Knox Fortune taking a post-Grammy chance on ‘Paradise’
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When Chicago’s Knox Fortune took home a Grammy last winter for his work on “Coloring Book” – megastar colleague Chance the Rapper’s history-making 2016 release – home was a dinky, crowded dwelling in Wicker Park, your basic starving-artist scenario.
Unable to afford even an Airbnb for the Grammys’ splashy telecast in Los Angeles, the indie hip-hop producer (and emerging singer-songwriter) crashed on an L.A. friend’s couch, collected his gilded-gramophone trophy engraved with “Best Rap Album” and flew back to his $300-a-month basement bedroom. “How is this my reality?’” Fortune remembered thinking, during a mid-October interview at the Sun-Times offices.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13
Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: Sold out
Now Fortune headlines an album-release concert for his own luscious debut, “Paradise,” on Nov. 13 at Lincoln Hall. It’s the culmination of his work to date: multiple years spent on Chicago’s fecund young indie-rap scene creating beats for his peers – notably Chance and his SaveMoney crew members, including Vic Mensa, Joey Purp and Kami – while simultaneously diving deeper into his own songwriting and singing.
Until recently he’d kept the latter pursuit pretty much sub rosa. In fact, when a serendipitous chain of events resulted in Knox’s role on “Coloring Book” – he composed and sang the cheerfully rowdy earworm of a hook on album track “All Night” – it surprised the Rapper.
“Chance told me recently that when I did ‘All Night,’ he’d thought I was [strictly] an engineer,” Fortune recalled with amusement. “He said, ‘When you gave me the vocals back, I really was not expecting that at all.’” As it happens, the engineering expertise of Knox Fortune (birth name Kevin Rhomberg) happens to be entirely self-taught.
Now 25, he grew up in the leafy suburb of Oak Park, his house filled with Beatles, Beach Boys, Talking Heads, Prince. “I was not one of those kids,” Knox remarked, “that denounced my parents’ music.”
Then, a middle-school obsession with skateboarding acquainted Fortune with the sport’s more subversive soundtrack: the visceral, elegant noise of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and Joy Division. “And I LOVED it,” said Knox, who was rapidly overtaken by a new fixation: making “strange sounds” of his own via the family iMac’s GarageBand music software.
“I wasn’t a musician,” he acknowledged, “so things like reverb and [other] effects were super-cool to me: making my voice sound like a guitar, or recording it to a keyboard and playing my voice by pressing the keys. I was good at manipulating sound in the program.
“Then I started getting more into understanding what a song is, its components. And I think getting into rap music and beats, the sample-y type stuff, helped expand things from there.”
Fortune’s self-education hit another benchmark when he graduated to a more specialized music-production tool, Reason 4 by Propellerhead Software: “Its layout is really tech-y, and I started to understand signal flow, how sound moves through a recording console, how you get it from the microphone to the effect pedal to the program – that sort of stuff.”
Meanwhile Fortune’s oblique approach to songwriting continued apace, gaining focus courtesy of high-school friend Chris Bunkers, a formally trained musician. “I’d learned how to make cool sounds first, but had no knowledge of how to structure them like the songs on the radio,” Knox reflected. “Then Chris came in, and I would see him arrange his songs in a logical, more practical pop sense.” Thanks to Bunkers, “I could understand what a hook is, and a verse.”
Bunkers contributed drums to three of the 11 tracks on “Paradise,” a feast of chewable melodies and beats – garnished with love-centric lyrics and infused with the rapturously off-kilter feel of a sultry summer day.
“I watched Knox teach himself music,” observed aforementioned Chicago rapper Kami, who guests on “Paradise” with SaveMoney compatriot Joey Purp. (Their duo, Leather Corduroys, served as Fortune’s first official production credit.) “He just figures things out. It’s like [learning to ride] a bike: you keep trying until you just start riding.”
“He’s a very integral part of not just my story, but our whole story collaboratively,” Joey Purp declared. “He not only identifies with rap, pop and indie music culturally, he understands it from a technical perspective; he knows how to make these sounds.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere, musically, without Knox.”
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.