Everybody knows him. High-fives him. Walks up to him to ask a question, drop a concern or search for an answer. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, the Grammy-winning rapper, philanthropist and newly minted WVON radio host.
And as such, everyone in this 79th Street coffeehouse tips their hat — or their hairnet — to the guy who wrote a number of Kanye West’s songs, nearly won a 2011 aldermanic race and zigs where others would zag.
“I have the opportunity to live a fantasy, and it disappoints people that I don’t live in that fantasy,” he says, referring to many things, including his relatively recent decision to buy the Chatham house his father grew up in. “I’m standing my ground in Chatham. My fantasy is a village that works, the absence of food deserts and the success of businesses owned by people who live here — and not taking money back to Schaumburg.”
He gestures to the ceiling. “This coffeeshop is somebody’s fantasy.”
Smith has a lot going on. He’s two months into a new gig hosting “Speak Up” on WVON, the city’s historically black-owned radio station. He’s featured in “The Field,” a WorldStarHipHop.com documentary about Chicago hip-hop, violence and — in an interesting twist — actual discussions of solutions to the violence. He’s soon to release a concept album, “Violence is Sexy,” about various kinds of violence paired with a book that devotes a chapter to each type. Mumia Abu Jamal and Cornel West are among those producing essays for the book, which illustrates that gunshots aren’t the only ways to kill. And he’s a force behind West’s year-old youthcentric charity, Donda’s House.
“He is in many ways the epitome of what a public intellectual is,” says Marc Lamont Hill, the Columbia University professor writing the book’s forward. “He does rigorous intellectual work in his artistic expression, and at the same time he’s engaging with the public.”
Yet Smith dismisses questions about future political campaigns.
“We have to make sure that [the items I discussed] are sustainable entities and not just used for me to get into somebody’s office,” says the 36-year-old, who just celebrated his four-year wedding anniversary and who takes his tea with honey, not sugar.
WVON (AM-1690) is home to many celebrity hosts, including the sharply didactic Roland Martin and the city’s own Perri Small and Cliff Kelley. Adding Smith to the lineup helps reach a younger audience, and, given Smith’s hip-hop background, a probable increase in nonblack listeners.
“Che has this relationship with the audience,” program director Todd Ronczkowski says. “He’s this young, hip, smart, socially conscious dude. And in the topics that he chooses to discuss — community development, getting the youth on the right path — he doesn’t beat people up. He talks to them.”
But he still doesn’t hold back. For example, it’s silly, he says, to continue to wring hands over “flavor of the minute” rappers.
“Two years ago this conversation would be about Soulja Boy rather than Chief Keef,” he says. “He represented the wing of a mosquito in time. We gotta stop getting caught up on distractions.”