Photos by Transmental, courtesy of Smino
Smino’s 3M Nike five panel hat is glowing silver, illuminated and bright as he walks onstage at the Chicago venue Schuba’s. Though this isn’t any kind of debut, he’s still decked out, with gold sunglasses planted on his face and two gold chains dangling from his neck. “Hey Chicago, my name’s Smino, and I’m from St. Louis. Who else from the Lou?” he bellows into the mic, his accent punctuating the ‘oo’ in Lou.
“Zero Fatigue!” he yells, prompting the audience to join in a call-and-response. The crackly, guitar-rhythmic beat drops for his most popular track “Smellin Like a Re-Up”—which currently has nearly 60,000 plays on Soundcloud—and his country-like twang carries into the song’s vocal harmonies. Two of Smino’s homies and integral members of Zero Fatigue, Monte Booker and Jay2AintShit, stand at the back of the stage, amping up the crowd.
Zero Fatigue, he later explains to me, is the name of his squad, his life model, his rallying cry, and most importantly, the name of his upcoming debut mixtape as Smino. Zero Fatigue means exactly what you think it means: No sleep until he makes this music shit work. And the 3M hat is wildly appropriate. “3M,” featuring Jay2AintShit, is the lead single from Zero Fatigue and the song we’re premiering below.
Smino was born into a musical family: His father plays keys, his mother sings, and his grandfather was a famous blues bassist in St. Louis. Both his father and grandfather were given opportunities to take their music far, but they gave up their success to be with their families.
“I never forget [my grandfather] telling me this,” Smino recalls. “When my auntie was real little and [my grandfather] was home from a tour, they was just chillin’ and she was like, ‘Daddy, when you going back home?’ She was talking about on the road. And [my grandfather] was like, ‘I can’t do that to my family.’
“Pretty much the same [happened] with my dad. Like my dad had a… full ride scholarship but had kids. So here I am, shit I ain’t got no kids. I kind of damn near broke the curse on that shit. That’s pretty much my purpose… They sacrificed that shit for me, so I’m like I can’t not do this shit.”
Smino’s family used music as a way to keep him focused. When he was seven, his father gave him a set of drums, which he played in his church’s band. Though he never sang in church, it’s is where he learned the vocal harmonies that are present in his music. At seven, he also began rapping, emulating his older cousin who was an MC; by the time he was in middle school, Smino was known for smashing his classmates in cyphers on the playground. He began producing when he was 13.
But Smino’s pursuit of a rap career involved a lot of ups and downs. After high school, he attended Chicago’s Columbia College for a year, but his dislike for Columbia and Chicago took him home to St. Louis, where he focused his attention on YDOC, or Young Dumb and Out of Control, a duo group he was in with St. Louis rapper Bari Allen. They dropped a collaborative project called YDOC, and then, under his given name Chris Smith Jr., Smino released his debut solo mixtape SMEEZY DOT COM. The next couple years proved to be a pain: Smino was back and forth between St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago, trying to make the rap thing work. There was a period of time where he wasn’t doing anything but selling beats, just to keep doing music and making money. Fortunately, one good thing that came out of his time at Columbia was meeting Chris Inumerable, owner of Classick Studios—where Smino now records—and who soon became Smino’s manager and an essential member of Zero Fatigue.
Once Smino moved back to Chicago, everything fell into place. He met Monte Booker, who soon became his main producer. “I feel like he got a fucking marching band at a carnival in his head at all times,” Smino comments about Booker’s sound. Smino was drawn to Booker in the first place by their similar production styles—Smino particularly appreciates Booker’s drum patterns, strings, and hi-hats—and Booker’s grandfather was a pastor. Smino placed all his trust in Booker’s production, allowing Smino to find himself as a vocalist and songwriter. Booker produced “3M” and most of Zero Fatigue.
Though Chicago has been the place that has pushed his music, Smino will always rep St. Louis. And his objective is to let his family and friends know that there are rewards in taking risks. “I want my family to know that you can do anything,” he says. “Like you can not do regular shit. You can go as far as you want in anything… That’s what I’m hoping to achieve. I never seen anybody 100 percent in my life chase their dream. Never… And it’s like if you actually go through with that shit, bruh, like everything is going to align itself to make sure that you get it.”
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