The Cool Kids on Long-Awaited Comeback: 'Let's Just Make The Hardest S--t We Can & Forget Who We Are'

Jordan Naylor/Getty Images for SXSW
The Cool Kids perform in Austin, Texas.

The Cool Kids performed to a packed house at Chicago's Thalia Hall in Pilsen on Dec. 14, even as the temperature dipped into the single digits. This was to launch a major comeback for the duo, who influenced not just Chicago's burgeoning rap scene -- which began to bubble immediately as the group's friendly dissolution in 2011 -- but national trends in the late '00s.

The concert was bankrolled by Red Bull Sound Select, a sponsored series that allows new artists to capitalize on the headliner's notoriety; in this case, up-and-coming rapper Femdot was followed by Detroit stalwart Payroll Giovanni.

Femdot, a slightly-built, slyly lyrical rapper, moved with sharp, deliberate motion on stage. His small but passionate core fanbase was front and center, and rapped along with every lyric. He's a craft-first rapper whose career will likely lift off when his songs match the quality of his artful writing and energy. Payroll's set started with a bump as technical difficulties paused the action for five minutes, but quickly regained momentum. His Cardo-produced 2016 tape Big Bossin' Vol. 1 is G-funk-derived comfort food for fans of a legacy of Southern, Midwest, and West Coast hip-hop in the vein of labels like Rap-A-Lot, and his performance matched its consistency. As a performer, Payroll hits every mark.

But it was the Cool Kids' show. The duo of Chuck Inglish (Evan Ingersoll) and Sir Michael Rocks (Antoine Reed) had been on hiatus as a group since 2011, pursuing solo careers for five years. While they had done a handful of performances outside of their native state earlier this year, this was their first hometown performance since reuniting. The duo estimated they'd received 2,000 RSVPs; the 900-person theater appeared near capacity. They've been in the studio preparing a comeback album, and neither Ingersoll nor Reed seemed concerned with feeling boxed in by their past.

"Before we began [recording], we came to the conclusion that we should not think about, 'we should make this because we're The Cool Kids,'" Reed told Billboard backstage before the show. "Let's just make the hardest shit we can and forget who we are. Let's just treat it as, 'I just met this dude who's really tight for the first time and they put them in the studio.' That will put us in a place where we won't have restraints."

"Our place is cemented," Chuck added. Then, humbly: "I'm not saying there was a whole bunch of options, but we were the option, and people grew from that. Our place is unshakeable."

Both rappers seem confident in the new direction, and resistant to feeding outside narratives that may have sparked their early career. "I feel weird in interviews now -- I'm starting to see what the questions are," said Reed. "It makes me want to stop talking and just put out dope shit. We could be the greatest of all time, but obviously people f--k with us, things f--k with us, the universe f--ks with everybody. We know what we need to be to be [the greatest], so we just need to stay focused on that."

The Cool Kids' early career was defined in large part by national press hype they were unable to capitalize upon. Artists like Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y struck a similar tone with laconic, hip, fashion-forward rappers who eluded neat boxes of "conscious" or "street" without making much of a big deal about it and banked more successfully in that lane. In their hometown, though, the Cool Kids were huge. Chuck points out correctly that many of today's buzzed-about Chicagoans used to attend their concerts. This was in part because, prior to social media's dominance, scarce were local artists who'd charted a path to national attention with a sound that stood apart from the status quo.

Chuck and Michael Rocks hit the Thalia Hall stage in complementary colored Neiman Marcus sweat suits, with Chuck in blue and Michael in burgundy. They drew on a deep catalog, switching between classics, solo records like Michael Rocks' sleek "Cell Dope" and new material. Their sound has aged surprisingly well, sounding as cool and contemporary today despite rapidly shifting trends. Chuck's beats were built upon spare, heavy, skeletal grooves which hit especially hard in a live setting, causing the audience to move compulsively in response. They recall hip-hop's '80s drum machine era, with the casual composure of groups like EPMD; their latest single, "Connect 4," captures the behind-the-beat sprezzatura of Slick Rick.

"I'm Mikey" and "Black Mags," the group's two earliest records, were innovative for the aesthetical novelty of their studied insouciance. Buoyed by nostalgia, they received an appropriately huge response from the crowd. Yet it was the continuity between their slightly stiffer early work and their more refined, newer material that suggested the group will one day be thought of for a decade's worth of music, rather than for their burst of press attention in the mid-00s.

After the show, Chuck stood in the hall outside the green room, clearly ecstatic about the crowd's generous response, that a decade after their big break and five years post break-up, their fans remained loyal and enthusiastic. Of course, it was then that he noticed his cell phone charger was missing, possibly stolen, and his phone was on 1 percent. The universe "f--ks with everybody," but the Cool Kids will probably withstand it.