The Uncompromising Ridiculousness of Chris Crack

The Chicago rapper/producer takes his jokes very seriously -- and it's helped him become one of the most promising artists playing with the sound of contemporary hip-hop.

Chris Crack likens his creative output to visual art -- “like painting,” specifically. The Chicago artist responsible for songs like “Masturbate Before Making Decisions,” “Uber w/ Randoms” and “Turning Down Pussy Builds Character” sees himself as a kind of painter making work that invites real engagement. In a voice that moves between easy drawl and squeaky feigned surprise, he explains, “You can dissect the music however you want, and it means everything that you wanted it to mean -- and nothing that you wanted it to mean.” (To be fair, he also has a song called “Explanation Kills Art.”)

He’s not being a smartass. As ridiculous as his music can be, he’s nothing if not serious about his work; though he’ll admit he used to treat it as a hobby -- a side-project to serving -- he’s decided he wants to be great. After all, his mom is onboard, now that her 30-year-old son (born Christopher J. Harris) is getting national attention. “Just like every other mom,” he says, “at first she was like: Fuck that shit, get a job. Till she saw the popularity, then she said, ‘My son is great!’ All she does is tell her friends about my write-ups and shit.”

“Thirst Aid Kit,” from last year’s excellent Just Gimme a Minute -- the project Chris says he’s most proud of, because he produced 85 percent of it -- is an especially compelling introduction. Over a stirring soul sample worthy of J Dilla, he opens like this: “She hide the big coins in her pussy/ Don’t try to push me/ I’m on the edge of this Clifton Powell/ You almost made me waste this ‘yac on this 200-dollar suit, n---a.” After the punchy couplet, he skates away from his own rhyme scheme, with the hard P-sound in “Powell” the last trace of it, before he shouts about the liquor and his low-end threads. It’s like the near-offense of the spilled cognac is disrupting the rap itself, creating the kind of stamped-foot tantrum performed by the jheri-curled Pinky in Next Friday. You can picture dude jumping up from the stained couch in a poorly lit lounge, eyes wide, ready to bark on whoever bumped his elbow and almost doused his Men’s Warehouse special with VSOP. Hip-hop has a long and beautiful tradition of sophisticated dumb shit, and Chris makes his version at a remarkable clip.

Meanwhile, in the time it took to speak with Chris Crack, transcribe the interview, and write the story you’re reading, he released yet another project, Jacked Tape 3 (Fuck Yo’ Beat). That brings the total to eight since 2018 began, 70-some tracks of horny joy, wise hilarity and flashes of sobering pain over loops obvious and obscure.

In the last six months or so, Chris has rightfully received more attention from music publications and artists. Earl Sweatshirt shared a track of his on Twitter in January, legendary producer Madlib tweeted about working with him in March, and Freddie Gibbs included him on a recent Tidal playlist. On Spotify, his songs have begun to move into five-digit territory -- modest, but still an uptick compared to his output from 2017 and earlier. There’s label interest now too, though he’s reluctant to share specifics. What’s most important to him is that he can continue to release at the pace he prefers.

“I’m interested] as long as I can still release my shit the way I need to release my shit,” he says. “That’s my whole thing. I gotta be able to release whenever the fuck I feel like it, or that’s not Chris Crack. Sometimes I just wake up some morning like, I’m dropping an album.” He doesn’t want to sacrifice what he’s deemed to be a crucial part of his artistry, and as the industry continues to invest in hip-hop, he’s in a better position to defend himself from deflating compromise.

With artists like Tierra Whack and Earl, both of whom he admires, carving a lane for unorthodox auteur-style rap, Chris’s approach has powerful contemporary precedent. Listening to all three is like having the contents of their brains beamed directly into yours. “I make art in order to give other people my problems,” the late visual artist Mike Kelley once said, and Tierra Whack, Earl Sweatshirt and Chris Crack make music that hands you misshapen piles of themselves, like you’ve been forced to carry a loose bag of their laundry.

Of course, that’s only how the music feels -- you’re kidding yourself if you believe that the work isn’t shaped and crafted. Like Chris said, his 18-minute project Crackheads Live Longer Than Vegans came together after a year’s worth of tinkering.

As an artist, Chris Crack is something of a rubber band. His process is elastic, with some songs gestating for months and others conceived of and spit out in three minutes or less. Sometimes his projects come off like DJ mixes or tape collages, littered with snippets of stand-up routines and movie dialogue, unfolding with no strong indication of where one track ends and the next begins. Others are more traditional, with clearly demarcated hooks and verses. (For listeners desiring that point of entry, Being Woke Ain’t Fun is your album.) His raps can be chewy with imagery, and oftentimes he doesn’t emphasize his punchlines or thesis statements. Still, his lines can suddenly snap you to attention, like the brutal, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it admission on “The Last Blockbuster”: “My big brother went to jail when I needed him.”

Chris grew up on Chicago’s west side, in a divided family. “I’m close to my mom, and I’m close to my sister,” he says. “We were raised in the same crib. My mom is probably the strongest woman I’ve ever been around. She worked hella jobs when we were kids, did everything she had to do to keep us in a pretty decent household and out of the street. My dad wasn’t there.”

His mother’s side of the family is white and Arab, and his father’s is black; on his father’s side, monetary trouble and incarceration casts a long, seemingly inescapable shadow. “I said to my sister, 'Don’t you notice how the whole black side of our family is fucked up? Everybody’s gone to jail, everybody’s financially fucked up. But everybody on the white side is doing just fine. Not a care in the world.' And I told her, 'Don’t you see the problem in that?'”

His music isn’t an explicit polemic against systemic injustice, but its damage is plain in moments like that line from “The Last Blockbuster.” Even at the level of the individual, liberation from the bleak future predicted for you and all but ensured by racist policy is oftentimes an unworkable trap.

As a young man, Chris hustled and toted a gun, which initially put him at odds with the person he now considers his closest collaborator. Cutta, who is white, attended high school with Chris and came from a musical family. They shared a mutual friend, but Cutta and his friends regarded Chris and his crew skeptically. “We was the guys in the street, gangbanging and selling drugs and shit. And Cutta and them were the party-time white boys, like, Come over man! We gonna smoke some weed and drink some beers!” (Chris does whiteboy voice pretty well.)

Eventually, Chris and Cutta came to a tenable understanding, fueled by a mutual ambition to make music, and ultimately real friendship. The state-of-the-art studio in Cutta’s home in Wicker Park, a serendipitous byproduct of his dad’s career as a professional musician, was their regular meeting place. It was here that Chris learned flexibility and conquered his tendency to overthink.

“Sometimes I would leave the studio frustrated because I couldn’t record a whole song,” he recalls. “And Cutta would say, ‘Dog you don’t gotta do the whole song.’ ‘Nah, I gotta do the whole fucking song right now.’ Cutta said, ‘Bro, musicians will sometimes work on one song for a year.’”

The sweet spot Chris has found on his most recent projects is the intersection of intentional fussiness and subconscious overflow. In other words, Chris arrived at the right amount of not giving a fuck. “I’ve stopped caring more and more,” he says. “And on every album the music got better and better. The Internet has showed me that as long as you’re genuine with what you’re doing, people are gonna fuck with it. Somewhere on that goddamn Internet, there is a pocket of people who will love the fuck out of you, for just you.”

Partial credit for this change in perspective goes to the summer of 2016, which Chris spent in New York, often attending the now-defunct queer friendly party Thotlandia, which was started by trans DJ and artist DeSe Escobar and Lauren Devine. “That shit was popping super tough when I was out there,” he says. “It made me really honor and respect the LGBTQ community. It made me numb to caring about what people thought. Thotlandia changed my fucking life.”

He acknowledges that, before then, he had used homophobic language in some of his music. “It’s a growing up thing,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll find cool-ass white dudes that hang with black people but they had a time in their past when they might’ve been a little racist or whatever-whatever. It’s ignorance, that’s all. And as long as you can be a stand-up person and correct it later -- as long as you didn’t hurt nobody -- fuck it, allow that man to better himself. Especially if you sincerely sorry about it. Let that man live.”

He continues, “People’ll be like, Man what the fuck? You ain’t gay so what you care for? Nah, bro -- these are human beings. I don’t give a fuck about none of that shit, you not finna doing that shit around me. You not gonna be hating nobody around me. Everybody’s equal, everybody’s welcome bro. Everybody.”

Chris may have learned when not to give a fuck, but if he enters the major label system, there will be people in his orbit who will give many, and constantly. His seemingly stream-of-consciousness process and impulsive release strategy will come under new scrutiny. (Earlier this year Earl Sweatshirt told Pitchfork that he plans on leaving his label Columbia; the label wouldn’t let him release his last album as a single track, the way he intended to. The restrictions are real.) There are samples on his projects that would likely be impossible to clear if he had a label’s legal team inspecting the final product. “It’s fucked, I know,” he says of his own past decisions.

But armed with 200-plus records in his home, he’s prepared to dig deeper and find more obscure work to better serve himself. “Last year I went through this phase where I would listen to a new genre every single week. I was listening to Belizean funk, I was listening to Japanese soul -- got hella samples from that shit -- I was listening to Brazilian disco. I’m on all that shit.” Like a doomsday prepper, he wants to be ready for the future.

As labels search far and wide for new hip-hop acts, it’s likely that Chris will get a bigger look than he would have even two years ago. For a number of reasons, the time for the MC responsible for “Teach Kids Black History” and “Imagine Not Being Black” is right now. And if earlier samples come back to create problems, Chris won’t care. “Even if they start snatching my albums down, it’s worth it,” he says. “By the time they catch on to me, it’ll already be too late.”