Knox Fortune Emerges From Behind The Scenes

Story by Jake Krez • Photos by Michael Salisbury


It's mid-february in Beverly Hills and already the night is getting long.

Taking a long sip from a glass of champagne, Kevin Rhomberg lifted his head from his glass, haphazardly brushing his mess of shoulder-length hair from his face and looked out across the scene before him. Stepping back from the surreal reality he now enjoyed, he began to try and make sense of the last few hours between congratulatory hugs and an endless stream of photos. Earlier that day, Rhomberg had earned his first Grammy award for his work on Chance The Rapper's Coloring Book that picked up the nod for 'Best New Rap Album' under the assumed alias of Knox Fortune. While many saw the win that weekend as the conclusion to a long story, Knox stood watching his friends, colleagues and heroes mingling with ease at the GQ-hosted event at the gilded Chateau Marmont. Understanding in that moment just how far he'd come in music, the night instead felt like the beginning of a story with a lengthy prologue, even the loftiest of dreams now within reach.

I was just thinking like there’s going to be videos like this of my friends in twenty years or thirty years and I might get asked for an interview to talk about blah blah blah. Because this is the start of a lot of people’s careers too.
 
 

Success in music isn't something wholly new for 23-year-old Knox Fortune. Despite previous projects that built a name for himself in the early days of the blogosphere's rise around 2011, the attention he's received over the course of the last couple of years has been markedly more dramatic. As he inches towards the long-awaited release of his solo material, which has so far been one of the city's best-kept secrets; the possibilities are as open as they could be.

To be sure, Rhomberg's career began very much shrouded in mystery. Taking a lifelong curiosity for how things work paired with with a material understanding of music, he began collaborating with a pair of high school friends friends while at Columbia College. The trio created a pair of internet-veiled projects which found listeners at early blogging juggernauts like Gorilla Vs. Bear and IllRoots. It was within this context that the artist who would become Knox Fortune first found some sort of notoriety, albeit somewhat inadvertently.

"We kinda just came up with this crazy idea that was super mysterious, it was really headed by my friend Cristo. We were making like Annie Lennox-type stuff," said Knox at an interview in Pilsen last month. "It was also like the age of blogs, when they could really kick some ass for you, it was like the wild west of blogs. We had one song that got like 52K plays on Soundcloud in like a day or two as completely mysterious people, we didn’t even tell people where we were from or anything and it was just because we got our stuff placed on three or four fire blogs and it used to matter so much more."

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Following the natural dissolution of those early groups, 2011 found Knox very much searching for something new to sink his creative teeth into. It was while working at his aunt's bakery in the West Loop that he began to figure out just what that might be. A chance encounter through mutual friend Cody Kazarian served as an introduction to a young rapper still in high school by the name of Vic Mensa. After showing off his work at the behest of Kazarian, who would go on to be Mensa's manager, beats were played. Less than a week later the two began frequenting a studio known for advertising jingles in the city's downtown Loop. While the work from that time never saw the light of day, the sessions proved to serve as a sort of audition for Knox, who was happy to just be working in a studio of any kind.

Chicago is often referred to as the "Biggest Small City in America" because of the natural interconnectivity of those living and working here. As is the case with a city where the degrees of separation are often distinctly less than six, one introduction often leads to dozens more. That sentiment certainly rang true for Knox.  Soon, he would quickly find himself immersed in the nucleus of what would become one of the country's most exciting music communities.

"With Vic, I met him and he’d be like ‘I need a beat’ and nobody was ever asking me for beats like that. Like we were about to go to the studio later and he’d be asking if I could make something for him and I’d just be like ok…? Like really weird at first," said Knox, laughing as he reminisced on the early, awkward first meetings. "Meeting Vic was one of the big turning points in my life in a weird way because he also introduced me to everybody. He introduced me to Kene and Joey, I met Chance at Kids These Days show. I met Peter through Vic."

One of the important things of the early sessions Knox found himself in, and the aspects that has allowed the scene in Chicago to emerge as a wholly unique entity, is an motivation to create original works. It was while watching Cam O'Bi and CottonTale in L Peezy's original Music Garage studio back in 2013 that he began to truly understand what it meant to be a music producer. Having made such a realization around the time he began finding himself regularly working alongside the pair of SaveMoney members, it impacted how he approached the duo's upcoming project, SEASON and changed the way he viewed his role moving forward.

"I remember Cam and Vic working together and Cam would play a chord or something and then Vic would say ‘darker’ and he would just shift a finger and make it like that. I was just watching him interpret what somebody wants and creating it on the spot, he was literally producing a piece of music for this person and now I get it. It’s not just making beats, you don’t just make beats for people randomly. Its more than that, its helping to facilitate someone else’s idea."

The first idea Knox set out to facilitate was the collaborative project between SaveMoney rappers Joey Purp and KAMI (then Kami De Chukwu). As KAMI explained in our February cover story, the pair had been experimenting with various rhyme schemes and sounds, often mimicking what they heard popularized by major artists. In Knox, the duo found an open-minded ally fully understood in off-kilter production. Together, the trio spent much of 2013 traveling across the city from his half-finished basement in Wicker Park to the old THEMPeople studio on 18th street in Pilsen, crafting what would be the debut full-length from Leather Corduroys. For Knox, who served as executive producer, it was an affirmation of what he wanted to do with his life.

 
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"It stopped feeling like a hobby when I started going to Boog’s house down the street to do Season and I would be going there in like a snowstorm before Ubers and before I had taxi money or anything and I would get off at the UIC/Halsted Blue Line and walk to Boog’s in like a snowstorm because I was like ‘we need to finish this project’," Knox remembered. "When I met Joey and Kene I was like ‘these dudes are insanely gifted too and they actually want my help really badly so I’m like gonna work with them."

It was around that time that L Peezy's studio outgrew the crowded cornucopia of studios and practice spaces that is the Music Garage in the West Loop for a standalone building closer to the Loop. Needing a new sound engineer, Peezy turned to the kid who kept showing up with Vic and the guys. Sometimes serendipity can be as important as talent and money. For Knox, it meant a whole new world of possibilities that opened themselves as he got more comfortable behind the soundboard. With full-time access to a fully-outfitted studio and plenty of talented friends and artists directly in his periphery, Knox Fortune began working carefully in the background, helping to craft the sounds of the artists he'd come to know.

"I was like that person for everybody where I could hook you up with a session.  I was broke too but I had a place I could work at all the time and that just let me really experiment and like figure out like my vocal range and stuff like that," said Knox. "But it was dope, that’s really what forced artists into the studio with me, because I was the dude they had to call to make anything really, to just get in the studio so we were just like coworkers essentially.

Life began to move considerably faster after the release of SEASON on the first of January 2014. The studio now a multi-level, space hosting several studios had become like a finely-tuned factory. CottonTale in one room with Chance and the Social Experiment, Knox in another working with a rotation of artists from Mensa to Purp, KAMI, Towkio and whoever else happened to find the opportunity to book time. Sessions of course weren't confined to one room or the other and creative energy regularly flowed back and forth between the growing group of friends. 

 
 

Those endless sessions certainly proved fruitful and from it, Knox emerged as one of the more talked-about names on the scene, especially after the 2016 release of Purp's iiiDrops, which also credited him as executive producer. The interconnectivity of those sessions and the general community Knox found himself in eventually also led to his now-infamous falsetto-hook on "All Night", the third single off Chance's Coloring Book project. While used to the background dealings, his performance on the single now had people across the country wondering: "who is Knox Fortune?"

When we were working on iiiDrops I remember thinking that Joey is just so amazingly good at rapping that if I do a bad job on the production side of things then I’m doing a disservice to him and to everyone else who’s a fan. It made me step up my caliber.

"Its very different now. I have more expectations from people. Being a producer is kind of nice when you’re coming up because you give somebody a beat and if it doesn’t succeed its not the end of the world," said Knox. "But now its like half of me just wants to make hits because I have hits from last year with “Girls @“ and “All Night” and the craziest feeling ever was to hear my song on the radio. I hear it on the radio all the time now and its so crazy. The week the album came out I remember hearing it in cars passing by me all the time and just being like 'that's me! That's me!"

With his profile larger than ever and the release of both his solo work and KAMI's project, Just Like The Movies looming on the horizon, Knox Fortune is enjoying his fortuitous rise through the ranks of Chicago's contemporary scene, albeit so far from a perspective that has existed distinctly behind the scenes. With a steadily-growing name recognition across several genres and communities and a growing list of credits that count the likes of Mensa, Towkio, theMind and a growing list of talented acts local and not, that growth doesn't seem to be slowing any time soon as he prepares to debut the body of work he's been steadily crafting throughout the journey. The project itself is a passion project that sits distinctly outside the motifs that have driven his work currently available in the public spectrum. Trending closer to the up-tempo, dance-centric aesthetic of singles so far released off of KAMI's Just Like The Movies album, Knox is certain to prove the range of his abilities. Having teased the project over a year ago with his low-key release of the single "Seaglass", those who have been paying close attention are drooling over the possibilities of what's to come for Knox the same way they did in the long-awaited delivery of Noname's Telefone. While he may have set his foundation working from behind the scenes to help fellow artists realize their artistic goals, it may soon be his turn to take centerstage.

Regardless of where life takes him from here, Knox does so knowing he's paid his dues. While the recent accolades and notoriety are certainly welcome, it's not going to his head anytime soon. 

"[The goal] was not winning a Grammy. I thought I was going to like play baseball or something, I did not think I was going to be a musician or an artist or anything," Knox said, thinking back over everything that led him to this point. "It’s a very surreal. I think it’s amazing to be apart of something that a lot of people are celebrating. Chance’s win, it was bigger than just a win for him. For Chance it means so much more, but for all of us, that literally started our professional career. Not to say that I hadn’t started my professional career already, but that put everybody on this pedestal of like, amazingness, it really exposed a lot of people, it’s just crazy."