Interview: Roy French, Proof that Chicago is Weirder Than You Thought

roy french facegodWhile recent coverage of Chicago hip-hop has primarily focused on drill, all along there has been another, less coherent current bubbling under the surface. Chance the Rapper is the most recognizable incarnation of this emerging alternate current, but he’s neither its beginning nor its end. Despite their shared city of origin, Vic Mensa, Alex Wiley, Tree and more are also clearly not categorized as drill. Roy French is the latest member of this motley crew to come to the light, further expanding our understanding of Chicago hip-hop with his recent mixtape #FACEGOD, a bizarre and enthralling collection of rhymes, chants, grunts and melodies, gleefully described by French as “dopamine.”

We never get the chance to discuss his particular experiences with dopamine, but he loves the analogy, confidently saying that his music “makes you feel good, it makes you feel warm inside.” Though the way artists describe their own music is often unreliable – not to say that writers, critics and fans are particularly better – in Roy French‘s case, the description is apt. From the presentation of the music to the music itself, there is a palpable feeling of radiation, warmth. On #FACEGOD‘s cover art for instance, we’re presented with a cartoonized image of French sitting cross-legged, flanked by a vibrant spectrum of brilliant colors that he appears to be emanating. Likewise, on his song “Meditate,” French offers encouraging words over a wobbly, ambient beat. The drums are severely dulled, so dull that they meld with the synths, becoming waves of sound beaming at and through the listener. It truly is warming.

French‘s interest in warmth and his method for generating it – stream-of-consciousness rhymes, blatant weirdness, drug-induced aloofness – are clearly inspired by Lil B. French isn’t shy about the inspiration: “Lil B is definitely a great inspiration. Just how he does his shit is very – I’m not gonna say marketable – but very loving. People love Lil B. Whatever he does and the skill involved in the way he does it, it’s just crazy. I just want to learn how to do that shit. I just want to know how people can love you.” French is clearly on the right path, especially in regard to just plain sounding unique, but he’s not attempting to be a BasedGod derivative. Clarifying his mixtape’s title, he says, “It’s not based off BasedGod. ‘FaceGod’ actually means to face the obstacles that God is giving you and obstacles are like the physical form of God, the struggles and things you have to overcome to be stronger. That’s not to be religious or anything like that. Because people see God as so many things. But I’m referring to the obstacles.”

His own obstacles are formidable. Soberly, he alludes to his current predicament: “I be out here trying to get out the hood, get my mom a good place to live and a car, and even just get a better coat.” It’s a familiar grind, but it’s no less real. French sounds noticeably down when he lists even just a few of the challenges he must overcome.

Nevertheless, Roy French is a strategist. Familiar with his opponent, he approaches from more than one angle. In addition to rapping, he dabbles in producing, promising to soon release “cold ass electronic beats.” Outside of the music itself,  French even dabbles in thinking up ideas for improving the distribution of Chicago artists. Noting the absence of an established center for the release of Chicago music, he offers a solution: “If we were all under one label, the industry would have to take us all up at one time. If we had our own industry, it would be way easier to be noticed. It took me so many years – four to five years – just to get noticed on a big press outside of Chicago. Chicago needs its own MMG or something like that.”

The birth of a Chicago Motown is probably unlikely and French would rather delegate such a project to someone else rather than take on the task himself, but he won’t be idly lying by when and if someone takes the project up. In addition to becoming increasingly more familiar with the production software Ableton and taking some lessons in flowing from Andre 3000, Cam’ron and Busta Rhymes, French is currently at work on a project titled Pancakes With Syrup, a mixtape that he promises will sound like pancakes dripping “actual maple syrup, not Lil’ Wayne syrup.” It’s a strange promise, but there’s no one more likely to keep it than Roy French. Even when #FACEGOD takes rather obnoxious turns (“SaveAHoe” and “UnCommon”), French‘s commitment to how he wants to sound and what he wants to say is undeniable. Stream the mixtape below. Roy French is in his own world.