Over the past few months the competitive nature in hip-hop has more present than ever. With high profile rap feuds dominating headlines and artists from different camps putting out releases at the same time, the longstanding spirit of competition is still alive, even in the mumble rap era. Chicago-based rapper Chore Boy has been a long time believer in the competitive aspect of hip-hop. However, his approach to attempting to body every rapper he shares a stage with with is more to sharpen his own sword and improving his own craft.
On Chore Boy’s Pongo, vol. 1 LP released in late March, he teams up with some of Chicago’s best, including Vagabond Maurice, Jovan, Ano Ba, Glitter Moneyyy and Eshé. The friendly competition is felt on many of the album’s tracks, with Chores pushing his featured artists Pongo’s title derives from Chore Boy’s obsession with mechanics and drive to be the best rapper doing it.
“Pongo was the patriarch of those 101 Dalmatians, so the title is largely an allusion to my perceived status as a top dog, or someone with a lotta sons running around out here,” he told OK-Tho. “And I do feel that way...certainly within the scene I came out of and made in my little corner of the city I’ve got some imitators or folks who took and take cues from me. And that’s no shade to any of my people...I’m trying to be that for folks, trying to inspire. This album is me at my most braggadocious, though - I’m claiming that mantle a little bit, and that’s where you get songs like ‘Tryna Be Me’ or ‘Like We Do.’”
Chores was raised in Connecticut, where he would frequent punk and rock shows as a teen. He first began rapping while at college in western Massachusetts after discovering his freestyling talents. He eventually moved to Chicago in January 2013 to pursue a career in comedy.
“I had directed a sketch group for a couple years in college and at that time fancied myself a comedian,” he said. “Chicago is a major hub for that – arguably THE hub – and what I learned here is that I didn’t actually want to do comedy at this juncture. It brought me here, I took up a niche for a time as a comedy rapper, then got sick of making music people couldn’t live to and now I do this. Now I stay for the music and because it’s home.”
Pongo, vol. 1 is the culmination of five years of Chore Boy improving his skill set and linking up with talented collaborators. The record features a wide variety of themes and moods, where he has a lighthearted banger that references HBO’s Silicon Valley, a clever song about consent and a fiery Trump diss all in the span of five tracks. The LP’s versatility is thanks in part to two dynamic producers Brad Kemp and Groovebox, who combine for 12 of the album’s 15 beats.
Despite having released Pongo in late March, the bearded emcee is constantly in the studio and is planning several projects, including collaborative projects with Kemp, Groovebox and his band, PUICTK.
OK-Tho: What does the title, Pongo, mean? What’s the significance behind it?
Chore Boy: Honestly, the way the title came about probably has nothing to do what “Pongo” ultimately ended up meaning in relation to me or the project. Pongo was the patriarch of those 101 Dalmatians, so the title is largely an allusion to my perceived status as a top dog, or someone with a lotta sons running around out here. And I do feel that way...certainly within the scene I came out of and made in my little corner of the city I’ve got some imitators or folks who took and take cues from me. And that’s no shade to any of my people...I’m trying to be that for folks, trying to inspire. This album is me at my most braggadocious, though - I’m claiming that mantle a little bit, and that’s where you get songs like “Tryna Be Me” or “Like We Do.” Dalmatians are also hella smart, one of the smartest and most perceptive dog breeds...I think that’s fitting for this album and who I am as an artist, too. Plus it’s the Year of the Dog...I mean once I latched onto the title it only started to make more and more and more sense. The title even helped me figure out which songs would ultimately make the project (of the 45 or so we made for Pongo), influenced the black-and-white album cover and marketing aesthetic (shouts to), etc.
OK-Tho:You seem to be to be pretty well connected within Chicago’s comedy scene (I think I’ve seen you post about Shithole performances, features with Glitter Moneyyy, Chris Redd, etc.), do you do comedy in addition to your rap career?
CB: Not anymore. My enthusiasm waned for it a few years back...a lot of that has to do with the times we’re living in, I think, a lot had to do with the current state of Chicago’s comedy scene...but that’s a diatribe for an entirely different conversation. Mostly, though, music started becoming an all-consuming pursuit for me - I got tired of making trite comedy raps or freestyling into the void and became obsessing with mastering my craft and making music that stuck with people.
Comedy is sad to me right now...not a lot of folks have a compelling perspective to offer or fresh ideas...I leave it to my homies who do it exceptionally well like Chris and I check out shows like the Shithole because cats like Zach, Kevin and Dan still care about putting on a good show for the love of the art and the experience. If anybody bothers to keep writing books about Chicago comedy, this chapter won’t be about Second City or iO or any of these old brick-and-mortars...it’ll be about Shithole and all the amazing talents that walked off those stages and onto amazing things. Comics, musicians, all that.
OK-Tho: How influential is comedy to your music?
CB: Ehh. That’s sort of a difficult question for me...I mean obviously coming up through the comedy scene had a large hand in shaping me; much of my support out here still derives from within that scene. But am I a comedy rapper? Are Glitter Moneyyy comedy rappers? We’re two completely different sides of the musical coin in rap, and we both definitely integrate funny lyrics and tropes into our music...but that’s just hip-hop to me.
I’m from the East Coast and came up listening to BARS and LYRICS and wit… So many New York rappers I grew up listening to utilized comedy in a major way in their music. So many rappers in general I grew up on – everyone from Detroit I listen to, Ludacris and southern rap I was fuckin with to me – comedy is just a tool in a good MC’s toolbox. We’re supposed be out here moving the crowd, right? Then I better be able to move them any which direction, then. Imma give you a song like “Red Hat” and make you super uncomfortable, then I’ll hit you with “That Guy Fucks” and we all chuckling and turning up n shit. It’s a balance. So short answer...kinda influential? As much as drama and life and anything else.
OK-Tho: Chris Redd of Saturday Night Live fame is featured on the project, how did you link up with him?
CB: I’ve known Chris for a few years now from a show we performed in together at iO called Bastards of the Underground… cool format of elite improvisers backed by rappers and guitars for music interludes based off the scenes… Saturday midnight slot, ran for a number of years. Chris started that show, but by the time I got involved with it rapping with the band he was already in L.A. making moves. Whenever he was back in town he’d play the show, though, and so we finally met and ended up rapping together after the shows a couple summers ago. There’s this big alleyway area behind their green room there, and we’d cypher off the top out there every Saturday with whoever was around.
People might not know, but Chris is also very much a rapper. He used to try to pursue it a bit back before I knew him, and even to this day I know he’s always writing bars and incorporating it into the comedy he does. He was on an earlier album of mine called D.R.U.G.S. (Dan Rahrig Under Great Stress) a couple years ago as well, but he didn’t have the high profile then that he does now and I was completely unknown. Chris is the hardest working human being I know. Seeing him do his thing on SNL now is surreal, and knowing him it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dude barely sleeps...definitely an inspiration for me and I was stoked to get him on the project. I flew to NYC the final week of Pongo and everything to make sure the logistics worked out amid his wild schedule, cause we’d had his demo scratch off the phone since about December, just needed to make it happen in a studio and we did.
CB: I reached out to Brad in 2015 to be the Musical Director for Baby Cock Gun Money, a short-lived improvised hip-hop show I was spearheading at the time. Brad’s reputation precedes him out here in the comedy scene, and now beyond, and for good reason - he can play about a dozen instruments, routinely writes original scores for musicals off of commission, is an exemplary pianist and a great music producer. He’d been getting into hip hop a bit with his group Handsome Naked and so we met up for coffee and ended up joining forces for BCGM.
That sort of fizzled, but Brad asked me to start coming through the studio to record music toward the end of 2015. We put out a song a week all 2016 plus projects, and had kept it moving since...he’s got an excellent sense of what I want things to sound like or what I’m going for, and he is super super patient through my creative process. I can be a lot in the studio and about this music shit in general...he lets me drive him crazy tweaking single notes and drum hits, re-tracking songs we thought we had finished...really puts up with all my crap so at this point that’s my brother. We have a vision in this shit together. We also have about 100 unreleased songs that we’ll probably never put out...we’ve both just hit such a stride recently that we know the next shit is the best shit and we’re not tryna play around anymore. I’ve got a lotta love and a world of respect for the homie. We got big things in store, already.
OK-Tho: In your press release, you mention how you damn near went homeless in the process of recording this project, what made you decide to quit your job to pursue music full time?
CB: It was a matter of me knowing I needed to give music my full attention. I felt I was finally getting a sense of the kind of music I wanted to be making, and in order to maximize my potential I wanted to completely immerse myself in it. I’d be working in food service for a decade...that shit leaves you feeling exhausted and world-weary and it wasn’t conducive to my art at all.
I didn’t have much in the way of a safety net or a plan, so I maxed out a couple credit cards along the way and fell into some financial hardships as a result of focusing on this album so single-mindedly, but it’s worth it to me. Even if this project doesn’t really move the needle too much for me, it’s important to me to have put those hours in, to have gotten my craft honed. The last three songs I actually recorded that have been released, in terms of chronologically when I laid them in studio, were “Temples,” “Folk’ll Point” and “Stay On” - that’s three of my favorite tracks in my catalog and they came effortlessly. To me, the difference in my artistry is so clear from a year ago, and I attribute a lot of that to the hours paid, even if they came at a financial cost elsewhere in my life. I’m alright though, I found some cheap living with my musician homies and as soon as we get a couch it’s gonna be on and poppin.
OK-Tho: What’s your day-to-day life been like since becoming a full-time musician?
CB: I make myself write for at least two hours a day...usually that’s the first thing I do in the morning if we don’t count the bowl pack, but if not I’ll carve out some time in the evening or make myself stay up if I get home late and haven’t written yet, just to see what I get out of myself. I had been hibernating for months in the making of this album, logging a ton of studio hours with Brad and spinning stuff at my crib obsessively writing. Now I’m trying to be more social, get out there and support the homies more. I’m seeing a lot more shows, getting some quality time on with PUICTK, tryna book shows and get the looks that feel right, etc. Seeking out new moves and opportunities. Maybe a mushroom or two here and there.
OK-Tho: You’re working on a project with your band, PUICTK, how will that sound compared to Pongo?
CB: Completely different. I will still be rapping some of the time and the lyrics will be on point AF that’s really the only similarity. PUICTK exists as a separate entity than just my backing band because it has its own sound, and is a product of all five of the people involved (drums: Dustin Borlack, guitar: Josh Yelden, keys/bass: Josh Levine, bass/keys: Andy Brayan, me on vox). I do a lot more singing, and we’ve got a pretty solid funk and rock foundation...we try to push ourselves and really explore different pockets. We’ve got upbeat soulful little grooves, heavy-hitting psychedelic rock songs, tender lil ballads...we doing it all.
Nothing in the city sounds like what we’re doing, so I’m really excited to start sharing it with people...probably more excited than I am about my own solo music. It’s just so distinct and DOPE. I’m the least talented musician involved by far and the songs we have in the chamber are my favorites of anything I’m performing. It’s exciting as fuck for me. Being in a band is the dream I never even knew I could have. Growing up I never could’ve perceived I’d be able to front one like this...let alone one of this caliber. We’re gonna start dropping a few EPs this summer...stay tuned come June.
Photo Credit: Pat Coakley