Rich Robbins’ Soundcloud biography proclaims him as the “curator of self-love.” After personally meeting the artist myself, I can merch it.
We met at Chicago’s Music Garage Studios to chat about his new album, Red Butterfly, and life in general. I was most interested in his start as a spoken word artist through Oak Park’s high school and Chicago’s numerous poetry performance organizations. Even as an up-and-coming poet/artist, he’s been able to cohesively collaborate with some of Chicago’s biggest names in hip-hop. People like Saba, theMIND, Mick Jenkins, Supa Bwe, and Noname have all somehow cosigned on Rich’s credibility as a lyricist.
Throughout our conversation, the words “self-love” were mentioned over and over again. Rich often reiterated his goal as an artist – not to necessarily maintain happy-go-lucky positivity, but to consistently encourage his brothers and sisters of color to love themselves unapologetically. I deeply admired his ability to outwardly appreciate his growth as a person and as an artist, even coupled with the growing pains.
The new album fuses an uptempo bounce with a genuine illustration of Rich’s own imperfections. The album’s storytelling reinforces the old adage that struggle encourages artistry, especially as Rich tackles growing up on Chicago’s west side. The city’s vices paired with its upheaval as an artistic stomping ground clearly mark a transition in Rich’s own coming of age. Even while the subjects of the songs’ stories differ, the hope in each track is morally consistent with the dialogue that I shared with Rich within the four walls of Red Butterfly‘s birthplace.
During our quick introduction, Rich Robbins indulges on growing up in Oak Park, being the curator for self-love, and the creation of Red Butterfly.
A Day in the Life of Rich Robbins
I wake up and meditate. I’ll probably go to the gym. I do some lesson planning and then go to one of the schools that I teach spoken word at. Then, I come to the studio and end the day here. I’ll be mixing music or writing, but usually I’m writing at the crib. I’m a corny nig*a, I like to light a candle and put a lamp on… [Laughs.]
I like to write on paper towels… I don’t know why but it’s super comfortable for me. I used to write all of my verses on my phone and then I’d find this dilemma where I couldn’t connect with the words off the phone. Even though they were my words, there’s something about writing it on something that’s really temporary or meant to be thrown out. So now, I just have a bunch of paper towels all over my room or here at the studio. People have used them not knowing what they were and I’m like “damn, that’s a part of me that just got used to wipe up some beer!” Yeah, it’s an odd thing but ever since I’ve started doing it I feel like the verses are better and my delivery is a lot better. It’s working. I call them my scrolls.
On His Upbringing and the Artistic Community in Chicago’s Oak Park Suburb: “Oak Park is the shit, honestly.”
I was surprised to see Oak Park in your biography! You don’t hear of too many people that are from there in this creative space.
It was cool! I was born in Oak Park, but then I moved to Philadelphia and I was raised there for 11 years. I moved back to Oak Park for high school. I went to Madison [Wisconsin] for college and then came back here this past August.
It was great to be in Oak Park for high school! It was super diverse. It honestly didn’t set me up for the world because the rest of the world isn’t that diverse! When I go back there now I’m just surprised at how great of a place it is. It also introduced me to the whole realm of spoken word. I started by doing slam poetry and Louder Than A Bomb. I did the YOUMedia open mics at Harold Washington [Library] and got involved with Young Chicago Authors. Oak Park is the shit, honestly.
I live in Oak Park now! I don’t know if diverse would be the first word to come to mind, but I will say that the people who live there are pretty progressive.
Yeah! It’s definitely a buzzing place and as time goes on and more people come out of it, I think it’s becoming a cultural hub. It’s also so close to Chicago that a lot of people from the city end up influencing the town. It’s cool.
Do you remember that first time trying spoken word?
It was in my sophomore year of high school! All of the English classes do a slam poetry week where you compete within your class, and then the winner goes on to compete with the other winners in a Sophomore Slam in front of the entire class. That’s like 850 people!
I’ve always liked writing, but I didn’t know the performance element of it. I had a prompt and my first poem was about stereotypes. It was the most basic rhyme scheme ever. I ended up making it to the finals in my English class and afterwards the spoken word teacher, who ended up becoming my mentor, was like, “you know you’re joining spoken word, right?”
It’s actually funny because this week I’m judging the Sophomore Slam!
Full circle! You’re an old head!
Oh my god, totally. Total full circle.
At the time I was playing lacrosse – which, I don’t know why the fuck I was doing that… [Laughs.]
Because you went to Oak Park!
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly! But I said I’d give it a shot and long story short it ended up changing my entire life.
The Transition from High School Spoken Word to Hip-Hop Artistry Through “The First Wave” Scholarship Program
The transition from spoken word to being a hip-hop artist seems to be pretty natural. Is that actually the case?
I mean, every brown kid in Chicago wanted to rap at some point! Me and a couple of friends started a rap group called Check The Label. We had a little hand sign and everything. We were trash, though! [Laughs.] Poetry was the main focus, but then we’d make funny songs on the side. After high school I was the only one from that group to actually continue pursuing music.
I ended up getting a scholarship to go to University of Wisconsin-Madison, called First Wave. It’s a 4-year full tuition scholarship for hip-hop and urban arts. There’s rappers, poets, break dancers, people who own their own clothing line, all of that. That program began shaping me into an actual artist both on and off stage. I bought a bunch of basic recording equipment and starting teaching myself to mix my own music. Before I knew it, I was busting out mixtapes in my dorm room.
This is so much more than just some money for school! This is something that so many people should know about! Why aren’t schools in Chicago doing this?
I don’t know! It was an amazing program, but there were some dilemmas associated with it. There’s only so much that the university is willing to have connected to their name. You can’t smoke weed in a music video and then say you have a scholarship from UW Madison to do it. There’s a bunch of race relations and politics that play a role into why it’s not as popular as you think it would be.
Do you think it helped that your subject matter is pretty positive in comparison to other artist’s topics?
Maybe so. I wouldn’t necessarily call my music positive. I think it’s just a lot more intentional than what other artists put out. I really think it through and consider what kind of message I’m sending through my music. How does this represent me and how does it represent hip-hop as a culture?
How does this represent me and how does it represent hip-hop as a culture?
Is there one specific, deliberate message that you’re consistently trying to share or are you releasing with the intent of sharing something that’s generally special?
When I initially started making music, a lot of the language that I used was offensive. I was more of an imitation of what was out, rather than being my own person. My friends and family started asking my why I was saying the things that I was and it really resonated with me and showed me that what I say really matters. Now, I’m always trying to be deliberate. I don’t think that every artist has that responsibility, but I know that I do.
Where do you think that line is drawn?
Individually. If you don’t want to be a role model, you don’t have to. I think you should always be aware of your impact, but once you’re aware it’s your choice to do what you want to do.
So, when you were sharing music that wasn’t really reflective of who you were, how did you strike the balance between your spoken word content and your music? I always picture spoken word as being more deliberate, so was it difficult to rap about something totally different?
It’s always hard to find that balance because sometimes I just want to make shit just to make it! If I just want to make a turn up song, I want to be able to make that. But the poet in me is always like “throw a double entendre in there somewhere, though” [Laughs.] There’s a lot of division between lyricists and “mumble” rappers today, but I’m trying to find an in-between.
I always go back to Drake’s line that’s like, “doing shows making everyone nervous, cause them hipsters gone have to get along with them hood nig*as.” That line always stood out to me because I want my shows to be the hipsters and the hood nig*as together, enjoying the same 30 minute set. That means being both a spoken word poet and a musician in 2018.
That’s so hard, though. I don’t know if you can really do both at the same time.
It gives me a headache all the time, but I think you can. The challenge is a part of the game!
Even though you’re pretty lyrical yourself, it doesn’t sound like you have any resistance towards the “Soundcloud rapper” trend…
I don’t understand resisting against it! Old heads resisting against the evolution of hip-hop is so hypocritical because it was literally started to go against the grain. It was always a fight! Hip-hop is about exploring and telling the people above you, “I don’t want to climb to where you are, I want to go this way!”
How did you become a spoken word teacher?
I got hired by a foundation in Oak Park to lead the spoken word club at the middle school. Then, I got hired by another foundation to do the same thing at CPS schools.
I feel like a lot of people tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing, but I’d rather live it.
Rich’s Publicist Alex: How do you balance being a teacher and also focusing on your own creativity?
To me, they go hand-in-hand. It’s really helpful to be around creativity all the time. I’ve always tried to find jobs and outlets that helped me be creative. For example, right now I have a 6th grader who is an amazing writer. She presented today and I was blown away! Now, I’m inspired! It doesn’t necessarily inspire certain songs to be made, but when I come here [to the studio], I’m ready to go.
At least you’re not stealing songs from your students… [Laughs.]
It’s really a secret elaborate plan to get free ghost writers!
It’s funny that you say that, because on Red Butterly, I had some help on a song from an old student. In Madison, I worked at the Boys and Girls Club running their recording studio. Teens would come in and I’d help record their songs and with their artistic vision. I sat down with this girl from the club who made an incredible song. I asked if I could put her song on the album – she’ll get all the credit for it and we’re not going to alter it any way, she would just have a spot on the album that’s all her! She liked the idea, so Fade’s Love will be on Red Butterfly.
That’s super cool! I’m sure she’ll appreciate that. What’s the music scene like in Madison?
When I first got there it was split up between campus rappers and local rappers. My cohort made it a goal to bridge that gap. I put on a show as a live recreation of an album that I put out while I was in Madison. A lot of Chicago artists were on that album, but we took them off and replaced them with Madison artists that were both campus and local artists. That was just one small effort out of a bunch of efforts, and now they have a legitimate music scene which is really dope to see. They’re flourishing right now and it’s cool.
Speaking of your collaborations with Chicago artists, you have so many and they’re very notable. Tell me about your process of choosing feature artists and going through the motions of getting them on your tracks.
A lot of it is just studying the music scene. I was able to work with Mick Jenkins and Saba from being familiar with the YCA [Young Chicago Authors] scene. Mick, Saba, and Joseph Chilliams all did that, so when I introduced myself to them we all recognized each other.
As a working artist, what advice would you have for other students or similar working artists who are trying to financially make a way through their art?
Find time to sleep! A lot of artists are big on not sleeping, but go to sleep, bro. Get sleep! Take care of your body and your mind as much as possible. Also, be prepared to do a lot of shit that you don’t want to do. I’ve had to do a lot of jobs that I didn’t want to do that took away from my energy, but I stuck through them just to understand that it’s a stepping stone. I’m always working towards another goal, so don’t get complacent.
Get sleep! Take care of your body and your mind as much as possible.
On Being the Self-Proclaimed “Curator of Self Love”
On your Soundcloud, you pegged yourself as “the curator of self love”
Where does that come from?
Our country doesn’t encourage brown people to love themselves. My music isn’t about being positive all the time, but just making it a norm to be like, “Yo, I’m awesome!” Not in a conceited way, but in a self-confident and self-loving way. I want my little sister and brother to look at themselves and know that they’re awesome. The music isn’t always going to tell you to love yourself, but that’s what I want to represent myself.
The music isn’t always going to tell you to love yourself, but that’s what I want to represent myself.
I love it! Do you encourage your spoken word students to share the same message or should they find their own?
They should find their own voice and love their own voice. It’s not like we only write positive poems – I want them to explore what makes them sad and what makes them question themselves. I just want them to love themselves and what they produce because once you do, you can do anything that you want.
One rule that I have with my students is that we don’t do any disclaimers before they perform. Oftentimes you’ll hear students say “Well, this isn’t good but here we go…”
I do that all the time… I think I did that when I came in here today!
Right! Everyone does! But that rule is a natural and subtle way for them to become more confident in who they are and what they produce.
Explain the Tweets: OG Rap Names + Musical Inspirations
You tweeted that you want to find a rapper who kept their original name more than you want to find Carmen Sandiego.
[Laughs.] Yes! More than Waldo and Carmen Sandiego I want to find a rapper who kept their OG name.
What was your OG name?
C. Rob. My name is Christian Robinson. People still call me that sometimes – that’s how I know they’re real ones.
So next time I see you I’ll be like “C. ROB!”
[Laughs.] Hell nah, don’t do that!
It was C. Rob, then I had Christian Robbins because I wanted people to call me by my real name but that quickly got old. A random friend suggested Rich Robbins because my middle name is Richard. Richard is actually a family name that runs on both sides of my family. The Mexican side of my family is very traditional – my grandpa is the patriarch and the leader of the family. They call him Rich and his son’s name is Richie. But, when my grandpa isn’t around they call him Rich. The name is sort of a coming of age!
It was also a way to challenge what it means to be rich in hip-hop. I feel super wealthy but I don’t have a lot of money. I’m rich in education and in my friendships and relationships, so yeah.
C. Rob!! [Laughs.]
Another one of your tweets was related to taking influence from other people’s art. What are some artists that influence you and how do you take their influence into what you do?
Artists that are really influencing me are Smino, Jaden Smith, and Lauryn Hill. These artists are very versatile in how they approach songs. I want people to see my name featured on somebody else’s song and wonder how I’m going to approach it. I want people to know Rich is on a song, but this could be anything. Those are artists that are very versatile and can do a lot.
I also engineer a lot of my own music, so engineering-wise I listen to a lot of Kanye, Biggie, Bryson Tiller, and Drake. I love how warm their vocals are. When I’m mixing a song, you often have a reference track that you compare your song to. Their vocals sound like they’re in the room with you and I aspire to have my vocals hit like they do.
Prince is another person that I’m inspired by because I have a very soft singing voice. I’ve always been self-conscious about it because I’m not just belting shit out. I listen to Prince and watch his performances and this nig*a is so soft spoken but somehow he has stadiums of people singing his lyrics with him and going crazy the second he opens his mouth! I feel like it’s totally cool to have a soft voice now. I’m still learning to perform with it, but because of that I’m more open to the vulnerability. I can sing in this little ass voice if I want to and I’m going to make it sound fly, too.
LET’S TALK NEW ALBUM: Red Butterfly
Describe Red Butterfly in three words, go!
Versatile, vulnerable, and fun.
I would never think to say vulnerable and fun in the same sentence…
Honestly, they go hand in hand. I can’t have a lot of fun if I’m not being open and vulnerable.
I’ve actually never worked with this many people on a project before! There’s so many people who have their hand in helping, whether it be with merchandise, publicist work, or collaborations. But, the album itself is vulnerable because there’s a lot of storytelling in it.
Tell me about some of those collaborations!
In college, myself and my roommate, a producer who goes by Since93, would sit in a room playing beats and I’d just mumble to myself to write songs. Nowadays, there are a lot more people around when I’m writing. People will be like – “what if you said this” or “try it this way.”
So many people have influenced the process, from a visual artist on merchandising to Alex who’s helped with outreach to blogs. I’m letting people in the space a little more than I have before. I realized that the way that I present myself is always like I have my shit together and I’m confident in everything that I’m doing, but lowkey I don’t. I need encouragement and friends to remind me that I’m on the right track. Just being more open to having people do that has been helpful.
How do you strike the balance between seeking that advice and being totally self-confident in your own creations?
Allowing other people to be encouraging throughout the process, rather than doing it all myself, has really helped me to appreciate myself and the process more. It’s kind of weird.
Rich’s Publicist Alex: Separately from the writing process and who’s been involved, how does this album differ from your last projects?
My other projects were very conceptual and theme-based. My last album focused around treating brown skin like gold. The one before that had all of this cloud imagery. This one is less about the concept and more about the vibe of each song. People listen to music on shuffle all the time or make Spotify playlists, and it’s less about full albums. I just wanted to take the pressure away from making something with a grand concept behind it. It’s just about each song and experiencing it for what it is.
What’s your favorite track on there so far?
I have two of them. One called Growing Pains. I wasn’t planning on putting it on the album but we made it two weeks ago and this shit has to go on. Also a song called Red Car.
Who’s featured on the album?
Joseph Chilliams and theMIND are two Chicago artists on it. I also wanted a couple of my homies to be a part of the project, but didn’t necessarily want verses from them. We did a fun thing where we sampled my friend Trey’s voice for a song. There’s a lot of people singing in the background or laying down poetry in it. Also one of my friends named Broadway is a super dope lyricist. She’s from the Southside of Chicago but was in the same scholarship program in Madison. She’s in an interlude called Pollinate which is another one of my favorite songs. I don’t have a verse on there I just have a chorus but it’s a very experience type of song.
I’m really looking forward to it! It sounds like it’s more of an artistic expression rather than trying to curate a whole broader theme, which sometimes doesn’t always work.
Right! And you’ll still see the self-love in it and just the journey behind it all. I think everything that I’ve said here is in the music.
Advice for Anyone Seeking More Self-Confidence!
Anything else you want to share with people who are struggling to find confidence in whatever they do?
I struggle with it too, I definitely don’t have it all down. Over the past couple of months I’ve had to go back to the drawing board and be okay with that. So, I’d advise other people to just forgive themselves. It’s okay! We’re all in our mid-twenties and trying new things. Go left, then go right, then change your mind and go left again! You’ll find your space and everything will be okay! I’m partially talking to myself right now. [Laughs.]
Red Butterfly is available on all streaming platforms now!
Photo credits: Scotify Studios