Che “Rhymefest” Smith has been away from the game for a minute, but to hear him tell it, the hiatus was much needed.
An old-school cat with plenty of experience to draw from, Smith saw many of his counterparts struggling to gain the same foothold they once possessed with ease. He was seeing a change, but didn’t know how to acclimate accordingly. Not quite sure how to approach the game anew, he chose to step back, humble himself, and view Hip Hop through the eyes of a hungry student, even if his lengthy resume—which includes a Grammy win (he co-wrote “Jesus Walks”), a Grammy nomination (he co-wrote “New Slaves”), and a battle win over Eminem at Scribble Jam—revealed him to be a master.
In those years away, “El Che” dove further into his community. Back in 2010, Smith ran for office as Chicago’s 20th ward alderman, a position he narrowly lost in a run-off election. More recently, he’s helped launch Got Bars, a key component of non-profit Donda’s House, which he co-created with long-time buddy Kanye West. The initiative provides Chicago youths the chance to gain hands-on knowledge and experience with artist development, recording, and life skills that promote health and wellness. It’s an outgrowth of the teachings of West’s late mother, Dr. Donda West, who “believed that arts instruction improves a child’s analytical and creative capacity.” He additionally hosts a weekly talk show on Chicago station WVON, where he talks Hip Hop, business and politics every Monday night.
Fest was kind enough to speak exclusively with HipHopDX by phone, and we covered plenty of ground. During our conversation, we gained an introduction into what we can expect from his next project, Violence is Sexy, learned his thoughts about the depiction of gun violence—and the recently coined term “Chiraq”—in his home town of Chicago, and revisited the legacy of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” which celebrates its tenth anniversary this week.
Rhymefest Correlates His Time Away & Macklemore’s Grammy Win
HipHopDX: You’ve spent a few years away from the mic, instead choosing to shift your focus to your community in Chicago. You ran for office, you’re involved with the non-profit Donda’s House, and you just started your own radio show. What was it like to step away from the craft, and how do you feel it helped you re-focus yourself as an artist?
Rhymefest: I had to get my head straight, because there are a lot of things to Rap and Hip Hop that have changed. You can have a karate master, and he can have a black belt, but the true master will take off his black belt and start all over again from the beginning. Chances are, there’s somebody coming up who learned something that he didn’t learn when he was coming up, and they’re gonna come up, beat him, and take his black belt. I had to take my Rap hat off and see what was happening in the streets and get back to learning from the young people who are doing it now to use what they’re doing along with what I know.
DX: What are a few key things you learned?
Rhymefest: That it’s really about social media and being able to relate and use sites like HipHopDX and WorldStarHipHop to your advantage. As I was coming up, if you got on the radio, BET, or MTV, you did it! [Now], there’s a whole different level of what popular is.
For instance, people like you writing about me increases my Twitter followers and increases my Instagram. It’s a new way of reaching out to your followers. It’s about creating a cult following—not so much about being Macklemore, selling a million records.
By the way, I saw this text where Macklemore was saying, “I feel like I robbed Kendrick Lamar.” It was very interesting to me that he threw that text out there. Is that his way of apologizing to the world because he knew it was bogus? If he really was sincere, give Kendrick Lamar your Grammy. Give it to him in the public. That would show that you really felt like you robbed him. If you robbed someone, return their property.
DX: I’ve seen a few other people say the same thing. There’s been a lot of controversy since he won, but it’s a good point to bring up.
Rhymefest: If you feel that way. If you don’t feel that way, then don’t do it. But my thing is, don’t play with white supremacy.
DX: What do you mean by that? Can you elaborate a bit?
Rhymefest: Don’t say that you don’t accept the bias of the voters and the Grammys. You know that it’s wrong. Don’t acknowledge injustice and then not act on bringing about justice. That’s my whole thing. If you see something that’s wrong, it’s not enough for rappers to rap no more. Rapping in itself is empty, but when you bring a message and then you bring action behind it, that’s what makes a legend.
Let’s bring it back around to what I’m doing, having to step back and fine tune my craft but also say in the meantime the things I’ve always been talking about on all of my songs, from Blue Collar to my Man in the Mirror album. What am I doing about that stuff? That’s why I called up Common and called up Kanye and was like, “What are we gonna do for these shorties in the hood? Let’s do a program where we’re teaching them arts and development and helping them as the labels have destroyed all of the artist development programs that they had.” Let’s do that in the hood, kind of like how young people in high school get to be on the football or the basketball team. That prepares them for Division I in college. What are we doing as far as artists in our community to prepare them for mainstream America?
That’s what me and Kanye came up with. Then I called Common. Well, Common called me up actually, and he was like, “Yo, I want to do something.” I was like, “You’ve got the Common Ground Foundation. Let’s combine the Common Ground Foundation with Donda’s House, which is me and Kanye’s thing.” Then I called up Lupe – “You’ve got the Lupe Fiasco Foundation. Y’all come over here with Donda’s House and the Common Ground Foundation and really help shorties!” That’s what we’re working on.
From Macklemore to Rhymefest to the people who aren’t even heard of yet, it’s about doing our craft of Hip Hop but combining it now with action.
So what do people love? Man, Chief Keef—he shot a police officer. That kind of spurred his Rap thing. That action, whether you approve of it or not, combined with the rapping, creates the mystique of the artist. I’m about action with your art…action and art. I’m not about just talking about stuff.
Why Rhymefest Says Music Has No Value Anymore
DX: I’d like to revisit the point you made earlier about witnessing the rise of social media and how the game has drastically changed. Having had some insight to watch this whole transition, is it harder to break through as an artist now with these avenues?
Rhymefest: I definitely think the playing field is more level if you’re willing to work. If you’re willing to work and hustle, then you’ll have an easier time. Let’s look at Rap music 20 years ago. You basically had three outlets: you had BET, you had the major radio stations, and you had the magazines. These three outlets controlled who was gonna be famous, who was gonna be heard and who was not gonna be heard.
Now, these three outlets are being plugged in by record labels. The record labels are like, “We’re spending the money. We’re buying the ad space. You’re not gonna run our artist?” Now, there’s just a limited amount of artists that you can be exposed to. With all this major social media, there’s a wide variety of genres and artists that you’re exposed to, so it makes it easier on one hand, but on another hand, it’s easier to be missed because there are so many [options]. Music has no value anymore, so that’s when I come back to action. What can you do on top of your music to get noticed?
DX: A lot of insightful points. In a lot of ways, it’s better, but in a lot of ways, it’s really on people to do that heavy lifting.
Rhymefest: Yeah, you’ve got to do it. Everybody wants to be an artist, but you still need industry people who do nothing but marketing, who do nothing but stay on your social stuff all day, who do nothing but know people in the industry like you and say, “Yo, I’m gonna call my man Brandon. We need a write up.” You need a team.
All Stevie Wonder had to do was sing and play the instrument. Stevie Wonder didn’t have to build his own marketing campaign. He didn’t have to have products. All he had to do was be an artist, but now you have to be so much more. You know what you’ve got to be to be successful now? You’ve got to be a leader, because you have to be able to be able to organize a team and delegate.
DX: Considering more recent examples of people making waves in the game, I think that’s a very true point.
Rhymefest: That’s why I had to step back. I’ve got buddies right now that I’ve seen still try to do it the old way, and it doesn’t work. These are guys who, in their time, were going platinum. They were going triple platinum. They’ve got platinum and gold albums, and they’re trying to do it the way that they did it, and it’s not working. They don’t understand now, and they say, “Everything is wack. Fuck it.” I’m like, “Maybe, you need to take off your black belt and go train.”
DX: Very humble way to look at it.
Rhymfest: Then I’ve got other buddies—Killer Mike, Phonte—who failed, or whatever we would define that as. I wouldn’t say failed. I would say disappeared, but they built their empires back up in a different way, and now they’re more popular, more well-off, touring all the time, making a living off of music and better than the people who, in their time, were hot. It’s because they figured it out.
I can’t lie. It hurt [to step away], because I had to eat humble pie. I disappeared and was working in the community and running for office, and a lot of my peers passed me up. I watched Brother Ali sell records and go on tour. I watched Immortal Technique, Killer Mike and Phonte, and I watched them look at me like, “What the fuck are you doing?” It hurt, and then I watched my Twitter as fans were like, “Man, where’s your album? Why are you not rapping? You fell off.” I watched all of that happen, and I ate it because I knew I was building something that, when the monument was built, all would hail.
The Reasoning Behind Rhymefest’s Album Title, “Violence is Sexy“
DX: Let’s get to that right now. I love the album title, by the way. Let’s just start there: the reasoning behind the album being called Violence is Sexy.
Rhymefest: Right now, all eyes is on my city, and all eyes is like, “What about the violence in Chicago?” I done seen Jay Z come here and be like, “Man, you gotta stop. It’s horrible!” But I’ve also seen it exploited for money. Documentaries, movies... You can’t even turn around and not see a movie camera here [capturing] that authentic violent experience.
I thought to myself, “Where have I seen this before?” Then I knew: L.A., when Colors came out and everything was about the Bloods and the Crips and the music scene was hot. You know when it stopped? When Tupac got killed in ’96. The L.A. Rap scene kind of quieted down for a minute. Then it raised its head back up in the South with the trap house. Then you had New Orleans and Atlanta and [folks saying], “Man, we killing muthafuckas.” Then Hurricane Katrina came, and it quieted down in the South. Now, they’re more family oriented; they’re a little more mature, they’re rich, and they’re spending their money on businesses. Where’s that violent experience now? In Chicago.
Violence is something that I see as a disease that spreads from state to state. In the next two years, it’ll be Detroit. Then it’ll be some other city or state. It’s not something that is specific to Chicago. Violence is Sexy is an analogy of violence in America, and how violence in America is a disease. Every song on this album will lead to, or end in, a violent act.
DX: Let’s dive into that a little bit further. Are there any specific examples that highlight that point?
Rhymefest: We’ve got songs that are about child abuse, that are about post-traumatic stress—people in the military who come home and end up killing themselves or killing other people because they can’t deal with the stress of being here. We’ve got songs about street violence and how it happens. Domestic abuse... All of these songs are about everyday American violence.
I’ve got a song with Crucial Conflict called “GTA.” Grand Theft Auto. [It’s about] video game violence. I say, “Meet the bitch / Give her 40 dollars to suck my dick / Take the money back then beat the bitch / Take the money back then shoot the bitch / Start off poor, get super rich.” Everything that’s in that verse [can take place in] Grand Theft Auto.
This album is basically about American violence. But remember what we said: we need action. We’re getting thought leaders from around the world to write essays about each song and what that violence means. For instance, on the one about post-traumatic stress, we’ve got Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground Group, who was blowing up federal buildings but now he’s a professor at the University of Chicago. He’s gonna write an essay on the American war machine. We’ve got Cornell West. They’re all writing essays about each song and what each piece of violence means. This album will come with an anthology about violence.
DX: To not only have the music speak for itself but to properly contextualize it to make sure your intent isn’t misunderstood. When you originally conceived of the project, how did that idea develop?
Rhymefest: When we talk about violence, it can always be misconstrued. Violence, in America especially, is something that entertains us but also horrifies us at the same time. So what I wanted to make sure is that in this project, you get the entertainment and you get the horror. In the book, we’re also doing an artist call out. We’re gonna have artists draw pictures that depict each type of violence we’re going to display on the album. We want to make sure you’re entertained, you’re horrified, and you’re moved to action, so at the end of each essay, what we’re going to do is put, “If you suffer from this type of violence, this is where you can go. This is who you can call. This is a national organization that deals with this type of violence.”
Then, we ask ourselves: is all violence bad? That’s one of the things that I’m gonna present in this project as well. Just because we talking about violence doesn’t mean you have to be against it. People may say, “Man, violence ain’t sexy. Violence is horrible! We want to get rid of violence.” But what would you say about the fact that we fought World War II to get rid of a tyrant? What would you say about the fact that violence in the Civil War freed a people? There are instances where violence ain’t nothing but a tool.
The only reason Black people in America have got any kind of civil rights is because of the threat of violence. When Dr. King died and cities started burning, they started a poor people’s campaign and they had a civil rights bill signed. America is scared of violence. You want to know why Tupac died? Tupac died because Tupac was the threat of violence. The only thing America hates more, or this government hates more, than somebody who talk a lot of shit, is somebody who threaten to shoot somebody.
Black Panthers—the Black Panthers are the reason that in all of these major inner cities, we can’t even have guns no more. Why? Because they was picking up guns and walking into federal buildings. Is the threat of violence really a bad thing if it’s used as a tool to get things accomplished? These are things that we’re gonna ask ourselves.
Rhymefest Demands Rappers To Reclaim Their Power
DX: Based on what you said earlier about re-learning the game, this is definitely approaching the project from that angle. It seems like you’re interested in facilitating a conversation more than just dropping a product.
Rhymefest: It’s gonna be wonderful, man. I’ve just got to make sure we get all the right music. This shit gotta be real Hip Hop. Included in that, I’ve got two tracks from No I.D., so we know we got some hot shit. I got a feature with Xzibit. I got Crucial Conflict. I got my friends that I know are dope. Right now, I’m going after a verse with Common. I’m going to go after a track with me and Lupe [Fiasco] to make sure that this thing is on point and that, as an artist, I’m lyrically challenged.
DX: Let’s switch gears and talk about your recent radio program on Chicago station WVON. Tell me a bit about that program and how it’s been going so far.
Rhymefest: Let’s just say the truth: Hip Hop is growing up. This the first time in history I can think of where a parent likes the same thing their child likes. That’s never happened before, where a parent and a child are in the car bobbing their head to the same song. It’s even confusing the kids, because they want something for themselves, know what I’m saying?
As Hip Hop grows up, we need to expand into other mediums. This show that I’m doing on WVON is a talk show. We talk Hip Hop, politics, and business, because one of the things I learned when I ran for office is that in mainstream America, everyone thinks rappers are dumb. What they do is they use us to attract kids for their social program. If they’re trying to get the youth to come out, they’ll call a rapper in and use them. But as soon as the rapper says, “I want a little bit of that power. I want to help run the community and have a say in what happens with the money. I’ve got good ideas too,” they say, “Hey, you dumb ass, rappin’ ass nigga, just smile and rap and go back on tour.”
My thing is, that day is over. I think it’s time for rappers to take our power back. We are the new civil rights movement. This talk show is spreading the word—hey, we’ve got ideas too, and it ain’t all Rap. Every time you go to a radio station, [you hear], “Hey man, bust a freestyle!” I freestyle on my station, but right after the freestyle, I’m like, “Man, what are we gonna do about all these vacant lots in the ‘hood?”
DX: How’s the response been in the community so far?
Rhymefest: Wonderful! Usually, I interview an artist. We’ve interviewed Jasiri X and Lupe Fiasco. Coming up, we’re gonna have MC Lyte, Chuck D. We’ve had Lil Durk. I get to ask rappers questions that mainstream media, and social media, never challenges them with. [When Lupe Fiasco was on], I was like, “Man, you’re a Muslim. How do you be rapping about cars and flash and chains and all of this ego and wealth stuff when in the hood, most people don’t have half of what you’ve got?” Just to hear him answer that question... Nobody would ask him that! We challenge the rappers, we challenge the guests, and the community loves it because this is stuff they wanted answers to. This is stuff that makes them call us dumbass rappers. They love it because they’re getting an education.
Rhymefest Calls WSHH’s “The Field” A Raw Depiction Of Chicago Violence
DX: You were included as part of WorldStarHipHop’s profile on Chicago, called The Field. After seeing the film, how do you feel it depicted the city, its scene, and the issue with violent crime?
Rhymefest: First of all, the young people in Chicago that are killing and all that stuff, that’s a minority. Most young people here want to go to school. They want to be in healthy families. They want opportunities that include more than just rapping. They’re not dealing with guns; they’re afraid of that. They want safe passage. Let’s understand that that is the majority, period, before we go forward. But when you’re dealing with the element that this touches the majority, the element that’s like, “Man, I’m going to school and a stray bullet could hit me,” we have to talk about that.
In talking about that, what I feel is that WorldStarHipHop just gave it real raw. There wasn’t even a lot of context to it. I’m happy that they showed what other things were happening in the city, like Donda’s House, that were counteracting that rawness. I’m grateful that they gave contextualization to that documentary by saying, “Here are a group of young people that could be out there, but find safety in here.”
Look, I’ve got a Grammy. I was nominated for a Grammy this year because I wrote “New Slaves.” Even with a Grammy and a current Grammy nomination, I’m teaching class. I’m in there teaching every Thursday. Young people can come in and they can record music for free. We have a health and wellness program. They can exercise for free, and they can get industry advice for free. We had S1, who produced “Power” and “Best thing I Never Had” for Beyonce. He came through and talked to the kids about the industry. No I.D. is coming through on this quarter.
These young people have never been exposed to nothing like that. Kanye gave them 60 tickets so that they could all come to his concert. [These are] young people who have never been to a concert like that because it costs too much. We’re giving them something that they’ve never had. I wish I had this. If I was a shorty and Big Daddy Kane was like, “Yo, I’m teaching a Rap class. Come through. For free.” I’d be like “What the fuck?”
I’m happy that WorldStarHipHop showed that, amidst the violence, there’s opportunity.
DX: You do bring up a fair point about how current coverage of the scene creates an unfair balance of what the city as a whole is really like. I’m curious about your thoughts regarding the term “Chiraq.” Do you think a term like that helps to spread that misinformation?
Rhymefest: Yeah. “Chiraq” is wack to me. I understand that it sounds good, it sounds sexy and it makes people think that y’all real dangerous and makes people have sympathy. But I’m not into sympathizing [when people say], “Man, this a war out here.” That’s an insult to people who really were in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Have you ever seen napalm drop on a village and burn your arm, all the way over your body? Have you ever seen a tank roll through your neighborhood and blow buildings up? Have you ever seen a drone? You can’t even see the drones in the sky, but they just drop a bomb and a car blows up. If you ain’t never seen that, you ain’t in Chiraq. [For the] people out here talking about Chiraq—you send they ass to Iraq and they’ll be begging to come back.
DX: [Laughs] Is that on the album or was that off the dome?
Rhymefest: That was off the dome.
DX: That was nice.
Rhymefest: I’m a freestyle artist.
But the thing is, I understand somebody’s gonna give some numbers—“There’s more people that died in Chicago in one year than combined in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Yeah, but let’s look at the way they died. Random weekend violence is not a war. Chiraq? Let me tell you about a war. Wars are fought over agendas. Wars are fought over land. Wars are fought over economics. This is fought over fatherless children. This is fought over motherless children. This is fought over ignorance. This ain’t no war. This is weekend violencera—random violence—and random violence will not get the dignity, at least from me, of being compared to a war zone, because I ain’t scared.
DX: You’ve spoken out about labels pursuing and releasing music from Chicago drill artists, which indirectly helps promote the gun violence getting a lot of attention. How much responsibility do you think labels should shoulder?
Rhymefest: No. You can’t ask the Devil to go easy on you. He’s gonna laugh at you and be like, “Muthafucka, I’m the Devil! What did you think was gonna happen?”
I’m done with branding anybody or saying who’s wack or who’s responsible for this or that. At the end of the day, we’re all responsible for what it is we do and the outcome of what we’ve done. I have to even take back some of the things I’ve said about other artists or other people. I can’t put that weight on them, but I know one thing: there are a lot of young artists that are being child abused by corporations, and it’s OK because it’s a company doing it and not a parent. No law enforcement agency is checking into the child abuse of a 17-year-old by a corporation.
What they’re doing is they’re abusing that 17-year-old by putting that 17-year-old or 16-year-old in positions where they can have weed, alcohol, illicit sex, whatever, and then telling them, “Go out there and spread that to your community.” It would even be one thing if it was building careers, but it’s not. It’s just stacking up the bodies.
I can’t tell nobody what to do, but one thing I’ve learned about darkness is that darkness can only be defeated by spreading light. That’s what I’m gonna attempt to do.
DX: You’re going back to what you were talking about with action. The proper action to take is working to provide an alternative to make sure there’s a difference avenue?
Rhymefest: Yeah, because imagine if I was talking all this shit and all I was talking about was my new album like, “I got a new record coming out because this shit is wrong, so listen to me!” That’s real self-serving, and that’s why I’m not too on-board with every so-called “conscious rapper” either. A lot of people come to me and say, “My stuff conscious, man. You’ll like my stuff, ‘Fest.” And then I’m like, “Yeah, man, what else are you doing? Why don’t you come volunteer for Donda’s House? We need all the people we can get. Come do it in your spare time.” [They say], “Yeah, my nigga, I just thought you was gonna introduce me to Kanye.”
Rhymefest: You know what I’m saying? Like I’m the gatekeeper. My thing is, the same way me and Kanye grew up together and got shit crackin’, why don’t you find somebody next to you and get shit crackin’ and stop trying to be positive just so you can try to exploit that? Everybody is using what they think is cool to exploit. I’m not into self-servers. I’m into actors.
Rhymefest On Co-Creating Got Bars & Integrating Dr. Donda West’s Thesis
DX: I want to jump into your Got Bars program, an initiative of Donda’s House. It’s a course where you’re teaching kids on the South Side of Chicago about creating music in addition to life skills. First, how did that program start? Was it something you envisioned and you threw it out to Kanye? Walk me through the beginnings.
Rhymefest: I threw it out to Kanye, and said we needed an artist development wing of Donda’s World, which was his bigger vision. We need something that spreads education and art. The fact that you have high schoolers that can go to football or basketball and the school supports them and it helps them get to college. What are we doing in the realm of music? There are more young people now that are into that than they are into athletics, so how are we supporting that?
He thought it was a great idea. We created a non-profit, raised all the money—we didn’t ask Kanye for no money—and got it started. It’s been great. We have health and wellness. The young people do yoga and meditation. I personally teach the songwriting class. I teach them about what a bridge is, what a verse is, how many bars are 16 bars and how you count bars. We listen to all types of music, current and old, Rap and non-Rap, and then we let them record their music in the studio. At the end, they put together a show and invite the community out to see them perform. The last show we had, we had over 600 people show up, and the young people made that happen. The ages that we’re dealing with are the people who are committing, quote unquote, the violence in the city. We deal with youth that are between 15 and 24.
DX: When did the initiative first start? What cycle are you in at this point?
Rhymefest: The program started last year. We did one cycle last August. It was 12 weeks and was very successful. We had 500 people audition, but we only had enough money and resources to accept 30 young people. Then we took that 30 and just put them through the course.
DX: This is a program you work on closely with your wife, correct?
Rhymefest: Yeah, my wife is the Executive Director. I’m the Co-Executive Director. My wife is a teacher. She teaches at one of the most prestigious schools in Chicago, so she had the educational background to make sure that the curriculum was going to be effective. My wife actually designed the curriculum based off of Kanye’s mother’s thesis. My wife read all of Kanye’s mother’s thesis, and then based the curriculum off of how Kanye’s mother taught him. So we apply the same curriculum that was used to raise Kanye.
DX: Dr. West’s vision is still getting that chance to spread, even after her passing. What’s it like working so closely with your wife on this project? What’s that exchange like for you?
Rhymefest: A marriage is a business, if nothing else. We look at Love & Hip Hop, which has very little love or Hip Hop, and shows like Real Housewives of Atlanta, [but] I don’t believe a lot of these shows really tell you what a relationship and marriage is about.
When it boils down to it, it’s not about lovey-dovey and kissie-huggie. We’ve got the business of family and the business of community. We are together to grow our business, and we have to be trustworthy partners, and we have to be skillful in how we deal with each other and how we deal with the business of our family. What my wife and I do is we make all of these young people our kids. They’re not just young people that we’re mentoring; they become members of our family. Then they have a will to grow the business of the community.
When you look at the black community, one of the reasons why it’s so bogus compared to other communities is because we don’t take it seriously. We don’t take it seriously like Chinatown. Chinatown is a business, but it’s also a community. They’ve got a Chinatown everywhere across America. Chinatown is an economic hub, and it’s also a community. I think we have to start to build our communities like this in the inner cities.
Applications are currently open for the next cycle of Got Bars. Applications are accepted through February 21 and can be found at dondashouseinc.org.