In high school, Chance the Rapper was the kid with the backpack full of CDs, hustling in hallways, foisting his latest mixtape on unsuspecting classmates. Now he plays coy in meetings with major labels, biding his time while big numbers and grand schemes are discussed casually over pizza. On Tuesday (April 30), his newest release Acid Rap was downloaded some 50,000 times over night, according to an internal count. But even before then the emergent rapper from Chicago had already flown to New York and L.A. at the behest of Columbia, Republic, Def Jam, RCA, Atlantic, Interscope, Shady and Capitol, amongst others. In Austin during SXSW, where he was tapped by Red Bull to perform a showcase, Lyor Cohen reached out.
"I don't really like meetings, I like recording and performing music," says Chance, born Chancelor Bennett, 20. "But I need to set myself up for when the time does come that I need better distribution or just a bigger team behind me."
Team Chance as it stands today is small but fierce and shrewdly effective. It includes his manager, Pat Corcoran, 23, a level-headed former promoter and blogger in Chance's Chicago-based Save Money collective; publicist Dan Weiner, who also represents Donald Glover and started working Chance for free after seeing him at SXSW in 2012; and superstar CAA agent Cara Lewis, who added Chance to a roster that includes Kanye West and Eminem among others.
"Me and Chance have always had a chip on our shoulder like 'We can do this and it doesn't take much, just don't be an idiot," says Corcoran, who started working with Chance in April of last year after the release of his first solo mixtape "#10Day." "Dan and Cara have been kind of like our insiders. They've been amazing while we get to know people and figure out what's right for us."
Weiner put Chance on tour with Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, in May 2012. In July, Chance, who has a penchant for arresting shifts in vocal tone and cadence, landed a standout appearance on the Gambino's own hit mixtape "Royalty."
"Chance is easy to make songs with because he's talented and fun to be around - it's like hanging with your little cousin," Glover says. "When he opened for us, I always heard people going nuts. You don't see a lot of rap acts, especially young acts, that can perform on that level. "
Glover wasn't the only one who was impressed by Chance's feverish live show. In August, he and Corcoran had their first meeting with Lewis, who instantly became smitten. They spoke for an hour-and-a-half and she came on-board 10 minutes after the meeting. The first major labels started calling when news of her involvement got out.
"An emerging artist today can be a superstar tomorrow, but they have to have certain qualities," Lewis says, explaining how Chance won her over. "Chance is extremely charismatic and has an uncanny ability to connect with any audience. You can tell his heart and soul is in it."
At home in Chicago, Chance's support network includes his 15-year old little brother, Taylor, and the rest of the sprawling, multi-disciplinary Save Money crew. Save Money came together when most of the members were freshmen in high school and were performing individually at parties and open mic nights. It includes the rappers Kids These Days, Kami De Chukwu, Vic Mensa, Caleb James, Brian Fresco and Joey Purp; the producers Peter Cottontale, Nate Fox and Thelonius Martin; and in-house filmmaker Austin Vesely, who has directed nearly all of Chance's videos.
From the beginning, Chance's high school hustling bled into a broader business strategy that saw Chicago's close-knit youth community as its target. After finishing at Jones College Prep, he started something he called Save Money School Days, where he and Corcoran would visit schools around the city selling cheap tickets to Chance the Rapper shows and doing meet-and-greets with the students.
"We'd show up at some schools and they'd have the gym ready and make a PA announcement," says Corcoran. "Chance would sign posters and take pictures with all the kids and give hugs to the girls and stuff. It could get pretty crazy. A few times we were chased away by the cops."
This March, the youth strategy graduated to college campuses when Chance and Kids These Days embarked on the "March Madness Tour," which stopped at seven colleges over 10 days.
"I just turned 20, so the majority of time that I've made all of my music I've been a teenager," Chance says. "It just made sense that that would be the foundation. Everything we've done has been really grassroots."
As his star rises, the significance of what this means - speaking to and for kids in Chicago at this particular moment - is not lost on Chance. In 2011 he watched a close friend get stabbed to death in a flare of the city's pandemic violence. That incident, and countless others like it, haunt the Acid Rap track "Pusha Man," on which he breaks into a striking soliloquy.
"They merkin' kids, they murder kids here. Why don't they talk about it? They deserted us here."
"It's crazy how many people die here and how crucial it's about to be this summer," Chance says. "[Chief] Keef put it in everybody's face and people didn't like it, but that's how it is. It affects everybody here personally. Motherfuckers that are 15 and 16 caught bodies already and that's not normal. So my plan is to put it in people's face as hard as Chief Keef did it, and possibly harder. Because if nobody talks about it, nothing gets done."
In the wake of Acid Rap, Chance will continue to build in Chicago with a series of shows opening for Kendrick Lamar, Toro y Moi, Grimes and others. He hopes to venture out on his first major tour in June, culminating in a return to Chicago for Lollapalooza in August. The summer will indeed be crucial, but his crew is ready.
Check out Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap mixtape below: