At the Bar with Chantz Erolin
Smooth, insightful rapper Chantz Alexander Erolin made one hell of an impression on (and an entrance to) the Bar by being responding to my invite and completing two rounds of questions all in one day. The Bar is deeply honored to have him as a guest.
Chantz Erolin! Welcome to the Bar. What are you sippin’ on?
Whiskey neat and a Grain Belt Premium. Preferably a southern bourbon. Makers. Bulleit. Old Crow.
For those who may be unfamiliar with you, tell us a few things about yourself.
I'm a 22 year old rapper, poet, and writer in South Minneapolis. I went to school out east at Sarah Lawrence College for a minute, then came back here to try to maintain at least a shred of sanity and happiness. I fuck with anarchafeminism, comic books, and fashion. I used to be with a rap group called Audio Perm.
Before Racialicious unveiled “The Invisible Backpacker of Privilege”, I was familiar with you (it’s hard to forget a name like “Chantz Erolin”) How did you get involved with that project?
I met Guante when I was 15 at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. I think he was still living in Wisconsin at the time. We both had backgrounds in Spoken Word, and as such were connected to the Minnesota Spoken Word Association's record label, TruRuts/Speakeasy Records. Him and I often collaborated since that meeting - largely because we had similar values regarding hip-hop and social or political issues. Rapper Hooks I'd met when I was 17 or 18, I spent a short period of time performing with him and his group "The Tribe and Big Cats" as their hype man. I think him and Guante probably met through Big Cats, the producer of Invisible Backpacker. Me and Guante and Hooks were always talking about this sort of shit, white privilege in hip-hop, racism, Macklemore, whatever. Guante came up with the premise of the song and reached out to Hooks and I. I think we were both pretty excited to be a part of the piece.
When would you say you first fell in love with hip hop? Why did it make such an impression on you?
There are a few answers for this question. The short version of it is that I'd been listening to hip-hop without knowing it was hip-hop forever. The first album that I bought with the conscious understanding that I was buying a rap record was The Eminem Show when I was 10. The guys at the CD Warehouse on the U of M campus never seemed to care about parental advisory warnings, so that was tight. But I think I really fell in love with Hip-Hop when I was like 12 or 13 listening to Semi-Official's "The Anti Album." Semi-Official was a one shot collaboration between I Self Devine (The Micranots, Rhymesayers) and Dj Abilities (Eyedea and Abilities). I Self's rap is hard for me to succinctly describe, but he has this sense of political intersectionality and heavily grounded force that leaves him unparalleled as a rapper. I think The Anti-Album was the first time I was like - shit, this really is everything. This is hip-hop. It's not just cool that this artist is saying "southside" because I'm from southside and this person is famous so by extension I am a little bit famous, but it's important because this is the scene. This is the city. This is a means of validation, liberation, insurrection, analysis, support, entertainment, respite, challenge. This is hip-hop. I still revisit that album often and I'm always finding new elements to it - like lyrics that I hadn't thought to be specifically important were suddenly describing or answering questions that had informed my world view or set of experiences. Plus it was just tight. That album is just so good, front to back, sonically I mean, or aesthetically, it's just fantastic.
How long have you been rapping?
The first session of a rap program led by I Self Devine at Hope Community was on July 20th 2005. Which was my 14th birthday. I Self saw me reading spoken word at something a couple weeks earlier and invited me to come through. So I guess it's coming up on 9 years. Shit.
I really like your style; you gotta tell me: who are your idols? Who influences how you rhyme?
Did I mention I Self Devine yet? Jokes. But yeah, I Self for sure, Nomi and Crescent Moon from Power Struggle and Kill The Vultures, P.O.S., Big Zach from Kanser, Unfuh Qwittable from Audio Perm/Fresh Squeeze, Jay Electronica, Big Quarters and Illuminous 3 are all rappers and rap groups that heavily influence my sense of style when it comes to rhyming in particular. A few of those rappers (Ill 3, Big Quarters, Zach) really inform my sense of slang and story telling. These were the guys at the party I was way too young to be at, back in high school. This was like the underground sort of scene I was stepping into and looking up to. It was always more important to me to know what was going on locally on stages I was trying to get to than to know everything about national acts and MTV/BET shit. It's sort of like when I work with Guante - it's not about mirroring what he's doing and fitting in where he does, it's about knowing him and what he does and realizing that outside of his literal, structural verses, there's room for personal narrative and an uncertain radicalism. So I try to bring that in. I like Bob Dylan a lot, too. There's obviously a million things an artist can steal from the guy, but for me I was always impressed with the vividness and the resonance of his images and metaphors. Sometimes he'll say some shit that you can't really break down to make perfect semantic or semiotic "sense", but aesthetically he can still connect and echo what he wants to echo, if that makes sense.
The track you did with Guante and Hooks really got me thinking. Like…I knew this stuff already, but you guys got me thinking about things a little more in-depth. Racialicious unveiled the video ahead of schedule in light of Macklemore walking off with Kendrick’s Grammys, and your track focuses on debunking the myth of the struggling white rapper. What are your observations of the white privilege factor in hip hop?
I think Guante really already said it better than I could. I guess the complications of it though are pretty varied. On the one hand, the privilege factor is a big deal when considering institutions like the Grammys -- gate keepers and distributers of prestige -- are a mainstream that hip-hop was created to subvert, and if not explicitly to subvert, at least to marginalize. If that makes sense. Like, if hip hop in the basements of the Bronx could become a self-sustained epicenter, then the old guard could be ignored on the periphery. The fear when it comes to Grammys and shit welcoming in and lauding Macklemore or other white rappers ahead of black artists (who make better art, and art that is more important to a culture and the participants of that culture) is that the internal dynamics of hip-hop would shift towards the Grammys's ideas of what hip-hop should be, as opposed to the Grammys appreciating hip-hop unapologetically. Anyway, Guante's verse did a really good job of breaking down some logistical advantages that white rappers could have through the lens of race theorists like Peggy Mcintyre, Rapper Hooks did a great job of approaching personal identity, appropriation and exoticization, and I think my verse was mostly about entitlement and the privilege of ignorance. It's complicated, and it runs deep and it's prolific. That's why I think this song is important, just as Macklemore's white privilege song is important, just as Murs's "This Is For" is important -- the complex, discrete and peculiar instances and occurrences of privilege are important to recognize. To ignore that certain instances or happenings are partially products of privilege is to legitimize the myth of an egalitarian meritocracy. Here in hip-hop, that can look like someone just saying "Macklemore worked harder," or shit like that. It's not revolutionary to say "white people have privilege," of course white people have privilege, we live in a white supremacist culture. Like, of course straight people, of course men, of course. What's important is to look at the means by which supremacy is reproduced and to shatter myths that ensure supremacies. I'm kind of rambling off here.
That’s a fierce track by the way; I’ve listened to it hundreds of times already. Your verse immediately reminded me of the conversation I just recently had with Bao Phi (also from the corner of your sky, if I may point out) about young Asian American men and the police. You rap about feeling “confined” by the police. What experiences have you had with law enforcement?
Hold on, hundreds of times? Wow. That's tight. I think. Yo, Bao Phi is one of my favorite poets and human beings. With law enforcement it's always basic shit. I've been privileged to the point I've never really had to have my hands dirty with anything sustaining... so it's not like police and I are in constant interaction or anything like that, but it's like, one time I got pulled over for having my brights on and the cop came to the window with his gun pointed in my face before anything else happened. When I was 15 and got picked up for curfew like 3 blocks from my house, I got taken downtown instead of brought home. I got kicked out of the uptown art fair for carrying a sign that said "bad advice, 50 cents" by a cop who held my US passport in his hands as he ran my priors, and when he didn't find any warrants or anything he asked me if I was actually a US citizen. The shit on the song is about when I was at my mom's house smoking a cigarette at like 3am and 3 squad cars pulled up on me questioning me about where I'd been for the last two hours, then if any other "native american men" were in the house. I Self Devine said some shit like "police do the dirty work/for a culture in denial about racial outbursts" and that's how I feel about it. Like, I know my end of the racial profiling scale is no where near the horrible realities a lot of people face, but it's just such a telling tragedy--the white supremacy and deep need to police, dehumanize, maim and kill brown bodies is actualized on a daily basis through the police force. On some other shit, I can't get down with the ideological bases for the existence of police. Back to Hobbes and Kipling and all that, the foundational theories of it are flawed and fucked up. And the historical basis in America goes back to night watchmen overseeing slaves and ensuring no "loss of property."
The whole Macklemore situation has gotten me focusing me on hip hop here at the bar, namely underground rappers. While researching you, I came across a collab you did with Killstreak. You guys really know how to get down in ‘Sota! What inspired that song?
Thanks! Killstreak is the shit. Tony (emcee) and Gabe (producer) are two friends of mine who are a little bit younger- I think a year or two? - and they're just really incredibly talented. It's scary, honestly. I love working with them, and every time Tony shows me some new shit I'm like "fuck, I don't even know if I can jump on this because dude might just make me look stupid."
But that song was inspired I think by Tony's experience at school with substances and the party scene and all. Me and him had some similar feelings about that. He's out on the west coast, and I was out in the east, but there were these similar things I think. That songs really about the line between partying and problems. And for me it was crazy to hear Tony's verse before I wrote mine because it was like, shit, here's this dude I care about, who's still in college, and having problems that I barely made it out alive from. "Try to play sage while me and satan, we still speak, I go and recollect on how that drink could've killed me." And I related because he's talking about his parents being broken up and all that. Basically, that was a collaboration that I'm really happy about. It was some shit that I cared about, with people I really cared about, and I think my perspective and experience really added to the whole picture of what Tony was talking about.
Whom do you dream of collabing with?
Craig Finn. The Hold Steady is my favorite band, and I really think Lifter Puller did more for Minnesota music than 99% of anyone else.
But on some honest corny shit, I think that I really am collaborating with who I dream of collaborating with. I love that I'm making music with dear friends of mine, and that I'm getting to become good friends with artists that I really respect and admire. Like, if the question was whether I'd rather be working with The Neptunes or Cory Grindberg, I'd say Cory every time. These relationships are really important to me, and as much as I love beats by, say, Timbaland, I'd rather construct something honest in terms of product AND process, which right now looks like sticking around the people I came up with.
What are you currently working on?
I don't want to say too much about it, but I'm working on a different kind of show for late spring/early summer with about 14 other artists. So that's something for sure. I've also got a project with Psymun that I'm really excited about. It's a really different sounding project, there's not a lot of drums, the content matter is kind of unique and surprising, with that project I'm focusing more on a John Cage sort of thing. I think there are some elements of it that are experimental and conceptual in almost a chance way of occurring.
But right at this very moment, I just finished recording two songs in Chicago with Cory Grindberg (audio perm/red velvet), and I'm sitting on 4 demos that I'm looking to polish up for a March release of a project I haven't announced yet. Just some free shit, sort of a push for myself to make things and a reminder to everyone that I'm still growing and learning. Producers on that currently include Damacha, Giuseppe and Cory Grindberg (With Dylan Frank of Red Velvet). I'm also looking to get into the studio with Big Cats (Invisible Backpacker producer) as soon as possible.
What challenges do you personally face as a rapper?
Honestly, being okay with fucking up is a huge thing. I've got this shit job, and pull in some money every month off shows, and there's this huge pressure I put on me to shift my earning status. And in that, there's this element of identity and worth and value and all that. It's crazy just trying to like, be a public artist. Every time I make a song I'm worried I'm going to be the only person that gets it, or I'm gonna lose friends off it because of some shit I say. So just kind of doing my best and letting everyone else judge it is hard as hell.
What can kind fans look forward to in 2014?
Free Solo Project
Project with Psymun
Weird collaborative performances.
More too, I just haven't really locked that shit in yet and I don't want to shoot myself in the foot yet.
Chantz…man, you’ve officially set a record here at the Bar with fastest response to my invite and to all my questions. We really just accomplished all this in one day. Thank you so much for indulging me.