Brittney Carter discovers Chicago hip-hop—and vice versa | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Brittney Carter discovers Chicago hip-hop—and vice versa 

She thought she was just writing poems. Her classmates at Young Chicago Authors heard a great rapper in the making—and the rest of the city’s scene is starting to agree.

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Brittney Carter - PHOTO BY BEN SCHMOYER
  • Brittney Carter
  • Photo by Ben Schmoyer

Since last summer, it seems like the universe has been telling me to pay attention to Brittney Carter. I wasn't familiar with the 27-year-old Chicago rapper at the time—from her first releases in 2016, she'd been simmering mostly out of sight, dropping occasional Soundcloud singles or appearing on other people's tracks. Only in early 2018 did she start performing regularly at concerts rather than at open mikes. But she's rapidly become one of Chicago hip-hop's best-kept secrets, earning the backing of a broad cross section of the local arts scene.

Poet and organizer Kwynology has named Carter as the contemporary she'd be most interested in collaborating with. DJ Lena Bandz has listed Carter among the locals she keeps in rotation. Bekoe, concert promoter and founder of Chicago hip-hop and entertainment blog Illanoize, has booked her on his showcases, including one in June at Subterranean and another in October at the Emporium in Wicker Park with Sasha Go Hard.

In November, Carter got a look from star-making west-coast label Top Dawg Entertainment, home to the likes of Kendrick Lamar and SZA. TDE founder Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith posted a Twitter poll to pick an opener for a November show at Concord Music Hall by TDE artist Jay Rock, pitting Carter against Chicago rapper-producer Ausar Bradley and Champaign rapper Gatson. She won the poll and played the show, and with that high-powered cosign, her already substantial stock skyrocketed. Influential Chicago hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive, which has slowed its torrent of posts to a trickle since founder Andrew Barber started managing rising star Valee, even made time to post one of Carter's freestyles last month.


Kemba, Brittney Carter, Calid B., DJ RTC, DJ Ca$h Era
Sat 4/6, 8:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, $10. 21+


So I set up an interview with Carter in the Blue Island Public Library, near her home, and I prepare for it by looking up previous coverage of her. This isn't difficult, because she's attracted an unusual amount of media attention for an artist who's yet to release a full-length project. I find radio, podcast, and video interviews, and I head into our meeting with four pages of scribbled notes—about her old voice-activated password-protected diary, about her love of country music, about the way she'd started writing what other people decided were raps while trying to create poetry.

Waiting in the library's foyer, I look up to see Carter walking across the snow-heaped street carrying a small plastic grocery bag. I reach for a handshake and she opens her arms for a hug. "I hadn't pegged you as a hugger," I say, thinking of all the research I've done.

Carter evades easy conclusions. Her musical taste is atypical for a rapper, for instance, and though she's seriously pursuing a career in hip-hop, she also has a long-standing interest in child care—her mother was a foster parent, and Carter herself studied childhood education in college. But these intricacies feed into her artistry.

We go downstairs, looking for a spot where we can talk aloud, and settle on the new Tech Annex, which features a recording studio, computers, and a 3-D printer. In one corner someone has parked a keyboard, a guitar, and several other musical instruments. We pick a table and Carter, who's skipped breakfast, rummages through the snacks in her bag before deciding not to break the library's rule against eating. "When I was younger, we lived in Blue Island for a few years," she says. "This is just one of the libraries my mother used to bring me to growing up—this one was always my favorite."

Carter's musical output has accelerated dramatically in 2019. She's put out five singles so far this year, and on the first, "Hooligan," she raps about her love of the written word. "Knew the world was not for me when I was three, I could read / What a freakin' oddity." She chose to meet me at the library because it was warm, close, and familiar—it was here that she developed her devotion to reading. "Since I've moved back to Blue Island a year ago, I've tried to make time to come back here more often," she says. "I like to use this place to keep my brain fresh in a creative sense. And of course to read, read, read, and read."

Only since November 2018, when Carter quit her full-time job, has she been able to focus the majority of her energy on her music. "For two years, I was a merchandiser at Home Depot, where I didn't have to deal with many customers and had a steady schedule Monday through Friday, so I could work my music career around it," she says. "I just couldn't do it anymore, so I quit—and I honestly only had enough money to pay rent for the next month."

Carter had been making music for almost three years and was gaining traction in the scene, but her art wasn't earning her enough to cover her expenses. Her mother stepped in to help. "In January, I got a part-time position at my mother's day care, making more than I was at my previous job, and I have more time to dedicate to my art," she says. "Plus, I'm doing something that I actually enjoy doing."

Her studies in childhood education at Parkland College in Champaign, which ended when she dropped out in fall 2013, had been motivated by her dreams of owning her own day care. "I think kids are cool. I saw what my mom was doing and decided that I would someday take over her business," she says. "I wasn't a big fan of school, though. I would be in class writing in my journals, not really paying attention, and I felt like I was wasting my time and money, so I left."

"I like to use this place to keep my brain fresh in a creative sense," Carter says. "And of course to read, read, read, and read." - BEN SCHMOYER
  • "I like to use this place to keep my brain fresh in a creative sense," Carter says. "And of course to read, read, read, and read."
  • Ben Schmoyer

Carter has kept a diary for as long as she can remember, and she's been writing poetry in it since she was ten. But it wasn't until she returned to Blue Island after quitting Parkland that she began to seek artistic outlets outside those personal journals. She enrolled in intermediate drawing classes at the Salvation Army Kroc Corps Community Center in West Pullman. "I wanted to try something new, just to see how it goes," she says. "I was like the youngest person in a class of a bunch of elderly people. I wasn't very good at it, but they were all raw—it was crazy, and I was having fun."

As late as 2014, Carter admits, she was ignorant of the city's flourishing arts scene. But then she discovered Young Chicago Authors' writing workshops via social media and began making the commute from Blue Island to YCA's headquarters in the north-side Noble Square neighborhood, where she practiced under the instruction of acclaimed poets Kevin Coval and Jamila Woods.

"At the end of each class, we were supposed to share what we'd come up with, but I would always pass when it came to me," Carter says. "They finally called me out on never sharing one day, so I swallowed my anxiety and read aloud what I had in my journal." Without knowing it, she'd begun the process of bringing her private writing to life as music.

To Carter, the poems in her journal were just that: poems. To everyone else, they sounded like bars that had business coming out of the mouth of an experienced MC, not the quietest character at a beginner's workshop.

Hip-hop artist Add-2, aka Andre Daniels, was working with YCA and had created an after-school mentoring program called Haven Studios in collaboration with Florida nonprofit Guitars Over Guns. He first heard Carter spit at a YCA open mike he hosted, and he was one of many people she caught by surprise. "I was like, 'Whoa'—and I don't say this lightly—'She might be better than me,'" he remembers. "I couldn't play favorites, because I was teaching a workshop there at YCA, but her wordplay and delivery were unmatched by anyone else."

In late 2015, another local rapper named EssieL approached Carter after hearing her at a different open mike. She wanted Carter to join an all-woman cypher she was organizing.

"It just sounded like fun to me, and I really saw it as an opportunity to meet people," Carter says. "I was starting to attend open mikes more often, but I would never perform and I didn't really know anybody. Preparing for the cypher was actually the first time I sat down and wrote something with the intention of being a rap."

The "Set It Off" cypher came out a few months later, on February 1, 2016. It featured EssieL, Carter, Syd Shaw, Bella Bahhs, J Bambii, and Freddie Old Soul rapping lyrics they'd written to the classic Mobb Deep "Survival of the Fittest" instrumental, spun by DJ Lisa Decibel.

"When I first heard the cypher, I said, 'Yo, I gotta get this out to people,'" Daniels says. "I ended up sending it to some key people I knew in the industry." Thanks to Daniels's efforts as well as write-ups from hip-hop blogs and word of mouth, the cypher was a modest viral success, and Chuck D of Public Enemy tapped the women to perform it during his show at Metro in March 2016, as part of YCA's 16th annual Louder Than a Bomb festival.

Daniels recalls Carter coming to him for advice following the success of the clip. "I get a lot of artists coming to me asking to put them on, or get them a spot at this event or with that studio," he says. "When she came to me, though, she asked me, 'How do I sustain this?' From then I lent my help to her in any way that she needed."

He was able to connect Carter with Kenneth Clair, aka Disrupt, a budding producer who was working with Haven Studios. Clair brought Carter aboard with Loop Theory, the artist development and management collective that he'd founded with veteran MC, educator, and community organizer Rafael Navarro.

"The first time I saw her rap was onstage, and once I saw that she had that live performance aspect down, everything else was within reach," says Navarro. "Even in the studio, it's nothing for her to go in and kill a track—verses, hook, everything—in one take." At Loop Theory, Navarro is as much a mentor as a manager. In addition to Carter and Disrupt, Loop Theory represents rapper Dre Izaya, artist and producer Heir Porter, and singer-songwriter Ryen. "I saw that this group was truly dedicated and put in the work, so I felt comfortable giving them guidance and leveraging my connections in their favor," Navarro says.

Daniels and Navarro agree that Carter's abilities have grown exponentially—her readings at open mikes could be skittish, but her performance in front of Jay Rock's sold-out crowd in November was calm and controlled.

Carter spits with a slippery delivery, and she doesn't waste energy coming up with catchy punch lines to emphasize—she chooses every word with the same diamond-cutting deliberation. When you listen to her, it's easy to let some lines fly past you, then get caught two bars later pausing and dragging the playback slider back 15 seconds to grasp the pith of her bars. On her blustering opening verse from the 2017 crew cut "Operation X" by Chicago producer Dougy, which teams her with rappers AlifortheGo, Stark of Huey, and Femdot, she raps: "Ratchet with my righteousness, prophetic while I'm rapping this / They not who they say they be, the room is filled with actresses."

"She's not preaching, but she's saying something," Daniels says. "She uses every word to her advantage."

Carter is an economical writer, not wasting a syllable, and she's smart enough to avoid punching her listeners in the face with her messages. "She hides the medicine in the food," says Navarro. He could've said instead that she hides it in the candy, but he knows that her work is more substantial than a corner-store KitKat. It's fulfilling, and she means it to capture every aspect of her real-life experience.

Even the 80-second "Beatrix Kiddo," her newest single, packs a lot of meaning into its brief span: "I know they wanna see me passive, but I can't conceal my passion / I'm a sister, I'm a daughter, I'm a rapper." Those two lines are practically a profile of Carter unto themselves.

Carter is used to being taken for younger than she is, but she carries herself with a seriousness that suggests wisdom and experience. Her lyrics too can seem almost childlike in their bluntness and honesty, but their craft and polish speak to her maturity, discipline, and years of practice.

It's also significant that Carter describes herself first as a sister and a daughter, then as a rapper. "My family is very tight-knit. They keep me grounded," she says. "My two younger brothers are super goofy, so if I'm ever feeling frustrated with this music thing, I just go to my mom's crib to take a break for a minute."

Her parents' musical tastes have also shaped what she enjoys as well as where she finds inspiration. "My father is a die-hard hip-hop head. His favorite artist is Jay-Z, I think mostly because they have the same last name," Carter jokes. "My mother, on the other hand, is into old-school R&B and soul." She credits this dichotomy with opening her mind and helping her be receptive to different genres. When she lists her favorites, Tim McGraw, Kelly Clarkson, and Miley Cyrus come up alongside DMX, Lauryn Hill, and Kendrick Lamar. "I was here at the library just four days ago reading up on musicians from the late 60s and early 70s, like Jimi Hendrix and Roberta Flack."

Carter is also a film buff, thanks in part to her parents' massive DVD collection. "Beatrix Kiddo" is the real name of the Bride, the protagonist of Quentin Tarantino's gory action-adventure series Kill Bill. "It started when my dad put me onto The Matrix when I was a kid," she says. "Just like with music, I like a variety of movies—sci-fi, romantic comedies, thrillers, everything. I see myself writing a film script someday, and even doing some acting." That day will probably be a ways off, though: "I've written stories that could probably be turned into little five-minute films, but nothing substantial."

PHOTO BY BEN SCHMOYER

  • Photo by Ben Schmoyer

Carter's love for writing is as vast as her love for music. Besides poetry, fiction, raps, and day-to-day journaling, she's spent time doing music journalism—starting in December 2017, she put in a stint writing for Chicago-based hip-hop blog Flows for Days. "They were looking for somebody, and I know a lot about music and know of plenty of artists, so why not," she says. "I was having fun doing it—if I would've stuck with it, I definitely would love to have interviewed some people and done profiles. I just had to stop to focus on my own music."

Last fall Carter was teasing the release of her first full-length, but ultimately she decided the music didn't meet her standards. "I guess I was just feeling like I should at the time, but I didn't want to just put out something just to have something out," she says. "It might've been good stuff, but I just felt like I'd grown too much as an artist to even put those songs out there anymore."

Since the new year, though, Carter has released not just those five singles but also three freestyle videos on Instagram. She's also been featured as part of Queen Bars, a visual freestyle series by rap blog 247HH. (When men are featured—alumni include Juvenile, the Boy Illinois, Bump J, and Navarro—it's called "King Bars.") And she's ramping up to her first video release. "The biggest thing we're working on right now is putting out the visual for her single 'Breakthrough,'" Navarro says.

  • Brittney Carter released her first video, for "Breakthrough," on Thursday, March 7.

"I hope to have a project out this year, before the fall," Carter says. For now, though, she's returning to her creative roots, carrying around books to read and journals to write in. Right now she's working her way through Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X and Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer. Both books speak to her ultimate goal: "Since I write, I can explore all different aspects of the art," she says. "I want to master my craft."  v

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