By the time Kweku Collins had hit first grade, he was already a seasoned performer, having audaciously accompanied his percussionist/storyteller father with a drum since he was a tot.
The increasingly celebrated, Chicago-based rapper/singer/producer now laments the loss of his preschool sangfroid. “All that training was for naught,” Collins, 22, said with a laugh. “Every show, I get this ridiculous feeling in the pit of my stomach before I go onstage.”
Those butterflies have been multiplying geometrically of late as Collins prepares to launch his first-ever headlining tour, which brings him to Lincoln Hall Oct. 26. “I’m really excited,” he said, citing the road jaunt’s length (a month-plus) and breadth (coast to coast in the U.S. and Canada).
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 26
Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $15 advance, $17 door (all ages)
The artist was phoning from SoundScape Studios in the city’s Ukrainian Village-Humboldt Park area, where Collins does most of his recording for Chicago’s sought-after independent hip-hop label, Closed Sessions (which signed him as a teen). He’d mixed and mastered his 2016 full-length album debut, the roundly applauded “Nat Love,” at SoundScape; last year’s equally extolled follow-up, “Grey,” was a SoundScape production, and he is currently working there on his third long-form project.
Music is encoded in Kweku Collins’ DNA, along with his West African roots (“Kweku” means “born on Wednesday” in Ghana). Alongside his dad Stephan, the Afro-Latin percussionist, numerous family members were/are accomplished musicians, and as he put it, “I’m really, really lucky about the situation that I was born in.” Growing up (in upstate New York through early childhood, and Evanston, Ill., from age five onward), “there were drums and xylophones and instruments from all over the world in the house. While my father played drums I studied [him], and that’s how I picked up percussion.
“Before I could walk I had an understanding of rhythm and tempo, even time signatures,” Collins noted. “So at, like, four and five, I could keep a beat, play a rhythm.”
Stephan Collins interwove his percussion artistry with his narrative skills, “telling traditional African stories interspersed with music,” according to Kweku. His tiny filial drum prodigy in tow, Collins Sr. took that show on the road “to different schools and festivals, kids’ parties and stuff like that. I was, like, his assistant,” Collins recalled.
“We’d jam together, and he’d stop drumming so that he could tell part of the story. Then I’d talk with my drumming – laying into a rhythm to provide the background. Then we’d start back up [jamming].
“That was my first introduction to being comfortable performing in front of other people.”
Collins’ introduction to hip-hop came in third grade, “when somebody gave me a little transistor radio for my birthday. I was noodlin’ around with it one day, alone in my room, and I’ll never forget it: I popped onto a station, and ‘Jesus Walks’ by Kanye West was playing. Oh, yeah – I just became enthralled. ‘What is this is? This is insane!’”
Superstar-in-progress West’s third consecutive Top 20 single, gold-certified and Grammy-winning, had so captured the eight-year old Collins’ fancy that he instantly developed an all-consuming mania for hip-hop.
His parents, though, weren’t at all sure this was appropriate listening for a third-grader. “I was a super-impressionable kid; they wanted to shelter me, a little bit” – and tried to keep it off-limits. But Collins was also “a sneaky kid. So I’d still get my rap fix, whatever way I could.”
He’d accompany his schoolteacher mom Frances, who worked weekends at (now-defunct) retail chain Borders Books and Music, to the Evanston Borders on Saturdays, marinating in hip-hop courtesy of the store’s music-sampling kiosks. Dancehall-reggae star Sean Paul’s hit album “Dutty Rock” enjoyed heavy rotation on Kweku’s personal playlist, as did Will Smith’s album “Lost and Found” and the jazz/rap series “Jazzmatazz,” by MC Guru of pioneering East Coast duo Gang Starr.
Collins stressed that his mom’s book-centered, poetic bent provided the other of his two biggest formative influences as a hip-hop artist. “While I get my musicality from my father,” he said, “my mother is the one that was really pushing literature in the house. She encouraged me to write short stories and poetry.”
Collins’ high-school involvement in slam poetry, notably Young Chicago Authors’ renowned Louder Than a Bomb yearly competitions, was further training for the nascent MC: “I had been given the tools, without even knowing, to try to create hip-hop: rhythm and poetry.
“Being somebody that’s not [originally] from Chicago, a lot of welcoming people on this scene have shown me kindness and access to resources,” Collins gratefully acknowledged. “I have a debt to repay to the city, in whatever way I can use my position to help.”
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.