An Interview with Phoelix, the Chicago Newcomer Helping Shape The City's Sound

 

words by Eamon Whalen

 

Out of all the essential music that came out in 2016, one of the songs that I find myself returning to is “Shadow Man,” the closing track from the Chicago rapper Noname’s debut, Telefone EP. Featuring guest verses from Saba and Smino, “Shadow Man,” is a song about ancestral heritage and the collective trauma that flows through generations. It’s a song that forces the listener to grapple with the fact that Black kids are forced to grapple with their own mortality before they even turn twenty-five. It’s a song about imagining your own funeral, custom fit with a Kanye West-delivered eulogy and a satin-lined coffin, soundtracked by Metro ‘Boomin, made with the energy of youth and the wisdom of age. It’s a song that might haunt you for days on end, but a song that shines so bright you can practically see it sparkle through your speakers. One might go as far to say it’s a sacred song; a song fit for church. 

It should come as no surprise then that one of the architects of “Shadow Man,” and one of the voices in the chorus that carries throughout the song –– the producer and vocalist Phoelix –– was raised in the church by a pastor father and a choir director mother. Hailing from Aurora, a suburb in the Fox Valley about an hour outside of Chicago, Phoelix is a relatively new name to those with an eye on Chicago’s rap scene. But in 2016 he was omnipresent on the tracklists of both Telefone and Saba’s Bucket List, serving as the executive producer of both, as well as playing live bass for Smino and keys for the singer Eryn Allen Kane, respectively. 

Initially, coming from the suburbs into Chicago and brushing shoulders with established, Chance The Rapper-adjacent artists like Noname, Saba, and the producer Cam O’bi, Phoelix was reticent in studio sessions. But in a testament to the way comfort can beget creativity, the friendlier he became with the crew, the better the music became. Like “Shadow Man,” Phoelix's sound is warm and soothing, a combination of mellow keys, drunken bass lines and swinging jazzy drum-kits. 

Though he’s content to play the background and shape the sounds of his peers, Phoelix plans on releasing a solo rapping and singing project in 2017. In what may be a preview of things to come, his soundcloud sports a year-old solo project of warped, hymnal R&B called ingénu. While on a tour-stop in Los Angeles with Allen Kane, Phoelix spoke with Greenroom about his childhood in the church, growing up Black in Chicago's suburbs, finding his niche in the city, and how making “Shadow Man” was one of the best experiences of his life. 

Greenroom: How did music enter your life, how’d you get your start?

Phoelix: "The church. My mom grew up singing in, and then directing the choir, and my dad played bass before he became a pastor. I was always involved with church in some way –– in the choir, watching the older musicians playing, then playing when I got to that age. I’ve never not been around music in some way. All my mom's brothers and sisters can sing, play guitar or play some other instrument. A lot of my dad’s family plays guitar or sings. My brother plays drums, my older brother plays guitar. I started playing drums when I was like 3. My dad got us all drums, and we had a drumset in our basement and we all would take turns practicing little grooves and fills. I just kind of stuck with it, then at like 5 or 6, I picked up keys. That really carried me through the rest of my life. I started playing bass when I was in high school, like my senior year. I wanted to start playing bass [because] it’s just a different feel."

 

GR: What kind of music was played around your house? Was there any hip hop?

PH: "A lot of gospel and a lot of old funk, a lot of Bootsy Collins, a lot of George Clinton, a lot of Earth, Wind and Fire. My mom is a huge Motown person so a lot of Temptations and of course Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson. I got into Prince early too. Then a lot of Jazz, a lot of Miles Davis, just the classic jazz and that kind of stuff. My mom really educated us on music early, even some Spanish music and even some Frank Zappa. My uncle Ray White, my dad’s brother, actually played with Frank Zappa back in the 70’s. My older brothers played Kanye and Pharrell and N.E.R.D. when I was younger. So, I always heard it, but I never really got those CDs because I would get like, the Michael Jackson Invincible album, or an Usher album or some other R&B stuff. But I never really got the rap stuff until I could buy it myself. I was really into Jay-Z, the Black Album." 

 

GR: Tell me about Fox Valley, where you’re from.

PH: "The Fox Valley is like a combination of different cities. Batavia , Aurora, Oswego, Naperville, St. Charles –– those are like Fox Valley areas. Aurora, where I live is like an hour outside of Chicago. I grew up in a white neighborhood. I had two black friends and my little brother who I hung out with in my neighborhood and that was pretty much it. We would go to school and not get made fun of, but ridiculed like we were out of place. We always felt like we were out of place and we didn’t belong where we were at. We always tried to make these little escapes. Like we had this little fort behind my house where we would go to and have our own little world just to get away from all the bullshit. 

But, on the flip side we would go to the city and the city kids would make us feel we weren’t really black because we weren’t from the city. Like we don’t have to worry about getting shot. But now you see it doesn’t matter where you’re at. If you’re black and in a white neighborhood you’re equally, if not more, at risk of being killed, or shot, or hurt, or arrested than you are in a Black neighborhood. But those are the struggles that we dealt with, in that we have no place we could really call home because on every side everybody is making you feel out of place. So, you have create your own little world for yourself to live in and be comfortable. That’s what we’re doing now." 

GR: What was your relationship with Chicago growing up? 

PH: "When I was a kid, thinking of Chicago was like thinking about the Wizard of Oz, when they was coming down the yellow brick road and they could see Oz from way far away. That’s how Chicago was to us. It was like this super distant dreamland that we didn’t really know about but we kind of heard about it. You just kind of wanted to figure out a way to get there." 

 

GR: How’d you find your way to Chicago? Was it immediately after high school?

PH: "In high school I was super into music but I was also super into sports. I went to college for music and basketball. I ended up having to choose between the two because of the time conflict, and I ended up choosing music. I went to Olivet Nazarene University for like 2 years, then I end up coming home from a full scholarship. I was producing then, I was trying sampling a little bit. I was using a lot of the Jazz beats they were trying to get us to learn and I would sample ‘em, chop ‘em, and cut ‘em and try to make beats out them. I was just making beats to make them.

When I came back from college after my second year, my cousin had some friends from his school he was hanging out with. We put a band together called The Art of Cool and we had a little two year run. Towards the end of that run, we moved to Chicago and we lived in Hyde Park for maybe a year and that’s when we started to get active in Chicago, with people in different venues and different artists and it kept building from there. After we split up a lot of us still lived in the city. It always felt like home for us and we didn’t want to go back to the suburbs." 

 

GR: How did you link up with Noname and Saba? 

PH: "I met Saba first. I met him through the drummer Ralph Gene. We were on tour, a little more than a year ago now. It was a bad situation, so we went out and got super drunk one night, came back like, ‘man, fuck this we got to do something about this, we not suppose to be doing this weak ass shit.’ Ralph Gene was like, ‘Man, Saba is suppose to have a show next month, like in November.’ So, we get back from that tour and we go to rehearsal and I meet Saba. Apparently after that Saba was like, ‘Who is the Phoelix guy? I want to get up with him, I want to click with him.’ And at the show I met NoName and Smino the same day. Smino was in this super red jumpsuit on some real St. Louis shit, it was hilarious. Noname was really nice, she kind of caught me off guard. I didn’t expect her to be so approachable. I was hanging out with Saba after that and we made beats for like months before I tried to rap or sing a hook or anything like that. NoName would just be at his house and we all would be hanging out, that’s when it all kind of started forming. That was like November of last year. After that show we would pretty much be in Saba’s basement everyday from then on." 

GR: How did you get to the point where they wanted you to be an executive producer for  their projects and really be a part of their team so to speak?

PH: "It just kind of happened. We were always together and always making music so they were into what I was doing and just invited me to come along to Los Angeles last June. A big part of it was that we actually became friends. It wasn’t strictly professional, we were really friends. Those are some of my best friends. We built a relationship through music but even outside of music we can just hang out and talk and not worry about what we’re going to do that day, or if we’re going to make music. We’re just chilling. It really became a friendship between all of us and I think that’s what makes it a lot easier to work together."

 

GR: So tell me about the trip to LA with Saba and Noname. What was the daily routine?

PH: "When we got to the Air BnB, we knew it was going to be an incredible month. Every day we would wake up, I would make breakfast, and we would just talk about whatever we were feeling. Then me and Saba would start making a beat, then we would start writing. That was just an everyday, all-day thing. We would find places, and find ways to get out of the house every now and then, just to step away and create some balance. But most of the time we were just locked in there. Cam O’bi came with us too. It changed my life completely and my whole perspective on music, talent, and all that."

GR: What was so significant about it? 

PH: "I feel I’ve always worked hard and put in a lot of time and hours, but this was more the process of learning how to trust yourself and trust your creative process and not doubt yourself. There were a lot of times where I would second guess myself and ideas I’ve had and Saba would be like, ‘You’re tripping bro, go crazy. Don’t ever second guess yourself.’ It’s about trusting your instinct and your natural ability to do what you know you do. That was the big thing for me. Everyone’s been really encouraging me, because I’m kind of the new guy. I was really shy, I still am. If you ask me to sing on the spot, I probably won’t do it because I’m too shy. But really it was Saba, Noname, Smino, and all these people helping me build confidence in myself that I can harmonize, that I can do these things with my voice. They’d just put me on the spot like, ‘Okay, go get in the booth and do some cold shit.’ They’re why I do a lot of singing now and a lot of rapping now. I started taking it serious because they believed in me."

 

GR: When you’re producing for someone, say like Saba and NoName, how are you approaching their records knowing their differences as artists?

PH: "As a producer you have to cater to the artist you’re working for. Like, if I’m making a beat for Smino, I’m not gonna try and make it sound the same if I’m making a beat for Noname. It’s less about how they rap and sound but more who they are as people. I’m very keen on knowing the artist I work with on a personal level. It makes it easier to be able to create and speak their language in a sense. I’m really big on that. I think about Yesterday, the opening song on Telefone. To me that tells a lot about NoName as a person. She’s very warm, very soft spoken, but still speaking in a very powerful way and very influential way. As soft and as warm her voice is, it still carries a lot of weight to it. When she talks, people listen. In contrast to a Smino song, Smino is jokey and goofy but will also say some very real shit in a playful way. So the approach will be sporadic and fun and exciting and energetic but still have that same seriousness to it. And with Saba, he’s more Westside in a very hard, straight-up rap kind of way." 

GR: Is there a song on either Bucket List or Telefone where you especially enjoyed the process?

PH: "Making Shadow Man was one of the most legendary days in my entire life. That was the day I met Cam. I talked to him before that on the phone and I was hella excited like damn you know who I am. I was in the studio with Saba, NoName, Monte, Smino, Cam, and the engineer Elton was in there. They were in the room and everyone was writing and talking and I was in there like the new guy. Like, I’m from the suburbs, not even the city and you guys are these raw artists and producers and I’m just in here chilling. Then Saba was like, ‘Yo, let him go crazy.’ So I just went in the booth and everyone left went to do other stuff. I put some vocals down and everyone came back like, ‘Oh, shit that’s raw as hell! Oh shit, oh shit!’ It just felt so good. It was such a great feeling to watch everybody write these verses down back to back to back and then be able to go do what I do. Later on, me and Cam stayed up that night and I laid a bunch of piano and organ, and some scratch drums, then I put some bass on it then it basically became what it was. That whole day was just inspiring."

 

GR: Shadow Man definitely has a gospel vibe to it. Growing up in the church, what is your relationship with religion and spirituality now? What do you think of people like Mick and Chance injecting themes of Christianity it into their music?

PH: "Religion and spirituality are two completely different things. American religion is not spiritual, American religion is political. I respect it for what it is. I’m not gonna denounce it publicly, I’m not going to denounce it at all. I consider myself to be a very spiritual person, I believe in God. I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in all those things and the teachings that he did. But I don’t consider myself to be a religious person because those things have been tarnished, they’re man made and they have taken out a lot of things that an actual Christian, an actual believer in God is. So, a lot of those things I can’t agree with because they’re not accurate to what God says and what we’re actually supposed to be doing as Christians. I’m a very spiritual person. I’m very connected with God through the Holy Spirit. I love the fact that Chance is talking about God –– ‘are you ready for your blessing,’ is great. Mick too. Same way. I respect it. I think it’s cool as long as the quality of music isn’t tarnished."