Watching Ric Wilson bound across the stage, it's clear that the young 21-year-old artist thrives on energy. In person, he beams. He's skinny with an unruly crop of hair, a single earring dangling from his left ear, and is live wire whose optimism is infectious. A product of Young Chicago Authors—the same poetry program which helped launch the careers of Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and a handful of other rising Chicago stars in the past three years—his work is grounded in political awareness and confident poetics. Yet more than anything, he seems interested in conveying his own personality through his music—both as a recording artist and as an entertainer.
Soul Bounce, which is premiering below, isn't his first release (The Sun Was Out EP came out at the end of last year), but it's his first true debut since he began garnering a substantial devoted local fanbase. I met with Wilson and two members of his eight-piece live band at Athenian Room, a greek restaurant in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. This weekend Wilson will play Chicago's North Coast Festival, an opportunity he was initially denied. We talked to Wilson about how his fans helped him earn the festival booking, his background in music, and what it's like to adapt recorded material for the stage as a rising artist in a competitive Chicago market.
Noisey: First off, what happened with the North Coast festival competition? [North Coast had advertised a chance for artists to win a spot in a festival lineup by competing in a battle of the bands-style finals performance.
Ric Wilson: They had a contest and we really pushed hard for it and got almost 200 more votes than everyone. That was just to be finalist, to be in the battle of the bands. They didn't make me a finalist because they said the song I submitted, or my music, wasn't a stylistic fit for North Coast. I didn't want to take it to Twitter and look like the dude who's mad and have no following. Then [acclaimed Chicago recording artist and poet] Jamila [Woods] tweeted it, and she's performing at North Coast. Then everyone really started tweeting it.
That's bizarre. Your stuff fits in with the other acts at North Coast.
It's pretty hard to find a place where my music doesn't really fit. Other than country venues. Even rock shit—you heard "Soul Bounce," with the guitars. Then the guy called me from North Coast and was just like, "Yo, you got a pretty hard fanbase." He was like, "I swear we're not racist." I think the idea was to make me a finalist, everyone would be like, "OK." [They thought] I would do a set with just a DJ, and they could easily pick a band. They didn't know what I had in store. So I brought out these motherfuckers [points to his bandmates] and we killed it. These are probably the best drummers and guitarists and people in the city right now. And youngest. At the finals, we brought out like 500 people.
Tell me about the project. How long did it take to put together?
I really started working on the project in February. I was just working on music and had songs that sound similar and put them together, and put an EP out. I really wanted to get it out during the summer. I don't make music for winter. If I drop some shit while it's still warm outside, motherfuckers will be like "awwww…."
When you started getting into this were there artists you saw as being in your lane?
Not really. I found that Louie Lastic beat and I made the song "You Need Me" to that beat. And ever since then I've been trying to find stuff that's soulful, but has this uptempo house feel. Sort of has EDM drops. That's what I was trying to do with Soul Bounce. Really figure out—get music to get people up and going. Because I have a lot of energy when performing. If I can't bring the energy in the same track, it would just be off. That's what I was trying to go for. I don't know who really inspired "Soul Bounce."
What's your recording process like?
I found those dudes on SoundCloud and they just kept sending me beats. I usually like to be alone when I write my shit. And then I wake up in the morning, listen to it, re-record it, then I get the stems from them and mix it down. That's the process really. But then for other songs, like "I Got Soul," they sent it and I was like, "There could be more to this." I don't know what song it was—I was with [Chicago band] the O'My's, because I was doing a lot of shit with Maceo [Haymes], and I remember he was talking about, "this would sound dope if you added this, if you added this." I never thought about adding live shit to my shit until I added it to Soul Bounce and I was like, this is dope. I heard the beat to "I Like Soul" and I was like, damn, a trumpet would sound dope here, a saxophone…I really let them be creative with it and it came out dope. I took the creative shit they did and put it into some sort of structure in pro tools.
How do you adapt this sound live?
That's what we've been working on. This whole week, we've had practice every day for the past five days. The hard part is—when we have songs like "Whippin" and "Lord Have Mercy" live, those songs have 70 tracks on them. Ten layered synths. Because the dude who produced them, this 15 year old named James Gent who plays crazy keys, he's like a church guy. We just couldn't do it. "Lord Have Mercy" and "Whip It," I took out some synths and the drums, and we just decided to play it with some of the backing track and the band. "I Got Soul" is easy because the rest of it is just jams. "We Love Us" has no samples. And then "Lost Soul" was really easy because it's a hip-hop song, there aren't that many instruments in it. "Butterfly" was kind of difficult but we've got this crazy guy on keys playing two synths. We're really innovative.
What is it that most interests you in your lyrics? Where do you find inspiration?
When I look for inspiration I go to open mics. I primarily go to YCA—I just look at these young poets, because a lot of the young poets have bars. I'm like, yo, this is inspiring, to keep my lyric game up. It's so easy being a rapper in 2016 to not have good lyrics, to just have basic lyrics. For the live performance process, I really watch a whole bunch of people's live sets. I was just watching Anderson Paak's live set. I was watching James Brown's live set, I think he had the best ever. Better than Michael Jackson I think, even, to me. Parliament, I would watch their shit.
What do you think people should know about the new record. This is most people's first experience with your work.
I think when people hear "Soul Bounce" they should know my first priority is for them to have fun with it. Because a lot of what I'm saying is what black people are trying to say all the time. And people don't really listen. So hopefully the wavelengths bleed in, and if they aren't listening to what I'm saying. I hope people hear it and want to find me, and maybe we can meet some day.
Do you imagine doing this on the road?
I'm planning this first tour, and unfortunately I'll probably only be able to take this guy [his drummer]. Because we're opening up for a band that's not as big. I can come to Chicago and I can bring the whole band out in Chicago. But I go to a place like Seattle, people ain't even really gonna know me. Unless Chance hears our shit and we go on tour with him, then we'll take the whole band, fuck it [laughs]. I don't want to be at the end of the tour and handing everybody like $50, "oh wait, ten of it has to go to room and board." The first tour, me and him might have to split $400 for each show. It's gonna be awhile before we get to that spot. I don't want to do rap tours, though. I want to do festival tours. Azealia Banks does that shit—if you ever listen and study her, they'll play at random ass festivals, like Geneva, Switzerland. I don't really want to be like a super, super big star like Vic Mensa. I want to be like M.I.A.-big. M.I.A. is huge, but she's like, "I'm gonna go around the world, do festivals…."
They don't have sales expectations for her.
Exactly. They just know she has a really dope live set. If people remember me for anything, remember that my band was dope, and I had a really dope live set.
What genres influenced the sound you put together?
It's super weird—with "Soul Bounce," a lot of the melodies that I found come from bachata music. I've been listening to a whole bunch of old Aventura and Prince Royce. Their melodies are crazy. I grew up listening to bachata because my second family is Mexican as fuck. That shit has been really inspirational. I've been listening to this band called Hippocampus. Their dynamics—I try to put a lot of dynamics in, like a rollercoaster. British house. Prince inspired a lot of this. Oasis inspired some of it. A whole bunch of motherfuckers folks wouldn't expect.
Where are you from?
I live in Alsip, Illinois, the Blue Island community. We grew up around all these white people for the first five years, then white flight happened. They closed the projects, and now it's only black people and Mexicans who live around there. It's pockets of white people. But the majority of people I went to high school with at Dwight D. Eisenhower high school in Blue Island—70% Mexican, 30% black.
What music did you listen to as a kid?
I didn't listen to rap music until I was 14. I would listen to Stevie Wonder, he was my favorite artist by far. Temptations, I had this cassette. My dad collected albums and shit. Michael Jackson definitely. Sam Cooke, I listened to Sam Cooke a whole lot. Gospel music, if you just start singing a church song out of nowhere—because I went to church every Sunday. If y'all go to a black church, the preacher won't say what the selection is. You know how some churches say, "We're going to sing this," and you pull it out and the lyrics are there? The preacher just goes, "And the lorrrrd…." and everybody knows the song. That's the back end music-wise. I grew up playing basketball in Marquette Park, since I was 5, 6 years of age. I was a dancer. From when I was 14 to 16 I had a group. Like a breakdancing mixture with footworking. I incorporate that a lot in my shows now.
What was the first rap you got into?
The first rap I got into was Tupac. Tupac, "Changes." I really liked what he was saying. I also liked "Troublesome." It's this whole diss record. It's really really good. Then Drake inspired me to rap. Drake wasn't Drake-Drake, right before So Far Gone came out. I used to write love poems and I would try to rap on them bitches. I didn't like rapping so I would write raps for my homie, and I would sing on the track. Now I'm kind of doing both of them, with a little bit of autotune.
David Drake is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.