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Rich Robbins Is Pushing Forward While Remaining Rooted

Written by on April 14, 2020

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Photo by @scotifystudios

With the drop of his latest two singles, “Good Goodbyes” and “Retrograde,” Chicago rapper Rich Robbins is gearing up for more new music, while also trying to remain present in today’s moment.

The multi-talented artist spoke to us about walking with patience, translating spoken word in music (and vice-versa), and stepping into a historic time in the Chicago hip hop scene.

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Photo by Steve Piper

How would you describe your work to someone in a few sentences? 

That’s always a difficult question because I try to challenge myself to switch it up. At its core, my music is rap – but it’s delivered through storytelling, melodic production, and probably a catchy hook or chorus you could sing in church, or the club, or at an ex. 

What part of Chicago are you from? What was it like growing up there?

Most of my childhood was actually in Philadelphia, but I went to high school in Oak Park, and my family has a lot of history there. When you take away the politics and the warzones of parent Facebook Groups, OP is a solid place to grow up.

Most of my extended family is from what I guess now is considered University Village. I don’t know, that neighborhood has changed so much. But we spent holidays with my great grandma there – into my adult life – so I think that’s why I’ve always preferred local neighborhoods over busy ones. 

How has Chicago’s music scene influenced the work that you do?

I started taking music more seriously during the time SaveMoney, Hurt Everybody, Pivot Gang, Noname, etc. started laying the foundation for the scene we have today. When Harold Washington Library’s YOUMedia hosted open mics I was always so impressed by how melodic and intricate they were with their deliveries. I already had a knack for lyricism because of my background in Spoken Word, and I had a love of music that sounded like it had life to it. So I watched and learned from their moves and then went into motion myself. 

You’re both a rapper and a teaching artist. Can you describe what that second distinction entails?  

I work at the high school I graduated from, OPRF. I’m one of the Spoken Word teachers there. We go into all freshman and sophomore English classes and teach a week-long poetry unit. At the end of each week we have in-class poetry slams and class champs.

I also coach the OPRF slam team that participates in Louder Than a Bomb. It’s the perfect gig for me right now. The  students keep me on my toes. If you can get a room full of 14-15 year olds to rock with your verses, then you’re good anywhere. 

You’ve opened and collaborated with artists like Noname, theMIND, and Joseph Chilliams…after all that you’ve done, what pushed you to come back to Chicago?​

Chicago’s ceiling is just so high right now. I think this year in particular the world will be watching us. I don’t think people realize, but we’re in a historic time for Chicago in terms of its long-lasting impact on Hip-Hop/Hip-Hop culture. People from this city are going on national tours and I want to be one of them. 

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Photo by Steve Piper

In college you released two studio albums. How have you seen your own creative process grow since leaving school in Wisconsin? 

Rapping for college crowds is a whole lot different than rapping in a big city. I was testing the waters in college. I learned I don’t like performing drunk, how to set up a home-studio anywhere, how to mix/master all my own music, how often to tell the crowd to put their hand in the air before they start side-eyeing each other, etc. Wisconsin was kind of like my incubation place and Chicago is the world I stepped into. Now the work is a lot more collaborative, lively, down to earth, and just more grown. 

What do you think is missing from today’s music landscape? 

That’s a great question. I miss artists who build a world for their fans to get lost in. I love Childish Gambino and Kanye West because they’re really visionaries who chose music as their way to communicate. I want that same energy. But that requires a lot of patience during a time when every playlist is on shuffle and you have 30 seconds to impress someone before they skip. 

Who are your biggest influences musically? 

Right now it’s whoever pops up on my Discover Weekly. I listen to a lot of music I don’t know the name or artist to. I’m more focused on the feel. People always ask me in the car what song is playing and I never know, but we know it’s a vibe. From the jump, I’ve always loved Lauryn Hill, Sade, Kendrick, Frank Ocean, and Drake (just to name a few). 

What other mediums, genres, or art forms make up part of your creative identity? 

Anyone who knows me knows I watch a lot of anime. It’s my go-to muse outside of music. I have a Naruto jacket on right now. It helps me connect with my imagination, which yields stronger song-writing. I’ve also been using Instagram as a way to take in visual art. I follow a lot of photographers, visual artists, videographers, models, etc., that are pushing creativity in cool ways. 

How has the COVID-19 situation affected you as an individual and as an artist? 

I’m really using this time to slow down. During the first week I was walking outside and the world seemed to be moving slower. Less traffic on the roads and on foot. I was on a block in the neighborhood I live in and saw details I never noticed. I was noticing the colors of apartments, faded signs on top of buildings, gardens in front of people’s apartments, and stuff like that. This whole situation has made me realize how fast my body wants to move and how much I miss every day when I don’t walk with patience. 

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Photo by Steve Piper

How is creativity helping you to cope during this anxious moment? 

It’s helping me document what’s happening to all of us. I’ve been writing a lot of poetry in order to take a picture of this new life we’re living. I’m keeping myself entertained through writing, and trying to help others get some creativity too. I can’t stress enough how therapeutic making something is. It doesn’t have to be good or finished. The act of making a song, a poem, cooking, gains from a workout, a draft of a movie script, a puzzle, a cool design in a notebook, a fort, or whatever you can make, really keeps the mind busy with the present instead of anxious with what’s going to come next. 

What’s next for you?

Ha! As I talk about being in the present I guess we can also mention what’s happening next. I’ll be releasing at least one more single in the next month. A song called “Satellites” that’s an absolute smash. Right now I have over 2 hours of unreleased music and it’s all work that myself and the folks I collaborate with are really excited for/proud of. The easiest way to put it is that people can expect a lot of quality music to come out packaged in different, creative ways. 

Follow Rich on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Edited for length and clarity by Shelby Kluver

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