The Evanston vocalist and producer discusses the historical significance of "Nat Love" and falling in love with rap through "Jesus Walks."
At first glance, Kweku Collins may seem in line with a certain wave of Chicago rappers – his melodic, almost bluesy, but always rap-punctuated flow bringing to mind Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, and even former Closed Sessions labelmate Alex Wiley. However, it doesn't take long to fall into Kweku's unique world, which he's fully developed on Nat Love, a collection of songs he doesn't classify as a mixtape or an album, but simply a project. Collins, now 19 years old and only a year out of high school, is very careful with titles. At one point in our conversation he eschews the thought that he's a rapper at all, and with a listen through his new effort – a dreamy, shape-shifting collage of self-production and fluid vocal techniques – it's not exactly the word you come away with as a listener either. While he’s often mentioned in the Chicago conversation, he’s actually just down the road in Evanston, Illinois, a place he describes as "pretty segregated," making things particularly confusing for him, a biracial kid who found himself "straddling the fence" as he grew up alongside black and white friends.
In music, he's found a place where there's no need for categorization; where the different aspects of his identity, influences, and talent can co-exist without the need to draw lines between them. It's a consuming sound that's better when not picked apart, but it's also easy to see Collins' drumming background, his early obsession with the vocal bassline on Kanye West's "Jesus Walks," and the African and Latin music his father always played, in his free-form arrangements. His vocals at times resemble the rumbling, chest-voice baritone of Kid Cudi, and other times the reverberating psychedelia of Avey Tare or Kevin Parker.
Collins generally works alone, often in his bedroom, bringing a certain intimacy to his music. He says songwriting was a rare place he could find focus as a teenager with ADHD, and his music reflects the sounds of a constantly working mind reaching peaceful lucidity – always containing many moving parts that probably shouldn't make sense, but just do. At one point, he compares the various elements of his songs to the currents of a stream, which is the perfect analogy for how his music works – many tiny unique pieces coming together in one elegantly cohesive, yet ever-changing form.
The title of his project comes from historical figure Nat Love, a black cowboy and writer Collins describes as an “exclamation point of strength” in the often “white-washed” lens of American history – making for one of the rare lessons that really inspired Collins in school. Love was born a slave, but learned to read and write despite laws against black literacy, going on to publish an autobiography of his legacy as a cowboy and establishing himself as a folk hero. While the iconic Love’s first name is actually said as "Nate," Collins has decided to pronounce it how it looks on paper for his title. As a result, it could be read as an abbreviation of “Natural Love,” an emotion which is as unfiltered and all-encompassing as the music it describes – the duality of the title once again playing into Collins' masterfully unified world.
In our conversation, Kweku spoke of his musical upbringing, his introduction to hip-hop, and the precise construction of his vision. Read the interview below.
Could you tell me a bit about how you got into music?
I come from a family of musicians on my dad’s side, going back generations. I’ve been around music since I was a baby, all these drums – African instruments in the house that I was able to play all day everyday. That was my introduction to music. Hip-hop came later; I didn’t aspire to do music until like freshman year. That was when I seriously started doing it.
Growing up in a musical family, was it expected of you to get into music? Or did it just kind of happen ‘cause it was around all the time?
It just happened. When I was a baby that was the shit that I did.
And your dad was regularly performing?
What was your involvement in those performances?
Sometimes he needed a little bit of rhythmic backup – he’d always bring me because I could keep a rhythm and I could be that support. On some father-son shit.
Is there a reason why you picked up drums first?
That was the only thing we had in the house really. We had didgeridoos and beaded gourds – all that shit – but the drums - that’s what my father played primarily. Being around him at the house all day was kind of like monkey-see-monkey-do in a way, but also that was just like what we do.
Did you kind of just teach yourself? Or did your dad give you some lessons?
A lot of it he taught me. Also just watching him. When I was a – he used to make these trips to Africa because he had an African import store. When he’d go to Africa, I’d watch this instructional African drumming video he made for hours. I’d just sit there and follow along and practice and practice. So there was that – learning from him – and also my own discovery as well.
What was the first music listening that you got into that was your own thing – it wasn’t something that you saw in your family or something – like an album or song that you just first got into –
"Jesus Walks" by Kanye West.
Did that have anything to do with him being a Chicago artist?
That was what I heard on the radio. I had a little portable radio, and I would kind of sneak my little rap station. And one day I just happened to click it to a station that was playing Jesus Walks. And I was like what the fuck is this, this is awesome. I told all the kids in school about that shit, I was just singing Jesus Walks, not even knowing what I’m saying. That was the one. I remember hearing that and being like “wow I just discovered gold”.
What was it about Jesus Walks that blew your mind?
Oh man, the bum, bum, bum, buh, BUH, bum, bum, bum – that was the hottest shit.
I can’t argue with that.
Top 5 hottest moments in music is that shit right there.
How old were when you at that time?
Maybe like third grade. I was in elementary school, I remember that much.
And did you start getting into hip-hop from there? Did that open the floodgates?
When did you start making your own music?
Maybe like the end of elementary school I started dicking around on Garage Band with all the loops and dragging ‘em – tryna structure out some shit that sounded halfway decent. That kind of evolved into “oh I know there’s a keyboard function, I can kind of play my own stuff”. And that carried on into middle school. And then in freshman year of high school I sat down, got some beats, made a mixtape, and dropped it on Soundcloud.
Were you always producing as well?
Nah, there’s maybe two mixtapes somewhere on the internet – I haven’t been able to find them and I lost them completely from my computer – but it’s just like straight raps over motherfuckin' youtube beats.
So, you were doing more vocal stuff. At what point did you start doing everything?
When that shit stopped being so fun to me. That was like the end – sophomore year I think I took a break from making music, and it wasn’t until maybe like the end-ish of sophomore year kind of into junior year I started to beast on my own beats, working on recording my own shit, incorporating more melody into the music – that shit is so much more fun to perform. I kind of just revamped my drive.
It seems like you don’t do a lot of collaboration in terms of writing the music – especially on the new material. Is that something you go out of your way to do – kind of preserve your vision by doing everything yourself?
Yeah, kind of. It’s not intentional that I don’t collaborate with people. Like you said, it’s like, well, not preserving the vision, but constructing the vision to an exact spot – exactly where I see it going I want to try to take it there. But I definitely do like collaborating with people, that’s for sure.
How do you go about constructing your songs? Because you’re doing so much of it yourself, do you try to build the instrumental first, and then you do the vocals? Or you try to write everything all at once?
It really depends, sometimes I just get in the zone and the song will just unfold, and the lyrics will come. But then other times, like now coincidentally, I was just writing before you called, the song will kind of unfold in a very loose skeleton, and then I know if I put the words and the chorus in there I can just kind of build the rest of the song around that. It all kind of happens at once.
Some of the time signatures in your music are crazy – they go in so many different directions – I feel like it must be hard to arrange vocals if you’re not writing it all at once.
I kind of think of it like currents in a stream and you’re dropping something really really light, kind of pliable, into the stream. You’ll catch it and just let it go. So fitting into one time signature will always mean that I’ll fit into all the time signatures. So it’s kind of easy just because – like when I make the beats the beat is my baby – I know the intricate ends and the workings – it’s easy to figure it out ‘cause like I own this mufucka!
Everyone seems to ask you about Chicago – but you’re from Evanston which isn’t far but from the city but is very much its own place. Could you tell me a bit about what it’s like growing up there and how it’s shaped you as a person.
Evanston is an interesting place. I definitely enjoyed growing up there for sure. That being said, it’s a bit segregated, and that’s an interesting thing to carry – especially being mixed, so I’m on both sides of the fence, but at the same time, straddling fences, which isn’t that fun. So you know, luckily I grew up in a pretty diverse neighborhood, I live on the South end of Evanston, and then there’s the North End, which is the more affluent kind of wealthy area, the West End, and then the East End, which is just dumb money up there. But you know I definitely got to meet a lot of great people who have influenced me and shown me a lot of new things, new ways to expand on my art and make it better. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some amazing musicians who are doing some really really great things right now. And you know, it’s just like any place, there’s a little bit of everything I guess.
Is there a music scene like there is in Chicago?
Kind of. It’s budding, there’s bubblings at the high school, like who’s the best rapper in the fucking junior class – but I’m like the only one right now who’s really out there from Evanston.
Your music is hard to classify. Do you still consider yourself a rapper first and foremost?
Not at all (laughs).
Why is that?
I wanna be able to do whatever it is I want. I want people to regard it as art from a person that they accept that kind of thing from. You dig what I’m saying? Like more as just I’m an artist, I might rap, or I might sing – but 'cause you expect both or neither or whatever – whatever it is will be like the response – it’s hard to explain.
The definition of a “rapper” is a grey area in itself, half of these rappers are singing so it’s hard to say these days.
Yeah. Being able to rap is just a tool in my belt.
Would you say your main instrument right now is vocals? What is the aspect you feel most confident in when you make music?
I think – I still have so much more work to do, so much more growth to see, so much more learning and evolving as a person and an artist – I’m confident in both my production and my lyrics right now – I know that there’s potential and room for it to be better – for both of them to be better.
The line between mixtapes and albums has never been blurrier. Do you consider Nat Love to be your official debut album?
I would say so – it’s my first project that has been seen by so many eyes – so yeah I would say it’s my debut project, whether it’s an album or a mixtape – I don’t know. I just call it a project and leave it at that.
What do you want people to take away from listening to your debut project for the first time?
I don’t know, any answer that I could give to that question would be annoyingly ambiguous. But really I want people to take what they can from it. I don’t know everyone that’s gonna listen to Nat Love ever. I don’t now – you know, I don’t know their situations and I don’t know what the circumstances of their life are or who they are or anything like that. So what I want people to take away from Nat Love is that there could be something that they don’t need – so I want people to take what they can – and if they can’t take anything then I hope they enjoyed the music, the production. I want people to take what they need or what they want from it.
On “Howl” you say that you hated every minute of school. Did you find it hard to concentrate when you had a very serious passion that seemed more important than anything else?
Yeah. Also that coupled with ADHD is just such a bad combination. I can focus for hours on music. That’s one of the few things that I can do for a while, but school – hard as I try – that shit just kept falling through, it didn’t work.
Did you find that making music helps almost treat your ADHD? It’s a rare thing that you can just completely concentrate on?
I don’t know if it helps my ADHD. I’m not sure if my shit was like a hindrance. It doesn’t affect the way that I operate in my daily life. I may get a little spacey. It doesn’t show at all. Yeah, I get what you’re saying but it goes away – I get so into it.
What’s your current live set-up?
It’s me and a DJ, me and BoatHouse. But I have performed with a live band before. I fucking love that.
I feel like you could definitely figure out some really cool arrangements with a live band. How much touring have you done at this point?
I’ve gone all over the place recently, and I’ve done three stops, little mini-tours, but nothing extensive yet.
Is that something you like doing?
Yeah! I’m ready to go on a big tour. A long tour-ish.
What is it like going somewhere you’ve never been before and seeing people react to your music?
It’s fun – I really like kind of feeling –I like feeling like I have something to prove. It sucks, but I dig it. So that element it drives me to work harder, and kind of just leave shit out there – like they say leave it all on the fuckin stage or whatever – every performance I really do try to do what I did last time but better – and do new things – and really try to show people – this is the why you should fuck with me application basically.
Is it a weird adjustment going from recording in the privacy of your own home to doing it live?
Yeah, it’s a lot different. In my bedroom I’m alone, there’s not even an engineer – it’s just me. So I have the luxury of comfort in the way that I can be as open vocally as I want, ‘cause nobody else is listening while I say these things while they’re in their rawest state. Once it really becomes a song, I don’t really have a problem sharing that level of intimacy with other people. And by the time it becomes out, or it’s an unreleased song I’m playing for people, I’m okay saying these things because this is just a new song. So it’s not like difficult transitioning, but it’s definitely different.
No I know, you definitely have a – there’s a lot going on for sure. When you’re making your instrumentals, is that entirely on the computer? Or are there live elements to it?
It’s kind of like – half robot half human at this point. So I’m kind of the rap cyborg out here. I have a keyboard so I can play out all the chords, program the drums in a way that’s familiar to me ‘cause I’ve played it with my hands, but different ‘cause I’m poking the keys. It’s kind of live in a way but it’s also very electronic.
Did you teach yourself piano as you began songwriting? Or is that something you were trained in?
I wish I was. I should have gotten on that, my dumb ass. But yeah I had to teach myself.
Could you explain who Nat Love is – and why you decided to name your project after him?
So Nat Love is kind of a derivative of the name Nat (pronounced Nate) Love. It’s spelled exactly the same, but pronounced differently. So Nat Love was a black cowboy during Westward expansion, during that whole thing. He also was a writer, he went by the name of Deadwood Dick - but learning about him in history class – it was just really cool to see such a strong black figure at that point in history – in the position he was in. That shit was damn near like – it was a really empowering thing for me to see, especially because learning about history – it always seemed very white washed.
It was like an exclamation point of strength. So I said the name as Nat Love – I was like holy shit this is the like coolest name I’ve ever heard. Nat Love, so dope. And I couldn’t get it out of my head – and I then I learned it was pronounced Nate Love - and I’m like well, you know what, I’m still saying Nat Love.
For years, it just stuck with me like Nat Love, Nat Love, you gotta use this for something because it’s too cool. And then eventually after several fan names for the project, I was just one day sitting and going over everything, and I was like “oh shit, this is perfect, there is no other name that would ever go over this.”