Chance the Rapper’s Unconventional Approach Changes the Game
By: Mary L. Datcher Arts & Entertainment Editor
When we think about the changes that have taken effect over the last decade in the music business, we go back to the impact of technology. Each growing generation has influenced the marketplace with changes in technology from the Generation X’ers to now the Millennials.
Chancelor Bennett has become an anomaly of his generation. He’s not flashy and he doesn’t drive pimped-out cars with an entourage of “too many” — he’s subtle in his appearance but conscious of his style. He could easily be mistaken for a skater just as much as an emcee, but his approachability has garnered him fans who are his peers.
To his followers, he is Chance the Rapper — a hip hop artist who loves to bop dance, embraces his city of Chicago and who is unapologetically independent of major record labels. Since his first mixtape, 10 Day, was brought on by a 10-day suspension in his senior year. To rave reviews, the debut of 10 Day introduced him to the game with over 300,000 downloads on Datpliff, bringing on Acid Rap in 2012.
Since then, his collabo on Childish Gambino’s mixtape, Royalty, sealed his fate, joining his tour as the opening act. The Jones College Prep high school graduate has over 1.7 million Twitter followers, a daily fixture on Snapchat and has built 363,000 plus YouTube subscribers to his channel. All without the help of a record label machine behind him, all while still residing in his hometown.
His most recent release, Coloring Book, has been hailed by critics as one of the “strongest rap albums” this year by Pitchfork. His third release with an array of features including the opening song featuring fellow Chicagoan Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir “All We Got”; Justin Bieber on “Juke Jam”; Young Thug and Lil Yachty “Mixtape,” including the song “No Problem” featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz at over 3.1 million listens on Soundcloud. The album entered the Billboard 200 charts at No. 8 upon its May 13 release, making Coloring Book the first streaming-only release to ever chart in the top 10.
Bennett’s unconventional approach to releasing his music and making it available for free to fans has brought nearly every major label at his doorstep. During a time when drill music was forcing label giants such as Universal Music and Sony BMG to take notice signing inner-city kids straight from the block, Bennett says the labels’ approach was predictable.
“Just the way they would talk to me. They just had a very similar script. They would try to sign my friends at the same time. There’s a lot of small pet peeves that I had, but overall I understood the lack of power that comes with a monopolized industry,” he said. “When it comes to small things that blew me like people flying me out to meetings and never discuss numbers. They would talk to me about the infrastructure of their labels.” He realized that although there were various companies, they were under the thumb of the three major record companies.
It’s been almost three years since Chance the Rapper first graced the stage at Lollapalooza — the largest music festival in North America. When many artists fight for the chance to get in on the smallest stage, he achieved this feat within two years of his first mixtape release.
Eight years earlier, one of his biggest mentors in the entertainment business also performed in front of thousands of fans in Grant Park — Kanye West. As a fourth-grade student, Bennett remembers his first experience with hip hop music.
“When I first heard “Through the Wire” on the radio and right after that, my mom went and bought me College Dropout and then every Kanye West album since then,” he said. “That was the first real music that I called my own. That was a big thing for me. After that, I was able to reach back and find music that I loved that represented me growing up. That was my first real experience with hip hop.”
As he takes on the challenges of maintaining his independent status and building his company Chance The Rapper LLC and non-profit organization SocialWorks, Bennett often recounts past interviews of his fellow South Side friend.
“Kanye had a conversation on either Sway or the Breakfast Club’s radio program — they were asking him on how he could hate these companies so much talking about their power, how corrupt and bogus they are? But why does he continue to ask funding from them or enter into an industry that doesn’t want him? He explained companies aren’t monolithic, or a supreme thing — they’re just a bunch of people who work in a building and those people get replaced all of time,” said Bennett.
“You can’t say, f**k the Grammys all day. You just hope that somebody works in that building and in that corporation and that person has a vision similar to yours that can change something.”
A few months ago, Bennett came across a petition by a young artist opposing the Grammys rules, requiring all compositions to be commercially released through digital or physical sales in order to be considered for a nomination. In an ever-growing industry that has dwindled in physical sales with streaming outlets such as Apple Music, Spotify, and now Tidal, giving both indie and major artists more exposure, Bennett added his support to this appeal.
“A large problem that I had been the verbiage used and the rules. It was about commercial releases through a major distributor. That has two problems: One, that music has to be commercially released but also saying a major distributor limits any artist that isn’t signed to a label or distributed through a larger company from being recognized from excellence,” He feels the recognition of his peers is what makes the Grammys special — being recognized for music excellence.
Last week, The Recording Academy made the announcement of new updates allowing previously ineligible streaming-only works into the process. The new guidelines go into effect immediately in the current year awards cycle—making the likelihood that Chance the Rapper may be added to the esteemed Grammy nominee list for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards.
Bill Freimuth, Senior Vice President of Awards for The Recording Academy, released an official statement. “The Grammys aren’t just peer-awarded, they’re peer-driven. Throughout the year, members of the music community come to us asking to make changes to the awards process, and we work with them to figure out how those changes might work,” he said.
“I went through a lot of fighting with the major labels when we were trying to release Coloring Book as it was with Acid Rap. Those guys didn’t really know me or care about what I was doing at the time. Even though I had a lot of featured artists on this and Acid Rap that were signed.” Bennett explained, “Once the labels found out that their artists were featured on my project, I got contacted by a lot of them telling me that I couldn’t release the project for free. That began a talking point between me and the artists that were on the project and myself and the labels that represented the artists on the project.”
From that point on, Bennett says both he and the companies agreed that Coloring Book would be for streaming-only and not for download, enabling him to release the music the way he preferred. He said it was one of the lessons he learned in working with the majors without compromising his creative platform.
Lessons From Childhood
It’s no secret that his upbringing included growing up in West Chatham, a middle-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His younger brother Taylor Bennett is following his footsteps, carving out his own path as a rap artist, but it’s their parents who are a constant presence in both of their lives.
Bennett’s father, Kenneth Bennett, currently works in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office as deputy chief of staff, previously working as an aide for the late Mayor Harold Washington and then Sen. Barack Obama.
“My dad showed me a lot not just on a political level but when he was the block club president, watching his engagement with the people around him, building communal systems and trust within our neighborhood. That made me feel like that was integral to becoming a man. There’s a lot of things he taught me — what a man looks like, how a man should act.” He said before his parents met, his mom owned a successful hair salon and was diligent in building her business — mentoring other hair stylists.
“Watching that at a young age and watching my mom go through different jobs where she was her own boss, building stuff on her own. She used teamwork and her own determination. That’s what led me to believe that things were possible. As a new father himself, he understands more now than ever — holding dear what he’s learned from his parents. “The many things that they’ve done have worked like chapters in my own self-help prevention book.”
With the continued climate of violence that is ripping through Chicago, Bennett is trying to curtail that image with the positive, partnering up with various organizations over the summer.
When he was 15, he began attending open mic sessions while he was in high school — he and other young artists have built a musical kinship. Mike Hawkins, known throughout the spoken word community as Brother Mike, formed a haven for young students to perform and polish their craft during the open mic nights at YOUmedia Center. Chance considered him a close mentor and creative guide.
“He influenced a new bohemian team of young, poor artists. We were creating art with each other to create a larger community. He built an entire scene, I really don’t know if he knew that. He made myself, Vic Mensa, Noname Gypsy, Saba, Donnie Trumpet and many other artists. We all came out of that space and we would come to YOUmedia to spit a poem. The crowd would fluctuate between 50-250 people.”
He said the platform allowed him to pass out literature and mixtapes to people, building a fanbase that still supports him at his concerts.
Both he and his friend Malcolm London kicked off a special “Open Mike” in 2015 sponsored by Young Chicago Authors to give youth a safe environment performing and creatively networking with peers. The series has been embraced by other city agencies to create similar programming initiatives.
Bennett’s company is also partnering with the Chicago Park District presenting one-day workshops centered around the arts to youth.
Recently seen on Instagram with hip hop’s first couple, Jay-Z and Beyonce, and friend/creative partner Vic Mensa, he joins the young and gifted roster of international rock stars.
His non-profit organization SocialWorks is working with several partners — committed in working within communities throughout the city. In addition to his busy touring and recording schedule, Bennett is working with the Field Museum on the African restoration project for the museum’s upcoming exhibit in Spring 2017.
Chance the Rapper has entered a musical fraternity of artists who have contributed to the DNA of the “Chicago” sound. He is a second generation of this history from Chicago’s house and juke sound to its hip hop and R&B counterparts, Twista, Do or Die, Common, Da Brat, Crucial Conflict, R. Kelly and Kayne West— he joins them, incorporating their styles and influences throughout his music. He believes his mission is not done and knows there are great shoulders he is standing on. Often sporting a black White Sox baseball cap — he shows the pride of his city wherever he goes whether it’s performing on Jimmy Kimmel’s show to “Saturday Night Live” — he is here for the long haul.
“Everybody starts out as one voice. You got to have one voice. When that one voice calls out anything that’s communal can create a ripple effect with others.”
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