It takes the Village 

With the help of his crew, Kembe X has gone from high school dropout to hashtag hip-hop hustler

Left to right: Dikembe Caston (aka Kembe X) with fellow Village members Genesis Denton and Alex Wiley

Left to right: Dikembe Caston (aka Kembe X) with fellow Village members Genesis Denton and Alex Wiley

Andrea Bauer

[From left to right: Kembe X, Genesis, and Alex Wiley]

Download two tracks by the Village (Kembe X and Alex Wiley), including the previously unreleased "Tell They Ass Wassup."

Tell They Ass Wassup 2:50 The Village (Kembe X and Alex Wiley)

Good Lawd 3:49 The Village (Kembe X and Alex Wiley) feat. Calez of 2008ighties

It's the Thursday before Christmas, and 17-year-old Dikembe Caston, who raps under the name Kembe X, is hanging out at his house with his crew—a collective of hip-hop fiends and friends that he calls the Village. He lives in suburban South Holland with his mom, Jacquelyn Caston, and a younger sister, and he and his frequent partner, Alex Wiley, have both dropped out of high school.

Most of the other guys live in the suburbs too, where winter break starts earlier than in Chicago, and though it's only 11 AM, holiday lethargy has already set in. Caston switches the TV from a rerun of Moesha spin­off The Parkers to an episode of Chappelle's Show. A buddy cycles through hip-hop songs on his laptop. Others text friends who haven't showed up.

It's hard to tell, but the members of the Village are in the middle of a multiday video shoot for "Backwards," a cut from Caston's excellent debut mix tape, Self Rule, released in late November. They want the video to feature a massive party, and they're trying to plan a morning-­after scene. They're hoping for footage of a floor strewn with passed-out women, but they're short the women.

"We can go to the club and kidnap some drunk bitches," says Genesis Denton, who handles the business side of the Village's affairs.

Caston doesn't bite. "It's hella daytime."

He and the Village may not be accomplishing anything on this particular afternoon—they finally call off the video shoot at around three—but lately they've made some major moves in a big hurry.

Self Rule has attracted buzz from rap blogs with a Chicago focus (Ruby Hornet) and others with national audiences (2dopeboyz), as well as from Big Ghost Fase, who's gotten a lot of attention himself for blogging hip-hop reviews in the persona of Ghostface Killah; he cosigned the mix tape on Twitter. To make the most of this good fortune, Caston is ramping up his plans. He and Wiley originally wanted their first release of the year to be a mix tape titled Kembe X and Alex Wiley Make a Grilled Cheese, but now everything is up in the air—and there's a lot more happening at once.

click to enlarge Self-Rule
  • Self-Rule

Caston wants to drop a slew of recordings over the next six months, and he and Wiley have been working on them twice a week at a studio called the Grindhouse with local producer Doc da Mindbenda. He expects the next to be the mix tape Village of the Damned, for which the two friends are collaborating with another Village rapper named Monster Mike; it should be out by the end of February. Then Caston and Wiley will release an EP called High School Dropout, with any luck by the summer. And earlier this month Tris J of the Toothpick Clique (which also includes Sir Mikey Rocks of the Cool Kids) gave Kembe a beat, telling him he thought Mikey would sing the hook. "With the rap thing, me and my friends, we look at it almost like the league, the NBA," says Tris J. "Kembe's supposed to be a rookie, but he shows he can hang with the big boys."

Caston is sorting out the details of a major management deal (and an out-of-town recording session that would come with the package), but he doesn't want to tip his hand about who's involved because all the paperwork isn't signed yet. During those talks, though, Caston and Wily were offered a spot opening for Connecticut rapper Chris Webby on a two-week tour in late February, which they turned down because the money wasn't good enough.

Not bad, considering Caston hasn't been rapping for even two years. He's a dropout but not a burnout, and his music speaks to his intelligence. "When I look at it," says his mother, "he could have passed the GED in eighth grade." Caston spent time in four schools from fall 2008 to fall 2010 before finally leaving for good. He was home-schooled for a short stint, though he didn't take to it. "I basically considered that me dropping out," he says. "After the first week or two I wasn't doing anything. I was playing video games." Caston had been sure for years that he wanted nothing to do with school. "I knew that I didn't want to do anything, like, that didn't have to do with either me drawing or me making music," he says.

What kind of music wasn't immediately clear: Caston stopped listening to rap for a year in early 2009, turning to alt-rock and heavy metal and even taking up guitar. Then in February 2010 he reacclimated himself to hip-hop—first MF Doom, then MCs like Big Sean and Chip tha Ripper. It was when Caston got into Pac Div that he began writing tunes himself. "I heard them and I'm like, 'I can do this better than them,'" he says. "No offense to them, 'cause I really like their music, but I could do this better than them and they're getting paid."

Caston started rapping in June 2010, getting his feet wet at informal recording sessions at friends' houses. He says he wasn't confident that he'd found his voice till that winter, but he began releasing music in September 2010, around the same time he quit the De La Salle Institute, the last school he attended; his first song was a take on Cam'ron's "Down & Out," after which he dropped new tunes weekly. He formed a short-lived duo called Xandercast with Jody Duff, a rapper he'd met as a freshman at Marian Catholic High School, and when Duff went solo in December, Caston and his friends started uploading joke songs to YouTube under the name Swag Village ("I Be Fuckin' Nuns," "No Fat Chicks"). Those tunes were throwaways, but goofing off in home studios helped Caston and Wiley lay down a foundation. "'I Be Fuckin' Nuns,' that was my first time trying to rap and shit," Wiley says. "After 'No Fat Chicks' I tried to write for real."

As Caston and Wiley got more serious about hip-hop (and dropped the worn-out "Swag" from the Village's name), so did several friends they'd met through their music. Young crews Save Money (perhaps best known for spawning the group Kids These Days) and the 2008ighties also have releases in the works, and members of the three collectives are already all over one another's tracks—Caston compares their community to the west-coast scene of the 90s. Next month Calez and Julian Malone of the 2008ighties will drop solo albums (Kid With Raps and Enemy: The Time & Loves of Malone, respectively), and Chance the Rapper from Save Money is prepping his 10Day mix tape for April. "I feel like just somebody has to break the barrier," says Calez. "Somebody gets out there, it puts the light on us."

That somebody could easily be Kembe X. Caston didn't reinvent the wheel with Self Rule, but he's got a breezy, laid-back flow and a sharp wit—and the mature, personal lyrics on his mix tape are a far cry from the silliness he was posting to YouTube a year ago. In part this is because Caston lost a friend while making Self Rule: on September 3, 2011, Rodney Kyles Jr., a 19-year-old who rapped as In Rod We Lust, was stabbed to death in a fight in Lincoln Park.

Caston heard the bad news the night Kyles died. He couldn't sleep, so instead he wrote an existential anthem called "The Wager (In Rod We Lust)"; he scrapped most of the work he'd done for Self Rule and recorded eight new tracks from scratch. At his friend's funeral, Caston recognized the name of one of Kyles's uncles and realized that he and Kyles were cousins. "It kind of fucked me up when I found out that he was my cousin," he says. "I don't have anybody that I'm related to that I can relate to."

Jacquelyn Caston may not be someone her son can talk to about hip-hop (she and his father have been separated since the late 90s and are now finalizing a divorce), but she's supportive of him. "A lot of times the biggest thing I had done was give him a ride to the Metra and some fare," she says—but when it came time for Caston to finish Self Rule, she paid around $300 for a one-day recording session in late October. He wanted to release the mix tape on November 20, Jacquelyn's 51st birthday, but it ended up coming out the day after Thanksgiving.

"As long as you can rap, you can make it," Caston says. "You just have to make the right moves." And to help him decide what those moves are, he's got Denton. Though Denton's now home-schooled, he and Caston met in a communications class at Marian. He played basketball through most of high school, but this past summer he decided to focus on music management and a new clothing line he named Ambition Chicago. The Village crew owe much of their buzz to Denton's work—especially his efforts to reach out to potential collaborators, tastemakers, bloggers, and reviewers via Twitter.

The other members have pitched in to do some reaching out of their own: Caston posted many of his first songs to Facebook, and Wiley connected with producers via YouTube to scare up free instrumentals for Self Rule. But Denton's hashtag hustle is relentless, and people have noticed—including Ruby Hornet contributor Peter Kole. "Genesis Denton tweeted at me and I guess I kind of missed it the first time . . . he followed up and his persistence paid off," Kole says. "I feel like an idiot for missing it the first time."

Kole became one of the first bloggers to write about Caston, giving the Village a springboard to more exposure. "People are people," Denton says. "No matter what your position, no matter who you are, they get their mentions on Twitter just like I get my mentions. Nine times out of ten they read them."

Denton says he's been in touch with rappers Action Bronson and Amanda Seales (formerly Amanda Diva) as well as comedian Andy Milonakis about collaborating with the Village. (None of the three replied to e-mails seeking comment by press time.) He's gotten through to rising southeast-side MC King Louie, who wore an Ambition Chicago shirt in the video for "He's on Fire." Earlier this month Denton landed a commission-based job as A&R president at indie hip-hop label Mathaus Entertainment, where he interned over the summer—he gets a small percentage of whatever income the artists he signs bring in. He's also started blogging for Ruby Hornet himself.

Caston has his sights set high, and he talks about fame and fortune as if they've already arrived—one particularly great banger on Self Rule is called "Patience (What Is That?)." He says people have been telling him that he just needs to have faith and eventually his time will come, but he's not about to wait around. "I'm capable of doing whatever anyone else is doing with rapping right now," he says.

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