Knox Fortune Talks New Album 'Paradise', Working With Chance the Rapper on 'All Night' & More
"It's kind of weird because Kanye isn't really present in Chicago, but he's been this omnipresent figure," he says of the icon's influence.
If you let Knox Fortune explain himself, the artist née Kevin Rhomberg is your normal 25-year-old kid living with roommates in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. But after his tuneful feature on Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book standout "All Night," that all changed and now his "very normal life is no longer very normal."
On Friday, the die-hard Cubs fan released his solo debut, a melodic 11-track project titled Paradise, where he looks to distance himself from his hip-hop contributions and show the world the type of artist he truly is. The talented dual threat producer-singer draws from his skateboarding background as well as musical influences, which include the likes of fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, J Dilla and The Beatles, to craft his unique sound. With Paradise, Fortune looks to inspire others to embrace who they are as an individual, as well as their diverse set of influences.
After being behind-the-scenes of Chicago’s hip-hop scene, Knox delivers the perfect ode to the end of summer with Paradise. The Chi-town native categorizes his music as dirty pop saying it features elements of, “indie-rock, electronic, even hip-hop and some dusty old '60s music, but at the same time the goal is to make it futuristic and sound like were in 2018.”
Billboard caught up with Fortune, who explained how he got the name Knox Fortune from Vic Mensa, drawing the album’s cover-art, crafting “All Night” in a couple hours and much more about the creative process behind Paradise.
Billboard: How did you get the name, Knox Fortune?
Knox Fortune: I got it from Vic Mensa. It was during one of the first times we met in 2012. I actually got the notification from Twitter that it was my Twitter birthday. I had made my Twitter and got the name that day with Vic. I met up with him and he said I needed a cool name. I was going by Fume Fort temporarily and he came up with Knox Fortune. We rocked with that ever since.
What inspired you drawing the album's artwork, as well as the singles?
I actually made one for each track on the album. It came from me thinking of my music as a collage. I would make collages and cut things out of a magazine, then trace over sections while inking and coloring it after. It's all done by hand. I had the art done, but none were associated with a title yet, the last thing I would do is attach a song title to it. The one that ended up being the album art work I didn't put with a song and thought it was raw as hell and would work perfect for the album. I made that one fourth or fifth out of the 14 or 15 I did total.
Who were some of your inspirations in music growing up?
One of my biggest inspirations was skateboarding, the culture introduced me to being unique and having your own style. I found a lot of my favorite artists through skateboarding. When you're a kid, you watch skate videos and find your favorite on the team. Then, you kind of realize I like the clothes or how his arms hang, random stuff like that. You learn to pick up on style. Other than that, I've always been inspired by The Beach Boys, Kanye West, J Dilla, Neptunes, The Beatles. A lot of those are production-heavy artists.
What did Kanye West mean to you growing up in Chicago?
It's kind of weird because Kanye isn't really present in Chicago, but he's been this omnipresent figure. From his first release, we were all on that. I remember "Through The Wire" and "Jesus Walks" coming out as a little kid watching MTV and being like he's from Chicago. He put on a lot of artists from the city and continually does. His influence on us is so present and he's just a daring person. From 808s and Heartbreak to Yeezus, he always does the unexpected and that's a big inspiration to me.
I'm always interested in what the next Kanye West song will sound like. There's things I picked up from him like finding samples such as Labi Siffre, who made "I Wonder." Even Arthur Russell, who made "30 Hours." It's always been interesting to me that this dude who is pop and a huge superstar is still digging to find these obscure songs. I've always been someone who is searching for new music and inspiration. He's such a public person, but he's willing to get so private on his songs and that's so courageous to me. I will always respect that in art.
I'm late on this but "30 Hours" by Kanye was my fav song of 2016— Knox Fortune (@knoxfortune) January 11, 2017
Talk about the creative process for Paradise, how did it all come together?
I recorded a lot of it at my crib in Chicago, I had the basement to myself and made a studio out of it. I made it work though. I did some songs at Rick Rubin's Shangri La studio in Malibu. It was amazing, not comparable to any studio I've ever been. I wasn't even out there really for myself, I was with Towkio. We'd be living there for two and a half weeks at a time. At certain moments, there would be down time and I would make something and be like I'm going to do something on this too.
"Keep You Close" and "Stars" were both recorded at Shangri La. "Lil Thing" was actually the last song to make the album. "Stun" with Joey Purp, we recorded that three years ago, New Year’s 2015 actually. Sometimes I will make a bunch of songs in a session for somebody, but I'll be like, “I'm not going to show them this one's for me”. Like what Kanye said on "Made in America" resonates with me, "I guess I'm getting high off my own supply."
Who did you collaborate with on this project?
Carter Lang and Macie Stewart are big on this project, as well as Joey Purp. One of my best friends, Chris Bunkers, this is his debut in popular music. He has a 9-5 job, he's not grinding for this, but he's an amazing musician, so I brought him in on a lot of tracks. Lido, who produced "Angels" for Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet, Colin Croome and Cadien Lake James from Twin Peaks and Will Miller from Whitney. Mainly from the production end, I try to keep it as free from features and writing credits as possible. It's me for all the production. I start every song by myself, then think, This needs strings,” and call Macie Stewart to contribute.
I read you're referring to Joey Purp as an executive writer on Paradise.
I just thought that was a cool opportunity. We're really close friends and I executive produced his project, iiiDrops. I DJed for him on tour for a year and a half as well. We've been to Shanghai, Italy, and France together. So when we were on the road, he said he wanted to be an executive producer on my album. I was like you can't really produce, from my standpoint you're better at writing than me, so help me out there.
Basically, he served as an editor for me. It's really nice to have an editor. At times, I'd think I was done and show him and he'd tweak this. He's got a really good story-telling ability that I'm working on myself, but I'm not as good as him. So it's great to have someone in my court that will tell me put this word in for that one. It's usually something as simple as that. I'll freestyle a melody and he'll be like it sort of sounds like you're saying this and I'll be like that's tight, let's rock with that.
With Paradise, is this about you getting away from your hip-hop contributions and showing what kind of artist you really are?
I think that's a good way of putting it. For so long I've been making these songs, not secretly, but I wasn't releasing them on my own. I've been in sessions with a rap artist that made no sense for me to be working with them. None of my friends obviously, like the SaveMoney dudes, but I'll be working with someone else and they'll bring me in to do a trap beat and I'm like, “Y'all don't know any of my music. You clearly don't know what I do.”
So this was kind of like me putting my foot down and being like here's what I do. If you want me to still come into your session to make trap beats okay, but it might not be the best way to use me so here's what I actually do. It definitely was an attempt to step away.
"All Night" has been a life-changing track for you, can you talk about how that collaboration with Chance the Rapper came together?
It's really crazy to me. I was working at CRC with Chance for Coloring Book for two weeks, even crashing at the studio now and then. Peter Cottontale was the one forcing me in the studio, he was trying to help me. Chance wanted me to make him a dance song, which I submitted a bunch of stuff he wasn't feeling. At that point, I was over it and he got the song from Kaytranada and showed it to me and said, "If you have any ideas on this go crazy." So I asked to sing on it. Then I went in a room alone with a mic.
He had a freestyle mumbling on it. Then, I sang my part and brought it back to him while he was playing Call of Duty. He was like, "That sounds good as hell." I didn't even think it was going to make the album, this was about five days before Coloring Book dropped. It was a very late addition, maybe the last. I got paperwork the night before it dropped. I found out it was on the project, when it released and I saw my name featured. It was a bunch of surprises. It definitely changed my life, to think about me at that moment in CRC like I have to kill this to the Grammy Awards night, it's just surreal.
Let's get into the album. What was the creative process behind your song "Lil Thing?"
That was the one that I thought had the most cross-over accessibility. It kind of follows a typical pop song structure. It's like a love song that's relatable and I like that it uses Chicago slang. That will connect with a lot of people, especially in my city. I made it in my basement, it was a bit more stripped down, then I sang a vocal and went to my homies Them People and they thought it sounded like an Erykah Badu record.
Then I went home and kind of thought about it and filled in some words and restructured it with Carter Lang on the drums and Nico Segal on the keys at the end. That's one of my favorite records. For the video, I sent my best-friend, Jackson James, a mood board of things I liked the look of and put the ball in his court. I really wanted to shoot it on Super 16mm film to give it a different look and a vintage feel.
My only instruction was that I wanted it to be a visual collage that matched the music and he knows me very well. He brought it back to me and I was like we got to shoot portraits to see my face in it a lot. I called my across the alley neighbor who has a little film studio and wanted a pink and blue background. For the pink I wore a blue shirt and for the blue I wore a pink shirt and from there we did straight portraits and that was the hooks. Things just took off from there.
"Help Myself" featured an interesting theme for the video, who came up with that?
That was also shot with my friend Jackson James at my Wicker Park house. It was getting torn down and my management was like, “Maybe put out a lyrical visual for the track,” and I don't really like lyric videos, I feel like that's a cop out. I was brainstorming it all day with Jackson and I was like, "Maybe we could write all over the house, then you did a tour moving around to the song." Then he went to work that day and I just stayed home and wrote on all the walls in the house. When he got home, we shot it and put it out that night. There was no editing we just uploaded it. The feedback was cool, it was specifically raw. That's what I was trying to do, we shot it on a VX 1000. We didn't rent a camera or anything and did it ourselves and that caught on and people appreciated it.
What do you hope to accomplish with your debut album?
I really wanted to inspire people and for them to embrace who they are, as well as their influences. That was the whole goal for me. I'm around people who only listen to one genre and I always found myself to be in the middle of a lot of different places. I kind of thought that could be unique, but I'm sure there are other people just like me that are interested and want music like this. I can put this out and be almost like a beacon for people who may confused with their own taste or not satisfied with music now. Just be another unique voice in the world of it.