Rhymefest won a GRAMMY award for co-writing “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West. He’s also won an Oscar for co-writing “Glory” with Common and John Legend. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment is how he searched to find his father who he believed abandoned him as child, and in the process, ended up finding himself.
“In finding my father, I was trying to find out who I was,” Rhymefest reveals in this exclusive conversation with HipHopDX. “Like, ‘Why when me and Kanye work together, it blows up for him? When me and Common work, it blow up for him?’ But when I did it myself, I could get a spark but I couldn’t get the fire to ignite and why was that?” Through this journey, I finally realized it. I found the answer. I figured out why.”
The Chicago native documented his entire journey to reunite with his father in his upcoming film, In My Father’s House, which will premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. He also plans to release a new album entitled, Really in conjunction with the film.
“What I saw after Common and I wrote ‘Glory,’” he says before continuing, “I saw how Selma the movie pushed the music and the music pushed the movie. Then I noticed how movement and music work in tandem… It’s important for me with this film to reinforce the impact of family and fatherhood to put out music.”
‘Fest also reflects on his run for alderman of Chicago’s 20th Ward that turned out to be a victory even in defeat, the reason he intends on moving to Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service, as well as why Kanye West’s near-fatal car crash sparked an entire movement.
Rhymefest Announces Documentary & New Album
HipHopDX: I’m excited to see In My Father’s House. I know it’s premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. How long have you had the idea to document this experience and why was is this the best way to tell this story?
Rhymefest: Basically, it wasn’t even an idea that was premeditated like, “Ooh, I’m gonna do a documentary about my father’s house and meet my father again.” One day my wife and I were driving past a block and I told my wife, “Yo, my father used to live in that house. He grew up in that house—my father who I never really knew.” So my wife said, “You know what you should do? You should buy that house and give your kids the memories growing up there that you never got to have.” I was like, “Aight.” So I buy the house but when I bought the house, everybody was happy except for me. Everybody felt like, “Oh, we got a new crib” except for me. I felt like it didn’t belong to me. I felt like I was in a place that wasn’t mine. What I did was I went on this search to find my father so that he could bless the house so it could really be my inheritance, not just something I took.
DX: That’s a powerful way to look at it. What year was this and how long did it take for you to get back in touch with your father?
Rhymefest: I found my father last year (2014). It was interesting because if anybody wanna find their daddy, all they gotta do is go to the baby mama. I started with my mama. I asked her, “Where do you think my father is?” My mother had his brother’s Facebook. His brother said, “I haven’t seen my brother in 15 years but there is a friend of the family that may know where he is. When it all ended up, my father was living in an alley a couple of blocks away from where I drop my wife off to work everyday. What was interesting about him living in an alley was that when I met him, he knew exactly who I was. When I saw him, he was like “Rhymefest, my son!” He pulled out a flyer of one of my albums. He was like, “Man, I’ve been following your career. I tell people ‘Rhymefest is my son’ and nobody ever believes me.” It was interesting. He knew who I was and I had no idea who he was.
DX: Did you ask him why he didn’t reach out to you? What did you two talk about in that first conversation?
Rhymefest: My father told me straight up, “Look at me. I fell in a hole. I’m an alcoholic. I’m homeless. What could I give you that you didn’t give yourself? He was like, “At the end of the day, I would’ve brought you and your mama down.” I looked at him and I said, “Damn, you’re right.” It’s better that I’m finding him to lift him up than him growing up with me bringing me and my mama down. Sometimes that’s what we don’t understand about parent/children relationships. We think it’s all about, “Man, you’re my parent. You’re supposed to do this. You’re supposed to do that.” But what’s the responsibility of a child when a parent has a disease like alcoholism or drug addiction? If the child know better then the child can do better for the family. Doesn’t the child have a responsibility for the whole family? I think so when they know better.
DX: There’s a powerful scene in the trailer where you’re trying to lift your father up and help him with his addiction and it looks like he’s slipping. You basically yell at him. You’re like, “You can’t do this anymore. You’ve gotta change.” What was the outcome of that exchange, without spoiling the movie?
Rhymefest: Without giving the movie away, he’s an alcoholic. Being an alcoholic, that’s a disease. So I thought, “Yeah, I’m gonna reunite with my father and everything’s gonna be all great.” I didn’t realize that when you’re dealing with somebody with a disease, at first everything is all good. People fill diseases with people. Somebody who’s your girlfriend or boyfriend and think, “I’m better now because I got somebody to love me.” Drugs is just a way to deal with depression. Alcohol is a way to deal with depression. My father, when he rediscovered me, I gave him a place to stay and food to eat and all the things that I can bring to his life, of course he was cool for a little while. But what happens when you wanna drink again? When times get hard and you realize you gotta work, you realize that it’s not just about “somebody taking care of me. I gotta do work. That’s the reason I’m homeless in the first place, I didn’t work.” When it came time for him to do that and then it got hard, he reverted back to that drug addiction. That’s what I didn’t realize I was gonna have to deal with. I raised my children at my standards. I’m dealing with somebody who has fucked up standards. The honeymoon was short-lived.
DX: When did you start shooting the documentary?
Rhymefest: It was important to me to shoot the documentary as soon as I decided to start the journey. It was important for me to have something to document whether I won or lost. People used to say “Write about everything. Write about your experiences so that future generations can know that your story existed. Your story don’t mean nothing unless you write about it.” But now we live in the future. You can actually film it.
Kanye West’s Car Crash Was Catalyst For Movement
DX: In My Father’s House will be at the Tribeca Film Festival. Are you looking to have the film placed in any other festival’s this year? What’s your goal after the festival cycle ends?
Rhymefest: I’m looking at having it placed at all of the film festivals. I’m looking to have it distributed. This brings up the music. We have a song that we made called “Bound” that’s gonna promote the movie. What I saw after Common and I wrote “Glory,” I saw how Selma the movie pushed the music and the music pushed the movie. Then I noticed how movement and music work in tandem. It’s important for me to put out a new album. I haven’t put out any music in years. I’ve just been working behind the scenes with different artists. It’s important for me with this film to reinforce the impact of family and fatherhood to put out music. We’re gonna have an album that drops with the film.
DX: Is there a title to the album yet?
Rhymefest: The title of the album is Really.
DX: What’s the premise for the project?
Rhymefest: It’s really my life. This is real music. This is really serious. I’m really back. Really, is the pretext for everything you’re fixing to say after it. This is really that.
DX: I’m a big fan of Blue Collar, a big fan of your entire career. I love what you were saying about initially working with Lil Jon on El Che and how he makes music that makes people want to fight and you make music that makes people want to fight for something. Tracing the steps backwards in your career, are you surprised at the direction that you’ve taken—going into politics, working with the community extensively, winning a GRAMMY for a song about Jesus and an oscar for a song about the Civil Rights Movement? Are these surprises to you?
Rhymefest: I can’t lie, there’s been a lot of triumphs, but there’s been a lot of confusion on my part. I can’t say that I haven’t been upset that Blue Collar didn’t have more success or that El Che didn’t get the props that it deserved or Man In The Mirror that I made with Mark Ronson didn’t get what I felt like it should’ve got. I had to look at it like, “I can’t blame nobody. But I gotta find out who I am.” So when I took a step back from music, I was like, “Man, I’m gonna run for office. I think we can really change our community with creative solutions.” Or I said, “Man, we’re gonna do Donda’s House with a program that teaches young people writing and premium art.” They don’t have art in the schools no more. If you want to go to high school and play football or basketball, you can get a scholarship to go to college and get a career. If you wanna rap or sing, there ain’t nothing there for you in high school. They cut all the art programs out of public schools. I wanted to create something for shorties to have a career. They get the information and the knowledge.
In finding my father, I was trying to find out who I was. Like, “Why when me and Kanye [West] worked together, it blows up for him? When me and Common work, it blow up for him? But when I did it myself, I could get a spark but I couldn’t get the fire to ignite and why was that?” Through this journey, I finally realized it. I found the answer. I figured out why. My father, when I look at him, I see where my humor comes from. I see where my inconsistencies come from. This experience has made me whole. With “Glory,” what I learned is, “Man, what movement is your music connected to?” People are inundated and over saturated with music, right? If somebody puts something in your inbox, you’re probably not even going to listen to it. But when Jay Z says, “I got a Samsung phone and by the way the album is on there.” It’s like, “Well hey, I needed a new phone… and I get a Jay Z album.” Music is a calling card to a movement; to a brand. If Common, John Legend, and I would’ve wrote “Glory” and put it out as a single, it wouldn’tve did nothing. But when you connect it to the movement of Selma, we get an Oscar. When we look at In My Father’s House, me finding my father and me talking about things that we’re going through in our community, this fits well with who I found out I am. Guess what? Here go some music as a calling card. That’s what I wasn’t doing. Blue Collar was released just as a piece of music. El Che—just a piece of music. None of it was connected to who I was. I had to go find who I was. I’m just glad that I have this second chance. Not many artists get this type of second chance.
Rhymefest: I would say more so it was his accident. What would Kanye be without damn near losing his life and making “Through The Wire?” That’s a movement! Roc-a-Fella was the launchpad. I had a launchpad. But the movement was here’s a man who damn near lost his life and is making music in-spite of it. It’s rising in-spite of that challenge. And then we saw the passing of his mom, Dr. Donda West, who was really a mom to all of us. Here’s a man who has to perform through the greatest loss of his life. That’s a movement that inspired us to stick with him and watch him grow in his story.
Sometimes we like to put our movement on other people. It’s easy to say, “Kanye’s movement was Roc-a-Fella.” Nah, Kanye’s movement was the whole world saw him almost die and then he dropped an album from the hospital bed. We gotta be more sophisticated about how we look at our movement because how many people are suffering and dying and trying to accomplish their dreams through it. That’s heroic. I think that what’s happening right now with me going to find a man that I always thought abandoned me to find out that he didn’t abandon me at all. He just fell in a hole. And me helping him out the hole, that’s something to be seen and man, that deserves a song. I think that’s what I was missing from my other releases.
DX: What do your kids think about the movie and the journey you’ve gone through over the past year as you’ve reconnected with your father?
Rhymefest: My daughters are seven years-old and four years-old, so I don’t know that they really comprehend. But my son is 16 years-old and I can tell you what my son says. He never knew that grandfather’s existed because he never had a grandfather. For my son to really see what it means to have a grandfather and be able to play chess with him everyday, being able to play checkers. My son is seeing a lot of things that I don’t do but my father is very good at in terms of strategic thinking. My son can see a piece of where he comes from. He didn’t see it in me, but he see’s it in his grandfather. Had he not known his grandfather, he would’ve had a mystery about his origins. Think about how many men are lost because our relationships with our parents are lost.
Nearly Winning Chicago Alderman Election
DX: In the air and in the age, society is going through great change. We acknowledge it adnauseum on the technology side, but there have been more social revolutions in the past six years than I remember in my entire life. There was the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality protests and the Great Recession. What do you expect to happen forward? How do you think society will react to the level of social upheaval we’ve all witnessed over the past six years? Do you expect this trend to continue or do you expect things to regress back to where they’ve been previously?
Rhymefest: I think a lot of people are starting to see that people are throwing seeds on top of soil instead of putting seeds under the soil so that the crops can grow. People are going out with anger and signs and protesting but you never have a real plan of power grabbing. It’s something about politics that we’re scared of engaging in. There’s something about consistency and when it gets hard and we realize, “Wait a minute, we gotta go back to school. We gotta get an education and that might take 10 years for us to infiltrate the system.” We gotta become the mayors. We gotta become the city councilmen. We gotta become the system and reform it or burn it down and revolutionize it. Those are your only two choices. I think it’s easy for people to protest. Sometimes it’s easy for people to go to jail. What’s harder is for people to build something. What I see coming in the future is all these new activists and new organizers that have come from these missions, these Occupy Wall Streets and #BlackLivesMatter, I think now that they’re getting ready to evolve to that next level of power grabbing. What we hope is that they don’t become who they’re protesting against.
DX: Do you ever regret losing the election for alderman in Chicago’s 20th Ward?
Rhymefest: Nah, man. I learned from it. In every loss is a victory. In everything there’s perspective that evolves into victory. That was my first time ever running for office. I took that dude [Willie Cochran] to a run-off. I got endorsed by the teachers union, by the labor union. I raised over $150,000 for my election. I learned how to build an organization and ended up losing by 200 votes. I don’t believe that I really lost. I believe that Chicago politics, a lot of funny things happen. But, right now, the dude who’s running against the guy that I ran against, there’s a new guy running against him and he’s about to beat him. He’s set to win. He’s not set to win because he’s the greatest politician. He’s set to win because Rhymefest laid the groundwork in the last election. The people are like, “Damn, we really should’ve voted for Rhymefest” and he’s getting some of those residual votes. I’m happy because it wasn’t about me. It was about getting that guy out of office and changing the community and that’s about to happen right now as we speak. That’s the problem. We’ve gotta stop personalizing everything like it’s about us individually and we have to be willing to say this is about a movement. That’s what I am.
DX: Did you publically endorse the candidate?
Rhymefest: Yes. His name is Kevin Bailey and I have dudes that have helped him strategize and I have publicly endorsed Kevin Bailey. After I ran, the community was so scared of me that they mapped me out of the ward so that I wouldn’t be able to run again. They did a political thing and mapped me in another district so that I didn’t live in the district that I ran in and I wouldn’t be able to run again. So what I did was endorse the next best candidate in that district.
Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Jay Z & Tidal
DX: The first time I ever saw you perform was at BB Kings in New York City. You were one of the openers for Little Brother’s The Minstrel Show release event. I remember being in that venue and it was packed and I was in love with all the artists on the bill, but the thing that resonated with me then was that it felt like there was a change happening in the conversations that rappers were being allowed to have on the radio or on a mainstream level. That wasn’t too long after Kanye West dropped. Little Brother had a similar narrative to Kanye, along with yourself. Since then, I look at the charts and I see J. Cole going platinum. I see Kendrick Lamar holding #1 for two straight weeks. Drake is one of the top performing and top selling artists on the planet. Then obviously there’s the success that Kanye’s still having, that Common’s still having, that you’re still having. Do you feel like you were at a part of a precipice that changed the direction that Hip Hop was headed when see the level of success that artists who didn’t fit the stereotypical mold of the commercial rapper 10 years ago?
Rhymefest: I think that everything that people thought was success was always an illusion. It was always false. What I do with a lot of the young artists that I work with now is, I’m like, “Stop listening to radio or looking at radio or this or that commercial thing to judge where your music should be. Your music should be wherever your truth is.” So it ain’t about conscious music or gangster music. It’s about whatever your personal truth is. Some people’s truth is, “Man, I deal with crime. I deal with drugs. I deal with being in a very oversexualized situation.” But even within that, what is your truth about whatever you want to deal with? I think when we look at the Kendrick Lamars and the J. Coles, you see the success of people who live their truth, not what they think what radio or people wanna buy. I think that that truth is the theme song for a lot of other people’s lives. When you see me come out and I’m talking about my father, this is my truth. I ain’t have him but I ain’t mad about it and I’m gonna forgive him and I’m gonna help him. My music has to go with that. I think that’s what makes success and sustainability in a career. I think the other thing is that there are one-hit wonders that are bought. I don’t think you can buy truth. I think we were always sold a pack of goods that truth don’t sell—especially in the black community and the urban Hip Hop community. We were always sold that the only thing that sells are lies and we bought into it. Even people who are smart bought into the fact that lies are the only things that sell. If you really look at it, the truth sells. Now here’s where you’d ask yourself why would companies sell lies? Why don’t the companies go for more truth tellers? Well, that’s because with truth tellers, you can’t really control the truth, especially if you want to direct the narrative.
DX: Last week, Jay Z announced Tidal and how it’s being led by a group of artists. That’s another conversation that’s been prominent over recent years as musicians witness the devaluation of their art. How do you feel about what Tidal is offering? Essentially it’s higher revenue for artists even at the expense of the shareholders. Do you have any thoughts on the way money is being divided and what artists can do towards that or away from that?
Rhymefest: Jay Z is a businessman just like Mark Zuckerberg. At the end of the day, it’s about them making money. It’s the bottom line. I never look at a billionaire like they have my personal best interest. Their whole thing is capitalism, making money. That’s what he wants to do. The question you have to ask yourself is,”‘Do I like his business model better than the other guy’s business model?” And the answer would be, “Yes.” I think his business model has more in it for me as an artist, me as the person I am than the other business model. Will I be switching over to Tidal? Yes, because I like the business model better.
DX: I’ve been thinking about Nas lately as well. He’s been heavily investing in tech startups of all kinds over the past couple of years. Is streaming a new gold rush as you see it?
Rhymefest: I think it’s a Thought War. A gold rush is in market share, right? Market share is how many people can you get to believe what you believe, think how you think, go with your way of doing things. I think we’re in a Thought War and I think that before anybody ever signs up for Tidal, they have to believe in Jay Z. They have to believe that what he’s telling them is best for where they need to go. What do a lot of businesses do? They give you a free trial run. They don’t start off charging you. My first three months of Spotify was free. My first three months of Netflix was free. They wanna get my mind into it. So I think more so than a gold rush, the first thing they gotta do is get your thoughts, get you to believe in it. So it’s a Thought War that turns into a gold rush if you win the Thought War.
As you write this article, you’ve gotta get people to do a few things that are very hard to do. #1, you’ve gotta get people to want to read. People don’t like to read so you know you’re gonna have to put the trailer to the movie underneath the article that you write. You’re going to have a title for the article that’s gonna catch people’s attention. You know that you’re winning people’s thoughts by how many comments you’re getting on it. Can you write this up in a way that’s provocative enough to create conversation. Well, once you create conversation, HipHopDX says, “Man, we want you to do this now. We want you to do that.” And then another place pops up and says, “Hey, we’ll pay you to leave HipHopDX and do that same thing for us.” People like us, Justin, we gotta win the thoughts of the people to believe in us. So we gotta be creative and invest in it.
DX: Is there anything else that you want people to take away from this conversation?
Rhymefest: People who are judgemental about their parents situation need to stop that. Don’t take your mama’s side or your daddy’s side. You don’t know what the situation was. You have to have an independent situation with each of your parents, especially if they’re not together. You’ve gotta have your own independent relationship regardless of what your mama said or regardless of what your father said because you never know who did what before you were born. What I want people to get out of the film is that I created a relationship with the man that had me regardless of what it looked like he did or regardless of what it may have looked like. We’ve gotta stop choosing as a kid, especially for our families. That’s what I’d tell them.