Rhyme time


July 9, 2006


Among the hip-hop acts on the bill at the recent Intonation Music Festival in Union Park, the biggest buzz was Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco, who's already scored a hit with the skateboard-themed single "Kick Push," and who's gearing up to release his debut album "Food & Liquor" on Aug. 8.

A fellow veteran of the local underground hip-hop scene, Rhymefest certainly gets his props: After all, he did co-write Kanye West's phenomenal 2004 hit, "Jesus Walks." But unless they'd seen him before, few in the Intonation crowd of more than 10,000 were ready for the ferocity of Rhymefest's performance.

Despite an always gruff voice grown even more hoarse and raspy from non-stop touring, the 28-year-old rapper gave his all for 45 minutes on songs such as "Bullet," a galvanizing jam inspired by army recruiters at a local mall who offered the chance to "Drive a Hummer for the summer" without mentioning that it came with a ticket to Iraq. He fired off not one but two mesmerizing freestyles -- bolstering his rep as one of Chicago's best battle rappers -- and then, to top it all off, he threw himself into the crowd, evoking images of other all-or-nothing performers such as Iggy Pop and Kurt Cobain.

Backstage a few hours later, when I told him it was one of the best hip-hop shows I'd ever seen, Rhymefest seemed surprised. "You really thought it was all right?" he asked, though he's usually only slightly more self-effacing than his notoriously boastful friend, Kanye. "I tell ya, I gotta give it my all up there, 'cause that's the only way I'm gonna get people to pay attention." Here, his eyes twinkled and his trademark, wisecracking sense of humor returned. "After all, I'm not as much of a dandy as Kanye!"

Indeed, if Chicago's earlier hip-hop superstars all have their distinctive personas -- Kanye as the natty, egotistical playboy, Common as the mystic, Twista as the class clown -- Rhymefest is a hip-hop everyman, a hardworking, perpetual up-and-comer who honed his craft while toiling at a series of day jobs including bus driver, janitor, prison guard for a highway cleanup crew ("It was all white guys, and they hated it ... I felt like Colin Powell," he jokes) and counselor at a day-care center.

Not for nothing did he title his debut album "Blue Collar."

Now, after a decade seeking a major-label record deal, and nearly two years after he was finally signed, his album is coming out Tuesday on a subsidiary of Clive Davis' J Records. Rhymefest's moment has at long last arrived, and he couldn't be more prepared.

A revolutionary start

Born the day after his mother celebrated her 16th birthday, Che Smith was largely raised by his grandparents in the South Side neighborhood of Jeffrey Manor. They named him after the South American revolutionary Che Guevara: As the rapper tells it, his grandfather was part of a platoon that was ambushed on patrol in Vietnam. When one of the Vietcong saw that the soldiers were all African-Americans, Latinos and poor whites, he spared them, saying, "This is not your war."

This spurred a family interest in revolutionary politics that was one of the key parts of Rhymefest's upbringing; another was a genre-blind love of music. He talks with considerable knowledge and infectious enthusiasm about artists ranging from the smooth crooner Nat "King" Cole to the soul legend Stevie Wonder, and from alternative-rockers the Strokes (whose "Some Day" he samples on the song "Devil's Pie") to the underground electronica of the Scissor Sisters and Air, not to mention early hip-hop heroes such as Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and Biz Markie.

Rhymefest loves to tell the tale of his first rap performance. The year shifts in different versions -- sometimes it's third grade, sometimes fifth, occasionally fourth -- but the point is always the same. Asked to deliver an oral essay, the aspiring rapper rhymed about the merits of scholarly diligence: "You should do your homework and do it right / You should do your homework every day and night / Y'all know that homework is always due / Listen to me, this rhyme is true / When you grow up, you'll be so glad / Homework is good, and it ain't too bad."

His classmates loved his flow and his audacity; the teacher loved his message, and a career was launched -- though it would still be a few years before he adopted his stage name after a friend told him he was "like a festival of rhymes."

Marshall's forces

Rhymefest first won attention outside Chicago in 1997, at the Scribble Jam in Cincinnati, Ohio, when he battled Michigan rapper Marshall Mathers. Rhymefest won, but Eminem was the first to achieve multi-platinum success and stardom. "Rhymefest should have blown up years ago," Scribble Jam co-founder Mr. Dibbs told Newsweek. "He deserves it more than half the people out there making millions."

In the late '90s, the rapper moved to Indiana while his wife was attending Purdue University, earning a degree in chemical engineering. The couple divorced two years ago, and he now has two apartments, one in Chicago and one in Indianapolis, where he is raising their young son. He released his first album, the independently issued "Raw Dawg," in 2001, but he was still searching for his own style, and the disc was rife with gangsta cliches. ("Blue Collar' is really my first album," he maintains.) A number of mix tapes and demos followed, one of which included a track called "Jesus Walks."

The song was partly prompted by a sample of a gospel choir, and partly the result of "divine inspiration," Rhymefest says. He had been interested in spirituality since age 9, when he attended Mass at a Catholic church. "They were singing a hymn, and I started to cry," he recalls. "It overwhelmed me and filled me with a spirit that I'd never felt."

Then, at age 14, he became a devout Muslim. Now, he often performs flanked by members of the Nation of Islam, but he says he is not a member of the group. "There are some things I do disagree with as far as [Minister Louis] Farrakhan is concerned. I don't believe that white people are devils, or that they were created by a mad scientist."

'Walks' the line

When Rhymefest wrote "Jesus Walks," he considered it a metaphor for God in all His guises: Christ, Buddah, Allah or whatever the faithful choose to call Him. When West heard the song, he was inspired to add his own spin, recording it for his debut album "Late Registration." Somewhere along the way, the verse that Rhymefest added in the studio was cut, but the song's co-author insists he doesn't resent his friend's success.

"I had the 'Jesus Walks' sample and a dope idea / If K hooked it up this could be the song of the year / So I gave my nigga the sample and the joint took off / But the verse that 'Fest did somehow got lost," Rhymefest raps in a post-Kanye version of the song, released on the mix tape "A Star Is Born, Vol. 1." "Homie, I ain't mad at ya, doin' your thing / Let every man be his own king."

That version of "Jesus Walks" was recorded by Mark Ronson, the New York DJ, producer (his credits include Nikka Costa and Jimmy Fallon) and son of renowned glam-rock guitarist Mick Ronson, who worked with David Bowie. The two hooked up when Rhymefest appeared on a track called " 'Bout to Get Ugly" from Ronson's 2003 album "Here Comes the Fuzz." ("Rhymefest's voice -- it sounds corny -- [but] it jumped out of the speaker," Ronson told Newsweek.) Later on, when West offered him a deal on his Good Music label, Rhymefest opted to stick with Ronson and his new company, Allido, which is distributed by J Records.

The rapper began recording "Blue Collar" in 2005, drawing on help from producers West and the underrated but immensely talented No ID, who produced Common's first three albums. "Brand New," which features a guest rap by Kanye, was released as a single in February, and versions of the album have been floating on the Internet ever since, but Rhymefest continued to tinker with the final cut as the release date was pushed back again and again. (Only two weeks ago, he replaced "These Days" with the newer track "Stick," which he fought the label to push as the second single.)

Rhymefest says the delays were his idea. "I didn't feel like the anticipation was built up enough, or that the buying public was aware, and what good does it do for me to have a song like 'Bullet' or 'Devil's Pie' if it sits on a shelf and no one knows who Rhymefest is? I had to do things like Intonation, the AOL sessions, the TV appearances and most of all the touring. Part of the magic is for people to meet me -- not just to hear the music but to actually see Rhymefest do his thing."

Doing his own thing

The finished version of "Blue Collar" has been worth the wait, and it does Chicago proud, with plenty of shout-outs to local neighborhoods (as well as a dis on suburban Schaumburg) and props to the Windy City hip-hop hierarchy. One reason the local scene has never been as widely lauded nationally as Atlanta or Houston, let alone New York or Los Angeles, is that there has never been one identifiable Chicago sound. But there are similarities in terms of an earthy attitude and a wide-open approach to the music.

Like West, Rhymefest finds unforgettable hooks in samples from unlikely sources, including the Strokes, the Washington, D.C. band Citizen Cope (which powers the chorus of "Bullet") and the Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup" ("Build Me Up" is a duet with the late Russell Tyrone Jones, a k a Ol' Dirty Bastard from New York's Wu Tang Clan). Like Common, there is plenty of political awareness. ("Dimebag-ass niggas ain't large / When the Patriot Act come hit they ass with a terrorist charge / And we is what they made it for / You think it's all about Arabs? It's a war on the poor," he raps on the opening "Dynomite.") And like Twista, there are occasional forays into the realm of the politically incorrect -- though Rhymefest's sense of humor and Regular Guy attitude save him from sexist pandering or empty gangsta boasting.

That humor couples with his relentless enthusiasm to form two of the three keys to his appeal. The final factor: his work ethic. You just have to root for guy for whom nothing has ever come easily.

"This has truly been a blue-collar grind from day one," Rhymefest says. "Let me tell you all the things I was competing with: 'A battle rapper can never write a song.' Then I gave them 'Jesus Walks.' So people said, 'Well, that's Kanye; Rhymefest will never get a deal.' Then I got a record deal. And it was, 'He got a record deal because of Kanye.' Well, I went into that office with Clive Davis, and he said, 'Let me see what you got.' I said, 'I've got a song with Kanye.' And he said, 'I don't want to hear about Kanye! Tell me what you've got.' And I had to do my thing.

"Now people say, 'His album will never sell.' So now what do I do? I get out here and I hit the road -- I perform and I prove them wrong. Every part of my career since the day I started writing has been a challenge, and I don't expect it to stop now. But I can't stop, man. This is what I do."