Looking from afar, the city of Chicago is a fascinating place. It really has it all. Sports pedigree, music pedigree, theatrical pedigree, a deep history in the larger story of the United States. It's a place that get a bad wrap with all the documentaries about the city in recent years, highlighting the crime rates in the city.
Whilst that all may be factual and a genuine reality Chicagoans have to go through, I can't sit here and say that is all of what Chicago is about! That's like saying London is all about knife crime, we know better than that.
The interview subject here is an artist that is Chicago down to the toes. Musically, his roots are deep as well being the son of Robert Kelly, member of 60s Secular Gospel group "The Kelly Brothers". But I won't go telling this man's story when he can tell it for himself. We discuss his beginnings, life in Chicago, the album that got me into him "Kwesbaar" and, of course, his Top 5.
Ladies & gentlemen, this is Neak.
C: So, we start at the beginning. Where were you born, what was your life like as a kid and what was your environment at that time.
N: I was born in Chicago, Illinois. As a child I pretty much lived everywhere, my mum & dad moved around a lot. My environment. From the richest neighbourhoods to the poorest neighbourhoods, I lived in all of them. Literally every year, year & a half we'd move to a different part of the city. My parents were married was I was about 3. I have four siblings on each side, so I was the glue that kept everything together.My family is very close. It was always "look out for one another".
In my early years, mid to late 80s, my dad was already a retired musician at that time but we always had a piano around, records everywhere. My dad didn't really talk about his music career that much. He did a lot back in the 50s/60s, touring with people like Sam Cooke, James Brown, Patti LaBelle, a lot of legends.
So once me and my brother got older he would break stuff down for us. I was a very late bloomer when it came to music and understanding where I came from. I wasn't into music as a kid, I got into it when I got older. Mid to late teens. It wasn't until my dad started talking about his career, it was like I was activated at that point. My brother was a producer at the time, I would just see him go around town, making beats on an MPC and he'd end up teaching me about songwriting, how to write a verse, how to construct a 16, how to put a song together. At first, like with most things you think it's decent but it really wasn't that good. I was struggling trying to do things he was a pro at. He'd reassure me of course.
I ended up writing for about three or four years before I'd even put something out. I was so self-conscious when I started. I felt like I didn't want to put out anything. I didn't feel like I had enough understanding in terms of making everything sound good. So as I started to network more and listen to music more, I started to understand more, become more of a student. When I listened to Jay-Z's "The Blueprint", I was like "man, the production, the songwriting, the cadence". It was all dope to me and then I just kept going back. "It Was Written", "Illmatic", "Ironman". All of this music was under my nose. Why the hell was I listening to radio all these years?! So yea it took me a while musically but family was always there.
C: That's probably the best first answer I've gotten from anybody in life. I feel like we're done!
N: This an interview isn't it?! Gotta get in to it!
C: Certainly! So let's dive into the family side. Four siblings on each side. How was that for you, being the youngest and having all of those people there when you needed it?
N: Well first of all, I think it worked out great for me being the youngest, knowing I was the last one in what I call "The Brady Bunch". My Mother was in her 30s, my dad was in his late 40s and him being at an older age meant that his first children were already grown & out of the house. So they felt more like uncles. It was pretty good from my vantage point but I think it was different for others. My mother had four kids but from three different fathers so I think there were a lot of times where there was animosity but I wasn't aware of it being so young. Like here I was, with both my parents present when they had only one around. I didn't have to deal with that aspect. For me there was that emotional stability, for them they might see their dad once a month or something like that. They didn't have consistency, I did.
It was tough in that regard but as siblings we always had each other's back.
C: That's good at least. So help me paint a picture of Chicago because as you probably know, the city is always put in a dim light shall we say. Documentaries & national news always covering the negative. As a native of Chicago and as someone that has been everywhere in the city, how was it for you growing up compared to how the media or public perception regularly pegs it as?
N: Well one thing I have an issue with is how they paint Chicago to sound like a damn war-zone.
N: Like the minute you step into the city you're dodging bullets or something. The first thing I would say about Chicago is that it's a very diverse place but very gentrified. A lot through class & wealth. You can be on one street and see the stores and beautiful buildings, but then I can cross the street and it seems like a bomb just hit or people just moved out.
But Chicago all in all. The energy here, emotionally, it can be a little rough. Everybody tries to be in their own space. I recently did a couple of shows down south and they're all courteous. Here, everybody just wants to get from A to B. It's like New York in that way. It's not a warzone. Granted, there's issues that I personally don't like and I think need to be attended to, there's a lot of socio-political issues. A lack of opportunities for some communities. And when you have a community of people with nothing to do, bad things can potentially happen.
But with that said there's a lot of culture here. There's no "one size fits all" here. For me, I've lived in the South Side, West Side, the suburbs, North Side. I've lived on both sides of the coin where you need to watch where you go.
I personally wanted to keep my head down, I was into sports. I just didn't want my parents getting at me. But some of my friends didn't have the blessings that I had. I ended up talking my friends out of a lot of things. But when I got older I started to understand the lack of guidance. A mother's word can go so far. Without a father figure, there can come a time where your mother's word don't sound as threatening as it used to.
You really get everything here. The bad stuff happens for sure, but not at the level the media makes it out to be. Sometimes when I'm somewhere else and they say "You're from Chicago and you're still alive?" Like, what? Are you serious. But when you see all that stuff on the news what else would you think. It's not the end all & be all.
C: So when you were a teenager you mentioned there were temptations to probably do stuff you shouldn't. What were you doing instead? You said in the beginning you didn't get into music until later on so what were you interested in if it wasn't music?
N: Basketball and women... Keep my girlfriend happy and try to get in the NBA. I played all throughout high school and every summer, travelling to Southern California doing AAU. I was literally the average kid. Hanging with my boys, playing ball and looking at girls trying to see which one of us would go talk to them. I used to get nervous all the time when it came to that. It really was average but if anything got hectic I wouldn't get sucked into all that. There were a couple of close calls, some of my friends got arrested for some shit. And I'd be glad I stuck on the side.
C: What position did you play.
N: Point guard. I didn't have the height to be anything else!
C: What was your NBA comparison?
N: At that point. Something like Tim Hardaway.
C: So let's dip into your father a little. What was his expertise?
N: He was a vocalist, played the guitar too but he'd only play it in the studio. The Kelly Brothers had five singers, when the song was happy he'd be on that, for the more ballad type songs my uncle Curtis would be on it and they'd rotate back and forth. He did a lot of Gospel, came in via that. At that time there were a lot of opportunities on the Secular scene so he was initially afraid of that. A couple of singles charted but when it got into the 60s, Payola would kick in and his label would prioritise other artists because they were bankable. A lot of artists at that time nearly went under because of it. There was nearly no James Brown, Patti LaBelle. My father was unfortunately one of those artists that didn't get the funding. He got tired of it.
C: So what was the music you were hearing when you were growing up?
N: A lot of Soul, Gospel. Bobby Womack, Sam Cooke, Isley Brothers, Anita Baker, Teddy Pendergrass, Al Green. My parents were playing all that, stuff they grew up with. Me & my siblings would listen to whatever was on the TV or Radio, we didn't dig really. We got NWA, Pac, Biggie of course. But mostly Motown, Soul, Gospel, Michael Jackson. I love "Off The Wall".
C: Oh good you're an OTW > Thriller guy, correct answer.
N: Yes of course, don't sleep on "Thriller" though.
C: So when did your music journey start specifically?
N: I started writing around 19/20. I would just write with my brother, focusing on the lyrics, studying records.
C: Why did you start writing in the first place.
N: I felt like I had something to say! And that was the way to do it. It was a good way to vent and get stuff off my chest.
C: So when did you start dropping records?
N: Around 25. At that point I started to meet people, do some open mics, go see shows. Between those five years I realised it was more of a hobby for my brother whereas for me, the urge kept getting stronger. So that's when I started to get out of the house and reach out to other people that had the same drive.
C: So I'd like to talk about "Paura / Amore" for a second because I found it very fascinating, especially playing it back-to-back with your latest album "Kwesbaar". Firstly, why the title?
N: Well it translates to "Fear / Love". Every emotion stems out of those two things. It was very experimental for me. You listen to the record and it's very synth heavy, that was the first time I went in that direction. I dealt with a lot of new people from the "Retrowave" sub-genre. I really appreciate that record because it was the first time I truly stepped out of my comfort zone. At that time I had two records already and they were very similar. I wanted to do something different sonically.
C:That was exactly what I got. Very 80s vibe. You also have a live album. Why did do decide to do that?
N: I feel like it captures the essence of my music in real time. Raw & in the moment. In the studio I can edit everything so it sounds great. With the live album. If my voice cracks, you're gonna hear it. If I'm out of breath, you're gonna hear it. If I get emotional I want you to hear that. You can only do that kind of stuff with a live album. So I created an event for my people in Chicago, told them it was a live recording and what I wanted for it. I'll probably end up doing more of them ! I actually have another one on my hard drive I haven't released yet so we'll see.
C: Nice! I'd definitely would like to hear that sometime. So let's get into the album that got me into you in the first place "Kwesbaar". Would you like to say what Kwesbaar translates to and what was the overall mission for this album?
N: Okay, Kwesbaar means 'Vulnerable'. I did some research on Afrikaans and I saw that word, loved the way it looks and sounds.
There's two things that inspired me to go to that direction. The first thing is that this is the first record I have produced by myself. Front to back. I wanted to challenge myself to do it on my own. How more vulnerable can you get? I've only been producing properly for about two years. So there was a lot of anxiety to come with that.
Number 2, I have had a lot of experiences throughout my life. I wanted to have an album where it felt like free thought. Whatever I feel, I'm going to say it. If you want to talk about materialistic things to shroud your true feelings, so be it. If you want to talk about time and how fleeting it is, talk about it. The album actually came around very quickly. The beats, rhymes recorded in two & a half months. I recorded 29 songs in that time and cut it down to 13. Did about two or three songs a week.
The thing that took the longest was music arrangement and getting people in, getting on people's schedules.
C: I think you succeeded in both of those honestly and that output is God-like. Did you have to make any changes knowing that you were the one doing everything.
N: It was a little different. Before when I relied on producers, they'd have the sound but sometimes it's hard to articulate exactly what you want, they're a completely different person after all, they hear things different to me.
Even though it took two months, I needed all those two years beforehand to learn how to make beats.
C: So gimme some songs off your back catalogue in which you feel are very notable to you.
N: "Back in Chicago" off "Paura / Amore". It goes back to our earlier conversation about how it feels living in Chicago. It taps into that black kid that is not all the way in the street but is close enough to it.
Another one off that album, "Stay Alive" is another highlight. "Lost Fathers" & "Gold" off "Kwesbaar" I feel deserve shine. "Fight" is another one. Time is one of those things that you can't get that back. We can't get the time spent doing this interview back so you always have to recognise it and control the now.
From further back there's a track called "Make It". It really shows how badly I want this and chase this dream. I always say this, you can always go get a job. So while you have this time, go for what you want and you can be proud that you're actually trying it.
Lastly... "Do It For Love" off "Kwesbaar". It's just about black joy. How we're always looking out for validation. That should be inside. However you feel about you should be projected to the world.
C: So what are you up to now? You're touring at the moment, what else d'you have going on?
N: Focusing mainly on the tour. Going throughout the US and Canada. But I'm really setting this tour up for the next one so that I can go to Europe and do some shows there. I do also have some production credits coming through as well so if you're following me you'll catch that.
C: I certainly will! So... We end as always with this question. What is your Top 5?
N: Alright I'll got Top 5 Artists, any genre, no particular order:
Andre 3000, love that guy. Really hope he drops that solo album
C: Neak, thanks a lot, really appreciate your time.
N: Any time, appreciate it.
Thanks to Neak for participating. Very long transcribing session but totally worth it. Below is his latest work "Kwesbaar", be sure to give it a listen. Very hidden gem in the music dropped this year. Thanks again to Neak, thank you for reading.