New album ‘The Shoulder You Lean’ on finds Rich Doubling down on himself and his community
Sitting by the window, waiting on my jerk chicken to arrive, I spot Rich Jones before he spots me. Outside on the sidewalk, he’s wrapping up a conversation warmly. I try to gauge whether the man that he’s saying goodbye to is someone he’s known for years or someone he’s just met somewhere on his short walk from the blue line to the restaurant. I can’t call it. As far as I can see, Rich Jones treats nearly everyone that he comes across like a member of his extended family.
Rich’s official press bio refers to him as not only a prolific artist, but with the twin honorifics of “community figure” and “veteran of the cultural scene.” That both of these titles ring true, is a hard-won fact.
The Shoulder You Lean On, his latest release, finds Rich asking himself (and answering) some tough questions about his place as both a champion of the local scene, and as one of its more prominent members. Over the 22-minute runtime, Rich grapples with his motivations for making art: how to continue when your back is against the wall, and how leaning into love and art can provide refuge in tough times for yourself and others.
Rich Jones was born in the Old Irving Park area and, apart from a stint attending college in Wisconsin - a time where Rich still stresses that he had one foot (and his whole heart) back in Chicago - he’s never left the city for too long at any one time.
In his early teens, he was turned on to rap through giants like Biggie and Tupac, but almost immediately became aware of a local scene, simply because he went out looking for it. “I was like... ‘Who does this … here?” He remembers, “As soon as I realized there were people here working hard towards it, that excited me. After I went to my first show, I really liked how I could be in the same room with these people that, to me, basically had a superpower.”
His early success in the scene came with the group Second City Citizens, comprised of himself, Troy Boy, Swords the Ronin, and DJ Elliven. Desiring to hone their live performance skills without “bugging” local booking agents, they secured a monthly party at Tonic Room. Now, they had a regular opportunity to try out new material for an audience and to showcase other striving local artists. Eventually, Second City Citizens didn’t have the material to justify a monthly of their own, so Rich took the reigns and rebranded the party as All Smiles, now in its sixth year at Tonic Room. “I feel like those shows had a happier vibe, and I wanted to embrace and encourage that.” he explains.
The party has come to serve a purpose in expanding his scope to talent from outside the city - often providing a setting for their first Chicago show. “A lot of friends outside the city have crashed on my couch to play All Smiles.” he laughs. “But having that as a thing that I can provide people is huge - to show you a good side of Chicago, my side of it. If I book you, I genuinely like you. How you treat someone, hopefully they reciprocate.”
One suspects Rich’s career has been full of small reciprocal moments where someone he’s helped is there to affirm his aspirations just when he needs it most. He explains, “There’s the ‘What am I doing?’” moments and the moments that remind you exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
That outlook has resulted in a prolific body of work from a man who claims to be release-shy. Since 2011, there’ve been over 10 solo and collaborative projects released in total. There’s the de-facto debut, Sweater Weather, and the string of EP’s - Politely One Hundred, Callin’ Shots, and 3 Peat Vol 1 - that followed. The producer-driven Indian Summer, the tuneful but still hip-hop heavy Pigeons and Waffles and the introspective Pink Slips - a project inspired by a firing from a local coffee shop.
Along the way, out of a need to create his own schedule while pursuing life as a full-time artist, Rich began doing marketing work with an emphasis on wheatpasting and street-teaming. It’s an unconventional gig that’s given Rich an almanac-type understanding of the city, and it’s hard not to look at the act as a metaphor for his grassroots-level involvement in the scene. “It means a little more when it’s promoting an artist or idea that you care about.” he says” I’m appreciative of that opportunity to help get other’s art out there.”
2015 was the jump-off year where the artist that you hear on most of Shoulder You Lean On began to emerge. Rich tried to quell release anxieties that have always been present for him. “I like what I do and I want the maximum number of people to hear it. That can be hard to do in the internet age. You have to really get right with letting it go down how it has to.”
Holed up in Las Vegas with his friend, producer Ryan Lofty, he began recording with an emphasis on songwriting and commercialization. “Initially we began recording with the goal of making songs potentially to sell to somebody else, a more commercial approach to writing.” But Rich quickly found that making pop music as a singer was a new kind of labor of love, and he was enjoying the catchier, “hookwormy” stuff that came out of those sessions.
“IN TIMES LIKE THIS, YOU HAVE TO BE THERE FOR PEOPLE AND SHOW THEM THAT YOU GIVE A FUCK…”
Over the course of 18 months, Rich partook in a series of sessions with a simple rule - no rapping - and found a new side of himself emerging with the VEGAS EP , and his eventual most-popular song (the bouncy break-up jam “Everything”). Ironically, just as he was wrapping up his big “no rapping” project, he finished 2nd to Chance the Rapper in the Chicago Reader’s Best of Chicago 2016 poll in the category of Best Rapper.
Even with the mixed message from home, VEGAS and it’s release show were a career highlight and then his most accomplished performance, respectively - playing for the first time with a full band to an over-capacity crowd at Lincoln Hall.
The project that bridges the time between VEGAS and The Shoulder You Lean On, a four-track collaboration with Chicago-based producer Vapor Eyes, sees a brief return to Rapper Rich. It was one of those things, Rich says, where “you run into people and you say you should do something together. But we actually do it. I like to actually follow through on those.”
Though an impressive release in its own right, Light Work (as evidenced by its name) was thought of - even at its release - as a bit of a table setter for The Shoulder You Lean On, perhaps Rich’s most complete artist statement to date.
Gone are the smoothed-out edges, clear vocals and clean production of VEGAS and, in their place, a crunchy and almost uneasy disco groove (lended here by producer J.Kelr of the Blended Babies) for Rich’s effortless flow to contrast over, subdued and distorted.
The calmness Rich exudes over beats that suggest anxiety while still being danceable extends to the lyrical content as well. Dreaming, a single released with local virtuoso Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, finds Rich and Nnamdi attempting to keep their sense of wonder in turbulent times. It’s a theme further expanded upon by the album’s centerpiece, Drone Kids.
It’s a song Rich considers “not overtly political,” though he does think it encapsulates some of the uncertainty of where the country currently is. “In times like this, you have to be there for people and show them that you give a fuck...When the going gets tough, you gotta know who has your back.” He says. “Now is the time where we really have to be there for each other. If we stay disconnected and cut off, we’ll continue to see what we’re seeing. It’s an exhausting time to be alive, if you give a shit.”
The opener, “Coin Toss”, and its philosophical twin, “Step Into You”, provide the clearest look from Rich the Songwriter of where Rich the Person is in all of this. Each deals with the topic of relationships, specifically, of giving yourself over to one that feels mutually beneficial. “Coin Toss” finds Rich for the first time removing all doubt and refusing to play games of chance both in love and in art.
“The coulda/woulda/shouldas will drive you up a wall. At a certain point, you just have to trust-fall your potential.” he says. “There are the initial reasons you make music when you’re first getting started, and you try to stay connected to that place, but eventually you evolve. In making this album, I had really been thinking about the reasons that I make music and how to interact with the world around me, this project has really ran me through the ringer on that… Asking myself, “What’s the ‘why’ here?””
So what is the “why” for Rich? I asked him just ahead of the release of The Shoulder You Lean On, and the ensuing release show.
“The ‘why’ for me now is...this continues to be a phenomenal way for me to meet so many people and to make so many connections and, on top of that, to connect all those people behind me.” he says. “My dream scenario is to have everyone that I love in a room together and everyone’s having a good time. The more I can bring the people I love together, the better.”
That altruistic aspiration is the connective tissue between everything he does - as Rich the rapper-slash-singer, the community figure, the event organizer, the street team promoter. The album’s cover depicts someone just out of frame leaning on Rich’s shoulder. It’s a literal imagining of the album’s title, of course, and it appropriately gives you the sense that the person leaning on Rich could be anyone.
Imbued in the album, in Rich’s steadfastness and steadiness, is a reassuring force that’s just as much for Rich as it is for the listener. “I’m just trying to find my calm in all of this. And I hope that I can transmit some of that to other people.”