Chicago Renaissance Continued: Meet The City’s Next Wave Of Musicians

As The Clock Neared Midnight On December 31, 2016 Kaina Castillo, Clutching A Microphone In One Hand And Bottle Of Champagne In The Other, Led A Packed Room  As She Counted Down The Final Moments To The New Year…

To her right was a set of fresh-faced twins named Eddie and IZ, emphatically jumping up and down with the passing seconds. To her left, horn players Sen Morimoto and Sam Veren urged the crowd before them as the countdown hit three, and then two. A moment later, the whole group stood under a shower of bubbling champagne as Castillo exclaimed “Happy New Year,” popping the cork from the bottle in the process. As the suds rained down on the group of young friends from the ceiling, it was immediately evident that 2017 would have plenty in store for the central figures in what’s quickly becoming the next wave of Chicago music.

MAS_6609Since about 2012, the community of artistry here in the middle of the country has proven a unique ability to affect the larger context of music. This synergetic group has achieved its far spreading influence through a variety of well-informed sounds and aesthetics that, a the same time, complement and diverge from one another. Each year since has seen a new wave step up to prove themselves on the biggest of stages. That first year brought us the Drill movement featuring the likes of Chief Keef, King Louie, Lil Durk and a long list of names with and without steady staying power. 2013 saw the emergence of more eclectic acts like Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa while 2014 saw the initial introduction of artists that would follow that open door like Mick Jenkins, Saba, NoName among others. 2015 was a year of development that saw the further growth of that class, while subsequently rolling out long-anticipated projects from Eryn Allen Kane, Smino and Towkio. With one act after another finding their way to the forefront of the music scene at large, a sort of larger family structure emerged through the confluence of late night sessions, packed Stix Jam Nights, careful mentorship and plenty of practice. One of the most lauded decisions by Chance and the class of artists he represents has been the collective decision to stay in Chicago to create. By doing so, the artists at the top of the game currently have been sowing the seeds of the next wave to push the city’s creativity forward even further than those who came before them.

While the first few classes to come through the city during it’s most recent chapter have been largely contemporaries of the same age, this latest contingent represents the realization of the prior’s influence. In much the way Chano has taken clues from artists like Kanye on his way upwards, Eddie and IZ’s father, Stephen taught Nico Segal and Will Miller the trumpet, Kaina learned the keys from Peter CottonTale, Eddie got tips on the drums from Stix and Ric’s raps come greatly influenced by the after-school poetry programs led by Kevin Coval and Jamila Woods. Together, that particular collection of influences has largely paced the scene we enjoy today. While the oversight from those to walk the path has been evident, this latest collection of artists and musicians appear intent on making it on their own, by following the tenants of what has made the scene what it is today. Four years ago when Acid Rap was released, Kaina and Ric were seniors in high school while Eddie & IZ were just wrapping middle school and the influence of seeing those ahead of them make it to the biggest stages available has certainly made a difference in how they and the ever-growing collective of talented fresh faces approached their work when their turn finally came.

MAS_6611“It’s an honor and a privilege that we have people to observe, you know what I’m saying? If we were just doing this from scratch I don’t even know what that would look like,” said Castillo during a recent interview. “It’s nice to have a system to be like ‘oh this is what they did’ or have mentors that have been close to that and be like ‘oh this is what they did, you can do this’. Like I said, I think it’s mostly like a privilege of living in Chicago, it’s like there’s no industry here but we have those systems, we’ve had those folks go before and now we know what it looks like. It’s easier for artists here to look at something and understand exactly what it is.”

The talent that permeates from Wilson at the front of the stage to the layered horn section of Veren, Morimoto and Sam Veren alongside IZ to the sinewy, seemingly effortless vocals of Paige Pohlad and finds it’s way full circle with the soulful stylings of Kamaria Woods, younger sister of Jamila, and the carefully-assigned vocals of Lucy Hartman. The collective operates as a seamless machine, constantly nodding to their quick predecessors with the arrangement of horn lines to the sentiment of the lyrics in Castillo’s songwriting. It’s the continuance of a sound, a culture, a community that has uniquely grown, evolved and developed over the course of the last five years into a streamlined incubator system that any label head would kill to emulate under a capitalistic banner. The drive pushing the music forward for this generation comes not from a want for fame or riches, but rather from an innate understanding of the power of the music they create and the responsibility to uphold continue the movement that was started years ago and currently shows little signs of letting up.

“It’s almost like me, Kaina and the Burns Twins are like a collective with no name. I was just thinking about that the other day and I think it’s just because we all want to see each other do the best we can possibly do and I think that’s why it works so perfectly. No one’s really hating on each other, everyone is like straight up trying to help each other and that’s pretty much it,” said Ric Wilson.

MAS_6566Six years ago I found myself sweating through my t-shirt in a park adjacent to the University of Illinois-Chicago waiting for a group of teenagers touted as the next big thing in Chicago finished a sound-check. That was 2012’s Spark in the Park and the band was Kids These Days, the vaunted Voltron that spawned many of our favorite acts today, among them Vic Mensa, The Social Experiment, Ohmme, and Marrow. In the years that followed I often wondered where that next spark would come from, who would push the kids forward again? That question seemed to be answered upon meeting the Burns Twins this summer at a Mexican restaurant in Pilsen. With a background and understanding that speaks both to the past and impending future, the pair of 18-year-old musicians appear uniquely suited to take on the task.

The brothers possess all the trappings and stereotypes of twin siblings. Eddie is the comfortable star, enjoying his first full year side-stepping college. The wild-haired, sleepy-eyed teen often appears aloof in his own thoughts, his commonly-worn striped joggers often clashing with whatever else has been assembled. Seemingly always groggy from late nights practicing, the young drummer has raised eyebrows in even the most talented of rooms with his free-wheeling process which led him to handling the backing duties for the likes of The O’My’s, Malcolm London and Wilson. Meanwhile, Isaac, better known as IZ, is the somewhat steadying presence between them. He just returned from an experimental semester at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. Following very much in his father’s footsteps, he possesses a handle of the trumpet that is years beyond his age and has emerged as the latest in a brass-lineage that is becoming increasingly illustrious and appears well-heeled to assert himself to his place in the greater picture. Whereas Eddie is often the easily out-there one, IZ, who produced Eddie before putting his trumpet where his head was, talks often of the business side of the music and seems to understand the position he and his brother have found themselves in.

MAS_6633“When I went to school I’d be talking to my friends and they got tired of this shit, but I just gotta learn the business of the music. Like I was standing with Eric, Carter and Marcus and we were talking literally the business aspect and the efficiency of making music and how to do it and Carter told us something that completely changed the way we make music in like five minutes,” said IZ on a break home over Thanksgiving break. “These people who are around us are showing us different ways of doing things, this is how you can go about this and the model of not signing and making your music yours has been something we’ve really been focusing on.”

To be sure, Eddie and IZ’s place in the larger context of the Chicago Renaissance has been in place for some time. While IZ follows in the lineage of his father and Segal & Miller, Eddie has found a home in percussion and learned the nuances of drumming by taking lessons from Greg “Stix” Landfair. It’s undeniable that the influence of groups like KTD and The O’My’s, who subsequently took the brothers under their wing, have proven to be a huge catalyst in the musical development and understanding.

True to the spirit of those influences and those who came before them, the brothers have dived into the local scene headfirst. Since graduating from Parker High School last May, which counts Maceo Haymes as an alumnus, Eddie and IZ have appeared on a myriad of stages big and small. Together and solo they have rarely said no to a gig whether it be as their own project, The Burns Twins or playing the support role for acts like London, The O’My’s and Wilson when he performed at last year’s North Coast Music Festival. Through it all, they’ve maintained the mentality instilled similarly in acts like those pacing the Social Experiment and serve as an appropriate loop to segue to the next up.

In the simplest of terms, the two brothers are perfectly suited to anchor the next wave.

MAS_6620“Greg Landfair pretty much taught me most of what I know, definitely shaped me stylistically so it’s just been incredible seeing them be successful through Kids These Days, watching them break up and  keep going and never really stop and that’s just really inspiring and they’ve just been so kind to bring me and my brother along to rehearsals and sessions and be like older brothers to us, it’s just been incredible to experience first hand,” said Eddie. “I’d love to carry the torch. I love that the music that I make makes me feel good and that it makes other people feel good so why not spread that kind of love? I don’t know if it’s a full responsibility but at this point in time with everything going on in the world I think as an artist I have an immense responsibility to spread love and eliminate all that hate, so I guess I do feel a responsibility to that.

While the ties that bind the Burns Twins to the current crop of top-level talent in the city might be somewhat obvious from the outside looking in, the other players in the new wave approached the scene from a more round-about way. To be sure, Kaina Castillo has been preparing for centerstage her for a long time. A true student of the scene if there ever was one, the 21-year-old spent her later teen years hopping from one program to the next, always open to help out and work late. I can still remember walking into my living room in the winter of 2014 around midnight to see Castillo alongside Peter CottonTale behind the piano, taking notes and applying theories. My first real introduction came while working with The O’My’s, a band that was a big early influence on the young singer and taught her plenty about what it really took to make it with music that aims for everlasting over effervescent. Serving as a sort of pseudo-assistant/manager, she quickly became enamored with the scene, diving in herself in the process.

“I’ve been doing this run around since high school and my freshman year of college I was literally interning for everyone,” Castillo said, reflecting on those first experiences while sitting across a white porcelain table of a Pilsen photo studio. “I was Mariah Neuroth’s intern at YCA and she liked my work ethic and she was managing Noname and The O’My’s so I was doing work for both of them and then Sharod Smith, Jamila Woods’ manager picked up on that and wanted me to do stuff for him too so I started doing that. I was literally working for YCA and then all these artists but just out of a sort of hunger to learn more, I wasn’t thinking music back then yet.”

Because of her position, nestled between some of the city and country’s most influential artists and organizers, Castillo found she had a knack for bringing different people together. Pervasively bubbly, with a smile that never seems to start too far, the 21-year-old is perfectly suited to help stitch together the various pieces that make up the patchwork collection that is the current wave. In the process, she’s not only found her voice, but made an unexpected and exciting move to centerstage with the release of Sweet ASL which she debuted as Kaina & The Burns Twins.

“When I meet folks my brain thinks about who they would be great friends with, it could be with anything. If I meet a photographer and I like his work I’m like ‘oh shit you would be great friends with this person’ so I actually started bringing Eddie with me to The O’My’s sessions and introduce him to them and then Ric happened to be there and I was like ‘oh Ric, this is my friend Eddie, you guys should connect,’” said Castillo. “So I don’t know, I just want to look out for my friends and folks and be like ‘you guys should work together’ and then they do that same thing for me, so it’s really just been that. It’s just a never-ending little network, but it’s not even tiny, it’s huge. It feels small, but you forget how many people are available here at any time.

Young Chicago Authors, the after school program located just off the Division Blue Line stop has become a mainstay for local artistry. Since helping to incubate young talent from Chance to Woods, the program has continued to push their students in expression and activism through knowledge. Just as Castillo found her footing in the scene by working alongside Neuroth, another student was carefully learning the nuances of the craft before soon utilizing his talents with success he’d never expected.

Few artists anywhere in the country have experienced as drastic a journey in a year’s time as has 21-year-old Ric Wilson. The upstart rapper and longtime activist has made serious leaps and bounds since emerging in the summer of 2015 with a string of interesting, politically-charged singles as part of ‘Fuck Yo Institution’ alongside David Ellis. Dance-ready, with a message that cut through the fat surrounding many conversations of race, politics and socioeconomic status here in the heartland of America. While the early work proved the young man, who traveled to Switzerland in 2014 as part of a coalition affiliated with the Black Youth Project to speak before the United Nations on the impact police violence in Chicago has on the city’s black youth.

In many ways, Wilson could well prove to be the concentrate version of many of the acts we’ve seen emanate from the city’s deep coffers over the course of the last few years. Seemingly always in motion, with a sort of nervous observational tic that makes it seem as though he’s always checking for who’s in a room or what’s being said, Wilson combines the understanding of an individual’s place in the world through empathy and wordplay while tactfully never getting too heavy to hit the dance floor. While the latest wave to hit Chicago’s music scene is largely paced by it’s third-party affiliation to those that came before it, Wilson has obviously been watching and taking notes, learning over time how to incorporate sensical motifs into his own work. His fast-paced onstage foot working, upbeat live shows and penchant for a band tip a cap at Chance The Rapper, his political leanings and sense of activism is reflective of Malcolm London, his endearing demeanor and thoughtful rhyme schemes call to mind NoName and his willingness to put himself in front of the message follows directly in the vein of an artist like Vic Mensa. Tying it all together is the empathetic understanding of the world reflected through words that have become a staple of the artists coming out of Chicago through programs like Young Chicago Authors.

“I love how Saba and Fatimah how they can not drop projects for five years and then drop it and be like boom. I don’t know if I can do that now, I don’t think I can drop a project and wait five years, because then I’m gonna be like 25 (laughs). I don’t want to rush shit but shit has to happen now, I want to be that guy by 23,” said Wilson sitting in the window of a Pilsen photo studio.“

A year can take people to unforeseen places and realize dreams unknown. For Wilson, a year has made all the difference in the world. Since the summer of 2015, he has released a pair of projects, seen his name pop up with increasing frequency on the biggest outlets and played his first festival set at North Coast Music Festival after winning the local spot with a spirited performance this past summer at Chop Shop in Wicker Park. That performance, and the drama that accompanied it, put the crew on the map as Wilson, of course, won the competition and ultimately performed alongside the collective that had brought him there in the first place. Since then, Wilson has asserted himself amongst the upper-crust of local rapper and enters 2017 as one of the most exciting acts the city has to offer. It’s not just a facetious, happenstance occurrence either; those at the top aren’t blind to it. At his release party for his SoulBounce EP, none less than Chance The Rapper himself showed up to buy the newcomer a drink and check in on what’s been happening, a perfect example of the kind of top-down support those operating here today have.

“Right now I’m trying to figure out how to take jumps. It just serves to validate everything I’m doing because sometimes you can feel like no one’s listening and then like you see Chano at your show and he’s just like ‘hey I heard you had a show today, figured I’d check it out’ and it’s just like alright, that’s dope that feels good,” said Wilson, reminiscing on the experience. “Or like I was randomly coming back from opening for D.R.A.M. in Iowa and I was thinking what’s next and the Buzzfeed article came out and they’re comparing me to everyone in Chicago and it wasn’t even on like a little bro status, it was like they were putting me with the bigger heads in Chicago, that feels good. I don’t feel pressure to put out like super raw music, I just gotta keep doing me because that’s the easiest way to do it.”

Lately in Chicago, we’ve gotten used to being spoiled. For the last five years we’ve been able to enjoy one act after the next systematically emerge and work their way to the highest rungs of the music industry. Much like knowledgeable Americans too comfortable with the sensical nature of outgoing President Barack Obama, it’s easy to forget how good something is when it’s readily available. While the country at large toasts to Chance, listening to Coloring Book while asking their friends if they’ve heard of this new artist from Chicago, we continue to find the faces and voices that will pace the country at large right here in our backyards, bars and local venues. While it’s obvious that the next crop of artists to carry the torch for Chicago will do so fully prepared with the lessons of those who did so before them, the most interesting byproduct has been this generation’s understanding of time and their place in it.

“Last summer was when I really started rapping rapping,” said Wilson. “But yeah I’m just not trying to miss my window. Because everyone’s got a window and a lot of people miss their window in Chicago and I’m just not trying to miss mine.”

It’s a sentiment that seems mundane, but has sank many a career, especially from a place such as Chicago, devoid of an industry or stereotypical pathway. For every Chance, Vic, Mick and NoName the city has produced, it’s seen way too many potentials wilt under the guise of waiting, biding time or whatever it may be. For their part, the characters that should continue to pace the local scene don’t seem to be waiting for anybody.

“What all this has taught us, what all these people have taught us is that even though they had obstacles in their way, they had arguments, they had this and that and they broke up but they used that in a positive way.  I’ve definitely been latching onto that and its just inspiring, you know?” said Eddie. “Because they literally can do anything and they’ve shown everyone that we can do anything and everything and you can do that while making people feel good, while making people feel loved.”

Flanked on either side by her tight-knit crew, Castillo pulls the Twins into a warm embrace under each arm before doing the same with Paige, passing the bottle of champagne to IZ. Fumbling it in his hand for a moment after taking a pull, his eyes light up as he looks over his shoulder at Eddie, who appears to already have reached the idea IZ is now turning over. Suddenly, pointing the bottle to the ceiling he shakes it up vehemently before removing his thumb from the end, releasing a shower of bubbly Moet that rains down over the likes of Sen, Bedows, Kai and Paige. The success of the scene here in Chicago wouldn’t be possible without the willingness of the artists to selflessly collaborate. Looking around the packed room as we segued from 2016 onwards, it was obvious that spirit is readily evident throughout the players in the on-deck circle.

“I was not ready a year ago to do any of this. I had people around me, but not people that were pushing me as hard as the people who are around me now are. These musicians I’m working with right now are literally on another level and that means I have to work my ass off and that’s awesome because you don’t get better by just being in one place. We’re 100 times more confident, we feel like we know our work now, my work ethic and my songwriting is a strength and I’m able to pinpoint the things that I’m good at and the things I need work on that my bandmates show me.,” said Castillo, looking back on the last twelve months. “We feel 100 times more comfortable, we’re with the right people, with the right headspace, with the right amount of time, it takes a long time to develop who you are as an artist or even what direction to move in. Now I think we know our direction, now I know what I’m going for and I didn’t have that a year ago.”

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