Chance the Rapper on Acid Rap’s 10th Anniversary – Vulture

Chance in 2013.
Photo: Todd Diederich

In 2013, as new albums from Jay-Z, Drake, and Kanye topped the charts, a small mixtape you couldn’t even buy on iTunes became one of the year’s most talked about releases. Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap felt and sounded different from everything else on the market: An exuberant, introspective collection of rap songs drenched in soul, jazz, and gospel influences. Though much of the subject matter skewed serious, the Chicago native’s playfulness shined through: His grizzly, charming sing-song delivery; his scattered yells of “AHHH!” over a honky-tonk piano in “Juice,” that school-house taunt refrain on “Nana.” Listening to Acid Rap felt like cutting class with your best friend, and with features from the likes of Vic Mensa, Twista, Childish Gambino, and Action Bronson, it turned Chance the Rapper into the biggest indie rapper in America.

Ten years later, much has changed for Chance, hip-hop, and America at large. The 30-year-old rapper, who is currently embarking on a mini-tour honoring Acid Rap’s anniversary, admits rap doesn’t sound nearly as fun as it used to. “I think if I had to blame it on something, I would just say times is hard,” he told me for a recent episode of Into It. But Acid Rap still remains a classic, and Chance is excited about where rap is headed as well as the legacy of his breakthrough mixtape and the days before he became a star. “Right after Acid Rap dropped, I was just running around trying to do small shows or people’s little local radio stations,” he recalls. “Whatever I could do to make it get heard.” Clearly, it worked.

Listen to the full interview from Into It below or read on for an excerpt of our conversation.

Where was Chance ten years ago when Acid Rap was released? What did your life look like? 
I mean, I didn’t have money, but I also didn’t have kids. I was living at my parents’ house and just trying to make this dream work. This was my second mixtape under the moniker Chance the Rapper. And I had dropped a mixtape the year before this called 10 Day. That was all about me getting suspended from high school and that landed me on a national tour with Donald Glover as an opener. Now, nobody in the crowd knew who I was. I think the preparation of that tour put me in the right mindset as a performer to really push to make this mixtape heard. And then I got picked up to go on tour with Mac Miller, who was incredibly impactful to my career and to my understanding of the industry. And soon after that I did my first tour, and that was when I first made some money. I know I keep talking about money like it doesn’t matter, but if you asked me about ten years ago—

It mattered.
—It mattered a lot.

Acid Rap really captured this youthful exuberance. Not every song was happy, but a lot of it was and there was this energy that crackled. 
For me, what was so cool was that it was real underground. Music was still very heavy on the iTunes side. This is before any large-scale streaming service. Around that time I was trying to shop for deals, and it just wasn’t really working out the way that I wanted to. Not that people weren’t trying to sign me, but they wasn’t trying to give me no control. We put together this mixtape with my own money. And the way it spread was just so different. Like, SoundCloud, DatPiff, LiveMixtapes.

I had the DatPiff app on my iPhone just to listen to it.
A lot of people have that story. The music felt like it belonged to people. It felt like it was something you had to go outside of your typical iTunes or buying a CD from FYE or Walmart or Best Buy. You had to find it. Somebody had to tell you about it.

When did you know that Acid Rap was blowing up?
I did a listening party the day of the release in Chicago where I rapped a couple of the songs but played the mixtape all the way through. And I remember there being a line around two blocks long of people waiting outside. The difference between that listening party and the listening party from my 10 Day mixtape, it was just so different. I went on tour in Europe that same year in 2013. I got two really cool offers. I got brought to do a few dates with Eminem in Ireland.

Eminem in Ireland surrounded by whites.
Yeah, I was in Dublin, surrounded by whites, and it was a lot. We did this place called Slane Castle. It was 90,000 people. I went from opening for Mac Miller and Donald Glover for 2,500-cap rooms in America where I was kind of still struggling, to going to foreign countries with Eminem. Macklemore took me on in the same year. I was playing these sold-out rooms where the entire audience didn’t really know who I was, but in a lot of cases didn’t even speak English. And so, there was a really big barrier between me being recognized for this body of work that I put out that I was seeing going crazy in the States, but being stuck overseas. When I came back, I did my own little mini tour. It started off as 35 dates. It got extended to 50 dates. I did every major and small market around the U.S. and all sold-out shows.

Is that when you knew the album blew up?
Yes, that was the longest answer you probably ever got. But, that’s when I felt it.

What’s your favorite song on Acid Rap?
Probably “Acid Rain,” just because it’s the most pure to me. It’s a long single-verse song with no hook that’s just me rapping very transparently and talking about issues that I had with drugs, with some of my closest friends, with the PTSD after I saw my friend get killed. It was a lot of stuff that I would not normally talk about so plainly in my music.

Good Ass Anniversary: Chance celebrating ten years of Acid Rap in Chicago.
Photo: Keeley Parenteau

In spite of having these songs that deal with PTSD and drug use, the vibe in Acid Rap is often joyful and fun. When I look at Acid Rap and Coloring Book together and compare it to stuff I hear now, it seems like none of the biggest men in rap are as happy or having as much fun as you were on those albums. I feel like women in rap right now are having fun. But the men seem sad. Is it fair to say that?
Yeah, I don’t think they’re happy. What a lot of us experience is melancholy, sadness, displacement, poor relationships, poverty, attacks on your humanity or your masculinity … It’s a lot. I was lucky to make it off being different, but a lot of people make it off of a different angle of the same shit. I feel for niggas. I feel bad. I was just watching a video on Instagram, somebody I know from Chicago and they was like, “Why you think we be in the club feeling some type of way, feeling on edge just because we listening to fucking four hours of murder music about the most despair you ever seen?” Most of us have lost somebody to violence or witnessed some type of violence that scarred us. I don’t think that there’s this master plan from all these niggas that made it out of poverty to continue this fucked-up cycle of producing dark, angry music. I think that the powers that be are a lot of times in control of what direction we’re going.

Can you put your finger on when an actual shift began or what caused it?
I think shit is just worse. In terms of public safety, even the weather. The Earth is not as lit as it was in 2013. I think if I had to blame it on something, I would just say times is hard. Everybody is just rapping what they know.

I want to talk a bit about Kanye’s influence on you, especially at the time of Acid Rap. How was his work affecting the way you made that album?
I mean, “Good Ass Intro” is a direct sample from the intro to a Kanye West mixtape that came out when I was in high school called the Get Well Soon mixtape. And then, there’s six interpolations towards the end of the record, and those are a lot of interpolations of Kanye-produced beats for Common or Twista or himself. But since ‘04, I’ve been extremely influenced by Ye’s music and his art.

One of the things I think of a lot in your journey in the last ten years since Acid Rap was entering this space where as a Black man in hip-hop who is famous, you got to be a little outspoken on politics. But I’ve heard less from you on that front these days. What has been your philosophy in the last ten years about how much you dabble in those spaces? 
I think before, my understanding of politics was through the governing bodies and systems in the United States. I’ve just, I guess kind of become a little, I don’t know.

A little what? Jaded?
It’s not even jaded. It’s just like I don’t believe in that shit anymore.

I want to unpack that. Are you saying you don’t believe in electoral politics anymore to effect change, or are you saying something else?
I’m also like a whole fucking public figure, so I don’t want to dissuade anybody from whatever it is that they believe is important. And we Black, so it’s a very big deal for us to be able to have the right to vote and to vote without being terrorized.

I think I’ve gotten a better understanding of my identity and placement in the world outside of notoriety or money because in certain spaces, neither one of those matter when somebody can tell that I’m Black. I think Black folks, our natural destiny in the near future is to collectivize and create a more homogenous body. We attach so many other categories to our identity that kind of keep us splintered. I think the only time that we’re allowed to be Black people is when we’re the Black vote. And again, I’m not trying to dissuade anybody from voting or from making their voice heard or any shit like that. I’m very focused on politics. I’m just focused on it in a different space.

This is the most guarded I’ve heard you in this conversation.
I told myself I wasn’t even going to talk about shit like that anymore. To tell you that I don’t want to talk about it, I got to give a long explanation.

I feel like when you talk about politics, you are so much more aware of who’s hearing it and how they’re hearing it, and you’re more guarded on that stuff than you are on just the music. Would it be fair to say that?
It’s one of the more important things that I could talk about. And there’s a great sense of like, responsibility. I think any time I get a question about it, the first thing that happens is my brain fills up with all the things that I’m mad about. The second thing that happens is I start to think about how I could be misquoted or misunderstood. And then I try and speak on it with both parts of my brain working at the same time, and it comes off as guarded.

I’m not even as worried about a quote being misunderstood. I’m more worried about myself being misunderstood because a quote misdirects everybody. That’s just the game that we play though.

It’s the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. You’re seeing all the press coverage and everyone’s talking about the history and where it came from. But, I’m not seeing as much conversation about homophobia, or sexism, or the glorification of extreme wealth in hip-hop. Do you think our conversation about hip-hop turning 50 is as critical as it should be?That’s a good question. I think it’s always a good time to have a conversation about how we could be better. But I also think that there’s a time and space for celebration. Hip-hop is the dominating culture in terms of fashion, music, and art. It mobilizes all of the capitalist movements, advertising, and marketing. All of these things are using our car to get there. It’s like our car is supposed to have us in the front seat driving, and we’re just still in the back seat arguing.

We do have a huge problem with homophobia. We do have a huge problem with sexism. We do have a huge problem with misogyny, with violence, with over-romanticizing extreme wealth and with a lot of stuff. I hate to sound like I keep flip-flopping, but hip-hop is a reflection of the world. It’s not just a promotional tool. It’s also what people are experiencing and what people grew up understanding. We do need to fix hip-hop to fix the people, but like, that’s what I’m tasked with I think.

Do you think things are getting better at all on any of those fronts? Because, I’m not sure.
I’m going to say no. So I started this festival this year called the Black Star Line Festival, and the goal of it is to create free weeklong activations in different Black countries where we can collectivize and share ideas. I think one of the biggest hurdles in this is that a lot of Black countries outside of the U.S. demonize or flat out have made being gay illegal. And so, a big, big thing that I’ve been trying to figure out is how can I collectivize people under this umbrella of Blackness whilst also eliminating some of those other identifiers, like the division of nationality or the division of religion, or most importantly, the division of gender and sexuality. It’s a tough thing because I’m also an outsider. As much as we centralize ourselves as Americans, I’m a foreigner in all these spaces.

We should define this festival more clearly for folks who might not know what’s going on. 
I had some conversations with my grandma, and she was just teaching me about the global Black identity. After learning more about Marcus Garvey and his efforts to create Black mobility, I realized that I was never given an opportunity to tour Africa. The only show that I ever did on the continent was in South Africa, which is typically where we go when bigger artists go over there. But, I’ve been in every nook and cranny in Europe. I’ve played Asia, Australia, South America. But, in order for me to get to West Africa, I would have to put on my own concert. In going to Ghana, I realized that the infrastructure and appetite existed for not only me to play a show, but so many other artists. We ended up putting it on this past year with myself, T-Pain, Erykah Badu, Dave Chappelle, Vic Mensa, Tobe Nwigwe, Jeremih. It really put a better understanding and a new identity on all of us where we don’t have to be Black Americans, we don’t have to be Ghanaians, we don’t have to be Africans.

It’s about the collective.
Exactly, we got to be brothers and sisters.

That seems so not what the predominant message of American hip-hop is right now.
Well, it’s also like every once in a while, you see a new white rapper or Hispanic rapper that pops up and they’re doing a cartoonish, buffoonish interpolation. They’re blowing up, and they have the budget to market and the money to pay for Instagram posts. That creates a snowball effect of more people feeling like that’s what it is to be hip-hop, that’s what it is to be Black. So it’s like we are all in this cycle.

I mean, I listen to a lot of violent music. I like violent music. But, the fact that that’s the most successful music out there is not necessarily by our design. I don’t think that’s Black people’s goal. I live in Chicago. When you asked me about a turning point, Chicago changed everything. There was a wave of music that came out right around the same time as Acid Rap. I hope that this doesn’t come off as giving blame, but the popularization of what we had going on here definitely changed the landscape.

You’re talking about drill music.
Yeah. Drill music specifically in Chicago, blowing up the way it did, influenced the entire world. There’s Italian drill music, there’s Chinese drill music.

Listen, there’s a long tale of Chief Keef to be told.
Yeah, and that’s what I’m saying and that’s what I don’t want, I can’t blame Keef …

This is the life he lived. He was speaking his truth.
Literally. For me, I think that if we are to move towards upper mobility, towards liberation, towards acceptance, towards self-love, it’s going to come through our tool that’s lasted 50 years. Hip-hop didn’t just last because we let it last. The same shit that happened to all the people that Elvis fucked over and the Beach Boys fucked over, that happened in hip-hop. That’s happening today in hip-hop. Hip-hop has survived, and I think it has a divine reason to because it is our tool for Black liberation. It’s just waiting on its right moment.

What I’m hearing is you received a bit of an education since Acid Rap was released, on what hip-hop means, what Blackness means, and how an artist like Chance the Rapper fits into that. What do you think has been the biggest shift in terms of the way you think about hip-hop and Blackness since Acid Rap was released ten years ago?
I look at it all as one day. Acid Rap was yesterday to me. I also did a lot of drugs, so I have terrible memory-loss issues. But, I would say the biggest thing that changed me was a phone conversation I had with my grandma. She got my daughter Kensli some kids’ books. One on Juneteenth, which I didn’t think was too heavy, but still a little bit much for a 5-year-old. But also, there was one on the Tulsa race riot. And so, I called her and I was like, “Hey, you know I love you, but what is this? Do you really want me to read these to her?” And she just really taught my ass. What she was saying was that my parents’ generation, people born in the late ‘60s, mid-’60s, had to be taught as a means of survival that racism had died out, that people don’t see color, and the effects of Jim Crow and and the burning of Black cities were all solved so that their kids weren’t running around getting they ass beat in the streets. Because, they had witnessed firsthand how vicious and violent the U.S. as a society would be to those people. She told me that she was very proud of the changes that she was seeing out of my generation and this information age that we live in where people are actually allowed to know the truth. So I think her telling me the importance of imparting that information on my daughter made me realize how important it is that I do that education for myself.

What advice do you wish your grandmother would’ve called you with the day before Acid Rap was released?
I remember my grandma said this crazy prayer over me when I was working on Acid Rap where she said, “I prayed to God that everything that you do that is not like Him will fail and crumble.” And I was like, “Did you just put a curse on me? I’m trying to get on. I’m trying to make it.”

That’s some Black grandmother ish right there.
Right? I think she would say the same prayer. I’m in the same boat. If I was to talk to myself ten years ago, I would just say, “I’m proud of you. Keep doing everything you’re doing the same way. You’re fearless, you’re dedicated, you’re honest, and do what you’re doing.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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