up with industrial clangs (“Mustache Like Pringles”), and clean hi-hats slicing into dreamy washes of synths (“Expand Your Mind”).
“The beats were dope—that motivated me to come with some tight written verses and tight freestyles,” Wharton says. “What inspired me a lot was he took me so serious.”
In May 2018, shortly after Wharton finished a brief tour with Kool Keith, he stopped by Allison’s Logan Square apartment to record the vocals for Prune City. They spent about four hours together, though not all of it was in the basement studio. “We drank, like, six Red Stripes—three each—and sat in my backyard for a little bit,” Allison says. A neighbor who’d been hanging out on his balcony saw them together. “The next day he was like, ‘Was that Sharkula in your backyard?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, dude,'” Allison says. “Sharkula gets recognized even in an enclosed backyard.”
- Video of the only live set Sharkula and Mukqs have done together so far, at Cafe Mustache in July 2018
Throughout Prune City, Wharton zips back and forth between sturdy, bite-size bars and amorphous, nonlinear freestyles, sometimes giving words to the moods that Allison creates with the music. On the EP’s lead single, “Wipe Your Booty With a Bandana,” Wharton responds to the sloshing, oceanic synths with the line, “Ooh shit, I’m stranded on an island, the water.” In song as in conversation, his train of thought can be hard to keep up with, but some of his words are relatively easy to parse: you can always count on references to bowel movements, for instance, and often he mentions an experience that seems plausibly autobiographical, such as drinking Red Stripe (“Expand Your Mind”), eating at Chicago Diner (“Hitchhiking on the Mic Device”), or crying in a steam room (“Bigass Beard”). With Wharton as with Allison, you can only predict so much.
“It makes perfect sense to work with Brian, because he operates from an improvised angle, like, freestyling,” Allison says. “That’s totally in tune with what I do with other people—just improvising. But within the context of this duo, what I bring to the table isn’t actually improvised. It’s very deliberate, ’cause the track exists—in that way, the improvising instinct is coming from him and not from me. It’s like, I’m handing it off.”
Wharton rolls with the analogy. “He’s kind of like the quarterback, and I’m the running back, and then I might do an option,” he says. “If I fumble, then he retrieves the ball.”
“There’s no such thing as fumbling with you, dude,” Allison insists. “With you, everything is loose. If you fumble, it doesn’t matter.”
“We all win,” Wharton agrees. “Mistakes are golden.”
“If you approach it where there is no such thing as a mistake, that’s the best way to do it,” Allison says. “This is cliche as hell, but it’s like jazz—there’s no wrong notes.”
Wharton agrees. “The sloppier the better, basically.” v