In early 2010 Chicago emcee Rhymefest was preparing for the release of his second album, El Che. I was a fan of Fest’s first album Blue Collar so I was excited when I was presented with the opportunity to interview him about his follow-up effort.
I was not prepared for the depths that my conversation with Rhymefest would go. We not only discussed his music; we discussed politics, the struggles of people in the inner-city of Chicago, and the controversial legacy of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Later that year Rhymefest would run for alderman of Chicago’s 20th ward receiving 46% of the votes and losing to incumbent alderman Willie Chochran. Once being mostly known as a writer of Kanye West’s Grammy award winning hit, “Jesus Walks” Rhymefest is today known as the Oscar winning co-writer of Common and John Legend’s “Glory” the subject of the 2015 documentary “In My Father’s House” and the Creative Director of the youth-based non-profit, Donda’a House.
Looking back on my interview with Rhymefest it’s not surprising that he would go on to not only write meaningful music, but make a meaningful impact on the lives of the poor in our city. You could tell from reading this interview just how much he cared about people going through the struggle. I would go on to interview Rhymefest a few more times over the years, but the first time was without question the best.
TRHH: Before we start, bro, I’m from Chicago, too. I’m from the west side.
Rhymefest: It’s all good. I’m over on King Drive.
TRHH: Okay, I didn’t even know you lived here, man. I thought you moved away.
Rhymefest: I don’t know why you thought that. I been all around the city doing stuff.
TRHH: That’s true. I just saw a video, I think it was older, of you doing something with Wal-Mart on the south side.
Rhymefest: Nah, that wasn’t even that old. That was about a month and a half ago. We were protesting trying to get a Wal-Mart put on 83rd because on the south side of Chicago, just like on the west side, it’s a lot of food deserts. When people want to go to the store to get groceries they basically gotta go to the gas station. We were like, what’s wrong with having a Wal-Mart in a black neighborhood where people can get fresh produce and fresh groceries at a low price, and not only that it would create 600-to-1000 new jobs in the community. You talk about the recession and how it hit black folks, black men unemployed 17%, and black women unemployed 13%, it’s ridiculous. You just had unions and all types of people fighting it because the meat workers weren’t unionized. We really don’t care about that right now when we need jobs and we need fresh produce.
TRHH: We’re going to get into some political stuff in a minute, but off the top the album El Che is finally upon us. Talk about El Che.
Rhymefest: El Che is dropping May 18th. I’m happy about it. It’s been a long time coming. I had to get my business right. I had to get my business in order and get something in place to where I didn’t have to depend on a record label or somebody else doing something for me, I could do it for myself. Now I’m in that position and we’re dropping the album.
TRHH: So, it’s independent? It’s on your label?
Rhymefest: It’s on an independent label called Dangerous Negro – DN Entertainment/EMI Distribution. It’s gon’ be everywhere.
TRHH: Who are some of the producers on the album?
Rhymefest: Some of the producers that I worked with on this album was some people that I worked with before and it’s a guy named S1 from the Strange Fruit Project. He’s worked with Kanye and Erykah Badu. He did the single “Say Wassup” and “How High” featuring Little Brother. He did a couple of other joints for me. I got Best Kept Secret from D.C. and my man Scram Jones did a lot of joints for me.
TRHH: I remember reading that you would have done things differently on Blue Collar after its release. Do you feel satisfied with the way El Che came out?
Rhymefest: Yeah. It took years for this album and I’m satisfied with it because it’s an accumulation of my experiences throughout the years. It’s an accumulation of who I am. I feel like with music people need soundtracks for their lives. When you’re going on that road trip and you got one CD in the car, I want my CD to be that one CD you can listen to from Chicago to Kentucky. You’ll be like, “Damn, this the only CD I got!” but it’s entertaining if you play it over and over. You hear something new when you play it over and over again – I think this is that record.
TRHH: Did any songs from your stolen iPod make it to the album?
Rhymefest: No, none of those song made it. I just decided to do things differently. I had a song with Lil’ Jon, a song with Jadakiss, a song with Marsha Ambrosius and Kanye did the track. I decided that I didn’t want to go that route. I didn’t wanna go the coat tail route. I don’t want somebody to know me because of somebody else. If you rock with Rhymefest and you’re a Rhymefest fan, I want you to be a Rhymefest fan. I want you to like my music because you like my music, not because somebody else you like is there. I don’t think that’s real. If somebody like Waka Flocka and MIMS can make it where it’s just them why can’t a Rhymefest? I think the things that I need to be doing at this point of my career is not riding the coat tails of somebody else, but lifting other people up.
When you hear my album there’s an underground Chicago artist on there named ADaD. I did a contest where if you had a hot 16 you could win a spot on my album. I gave local artists a chance to let their talent shine with me. I feel like that’s what I need to be doing. For too long Chicago artists have been doing things with people outside of town and things that they thought were hot and would make them hot. But they ain’t really been concentrating on how they can build their city. Even if it’s just me how can I play my part to give other people a chance? To put people on? We ain’t been concentrating on putting people on. We’ve been concentrating on trying to get on ourselves so long that it’s just a selfish thing. There’s a new movement. Me, Mikkey, Twone, and Juice have formed a group and we’re doing an album called The DuSable Museum. It’s time, man.
TRHH: Why do you feel like Chicago, or the Midwest in general doesn’t stick together like the South? It seems like the South is the only region that does stick together.
Rhymefest: I think even people that ain’t in a gang in Chicago is in a gang. It’s always my “my gang” and “my crew” or “me” and we don’t see the importance of how a city we need to be one gang. We need to be the gang of Chicago. Not against other cities but we do for us and then if you want in on us, hey man, we can all work together with you too. We gotta condition each other to see the importance and value of working with the smallest person.
TRHH: I follow you on Twitter and I noticed that you tend to spark some serious conversations — your music is no different. Why is it important for you personally to speak on important issues?
Rhymefest: Because I’ve been blessed with people that listen to me. If you get 10,000 or 20,000 people that’s not a little amount of people. I was watching MSNBC and Sarah Palin got paid $100,000 to speak in a hotel room full of tea baggers. They put 300 people in a room and be like, “Yo, this is an important event!” Really? You got 300 people in a room? Well I can get 3000 people in the room. Kanye can get 300,000 people in a room. At that point why aren’t we doing something valuable? So you’re telling me that 300, 3000, or 30,000 people will come out and see what you got to say and you ain’t got nothing to say but something ignorant?
TRHH: What is it about Chicago emcees that almost all of them have a conscious element to their lyrics?
Rhymefest: It’s in the soul of Chicago. Chicago is the home of the what? Home of the blues. I think that, that tradition carries on in the rappers. That’s one part of the reason it’s hard for Chicago artists to get shine because we talk about struggle. Even when you look at a Sly Polaroid, it ain’t all about dancing. We don’t be on that. Chicago men are real men, real men! We’re documenting our pain and our tribulations through our music. Sometimes it’s hard to make that palatable. When you look at a ‘Jesus Walks’ or look at a ‘Kick, Push’ or a song like ‘Letter’ that I did with Citizen Cope, it’s hard to make those songs entertaining to people. I don’t wanna trick people’s minds, I wanna hit people in the heart. If you look at Common and all of us we strive to hit people in the heart.
TRHH: The song and video for Give It To Me is powerful. How did Give It To Me come about?
Rhymefest: My man Konee Rock does a majority of my videos. We do videos where we create scenarios, but I wanted to do a video where I used footage. I didn’t wanna use the regular footage of the 60s riots. I wanted to use footage to describe racism in music in a way that we could see how we playing ourselves and how entertainment is playing us. I found that old Warner Bros. footage with all the old cartoons and Popeye with the racist reference, I was like man, this is it. When you look at those characters in the Warner Bros. cartoons it’s not too much different than the roles rappers are playing today. Only thing is they don’t have to do white people in black face anymore, they just get black people to do it.
TRHH: That’s true. How did you hook up with Little Brother to do the song How High?
Rhymefest: Little Brother is my family. When we talk about who Rhymefest is doing songs with these days, I don’t wanna do songs with people who are extra bigger than me like Kanye. Me and Kanye are brothers and he counsels me and I counsel him and it’s all good. But at the end of the day, if I do a song with Kanye everybody is going to be like, “What is Kanye saying on that?” I feel like I can’t really make it and get people to know who Rhymefest is and what Rhymefest is about if I’m constantly coat tailing. When we talk about the songs I had with Lil’ Jon, Jadakiss, or Kanye it was important with me for this album to do joints with people that’s on my level for right now. We’re doing a song together and I’m not doing a song like, “Look, look, look who I got!” I don’t wanna be phony, I don’t wanna be pretentious. I feel like if an artist like MIMS or Waka Flocka can make it with a song that’s just them, why can’t Rhymefest?
TRHH: I interviewed Sadat X recently and he said that “Rhymefest is a sleeping giant.? Would you say that’s a fair assessment of you?
Rhymefest: That’s my man. That’s my family! If he said it, yeah [laughs]. My thing is this, who’s sleeping? That’s the question. Am I the sleeping giant or is the world sleeping on the fact that the giant is standing right over them? That’s a question you have to ask. Sadat is my man and he sees it. Ask anybody who’s ever met me or anybody who’s’ ever seen me perform, or anybody who’s ever sat down and taken in a Rhymefest album or song like The Man in the Mirror or The Manual. Just take it in. The problem is this, I don’t play the media phony game. I don’t sell clothes when I rap. I don’t sell sneakers when I rap. I’m not a sneaker head. All I do is give you music and you can take it or leave it alone.
The problem with that is this, when you don’t become a salesman of products you’re not falling into the American consumerism culture. We are a people in America who pick our politicians based off some shit that somebody’s selling us – consumerism. We don’t pick ‘em based off of policies. We don’t even know what the hell the damn policies is! We just know what the chorus is saying. Whatever the chorus is saying we’re singing it. I don’t play the game, so to a large extent I’ve been blackballed by those media sources. I’ve been magnetized from the people. I’ve been ostracized because, “Yeah he makes good music, but he ain’t being a rapper. He ain’t staying in his place as a rapper.” That’s a problem.
TRHH: It is a problem. Why do you think you have to have a rapper suit or a rapper costume to get any kind of exposure? For me it goes back to… I don’t wanna get too deep into this…
Rhymefest: Get deep, brother! Go deep! I can go deep.
TRHH: [Laughs] Okay, I was at Saviours’ Day on Sunday…
Rhymefest: I was on stage at Saviours’ Day on Sunday. I was with Queen YoNasDa who is the granddaughter of Minister Farrakhan who I just got off the phone with. I was up there with Wyclef. People don’t know that about Rhymefest. They don’t know that my reach goes deep.
TRHH: The Minister briefly touched on a conspiracy against black men when he spoke about Menace II Society. I immediately thought about Hip-Hop and how it’s changed. Does that fall in line with what you were saying that because you don’t fit in the rapper costume that it’s more of the same conspiracy?
Rhymefest: I think that it’s not anything against me personally. I think it’s an agenda against American youth and world youth as tiny weapons of mass destruction. You’ll have somebody in Africa in Johannesburg somewhere singing a song about something that totally contradicts their language and the way that they live. And then they’ll take those ideas and that culture and spread it throughout Johannesburg. The person from Senegal that lives in Germany is singing “I’m so disrespectful” and he’s spreading that. Now you making slaves out of people when their ancestry never even experienced slavery!
You’re killing language and making them not want to speak their own native language. You’re making them embarrassed of their rich history. So, now if black American’s even go back to try to find some African history we ain’t gon’ find nothing. They’re using us as weapons of mass destruction. It ain’t our fault. We don’t see it. We’re just the bombs. We gotta wake up and stop being inanimate objects used to kill people with the power of our words. We gotta use our brains and our hearts. Does that make sense?
TRHH: It makes perfect sense. I don’t know how you go about changing the mindset of so many young people though. I don’t know how you make somebody see that they shouldn’t be an inanimate object and use their mind. But I guess that’s up to people like you to…
Rhymefest: And people like you! Because what would I be without the charge of the interview that you’re providing me today? And how you word it, describe, and interpret our conversation today and blast it out to the people. You get an audience to read whatever you write and it all works in tandem. I can’t be effective with you, you can’t be effective without the website, and the website can’t be effective without the people.
TRHH: You were critical of Lupe Fiasco two years ago when he spouted off some misinformation about why he wasn’t voting for Barack Obama. I saw an interview that you did with DJ RTC and you said that you now question Obama’s ability to legislate. What did you mean by that and what are your thoughts on Obama’s first year in the White House?
Rhymefest: I don’t take anything back that I said to Lupe and Im’ma tell you why. When Obama runs for President again I’m gonna vote for him again. We gotta stop confusing whether or not we question our elected leaders. We gotta stop saying, “Well we elected ‘em so we gotta love ‘em!” Hell naw! Your protest gotta be the wind for the change. If you aren’t like, “That ain’t right. This is our agenda, brother,” he ain’t gon’ be on nothing. Just like the gays up in his face talking about, “We wanna repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell!” They’re gonna vote for him again in four years, but they gonna be in his ass.
We as black people we gotta stop thinking we won some shit. We ain’t win nothing. All we did was get on the court. Now we’re on the court, let’s play ball, and it’s going to be a tough game. So, if you have Barack vs Hillary vs John McCain, hell yeah I’m voting for Barack if those are the choices I’m presented with! I think that being opposed to our brother at that time was the wrong thing and I’m going to speak out. If you’re going to compare this brother to George Bush in the scope of the larger machine, it’s all white supremacy, sure, but the scope of what’s in that brother’s heart versus what’s in George Bush heart you can’t compare the two.
TRHH: Lupe wasn’t the only one. I think 50 might have said something…
Rhymefest: 50 was just saying he was gonna be assassinated. Everybody just had these wild assertions.
TRHH: My boy in St. Louis said, “I’m not voting for him because I don’t want no black man to have the burden he’s going to have.” I’m like dude, he’s asking for the burden!
Rhymefest: It ain’t up to you to decide who God bestows the burden upon. God gave him the burden regardless of what your boy wanted. The least your boy could do is support God’s will. Which we know that was God’s will.
TRHH: It definitely was. Was it Russell? It was a couple of guys who wasn’t riding with Obama, but Lupe specifically spoke about Palestine. Where do you think he got this from, man?
Rhymefest: There is no such thing as Palestine. There’s a Palestinian territory. They’re trying to work to get them brothers a state. As far as the Palestinian policies Obama said the Israelis need to start moving back on some of the settlements and as the Minister said, “You never heard from that again.” They want him to bomb Iran. They want Obama to go hard on the Muslim countries. When we’re talking what they want Obama to do I think it’s a much harder decision for him than it would have been for John McCain or Hillary Clinton. Once again, who am I riding with? If I have to choose the lesser of some evils I’m riding with Obama because I think he’s going to contemplate it and is more likely to make the right decision than any of the other candidates.
TRHH: The song “Prosperity” is critical of Christian ministers. What was your mindset in writing that song seeing as how you’re a Muslim? You’re a Muslim, right?
Rhymefest: Yes, I’m a Muslim. I was up late one night and I saw Kerney Thomas on BET talking about “Gooooodddddddd wants to change your life! Buy this red blood of Jesus prosperity prayer cloth!” and I’m like whoa, man. For just a quick second I was like, “Man G, I need that.” [Laughs] It made me realize how fragile how the mind is. If somebody like me could think that for a quick second and snap out of it imagine somebody who’s Christian and needs a man, needs to lose weight, and is suffering from depression but ain’t got enough money to see a real therapist. They’re gonna buy Bishop Kerney Thomas’ red blood of Jesus prayer cloth [laughs]. I did a video for it and I wanted to document the whole thought process behind the whole thing. What the person is thinking who’s buying it and what the minister is thinking who’s selling it.
TRHH: A lot of people know you as a ghostwriter for Kanye West. I’m not going to talk about Kanye though, I want to ask you about ODB. What was it like working with Ol’ Dirty Bastard and do you have any memorable ODB stories?
Rhymefest: Man, working with ODB was like a dream come true. It’s unfortunate the brother passed. I remember he was spitting some rhymes but it wasn’t doing it. He needed that “AAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!” I went to Damon Dash and told him he wasn’t getting it and he was like, “Fest, you gotta hype him up! You gotta be like, ‘You’re the ODB! You’re from Wu-Tang! You gotta spit it like this!’” He did a whole New York bravado thing and I went in there like “Man, I don’t know what you doing but you gotta do this, this, and this!” and I looked around and the whole room was just quiet. One of the dudes in there was like, “You’re not from New York, are you?” I was like “Nah,” and just sat down [laughs]. He wasn’t getting into to it so Damon Dash called in some strippers and when the strippers came in the room that dude lit up like a Christmas tree! “AAAAHHHHHH!!!” It really showed me how a lot of times motivation for being charming and entertaining is being sparked and charged by a woman.
TRHH: Yes, that’s true. I miss Dirty, man. I read an interview you did where you said Ol’ Dirty and Biz Mark were inspirations for you. I appreciated that because they inspired me, too. For me they made music fun.
Rhymefest: When Biz Markie came out with The Vapors I swear to God that got me through my whole childhood just knowing that I would be something one day and somebody else justifying that thought.
TRHH: That’s interesting that you said that because I don’t think most people look at The Vapors as an inspirational song, but it was.
Rhymefest: It was! That’s what it was!
TRHH: On the song “Chicago” you say, “I’ll make a promise not to ever wear tight jeans.” Why do you think this tight jeans movement took off in rap and how do we get rid of it?
Rhymefest: It’s a European style and I accept it. When I go to Europe and black dudes are wearing fitted jeans, that’s just the style. I accept it there, I don’t accept it here [laughs]. That’s just me. That’s my opinion. People can do what they want. I’m from Chicago, man. We’re working class people. We don’t do the Euro jeans. We just don’t do it. For a thug out in Brixton or Hackney that might be okay but it ain’t okay for a thug in Chicago.
TRHH: Speaking of tight jeans, did you ever make peace with Charles Hamilton?
Rhymefest: Did I ever do what to who?
TRHH: Make peace with Charles Hamilton?
Rhymefest: Did I ever make Beef Hamilton?
TRHH: [Laughs] Peace!
Rhymefest: Peace? Oh, did I ever make peace with Charles Hamilton? I was like “Did I ever make Beef Hamilton?” That sounds like a delicious dish [laughs]. I’ve never spoke to the brother but it’s peace without even saying peace. It’s peace ‘cause it’s peace in my mind. As long as I got peace in my mind, brother, it’s all good. We even got a show on the same showcase in Texas at South by Southwest. It’s all good, it’s what it is. Just don’t diss me and I won’t diss you.
TRHH: What do you say to Cuban American’s, American’s, Bolivian’s or whoever who say that Che Guevara was nothing more than a terrorist?
Rhymefest: Aw man, that’s a good question, bro. You’re ending with the hard questions. I would say read the book “Che.” I read books on the confederacy, even though I don’t wanna be a slave and I don’t agree with slavery. You can still learn something from your enemies. Your enemies lived in their intentions but sometimes their application we can learn from to fight our mission. If you read the book Che whether you liked him or don’t like him, and I’ve read all the books, Cuba was and can be a very racist place. White Cuban’s can be very racist and if you have an open conversation with them they’ll admit it. The Afro-Cubans weren’t even allowed to go to school. The illiteracy rate was crazy in Cuba when Batista was there. Would they have rather had Batista who had the mob come in and have run of Cuba and have all the American corporations have run of their country? Che went to the universities and said, “If you don’t open the doors for all of these Cuban’s then they will knock the door down, so we will open it up.” He meant the black Cuban’s. He sent people not only to working camps but he sent them to learning camps to learn how to read.
He was little heavy-handed. Was he a little delusional? I think yes. Did he expect everybody to rise to his level of operation? He did. Was that unfair? It was. Did the brother do some good things? He did. When you are trying to fight for a country do people die? They do. When you are a head of a state are their tribunals? Many times, there are. There are in this country. If Che Guevara is a terrorist then why are we so afraid to call George Bush one? He killed way more people than Che Guevara. Is it because they were brown people in another country? If you’re going to call Che Guevara a terrorist you’re going to have to add a lot of people to that list [laughs]. I think what Cuban’s need to do as they criticize people who love Che, I think they should examine why people love Che. And not just make them out to be quacks, hippies, or trendies. My real name is Che. My grandfather came back from the Vietnam War shell shocked because of what he went through. He was ambushed and let go and given mercy by his enemies who said, “Black man this ain’t your war.” He came back to this country and named his children after revolutionary figures, and I was Che. Examine why people love Che and then examine yourself. Ask yourself do you have that love?
TRHH: For me personally, in reading about him for me it was the selflessness and the fearlessness. He had no fear. He was a doctor and Castro was the lawyer, correct?
Rhymefest: Castro was a lawyer, Che was a doctor, yeah.
TRHH: He didn’t have to take on South America’s fight.
Rhymefest: South America? He wasn’t even Cuban! He didn’t have to go to Cuba!
TRHH: He went to Africa, he didn’t have to. For me he represented being free and fearless. That’s why I admire him. I don’t know why other people do, but I think it’s important that you said that – examine why.
Rhymefest: And don’t just discount them because of things that you see. I can’t say all Cuban’s are racist – I can’t. And they can’t say all people that show love to Che Guevara don’t know what we’re talking about.
TRHH: In their minds he’s a Communist and a terrorist, which makes the person with the Che shirt on a Communist, right?
Rhymefest: I don’t necessarily think to wear a Che shirt represents anything. If you love Che you would know that Che would hate that. If you love the idea of Che you would know that Che would hate that unless you were using that money to fund the revolution. I ain’t with the whole Che shirt. That’s why with this album you don’t see me rocking the shirt or putting myself in the image of Che Guevara. It goes back to what we said before – selling out and putting the rapper outfit on. You see me sitting at the table with The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison contemplating my revolution. Too many of us get caught up in the swag, the costume. Shabazz, I can’t wear the costume no more, man. It don’t even fit me no more. It look like Euro jeans on me. The costume is too small for me.
Purchase: Rhymefest – El Che