words by Alex Fruchter
photography by Andrew Zeiter and Bryan Allen Lamb
Editor's Note: Alexander “DJ RTC” Fruchter served as the editor-in-chief of Chicago hip-hop website and blog RubyHornet.com from 2008-2013, where he helped propel the careers of many of Chicago’s now nationally recognized artists. Since stepping down from the position at Ruby Hornet in February 2013, Fruchter has shifted his attention to Chicago indie rap label Closed Sessions, which he co-owns and operates with Soundscape Studios engineer Michael Kolar.
“Big Vic!” Vic Mensa laughs, finishing my sentence as I try to explain the transformation I’ve seen in him since we first met in 2009. “I went from ‘Lil’ Vic’ to ‘Kids These Days’ to ‘The Young King,’” he says, finishing the thought. It’s late December and the temperature in our hometown of Chicago has been stuck in the teens for days. In addition, it’s been snowing non-stop for the last 48-hours, creating a pretty miserable last few days of 2013. However, the 20 year-old Hyde Park native born Victor Mensah has the outlook of someone in Key West. “Weather forecasts are looking very sunny for the opening of 2014,” he continues, speaking with the tone and emphasis of someone who doesn’t always see sunny weather and has battle his fair share of storms.
If there’s one thing that shines through beyond Mensa’s pure skill at rhyming words together, it’s the contemplativeness of his songs, the heaviness that lays under dizzying rhyme schemes. This is a kid that thinks a lot about life, the ups and the downs. His voice carries a hopefulness and it’s been an attribute that has made him one of Chicago’s most endearing rappers. It’s a quality that helped land Vic’s recent solo project, Innanetape (released as a free mixtape in September of 2013, with a chunk of it being recorded and mixed at SoundScape Studios) on every hip-hop head’s end of year lists, and positioned him as a beloved emcee in the windy city.
“Music is an open book for me to write solutions to my problems,” he explains. “Getting the responses that I’ve gotten [to Innanetape] and also the things that are happening in my personal life… All of that shit has definitely been wonderful and put me in a different space than I was when I started.”
Roughly a year ago is when Vic started the earliest musings of the Innanetape. At that time he was the lead emcee in the 7-piece band, Kids These Days. The music started innocently enough as Vic experimenting with beats while killing time on buses, planes, and in hotel rooms on the road. He wasn’t sure how or when they would see the light of day. While the public saw Kids These Days on a crash course with stardom, internally the band was simply on a crash course, setting up a 12-month span in which Vic experienced quite a few stark contrasts.
He experienced the high of signing a record deal when Kids These Days signed with Universal. It didn’t last long as the band announced their split just after SXSW, before the ink was dry and luckily before the check cleared. By October though, Vic had inked another deal as Billboard published word that he signed a solo publishing deal with Sony and had joined The Agency, a top-tier booking agency.
Then, Vic was left off several “best rapper in Chicago” lists to visible and verbal disappointment. “They made a list about Chicago rappers and they skipped me,” he rapped in “Orange Soda”, the first single from Innanetape. Yet by year’s end Vic solidified himself as being an artist to watch by all the outlets sleeping on him previously. The long-awaited and dearly coveted INNANETAPE was named one of the year’s best mixtapes by outlets that ranged from the FakeShoreDrive to the Rolling Stone, and he has wowed the likes of MTV’s Sway Calloway and Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg with his remarkable freestyles and high performance during interviews.
“Life’s not bad. And I’m just trying to make it better,” Vic says, again with a sense of grounded realism.
I haven’t read all of them, but 99% of the articles and blog posts that I have read about Vic Mensa, make some mention to his relationship with Chance The Rapper. It appears that to the general population of Hip Hop fans, critics, pundits, and participants, after you get hip to Chance The Rapper, the next logical step is Vic Mensa.
From the moment I got this assignment I had some apprehension based on my desire to not write another –‘if you like Chance, check out Vic Mensa’ type of piece, the kind that I’ve read over and over again. I didn’t want to do anything that continued to seat Vic & Chance in some kind of line, taking turns, and having forever linked success.
It’s not that the two aren’t linked, they definitely are. They’ve known each for a long time, since they were both “freshmen n****as rapping,” as Chance spits on his record, “Prom Night," a gem from his debut 10 Day. But the Chance and Vic relationship is deeper than explored in by the most music blogs and magazines who tend to stay on the surface of this relationship without truly digging into the history of their relationship, or the greater purpose it has served within Chicago Hip Hop’s ongoing resurgence.
In fact, ask those that know, and you’ll find that it was really Vic Mensa who put on for the new generation of Chicago emcees. Vic released his first project, "Straight Up," at the age of 16. In doing so, he helped lead the way for folks like Rockie Fresh, and Chance The Rapper, both of whom achieved the solo spotlight on a national level while Vic was putting his solo career on hold for Kids These Days. Since 2009 my peers in the Chicago rap scene have demanded solo projects, but Vic remained deep in the Kids These Days zone. It is something that speaks to his loyalty and passion, if nothing else. “I’m all about the Kids,” he would always say.
Kids These Days formally broke up shortly after I resigned as editor of RubyHornet. The two events lining up made me feel a little bit more connected to Vic and enhanced my understanding of where he was coming from. It’s tough to lose yourself in any kind of relationship, project, job, and then seeing it end at an unexpected time. It’s especially tough when you let other opportunities or expressions take the back-burner. I’ve heard time and time again that Vic jagged (Chicago slang for screwing up) by staying so true to KTD, and that was the reason nobody was truly checking for him as an emcee, and why he wasn’t making any of the “best emcees” in Chicago lists.
“Not at all,” says producer Thelonious Martin after hearing the theory. “Kids These Days were on Conan, Coachella, touring and all that, it was the complete opposite of what everyone was getting drawn to, they had their own lane and it was unlike everyone else.” Martin, now 21, is part of the Save Money crew, a very talented collective that includes Vic Mensa, Chance The Rapper, Joey Purp and others. Martin has been working with Vic since both were in their late teens, and it’s said that the two have a fully done project that for some reason or another, just never got released.
“I think it helped,” Martin continues about Vic’s time in Kids These Days. "Anything we do as musicians, artists, and even people, are learning experiences we can take with us to apply in our future. Vic might be one of the most versatile rappers because of the band background, we may look back at this 15 years from now and be able to say this is what Black Thought would’ve been like if he left The Roots. Who knows, we shall see.”
Those are bold words, but judging from Chicago Hip Hop circles, they are not too far-fetched.
“He's only 20, so he has done a lot in a very short time,” says Naledge of Kidz In The Hall, and a person who played a huge role in Vic’s introduction to the local music scene after giving the young emcee an early co-sign. “I think the band helped him to see exactly what kind of performer he wanted to be and it helped him develop an ear for music.” The proof is in the pudding, in 2013 Vic’s live performance caught the attention of J. Cole, who brought Mensa out for several dates while touring with Wale.
“To be honest, I was begging Vic to go solo because I felt he didn't need the stigma of a band hindering the respect he should get as a lyricist. I think what he's doing now is long overdue. I think him seeing how fast Chance has blown up influenced his decision to strike on his own, but I don't think he's been passed up or slept on,” Naledge concludes.
Naledge also witnessed Vic’s leadership skills early on, and recognized that he was in fact paving a way for many of his Save Money brothers. “Oh, Vic was the most ‘prepared’ for stardom and he definitely made it easier for Chance to have an example to look at and to follow. He used to study Vic at KTD shows,” Naledge recalls. “When I first met Chance, he introduced himself as Vic's ‘little brother.’ I think that speaks volumes to the pecking order that Chance even felt he was in. Even still, Chance has amassed some milestones that you can't ignore and as a solo artist Vic hasn't yet reached that level buzz on his own.”
Naledge continues, “Notice I said "yet" though. I think it's similar to King Louie being the forefather of drill but not being as nationally known as Keef or Durk. Kidz in the Hall and the Cool Kids are largely responsible for inspiring guys like Chance, Rockie Fresh and Vic Mensa but Mikkey, Kanye and Lupe inspired us. Chicago is one of those places where skill is respected as much as fame by "real heads." People from all generations who heard Vic rap, know he has the ability to be our version of Nas. He's that good.”
I first met Vic in 2009 while hanging out at SoundScape Studio during a session with Naledge. Vic, who at the time was going by the name Lil’ Vic (with wild hair), came through as a guest. Naledge had just returned from heavy touring with Kidz In The Hall, and was using the success of KITH’s second LP, The In Crowd, to galvanize the scene through his collective of emcees, DJs, and miscellaneous artists known as Brainiac Society.
“I told Dre (Highlife) that I really wanted to have some younger energy around me and try to groom someone to be my artist,” Naledge reflects. “Vic came to the studio and freestyled for me. We recorded like 3 songs that day and I took him to the Curren$y concert. From that point on, he was just in the crew and we tried to push and promote him.”
That was a great time for new music, and still the infancy of this Chicago Hip Hop takeover. That Curren$y concert that Naledge is referring to was actually a party that featured Spitta [Curren$y] along with a young Mike Posner. It was the same weekend in which Curren$y recorded “Rapper Weed” (our first Closed Sessions release), and set in motion so many things. At that time, the Chicago landscape looked like a big family growing and eating together, a group of artists, business owners, promoters, all coming into their own. There’s a picture from that night of Naledge and Vic in the club, it’s crazy to look at it now and see the very early stages of such a promising career. For Naledge, there was never any doubt.
“I knew,” Naledge says. “I felt once he was given the space to create and create only, without school, he could be one of the greats to ever do it. He had a gift and he had a vibe that was well beyond his years. I mean all that is evident now, was evident then.”
Vic was in and out of the Closed Sessions studio regularly since March, when he put his full attention to the solo project. During one of the final mixing sessions for Innanetape’s “Lovely Day,” Vic reminisced about that first visit to the SoundScape Studio. “I ain’t gonna lie, I was so young and fresh-faced with it, I just had so many lyrics to do with it,” Vic says, contrasting his more calculated moves in 2013. “Right now, I’m so much more calculated with the shit I do. I spend a lot of my time crafting records, but at that point I was just trying to rap.”
It may sound odd, but that was kind of the general thinking at the time. Everybody was just “trying to rap” or “turn the corner for their recording studio” or “make money with a popular blog.” Chicago was still figuring out how to make things work, and Vic Mensa’s view of things can serve as a larger metaphor for the scene as a whole. Although he was much younger, Chicago Hip Hop didn’t look that much different through his eyes as it did to the rest of us.
“All that shit looked conquerable to me,” he tells me. “You know, everybody always describes Chicago as a city that doesn’t support itself. And n**gas always supported me. I kind of, in turn, am the same way. From a young age it all looked communal and it was a community that took care of itself. But also it looked conquerable as it does now and completely is.”
Vic is in full conquering mode right now. He is eating beats like Lil’ Wayne in 2007, and it stems from his ability to first conquer the negative feelings and frustration he experienced in 2013. Through his music, listeners can feel the kind of frustration that comes with the sacrifice of personal accolades for a group effort only to see the group break up. Vic lets his fans also see the frustration he felt when outlets he cared about didn’t appropriately recognize his talents, the talents he is so acutely aware of and have been putting right in front of their faces for years. Through his music, Vic allows listeners to know some of the hurt that comes from seeing your city pop the fuck off, and not being fully seen as a spark that lit the fire.
“I thought, 'I'm going to show everyone in the band what's really good.' I had to get past that. That's not necessarily the way to look at things, with a chip on my shoulder, vengeance. But I can't lie, I felt that,” he told Greg Kot in a feature that ran in the Chicago Tribune.
To the wider Hip Hop audience, Vic Mensa is the emcee that guest starred on Chance The Rapper’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” To other listeners, Vic is the former lead singer of that band Kids These Days. To Chicago’s Hip Hop community, he’s always been Vic Mensa, an incredibly ill emcee and trailblazer. By turning these setbacks into fuel, Vic cashed in the chip on his shoulder. Vic owned his frustrations and used them to spaz out on Sway In The Morning, be fierce in the Save Money Christmas freestyle, or slay bar after bar of Innaenetape. The mixtape was jam-packed with content, as Vic tried to squeeze as many words as possible into every line, burying listeners with syllables. “At that point it was just me trying to get out a lot that I wasn’t able to release in Kids These Days. I had to spit it out,” he says.
Making Innanetape, as well as personally overseeing every facet of its release from cover art to final mixes, definitely served as a cathartic process for Vic, and the accolades serve as a validation. It’s kind of a message from the universe that the pain wasn’t for nothing, that his faith wasn’t untrue. With Innanetape and his self-produced Free Wifi hats killing the game right now, Vic is finally receiving the praise outside of Chicago rap circles with outlets like The Fader, Complex, and Vibe along with cats such 9th Wonder, Ab-Soul, and Action Bronson all singing his praises
It’s also a validation for those of us in the Chicago Hip Hop scene that have been touting Vic since ’09 when he made older heads respect the new class or get out of the way. Simultaneously Vic showed his contemporaries (and their parents) that skipping school to pursue music wasn’t as scary as perceived. Now that the rest of the music world is catching on to Vic as not just a dope emcee, but a trendsetter, Vic is positioned to do great things. Whereas before he was just trying to rap, now he aims to become a “History Maker, the people in the history books,” he explains. “Van Gogh, Frieda Kahlo, people that stand the test of time. I’m not saying I’m Vincent Van Gogh of rap, but I’m Vic Mensa. I’m one of the people that’s going to go down in history for this shit.”
Just make sure the credit reads Vic Mensa. Big Vic.