Local rapper keeps Chicago fresh

Rockie Fresh took a minute from his touring schedule to talk about how a skinny, church-going kid is quickly becoming the face of a new generation of Chicago hip-hop.

By Will Sims

Nineteen-year-old rapper Rockie Fresh has taken the independent hip-hop community by storm since the release of his 2009 mixtape Rockie’s Modern Life, appearing on popular blogs like 2dopeboyz and Nahright, and even performing in last month’s South by Southwest festival. His latest mixtape, The Otherside, has a musically refined flow that has been compared to Drake and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West. He took a minute out of his busy touring schedule to talk to the Maroon about how a skinny, church-going kid is quickly becoming the face of a new generation of Chicago hip-hop.

Chicago Maroon: So you started rapping at sixteen. Now you’re 19, you’re playing sold-out shows, you’ve released two mixtapes, and you’re receiving a lot of critical acclaim. Walk me through these past three years.

Rockie Fresh: 16 was when I first started playing around with rap, but I first started getting serious about it when I was 17. When I was 17 I had my first day of college, and realized that school may not have been for me, but I felt that if I chose to pursue music instead of school, my parents would have been disappointed. So I started work on my first project, Rockie’s Modern Life, while still attending school, and it ended up becoming very successful. I had a lot of shows, especially in 2010, and it became mandatory for me to choose between traveling or school. I decided to go with music, and it really had a snowball effect—I released The Otherside last December, and it has 40,000 downloads online, and then I started getting a lot more shows on my own and opening for bigger artists, and that’s where I am now.

CM: Now that you’re becoming successful as a musician, have your parents become more accepting of your choice?

RF: Definitely. My parents have been much more supportive than I had expected when I first started rapping. I grew up in a Christian household, and the things that I rap about—especially what I was rapping about when I first got started—[were] far out from what they know, or even what they know I know, but they have still supported me and everything I’ve been doing musically.

CM: As an up-and-coming artist, how do you see your relationship with the music industry?

RF: With me being so young and so new, I’m slowly but surely growing into the industry. I’m from Chicago, and we’ve had Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Twista, and a lot of others who have really made an impact on the industry. What we haven’t had is representation of the younger generation of Chicago rap. I want to stay on track to be that—representing Chicago as part of the younger generation.

CM: How has growing up in Chicago influenced the music that you make?

RF: Well, for me, I grew up in the city of Chicago from grade school until the eighth grade. And being in the city really influenced my lifestyle. I moved to the suburbs when I was a freshman in high school, and that’s what really began to inspire my music. I was in a very diverse neighborhood with lots of different music, and rather than picking and choosing, I listened to everything, and I think that those influences all add to my sound.

As far as how I carry myself as an artist, being from Chicago means that I have to go through a lot more to become relevant. In this city they have a number of blogs and it’s really a process getting credibility on them. The first record that I got posted on a blog is a song called “Rockie Fresh” off my first mixtape, and it took me six months to get it posted. Getting your song posted on a blog is so beneficial. It proves your worth as an artist, and it helped me get put on other bills around the city. It really helps build character in artists, and helps them gain awareness of their surroundings and of other up-and-coming artists in the area.

CM: What are you currently working on?

RF: I’m currently working on my next mixtape. There’s no title or release date set so far, but I’ve got a couple records and I’m working on some more. I’m also working on The Otherside Redux, which should come out in mid-May. It’s got a bunch of remixes to The Otherside with some other artists—Lil B, and a couple other up-and-coming guys.

CM: What is your creative process like?

RF: Music is a 24/7 thing. It’s not something where I’ll designate time to sit down and write. I find inspiration in the world—wherever I am. I’ll always have my iPhone, and I’ll be in the car or something and I see a billboard that inspires me and I’ll start writing and by the end of the ride I have a full sixteen [one verse]. It’s a very natural process.

CM: Has that always been the case for your rapping?

RF: Absolutely. Originally, the way I discovered that I could rap was just through freestyling with my friends, and they started telling me, “Man, this is dope,” and that inspired me to push it further. At the same time it was still just me and my friends having fun with it, trying to keep it as natural as possible.

CM: Now that you’re becoming more successful as a musician, is it difficult to maintain that natural, relevant focus?

RF: I feel like…the rap game, for lack of a better term, now makes it easier for artists to stay true because you’ve got ways to do it yourself. I started this video series called Life on the Otherside. We’ve got two episodes right now, which basically just [show] my day-to-day life—recording in the studio, doing shows, and everything. By putting myself out there like that, people can appreciate what I’m doing and my fans can know how I really am, which makes it harder to not stay real.

CM: What are you listening to right now?

RF: A lot of older rap—Nas, some early Jay-Z, Biggie, Cam’ron. With me being young and also not really listening to a lot of hip-hop till high school, I missed out on a lot of really influential rap, and so I’m just listening and learning from them.

CM: Can we expect more of a classic hip-hop influence in your future work?

RF: Not instrumentally, but they have a lot to offer lyrically. Back then, the substance in the lyrics was so much more meaningful than now. Rap is such a great platform to make a difference in a lot of situations. Listening to them inspires me to use music to send out a message.

CM: What message are you trying to send?

RF: I feel like as rappers, there is… a standard that is set that our listeners might not always appreciate. There’s a lot of rap about swag, or how much money you have, or how hard you stunt, which isn’t everyone’s day-to-day. I want to send a message that at the end of the day, whether you’ve got money or not, there are always certain issues that we can relate on, things we all go through.