Photos by Andrew Zeiter
Alex Wiley wants to blow your mind, and he's comfortable with the idea that you're not expecting it. After all, he wasn't really planning on this either—he was just in it for the jokes on Facebook.
Growing up in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, Alex wasn't necessarily interested in music, other than a year of playing violin in high school. At 16, struggling with severe ADD, Alex dropped out of high school and spent his days sitting on the couch, wondering what he was going to do with himself. But he soon befriended another dropout with rap ambitions, Kembe X, and he started tagging along to the studio. When there was downtime, their group of friends would record joke songs as a group called Swag Village.
Gradually, Alex became more involved in the local music scene, making friends with artists like Chance the Rapper and attracting the attention of a new independent label, Closed Sessions, that had started off by bringing national rappers to the city to perform and record songs in an intensive environment. Last summer, Alex released a debut project called Club Wiley, which established him as an adept rapper with a distinct, musically ambitious approach, if not always a ton to say, and helped build some buzz on a more national scale.
His follow-up project, Village Party, comes out on Thursday, June 5 (incidentally, that day is also his 21st birthday, so there will be a party in more than one sense). It sees Alex taking a huge step forward in every way, delivering tighter verses, honing in on a distinct sing-song style, and playing around over production that ranges from ambient to soulful to full-on partying electronic music. It's aptly named, and its tight focus—as opposed to Club Wiley's broad list of guests like Action Bronson and GLC, this one stays closer to home with buddies like Mick Jenkins and Kembe X—helps carve out a more distinct niche for Alex in a crowded Chicago scene. With a lively sense of humor in person and on the track, Alex approaches his music with a sort of freewheeling enthusiasm that's hard not to love.
Today, we're premiering a new song, “See The Day,” as well as a pre-game playlist Alex made on Spotify to set the tone for Village Party. We also caught up with Alex over the phone from the Chicago studio where he records to talk about making more imaginative music, confronting setbacks, and, um, sex with nuns. Check out the full interview and stream Alex's party playlist below.
I found a couple of your tracks from the YouTube era that you recorded as Swag Village.
Yeah, we were raw as hell. [Swag Village] was just like our group of friends. The first song ever was “I Be Fucking Nuns,” and it was about fucking nuns. That's the first rap verse I ever wrote in my life. It was raw, man. Like I really bodied it, you know what I'm saying? I pretty much knew at that point that not only was I probably going to be able to fuck a lot of nuns off the strength of that song but I was probably going to have some form of a rap career also.
What was your environment like growing up?
Hyde Park was cool because there was a lot of kids my age and there was a lot of schools, and it was a safe neighborhood and shit. It was racially and culturally diverse. My parents just raised me—I'm an only child. Both of my parents are like middle class black people. They were just trying to raise me to have opportunities to do shit that they couldn't do, to be better and greater and shit.
Really the reason my music has sort of that rock influence is my dad. That's what I was brought up listening to. My dad, in the 70s, when he was going to high school, he went to a high school called Loyola in the suburbs, and he was one of three black people in the whole school. Basically, like, the popular black music at the time was disco, and he hated disco. A lot of people hated disco, and what all his friends at school were listening to was like Led Zeppelin and Rush and Alice Cooper and stuff like that. So he ended up getting into that. That just ended up being the music he associated with his teenage years, and basically when I was growing up I was just listening to a lot of that. That was what was around me at the time. It was cool. I feel like I just have a different perspective on music because I was raised on different types. My mom listened to a lot of Sam Cooke, I remember. Even like Fleetwood Mac and shit. Tom Petty and stuff like that. It was cool. Both of my parents had kind of an eclectic taste in music.
I think you can feel that in the music you make. It has more of a song structure to it beyond 'here's 16 bars and a chorus.'
Yeah, I try to make my songs piece by piece but also as one piece, so it comes together as one flowing song. I think it's super easy for you to hear exactly how a song was made. You can hear like 'oh word, this is the verse part of the beat. This is where the chorus is supposed to go.' I don't know. I feel like that's no fun. People shouldn't know exactly what's about to happen and know exactly what's going on, I feel like. It takes away the atmosphere, it takes away the place that music can take you to. I try to have my music make you feel like you're somewhere else. Like it's set in your imagination almost. That was kind of the content of the “Vibrations” video, was not having it be set anywhere identifiable. You can't identify where this is supposed to happen, you have to imagine where this is happening.
I want people to imagine more, to really imagine, to have their imagination be running and working while they're listening to my music. That's kind of the point for me because I make it super imaginatively, and I'd like for people to hear it the same way and kind of experience—not necessarily what I have—but for them to experience something.
How would you say that your rap style has evolved? Are there specific areas where your approach or your mindset has changed?
Definitely my mindset. I'm just trying to find the perfect balance between being super calculating and also just doing whatever feels right in the instant. It's like a really delicate balance, basically, of like trying to make sure that everything I say has a purpose and I'm not just saying shit to be saying it. I'm just trying to make my words matter more.
That was the challenge I issued to myself from Club Wiley to this project. Because I think sonically I did a really good job with Club Wiley. I can listen to that, and all the soundscapes I created are really cool. But I think a lot of my verses just kind of fell flat. They were just verses for the sake of verses, and they weren't really about anything. They didn't really bring anything intellectually to the table at all. They didn't really provoke thought. That was by far the biggest thing on Club Wiley that I would do differently. There are so many verses I wouldn't write if I was making that project right now. But yeah, that was the challenge that I issued myself: Make more meaningful music. Even if it's only meaningful to me, that's what it's about. If it's super meaningful to me, there will be people who relate to it or who just hear what I'm saying and enjoy it.
The Chicago scene that you're a part of is really creative. Has that prompted you to raise the bar or influenced your sound at all?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like anything that dropped before Village Party dropped, I'm trying to make it irrelevant. Any time I drop, I'd like to think that I'm raising the bar for someone, making it so somebody has to go harder. I think that's just good for music in general. Everyone has to keep pushing themselves to be better. Every time you think you've done the best thing ever—no, you haven't. There's someone who's going to keep you on your toes. I just think that's good for music in general. People shouldn't get too comfortable with what they're doing and what they're making. And yeah, there's definitely competition. Vic Mensa just dropped that “Down on My Luck,” and that shit's amazing to me. Like, I added new songs to my project because I heard that. My project could have been done two weeks ago, but I'm still working on it—not singularly because of “Down on My Luck,” but that definitely made me feel like “okay, this is fucking really, really good, huh? I need to make sure my stuff's going to be really, really good like that.”
Do you feel like watching the success of some of the other people in Chicago has changed your goals or your approach to your career at all?
Not really. I wasn't really surprised by any of their success. These are people that I've known for a while, and I've seen it was coming, basically. So it hasn't really changed anything for me. But it's still just really cool to see. It definitely gives you that little extra confidence, like if you put out really good stuff you will be rewarded for that. And having songs of mine that come out and are successful, it's good for your confidence. I do have kind of shaky confidence sometimes. That's one of my character flaws. Sometimes I'll second guess stuff. But the confidence comes with you making something super experimental, and it's really well received. It definitely boosts your confidence and makes it so that you feel like you can make whatever you want, and as long as it's hot you know it will be received well.
Do you feel like your ADD affects the way you make music?
I think it definitely does. I personally attribute my severe-ass ADD to not making longer songs. I just get bored super easily with shit. For me, the first verse is what I was trying to get across. I feel like I put everything into my verses, and I make these like idea records where it's like a concept, and it's supposed to be one whole piece. There's something about second verses to me. I don't know. They just don't feel super natural, and that's why there's not many of them. Mike Kolar, the Closed Sessions dude is here laughing at me right now. We've had so many talks about these second verses. At this point I'm just embracing it. I'm just chalking it up to ADD, and at this point that makes it all right. At this point, if they keep asking me for second verses, it's like discrimination. They're discriminating against my disability, and that's still not acceptable. They're like making fun of me for a disability! (Laughs).
Going back, was there anything in particular that prompted you to drop out of high school? What was that period like for you?
I dropped out of high school because I was failing pretty much every single one of my classes. My junior year of high school, basically my ADD got worse. They had me on the biggest dose of Adderall they could legally give to a minor. It wasn't really helping me. It just made me super jittery and tightly wound, but it wasn't helping me focus. My problem was I couldn't focus in class. I'd basically be asleep but awake. It was just fucked up. It was a really weird time for me. My parents didn't know what to do. I've always tested through the roof and gotten really good grades in school. And then in high school I was like flunking out.
It was a super weird time, and it was definitely like the darkest point in my life when I dropped out of school. I literally didn't leave the house for like six months. It was super fucked up. I don't know. I definitely think it made me who I am. I think I appreciate stuff more. I think I'm a little more light-hearted and carefree because of it. I don't look back at it with any sort of negative feeling. I feel like anything that's ever happened to me and everything I've ever seen has brought me to this point. And I have a depth of experience that a lot of people don't have, and now that I'm getting able to kind of express it and channel it and let it out, I think it's really going to work to my benefit in the long run.
Are you technically part of Save Money or are you just friends with some of those guys?
No, I'm absolutely not a part of Save Money. People make the mistake because they're friends of mine. I went to high school with the majority of those people. The reason I'm not a Save Money rapper is because I didn't start making music with or because of them. I started making music with my friend Kembe. We were, like, The Village. I wasn't really a rapper [when Save Money started]. The Save Money thing really didn't have anything with me starting to make music. I definitely fuck with those guys. I've known them like my whole life, basically.
What are the origins of the Village name? What does Village Party mean?
The Village is directly from Swag Village. When we decided to take music seriously, we figured we'd probably have to drop the “Swag” from our name.
I don't know why you thought that.
Yeah, honestly that's my only regret so far, is that we're not still Swag Village. That's the one thing that if I could go back—I wish I could go back as myself and just be like “yo, yo, yo, it's me from the future. You guys are tweaking. Stick with Swag Village.” But yeah, Swag Village came from we were very based at the time. I still am, and Kembe is still very based. So that's where “Swag” came from, and “Village” came from—Kembe is from this place called the Village of South Holland.
On Village Party, are there any particular things you're trying to accomplish or any songs that really stand out as important ones for what you want to say?
Really what I'm trying to accomplish is just like lay down the foundation for my whole career, kind of establish what I'm about as an artist. It's like my manifesto as an artist. It's just supposed to be like everything that I stand for as an artist. I'm just trying to lay like a super solid foundation so that anything I do with my career you can trace back to this and see where I'm coming from. Because I want to make albums from other perspectives. I don't always be making music from my perspective. I want to tell stories. I want to do all types of stuff, but I think it would be weird to do that without first letting people know who I am. So it's really supposed to be super personal. I'm just trying to establish who I am, what I'm about, what brought me here, what I'm trying to accomplish lyrically and sonically at the same time.
It definitely has playful elements. It has defiant elements. I'm kind of a defiant person. I feel like I'm kind of cheating the system right now by being a high school dropout who's successful in America. I feel that way. And it comes up in my music.
UPDATE 6/5/14: Stream Village Party in full below:
Kyle Kramer misses Chicago. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer