Between 2007-2012, a time affectionately known as the "Blog Era" swept through hip-hop. The burgeoning landscape of social media, streaming services, YouTube and more created the perfect breeding ground for organic music discovery before we flew too close to the sun. Chicago-based rap duo The Cool Kids found themselves at the center of the scene alongside names such as Pac Div, Freddie Gibbs, Curren$y, Dom Kennedy and more to create a cult following that understood their young audiences, their desire for something more than manufactured radio songs and the lack of judgment, leaving these artists to get as innovative as they want.
They took cues from the early groundwork set by pioneers such as J. Prince and Master P, whose desire for independence allowed them to explore the endless possibilities of human creativity without the pressure of label execs. From the booth to the streets, they understood the tastes of the people who mattered. That beautiful cultural exchange is the backbone of hip-hop, and The Cool Kids helped to create a movement in the perfect place: the internet.
Sir Michael Rocks (affectionately referred to as "Mikey" by fans, friends and himself alike) grew up in the Chicago suburbs. A hop and a skip away, Chuck Inglish was still in his home state of Michigan. Mikey came across a beat that Chuck made on Myspace, and the rest is history. Inspired by the braggadocio of early hip-hop greats, the two came together to create wickedly funny, head-turning rap music that eventually caught the attention of everyone from Diplo to A-Trak. The two also threw basement shows in Chicago, frequented by acts such as Danny Brown, who would take the trip up from Detroit as the rumblings of his hit album XXX began to grow.
The Cool Kids' short but fruitful first wave saw them earn television placements, tours and even a coveted Lil Wayne collaboration. The duo stopped making music under the name in 2012, and they were never supposed to come back. You can't keep all the magic away forever, and they returned with another album in 2017, a collabs album in 2020 and the excellent return to form, Before Shit Got Weird, in March of this year. It's an apt title and an ambitious effort, billing itself as hip-hop's first triple album. Comprised of a collaborative album and solo albums from Chuck and Mikey, the two prove they still have a lot to say and innovate within the rap world. Why not take it to the physical world?
On September 24 at Chicago's Thalia Hall, the duo are bringing Night School to life. The one-night-only event will feature three "periods," allowing fans to experience a dinner curated by Chuck, who honed in on his cooking chops during the pandemic, a live taping of Mikey's popular Mystery School podcast and lastly, a performance by The Cool Kids and their friends. Comedian Zack Fox is set to host the exciting event with a special appearance by designer and creative director Joe Freshgoods. Alongside the duo, Guapdad 4000, Joey Purp and others are set to perform.
Taking cues from the bliss of hip-hop's earliest block parties with the special human connection that comes from a family cookout, The Cool Kids are giving fans a proper concert experience that builds off the duo's core idea of community. The hip-hop legends sat down with PAPER to discuss the event, pandemic passions and more.
Mikey, let's start with you. You tweeted about wanting to change the format of live shows. What made you feel like it needed to be changed, and how would you describe Night School?
Mikey: I would start by calling it an experience. We definitely wanted to see how we could step out of the regular format of concert, tour, venue, then go to the next city. Venue, venue, venue. We've done that a lot! We started off our career touring pretty much 365 days a year for a couple years. Obviously it's a big component of growing your base and growing your stage performance and the history about yourself, but after a certain point, it leaves guys like us wanting a little bit more out of the whole experience.
A concert is a great way to connect with artists that you like and watch them live and hear the songs that you love. But, like you were saying, you grew up listening to us when you were 15, 16. You're a bit older now and are not into the exact same things you were into when you were 15 and 16. I was only about 17 or 18 when we made The Bake Sale. I'm not that much older than you and I'm not the same person that I was when that was created. However, as an artist you're expected to still perform those same kinds of songs and tour the same kind of way that you've always toured. As a group that has been around for a little bit, we've grown and watched our fans grow. We had a conversation about what we're into and what would be a fun night out for us. Now, you go to a concert and get in a mosh pit, spill vodka tonics and beer all over your shoes and stand up while getting pushed and shoved around for hours while you wait for the headliner to come on. It just didn't sound fun. It didn't sound fun for us to perform and it didn't sound fun for our fans.
And you're both bringing the skills you've really honed in on during the pandemic to a wider audience in a more intimate way.
Mikey: We continued to build on the idea of what a fun night out would be and Chuck is pretty much a chef at this point, man. He's been excelling at barbecuing and grilling and a lot of other things aligned in the culinary world. That's a skill set that he's super serious about and something that we would be able to utilize and bring to the table to create this bigger experience. So, we got him creating a custom menu along with the chefs at each venue we will be going to, all curated by Chuck himself. I've been growing my podcast called Mystery School for the past couple years to where we're doing a late-night show. It's like Conan, but we're the musical guest! We talk about pop culture and then we end up making music towards the end. Over the past few years, we've been growing a lot and have really gained a big base of viewers now. We thought that would be something cool to incorporate into the experience. You got dinner and you got a live talk show. We'll be bringing guests through and will have other guest artists performing with us at different stops of the tour pretty much. We want to have a comedian to be able to host too.
After we came up with a concept for the night, we wanted to end it off with a Cool Kids performance. We can perform our songs, perform some of the new stuff off the album, maybe perform some of the classics off of the older stuff and give people an all-encompassing, well-rounded night with exclusive merch. This is an experience as opposed to just walking into a concert and waiting for the headliner to go on and perform for songs after being late for two hours.
Chuck, it was fun seeing you really dive into your cooking passions through social media, and now you'll be taking those skills to a much larger audience than just immediate friends and family. What's that like?
Chuck: This one is special just because this is our idea of how we should be doing a show. Cooking for a lot of people has never been intimidating for me. That's kind of how you start at barbecues. I got the majority of my skill from family barbecues and barbecuing for friends. When you really think about it, you don't notice that you're actually catering! You don't know that you're actually providing food for a lot of people. You just see it as a barbecue.
Most people go out to eat before they go to a show. I wanted to make the ticket price that we wanted to charge worth it for people to step out and give us the opportunity to display our well-roundedness. The Cool Kids, at this point, is just a lifestyle brand and we can bring anything to you. Our origins are in rap music but, you know, our ceiling is infinite. It's just what we create together. In bringing the food side to our universe, the best time to do it is now and I didn't want to do it separate. I didn't want to say I got a cookbook out of nowhere.
I wanted people to experience it together. Maybe you got to do the food and you meet somebody else there and y'all got hella shit in common, you know? It's definitely community-building. We've always loved what our fan base turned out to be. If your favorite group just offered all of these different things, now you don't have to look around trying to find it.
Would you say you came up in that sweet spot of building community online? It feels like after the internet truly exploded far beyond our comprehension, we lost some of that.
Chuck: It was at a pretty tricky spot before it happened. You know what I mean? People were able to find their community. That's what made that that section of the internet great. That's how me and him found each other, you know what I mean? Everybody was sick of being kept out and everything being so genre based. Or maybe you someone somewhere but they be from out of town and you can't keep back up with them. I think we're at an interesting time. I don't think it exists anymore, and kind of burned out. But it's just the journey of a star pretty much. She gets really bright.
For people our age, there's a lot of discovery, a lot of sharing. Just like everything else, you get big corporations and normies involved and they start using it to post spam! Old school Twitter was a beautiful place.
It was a lawless place in the best way.
Chuck: It was lawless but there wasn't bots, you know? You didn't have to change the spelling of something just because you wanted to speak on it because there's all these bots that know how to respond keywords. They're regenerative so they can create its own Twitter page. Facebook was cool as hell when it first came out! You heard about parties and little underground vinyl shops. Then your grandparents got on it and started talking shit to each other and now they all fighting because they never got this bar off in 1975 when they was in high school. Now they are fighting with Margaret!
Everything kind of goes in its cycle. So whatever's next is probably going to be what ties everything together. It might be things like this where it's off the internet. We used to meet up on the internet, now we're meeting up outside.
Exactly! Even now, everyone was stuck inside for so long, any opportunity to go outside they'll take.
Chuck: I think this is our little shot just to see what sticks. We all desire that. Of course we put a lot into our last album and we would love to tour it. But, you know, maybe the old school way of doing it isn't what's meant for us. Maybe it is to go out, and instead of doing shows where people are already aware, we're doing things that you can invite a friend to. Invite a friend and tell them that this is where you're going and this is what you're doing. They're more inclined, regardless if they know us. Now we got an opportunity to make new fans that can go back and be like, "Damn, I never really heard of Cool Kids' records before." Now you're retroactively searching, and now you're getting your socks blew off because you're like, "Damn, they've been cold for almost 15 straight years, and now they just getting colder!"
That's the narrative we want to build. This is actually still in its infancy because we existed when the internet was new. We took our time, and we were patient. We didn't really try to rush what our model could be at a time that it wasn't made for. Now we got an opportunity to make our own model and then share that with other artists. There's a community of people that will listen to you and you don't really got to worry about the middleman. If they'll shop with you, then you straight. Just come shop with us! If this turns into something, we take this as a traveling experience. Next thing, you know, it's cookbooks, it's furniture, it's certain things that you want to put in your house that we all create. Now it has a story. If I pop up with some inflatable beanbag chairs, or whatever the fuck I'd be thinking about in my head as a story, it comes from this bubble. We could just keep going and expand from it.
Back to you, Mikey, you've been doing the podcast for a while and got in at the perfect time before there was a boom!
Mikey: Yeah, we got into it at best time we could have for that. Twitch was the social media platform of choice for me and our DJ when we started a music project and did a whole EP and all that. We wanted to use Twitch and Discord to be the hub for everybody because we didn't want to do the regular Instagram, Twitter algorithm BS. We saw the opportunity to use a different platform in a way that people in the platform weren't even really using it, you know, because it's obviously known for video games and people playing Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto and stuff like that. We saw the opportunity in it to use it to get a community together and keep that line of communication and continuous dialogue going without having to just post a bunch of different selfies every day. We are the type of people that, if you get a chance to talk to us and actually see us in our element, then you'll like us more than you would if it was just a picture on Instagram. We're just multifaceted people. I think all of us you know in this whole collective got a lot of different strengths and it's hard to display those properly with just one medium, like just a picture or just an Instagram video or something like that.
We got in before the pandemic happened and started streaming and building up the community. It started growing pretty quickly and then 2020 happened and we had to shut everything down because we were filming the show from the same studio. We tried to figure out if we could do this over the internet and that's where everything really like ramped up for it. We kind of created a system that other people were having a really hard time figuring out at the time like how to live stream with more than one person. We really kind of made our name through such a hard period of time, and really grew our fan base, and really developed the relationships with Amazon and Twitch. They saw we created something during a really weird and tough time.
We would always meet fans of ours. If we go out on tour, somebody would come up to us after a show and be like, "I've been listening to you for so and so many years, man. You know, my favorite track is this and that!" All of that stuff happens very sporadically when you're out in the world like that, but I always wanted to have that kind of connection constantly with the fans and the viewers. It seemed like this would be the way to launch that. It's really blossomed into something super special. Anytime I mentioned anything that we need support on, my entire community from Twitch and Discord will mobilize super fast and get on it. I always wanted to have that kind of connection with people, because you see artists all the time with hundreds of thousands of followers on a certain website, but they can't get 70 people to come to a show because they don't have a connection with them. They're just another track on a Spotify playlist. They got 3 million plays, but people don't know you. They just keep your song going in the background while they're playing a playlist, but it gives people the impression that they're really big.
I felt like that was a lot more that was important than just raw numbers at the time. It's starting to really prove itself true. I can see the strength and the excitement from everybody when we announced that we're doing stuff like Night School. It's just always something that I've always really wanted to have, I've always really wanted that connection with the viewers and the fans. We can throw events and shows and step into like that curator space that I think me and Chuck have always inhabited. Sometimes the world wasn't always prepared for that, or the landscape wasn't ready for that yet. But, like he said, now the world is starting to become ready for the ideas that we've been having since 2008. This is something we would have thought of years ago had the world been accepting of something like this, but it seems like they're more ready now than ever. Our timing and the world's time is finally starting to line up.
How has your relationship with social media changed? I know you owe a lot to it, but have recently discussed how different of a tool it is now that can breed these parasocial relationships.
Mikey: Yeah, when it comes to artist and fan relationships on social media, what I've been discovering is that we're in an era where people want to know more about you than they ever have before. The era of being a real monolithic celebrity is dying. If fans can't get into a personal kind of rapport with you, they don't really care and they don't feel connected. I think that those days of celebrities being able to have this private life away from the fans changed. What I figured out is you can avoid that whole exchange by giving them enough of your talents and continue to give them enough of your actual art. I think that kind of exchange just happens because people aren't getting enough from their favorite artists. Idle hands are the devil's playground. They just start looking for bad shit at that moment because they're like, "I want more of this person, but they're not giving me more so I'm about to start looking for other stuff!"
Once you're able to have as much of a robust arrangement of talents and skills as we do, then you got enough to give people so they're not that interested in that. People aren't that interested in who I'm having sex with every day. We got the whole podcast where we can talk about a bunch of other shit. We got music for you. We got culinary arts. We got a wide variety of shit. We can kick it with you with so you don't need to just search for the TMZ shit when it comes to us.
A lot of people consider Before Shit Got Weird to be a proper comeback. Do you think that's why you put so much into this triple album as a comprehensive way to be introduced to all the facets of The Cool Kids?
Chuck: With all the information we got in the world, people don't do as much backlogging as they used to. I just felt like our listeners deserve to create more of the narrative than we do. I know people like to get ahead of stuff and try to draw what they want their narrative to be. But, you know, we give a lot of our art, we don't really give too much of our personal. Lord willing, we're on this planet 10 more years and we should be way hotter and way bigger. When you go back and you listen to four albums from now, you can understand the meticulousness and the care.
I had named the album Before Shit Got Weird way before shit got real weird, which is the ill part! It's based off of a script I'm writing where it's the last time I remember life on Earth being kinda carefree. We named it that, and I started coming up with themes like a dystopian future. We made a soundtrack for movie that doesn't exist yet. Playing with that imagination has always given us something fun to achieve and gives these albums an edge because we haven't lost the spark of creativity or the fun of it. We don't have to stick to a certain type of beat style, because I make the beats. We got freedom. If I like the way a drum sounds, I can put it backwards and we can rap over that. Or if there's a loop that I found that's not traditional, but it's got a rock to it, we don't got to worry about whether we think somebody else thinks it's cool. That was the spirit of that album. when people really sit down and take the time to let these waves crash over real quick, they'll sit down with an album again and it's gonna grab you by the throat.
How do you feel that this event will fit into Chicago's rich musical history?
Chuck: I was very, very dead set on it being in Chicago. Thalia Hall is kind of down the street from where we've done our first shows. There's a lot of, I don't want to say mathematical magic and I don't mean numbers, but we're placing things in the right place for them to grow. It's like what gardening is. We're gonna grow it from where we're from and let the people that were there first have opportunity to experience it, and then grow it more. We didn't have to leave anywhere for us to expand. We started all these records that people have connected themselves to from my college dorm room. We practiced in my college apartment. We did our first practice there, you know what I mean? I think everything should start from a place that has a story to it so people can follow along. A lot of art has lost a story but when you go to a certain restaurant and they talk about these recipes passed down from generations and generations that are their grandmother's from their country, that's exciting. We got too much stuff going on right now. A random openness or random showing is not gonna get people excited. They might show up, but their attention belongs to something else. The new art form is trying to get people to break away or cut the cord. You can have all the random stimulation all day and give them a story. The story is what's going to make it something to stick with.
Y'all grew up with us? Come kick it with us and watch it take shape. We ain't even gonna break you over the head. We know how expensive our shit should be, but that ain't gonna do it. That exclusivity shit is over with. You know what I'm saying? Let everybody have it.
You can purchase tickets for Night School here.
Photo courtesy of the artist
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