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Matt Muse is carbo-loading when we meet at his favorite pizza place in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He’s just said yes to a show later that night, with call time less than an hour away. A late-August storm holds off as we both dive into bread and olive oil. “I just want some French fries,” he says.
Between shows, studio sessions, and day jobs, Muse could use all the energy.
The best thing about Matt Muse is that right now, he’s everywhere. His position as a teaching artist with Young Chicago Authors allows him to guide creative work in high school classrooms while refining his writing under the tutelage of Kevin Coval and Jamila Woods. Muse’s most recent album, Nappy Talk, is seven tracks of everyman rap. The title alludes to his decision three and a half years ago to stop cutting his hair and in turn stop caring about living up to the expectations of others.
The beats range from gutter piano trap to hollowed-out house. Whether the subject is money, relationships, or Dragonball Z, his songs are peppered with call-and-response hooks tailored to get crowds yelling. His frequent shows throughout the city have garnered a reputation as an accomplished MC, adept with a DJ or a full band.
Muse’s latest project is filled with features from a new wave of Chicago artists, a generation removed from the rising tides of Acid Rap and Finally Rich: Shawnee Dez, Femdot, The Boy Illinois, and the duo Mother Nature. Nappy Talk solidifies Matt Muse’s place as a key part of that wave, as a star ready for the national spotlight. Before heading to his next show, he spoke to me about college shows, house music, and his run-ins with local rap elders. — Jack Riedy
What led to your decision not to cut your hair for three and a half years?
Matt Muse: I was like, “Yo, I’m sick of maintaining this hairstyle that is clearly something I’m only maintaining for other folks’ pleasure.” I was in college, with this, “You gotta look clean-cut to get a job and be presentable for professionalism blah blah blah.” I’m like “Actually, that’s cool, but I’m smart as fuck regardless of how my hair look, and I can probably get this job one way or the other.” I never really gave a fuck.
Once I decided it’s growing, it’s growing. I was in a transitional period into my last two years of college too. I had grown bored with the whole presenting thing. I started going to class with joggers and hoodies on. I realized I want to just be myself and be comfortable, and I’m the most comfortable when I have my hair out and able to freely move without worrying about other people’s opinions and thoughts.
Do you think you’ll leave it long for a while?
Matt Muse: Someone the other day asked me if I’m ever gonna cut it. Right now I don’t know. I don’t think I am. Now that I’m making music about it, it’s kind of like a staple. [laughs] I need to keep it going at least through this Nappy Talk period.
I know you said on the record that you’re not using your degree, but do you feel like it has been useful in other ways?
Matt Muse: No. Not the degree specifically. I believe my college experience was extremely useful though. I wouldn’t be me without my college experience. I don’t use my corporate comms degree for anything. I was already good at rapping.
What was it about college that was useful to you?
Matt Muse: NIU was a predominantly white institution, so all the black students kind of banded together. It was 2000, 3000 black students. Like, “We gonna make this dope.” I established myself as a rapper. It was the first time I had an artistic family. I didn’t have that in Chicago before because I was too shy to show off my music. NIU was the first place I performed my stuff, the first place I released a project and had people that wanted to listen to it.
I would go around and hand out CDs. I performed a whole lot. Countless times, hundreds of times. That played a huge role in helping me improve my performance skills. What college is supposed to be, a practice before you get to the real world, it was that for my music.
What sort of venues were you performing at?
Matt Muse: A mix! NIU had a lot of events that were big. Because I was one of “the rappers” on campus, I performed at those huge events for thousands of people. Every event wasn’t busting like that. There was an open mic every Tuesday for this organization I was a part of called Expression, and that was a crowd of 100, 200 people every week. It varied, but I experienced damn near every type of crowd you can. Motherfuckers staring at you the whole time you’re performing, not caring what you’re talking about. Five people loving everything you’re saying.
Did you feel tokenized in some way at NIU? Were you known as “the rapper”?
Matt Muse: I tokenized myself. Once I realized how serious I could take music, I didn’t want people to care about anything else I was doing but music. I wanted motherfuckers to listen to my shit. There was never a period where that was an uncomfortable thing for me. “Oh, I want people to know me for who I am.” No, my friends know me for who I am. Other than that, you need to get these bars. [laughs]
I guess I was tokenized, but I created it, and I used it to my advantage. For example, I got in tune with the school’s president and let him know how important hip-hop and the arts was to this campus. You have this old white dude who ain’t never listen to hip-hop in his life that now is coming out to Expressions and seeing what the campus is like artistically. The school even donated the money for three winners of a poetry slam, thousands of dollars in scholarships.
Your last tape had an overarching sci-fi dystopian theme. Was there a theme going into making Nappy Talk?
Matt Muse: I was like “Yo, I wanna make a whole bunch of songs that feel good based on my self-confidence and my hair, but I don’t want it to be a story like The Sikk Tape. I just want people to listen and enjoy.”
After graduating, how did you get linked up with Young Chicago Authors?
Matt Muse: I had gone to Wordplay a few times back and forth from school. I wanted to be in tune with Chicago’s music scene. I had met Kevin Coval at Wordplay, and then the January before I graduated, I featured at Wordplay. Once I graduated, I hit him up and we discussed me helping with one-off gigs and things like that. Then it turned out one of the teaching artists was actually leaving. They didn’t ask me to do it, but they told me to apply, like it wouldn’t hurt. I applied, and I got that shit. [laughs] It wasn’t a plan, it wasn’t scoped out, it just happened based on timing. And it’s been a blessing ever since.
I keep hearing the term “teaching artist.” Day to day, what does that role involve?
Matt Muse: Basically, there are six teaching artists at Young Chicago Authors. We each have residencies across the city of Chicago. We’re teaching the YCA hip-hop and poetry curriculum in different classrooms at these schools. We also help as an assistant to the coach of the Louder Than A Bomb poetry team, to prepare our school’s teams for that festival. That’s the school part.
Then we meet every other Monday as a cohort, we’re a squad, and we bring in the pieces we’re working on to critique each other’s work. Every other week we create together, doing our own writing workshops where we build up our art. The goal of the program is to not only have us in schools, but to help the six of us improve as individual artists in our disciplines.
Are the other artists all musicians?
Matt Muse: They’re all poets. I’m the only rapper. I’ve gotten way more comfortable in my second year workshopping my things with my cohort. Damn near every song on here, I brought into the cohort and they critiqued it and helped me with my writing.
What sort of critiques have they offered you?
Matt Muse: Jamila Woods is an assistant creative director of YCA, and she also leads the cohort. She gave me some really good feedback on the instrumentation of “Don’t Tweak.” Kevin loves hip-hop, they all are in tune with music. A lot of the critique is on the lyrics themselves. It’s like all the way to the T. They don’t try to tell me how to write or exactly what to say, but they’ll be like “Yo, you could have said something better here. This is a little too cliche. Maybe move this to the bridge and this to the hook.”
How was it that first time you brought your–
Matt Muse: I hated it. I was a cocky-ass nigga when I was rapping in the beginning. I didn’t wanna hear nobody’s opinion on my shit. And I also didn’t know if I could trust that they had my best musical interest in mind. I was just now meeting these people. As I’ve grown comfortable with them and gotten to know them, they fucking love me and I love them back. I love them as artists and as writers. I’ve grown to 100% embrace their critiques. It’s something I actually long for now, because I really think they helped with this project.
What are you critiquing and teaching with high school students?
Matt Muse: I always bring in one poem and one song. Or a music video. I try to use hip-hop in all my workshops. They know I’m the rapper so sometimes we won’t even do poetry, we’ll just do songs.
On “Don’t Tweak” you rap about driving for Lyft. Do you see yourself working on music full-time in the future? Will that be viable?
Matt Muse: I mean, I consider myself full-time now. I’m just broke, so I gotta do what I gotta do to get money. The thing that would stop me from being full-time would be Young Chicago Authors. I hope the music gets so intensely great and big that I can’t work there anymore, but I love working there.
How does your live show influence your recording and your writing?
Matt Muse: I like to write songs that feel good live. I consider that shit when I sit down and write. It’s important to make songs that feel nice, but I’m a performer. The beats I pick and the way I write the hooks has to be something that people can feel while I’m onstage. I think that’s where people really get to tap into you. Specifically with Nappy Talk, I wanted everything to be upbeat and energetic.
“NegroSaiyan” has a Dragonball Z theme. How did that come together with you and Femdot? Are you both fans of the show?
Matt Muse: The hook was in my head for years. I had been wanting to make a song called “NegroSaiyan” once my hair got real tall because it matched. I met this dude named 5Piece when I went to Toronto last summer to do a show, and he made a beat while I was in his studio. Listened to it like three months later, and the hook fit.
I think Femdot posted something on Instagram or Twitter where he confirmed that he was a Dragonball Z fan. I hit him up like “I got this song called ‘NegroSaiyan’, what if I be Goku and you be Piccolo?” I think he was offended, like “I’m not finna be Piccolo but yeah we can do the song.” [laughs] I only said that because he don’t have no hair. It was a funny reference, but I don’t think he got it. He wrote this fucking amazing verse. I knew whoever featured on it, they had to be somebody who liked Dragonball Z. I had been trying to do a song with Femdot for years, so it was a perfect combination.
What are you looking for in collaborators, whether it’s producers or features on your tracks?
Matt Muse: Beat-wise, I have a sound in my head before I start working on the project. I knew exactly what I wanted for Nappy Talk: no samples, really hype, a lotta bass. I told all the producers I know, they sent me some shit back, and it worked.
With artists that I collaborate with, I want it to be natural. “NegroSaiyan” was in existence before there was Nappy Talk. With “Shea Butter Baby,” I love Shawnee Dez’s voice and I always have. When I wrote the hook to the song, I wrote it with her voice singing in my head. Me and the Boy Illinois been cool for a long time. It was one of those things where you appreciate somebody from afar until you realize like “We in the same city, why aren’t we doing this thing?”
With Mother Nature, they featured at Wordplay in December. I saw them and said “Y’all are fucking amazing, come to the studio with me, I’m going to the studio this week.” Nobody ever shows up! They both actually came. I pulled up these beats I had, and we started writing the hook right there.
Do you see yourself consciously moving on to a new sound on the next project?
Matt Muse: Yeah. I’m happy with the way Nappy Talk came out, but I always want my sound to be evolving. The whole “Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album” thing, I fuck with that shit. Because I don’t like when songs go to waste. I wrote these songs for a reason, go listen to them too. But also the world is ever changing, and you have to be in tune with the way music is growing. How can I continue to be Matt Muse in cool, unique ways? The next project may be similar, but it won’t be the same.
That’s something you talk about on “Same Me,” that you are who you are, but also you wanna grow artistically. Is there something you can point to that, no matter what happens, you want to maintain as an artist?
Matt Muse: Honesty. I’ve never lied in a rap song. I feel like every rapper gonna say that shit, but I honestly have never lied. I want people to be inspired by my music. I’m not saying I want to be walking around preaching, but I want people to hear Nappy Talk the way I heard records growing up. When I heard certain songs, they would make me love myself more. I was like “How can a man be this confident?” I want that to be something that happens on every record. I think that on a lot of my older music, I was trying to be a rapper and not just trying to be me. As I progress, I want people to know that I’m 100% being myself.
Who were you listening to growing up that made you recognize that confidence?
Matt Muse: Kanye, Common, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and my dad.
What’s your favorite Kanye album?
Matt Muse: My favorite Kanye album is Late Registration, and it’s my favorite album of all time across all genres.
You’ve worked with Common in the past. How did it feel to be a part of AAHH! Fest?
Matt Muse: It was amazing. It was something we had genuinely worked hard for, and one of the first times that hard work paid off. I was able to bring my friends along with me and we all performed together. I talked to Common after the show, and he heard my performance and he liked it. It was one of those dreamy type days, like, “I’m never gonna forget this.”