Chance the Rapper doesn’t want to show me his hood. The burgeoning hip-hop star sits in my car behind the Harold Washington Library issuing a flurry of excuses: It’s too hot. Chatham, the South Side neighborhood where he grew up and filmed his viral video “Hey Ma” (it’s on YouTube), is too far. He has to be at the studio in an hour. Anyway, that place isn’t really his story, he insists. His story is “here,” he says, motioning toward the library.
The 20-year-old rapper (born Chancelor Bennett, to parents who both work for the federal government) says that he was the rare student at the ultracompetitive Jones College Prep who didn’t obsess about his future. A class clown and a loner, he was suspended as a senior after he was caught ditching school and smoking marijuana in a public park. During his 10-day suspension, he holed up inside the free YOUMedia recording studio at the library and made 10 Day, which set him on the path from just another Kanye wannabe to the Next Big Thing out of Chicago.
Besides a penchant for catchy lyrics and soulful beats (and for blowing off grown-up responsibilities, such as this magazine’s photo shoot, which he ditched twice), Chance has something working in his favor: a thriving local hip-hop scene. The year 2012 “was arguably its biggest year,” says Andrew Barber, the editor of the Chicago hip-hop website Fake Shore Drive. While Chief Keef’s major label debut (part of a rumored $6 million deal with Interscope) was the biggest news, nearly another dozen artists and producers (such as longtime local sensation King Louie) landed deals in the wake. Critics, meanwhile, have heaped accolades on Chance’s newest release, Acid Rap, which came out in May. He’s an easy sell who playfully tackles broad coming-of-age themes: high school, religion, family, smoking dope with his friends. “He’s fun—and safe,” says Barber. A young rapper named Pres puts it this way: “He’s the voice of the youth in the Chi. He’s the light bearer.”
We walk to Jugrnaut, the South Loop hip-hop clothing store that hosted the listening parties for both 10 Day and AcidRap. There, two school-age boys in uniforms give Chance an admiring wave. Then we head east and enter Harold Washington. “The first time I came here was to rap,” Chance says, explaining how he took recording workshops there and practiced his skills at the library’s popular Wednesday night open mic. “Production, software, piano lessons, music theory—I took all of them.”
He swings open the door to the recording studio, and five teenagers stare back, stunned into silence by his celebrity. Quickly ducking out, he is greeted by nearly a dozen boys. “All y’all rap?” he asks. They respond, trying to sound tough and not giddy: Dre Valentine, Vic-Ivy, Psycho Ten Times. They are all 15, 16, 17—about the same age Chance was when he got his start.
On August 2, Chance the Rapper performs at Lollapalooza at 6:50 p.m. and at Reggie’s at 10 p.m. For info, see lollapalooza.com
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Three Other Young Locals to Sample
Despite still being deep in SATs and inevitable high-school drama, this brooding teen (real name: Nina Ferraro) crafted one of the most-buzzed-about albums this year. She performs at Schubas on August 15. $7. schubas.com
GABRIEL CABEZAS, 21
A cellist, Cabezas has already performed as a soloist with the CSO and the New York Philharmonic. See him at Chicago’s Beethoven Festival, running September 7 to 16. internationalbeethovenproject.com
MISTER LIES, 20
In one year, this ambient-music whiz (a.k.a. Nick Zanca) opened for singer Jessie Ware, released a debut album, Mowgli, played SXSW, and toured Europe. But he’s still at Columbia College.
More summer music content:
Summer Music Calendar | Pitchfork vs. Lolla Smackdown | Talent Spotting | Jeff Tweedy at Middle Age
Chicago’s Next Big Rap Star | Our Q&A with John C. Reilly | 40 Performers Everyone’s Buzzing About