Announcement: Good morning, kids. This is your principal here at Okayplayer Academy. Your poetry teacher, Mr. Che Smith affectionately known as Rhymefest, is moving to Houston and will no longer be working in Chicago. I know you’re all sad, but we all gotta move on at some point, right? Anyway, as a special homework assignment, I want you to listen to Mr. Smith’s sophomore album El Che, especially, the mellifluous “Say Wassup,” “Truth on You” with the dope 3D video, or the hard-hitting “Talk My Shit” (it’s all right to curse just this once) and analyze the craft of true lyricism. Meanwhile, as a tribute to Mr. Smith, we will have a Q&A in which our beloved Rhymefest tells us why the kids are so important.
OKP: Why are you moving to Houston?
Rhymefest: Because I love the city. I grew up in Chicago, but it’s time for me to move on, man. Chicago is averaging one murder a day. My son is eleven years old. I gotta be able to allow him to go and explore the community, ride his bike, make friends, you know? A black eye is one thing, but when you come home with a bullet wound, that’s a whole other thing. I have to do what I have to do to protect my family. I got people down in Texas and I been out there a few times. It’s a beautiful community. DJs are out there and they got a burgeoning Hip Hop scene. I wanna be a part of it.
OKP: Since when had you been thinking about the move?
Rhymefest: Basically, I went out there on tour. I did this thing called the “Motorcycle Diaries” where I stayed with different fans at every state that I toured. They basically took me to their hood, to their community. I got to deal with their families. The best experience I had was in Houston, Texas where I got to stay with two different sets of fans. I had such a wonderful time. Bun B was standing right there cheering me on while I was performing. Slaughterhouse was like C’mon Bun, C’mon ‘Fest, let’s go do this and that. I personally met Sheila Jackson Lee. She’s the Congresswoman out there and her and I are real cool. I’m like this will be the perfect place to come and start a business. Open up a chicken shack, you know what I’m saying? Rap, and do my thing. You got dead prez in Texas. You got Erykah Badu in Texas. You got my man S-1 from the Strangefruit Project in Texas.
OKP: Oh yeah, that’s right.
Rhymefest: I think Texas is like the black man’s California.
OKP: Oh wow. You sold me on that. What is your next favorite thing to do besides rhyming?
Rhymefest: Oh man, so many things. I love comics. I love community activism. I love riding motorcycles. I love traveling. There’s so many things in this world to learn and to do. I mean I guess if I didn’t rap, I would probably be a teacher.
OKP: Wow, that’s funny because during the day that’s what I do. I’m a high school teacher.
Rhymefest: What level do you teach?
OKP: I teach 9th, 10th, and 11th grade.
Rhymefest: Wow, that’s crazy. That’s really crazy.
OKP: It’s like a roller coaster. There’s some high moments and there’s some low moments.
Rhymefest: Let me ask you, where do you teach? Do you teach in New York?
OKP: Yeah, in Brownsville.
Rhymefest: What is your assessment about the future of the youth in America? Is there a pattern that you’re seeing in young children today?
OKP: Hmmm, I definitely see a pattern. I think with today’s youth, the pattern is what I like to call “microwave society.” With this particular generation, because we have internet and we have YouTube where you can instantly see someone’s success, kids feel they’re entitled to that. You’ll ask any of the kids in my school what they wanna be, they wanna be an MC like you. They wanna be a ball player. A significant chunk of my school feels that way.
Rhymefest: Is your school black?
OKP: Yeah. All African-American kids and sometimes I wish somebody like you would speak to them and be like, “Look this is the hustle and this takes time.” I ask them, “How are you gonna get on?” “Oh I’m gonna post a YouTube video like Soulja Boy and I’m gonna get millions of views.” Like these are real answers that kids give me.
Rhymefest: Well, why don’t they do it now?
OKP: I try to tell them that. There’s a couple of them who really put in the work, but most of them feel fame and success is this magical world that they’ll automatically be a part of in ten years. I’m like, “You gotta do that stuff now,” but they’re like, “All right, okay.” That’s what I noticed. It’s this microwave society.
Rhymefest: I think that’s because they really don’t believe what they’re saying. I talk to children. I go into high schools and I speak to kids. I don’t do auditorium lectures because I don’t believe that’s helpful. They become disruptive because they’re not being dealt with in a smaller setting, so you can’t have artists come through and speak to children in group settings. You have to have them come through to the actual classroom and speak to them in the class and have the artists go from class to class because they’ll get more from the speaker.
I was in one classroom and one of the dudes was like, “I rap.”
I was like, “Ooh you rap?”
He’s like, “You gonna get my mixtape?”
I was like, “Cool why don’t you come here and do your thing, show me what you got.”
“Na, na, na.”
I was like, “You wanna get put on? I’m about to hook you up. We about to be in the studio. Let’s get it.”
The class was like, “Go ahead rap.”
He was like, “My raps got a lot of curses in them.”
I was like, “So what, come up here and bleep them out. Man, I’m about to rap right now and my raps have a lot curses, but I’m about to show you how I can bleep the cursing out of my rap real quick.”
So I did it. Then I was like, “Come up here and do it.”
He was like, “Man, na, na.”
I was like, “You just missed your opportunity right here right now,” and he let it go by.
A few days later, the teacher from the classroom told me, “You know that boy? He told me he want me to give you his mixtape when he’s done.”
I said, “You wanna know why he wants to give me his mixtape? Because he felt like what he had to say didn’t matter. He needed to hide it behind a beat.”
If he had a beat, that’s preferable. If he would have got up in front of the classroom, he knew ain’t nobody was gonna feel that crap. He knew it. They know it.
OKP: That’s a crazy ass anecdote, for real. That’s a story that really encapsulates everything in terms of people who rhyme for microwave production and people who really put time into lyrics. If you had an audience of more kids, how would you tell them to make their words stand out without music?
Rhymefest: What I would say is learn how to tell a story. Learn how to say something without saying it directly. Learn how to imply. When you listen to the greatest singers and the greatest lyricists and the greatest poets in the world, there was always an implication. I always ask the kids, “What is the shortest poem ever written?” “I don’t know,” they say. I say, “The shortest poem ever written is ‘Me, we!’” That could mean one hundred different things. I say, “You know who wrote that? Mohammed Ali,” and they be like, “Wow!” You know what I’m saying? It’s a simple anecdote, but it tells you something about lyrics. It don’t gotta be complicated, but they gotta be multi-versed. It don’t gotta be complicated, but they gotta be sophisticated and fun. Me, we! That’s fun, it’s two words and it has so many different meanings.
OKP: Right, right. Taking time to talk to the youth. That goes along with the theme of El Che because that’s activism right there. It doesn’t get anymore grassroots than talking to the kids of low income families, talking to the future. What other ways have you been an activist?
Rhymefest: Well I’ve been active in trying to bring grocery stores to the city of Chicago. There’s a lot of people who are getting their groceries from the local gas station, so fresh fruits and vegetables are not being sold in our community. They have to drive way out to find them, so there’s a real push for that. I’ve been working with Congress on Proposition 848 for artists’ rights. You gotta put both feet into it. You gotta get in that water, so that what I’ve been doing.
OKP: True indeed. On the cover of El Che, you’re reading Invisible Man and you like comics right?
Rhymefest: Right. When you called I was on Twitter talking comics. I was talking about black comic books. When I talk to the children, I ask, “If you had a superpower what superpower would it be?” Some kids say, “If I had a superpower I would fly” and then I say, “You could be the best pilot ever.” “If I had a superpower, I would be able to heal.” “Then you can be the best doctor ever.” Any superpower you name, you can actually make it come into fruition. Some people say, “What if I wanna read minds?” I say, “Become a psychiatrist.” They say, “What if I want to be invisible?” “Become a spy.” You know what I’m saying? These kids got to know that they can. Somebody got to tell them that they can be it.
OKP: That’s what’s up.
Rhymefest: Self-esteem is a muscle like the muscles in your body. You exercise the muscles in your body, make them stronger, and they keep you young. Self-esteem is something you can’t exercise yourself. It’s something that other people gotta help you with. They have to spot you. Someone says, “I love you.” Someone says, “You’re smart” “You’re great.” Do you know how long some of these kids go without anybody saying that to them? It’s not only kids, women, people, men. Men grow without fathers. You know how long some of us as grown men go before somebody says “Good job, brother”?
OKP: Interesting food for thought. So ideally what’s the goal for El Che?
Rhymefest: My goal for this album is piss a little bit of everybody off. You know how they say, “Man I gotta have that song for the club?” You want everybody to like you?
Rhymefest: I want a little bit of everybody to be pissed off because my goal for this album is a personal goal. One of the goals was to put the album out. That’s been a challenge for the last three years. So, now that that goal is done, the next goal is to inspire independent thought and help people get away from group thought. Group thought is one of the things that’s killing our people because we all think as a group and we’re brainwashed as a group. I wanna be one of the catalysts for the opposite way of thinking.
OKP: Yeah that makes a lot of sense. I appreciate what you said about the children and that anecdote that you told about that kid because that shit is just true in general.
Rhymefest: What Imma say with that is as people we know. We know what our problems are. We know what’s wrong with us. We know that our raps are wack. We’re like, “Man, just wait ’til I get back to a beat.” They think the beat is gonna camouflage it. My thing is I don’t deal with trying to convince people of things that I know that they already know. What I do is try to get them to come to grips with it.
For more Sidik, check out his blog