Like all of us, Ruby Watson is missing his friends. But in his case, the separation especially stings: The pals in question are fellow members of the hip-hop collective-cum-label Why? Records Joshua Virtue, Davis Blackwell, and Malci Atkinson. For the past a year and a half, the foursome — together dubbed the Why? Footclan — has been behind a cascade of omnivorous digital releases that unite the city’s DIY up-and-comers with the crew’s solo and duo projects. (Watson and Virtue perform together as Free Snacks, Virtue and Blackwell as UDABABY.)
Now, all that has screeched to a halt as venues are shuttered and the four emcees have been flung apart by shelter-in-place orders — Watson in Humboldt Park, Blackwell in Hyde Park, Malci in Pilsen, and Virtue with his family in the suburbs. The isolation is agonizing for Watson.
“Those are people I see all the fucking time, and I haven’t seen them in so long,” he says. “As far as collaboration goes, we’re mostly workshopping. The world is changing really fast, and we’re trying to figure out what anything looks like right now.”
But Watson and the rest of Why? aren't ones to sit on their hands. Just two weeks ago, they solicited songs from more than a dozen artists or groups for a compilation album. The result was Art Is Love, Vol. 1, an effusive 20-track, pay-what-you-can paean to Chicago’s DIY scene that dropped on Monday. All proceeds support Chicago Community Bond Fund, a nonprofit that posts bond for people incarcerated pretrial.
Watson says the compilation came together as quickly as it did because the group wanted to donate the proceeds as soon as possible: For pretrial detainees, posting bond could mean the difference between riding out the pandemic at home or at Cook County Jail, the source of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Additionally, though expedited bond hearings have resulted in the release of some nonviolent offenders, those placed on house arrest in the past month remain in jail due to a countywide shortage of electronic monitoring devices.
“I wanted to do something that felt like I was helping, because it’s hard to help sometimes, especially when you don’t have money to help out of pocket,” Watson says. “What can we do to take positive action about shit that matters right now? So, we thought, Let’s tap the homies and see where everybody’s at.”
All the tracks on Art Is Love (save for one: Jordanna’s grooving, subtly gritty “Same Old Thing”) are new releases, though some have been in the works for some time — for example, Nnamdï’s hurtling “Type Shit” was recorded with Watson and Virtue last year. Other artists gladly unveiled demos early for the cause. Cordoba, a jazz fusion sextet whose whimsy is as full-throated as its agitation for social issues, sent along a cut of their propulsive “Government Vibrator” from quarantine; Case Oats, an indie country band fronted by vocalist–guitarist Casey Gomez Walker, offered up “Tennessee,” a song, fittingly, about a thwarted road trip. “The Mississippi flows in ways that you don’t want her to,” Walker coos in the chorus.
Some of the most poignant tracks tackle self-isolation less obliquely. Kara Jackson, the former U.S. youth poet laureate, accompanies herself with dreamy guitar strums in “Bed,” sounding both as a lament and a dispatch from a distant island. “In my bed, I dream too much / I think my touch is somebody’s touch,” she sings, her rich contralto seeming to echo across a yawning expanse.
Watson recorded an introspective track of his own, “i can smell the rain coming,” in a daylong burst of creativity. In it, an impending storm gives breath to a spectrum of collective anxieties: powerlessness, lost connections, ailing family members, and plangent nostalgia for a reality that may not be coming back. Nonetheless, the track is buoyed by dogged optimism. “Maybe we can make light of this / ’Cause maybe’s a promise that I won’t regret, and maybe I’ll stand on that,” Watson raps.
“Times of great crisis always breed great change,” he says. “The most mundane parts of our life feel like fire and brimstone right now. I can’t imagine myself not speaking on everything we’re living through.”
Not everyone the Footclan reached out to had a track ready by the Art Is Love drop date. But the interest and excitement generated by Volume 1, which raised more than $1,000 in just two days, is enough to make Watson confident that there will be future installments. That way, Why? Records can, well, spread the love.
“We wanted to donate locally because we’re firm believers in starting at a community level. But how do you choose in a time when it feels like everybody needs help? That also bred the idea of doing more than one.”
Art Is Love, Vol. 1 is available digitally on Bandcamp. The platform is waiving its revenue share for purchases made on June 5 and July 3.