‘Do Your Homework’: An Interview with Rich Jones

Photo by Michael Salisbury

Rich Jones has been a fixture in the Chicago music community for as long as I can remember, boasting an impressive career going back almost two decades. If one word could be used to describe Rich Jones’ career, it would be “range.” He can hang bar-for-bar with underground hip-hop heavyweights, sing you a sultry R&B lullaby, and provide a catchy pop tune that washes over you like a summer breeze, often all on the same project. He is also a willing and fruitful collaborator, playing a key role in many collaborative projects, the most recent of which was with Chicago Reader Best Hip-Hop Producer award nominee Montana Macks.

Rich’s range isn’t just artistic, but professional, as well. He’s graced the stage at summer festivals, headlined many beloved venues, and yet can still be found attending and performing at various underground locations that can best be described as “that one spot,” or “the homie’s crib.” This flexibility has given Rich longevity, a broad community, and an artistic blade that continues to be sharpened to this day, almost twenty years after being initially unsheathed.

On a personal note, Rich Jones has taught me a lot about the industry simply by leading by example. His warmth is magnetic, and his willingness to drop gems of wisdom has helped many a young artist find their feet in an industry that is often unkind to the naïve. I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his career, the importance of community, and how to move in this music shit without losing your soul.

You can support Rich Jones by buying his most recent album, How Do You Sleep At Night?, or any of his many other projects on Bandcamp.

Throughout your career you’ve very successfully had your foot in two different worlds. You’ve performed at North Coast and other summer festivals, you’ve headlined beloved venues, all while still keeping one foot firmly in the DIY scene and the “underground.” What is, in your experience, the difference between those two very adjacent but very different scenes? And are they as different as people think?

Well one sort of begets the other. You see, people build genuine followings from community movement and doing the smaller shows, whether it’s in a basement or a smaller venue or whatnot, and that community-based support and push goes a long way. You gotta crawl before you run, right? So in a lot of ways, one feeds into the other, it’s just a question of whether the other wants to give back for all the underground does in terms of contributing culture and art. In terms of how it gets flipped for more mainstream consumption, I think sometimes it gets detached from where it came from. It’s funny that you bring up this juxtaposition cause I feel like for a while, when I did start doing more headlining shows in more traditional venues and getting some of those larger looks, there was kind of a general sense that I needed to be more selective of what I say yes to. Obviously, friends are friends, you don’t want to forget those people, but in the process of saying “no” to certain things, I feel like I got cut off a bit from some of that community unintentionally. There was sort of an other-ing element that got created, so the last two or three years especially, I’ve been trying to get back into that. You can have larger opportunities, but where DIY is residing in the community itself, those people are still there whether or not you’re doing “big” shit. That’s why it’s important for me to pay attention to what’s happening in the basement and the warehouse. People are doing really good stuff, and honestly, it’s just fun. I think, being in those environments, it’s just kind of about remembering the joy of it versus anything else.

One thing I really admire about you is your willingness to put people on within the community. Maybe not so much in Chicago, but in the music industry as a whole, there seems to be a sense of hyper-competitiveness. Not an artistic “I want to have the best verse on this song” competitiveness, but more of an “I want to be the guy that gets the look” competitiveness. How do you think community, in the way you see it, interacts with that industry competitiveness? And have you been in situations where there was a more competitive corporate environment?

I think for me, in terms of the people I’m looking out for, it’s a nice balance between people I actually genuinely have respect for and want to see thrive, and then on top of that, they just happen to be really good at what they do. With all the time I’ve put into this, I’ve covered a lot of ground that can only be covered by covering it, you know what I mean? And that goes for everybody, man. Every person has to deal with some sort of adversity or challenge, even if it’s something as mundane as just your life versus anything even related to art. I think it’s something where, because I’ve done what I’ve done, I’m in a spot where I can at least offer my two cents to people. And I try to never be too pushy because the more authoritative you get with somebody, the more likely they are to shut it out, and that’s really what I don’t want. I mean, people can make their own choices, but I want people to know that where I’m coming from is from a place of experience. I mean, the best lessons people tried to pass on to me were ones that I didn’t really register until years after the fact, just because I wasn’t ready for what they were telling me. And I’m sure that’s the case now, like I’m sure I’ve said things to people, and in a couple years that’s when it’ll be right for them to understand it. Not to say I’m all-knowing or anything like that, it’s more just like, I at least have a decent sense of some of the motion out here, just from seeing both friends and acquaintances come and go, the ebb and flow of it all. That’s the one thing I’m still kind of in awe of, I’m really grateful that I’m even still here doing this.

So really to answer your question, if I like what someone does, I want everything for them. It’s only heightened when I fuck with them as a person. It’s a tough balance, though, because I don’t want to just become another plug or gatekeeper. You just gotta find the right balance between being someone’s friend but also having a critical opinion of their work. And also, I think in some of the planning of certain things out here, you’ll see that there’s a tendency for people to be like, “oh, you’re looking for rap?” and they’ll go to the same people, they’ll go to the same places, and at a certain point it’s just like…there’s so much more, especially in Chicago, going on. That’s where I try to come in, and hopefully when someone asks “I need x,y, z for this” I can give them an outside the box answer, or give them options that they may not have considered because I know that when left to their own devices, they’re probably just going to go to the same choices. And that’s not to say those choices are bad, it’s just the same every time, and then what are we doing? And in that same breath, people come to me and offer me opportunities all the time that don’t make sense for me. Maybe in another point in life, they could have, or maybe if I adjusted my thinking it could make sense, but if I’m in a scenario where an opportunity like that is being offered to me, it’s a lot cooler to say no and then give them who could do it rather than just say “Nah man. Peace.” So I like to be helpful in that scenario, both looking out for myself but then also being like, “Wait, is there somebody else I know who could make sense for this?” And it may not work out, it’s more so just knowing that there are opportunities to create opportunities for other people, and understanding the value in that outside of anything I contribute as an artist.

Photo by Justice Hill

One thing I hear all the time from artists, specifically young artists, is this wariness of promoters and people who book shows. There’s so many stories out there about shady promoters and shitty bookers; what are the traits you look for in terms of someone you want to work within that capacity, and what are some of the red flags that you’ve come across or heard about when it comes to people who may not have the artist’s best interests at heart?

I mean, right away, any company that wants you to sell tickets. There was an instance where I did a show and they wanted me to sell 50 tickets at 20 bucks a pop, and then they would give me another 20 tickets, and out of those 70 total tickets, I get to keep money from the 20. So there’s a world where, depending on the artist you are, and if you know you can do it, okay, you can make 400 bucks. However, in my mind, the mental exercise I couldn’t complete was, “I’m fundraising $1,000 for you before I see anything?” That’s not equitable. Or like, there used to be these shows we would do with this dinky company, that still emails me sometimes, and they would be selling 10 dollar tickets and I would get a dollar from each ticket because of “overhead.” So if you brought 20 people you’d only get 20 bucks, and that sort of thing just isn’t sustainable for the artist. Another thing I haven’t had much experience in—but of which I know there is an ecosystem out here—is pay to play, where you get to open for some massive artist, but that’s not even really a show, to me that almost feels like you’re paying for advertising. So yeah, in the right scenario, I don’t know what that would look like, but in the right scenario, if you’re that good and you’re really trying to pick up people like that, that could work. But if you’re opening for a larger act, there’s a super good chance that a majority of the people really don’t care: it doesn’t matter how good you are. Unless you’re an actual name or you brought hella motherfuckers to the crowd, you’ll be met with apathy. And at least from a money standpoint, you’d be so much better off just figuring out how to throw your own thing and promote it to your people. And in that case, in terms of finding venues and everything, it’s all about cost. You have to ask yourself, ‘what’s the cost to do business tonight? How much is it gonna cost to pay the sound and door person? What’s my break-even point?’ And you may only break even, or make like 20 bucks, but at least you performed for people who actually care. And I feel like that highlights the main difference between the two scenes we’ve been talking about; I feel like in the “underground” scene there’s an honesty of, “here’s how much the venue costs, here’s how much we’re selling tickets for, profit is split equally between the artists.” And then you can account for extenuating circumstances, where someone may be on tour or something and needs more. It just feels like a more needs-based economy.

I mean that really highlights the whole experience of working with out-of-state artists, and that’s something that I learned from touring. Like, it’s a lot doper when I go to a city and people pay me well and I have a place to sleep and there’s weed and y’know, people are taking care of you, you’re being looked after. I had some artists I booked in the early years of doing my showcase, and honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t get it. And luckily, within a year or two of me throwing shows, I started getting out there a little bit and then realizing what this was. That was a big moment for me like, “ok, if someone’s going to host the shit out of me then I better host the shit out of them to the best of my ability.” And look, there’s certain people you hit it off with and certain people you don’t click with as much, but you still take care of them the same, just because you want to make sure they feel appreciated, cause they’re not at home. That was a big one for me when I was younger, like five years ago, I went on tour and I played this show and they tried to pay me like $25, and I was in Texas. They were super young kids, and they weren’t trying to scheme me or anything, they just weren’t thinking. I just kinda got real serious and said, “look man, I’m not home right now, you’re going to have to pay me some more money, this isn’t even gas to get to the next town.” I’ve had to have that conversation a couple of times. Other times it’s just so blatantly obvious that they either don’t know what they’re doing or they’re doing it wrong, and you gotta just be like “Nah, go to the ATM right now.” And look, it’s not to even be on some finessing or bullying or anything, it’s just some people get it and some people don’t, and the people that don’t aren’t necessarily malicious, but it’s nice to know the difference.

As we finish up, could you just offer up some advice to the kid who’s just starting out? Who just started recording music and taking it seriously? What would you say to that kid to make sure they can have the amount of community success that you’ve enjoyed throughout your career?

This isn’t going to be a quick answer [laughs]. I mean, there’s no way to replicate what I did, because you’re talking about time and space. You can’t time travel back to 2003 with me, my experiences won’t be today’s person’s experience, but there are some consistent threads that I think are applicable regardless of the era, and some things that I think we’ve lost that should come back. To get access to this shit you used to really have to know people, and I think now with the internet being what it is, there’s just such a low barrier of entry. You know, that barrier towards people who maybe aren’t really about the shit but still wanna be about the shit, completely removed from any of the people who are actually making it. So I would say to combat that, or to remedy that, people really should be striving to go to as many shows as they can. Even if you’re underage or you don’t live in a big city or something, start somewhere. If someone is doing shit in their garage, go check it out, and if you like it, be really loud about it. From there, just do your research. It may sometimes be hard to find, but do your research on who came before you from where you’re from. In Chicago, that means reading up on the labels that made what we do today possible, whether that’s Gravel or Molemen, I know those were some of the bigger ones when I was coming up, or Galapagos4; you know they used to have an all-label summit in the 2000s called Chicago Rocks that I would go to. And that was kind of this unifying, all the crews coming together type of thing. And with things like that, even if you’re an outsider, go to those, meet those people, talk to them. I couldn’t talk to any artist on the East coast because I didn’t live on the East coast; these are the people that are in my backyard, so I’m going to gravitate to them because for one, I can support them in real time, but then also, in the best instance, if they like you, you can learn from them and build a relationship. I’m very grateful for all of the artists that I grew up on who are now friends who I can call for council. It’s very potent, it’s a connection of lineage, and I think that’s something that gets lost in the shuffle when you have things that are created devoid from any cultural attachments.

Photo by Rich Jones

So if you want to break into hip-hop in Chicago, do your studying. Know the players. It’s not “there was no rap and then Chance the Rapper happened and that’s it,”—this goes back decades here. My understanding of it starts around 2002. That’s my beginning point, so think about all the shit that I missed prior to that. That’s why I look to those people that were there because I can talk to them about that and learn, and hopefully take what they’ve given me and pass that on to the next person. The other thing that I want to just say again, if you’re here, be loud about what you like. If an artist has a show, tell ten of your friends, “Hey, there’s this awesome artist I think you should check out.” Those sorts of small things can really add up. I had someone tell me at the beginning of my career, “it’s one fan at a time,” and that can be a discouraging thing to hear cause you’re like, “Fuck that’s so slow.” Yeah motherfucker it’s slow, it’s a career! Now I hear that and I’m like “oh, yeah, facts, cause guess what man, you don’t know who’s gonna become a fan of your shit.” That’s a big reason why motherfuckers move to places with more “industry” or “hype” because they think if you’re partying with the right people, things will just happen. We don’t have as much of that here, our celebrity culture is very different compared to other places. In a lot of ways, that’s really good, but in other ways, it does limit our ability to really break out and have some of those crossover moments. So yeah, know who came before you, if you like something be super loud about it, and also, especially if you’re white, be open to criticism and really just be open to listening to the community that made this shit as you move, cause I know I made mistakes starting out. I’m very grateful for all the mentors I had who checked me. Those people did such a good job of setting me up with a certain line of thinking; how could I not want to share that with somebody else?

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