We're All Rooting for Knox Fortune
After winning a Grammy with Chance the Rapper and working with other Chicago stars, the Chicago songwriter's new album could make him really famous.
All photos by Bryan Allen Lamb
When Kevin Rhomberg was younger, he and his family vacationed in South Haven, a humble beach town along the Southern reaches of Lake Michigan. It's not a terribly special place, just "a small Nowheresville town" a short drive from his home in the Chicago suburbs that his family would use to get away, relax, and pick blueberries by the pounds. Rhomberg hadn't visited in years, but something strange happened when he was there recently: he got recognized at a restaurant. "It was pretty cool, but it was weird as hell," he says and laughs.
Rhomberg, who has been performing and producing under the name Knox Fortune since 2013, relates this story with a sweet-natured humility standing in the kitchen of his large and low-key apartment in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. He pulses some blueberries (picked during his most recent South Haven trip) for a smoothie and continues. His place contains many, many things, but it's not so much messy as lived in. His kitchen, where we spend the majority of our time hanging out, is filled with cast iron skillets hanging from the wall and a beautiful, white stand mixer. Looking around the space, it comes as no surprise to learn Rhomberg is a pretty healthy eater. He admits his biggest "splurges" since his recent career success has been on quality food. He makes smoothies every morning and purchases fresh juices. "Like I didn't go out and buy a Gucci belt. And I didn't go out and buy a bunch of Louis Vuitton luggage," he jokes. "I like to take care of myself. Nothing has really changed outside of that."
Rhomberg looks and acts like every sweet skater boy you've ever known. He's got long, shaggy hair and a kind smile that peppers his conversation. He's dressed in a baggy, striped blue and white shirt, green athletic shorts, and black Nike sandals. His presence is relaxed and affable. That's part of what makes it easy for new fans to approach him in the most unusual of environments, which sorta explains the whole South Haven encounter. While out to eat with his parents, a girl came up to him and asked if he was Knox Fortune. Some of the restaurant's servers wanted to take a picture with him. "And I did it," he recalls with some amount of disbelief. "When I came back, my parents were like, 'You're famous as fuck.' I was like, 'No, I'm not. This is just a very weird circumstance."
But clearly, a lot has changed for the musician since his adolescent vacations, and 2017 might be his most transformative year yet. To date, Rhomberg's only released four solo tracks, three of which will appear on his new album. He's made a name for himself, in no small part, on his impressive work on a collection of popular mixtapes and singles over the last two years. He spent part of this year on an international tour with Joey Purp as his onstage DJ, in support of the rapper's breakthrough 2016 mixtape, iiiDrops, which he produced. In February, Rhomberg won a Grammy for his vocal contribution to Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book mixtape.
And on September 22, the 25-year-old will finally step out of the shadows to release Paradise, his debut album. The album is a smart and surprisingly poppy collection of tracks. Known for his hip-hop productions, Rhomberg experiments in a variety of different genres and lands on a bold throwback sound, a far cry from the dark, druggy beats rule the radio. Rhomberg's voice, which appears from time to time on other artist's tracks (like on Chance's infectious summer dance anthem, "All Night" and Kami's "The Both of Us"), is front and center on the record. Soon, South Haven, Michigan won't be the weirdest place he's recognized.
Rhomberg was born in Chicago but grew up in the Western suburb of Oak Park. Creativity came naturally. As a kid, he harbored dreams of playing baseball or skateboarding professionally. And if that didn't work out, he'd become the CEO of his own company, one that incorporated his numerous creative talents, from illustration and design (he often created his own designs for Nike Dunks or skateboard decks as a hobby) to advertising.
But it wasn't until he turned 16 and began "making good music" (and not just playing around with software) that his interests shifted. "I was like, maybe I'll do music, but I didn't really know what that meant at all," Rhomberg says. "I definitely remember looking up on Google: 'what does a music producer do?' I hear this term all the time, but I have no idea what their actual job [entails]."
At the time, producing for Rhomberg meant making beats, but the more time he spent on his craft, the more his understanding of production expanded. "It's like arranging and directing at the same time," he says. "I sometimes feel like it's like being the director of the movie because you're not in the movie, but you're the one telling everybody what to do."
After high school, Rhomberg skipped college and worked for his father's lighting company instead. "I was going to go to a Big 10 school or something and kind of had this realization where I was like, 'I do not want to move to Iowa City or Champaign,'" Rhomberg says. "It just kind of like hit me. Like, what are you doing? Don't do that."
It was a serendipitous decision. While Rhomberg's peers attended Big 10 football games in Midwestern college towns, Rhomberg made friends with up-and-coming local rappers and musicians. Lacking many friends in the suburbs and feeling complacent, Rhomberg nurtured connections with old friends from Oak Park now living in the city. One of those friends was Cody Kazarian, Vic Mensa's manager. Rhomberg began spending time with Kazarian and his roommate, Adrian, who played Rhomberg's beats for Mensa and Nico Segal.
Rhomberg became instant friends with that pair; the next day, the three hit the studio. He got a job at the studio—See Music—the same day, solidifying his new path. After Mensa introduced him to Joey Purp and Kami, they took to each other quickly, both as friends and collaborators.
"He's the type of person that you can tell really took part in culture as opposed to understanding from an internet perspective," Purp says via text. "He really skated, he's really been in the city, he's really who he represents in his music. Working with him is like working with Chad Hugo—someone who has technical capability and tasteful cultural references."
After they met, Rhomberg spent the majority of his days and nights working with artists in the studio. "That's when it became this crazy higher passion thing," says Rhomberg. "We're not just kind of messing around anymore. I work here. This is literally my job."
Since then, Rhomberg has gone on to executive produce Joey Purp's critically-acclaimed mixtape iiiDrops as well as Kami's Just Like the Movies mixtape. Now, he aims to write two tracks each day, but he admits he doesn't always hit that number. When Rhomberg makes something interesting, he spends the moments after trying to figure out which of his talented friends would appreciate it. "If I make a futuristic-sounding, kind of fast-paced dance beat, I think of Towkio, and I'll give it to Towkio. Or if I make something retro-y, I give it to Kami. If I make something, kind of like a banger, I give it to Joey," says Rhomberg. "And if it's not really in those categories and it's [got] a way different vibe, I usually try to save it for myself."
Although he did not produce "All Night," from Chance's Grammy Award-winning mixtape Coloring Book (that beat came courtesy of Montreal hitmaker Kaytranada), its success clarified Rhomberg's musical desires. "Until the Grammys this year, I never considered it a dream of mine. Like being hugely successful and making money was not necessarily a dream of mine. I just wanted to make cool stuff," he says.
Some of his "cool stuff" will stand front and center on his debut album. "I'm trying to figure out how to take my strange vision and like make it pop," Rhomberg says about his new identity as a solo artist. He secretly crafted and saved tracks for himself over the last three years, but the bulk of his production for his debut album developed within the last year. He describes his music as "dirty pop," and although the description might channel memories of *NSYNC, Rhomberg's is more like Beck's omnivorous approach to pop music. Think hip-hop beats mixed with organic and inorganic instrumentation, and pleasant, sing-songy melodies.
Take "24 Hours," his most recent single. A viscous bass line structures the mid-tempo track while Rhomberg's spindly, charismatic vocals float along the beat. It's groovy, without sounding cheesy, a perfect compliment to your end-of-summer kick back. "Lil Thing," a chill, downtempo nightcap of a song features wobbly percussion and lo-fi synth elements coupled with Rhomberg's earnest vocals about his girl. The chorus is catchy and memorable, but it doesn't neatly fit in any one era or sound.
Rhomberg wouldn't have it any other way. "I'm not gonna say I'm the only person with stuff like that by any means," he adds. He cites artists like D.R.A.M. and even Towkio as creatives with weird, singular, and inspirational visions. But Paradise is a product of his mind—off-kilter, sophisticated, and quirky—a feeling and experience he relishes in. "I've been staying busy in every way trying to create this whole cool idea that's uniquely me," he says. "That's the best part about being my own artist. Just like creating that whole unique perspective."
Besides an appearance from Purp and Kami on a track Rhomberg first crafted (and then later refined) three years ago, Paradise includes no other features, a personal decision. In addition to writing and producing the album, Rhomberg also illustrated all of the album and single covers. He keeps everything inside of a large notebook, and he shows me his visual work, which is bright, youthful, colorful, and reminiscent of the thick, minimalist lines of designer Andy Rementer or even the sketches of Henry Matisse. "I take notes on everything," he says quickly. "It's an ongoing process of constantly re-evaluating [the album]. Does this seem like it's getting slow to me at any point? Does it seem boring? Am I starting to get bored?" Although he says his album came together quite organically, the collected sum of his ideas—his illustrations and scribbles and writings—give a clearer picture of a singular artist confident in his vision. "I'm not compromising on anything," he says. "If it's bad, it's my fault. But if it's good, it's my fault. It's my doing."
But for the time being, Rhomberg's humble attitude remains intact. He tells me that earlier in the day, before our interview, he got locked outside of his apartment. Just like anyone in a similar situation, he had to scramble for help from his roommate and the gracious staff of a Starbucks on the ground floor of his building. While he waited a fan in a Chance the Rapper "3" hat recognized him. "It was also weird too though because that kid definitely knows where I live now," he says. "Luckily, it's very secure. I found out today."
Britt Julious is a writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter.
Bryan Allen Lamb is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram.