words by Eamon Whalen
photography by Bryan Allen Lamb
“Like Dr. Manhattan, from Watchmen,” says Stefan Ponce matter-of-factly explaining the graphic-novel inspiration for his 10-month-old son’s name, Manhattan. As a touring DJ and producer for rappers Childish Gambino, Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper, the eccentric Ponce hasn’t had a whole lot of time to be in Chicago with his first born.
“I’ve maybe slept in my bed here like 70 times,” he says standing on the porch of the house he and Manhattan’s mother, actress Chante Linwood share in Northwest Chicago. He left for a tour three weeks after his son was born and has since been home only intermittently, touring extensively as each artist he works with continues their rise.
Ponce speaks freely and passionately, zig-zagging his way through conversation. After I comment on his extensive collection of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s work, he launches into a story about “Donald” [Childish Gambino] getting too high and walking out of Miyazaki’s latest film - The Wind Rises on a day off during their last tour. He then expresses his love for directors Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Billy Cunningham, comments on his ten-year long commitment to vegetarianism (“I just don’t think it’s right to eat another animal”) and explains his cultural identity (“I’m the most non-traditional Mexican of all time”).
Like many-a 21st century producer Ponce got his start programming loops in GarageBand. Then, as a 15-year old he accidentally dropped a Bee Gees song into the Mac software and stumbled upon sampling. “I remember chopping it up,” he says humming the rhythm intently. “I made a drum pattern over it and I was like, ‘Oh my god this is the hottest shit ever!’ I remember walking around my parents apartment like, ‘this is so hot!’ From that point on it was basically history for the 24-year-old. “I don’t know who I was in my past life. I wish I knew, man. It’s so genuine. I wish I had another talent, that I could like engineer to Mars or something. I really only know music.”
Two of Ponce’s most noteworthy songs, Vic Mensa’s “Down On My Luck” and Chance The Rapper’s “Good Ass Intro” incorporate elements of Chicago-birthed genres House and Juke. “I think there’s things about Chicago that no one really understands,” the product of the west side neighborhood Wicker Park (then-ungentrified, he makes sure to note) says, referring to vibrancy of the once-underground music scenes. “We have such a good place to create extremely talented people.”
In a small basement room lies his home-studio, where Ponce likes to make music on his own time, which more often than not includes Manhattan at his side. As he plays a few notes on the piano and Manhattan toys with a drum machine on the floor, Ponce speaks of upcoming plans: a strictly House album, a more traditional “for the fans” hip hop production album, and, though he’s tempted by the thought of moving to Los Angeles, a Chicago-centric record label. “I just want to show them that you can really do a lot,” he says, projecting his career as a model for his future signees. “Because in a short year of time I’ve done a great amount and I’m like man this is only the beginning!” he exclaims with a youthful glee. But what Ponce says next strikes as altogether fatherly. “If I can get a kid to broaden their mind, then I’m doing my job.”