Defcee: The Teacher is Still Learning
Photography by Michael Salisbury
The old adage, “Those who can’t do, teach” doesn’t apply to Chicago rapper and teacher Defcee. As a longtime teacher and mentor at Young Chicago Authors, he has not only taught young, aspiring emcees how to improve on their technique, but he has also laid a blueprint to how to juggle hip-hop and a career outside of music.
Last December, Defcee released a vintage, early 2000s influenced mixtape, titled As God Intended Vol. 1. The 20-minute tape, released via local record label Machine Wash, was the rapper’s first project in three years. After putting out his Damn Near Grown album in December 2015, he took a step back from music to focus on school, teach at YCA, and reevaluate how to succeed as a musician. Damn Near Grown featured heavy involvement from Saba, Noname, and Joseph Chilliams, all of whom have since blown up both locally and nationally since 2015. And, while he’s happy for his friends’ successes, he said there were points in his younger days as an artist when he’d grow frustrated with not receiving the same support he’d show others in the music scene.
“That’s not a positive attitude, it’s not a realistic attitude,” Defcee said. “And just because I enjoy your music, you are not then obligated to enjoy my music or support it. Because at the end of the day, my friendship with you is what matters more than whether or not you support my music. And that’s kind of the conclusion I had come to as well. Just because I’m cool with somebody, or just because I’m friends with them, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to support what it is I do.”
In the three years between releasing Damn Near Grown and A Mixtape As God Intended, Defcee focused on personal matters outside of music, most notably getting engaged and earning his master’s degree in education. Like many independent musicians, he stressed out about play counts, social media presence, and other status-based aspects of the music industry. He said over the course of those three years, he had “an epiphany that rap was not going to be a full-time career” for him.
“As soon as I let all of that go and just focused on the music… at that point all of those things that I was worried about before started happening for me organically,” he said. “I’m working nearly 50 hours a week during the school year, like 10 hours a week doing graduate school, and I’m pursuing rap. So why am I concerning myself with this competitive edge?... So the last three years, a lot it too has been about developing natural, organic relationships with people… And focusing on making what I’m doing as good as it possibly can be.”
He came to this realization that he can both teach and pursue rap after getting advice from Philadelphia rapper Zilla Rocca, who explained that doing music full time is a difficult lifestyle to sustain. Defcee said the Philly emcee told him it’s possible to have a career and do music, but he needs to be disciplined with managing his time.
“He’s like an older dude, I think mid-to-late 30s, has a family, has a full-time gig, and has a relatively successful indie career,” Defcee said of Rocca. “He and I were texting about it, and he was like, ‘Look dude, if you have a full-time job, go do that. Do the rap stuff in your spare time, make sure you’re disciplined and scheduled about it.’ Cause he said if you’re going to be an independent rapper full time, you’re going to be chasing $13,000 a year, before taxes. You’re going to have to work for that $13,000 a year. And I like teaching. I’m in a job I enjoy doing.”
The rapper/teacher came into the back end of 2018 with a plan and a deep catalog of unreleased music. He decided that he could no longer take long breaks in between projects, so he mapped out a schedule of releases that will keep him on people’s radar and in their ears for the next couple of years. After years of sparse output, he has steadily been releasing new music and claims he has enough music to put out a new project every quarter through the end of 2020.
On June 25, Defcee put out his third release in six months, a 5-track EP called Summer Courses, which includes guest verses from Benjamin Earl Turner, Zilla Rocca, FrshWaters, and GreenSLLIME. The project originally began as a single song with five different knowsthetime beats, similar to “Five Courses” off of A Mixtape As God Intended Vol. 1. He put the song out in August 2018 but decided that the subject matter was too dense for a single, 6-minute track. So he decided to flesh out the single into a 5-track EP and recruit emcees to feature on the beats and re-release it on the first day of summer 2019.
Every song on Summer Courses is dedicated to a summer from Defcee’s life. The GreenSLLIME-featured “12” is inspired by the summer 2007, when he found out his high school friend was a victim of police brutality. “A Million Ways” is about summer 2015, when he moved in with his now-fiancée and “had to unlearn a lot of problematic behaviors that were not only negatively affecting myself, but our relationship as well.” He credits his fiancée for his recent musical breakthrough and calls her his “unofficial manager,” and his “number one fan in almost every way.”
“A lot of the epiphanies I talked about having in the past three years - a lot of them came from conversations I had with her where she was just honest with me, and that’s what I needed,” he said. “She was like the first person who made me realize, regardless of my talent, if I’m not putting in the work that these other people are putting in, there’s no point of being mad at anyone else but myself. So yeah, she’s a huge motivator for me. She’s a huge factor in why I do what I do.”