For the 24-year-old rapper born Chris Smith Jr., this moment is one that’s been a long time coming. It was only nearly five years ago that he left his native St. Louis in pursuit of a rap career, which was fostered by Chicago’s illustrious Columbia College, the same institute that offered itself as a stepping stone platform for the musical careers of Kanye West, Common, Jeremih, Grammy-nominated producer duo Da Internz, and many more. But after two semesters as a media management major, Smino dropped out and pushed himself to turn his passion into a tangible endeavor.
“It was cool just to be performing across the street from my old college,” he says, his southern drawl smoothly coos. “That’s mind-blowing.”
And although only two EPs into his career (S!CK S!CK S!CK and blkjuptr), the Red Bull Sound Select artist’s savory soul food-like reverb is proving to be one that’s at the forefront of Chicago’s contempo musical uprise.
VIBE: We know you’re from St. Louis, but Chicago has really fostered your career. How did it feel to take the stage at Lollapalooza?
Smino: It felt amazing. It was fun. I actually didn’t expect nobody to come, so I’m pretty moved. They came, showed love, knew the words and sh**. Chicago is my second home without a doubt. St. Louis, Chicago, is all I know. I went to school across the street from here [at Columbia], and dropped out of that sh**. A couple of my teachers was on some talking sh** like, ‘You wasting your parents’ money; you bullsh**ting.’ But it got me into Chicago, so I don’t regret none of that. It was cool just to be performing across the street from my old college. That’s mind-blowing.
You have a great stage presence. Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I pray. I take a shot of Hennessy or Whiskey. It’s funny to say back to back [Laughs]. You going to get the SMINO at the Red Bull Lounge? I got my own drink.
No, I definitely have to try it out. So, earlier you tweeted it’s your grandmother’s birthday, too. Coincidence, much?
Yeah, she passed awhile ago, like 2001. I actually lost my voice at the show I did last night, but it came back this morning. I woke up like, ‘Wow man.’ My granny, no matter what, she start pulling strings for me at all times. It was real special bro, and even just playing today and it being her birthday.
You were born into a musical family. Your mother sings, your dad plays piano and your grandfather was a bassist. Do you feel like it was in your prophecy to become a musician in your own right?
I feel like if I didn’t become a musician, I would have ignored everything that God told me. I had it right in front of me. So, it was part of my whole make up, my prophecy. Definitely.
What were your parents playing in the house as a kid? And what would you say ultimately influenced your sound?
We listened to a lot of gospel. My parents didn’t really listen to rap. I kind of picked up rap on my own. But I was listening to a lot of gospel. And my favorite three rappers, my favorite three artists were: Kanye, Luda and T-Pain. And it kind of make a lot of sense if you listen to my music. But I love Luda, just how he don’t give a f**k. Like he said the most bogus sh** sometimes. You be like damn, but the way he said it, is raw. You know, Ye got that confidence where it’s like it make you want to be yourself. And then T-Pain, his harmonies was always so amazing to me. He made R&B not about only love. And I just took all of that and learned what I had to do.
I love that you balance real rap with smooth, melodic tones. For first time listeners, what would you describe your sound as?
Imagine your parents were listening to a funk album with terminology that you understood. Nowadays, how we talk. That’s it.
So you put out a project earlier this year. What was the reception like for that?
blkjuptr got me at Lolla. I only put out two EPs so far so it’s crazy. It’s been on Spotify and Apple music. I grew on SoundCloud. So going outside to all these different streaming platforms, definitely made the sh** get wider. A lot of people trying to hit me up and add me to playlists and sh**. It’s getting more popping. Just how I knew it’s cool.
What do you want people to get from your music?
I want people to listen to my music when they want to feel… you know how you were saying when you want to go listen to a certain song… Oh you happy so you want to go listen to a certain song? That’s what I want. I want my music to trigger your emotions. Make you happy, make you whatever. I just don’t want people to just listen to the beats even though they’re f**king fire. Monte Booker.
So tell me about the underground music Chicago scene that’s on the rise.
It’s the best sh** ever. I ain’t even going to lie. Chicago’s music community, as far as the artists that are working really, we’re real cool with each other. Like Noname [formerly Noname Gypsy], she’s one of the best spirits in Chicago. I had a chance to sit in with her on a session. It was the day I had went to the studio, and Chance [the Rapper] had called me to hop on a song with him. And she was like sh**, ‘I want you to hop on this song.’ And I hopped on it. And it just so happened to be my man, The Mind.
Speaking of Chance, have you taken anything from his personal success, or has he put you onto any game on how to move independently in this game?
Every artist, if you making music at this point, you definitely got inspired by how Chance went through the whole industry without having to be in the industry. So that’s definitely like a big thing, making sure we own our sh**, we have our sh**. We moving, we putting our own plans together. Hustling, of course, is some sh** you have to do on your own anyway. But I just like the way that they stuck with they family and moved all the way up. And everybody still around.