The Come Up: Alex Wiley
This June, just as Chance The Rapper's star was beginning to become blinding off the strength of his off-the-wall Acid Rap mixtape, another young kid from Chicago released his own project that existed outside of what had become the new normal of Chicago drill music. Alex Wiley, who went to elementary school with Chance and hung with the likes of Kembe X and Vic Mensa, released Club Wiley, a wild, occasionally schizophrenic mixtape with massive production that veered all over the map, combining hip-hop with distorted guitars, rapping with half-singing and features from the likes of Chance, Kembe, Vic, Freddie Gibbs, Action Bronson, Monster Mike and the Hood Internet. And then there was "Spaceship II," a re-interpretation of Kanye's College Dropout hit "Spaceship," which brought in Chance as well as GLC, who was also on Kanye's original. The track caught a lot of attention, and Wiley's come up was officially under way.
Now, Wiley's grabbing national attention, with a big show tonight headlining New York City's Santos Party House alongside Dyme-A-Duzin, Pro Era's A La $ole, Jean Deaux and Cam Meekins. Find out more about him in The Come Up. —As told to Dan Rys, (@danrys)
On Getting Into Rap:
Alex Wiley: My little bro Kembe X was rapping, and we would go to the studio with him. He had these, not serious raps, but some straightforward rap music that he would record, and for the rest of the sessions while we were waiting for his mom to come pick us up—this was in a suburb really far from where we lived—we would make these joke songs. We made this song called "No Fat Chicks" that was about this girl who made a whole mixtape about us. It was real rap beef man, I was 17 [Laughs]. So we put out this song on the way home, and by the time we got home it was all over Twitter and Facebook, it was everywhere. For me, it was so fun making it, and I had already dropped out of high school, so I was like, I might just start rapping and see what's up with that.
It started off, I was just making songs. Once I had a few that I liked it was like, okay, this is the foundation of a mixtape. It was just changing and changing and changing—the only song from the original version is "Spaceships II," that one I made in 2011.
Dropping Out Of High School:
Alex Wiley: Yeah, I had no idea what I was gonna do. I basically went on winter vacation junior year, and I've been on a four-year vacation. I was failing all my classes, I was really fucking up, man. It's hard to explain, because I don't think I'm a stupid person, but man. There's no real excuse, I was just really majorly fucking up in high school, and it was just clear; stay or go, there's no way you're graduating on time. I just kind of bailed, really. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's something that happened, and it was definitely a huge moment that changed the course of my life.
There was at least six months where I was just at home all day, not doing anything, and that was sort of the darkest period. And then this fun thing presented itself, and I got kind of good at it. And the rest was just building on top of that.
On Making Club Wiley:
Alex Wiley: I was working on a project that I was going to call Village Up, and I was doing songs with Stefan Ponce, who produced songs like "K Swiss." Basically, I was jealous of Lil B's Bitch Mob, so I wanted a name for my fans on Twitter, but I also wanted my name on it. There were people calling it Wiley Squadron, or like Battalion, and somebody said Club Wiley. We Tweeted it, and it wound up trending that night. I was going to make this little five-song package, and then as I got to working on that, I was like, man, these songs are good, I don't want it to be a short project, so I made it a full-length. It was a lot of pushing back dates, and expanding projects, and figuring out what to do with it. Everything led to the next thing. It wound up being a lot more serious of a release than I originally intended.
When I discovered I could almost sing, that kind of changed everything I was doing with my music. I was getting a little bored with just rapping so much, so when I discovered I could do some more stuff melodically, that helped. There was this song "High Life" that didn't make the tape but that I put out, and that was my first time doing these big, stacked choruses, where it was supposed to sound kind of big. That kind of inspired the whole tape; there's a lot of layers and stacks. Production-wise, I wanted it to feel like a not-rap project, where you'd be surprised when a rap came. I'm not getting radio play, I have no reason to follow these song structure "rules," so I wanted to mess with it. And that's what I think makes my music good—if I was just rapping for three minutes, I don't think that plays to my strengths. I wanted to make something different.
First I was working with Stefan Ponce, he produced "Own Lane" and "K Swiss," then my friend Kurt who goes by Rozart, who I went to high school with, he made "Earfucked" and "Suck It Revolution." And then these dudes Hippie Sabotage who we found on YouTube, they did "Creepin," "The Woods" and the Outro. Then my friend Wes made "Spaceship II" in like 2010, that's a super old song. Just people I knew. A lot of the production, the reason it sounds so over the top is that I added a lot on top of their beats; guitars, background vocals, we really made a conscious effort to make the whole thing sound a particular way.
I don't want to be super arrogant, but when I feel like I'm really making something really good, I want to be real with myself. I probably made 50 songs for Club Wiley, but there's a reason why there's only 12; I really like these 12 songs. "The Woods" is my favorite track: That's my only disappointment of the tape, that that song isn't a standout to people, because that's my favorite. I like "Earfucked" a lot, I like "Nothing To Me," because I think Monster Mike has the best verse on the whole project. And "Spaceship II."
On Growing Up With Chance The Rapper:
Alex Wiley: I went to grammar school with Chance, my dad and his mom went to high school together. #10Day was pretty much done, and that song "Windows" was already out, and he called me and said, "I want you to put a verse on it and add some bounce to this song, just do what you do. But I need it tomorrow." And the way [Kembe and I] were writing at the time, I was nervous about writing at the time, so it took longer. The way we wrote, we would play these beats and come up with our hooks, and then I would go sit in the bathroom and write my verses. So we did that with the "Windows" joint, and I recorded it and sent it over that night. And that was that. He just felt like the song needed something, and felt that I could add to it.
I don't talk to him as much, just 'cause I don't do a lot of that partying and stuff, and Chance is kind of the opposite. But I've known him for 15 years; he's kind of one of my best friends in the world. It's like family. It's crazy to watch, it's unbelievable. You have to convince yourself that this is happening. Acid Rap was so good, it felt good. What bad can you say about it?
On Making "Spaceship II":
Alex Wiley: That was the first verses I wrote once I became serious about rapping. All the other verses I wrote around that time weren't that good. Honestly, when I listen to that verse it doesn't do a whole lot for me—I like it, but I don't know, I kind of just accidentally wrote a better verse than I was consistently doing at the time. The concept was really cool, and the fact that we got GLC on it, I think, was what made it. I don't think I would have put that song on the tape if we didn't have GLC on it.
But yeah, that was the oldest song on the tape, that was the only thing I hadn't added anything to. I sat on it for a really long time—once we got "Spaceship," I knew that was gonna be a really big song for me. Even before Chance popped off, I knew that me, Chance and GLC on this song—I didn't want to put it out before I felt like it would get the attention that I wanted it to get, so I sat on that song for damn near two years. Glad I did though. I forget about "Spaceship" sometimes, because I'm personally just tired of it; it's years old, I've had it for years now, literally. But if it's your first time hearing it, it's definitely a good song.
On Working With Action Bronson And Freddie Gibbs:
Alex Wiley: The Bronson track ["Icky Woods"] was weird, because it was like an unfinished song that he had at Soundscape Studio. It was a long session, I'd done everything I had to do, and we were just messing around listening to stuff. I heard it and liked it, and I was like, "Do you guys think he would trip if I put a verse on it?" We did it and sent it to him. He had tweeted me before, so I knew he liked my music—we had talked about doing some songs already—so I was like, "Hey man, we got one!" So that was a weird thing, but he was really cool about it, and he liked the song.
And then with Gibbs, we made that maybe a few weeks before he got on it. We knew from Closed Sessions that they had a good relationship with Gibbs, and they were sending him my music and he liked it, so we were trying to find a record to put him on. I wasn't trying to make one specifically for that, but I made that song "Creepin'," and I was listening to it, and I was like, man, this song would be cool with Gibbs on it. Originally, his verse was a guitar solo—you can hear the guitar underneath him, we had to turn it down—I was gonna just let that ride as a solo. We had been talking about the song for a while, he had said he wanted to do it but was just really busy, and he was in town and hit us up, and he was like, "Yo, I'm down to do this right now." I was like, "Let's go." He's like a character man; he was just telling us stories about jail in different states and stuff.
On The "Earfucked" Video:
Alex Wiley: There absolutely wasn't a concept for it. I met this dude Walter Nini at a show that we did that there were like, nine people at. He was from Ohio, this was about a year ago, and he gave me his car and I watched his video. It wasn't for me—it was like a poem or something—but I could see it was really clean, the cuts were cool. And a few days after I had hit him up about doing a video for me in general, I made "Earfucked." I sent it to him and instantly he was like, yes, let's do this. We shot it over two days, it took him like a month to edit it, and it came out. I really like the way it came out, I think it captures the craziness of the song.
We're doing a bunch of videos. Just creatively, that's another way I can expand on the project; I don't want to do remixes, but I want to make sure the songs still have a little burn. And it's just another way to be creative with the music; once the song is done, that doesn't necessarily mean you're done. I'm excited for the videos. I'm working with these guys Visual Mecca for pretty much the whole project. They're cool dudes that I know, they're reliable. They get what I'm trying to do creatively, and I think it's a good fit.
On Chicago Hip-Hop:
Alex Wiley: The scene is kinda like the music. There's so much that Chicago has—it's very ugly, it's very beautiful, it's all over the place, it has everything—and the music kind of reflects that. It has everything. There's pieces of every aspect of Chicago demonstrated in the music scene. So the type of music you make comes from your background, and how you experienced Chicago, and how it raised you personally. So my music is kind of funny, it really represents me. If you're from Chicago, you can tell how a person grew up in Chicago based on their music; I don't know if it's unique to our city, but it's cool.
A lot of people are friends, and you're gonna make music with your friends. I wouldn't necessarily say that everyone's working on everyone's stuff, but there's a lot of collaboration. There's not a lot of people in Chicago that, if I wanted to do a song with them, I couldn't. We all pretty much know each other.