Deem “It’s like a checkers sort of mentality, where hopping over the next man is going to get you something better.”

The current Chicago rap scene is a many-headed beast and still growing. Featuring an emerging roster as large and diverse as the national stage, the frigid city on Lake Michigan has sprouted artists, groups, movements, and counter-movements as quickly as the Red Eye and Reader are able to catch wind and run for the scent. In past years, Chicago played host to a burgeoning party scene with acts from the Cool Kids and Kid Sister to Hollywood Holt and the Treated Crew. With the rise in violence plaguing the South Side, spanning media coverage from Vice to This American Life, the Chicago sound descended into the snare frissons and ominous bass rattle of trap.

Enter Deem. Aggressive and feral like Chief Keef but with the focused lyricism of Chance The Rapper, Deem has been steadily carving out a niche in the scene for the past few years. He sat down with TMT to talk about Chicago music, the violence in the South Side, and forays into sketch comedy.

Right now there’s so much coming out of Chicago in the way of music. Where do you see the Chicago rap scene within modern rap, and within the Chicago rap scene, where do you see yourself?

First to the question, “Where do I see it [the Chicago scene] in modern rap,” I feel like Chicago has a lot of talent. It’s a very broad, very diverse group of kids. You heard Chance [the Rapper], I mean that’s the tip of the iceberg. This is just the first dude where people are like, “Oh he’s different,” but there are a million of us out here. I feel like if it does get taken too far, Chicago can be as oversaturated as Atlanta has been for the past six or seven years. It’s not a bad thing for the artist, but it’s kind of a bad thing for the market itself.

Yeah, I definitely see dudes coming out of like New York and the Bay [Area], but right now it seems like there’s so much output from Chicago.

And as far as myself in the scene, I come from a different school of artists. The older guys, you know, they create a song, and then they practice that song, and then they record that song and they pay for it and they press it up, you know? I write a song, and it’s mixed and ready to be put on the internet in two hours. I see myself as… a currency, but with a different style, but just playing the game that way. I’m not trying to be “Pepsi commercial deal” big, I’m just trying to make a living from my music and retain some integrity [laughs].

That was a theme I saw recurring in Concrete was a sense of integrity in your music and a sense of identity. Have you dealt with any labels yet?

I’ve dealt with a lot of, “Lemme tell you about all this awesome shit I have, here’s my phone number.” When I call them, then they’re like “Oh it’s not really me that does that, it’s this other dude and he’s out of town.” I’m just trying to do what I do by myself. I don’t really wanna get signed to like a Def Jam or anything like that, I just wanna make the music I make and get a steady income from it. I don’t think I need a label for that. I already have my niche, so I just need to expand on that and I’ll be fine.

Accessible as music production is now, it’s possible to put out a finished product on the Web in, as you said, two hours. Do you see that as detrimental to the process? You were talking about how dudes from the old guard put a lot of effort into perfecting their music. Do you approach it that way, or do you prefer speed in getting things out?

Lyrically, I like to approach that way, but as far as the process, I can’t, you know? It’s an old process. Lyrically I definitely put a lot into what I say and I think about it. It’s well thought out. It took a long time for people to access “Let me lyrically flood you” instead of just “Let me entertain you.” That’s my main focus and I take a lot of time with that. As far as the production process, no one really cares what it sounds like, everyone’s listening to mp3s. I could get my shit mixed and mastered, but it’s gonna become some 160 kilobyte file on somebody’s phone, and it’s going to sound the same as if I just said that shit through the microphone on my computer and just put a nice little compressor on that. I do more than that, but it doesn’t need to be mastered; everyone perceives it the same way. People turn it down for the louder songs and up for the quieter ones.

Listening through Concrete, it seemed like there was heavy emphasis placed on the lyrics. What’s your writing process like? What starts you off with getting a song going? Are you writing every day?

I’m experimenting every day. I was writing every day until I got to the point where I was comfortable with my abilities and knew I could do this however I wanted to do it. Just because I’m the type of person who feels I create something, it has to be out there, I’m mentally and emotionally invested in all this shit and there’s just no way I could put it out there in a logical frame of time. Now I write a lot less, and I feel like the verses mean a lot more.

I’m from the South Side, and nowadays I don’t think I’d cut it [laughs]. Growing up there I fist-fought and shit, but little kids have guns now, and it’s ridiculous. What I would say is people perceive it as the worst place in the country right now, and in reality it kind of actually is.

There’s a maturation in your material from F.T.W. Vol. 2, that other mixtape you have you up on Bandcamp. What did you notice evolving in the process going from writing F.T.W. to Concrete?

F.T.W. Vol. 2 is me trying to find my sound, literally picking beats that sounded like the shit on shuffle and trying to come up with as many different sounds as I can. Sometimes I would go a little too cliche to make that type of music. I’ve aged a lot; a lot of people don’t know F.T.W. was written awhile before it was put out. I was going through some shit; you know how it happens. The process got pushed back awhile, life got real bad, then got good again, so I was like, “Here you go.” Concrete was the growth of what happened to me during that process. I was sleeping on the train, doing all this shit where if you’re a spoiled kid at your mom’s house, you don’t understand, you don’t have that maturity. You don’t have much character even though you think you do because you were cool in high school or some shit. A lot changed.

I think that goes back to what we were talking about with integrity in your lyrics. We were talking earlier about other upcoming acts; how do you perceive other up-and-comers? I know I mentioned Chance, but also that very… insulated scene of [Chief] Keef and [King] Louie?

I can’t knock anyone for feeding their family, because in reality that’s what it is. Most of them probably wouldn’t actually be selling drugs if they weren’t rapping, they’d be working at fucking McDonald’s or something, and that’s not gonna support kids or your mom if she needs help. I respect that they’re making money; I can’t change their content or their lifestyle but I feel like they’re caricatures of the actual lifestyle itself. Not to make it seem like Jay Z’s the “god of everything,” but Reasonable Doubt was every aspect of his lifestyle, from the negative to the positive. A lot of guys did that in the 90s, but Reasonable Doubt’s just the album that did it. That’s not old or nostalgic; I want the full aspect. With one pop hit after another of just, “This shit is cool, this is awesome,” when you’re doing that type of stuff, you have those moments where you’re like, “I’m untouchable, the world is my oyster, I can’t believe this is all I had to do to get where I am.” Then you have those moments where you’re like, “Damn, I did some messed up stuff. My mom hates me.” [laughs] I don’t really listen to their music myself, because it doesn’t paint a full picture.

Your music is very positive, it’s constructive. Did you ever see Concrete as a reaction against that lavishness and excess projected by radio play rap?

No. Believe it or not, I feel like I’m a revolutionary at heart, but I like fly shit, I like expensive things too. I idolize that lifestyle, not even idolize it, but I’d like to live that way. I don’t wanna rap about that because that’s not what people wanna hear or relate to, you know? I’d like to have the money and be chained up and Benz’d up, but it [music] isn’t a reaction against that. I think, if anything, it’s more of a reaction to society as a whole and how unintelligent most people are. I’m not trying to say I’m a genius or anything; I’m an average kid, but still that says a lot.

There’s more exposure, but still not enough, to what’s happening on the South Side: the Murder Season: phenomenon, the violence. There was that Vice episode “Chiraq,” there was the “Harper High School” episode series on This American Life. How do you think the country as a whole perceives what’s happening on the South Side? What do you want them to understand about what’s happening there?

I feel like people perceive it as like… the hood in Jamaica or something, where it’s just unbelievably, extremely violent. I mean it is, if you think about it, if you look at it from where you live if you live in the suburbs or a nice place where people are non-threatening. It seems… bad. Don’t get me wrong; I’m from the South Side, and nowadays I don’t think I’d cut it [laughs]. Growing up there I fist-fought and shit, but little kids have guns now, and it’s ridiculous. What I would say is people perceive it as the worst place in the country right now, and in reality it kind of actually is. [Laughs].

Yeah one time I was heading back to Indiana and my car got a flat around Stony Island and I was kind of wigging the fuck out.

People just fuck with you for no reason, you don’t have to be doing anything. It’s like… you don’t mind me elaborating a little more?

I’ve aged a lot; a lot of people don’t know F.T.W. was written awhile before it was put out. I was going through some shit; you know how it happens. The process got pushed back awhile, life got real bad, then got good again, so I was like, ‘Here you go.’

Go to town.

It’s like a checkers sort of mentality, where hopping over the next man is going to get you something better. People don’t understand unity and the entire purpose for being in an organization; it’s supposed to be to have money for your family. You can be 13, 14 years old and be the man of the house; you don’t know where your dad is, you’re 13, 14 years old and the man of the house. Now it’s just, “This is my flag, theses are my colors, I’m gonna hurt people.” Chief Keef is 17 years old; he’s not the only 17-year-old kid like that. I mean, he has 30 friends who are just like him. They stay in one neighborhood in the South Side. They probably have an 8-block radius of where they feel safe in, where they can go without worrying about anyone saying, “You need to step back.” There’s tons of people like that, I grew up with plenty of people like that. My entire life up until 14 was within a small radius, and I knew which lines not to cross.

Damn dude. On the This American Life they were talking about how a “safe zone” can be as small as a block and there are these kids as young as 12 with PTSD. It’s weird; four or five years ago when I was in college, the Cool Kids were coming up, Hollywood Holt was getting noticed. Chicago rap was much more… “party” oriented, it was more lighthearted. When do you think that change came along with the newer thematic elements in Chicago rap and where do you think it came from?

All those people you just named were never really mainstream popular, you know? So to millions of people, like you and me who listen to that type of stuff, that still is the Chicago rap scene. It’s just new kids putting a different spin on that shit. Obviously it grows, but that’s the scene; we’re still listening to that type of music, but right now, gangster’s mainstream. That’s gonna get the shine right now, that’s what’s making money. Like how you brought up earlier, it’s part of that “rebellious” thing. People don’t really understand where it comes from and just love the aggression in it, like just the “Fuck you,” you know what I mean? Like the “Fuck everyone but me, I’m awesome.” A lot of people don’t wanna say that, but a lot of people feel like that when they’re younger.

Yeah it really appeals to that young rebellious schtick. In Chief Keef’s music there’s that aggression, as you said, but it feels… misdirected, unfocused. It was just general anger. On Concrete, it felt constructive, it felt like you wanted to build something. Where did you hook up with the artists that made appearances on the new EP, like Dom Falcone?

Dom Falcone did all the beats on the project, I went to school with him.

How about Wealthy Souls?

They’re brothers; they’re Nigerian kids from New York but they live out here now. Most of my friends I met the most random way. I met this kid right here [gestures to his friend at the table with us] smoking a cigarette, this dude’s like my brother now. Like just smoking a cigarette, I was just like, “Yo bro I rap, here’s my CD,” at 18. I met Tundae, he’s the youngest one in Wealthy Souls, he’s on the skit by himself at the end of me and Derrick’s song. But I met Tundae [when] I was walking through school, and he was just like, “Yo, are you an audio student?” And I was like, “Yeah, why’d you ask?” And he was like, “I’m gonna be real with you, because you’re black.” I was like, “Aigh, fuck it, that was real.” It wasn’t really racist, because most of the kids in the audio program were black. It was in Schaumburg [northern suburb of Chicago]; most of the kids that looked like they were from the hood were probably in the audio program. I walked into the studio with him, helped him out, wrote a verse on the spot for one of his songs, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Their spots on the EP were really solid. I was curious about that voicemail at the end of the last song: who was it? Why did you include it?

I included it because it was real. He’s like a little brother type of dude to me: when I was a senior in high school he was a junior. He’s a really good rapper and also a “street” kind of guy, but not in the sense of like Chief Keef. He’s a lyricist, he talks about the struggle. He lives in the streets, like literally lives in the streets; he raps about some real shit. He always calls me and we just talk about some real shit, like what he’s going through. He’s going through a really rough time in his life. He’ll always call me, and we’ll have long conversations. I understand how rough it is, not to say that I know what he’s going through, but that’s my homie, man. I’m not gonna just sit there with him on the phone and let him suffer. He’ll always call me and leave me some voicemails like, “Bro I need you to hear some new shit.” It just so happened that that time he called me, he didn’t even know I was releasing a project called Concrete and he left me that voicemail. That’s why that song is called “Concrete/Inspiration.” Inspiration is that, it was just inspiring to me.

I’ve dealt with a lot of, “Lemme tell you about all this awesome shit I have, here’s my phone number.” When I call them, then they’re like “Oh it’s not really me that does that, it’s this other dude and he’s out of town.”

That’s wild you were already making Concrete when he made that call. When he said you were “concrete” on the voicemail I was sure that’s where the album title came from.

No it wasn’t, but it would seem like that, right?

When was the video for “Born Ready” shot?

We shot “Born Ready” last year. Like I said man, I was every day, like every day. That video already has like 4,000 or 5,000 views without much promotion, and the reason for that is I have so much music and I’m gonna put it out there. The new stuff’s gonna get old, and I don’t want that to happen. I’m just trying to be like “Boom boom boom boom boom, EP EP EP EP EP,” you know? It’s just like why not? I don’t have anything else to do and it’s what I love to do.

You keep yourself busy. I also saw that wine-tasting sketch you were in.

Oh yeah, did you find that on my one-sheet?

Naw, I found it on the Born Ready YouTube channel.

Oh OK. So Born Ready Films is my roommate, Drew Morris. Ironically enough, we were on the couch, smoking weed…

As one is wont to do.

Yeah, and what came out of it was he was a communications major and I was a business major. We were sitting on the couch and I was like, “Bro, what do you really want to do with that degree?” And he was like, “I wanna make movies, what do you wanna do?” And I was like “I wanna rap.” So we said fuck it and switched schools. [Laughs]

Now you can be a rap-slash-comedy crossover sensation.

Well we have features too. We have features, documentaries; there’s a lot of good stuff on Born Ready Films. Like I’m not at the round table for BR anymore; he used to be my roommate but I’m just trying to focus on my music. It wouldn’t be fair to them or me if I did both. I might try acting in the future but I hate seeing myself on camera, it’s just like, “Ughhh.”

Yeah seeing you in that wig threw me off.

[Laughs] Yeah that wig. It was a great sketch though man.

With as much as you’re doing, what do you have planned for the next few months? Focusing on Concrete, trying to get some tours lined up?

I’m not trying to do a tour right now. Last year from like May to May, I did like two, three shows a month. It seemed like I was performing for the sake of performing; I was going out with the same material, same two guys, same show all the time. Eventually, I can’t keep inviting my friends to that. You can gain new fans and stuff, and people can love the set, but how many people actually go home and are like, “Lemme type this up and listen to this dude and tell my friends about him.” I need that viral splash first before I can start caring more about shows. I want more of a presence, you know what I mean? I’m not really gonna focus on Concrete, you know? It cost[ed] me like $90 to make that. It’s just like, ‘Here it is, boom.’ I’m coming out with the next project; it’s gonna be dope, also gonna be a themed EP.

When’s that coming out?

I’m working on it right now. I have every single song written, I’m waiting on one beat, and that’s it.

What are you going to touch on in the new one?

The new one is called Things Money Can’t Buy, and the song titles are [starts naming them off with his fingers] “Real Friends,” “Respect,” “Talent,” “Reality Check,” and then there’s a song dedicated to my daughter.

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