Rap that asks the right questions | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Rap that asks the right questions 

The fledgling Why? Records crew—Davis, Malci, Joshua Virtue, and Ruby Watson—are already making some of the city’s most compelling and idiosyncratic hip-hop.

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The Why? Records crew: Joshua Virtue, Davis Blackwell, Ruby Watson, and Malci Atkinson - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • The Why? Records crew: Joshua Virtue, Davis Blackwell, Ruby Watson, and Malci Atkinson
  • Courtesy the Artist

Late in 2017, rapper Davis Blackwell had hit a creative block. Though he'd just earned a BFA in creative writing from Columbia College, even working for the school's literary magazine, Hair Trigger (which also published some of his pieces), he'd all but stopped writing. "Around that time, I was really disillusioned with my prose shit," he says.

On a Friday night in December, Blackwell went to a sold-out show at the Hideout to see rapper Rory Ferreira. Then based in Maine and performing under the name Milo, he's charmingly wordy, with a talent for connecting autobiographical stories and cultural references to his critiques of systemic racism. Blackwell was already a fan, but Milo's set flipped a switch inside him—he says it was the best rap show he'd ever seen. "That was definitely a paradigm shift," he remembers. "I was just amped after that. I was like, 'Yo, something is finna happen.' Some intuition there, I guess, of a budding rap career. I was like, 'I can't keep doing this writing shit, but I know something else is gonna work. And maybe this is it.'"

A year and a half later, Blackwell has his answer. Even though he didn't start rapping till June 2018, the lifelong hip-hop head is now part of the four-person crew that owns and runs local label Why? Records, alongside rappers Malci, Ruby Watson, and Joshua Virtue—all of whom were at that Milo show, though he didn't realize it then. Their label is still brand-new, but they've already released some of the most vital and oddly euphoric Chicago hip-hop of the year—they're poised to help shape the future of the city's scene.


Why? Records showcase featuring Malci, Davis, Joshua Virtue, and Ruby Watson
Sun 6/30, 8 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, $10, 21+


In late 2017, Blackwell was already roommates with Virtue (real name Alex Singleton). He had yet to meet Watson (real name Sam Keefe), but he'd heard of Malci (real name Malci Atkinson), a producer and MC who makes gleefully noisy rap tracks. The collective began to come together in summer 2018: Virtue and Blackwell (who performs and records as Davis) formed the duo Udababy, and within a month Virtue and Watson were working together as Free Snacks.

This past December, Free Snacks released their debut, Eat Good Tape. The EP includes an appearance by Blackwell, and the duo asked Atkinson to open January's belated release show at the Empty Bottle. Since then Udababy, Virtue, Watson, and Atkinson have all dropped EPs or full-lengths, and Blackwell hopes to put out his solo debut by the fall. Why? Records already has five releases, but it's only now getting around to throwing a launch party: Sunday, June 30, at the Hideout. All four rappers will perform solo sets, and onstage collaborations also seem inevitable.

You're unlikely to hear about the Why? Records crew in the same context as Chicago's other fast-rising rappers—Juice Wrld, Polo G, Calboy, Valee, Queen Key—because they operate at the intersection of hip-hop and underground rock. All four often perform at DIY spaces that usually book garage bands. Virtue and Blackwell say that Udababy, which made its live debut at a tape-release party for hardcore group Side Action, still plays mostly punk shows. Atkinson got his start sharing bills with experimental pop from Pilsen and indie from Logan Square—he's one of a handful of young rappers who've become part of rock-centric Chicago DIY scenes, alongside the likes of Mykele Deville, Jovan Landry, and Nnamdi Ogbonnaya.

"I've followed Malci for years," Virtue says. "Malci was one of the people who inspired me to make hip-hop on my own and really start circulating my work. He's just always putting shit out and just plays hella hella hella hella shows." Atkinson has been playing out longer than anyone else in the collective, and after he dropped Papaya! in May, it got more buzz than any other Why? release—this month, Noisey named it one of "33 Essential Albums You Probably Missed So Far in 2019."

There are other signs that the Why? Records crew is gaining traction. Free Snacks played the final day of Do Division Street Fest, and according to Watson their midafternoon set attracted a few hundred people. The event also featured popular Cincinnati indie-rap group Why?, though Watson says he'd never heard of them before seeing them on the bill. Why? Records is named for the questions the collective's members would ask themselves and one another. "The whole question of, like, 'Why?' is just a matter of if we're doing all this, creating music—are we doing it for someone else, or are we doing it by and for ourselves?" Virtue says.

Atkinson, 28, is the crew's senior member—he's ten months older than Virtue, who turned 28 this month. He moved frequently while growing up, living in Indianapolis and in California, on Chicago's west side, and in the western suburbs. In his early teens he got into poetry and underground rap, devouring the Def Jux catalog and developing a deep affinity for Los Angeles group Freestyle Fellowship and the Project Blowed crew of which they were a part. "All that west-coast shit was big for me when I was growing up," he says. "I was like, 'Yo, these motherfuckers are rapping like saxophones. They're not rapping how a person raps, they're using their voices like a solo.'"

As a teenager, Atkinson pined for a sampler, but he couldn't afford one till his early 20s. After he graduated from Loyola in 2014, he moved the instrument into the Avondale house where he lived with his friends Will Wisniewski and Joe Olson, who played in chamber-pop group Hundred Heads. "The thing that I remember most about his creative processes is that he was just always working," Olson says. "He was always holed up in his room and going through records and always working."

Atkinson's roommates also recorded at home, and they shared their equipment. "They had a studio in the basement," Atkinson says. "They got me into weird time signatures—like, 'You ever heard this Thundercat song and this FlyLo song?' type shit," he says. "It unlocked Pandora's box for me—I still do make a lot of shit in just 4/4, but I was just like, 'Yo, they're thinking about this in a whole 'nother way than how conventional music is.'"

In August 2015, Atkinson self-released his debut, PM, which introduced his idiosyncratic style: off-center beats with weird feels, noisy samples that sound like they could burst apart, scattershot flows that zigzag through the space of the song, and lyrics overstuffed with introspection. He took inspiration from Milo and Open Mike Eagle, but he soon understood that he had uncommon predilections. "I started to realize there ain't too many weird-ass rappers in Chicago doing this weird poetry or alternate type of rapping," he says.

Atkinson's music quickly found a champion in rapper, poet, and actor Mykele Deville. In 2015 Atkinson performed at the Dojo, a defunct Pilsen DIY spot Deville had cofounded. "He'd be live-engineering beats and rapping at the same time—it was this kind of screamo rap that a lot of people I don't think were super attuned to, but I perked right up," Deville says. "I could hear the influences of early hip-hop, but also, strangely, jazz and weird, out-there rock all mixed with not only his voice, but the way that he strung samples together. It really blew my mind that nobody had really signed this guy, or had really worked with him in a way that got him a little bit further outside of the basement." Atkinson has since contributed production to every album of Deville's, beginning with 2016's Each One, Teach One.

In 2014, before he'd released any music, Atkinson had started reading his poetry in underground performance spaces, and he kept on doing it even after he had albums out. Around four years ago, Deville asked Atkinson to read at a DIY show, and he performed a poem lambasting Donald Trump—at the time, his presidential campaign still looked like a farce. That poem resonated with at least one person there: Joshua Virtue.

Virtue grew up in the south suburb of Crete. Shortly after he graduated high school in 2010, his friend Bryan Fielder introduced him to posthardcore band the Para-Medics, with Nnamdi Ogbonnaya on drums. That led Virtue to Ogbonnaya's rap group Sooper Swag Project. "I was like, 'Holy shit, people can just rap?'" he remembers. "Anybody can do it at any time? No one has to give you permission?'"

Virtue, Fielder, and a few other friends—including vocalist and producer Jack Clements—decided to try it themselves. "We made a super shitty rap song," Virtue says. "And we continued making super shitty rap songs for years together."

Their collective eventually took the name Palace of Auburn Hills, though by 2014 their lineup had dwindled to Clements and Virtue. That year they decided to record one song per week after they both turned 23 (they were born one day apart in June). They released the tracks in small batches of EPs on Bandcamp under the collective title Jordan Year.

"Early Jordan Year stuff is bad," Clements says. "It's also unlistenable. We had no idea how to record. The first one, I just did alone at my dad's house in an empty bedroom with a Dunkin' Donuts box and a trash can—that was the drums I used, 'cause I didn't know how to program drums even. It's just that and a little ukulele. That's probably a decent one—that's how low the bar was."

Virtue has mixed feelings too. "It was back in, like, the Odd Future days and shit, when everybody was saying fuckin' crazy shit all the time—so I don't really stand by it anymore," he says. "But it was fun. It was a huge part of how I learned how to make music and craft songs quickly, and just maintain creative energy every week, no matter what happened."

After Palace of Auburn Hills wrapped up Jordan Year in June 2015, Clements decided to remix Wilco's "EKG" (from the July 2015 album Star Wars) and rap over it. Soundcloud blocked the song, so Clements tweeted at the band asking for their approval. Spencer Tweedy heard it first. "I was like, 'This is really cool—this is really unexpected and totally bizarre that someone would think to rap over that song,'" he says. "We played it for my dad, and he liked it too. So we were all into the idea of inviting them over to the studio."

Virtue and Clements visited the Wilco loft that fall. "When we get to the loft, Jeff's like, 'Do you guys have a band?'" Clements says. "So that put it in my head, like, we should get a band and we should take this seriously." Palace of Auburn Hills had been a studio-only project, but the pair began to put together a live band—an experimental jazz and hip-hop group called Not Lovely. Meanwhile, Virtue began producing and recording solo tracks, accumulating several full-lengths worth of material, though he kept most of it to himself.

"Not Lovely, when it first happened, was a nine-piece band," Virtue says. "You would have to get so many people together to create anything. I have a pretty fidgety creative bone in my body, so I would just keep making my own shit and not really have anyone to mix it properly. I didn't really know what I was doing with mixing. The biggest reason I started putting shit out was because I met Sam."

The duo Free Snacks, aka Ruby Watson and Joshua Virtue - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • The duo Free Snacks, aka Ruby Watson and Joshua Virtue
  • Courtesy the Artist

Sam Keefe, aka Ruby Watson, grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. He played guitar and sang in a punk band that lasted all of three shows and drummed for an indie-rock group called Santomo. After graduating high school in 2016 (he's just 21 now, the youngest of the group), he moved to Chicago to study audio design and production at Columbia. He dropped out after a year and a half, and because he had no friends to collaborate with musically, he started working on solo recordings using his middle name, Dolan. "I put out like two or three mixtapes that don't exist anymore because I took them all down," he says.

At first, he sang on pop-focused tunes ("like some Homeshake shit"); then, inspired by Milo and Earl Sweatshirt, he started recording raps. Shortly before April 20, 2018, he dropped a mixtape called Dirty til I Hit the Dirt, and when he and his roommates threw a 4/20 party at their Lakeview apartment, Watson performed a few songs.

Virtue happened to be at the party, and he complimented Watson after his set. "I was like, 'I'm a rapper too,'" Virtue says. "And he was like, 'Oh, word?' Because when you hear that shit . . . "

Watson's initial skepticism vanished once he looked up Virtue online and listened to "Should Have Been an Accountant," which blames the racial inequities of an oppressive society for eroding the mental health of young Black men. "I heard that song and I was floored," Watson says. "So then I sent him a beat." Watson tapped Virtue for vocals on a couple songs that he released in August 2018 on the final Dolan mixtape, Hell Is Here (he's since scrubbed it from the Web).

A month or so before Hell Is Here came out, Watson and Virtue knew they were onto something. "We were like, 'We should make an EP,'" Virtue says. "And then we kept making songs." Their first track as Free Snacks, "Probly," earned the approval of a collaborator whose feedback they both valued: Davis Blackwell.

Blackwell, 25, grew up on Stony Island in Calumet Heights, and he claims his mom used to babysit Common. He inhaled pop culture as a kid. "I played outside and shit, but I always wanted to be in front of the TV," he says. "Always always always." He was a voracious reader and dove into the rock, pop, hip-hop, and electronica that his older siblings recommended. Blackwell didn't have Internet at home, but he spent his high school years at a boarding school in Wisconsin, where he read music blogs and eventually learned of Milo.

Blackwell enrolled at Columbia directly after graduating high school in 2012. He and Virtue were both creative-writing majors there—though they never shared a classroom and wouldn't meet till 2014, through their jobs at the Soupbox in Lakeview. They did get to know a mutual friend at school, though: Malaya Harris, who fronts Side Action. "If someone was a good writer, I just wanted to be friends with them," she says. "I really had a lot of respect for Alex and Davis's writing."

Harris, Blackwell, and Virtue all had their work published in Hair Trigger, where Harris as well as Blackwell worked as editors before they graduated in 2017 (Virtue graduated in 2016). In college, Harris lived in a Logan Square punk house that occasionally hosted informal readings, some of which featured Blackwell and Virtue. During this time, she says, they also helped her through what she describes as an abusive relationship. "Both of them just have the kindest hearts, and are just the most welcoming people and extremely understanding," Harris says. For the past two years the three of them have lived together with another friend in Bridgeport.

Even before they become roommates, Virtue had started encouraging Blackwell to get on the mike, though it took a couple years for Blackwell to talk himself into it. "It was a confidence thing," he says. "I feel like it wasn't my medium—I mean, obviously that's not the case now, 'cause I got muthafuckin' bars."

In June 2018, when he started rapping, Blackwell immediately paired up with Virtue as Udababy. Whereas Virtue and Watson knocked out their tracks as Free Snacks in a couple months, Udababy took their time. "I was still just figuring out who the fuck I was as an MC," Blackwell says. "That first song will never be released. That was trash."

"You still write slow," Watson says. "But back then, you wrote so slow."

"I wrote slow as shit back then," Blackwell says. "Now I feel I've got into some groove."

"Hip-hop seemed inevitable," Virtue says. "It wasn't a thing that I felt like I had to push myself to do; it was something that I wanted to do all the time. I haven't stopped doing it." And he's found kindred spirits in Watson, Blackwell, and Atkinson. "They have the same work ethic as me and the same standard for the quality of the sound that we make, and making something that's equally accessible and completely unique," Virtue says.

The four of them do share a few traits. Their raps tend to be loquacious but vulnerable, and they prefer instrumentals whose sharp hooks feel ever so slightly askew. They also love using samples. "It makes you black out—sampling is the only kind of thing that makes me do that," Atkinson says. "I hear ancestors and shit talk to me."

Despite his devotion to sampling, Atkinson made Papaya! with synths and field recordings instead—he'd originally wanted to release it through another label, which had issues with his use of samples. But then he learned that label had filled its schedule for the year, so he decided to go with Why? Records, which put out the album in May. The label had launched just before the March release of Virtue's Post Faith Dialogues, and Free Snacks' Eat Good Tape and the Udababy EP (from December and January, respectively) were retroactively added to its catalog. Watson's album Balance from April brings the total to five.

Virtue describes the label as "an insulated cell." The four owners pool their money to cover its low overhead expenses—a few releases have cassette versions, but their catalog is mostly in digital form on Bandcamp. The rappers record at their own home studios, using closets as vocals booths (on Bandcamp the credits of the Udababy EP say "Recorded in a Fucking Closet"). They've also had pro bono help from friends.

Frances Farlee, a friend of Watson's who interns for Sooper Records, provided the Why? team with advice on how to launch their label and continues to offer them tips about promoting their music—the rappers jokingly refer to her as their manager. Watson's roommate, Miles Hogerty, made the label's logo and the Eat Good Tape album art. Harris, who's also a popular makeup artist, painted Virtue's face with a parody of the Sistine Chapel ceiling for the cover of Post Faith Dialogues, a process he says took nine hours.

Talk with any of the Why? rappers about the local scene, and they'll immediately shout out somebody who's given them guidance, helped them book shows, or championed their music: rapper-singer Rich Jones, Not Normal Tapes founder Ralph Rivera, Sex No Babies front man Rahim Salaam.

  • Ruby Watson's "Royalty" is the only song released so far to feature all four Why? Records rappers. (It also includes appearances by Rich Jones and Rahim Salaam.)

Watson, Virtue, Atkinson, and Blackwell have had enough success in enough different sectors of Chicago's DIY scene that aboveground venues have started to take notice. When Philadelphia duo 700 Bliss played the Hideout in May, Atkinson opened, and a couple weeks later he asked Hideout talent buyer Sullivan Davis about a Why? Records showcase. "This feels like the youngest, freshest crossover group," Davis says. "These kids are performing on these really varied bills. They're not just performing with other hip-hop acts; they're performing all over the place. It's definitely approachable for a venue that doesn't book a lot of hip-hop."

It doesn't hurt that the Why? crew makes such endearingly strange and idiosyncratic hip-hop. Even when they rap about mundane subjects, they make it seem like they're the first to do it. Their best work feels private, almost secretive, perhaps because of how much of themselves they put into it. "I can be as vulnerable as I want to be, I can talk about any aspect of myself—I'm queer, so I can talk about that, I can talk about feeling small or feeling insecure, and I can do that through rap music," Virtue says. "I've always been a very spiritual person, so a lot of that shines through in my art. The only time I'm really totally sure what I'm doing spiritually is when I'm creating art."

Free Snacks plan on another release before the end of the year, after Blackwell's solo debut—and that's just what they're willing to commit to on the record. After our interview at Watson's Ukrainian Village apartment, everyone sticks around to work on a four-way collaborative track they hope to drop before the Hideout show. Something tells me they aren't stopping at just one song.  v

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