Percussive Teen Troubadour: An Interview with Chicago’s Kweku Collins

The North Shore’s best young rapper talks African folk tales, Brazilian dance fighting, skipping college for a record deal, and his plans to save the world.
By    July 13, 2015

 

Kweku-Lede-photo

Tosten Burks just graduated college,
but has not yet signed a record deal.

The newest addition to independent Chicago hip-hop label Closed Sessions’ roster, Kweku Collins, just graduated high school. The dreadlocked, hemp-wristbanded Evanston Township alumnus announced the deal on April 1st—otherwise known as peak college acceptance/rejection letter season—on the strength of a five song EP, “Walk Away,” recorded in his bedroom during senior year with the help of his African and Latin percussionist (and children’s book author) father, Stephan Collins. Released in January, the project tackles the bop-bop-bop-bop, lost love, and shortened lives that spike in the summer, wrapped in the soft melodies and sympathetic bars necessary for humid, rainy, lonely July nights.

Before most kids could read, Kweku started playing the accompanying drums for folk tales his father performed at schools and libraries. “Walk Away” moves with the brisk pace of the yoruba, coco, and capoeira music on which dad raised son, incorporating traditional Afro-Brazilian drums, bells, and shakers alongside handclaps, gun sounds, and spurts of hi-hat sprinkled like chimes. Collins also competed for three years on ETHS’s Louder Than A Bomb slam poetry team, influenced by poets his mom read him growing up. He rides polyrhythms melodically and with a Kingston patois, dishing parables and tricky flows from the back of the classroom like 10 Day-Chance crossed with Wyclef.

This spring, not only did Collins graduate, his dad also retired from his day job as a special education teacher. Son has kept father, with all his new free time, in the studio. Last week Closed Sessions also released Odd Couple’s satisfying summer compilation album, Chatterbox, and other than the Michael Christmas and Allan Kingdom cuts, the best tracks all feature the label’s new phenom. Kweku and a guitarist/painter friend named Jake met me and a photographer friend—both of whom just finished four years of school in Evanston ourselves, at Northwestern University—for wings at Buffaloe Joe’s to talk about hi-hats, Winnetka scooter gangs, and his first time in a recording studio.


Tell me how you first got into music.


Kweku: My father is an African and Latin percussionist. Growing up, I’d always learn from what he was doing. I’d watch him a lot and I’d copy all of the rhythms that he was playing. He’d take me on the road with him wherever he’d go and I kinda learned how to be a performer and a better musician.


What kind of stuff would he perform?


Kweku: He’s an African and Latin storyteller, so he’d take different rhythms and stories from different cultures that are part of who we are as a family and he’d use them to educate the kids—teach the kids about Brazilian percussion and Brazilian culture, or African percussion and African culture. Since I was good enough at drumming where I could accompany him and it would sound good, he’d bring me to these gigs and shit and he’d have me do that. By that time I could pick up on his cues, on his signals to stop, quiet down, shit like that.


How old were you when you first started doing shows with him?


Kweku: Four, maybe five. It was cool.


What stories do you remember? What is he like as a storyteller?


Kweku: My dad is the best storyteller. He’s really funny, first of all, if we’re gonna start at the base words. It’ll get more extravagant.


[Jake]: His dad’s hilarious.


Kweku: He’s really funny. He’s like a comedian. Not by trade, but his humor… He can be humorous to little kids and he can be humorous to adults. He’s comedically versatile. But he’s also very good at setting moods, setting scenes, very descriptive. He moves a lot. He’s very expressive with his hands, with his face. He’s always moving, something. He’s very engaging. That’s what makes him a good storyteller. He’s very, very engaging.


The stories I grew up listening to were stories about Anansi the Spider… There’s a story about a girl who goes to her grandmother’s house because she has to do some shit. I don’t remember what it was. Things like that.


Do you think your dad’s storytelling influences the way you approach writing raps?


Kweku: I think a lot comes from my mother. I have what I think is the perfect background for being an artist, outside of being professionally trained. I have this music background that goes deep through my family on my dad’s side. My great-grandfather played the clarinet in a lot of bands and shit, way back in the day. It goes all the way up to my father. But on my mom’s side, she handled the real literary shit. She was always showing me poetry and books. She always read me books and poems before I went to sleep. She was very big on reading. She’s an avid reader herself.


Does she write?


Kweku: Yeah, she writes a little bit. My dad’s more of the writer. She’s more of the reader. Wow, that’s just like a metaphor for our life, period. But those two things really came together, the poetry and the music. So a lot of my musical inspiration would come from my dad, but as far as lyrical inspiration, it came a lot more from the poetry I was reading, the books I was reading.


At that time, when you were young, did you want to be a musician like your dad?


Kweku: That was exactly what I wanted to do. That was all I ever wanted to do, mainly, for a really long time. Then I wanted to be a pro skateboarder, but the music eventually came back.



How many kids skate on the North Shore?


Kweku: Around here, not too many kids skate. It’s getting bigger. There’s more kids that skate. But in our high school, there’s maybe twenty skaters, which is not bad at all. But then you get further north and you get a lot more scooter kids.


Really?


Kweku: Yeah, it’s really poppin. They’re all cool, except for the little ones who you might have to body check every now and again.


Scooter gangs.


Kweku: Yeah dude, I’ve almost had to slap the shit out of some kids before.


What towns are we talking about that are deep in the game?


Kweku: We’re talking north of here, so Wilmette, Winnetka… We have one scooter kid here. He’s actually really cool. Or, we had one, but I don’t go there no more. It’s weird, I’ve been trying to get out of saying that.


What was the first music you got into that was outside your dad’s influences?


Kweku: Probably music I’d pick up from my sister, and the first shit she showed me was hip-hop. I heard “Jesus Walks” for the first time with her. It was a wrap when I heard “Jesus Walks.”


Every kid in the suburbs who heard “Jesus Walks” became a rap fan.


Kweku: Yeah, I’ve never heard anyone say, “I don’t like ‘Jesus Walks.’ ” Never. And anytime you hear, “bum, bum, bum, bum BUM…” Nobody doesn’t like that song.



What were your parents’ reactions when you started getting into hip-hop?


Kweku: They didn’t really like that I was listening to hip-hop at first. I was only eight or nine, so I was always gonna be a little impressionable. And their view of hip-hop was a bit one-sided. It was a lot one-sided. They didn’t like me doing it, so I always had to do it in secret and shit. But as I got older I was like, whatever dude.


As I got older and they saw that I actually wanted to do it now, they were supportive. They’re like, I don’t give a fuck about any other rapper. I just like you. Somebody will ask my dad, “Have you ever heard dadadada?” And he’ll say, “Nah, I just listen to my son. I don’t fuck with like, 2 Chainz or anything.” Once Closed Sessions came around, they fully, fully, fully invested in it.


When you started getting into other genres, were you still playing the same drums? How quickly did you start messing around with other instruments?


Kweku: There were always different instruments in the house, outside of percussion. . . . There was always the odd guitar in the house, so I’d noodle around on that. You know, even as I did start getting into other types of music, percussion is the backbone of all types of music. It was kind of easy to be a percussionist because you really can play whatever. With percussion, it works.


And hip-hop was logical because it’s so beat-driven.


Kweku: Once I started producing my own beats it made it really easy with my percussion background. I feel like what makes a track really good, what completes a track is the drums. I can’t tell you how many times I get emails from a producer like, “Yo man, check out my shit. It’s fire.” And the drums are just ass. I hate them so much. And it makes me said because I’m like, “Damn, this shit is raw, this shit’s raw, but fuck.”


Do you still like music that’s super hi-hat driven?


Kweku: I love it. I love trap hi-hats so much. I’ve started to pull them into other genres. The other day I made this beat that sounded exactly like Black Sabbath or Electric Wizard or something like that, but I threw trap hi-hats in the middle of it, so that was cool. I like blending different things with trap influences. It’s really fun.


Some of the original drill artists are now doing the most experimental stuff with trap sounds. Chief Keef is making weird-ass music.


Kweku: Chief Keef being the most experimental rapper?


I think drill rappers are more flexible and wide-ranging than many people initially expected them to be.


Kweku: I agree. Drill rappers are definitely more versatile than people give them credit for. But when you look at the other side of Chicago hip-hop, not really the other side of Chicago hip-hop, but different artists from Chicago: Saba, Mick Jenkins, Joey Purp, Kami de Chukwu. They can do the drill shit and they do it impeccably. But then they can blend that drill shit with other shit and they switch up the flows, [snaps his fingers]. They do a lot.


When did you start rapping?


Kweku: I was rapping a lot when I was a kid. I didn’t have any beat or anything like that. I’d just be doing random activities and start freestyling. I’d do these five minute freestyles. Some of them wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever, but I’d be making my bed and rapping, or skating and rapping.


https://soundcloud.com/kwekucollins/sets/the-valley


Was any of your dad’s music chant-driven or vocals-driven?


Kweku: He would sing a lot of the songs that accompanied the percussion. That was really cool. And we would play in, you know the Brazilian martial art Capoeira? We’d do that. We had all the instruments to accompany it. We’d be singing everything. When I was a kid there was a lot of that in the house. But I started rapping, really rapping, freshman year. I put out a mixtape freshman year. I think it was five tracks. It was cool. I mean, it was ass, but it was cool.


Did you drop it online?


Kweku: I put it on Bandcamp and SoundCloud, back when SoundCloud was mad shitty.


When you first started recording raps, how seriously did you take it?


Kweku: When I first started rapping, I had no idea about Chicago. This was before Chance came out. Chance the Rapper really opened up everyone north of Chicago to Chicago hip-hop. Chance exposed everybody to Chicago hip-hop that wasn’t super fucking with Chicago hip-hop before.


This was before Chance or Keef or anyone started popping off.


Kweku: Yeah, this was before anybody came out. It was, I think, between sophomore and junior year when I found out who Chance was. And then yeah, as I grew as an artist and became really confident with what I was doing and being exposed to Chicago hip-hop more? Yeah, I started to look at it. Like, let me lock down Evanston first, as far as my demographic, the people who are fucking with me, my peers. And then I’m coming for Chicago.


What was the freshman year tape like? Did you scrub that off the Internet?


Kweku: I think I managed to sneak that off the Internet. But it was super rappity-rap. There was no hint of melody, nothing. Just 16, chorus, 16, chorus.


[Jake]: Was this when you were doing the Black Belief thing?


Kweku: Yeah, back then I went by LPurps, for the Purple Line, and then I went by Black Belief because of my—[raises Black Power fist]—type shit. But then I was like, this shit is dead, trying to get anybody to call me something outside my name. So I was like, fuck it, Kweku Collins is better.


So Freshman Year was an LPurps mixtape?


Kweku: Yes it was. Yes it was. There’s only like, two people that even know about that shit, or still remember it, and they still fuck with me about it.


Were you making music outside of raps?


Kweku: I was in bands here and there. I would always kinda fool around on GarageBand. You know, pull the loops. But I figured out how to use musical typing on GarageBand, playing chords and getting the drum patterns and shit. I had been doing that for so many years, I had mastered GarageBand. All the projects I have right now have been recorded, produced, mixed, mastered on GarageBand. People sleep on GarageBand so hard. I think I started producing my own shit the summer between my sophomore and junior year, maybe the end of my sophomore year.


The African and Latin vibes are heavy on your early stuff. Were you recording your own percussion or were you programming the drums?


Kweku: Sometimes I would record my own drums. The song “One,” a lot of that was my dad and I playing the percussion together.


Was that the first time you had produced your dad?


Kweku: Yeah dude, it was awesome. It was super cool. But, I would just like… I do most of it electronically. I do it super janky. I download all these beat packs and shit… Is that orange sorbet? [Ed. note: Tosten’s friend was actually eating mango sorbet.] Fuck yeah.


But I would download the different drum sounds. Click ‘em, put ‘em where I want them. I just tried to figure out, how can I incorporate different rhythms into these beats to make it more interesting? Give it more bounce and shit.



Did you write or record the The Valley with your dad or any friends?


Kweku: Nah man. I’ve been really really stingy with features. Not because I don’t want to feature people, but coming up—not really having a fanbase—I wanted to establish me as an artist first, really come into my own. I’m only 18, so I haven’t even really come into my own yet. But eventually bring in other artists. I did that a little bit on Worlds Away and now I’m going to really start doing it.


Do you feel like it’s hard coming from Evanston? Do you think there’s less hip-hop community or infrastructure up here compared to the rest of the city?


Kweku: Yeah, because Evanston is a smaller town. You know, it’s really just divided into north end, west end, south end, east end. There’s not a lot of kids rapping, doing anything other than making rappity raps. There’s not a big sense of community. There’s little cliques and shit. My group of friends that I really fucked with for a year, who were my best friends, barely even fucked with my music. Two of them—out of a group of eight—I’d drop a new song, and they’d hit me back. And for weeks later they’d say, “Yo, that song is tight. I love it. I liked it on SoundCloud.” The rest were like, “That’s cool,” and they’d go back to their shit.


Granted, that was only one friend group. The squad that I’ve always had since way back, like this kid, they’ve always supported. But as a community? There’s not one. There were a few different musicians. I’m really good friends with Charlie Culver, who’s one of the best fucking percussionists I’ve ever met. He’s super talented. He’s going to the New School for percussion, drum kits and shit, in the fall. He definitely influenced a lot of stuff I was doing.


The New School is tight.


Kweku: Yeah, I really wanted to go. But then nope, my grades aren’t . . .


Did you ever want to go to school?


Kweku: It was funny because I never really wanted to go to school, but I always acted like I wanted to go. I always acted like college was my top aspiration and school was my first priority. My parents would always be like, remember, school is your first priority. But in the back of my head I was always like, no, music is my first priority. But I’d never tell them that. Especially in the moment, when I’m super fucking up and they’d be like, oh, this makes sense, stop doing that.


Nothing was really happening for me until December of last year. For years I told myself, if music starts cracking, I will consider not going to college and doing it full time. I never really thought that was gonna happen. For a long time, music didn’t crack. You know, nothing happened. I wasn’t getting the attention from the blogs or people in general. I only had 40 followers on Twitter for a really long time. And then, all of a sudden, on the home stretch, it all flared up.


As people were applying to colleges, you’re like, “Well, I guess music is actually working for me.”


Kweku: Yeah, even my parents. They started to see what was going, especially when we started fucking with Closed Sessions. They were like, “No, you can’t go to school. You have to do this.” But I never really wanted to go.


When was the first time you talked to Closed Sessions?


Kweku: The first time I ever talked to them was through email actually. Closed Sessions is a staple in Chicago hip-hop. If you fuck with Chicago hip-hop, you have definitely heard of Closed Sessions. Alex Wiley, Odd Couple. They’ve just been releasing shit from the hottest artists period, since way back.


Do you remember your first exposure to them? Was RubyHornet still a thing for you early in high school?


Kweku: Oh yeah. Through Chance, he did a lot of his first shit, and I would go on the website and see the videos and just kinda dick around, see what they were doing. I watched all the documentaries they had up there. That was really the first exposure. That really established to me like, oh fuck, these are those dudes in Chicago.


One day after I put out Worlds Away, so January, I was sending this tape out to blogs, emailing it to everybody. I sent it to Closed Sessions like yo, I put this out. I really fucked with it. I felt like I was at a point where I was artistically confident and could step to these big cats of Chicago. Sent it to them. Said, I’m not asking to be signed or anything like that. But hear it, and if you are interested in pursuing something, me just coming in and meeting you guys, or just doing a song, I just come through, whatever, I would love to hear back from you, even feedback.


I think within three days, and I didn’t even expect to hear anything because it’s fucking Closed Sessions… It was a week later, I think. I was in school and school had just ended. I got an email from Alex. He was like, “Yo, this is good, I fuck with this, when can you come to the office?” We went a couple days later and they told me, “Yeah, we’ve never invited anyone over off of an email submission. We’ve always just met them and then they come through.” I started coming and recording and eventually they were like, “We just want to sign you. We’re not gonna beat around the bush anymore.”



What was the first thing you recorded there?


Kweku: Oh! First night, I was down there with Mike. And he was like, “I don’t want to make a record we’re gonna put out. I just wanna see how you operate as an artist, how you work, see if you’re comfortable.” Just so we could vibe each other out. We were scrolling through beats and he played me this Odd Couple beat. And he phrased it in a way that made it impossible for me to say no. He was like, “Man, nobody’s been able step to this beat yet. This is the man-maker. You gotta use this shit to prove your stripes!” But he said it like Kolar, so it was like, “Mother fucker, you gotta prove your mother fucking stripes with this beat!”


I’m like, alright. Being me, I gotta prove I can do some shit. I did a verse that was not the best verse I’ve ever written. The chorus of that song is hot though. I need that chorus. But yeah, that was the first thing we ever did. That’s never gonna see the light of day. Well, maybe the chorus will.


So he gives you the beat and you start writing. When you got in the booth, did you start to realize, or see Mike start to realize, this is working?


Kweku: Nah dude. It seemed like they really liked me and I really liked them as people. They’re great people. I love both of those dudes. They’re super cool. But personally, the first couple times in the studio, I hated it.


You’d only recorded in your bedroom.


Kweku: Yeah! I was only used to recording in my bedroom, being in the comfort of my own home. So recording in a place that was different? My room is really closed in. There’s a caser, or a weird wooden booth around micropads and shit. It’s very closed in. It’s right next to my radiator. There’s a dresser back here and a shelf here with the thing. It’s just a little space. It’s really closed in. It’s really confined.


Cut to Closed Sessions. I was in the A-room, the big-ass room, with just the mike standing there. It was really daunting and it was also really cold. It was February, I think, maybe January. It was cold. I was really uncomfortable. I was really nervous and just out of my element a little bit. I did not like it at all. But I kinda got used to it, the more I came.


They were also like, yeah, if you’re gonna be on the label, we don’t expect you to do all your shit here. You can still do all your shit at home. The last two tracks that we’ve done, that we’ve put out, “Your Song” and “Start a Fire,” have both been recorded in my bedroom. I just bring them to Mike and he mixes them and masters them. It’s pretty much what I was doing, but what matters sounds better, which is awesome.


How does increased attention change how you conceive of what you want to say in your music? Do you consciously write to a different audience?


Kweku: I think what it did, realizing that people are actually listening to my music, it made me more considerate as an artist. Not really that I censor myself, but I do write everything knowing that I’m talking to a lot of people. Now I try to steer away from really anti-something-something. You know, I don’t want to alienate people. I don’t really know how to describe it. I try to write my music…


It all comes from a very personal place, so I do draw from my personal experience. But I try to write it in a way that I use my own experience to create the frame of the house, the shell of the house. Whoever’s listening throws in the furniture. Because at the base of humans, we all feel the same things. All the same emotions run through human beings, but circumstance changes it. Since circumstance is tailored to the individual, no one will really say the same thing when the emotions do get to their brain and shit.


Knowing that, I stripped away a lot of the details that were really personal to me and made it so people can throw in their own details and say, “Oh shit, I went through that.” And it was in a way where the things I was saying, they can think, this is a metaphor for this, this is a metaphor for that. Sometimes I will get really specific because there are songs where you do have to get super fucking personal. But that was a lot of it, writing in a way that the most people could find whatever I was talking about relatable.


A lot of the music you made in high school is very uplifting even when you’re discussing serious topics or stories. Are you writing from a similar place now?


Kweku: I want my music to reach as many people as possible. Not for money or for fame or anything like that. It’s really just like, with my music, I’m actually saying something that can be useful. When I write a song, I’m usually looking at what is going on as a lesson. What can I take from this as a person to help me grow and develop? So when I write these songs, I try to think about that and weave that lesson into the story. Like “Your Song,” I’m talking about people with depression, people who are battling anxiety and a really shitty self image, stuff like that. But I’m also telling them, I’ve been through that too. Everything’s going to be okay.


Everyone wants to talk about how we gonna save the world and shit. I really think love is the way to do that. Being genuine is the way to do that, being open and honest. And admitting no, you can’t be fucking perfect, you’re a goddamn human. Really respecting that in each person. You can’t be any more perfect than I can be perfect, than he can be perfect, than you can be perfect. If you respect that, and if you respect that other people are gonna be different from you, then we can all be happier as people. That’s really what I’m trying to get people to understand. If you really want to be happy, just respect other people and have other people respect you.


Photos by Peter Yoo

 

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