Mentoring, Writing, and the Lifeline of Hip-Hop with Add-2

Mentoring, Writing, and the Lifeline of Hip-Hop with Add-2

Photo by Joshua Taylor

Written by Victoria Sockwell


When I was requested to interview the humble Chicago rapper, Add-2, there was no doubt in my mind that he would have pages of information and stories to tell. Born and raised in Chicago, Add-2 has become a beacon of what it means to be a multidisciplinary artist. From rapping to screenplay writing, to poetry, to acting. The man can do it all while also continuing to provide for his community. I didn’t want this interview to just be about his latest album, “Jim Crow the Musical.” Like many artists during quarantine, we all have been just trying to keep our heads. Whether taking a break from our art or finding new ways to create, we continued to produce while the world mourned the loss of 2020. I caught up with the multi-hyphenated artist over Zoom about life during quarantine, his latest projects, mentoring over doing, defining African American, and the lifeline of hip hop.

Victoria (V): You've been a tough man to get a hold of; What have you been up to during quarantine?

Add-2 (A): I've learned a lot about myself in this time. And even though I'm a homebody by nature, I also realized that I have spaces that I need balanced. For that, I need to be active to feel fulfillment and learn about myself. So, you know, that's been very present. The album has been doing very, very well.  I've been surprised that people continually reach out, telling me just how much the words and the music means to them. So that's been good. And I'm just like, I'm just in awe. When you get some moments in life where you're able to say like, I really, truly do appreciate this journey; this space that we could be in, what you could learn about yourself, the impact that you can make, and just what people mean to you. There's been a lot of that lately.

V: Artists are always doing other things than just creating their art. You're never just making this one album. You're doing other things in the community, and I think you're an excellent beacon of that within Chicago right now. I know that you're doing stuff that you've created through Haven studio. Any new updates with that?

A: Man, Haven has been doing so well. At the beginning of quarantine, of course, many of my mentees were apart of some of the protests that were going on. They were expressing themselves, and I'm super happy about that. Then finding their voice within this world and in social justice. They were also a part of the cleanups too, which was dope. Just like, "Hey, look, we still got to make sure our neighborhoods are good, too." It's good that they see that personal responsibility. Musically, they've been excelling. We did a microphone and audio interface drive to make sure that people were able to record in the house and still be creative. I was watching them make music and learn how to engineer at home. When we couldn't meet, I was like, man, well, I'm not too sure what's going to happen with the program because a lot of it was through this free studio that we had and that then became a safe space and a second family for some people. We've kind of moved everything virtually, and it was like the music community start pouring into us even more. We just had Saba and Joseph Chileans on the other day, and then Nico Seagal. It has been like everybody, and I'm just like, What is...what is going on? Sometimes you want to lean on your community, but sometimes you can kind of feel skeptical because you like, alright, I've been here before. Sometimes everybody like, "Yeah, hit me up, let me know, I got you,” and they don't have you. I'm a little wary of that, especially when dealing with the youth, because I don't want to subject them to disappointment, of course. But the fact that everybody's been showing up has been just the biggest blessing I could have asked for. So they are doing well. That's probably the place where I'm most happy. Life accomplishments are cool, but I feel like that's what I was sent here to do.

V: Do you see yourself more of a mentor more than an artist, or do they go together hand in hand for you?

A:  Music doesn't move me the same way that this does. It took me a while to be able to say it and not say it was some sort of reservations. I can say that music helps me communicate with them what I've learned, and that's the bridge. But honestly, with mentorship, I do that naturally well. I'm a good listener; I empathize with them, I can figure out how to solve specific problems in some ways, but not necessarily become a crutch to solve them. They still have to be able to function on their own and not just think it's coming through me. I love that I can do that every day and not feel anything. Whereas music, you got to deal with the industry, you got to deal with people in the industry who may have some of the worst intentions. So nah, I've had a good journey in it. I create what I want to, and I like protecting my art now. My art is my art, and I will share it when I'm ready to interact with the industry in the ways that I'm cool with, but aside from that, I think mentors where it's at.

V: What other ventures have you been doing?

A: Well, one thing that I did that I wasn't exploring at first was poetry and voice acting, narration type of thing. I was good at it before. I used to get into open mics because, of course, when I was younger, I couldn't perform in the clubs. So the first places I used to go to was poetry spots. I've always loved poetry, always. I tried to do it on the side, but I had several opportunities to really kind of pursue it, pursue it. One of them was working with the Emmy Award-winning director Reed Morano. We did a project called We the People. We did it around election time, and the piece went viral. Naomi Campbell and Chris Rock, all these people were posting it, and I was like, Yo, this is crazy! I was able to put a couple of my mentees into the film, as well. So that meant a lot to me. I did another piece for When We All Vote, which is Michelle Obama's organization. They put that on BET, which was dope. I thought I'm going to be a rapper. I'm going to be the dopest rapper going platinum. Then you start to realize that you have so many different branches of talent that you have to explore and cultivate. You are given all these gifts for a reason. You're not just this monolith of this one thing; you are a conglomeration of all of these things. I like watering these gifts now. So, you know, poetry I love, of course, mentoring I love. I want to start getting back into writing plays. I was doing theater for a little while.

V: Is that how you came up with the "Jim Crow the Musical?"

A: Yeah, actually, that's exactly how it started. I had always loved [theater]. I wasn't necessarily a part of it in college. I left the theater program because I wanted to make movies; I didn't want to be on stage. Instead, I started to come back to it. I started doing consulting work. I was the first rap consultant for the Goodman Theatre. I fell in love with that. Then I started doing stuff for the Lyric Opera House and one of their programs called Empower Youth. We were writing plays for that, and I'm writing in these spaces for rap music within musicals. I fell in love with it, and then I was just like, I want to bring this to my albums, and how do I weave in satire and dialogue, and monologues and stuff like this? How do I weave this into music and combine it with message and content, and it just became a thing? I just loved the process of writing those skits on "Jim Crow, the Musical." Writing characters and having different voices and stuff like that. I was doing all the voices, and it was just it was fun! I felt like I was a kid again.

V: Rappers and artists have been doing skits in their albums for years. How did you distinguish from the acts that have already been done with those same characters and those same voices while transcribing them into a screenplay?

A: I think having that prior experience working on how the staging works, positioning and blocking. I started picturing all this stuff in my head while I was writing it. If I could visually bring this to life, what does it look like? What does it sound like? What is it? Importantly, what does it feel like? How does this come to life in audio form? So, I broke down at least a couple of different elements that I wanted to explore. I wanted to try to nail that feel of a monologue was just the character by themselves. There’s soft music playing in the background, and they're kind of introducing things. Then what does that dialogue sound like when there's another character who's a little bit more energetic or unpredictable? How does that happen? What is their arc? How does this end? What message do I want them to leave back with? So I was intentional about writing characters and writing a world and creating a message that told the story that needed to be said and got out the way when it needed to.

V: When you start getting into more screenplay writing, do you think you're going to expand more on Jim Crow, the Musical?

A: {Laughs} The actual musical-musical. Yeah, you know, I've had talks with people about it, and several people really were interested in really making this come to life, and I was too; I wanted to. I think quarantine kind of messed up a lot of stuff. But I really, truly want to bring that to life because that's a whole different experience. There's so much dialogue that I left out that I would love to kind of tap back into. With character development, there are so many spaces that I think people can learn from and to have a hip-hop musical that deals with racial injustice and societal issues. I think it's really important and it's timely. I would love to do that. I even had a whole team planned out.

V: Quarantine happened.

A: Yeah, quarantine... But, you know, the good part about it is, is that I feel like this is like the closest I've gotten to an album that felt like a cult classic to me. There's a lot of people who love this album. So if it came out five years from now, you know what I'm saying, or a year from now, I think people will be like, "Oh, wow, they're finally making a musical of this. I can't wait!" So, you know, I think there's still support.

Photo by Joshua Taylor

V: So what came first, the definition of African American or the album?

A: Oh, the musical. Okay, so the musical came out in November of... 2019, I believe? It could have been, no, it might have been 2018. Oh, geez. Maybe it's - 

V: Time is flying, to be honest.

A: I remember everybody loved that part of the skit. You know, I was really surprised. I tried to space a lot of quotes in the middle of the album. There's a lot of stuff from Assata Shakur. There's a lot of stuff from Malcolm; there’s James Baldwin. Everybody kind of lived through it, and that quote, in particular, is inspired by, of course, James Baldwin. That was one of the pieces that everyone's like, "Yo, that, like, hit the nail on the head, like, that's the way it feels." I'm distant from where I'm from, yet I'm not accepted in a place where I'm born, and it's this middle ground of like, well, what, where am I? What do I feel like? I'm not African, and I'm definitely not American by what is being shown to me. So where do I be? I love the fact that so many people identify with it and find the spaces of reflection in that quote.

V:  Now I'm about to get off-topic about this new show that you might be in? Is there anything you can kind of talk about or is it on the hush for real?

A: It's a series called 61st Street, based on a character who is on their way to maybe to higher education or bigger opportunities. Unfortunately, they get blamed for a murder of a police officer and so it explores that dynamic of the relationship with the police and the city. I believe it's based out in Chicago as well. I was raised on 65th and Artesia, Englewood; this is all I've known for my life until I went to college in Indiana. The character that I'm reading for feels like something that would be me. Someone who's a realist, skeptical of the system, is kind of really concerned about why other people don't necessarily see why we're being oppressed the way we are. 

Understanding our natural reflexes of fighting back may not seem traditional still; It’s necessary because of what our reality is. There are so many people who've been put in these positions when their backs up against the wall, and from what society has continually been pushing, these are practices at this point that they're pushing. And so you can't be surprised that people want to defend themselves from oppression. Especially when it comes to the younger generation, they may not necessarily have the resources to fight back financially. They may not be able to go get a lawyer. 

V: I have one more question. I got into an argument with a fellow rapper who will remain nameless; he believes that hip hop is a dying art. I want to ask you, as a rapper of hip hop, as an MC, do you think that's true?

A: I think the era that we know the music maybe is fleeting. As we get older, whatever we were listening to was new and fresh. Now we hear it on the old school mix like, y'all remember when this song came out? Why is this old? We get to that space, and we get in a similar space with my parents. Our parents used to listen to our music and be like, "this ain't music, what are you listening to? They’re not even talking about anything." Music may not sound the same for a previous generation, and I feel the same because we're not experiencing music the same way. Whereas there's a younger generation, who, for them, they're seeing artists express themselves. They're seeing artists who connect to songs and moments in their lives that are very much present and real. I think we kind of look at music through these rose-colored lenses. If you go back and dissect what we grew up with, there’s a lot of poison in the water from the 80s and 90s. For lack of better words, there was a lot of poison in [our] water, too. That's something that I'm coming to terms with now. Going back and listening to how troublesome some of those records were and saying, wow, we were encouraging this type of behavior. Now, this stuff is the norm. So I would challenge people because I believe that it's still alive, you have to find it differently, but it's still present. There's still great music out there, still great forms of self-expression, self-discovery. I find new music all the time, and I'm very proud of the next generation that's keeping the torch alive and burning. If you focus on just what's popular culture, then yeah, you're going to see the worst of it. You're going to see the monetization of it. You will see the marketing of it; you’re going to see them appealing to the lowest common denominator because it's entertainment, the entertainment industry, is what's dying. That's been going for a long time. There are no fresh ideas within the entertainment industry. But when you talk about hip hop culture itself. Now, I still believe in it, man. It's still saving lives every day.

V: Is there anything else you want to say to the people add to the article?

A: Much love to all the black people in Chicago. Their resilience so inspires me through all of these times. You know, especially a time right now, in an unprecedented era. We're all pioneers at this moment. So, to have grace for yourself, be patient with yourself, and love and cherish the people you have in your life while you have.


About Add-2: 

Since the release of his first project 2008, Add-2 has been captivating listeners and taste makers ears and imagination with his unique blend of Hip Hop, Soul and Jazz. From his word play to  his no holds barred social commentary; Add-2 has emerged as a respected voice in Hip Hop. Born in Chicago, IL Add-2 used his gift with words to escape the harsh realities of his neighborhood. He has been featured on MTV, Sirius Radio, given a TEDx Talk, has performed on stage with Grammy award winners The Roots as well as Robert Glasper. He is also a current a member of the Recording Academy (Grammy's). In 2016 he opened a free music mentoring studio for the youth called Haven Studio which has been featured on The Steve Harvey show, Tribeca Film Festival and Windy City Live. 

Listen to "Jim Crow The Musical" by Add-2
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