“He’s wearing that jacket again,” was all I could think as I approached Kene Ekwunife at the marble-lined bar top. Coolly sipping a cocktail, a messenger bag slung across his shoulders, Kene, better known as SaveMoney artist KAMI, was impossible to miss in the half-full club. What the casual observer didn’t know is that he’d been rocking the thick-lined bomber since mid-summer. Far from the casual observer, I immediately recalled seeing him at East Room in July, myself sweating through a t-shirt as he stood draped in the neon-orange outerwear, seemingly unfazed as he explained the perseverance of style to me. While it may seem innocuous, that jacket operates as a perfect metaphor for KAMI as a person and an artist: unmistakable yet tempered, patient and consistent. In many ways, he’s evolved in the public eye without having to catch it’s full glare, not yet at least.
The theme surrounding the south side native’s upcoming full-length doesn’t come veiled in secrecy. Just Like The Movies, slated for a March release, has been teased in recent months with an undeniable penchant for the theatrical. Led by singles, “Scene Girl”, “Home Movies”, “Foundation” and “Right Now”, each of which arrived with an understanding of a larger story. In many ways, art once again finds itself mimicking life. For KAMI, who has watched and actively participated as one after another of his high school friends ascended the steps from local stages to national audiences, to say life is like a movie isn’t honestly all that far off. In much the same way, the 24-year-old crossover act has learned how to play his part. That part has expanded and contracted over the years and as he nears the release of his first solo project since 2012’s Light, he appears uniquely prepared to take centerstage.
Part One: Kami De Chukwu
About two years ago while working on a feature for XXL on SaveMoney, a creative collective that has birthed Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Joey Purp and others, I remember talking to Joey Purp about the different places many of his friends found themselves professionally at the time. Speaking on those who had yet to release music in the form of a solo project, he touched on an interesting thought. He explained that while from the outside certain names may not have surfaced yet, they did so with an advantage, they hadn’t “put out anything they could be embarrassed or less than proud of.” Given the sense of branding that the Internet provides the contemporary world, KAMI has been allowed a somewhat similar fresh understanding from the world. While there are inklings of his previous self, such as his Twitter handle, KAMI has enjoyed a sort of newfound freedom in his art through the rebranding effort spurred on by his foray into a true solo act. Before he was just KAMI though, he was better known in hip-hop circles locally by his full adopted name, Kami De Chukwu. During the early days, KAMI became himself immersed in the scene of bubbling artistry that found somewhat of an epicenter at his alma mater, Whitney Young, where much of the early wave was cultivated.
That cauldron of creativity, combined with the limitless influence the Internet and burgeoning blogosphere provided offered an endless amount of possibilities for the young artist. Early visuals and photos of the SaveMoney collective find its members endlessly experimenting in self-expression that ranged from spoken word poetry to forward-thinking Asiatic fashion wares. In many ways, KAMI found himself surrounded on all sides by a restless spirit of creativity that often realized itself in a myriad of singles, videos, events and parties that together formed the framework of the wild, cross-city collaboration that would come to dictate the particular segment he found himself in the midst of, and eventually the city at-large. While it’s certainly true that collective creation and group-think help in the progression of art and expression, it can also hamper it at times if one’s own internal constitution has not yet been firmly established. In many ways, that understanding has dictated which of SaveMoney members popped out to the public at large. For KAMI though, the sorting process was one that took some time. Finding himself amongst an obviously talented group of friends, he wanted to try anything; a sentiment that was reflected in his name choice at the time, Kami De Chukwu.
“It was a simple thing. It was taking something that wasn’t wholly accessible and making it accessible through art,” said KAMI. “Like my name is Kene, it’s a four-letter name and its to the point. When I was doing Kami De Chuwku stuff I wanted to rap like MF Doom one minute, like Keef, or anybody, that part was me wanting to do everything, it even jumps around from Japanese to French words to African words, it was just too much after a certain point.”
The name itself is both a nod to his familial ties, a pronouncement of his thoughts and interests at a particular time and a stylistic choice that set him apart from the rest of the group. It’s a mouthful that’s not soon forgettable. During the early days of the current wave, which has counted the likes of Chance, Mick Jenkins, NoName, Saba and more, many bloggers only vaguely familiar with the guys would describe them as “Vic, Chance and that Kami De Chukwu guy,” often butchering the pronunciation in the process. A deeply thoughtful, understanding individual with a grin that can disarm the most defensive of Chicagoans, his initial namesake was a furtherance of the range of influences the then-teenager found directly in his periphery.
As his school days ended and the world began to open up a bit more, he started finding varied interests in the arts and understanding of practices like the chakra. Subsequently, his time under the moniker often reads like an evolutionary tale, his time in the cocoon. While the early days served to center and build the foundation from which he would maneuver, the years following would see the the manifestation of it.
“If you remember correctly 2012 era I put out a mixtape called Light, a long time ago. And I had a similar mindset because people don’t really change but I didn’t have the experience, said KAMI. “So what was happening was I’m watching Vic real closely, Vic’s giving me advice. I watched Chance real closely and I learned from that but it’s weird because I was probably the first one out of Joey, Towkio and everybody to start making music to be like ‘oh I really want to do this.’ Like we had to convince Joey like ‘Joey you’re so good at rapping stop tweaking.”
Part Two: Leather Corduroys
About four years ago now, I got a call from a colleague asking if I was interested in coming down to Pilsen over the upcoming weekend to interview the latest act to begin working out of the Save Money camp. Always up for a new story, and enjoying the brief respite from the winter that mid-June provides, I hopped on my bike and took a long trip south from Logan Square. Arriving at the community creative incubator, Blue32 I remember walking through the large open space that resembled a high school lunch-room and sitting down across the pair of KAMI and Joey Purp. After dealing with their then-manager and trading pleasantries, I flipped open my black Moleskin and found my first question: “alright guys, what in the hell are leather corduroys?” Smiling, laughing and quickly glancing at one another, KAMI leaned into the table a bit, “have you ever actually seen a pair of leather corduroys?” he asked me. Shaking my head, I thought back through my brief fashion references and couldn’t recall. “Exactly,” he said. “Because those shits would be hot as hell, and that’s what we expect to be.”
So began the next chapter of the evolution of the artist now known as KAMI. Teaming up with a longtime friend and collaborator in Joey Purp, the project became a two-year journey that culminated in the release of the pairs’ seminal project, Season, released on the first of the year in 2014. As KAMI describes it, the project began as an attempt by Joey and himself to mimic the myriad rhyme schemes that had begun springing up around the internet blogosphere.
“We just genuinely are students of culture. The Leather Cords thing literally started from a phone call either one of us make to each other, we were like hey bro, it’ll be funny as hell if we rap like Lil Wayne for like five minutes. Then we made “Illuminati Slumber Party” and we was like ‘damn, we’re really good at emulating things’ and tapping into that shit,” said KAMI in late January. “So then it just started becoming like ‘lets do this flow, lets do that flow’ consciously. And then it started developing into ‘ok, we also do have a deep love for music in general.’”
The pairing proved fruitful for both Purp and KAMI, serving as a springboard for each heading into 2014. Onstage they played off one another with natural fluidity, picking up one another’s verses in front of hundreds the same way they used to do at the lunch table. From playing off one another to playing North Coast Music Festival in 2015, the duo had already achieved much more than they had ever anticipated and by the end of that year KAMI and Purp would find themselves working more diligently on solo material. Unlike many similar situations, there was no catalyst for the end of the group, which still might have some singles in its future. Rather, they’ve allowed themselves the creative space to make the work that drives them.
“When you’re like 17 or 18 you’re like still in the process of listening to your parents like ‘go to college Kene, go to college Joey, go to college Preston’ and it becomes like a thought process like ‘I gotta apply to harold Washington just to figure out my future,’” said KAMI. “Like no nigga, I can rap, I can do something, I can literally take what’s inside of me, pause, and put it on paper or put it vocally out and I have a product now. So I think it just took a minute for people to realize that and then what happened was all that built up to Leather Corduroys and through Leather Cords things really took off. It might be true that I seem to be in the background, but all that happened was we decided that Joey should go forward and he was more ready than me in terms of he had a better idea of what he wanted to do.”
Part Three: Kami
In about a month, KAMI will join Joey Purp as direct support for the latter on a nationwide tour as two solo acts. Following a year of high-profile guest spots, large-scale features and plenty of meandering through the background of the entertainment business’ most hallowed halls, Kene emerged fully-realized as KAMI. A new tattoo now lined his throat. He’d acquire the edgy ink alongside Mensa in the midst of the Kanye craze that swept over the crew after Vic’s signing to Roc Nation in 2015, quickly followed by a Saturday Night Live performance by the previous crown prince of Chicago hip-hop. The impending release of the Life of Pablo at the top of the year created a crazy amount of excitement, it seemed to signal the first of many moments that would put the city’s scene front and center. Over the course of the next few months, KAMI would go about discovering his own sound, his own lane and where he precisely fit among the varied spectrum of the Save Money collective. From sessions at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio with Towkio to a seemingly endless calendar of shows across the country and beyond, he found himself by going on his own path.
“It was like a serendipity thing, it just happened and it was a happy thing. What happened was that Joey’s one of my best friends but when you’re making art and it’s completely compromised because of another person and not in a negative way, whenever you collaborate you need to compromise a little bit, sort of like being in a relationship,” said KAMI, his eyes wandering around the bar as he spoke. “So moving forward in a career you want to be able to stand on your own two feet, especially when you want to start a family or in Joey’s case he has a daughter so it’s just like you can’t rely on splitting a check for the rest of our fucking lives, that never works out as a dynamic anyway.”
By the time 2015 was in full swing, Joey’s iiiDrops project was already vaulting him to the forefront of the conversation about ‘next up’ from the city. In many ways, the separation of Leather Corduroys was a natural one, serving as a launching pad for each that brought with it lessons and notoriety they would cash in at the next levels. While the separation was a natural one, KAMI began crafting the sound that would come to dictate his upcoming full-length over the course of two years. Much of the heavy-lifting was executed by taking risks in the studio, a facet of his creative process that has become central to his music.
“Its like you can be as not safe as you want in the studio, that shit don’t never have to come out,” he said, thinking back over hundreds of sessions. “There’s probably ten or thirty songs of me rapping like Future which y’all will never hear. And I’m going crazy. But I can’t be Future, so it’s like why would I put that shit out. That’s all it is.”
As he tells, it there was a time when rap was the medium he saw himself pursuing, but changed directions a bit once he had first caught a few bars from Purp early on. “I always thought I could rap amazingly well and this dude comes and he just starts rapping and I immediately was like ‘I should start singing on his shit (laughs). I’m not about to be second on anything.”
So far, the lead up to his his first solo project in nearly five years has been decidedly melodic, with a distinct penchant for up-tempo grooves that mesh interestingly with his careful vocal meanderings. There are feelings of unbridled disregard for genre that, juxtaposed against the nuanced production from Knox Fortune, creates a sort of mosaic that embodies the artist fully. Knox, who also garnered a Grammy win for his work on Coloring Book, serves as executive producer here and together with KAMI has served to create an almost world unto itself that should prove to manifest itself on Just Like The Movies. On “Scene Girl”, the driving bassline plays back against the pinging drum patterns to create an 80s-inspired backdrop from which KAMI winds his sinewy vocals. It’s familiar but different, forward thinking yet based in understood motifs. It’s a unique sound that took the better part of four years to discover. Whereas many of his peers may have spent that time in school, studying a trade or major, KAMI used it to find himself and, in turn, his artistic direction.
“I just look at Just Like The Movies like the whole quote of art imitating life and life imitating art. And I think that’s exactly what it is in a phrase. Everybody has an interesting life, no matter what. You could be the most boring person, like you could be a hermit and stay at the crib all the time. We can literally depict that in a way where it’s some sort of entertainment for somebody else. I think it’s a crazy concept to juxtapose life to art, it’s like the most accurate depiction two things ever.”
This past weekend, gathered amongst friends and colleagues he’s worked and lived amongst for the better part of the last decade, KAMI seemed to break through in full force at the GQ Grammy after-party in Los Angeles. Celebrating the monumental trio of awards that close friend Chance The Rapper earned earlier that night, he toasted with a bottle of Hennessey in an all-pink denim outfit, his hair trimmed down low enough to almost not recognize him. Appearing fully realized and riding as high as ever, the evolution to KAMI seemed to have been completed. While Chance’s Grammy wins were undoubtedly the biggest thing to happen to the city’s music scene in a long time, also somewhat more quietly, the continued emergence of the varied members of SaveMoney continues an unprecedented run that has stretched five years and several artists. While the future may not have always been fully clear, KAMI has been able to take note from the friends he calls brothers as they themselves have taken the strategic steps forward that have positioned the collective at the forefront of music generally. Now, with the music done, the promotion rolling and the spotlight warming up, he sits primed for his own opportunity to follow in their footsteps.
“We predicted this,” said KAMI, reminiscing as he finished the last sip of his drink. Setting it down on the bar, he continued to answer the question. “It hasn’t hit me yet because I’m not where I want to be. But, to get specific I feel a sense of accomplishment in the fact that the people that are supposed to be proud of me, they’re proud, the people I want to take care of, they’re taken care of. Myself, I’m happy, I’m not in a destructive place so until I’m there, until I’m secure with myself and everybody surrounding me, it’s not really going to hit me. Not to be unappreciative, but like 200,000 views on a song isn’t paying for my little sister to go to college, you know what I’m sayin? Shit like that. That’s what will define being comfortable with where I’m at. But, we’re almost there. We’re gonna predict that too.”
What’s to come will be seen, but one things for sure. For KAMI, the next few years should prove to be, well, just like the movies