Pivot Gang’s Joseph Chilliams on Making Rap Cuter

Pivot Gang’s Joseph Chilliams on Making Rap Cuter

Three years ago, the John Walt Foundation launched to fund Chicago music and arts programs, in an effort to champion the next generation of local emerging talent. John Walt was a musician himself and a founding member of Pivot Gang, the beloved hip-hop collective proudly representing Chicago's West Side. Walt's life was tragically cut short at 24 years old after a fatal stabbing.

Pivot Gang's eight members, which includes Walt's cousins Saba and Joseph Chilliams (who are brothers), additional family, and friends joined forces to establish the Foundation and a celebratory John Walt Day in his honor — an annual event now in its third year, the 2019 edition was held over two nights, a first for Pivot Gang, as part of Red Bull Music Festival Chicago.

Iconic Chicago venue The Metro played host this year for two days over the Thanksgiving holiday. John Walt Day featured guest performers Femdot on Friday and Kari Faux on Saturday, and included performances from Pivot Gang, whose eclectic debut albumYou Can't Sit With Us was released this spring.

The show itself was just as high-energy as it was heartfelt, with intimate staging replicating a billiards basement hangout. Each member brought their own specific style onstage, inspiring feverish moshing, devoted call-and-response, and more. All ticket sales from the event went directly to the Foundation, and therefore back into Chicago's future of young, developing artists.

PAPER caught up with Joseph Chilliams after the festival, whose lackadaisical swaying and humorous lyrics calling out forgotten pop stars (remember Samantha Mumba?) instantly captured our hearts. Chilliams opens up about planning the big, sold-out shows honoring his cousin, why Britney Spears is his greatest inspiration, and making rap music as cute as possible.

Photography: Victoria Sanders/ Red Bull Content Pool

What has it been like for you and Pivot Gang to plan John Walt Day now three years in a row?

It's funny because whenever we plan it, it always feels like we're biting off more than we can chew. It's always like we've never done a show this big, or we've never sold out a show this big. So that can create a lot of anxiety, but also a lot of hope. We always hope that the city shows up, and then we sell out and the energy in there feels like a really important hug that we all needed. Every year it's honoring our brother who we lost. People understand that, so they look forward to the event, and they want us to continue to do it.

When it first started, it was a way to launch the Foundation. We had John Walt Day and the idea was that all of the money can go into kicking things off. We were trying to figure out the best way to fundraise and spread the word about it. So the best thing beside an actual fundraiser is to put on a show. It's what he would have wanted us to do: to really make it about kids. For some reason, it's been working this whole time. I couldn't tell you why.

What went into creating this year's show, from the clothes to the set design?

We watched a bunch of films and studied all the groups that you could think of, and tried to find things to take away from them. While we did our research, we asked ourselves what the greatest performers of all time might do, and tried to emulate that in our own way. We also tried to consider what we'd do if there were no rules. So we started with "Colbert" and then went right into "Westside Bound, which is always the song that we close with, to end the show on the highest note possible. We were also inspired by clips of performances by groups like NSYNC, Jackson 5 — which explains the matching suits in the beginning of the show — and whoever else we could think of.

What's something you want people to understand about John coming out of the show?

Where rap is going now with all the Auto-Tune, R&B with rock and blues infused, and all that... John was doing that six years ago. It's funny because at the time we were like, "Bro, what are you doing?" He was so far ahead of the curve, and he experimented more and made more music than any of us. You can feel how advanced he was if you listen to his songs now. So his gift was to keep evolving, and he wasn't trying to do what any of us were doing. He was just as much of an individual as any of us, but that's what's amazing about Pivot. We all offer something special and then mix it together. We want what's best for each other, which is another thing that John stood for. We don't want to be in a place where everybody's just like, "Oh yeah, that's tight." We always push each other to write better, and be better people and artists.

What's it like bringing John Walt Day to Chicago every year?

Doing the two nights this year at the Metro, such a Chicago staple, is definitely an honor. All the artists that I looked up to did it. Being able to say that we sold out two days at the Metro is wild to me. We've been working at this music thing for a minute, so to see that we've garnered this type of love, it's beautiful. I literally used to dream about the types of things that we're doing now. It's really a blessing to get love in your city, because that's not always the case. Sometimes you have to leave where you grew up in order to find yourself, so it's cool that we didn't have to do that. Also, you really have to be authentic here. In Chicago, we see through a lot of bullshit that you can get away with in other places. It's like, "Bro, where you from? Where your grandma staying?" That's real. If you say you're from Chicago and you don't say West Side, South Side, North Side, East Side, you're not from Chicago, obviously you're from the suburbs. If you're truly from Chicago, you know when somebody's being real and when someone isn't.

Every member of Pivot Gang offers something so different, which is the most fun thing about watching you perform together live. But with you, your style is funny because I couldn't tell if you were trolling or secretly the best dancer of all time. Which is it?

[Laughs] So there are two things at play here. One is, I'm an undefeated dance champion. I'm 13 and up. I retired after 13. I used to invite people up to the stage to compete against me, and the audience would just cheer for it. I am a great dancer, I've never lost in my life. But two, I view myself as an entertainer first. So when I'm on stage, there are some people who love what I do and could care less about what I'm saying. You know, they don't even like rap, but they love my dance moves or — I recently found out — there's a bunch of people following me on Instagram who had no idea I rapped. They just thought I was funny. I'm never taking myself too seriously. I'm aware at all times of how this comes across. I want you to feel a way, I want you to have a good time, I want you to laugh. I want you to be like, Damn, what the hell is this? I'm not really trying to offend anybody. But my stage presence is really just about breaking the walls down. If you come to a solo show of mine, I would talk a lot more to the audience, and they know I'm gonna dance. It's all about having a good time.

Photography: Victoria Sanders/ Red Bull Content Pool

You referenced NSYNC and I noticed that you mention Samantha Mumba in one of your lyrics. What ever happened to her?

She DM'd us!

Did she really? What did she say?

She was like, "I'm right, here guys." [Laughs]

Is she still making music? I had no idea.

I have no idea either. But she's definitely alive, and for that, we are grateful.

Shout out to Samantha Mumba. We're close in age, so we grew up with a lot of the same pop culture references. When you were performing, at first I thought maybe you were purposefully poking fun at the performance style of pop stars back then, as a sort of commentary.

It's almost the opposite, because Britney Spears is legit one of my biggest influences. So everything I do is an ode to her in a way. It's more that I watched her and other pop stars like her growing up and this is my take on it. These are the people that I look up to. I loved how they did it. I don't think there's any point in me legitimately trying to emulate that, but I should do it how I think it should be done. It's still cute as hell. Rap can be cute, too, you know. Also, "my loneliness is killing me" is one of the greatest lines ever.

Photography: Victoria Sanders/ Red Bull Content Pool