Stefan Ponce Looks To The Future


Words by Ray Mestad  •  Photos by Michael Salisbury


Stefan Ponce is always moving forward. The DJ, producer and father of two has developed a diversity of sound few can match and has an ear for hits of every variety. For those just getting familiar, Stefan has been integral to the Chicago hip-hop scene and what's been referred to as the renaissance since the scene's infancy. He’s not one to churn out music, lovingly producing every detail of his work. It’s that approach with which he’s building his new project titled The Boy Who Fell From Earth

Stefan is known equally for his always lush production and always bangin’ djing at his eponymous fiestas (Stefan Ponce & Friends), but primarily considers himself “a producer who also dj’s.” He’s not wrong in saying so. Though his name may often be seen locally in the form of his well known and highly praised DJ sets, his production credits are sterling. His hands have been on all sorts of already legendary projects like Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap and Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet, and memorable singles like Vic Mensa’s heavy “U Mad” and fan-favorite “Down On My Luck.” You never know where his music will go, and it always stands out.

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He’s fascinated by John Titor, (supposedly) hoax time traveler.  In the years 2000 - 2001 a forum poster claiming to be from the year 2036 under the pseudonym “Jon Titor” began producing descriptions and predictions of the future. He claimed to want to avoid catastophic events on the way, creating an alternate timeline. Think John Connor with a screen name. Consensus says it was a hoax, a War Of The Worlds-ish persona created by 2 brothers from Florida. However, there was  something about that sliver of unknown which captured the public mind, Stefan Ponce included. He understands the unlikeliness of it all, but the dueling aspects of human frailty and curiosity appeal. Jon Titor is merely one example of the Stefan's interest with the odd and unexplained. Whether alien abductions, time traveling, and anywhere in between, as Stefan puts it, “you’re batshit crazy bro, you’re insane, OR, you’ve seen some shit...you don’t know and that’s what’s fascinating.” 

Stefan is pursuing the unknown himself.  If he’s not pushing to his creativity’s farthest reaches, it’s not worth it.  And he’s on the verge of his own new territory with The Boy Who Fell From Earth. There is a collaborative aspect to the project, built alongside frequent collaborators Julian Bell, Micah Freeman and theMIND, who are more partners than features. They're also his best friends, and he credits them for intuitively understanding what he was going for even when he had trouble explaining. That's important, because the personal weight of The Boy Who Fell From Earth to Stefan is evident. Stefan’s been working on the project for 2 years now, full of ups and downs. For Stefan, The Boy Who Fell From Earth and music in general is an anchor, and always has been. Put simply,  “I make music with emotion. I make music how I feel. I can’t just grab a computer and say, ‘I’m gonna make you a hot beat’, that’s not how I work. That’s probably why it takes me a long time to make shit now...that’s my formula where I think some people connect with the music.”

I make music with emotion. I make music how I feel. I can’t just grab a computer and say, ‘I’m gonna make you a hot beat’, that’s not how I work

 
 

Stefan Ponce feels these emotions acutely. He recently suffered what he describes as a nervous break and spent a week in a nearby mental hospital. He speaks about his stay, and what got him through it, with candor. It was a traumatizing experience, but music remained. Stefan counts himself lucky, as “not a lot of people have that, none of those people had that shit there...I was talking about music in the hospital, talk to my friends, ‘ok, we gotta finish this song’. It’s all I can really think about. When you’re in a mental hospital and you’re a creative person, it’s like taking away your tools. I couldn’t do anything. The only thing I could do was write.” 

He wasn’t able to make the music, but made due having it on the mind. Far from a studio, holding onto his creativity was his best bet for getting through the stay. It didn’t really matter what it was, “I wrote a lot, I wrote poems, I wrote stories, I wrote scripts…” Stefan speaks of all this with collected confidence. Like his striking presence when his shock of orange hair enters the vicinity, he is both shy and not afraid of making himself known. He displays the hard earned confidence of someone who had to teach it to themselves (he mentions early on, “I’m a nerd, but women love me”). In fact, it seemed I was more nervous talking about his experience than he was. He tells an anecdote and jokes about how “during the day, one of the technicians would play soul music, these samples basically. I’m writing it down, not knowing the song, just writing the lyrics. I haven’t went back and listened to it because I’m afraid I’ll listen to it and go “OH MY GOD.” It’s not behind him, but he’s able to keep some levity with the situation.


 
 

Coming off that distressing experience hasn’t been an easy transition, but he’s getting through it. “I’ve been out of the mental hospital for three weeks now and I haven’t made a beat since. It’s just a lot of traumatic things, I have nightmares about it every day. It wasn’t necessarily the best place for me but it was the place I needed to be in for the moment...the first thing I did when I got out is call my publicist to have them put “Super Star” out.”

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The Boy Who Fell From Earth, primarily recorded before this went down, played its role in Stefan’s return. The album is a dedication to those who feel out of place, ”...it’s about like, where the fuck is home? Where the fuck you think home is, you can have a house but is it still your home? The Boy Who Fell From Earth is really about that, you’re from Earth, you belong here..This album helped me find a little bit of myself, which is why I named it that. I found where I belong.” It will be a departure from some of his more famous work that lit up the nightlife, and he says it’s not even really a hip hop album. 

Every track takes a different and unconventional piece of Stefan. Much like Jon Titor, Stefan wants to be timeless - “there’s songs you probably could dance to, but no...I didn’t want to do programmed, electronic drums. I feel like it would have taken away from the message I wanted to give…I wanted to make songs like Stevie Wonder or Michael, in the vein of those things. Where I could go back and hear these songs and not tell what time it is. Some of these songs I’ve been working on 2 years and I’m still not bored of them yet.” He’s going for the universal. Also of note, The Boy Who Fell From Earth will be part of a trilogy. And as one for the fans who will be thirsting for more traditional hip-hop, Stefan will be producing a straight rap album named after, you guessed it...Jon Titor.

Stefan is also finding enjoyment in djing again. He had tired of it for a while, partially due to the producer vs dj distinction, and people forgetting where his true talents lie. But upon his return, the process of djing, particularly the discipline behind it, offered a sense of satisfaction to Stefan. “I’m trying to gather myself back, and I slowly am doing so...now I’m getting in the comfort of djing, because djing now is therapeutic for me, you know. I only do it so much out of the month because I want it that way, but it’s become therapeutic. It isn’t a job for me anymore. Right now I’m doing it for fun...I’m learning to love the time it takes to dj, the effort it is...being in the headspace.”

Most importantly, Stefan has his sons, who he cares about deeply. The Boy Who Fell From Earth is in part dedicated to them, and the album art features his first born son. Elements of the album are a statement and roadmap to his sons for handling what life throws at them. “There’s a song that I have. It’s called “Island Of Many Hills”. You look up what “Island Of Many Hills” is, you find that it’s my son’s name. At the end of the song, it’s me and my son talking. The song’s for him, dedicated to him...the song is about that (self-confidence), telling my son you can do whatever you want.” They’re what drives him more than anything, what connects him to his emotions and the world more than anything. 

Some of these songs I’ve been working on 2 years and I’m still not bored of them yet

The Boy Who Fell From Earth will be with us soon, a project sure to impress. All Stefan asks is that you listen to it. At one point, he would have cared a lot about critical or commercial acclaim for the album. But the making of it has already given so much to him, he just wants to share it with friends, family, and fans everywhere. “I just want people to hear it, I don’t give a fuck. I just want people to hear it, that’s my only goal. If everybody in this car hears it, I’m happy for the next day. If a two year old hears the song “Island Of Many Hills” and dances, that is the job. I don’t care about anything else, I just want people to hear the album, that’s all I give a fuck about.” Like a young John Titor, Stefan wants the world to know what he’s seen, what he's done, where he is going, leaving an ageless piece of himself behind. All that’s left for Stefan is to drop The Boy Who Fell From Earth, then it’s off into the unknown.

 
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