Interview: Oscar-winning Chicago MC Rhymefest Talks Reconnecting With His Father In New Documentary, Understanding His Past Mistakes, And His New LP
The hip-hop community had high hopes for Rhymefest in 2006, the year J Records released his anticipated debut LP, Blue Collar. This was especially true for the Chicago hip-hop community. Kanye West opened the doors, and Rhymefest was supposed to burst through behind him.
While the album received acclaim, it did not perform as well as many expected commercially.
Rhymefest took the underperformance hard and retreated a bit from the music scene. While he released a Michael Jackson-inspired mixtape, and had a curious beef with Charles Hamilton, Fest didn’t release a proper follow-up LP until 2010, when he dropped El Che. Soon after, he retreated once again, turning himself toward other interests. He ran for alderman, created the non-profit Donda’s House, rode his motorcycle, and stayed on-call for various news outlets that identified him as a voice for hip-hop.
For the majority of artists, taking such long breaks from releasing music is a beaten path—to retirement. That is why Rhymefest is such a curious case. He’s been able to keep his name floating in the music world, while doing everything but release new music to the public.
Take last February. ’Fest won an Oscar for his contribution to “Glory,” the theme song to “Selma” performed by Common and John Legend. Then he announced his venture into the film world, with his self-produced documentary, “In My Father’s House.” The film follows ’fest as he purchases his father’s childhood home and then sets out on a quest to locate his dad after losing touch more than 25 years ago. The documentary is about self-discovery and second chances as ’fest discovers his father is living on the streets of Chicago and struggling mightily with addiction.
While his primary goal was to find his dad, ’fest also found a part of himself during the experience, a part that helped him come to grips with his music career and how he dealt with adversity. Just as Rhymefest gave his dad a second chance, he is doing the same for himself and his music. In this exclusive interview, Rhymefest shares his thoughts on the experience, his plans for the movie, and details of a new album, called Really?!
When did you decide to have a camera follow you and document this time of your life? Was that always in the works to make a proper documentary film or were you just documenting this part of your life and the journey you were embarking on with purchasing the house and finding your dad?
I read somewhere that your life is not worth living and it really means nothing if you don’t document it, if you don’t write about it and let people know that this thing happened. We live in the future now. We live in 2015. It’s so amazing that we don’t have to just write our story. We can actually show people our story. Future generations can learn from it. As I moved in the house and I knew that I was going to be looking for my father who grew up in that house (who I never really knew), it was important for me to document. It was not just for vanity’s sake, but so my children and their children could know the roots of their family.
Was there a point when you wrote off your dad and were living your life not expecting to find him again? What pushed you to try to reconnect?
It was getting the house and feeling like a stranger in that house. Feeling like even though I bought it it wasn’t mine. It didn’t belong to me. My spirit was not in there. That was the one time where I felt like, you know, I need my father to bless this house, to bless this home for me to feel comfortable in it.
Did you go into this process with any idea of what the reunion would look like or feel like?
I didn’t know what it would be like, or what it would feel like. Even as I was experiencing it, I didn’t know how to feel. When I met my father, I saw that this dude fell in a hole. This wasn’t a guy who abandoned me: this was a guy who fell. It’s kind of like somebody telling you something that goes against everything you were raised to believe. It’s not that you don’t believe anymore, you just don’t know what to think. That’s how it was with my father. I was raised thinking that he was a guy who didn’t care, who just left me. But what I found was that he was a guy that needed help and I had to change my belief system temporarily. Before that evolution happened I just didn’t know what to think.
How did you come to purchase this house?
I was riding down the block with my wife and I said, “Look at that house. That’s the house that my father lived in, that I never knew grew up in with his family. That’s his family’s house. She said, “You should buy the house and give your children the inheritance you never had.” And I did it.
You talked about changing your mindset. What did you learn about yourself during this process? You almost have game tape of your life. What are some things you might have picked up on about yourself, or changes from this experience?
That’s ill, “game tape of your life.” That’s dope. I learned a lot. I learned why my music career wasn’t as complete as I wanted it to be, I learned where my humor and my cleverness come from, and I learned where my flaws come from. I got this full circle completion to me as a human being by establishing a relationship with my father.