Premiere • Defcee: Damn Near Grown

Artwork by Dewey Saunders

Artwork by Dewey Saunders

Rapper Defcee is a Chicago name that follows with a handful of adjectives and questions. Adjectives like talented, lyrical, throwback, conscious. Questions like, "Wasn't he featured on that one project?" and "When's he releasing his album?" To answer the first question: Defcee's been found on recent projects by SolarFive (of OnGaud), LA VanGogh, Rich Jones, Walkingshoe, and more. To answer the second question: today.

Because I didn't arrive on the Chicago scene until 2013, I had to find out about Defcee through guest features and word of mouth. His last project was released back in 2011, unless you count a four song "maxi single" from late last year. But that's not to say Defcee hasn't been working. When I met him and emailed him earlier this year, asking him to send me some unreleased stuff, he sent me four gigs of content; he's made 2014 and 2015 "best of" playlists (featured later in the article) to highlight all of the bars he's been writing and recording. He's been preparing his full-length Damn Near Grown since 2008, back when he was still a teenager. Now, a grown ass man with a grown ass job as a school teacher, Defcee's scrapped, rerecorded, shifted, altered, maneuvered, and continued to sculpt an album that he's proud to finally release to the public. 

Damn Near Grown

We are happy to premiere that album today. Damn Near Grown is a full-length LP that properly highlights the lyricism, storytelling, and ear for strong beats by Chicago's own Defcee. Featuring artists like Saba, Joseph Chilliams, Noname Gypsy, Benjamin Earl Turner, and more, this is a Windy City album where sharpened pencils and full notepads are necessary. Lyrical 'til the end, all thirteen of these songs demand multiple listens. 

Not only do we have the pleasure of premiering it for you today, but we also sat with the MC and talked about the album, why he took so long to release it, and what we can expect from the talent as we move into 2016.

How has 2015 been treating you?

2015’s been consistently good to great, rap-wise. I’ve been putting out a lot of songs myself, and a lot of songs I have verses on came out this year, too--some joints that I wrote and recorded years ago. It’s exposed me to a lot of new fans in a lot of different places, and that’s been beautiful. I also got the opportunity to share stages with some very talented artists because people looked out for me and put me on bills with them--Lamon Manuel and Tomorrow Kings especially--so I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable onstage again, which I wasn’t last year.

Three years ago, when I just had my nose to the grindstone eking out work that I wasn’t publicly releasing, making music was pretty stressful. I second-guessed myself and my abilities as a rapper quite a bit. Hindsight is 20/20, and now I can see that that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I was barely performing and releasing music, of course no one was going to know who I was or give me constructive criticism on how to improve. I’m fortunate that I have some pretty incredible family and friends in my corner who are brutally honest and encouraging about my work. It got me through last year, starting with the Timeless maxi-single, and momentum’s been even better this year. I’m thankful and fortunate for the opportunities I’ve gotten, and humbled that people took chances by lending me their platforms.

Life-wise, there have been extreme highs and lows, and some of those lows have been even worse than the ones I experienced last year, when I thought I was going through the toughest year of my life. One time, I took a flight from Denver to Aspen that was basically thirty minutes of the worst turbulence I’d ever experienced, and it felt like I was taking that flight for thirty or thirty-one straight days every other month in 2015.

The highs have been pretty fantastic, though. I'm in love and working my dream job, which are both pretty awesome, and my family and friends are succeeding with what they love, too. It's beautiful.

How long have you been working on Damn Near Grown?

Since 2008. It was going to be a concept album originally--in its earliest phase, it was called Nostalgia’s a Trip, and about what had changed since I’d gone away from college, taking place during a trip home to River Forest, where I grew up. Then it was going to be a different concept album called After Adam’s Gone, about what would happen to me if I hypothetically gave up rapping. Both of them were gonna include a lot of production from Klassik, a producer from Milwaukee I met when I was going to school at the University of Wisconsin. I also was working with Black Sunn, a producer from Baltimore, on an album that I wrote and recorded, but never put out due to me being really difficult to work with for the engineer. I was a head case back then, and felt entitled to a lot of free stuff, and it ended up biting me in the ass, as it should’ve.

A lot of songs I wrote in 2008 ended up getting changed or trashed. Only two of them ever got released--one’s called “The Way Home,” with Nena Galleta and produced by my dude DroP Beats, which I put out on The Panama Sessions EP I dropped in 2010, and the other was “Reasons Why” produced by Antonio Lara, which was the intro on Out From Under in 2011. But the first beat I picked was “Rakim Told Me,” in the same batch as “The Way Home” that DroP sent me back in 2008.

I recorded the majority of the album in 2012 and 2013 with Lamar “Jus Love” Smith, and included a handful of songs I did last year and this year on it right before I started post-production. It almost never came out, but I’m glad it’s finally in the world.

How would you describe the album to a stranger on the street?

It’s about the journey you’re on when you’re a nearly-fully-functioning adult, and the highs and lows you go through as a result of that journey, especially when doing something you loved for free before becomes something that you’re capable of doing as a line of work. There’s a lot of turbulence tied up in that phase of life for a lot of us, especially those of us who are artists, and I wanted to document it as honestly as I could.

It's also about the revelations you have about yourself and the world around you when you're going through adulthood.

I can also rap my ass off, which is what I’d tell the stranger on the street. Then they’d probably ask me to rap, which I would, for free, then they’d walk off before buying my CD. #raplife

You've had a handful of projects, but nothing since 2011. How have you grown throughout these past four years?

I’ve stopped complaining as much about being denied opportunities I felt I deserved without working for them. I’ve also stopped giving myself so many headaches worrying about whether my music fit the landscape of the Chicago scene as much--that kind of stuff only serves to distract me from my work. I’ve become more dependable and reliable for verses on other people’s songs, and when I feel self-centered enough to be jealous of someone else’s success, I kill that feeling by promoting their work. I’m not mad at people who I feel are undeserving of the praise they get, mainly because who cares how I feel about their music? It’s wasted emotion.

I’ve started listening to music without rapping in it, particularly from people like M&O, Janelle Monae, D’Angelo, Prince, and Radiohead, which has helped me figure out song structure better, as it’s my biggest weakness as an emcee. I learn by osmosis a lot, so there would be months that would go by without me ever having listened to a rap song, which was new. I’ve also learned to edit myself better by listening to guys like Ka and Roc Marciano, whose rhymes are dense but concise in ways I aspired to on Damn Near Grown. My style is really pared down compared to what it was when I was a kid, and I tried my best to make sure every line I had on this album was intentional. I also started listening to a lot of rap I hated when I was in high school and in my “mainstream sucks” phase of being a rap fan, and I learned a lot from that music, too. My flows are a lot more varied than they used to be, and I attribute that to what I was listening to as far as rap and jazz. I’m also reading a lot more, and if you read more you write better and more often.

The last thing I learned was how to pick beats that fit a coherent aesthetic for whatever music I was trying to make. I go through cycles of consumption and production frequently, and what I learned from studying so much music (and the back stories of how that music was made) was that a lot of artists and bands use the same equipment and session musicians for an entire album only after figuring out a direction they wanted to go in. In putting together the music I’m preparing for next year, I’m figuring out how to paint different shades of the same color for an entire project. It’s been challenging, but it’s helped me a lot. I used to just know how to write bars, but now I know how to craft an album, which is a really cool feeling.

Is it hard mixing time between being an MC and a school teacher?

From a pragmatic standpoint, of course. I have a job that sometimes requires me to work 50 hours a week, so that’s 50 hours I’m not able to record, mix, or perform. On the other hand, there’s a bit of flexibility with me being able to write on the job, because I teach spoken word poetry, so I have to write on the same prompts my students do so they know how to do their homework. I also have a computer and a bit of down time to be in front of it and promote the music. It’s my dream job, because I get to teach kids how to write raps and poems all day and after school, too. I still can’t believe I get paid to do it. It’s the only kind of time conflict I’d be okay with having, and it’s the same one I’ve had since 2012, when I started working with Young Chicago Authors for a couple of years. I’m very lucky.

What can we expect from you going into 2016?

A lot of music. I’m gonna try to avoid dropping more than five or six loose songs because there are--hopefully--going to be a lot more full-length projects, solo and collaborative, for people to sink their teeth into. It’s going to be really busy. 2017’s the tenth anniversary of my debut album, and I’ve got a lot of plans I want to execute by then.

Do you have any advice for artists working on their craft?

Research lists of classic works of art and learn from them, and remember that not all classic works of art are old as fuck. Ask people whose opinions you trust about which art you should consume. Create all the time. Find people who are going to be honest with you about when you suck, because then they’re going to be honest with you when you’re great. Remember that making music and the business of selling music are two separate fields, and that the little critic in the back of your head gets louder and louder when you mix the two too much. Enjoy your work. Tell your story in a way where no one else could possibly tell it like you. Read rap lyrics and free verse poetry and you’ll realize that what makes 'em great are often the same qualities. Don’t be afraid to show love or give opportunities to people who don’t have your platform yet, especially if they’re young and don’t yet have access to the same resources you have.

Any final words/thoughts/shout-outs?

I’m gonna save most of these for the thank-yous in the liner notes on Bandcamp, but huge shoutout to Lamar “Jus Love” Smith for sticking with me and producing this album so well for the duration of a very long process, especially since the mixing and mastering phase has had to come together so quickly. He’s brilliant at what he does, and doesn’t ask for very much to do it, even though he should. If I win the lottery, I’m gonna give him a percentage of it.

To Dewey Saunders, Rift Gardiner, and Aris Theotokatos for coming through in the clutch on the album art.  

To Tomorrow Kings, SkighMOB, and Pivot Gang, who are the music collectives that kept me going when I most wanted to quit. They all kept me in the studio and encouraged me when I really needed it, which is a rare kind of artistic community in rap.

Though I hate to end on such a somber note, I’ve lost a lot of people who were incredibly important to me in the past few years--my great-uncle Seymour Benson, John “Vietnam” Nguyen, Nakila Robinson, Gyron “Syfa” Webb, Brother Mike Hawkins, Hunter Coe, and Andrew “Phonetic ONE” Thomas. I love and miss them all incredibly, and I owe them the world.