Rhymefest is fed up. The 38-year-old Chicago native has Grammy, Oscar, and Golden Globe statuettes to his name. He’s listed as a “co-writer” on songs like Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” Common and John Legend’s Selma anthem “Glory,” and the Yeezy anthem “Jesus Walks,” which helped elevate Kanye to icon status.
But you’ve never seen the man formerly known as Che Smith onstage accepting any of these coveted trophies at awards shows, and his name is rarely—if ever—mentioned in connection with these treasured tracks.
“I wasn’t onstage,” he says of this year's Academy Awards ceremony, where Common and Legend collected their Oscars for the MLK anthem. “They didn’t mention me when they talked about it.”
He pauses. “It does kind of bother me that I go to my friends’ $20 million houses, and last year I was trying to figure out how to pay my mortgage. It’s not their fault, totally. When you look at the way artists get paid now, streaming has decimated the income of the writer, so the writer doesn’t really have a career anymore. My ASCAP royalty checks went from a lot to almost nothing.”“But the love that I’ve grown for Common, I want Common to be successful forever, because he has a good heart.”
It seems Rhymefest’s heart is in the right place, too.
We’re seated across from one another at a restaurant in the posh Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, digging into an early-morning breakfast. And the songwriter/rapper/humanitarian is a paragon of humility, sporting a weathered sweater and a generic rollaway suitcase that looks like it’s from the ’80s. He’s flying solo—there is nary a whiff of a publicist or hanger-on—and after our chat, he has to catch an Amtrak train up to Boston for more promo.
The product he’s endorsing is In My Father’s House, a poignant documentary by the filmmaking team of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) about him reconnecting with his estranged father, whom he discovers has been living as a homeless alcoholic just blocks away from the modest childhood home he recently repurchased in the South Side of Chicago. Rhymefest embarks on a mission to help rehabilitate his father, from securing him a job, to landing him an apartment, to purchasing him a new set of teeth, all while battling his father’s frequent alcohol relapses. It’s a brutally honest tale of hope and redemption that should resonate with the fatherless and the fatherfull alike.
There are several eye-opening sequences in the film, including Rhymefest’s work teaching and inspiring children in at-risk communities at Donda’s House—a community organization co-founded by himself and Kanye and named after Kanye’s mother, the late Dr. Donda West.
Another is the scene wherein Rhymefest describes the first time he met Kanye. They were both up-and-coming 16-year-old rappers in Chicago, and Kanye, then just a producer, approached him out of the blue with a proposition.
“Yo, you’re one of the top rappers in the city,” Kanye told him. “The one thing you need is tracks. And I got tracks. I got beats.”
Rhymefest was unconvinced, and, according to the documentary, began talking smack to his friends about this “arrogant dude” who wanted to make a name for himself in the rap game. So one night, Kanye and a group of friends called him and said they were going to come by to pick him up. The two really hit it off—scamming on girls, rhyming together—and when Kanye dropped him off, he told him, “You know, we picked you up because we were gonna jump you and beat you up and leave you somewhere, but you’re a cool dude.”
The two have been thick as thieves ever since—so thick, that when Rhymefest stumbled upon the ARC Choir’s 1997 a cappella gospel tune “Walk With Me,” with its haunting chorus of “Je-sus Walks,” instead of using it for his own demo, he forked it over to Kanye. The song became the rapper’s biggest hit off his debut album, The College Dropout, and went on to win the Grammy for Best Rap Song.
“I stumbled upon the sample, and it was supposed to be on my demo,” recalls Rhymefest. “But Kanye had access. He was already signed to Def Jam and had an album slated, so this is the point where you could become selfish or practical. He rapped the song better than I probably would’ve at that time. He knew more about the industry, and he made that song a success. So he should get the credit for that. But he wouldn’t have all that without my words.” Many have even called it Kanye’s most personal song—which strikes Rhymefest as a tad strange, since he wrote virtually all of the lyrics. “It was a personal song, but it was my words,” he says with a polite shrug.
This revelation invites an interesting discussion about Kanye. Well before Drakegate, the musician/fashion designer/entrepreneur multi-hyphenate has been the subject of accusations that he employs ghostwriters who pen his lyrics for him—both from his G.O.O.D. Music label and elsewhere. One piece claimed that CyHi The Prince “has been doing a spot of ghostwriting for Yeezy,” while ex-G.O.O.D. Music rapper Consequence put Kanye on blast a few years back for allegedly not crediting him on a handful of ghostwritten tracks. And back in May, Amber Rose called out her famous ex at a nightclub, claiming Travis Scott writes Kanye’s songs.
Now, in Ice-T’s documentary The Art of Rap, Kanye claimed that the raps on his first four albums only flowed through him. “I didn’t write my raps down for my first four albums—like all, I did it from the head straight to the booth,” he said. He added that he only began putting pen to paper on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and that he “spent 5,000 hours” writing “Power.”
But according to Rhymefest, he’s been writing with Kanye since The College Dropout, and hasn’t received credit on a lot of the songs he’s worked on.
“I’ve written for all of Kanye’s albums with the exception of 808s & Heartbreak,” he says, adding, “There are a lot of songs that my name isn’t even on.”
Does Kanye write any of his own music? I ask him.
“Anymore? Or ever?” he replies, with a grin.
Both! I say, before mentioning the bizarre situation surrounding Kanye’s recent song “All Day,” which boasted 21 credited artists, including Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Vic Mensa, French Montana, and CyHi The Prince.“There are 21 writers. I wouldn’t be a part of that,” says Rhymefest, before taking a long pause to ponder the question of whether or not Kanye writes his own raps anymore.
“I think sometimes people get to a point where they’re so busy—‘I’m doing fashion, I’m doing this, I’m doing that’—that you lose focus with the foundation of what it is,” he says. “I think sometimes we… we have so many things, that we’re just trying to keep our things, so we lose track of the fact that it wasn’t about the things. You shouldn’t be trying to keep the things, you should be trying to make new things.”“I feel sorry for some of my wealthiest friends, because a lot of my friends who are very wealthy now, they’re afraid to really live,” he continues. “They’re trying to maintain or build their wealth, and some of them confuse wealth with power. You can have power when you empower others.”
A big theme of Rhymefest’s work—and life—is empowering others.
Though he began cutting his teeth on the battle rap circuit—famously beating Eminem at ScribbleJam in 1997, which can be viewed in all its glory on YouTube—since then, his rap modus operandi has been more closely aligned with Common, spouting positive rhymes about social justice issues and the importance of giving back to the community.
Back in October 2006, Rhymefest even served as a hip-hop ambassador, meeting with then-Tory leader David Cameron and in the process, becoming the first rapper ever to be received at the House of Commons. The meeting inspired Rhymefest to pursue his own political run, and in October 2010, he ran for Chicago’s 20th Ward alderman, finishing in second.
As for the Cameron rendezvous, the two discussed violence in rap lyrics, with both agreeing that hip-hop needs to focus more of its attention on positive messaging.
One young rapper who’s made a name for himself by spewing violent lyrics and promoting violence is Chief Keef, who, like Rhymefest, is a fellow Chicago native.
“He’s exploited,” Rhymefest says of Keef. “I think many rappers these days have afflictions, such as Asperger’s, bipolar disorder, or autism. They need advocates, but we turn it into entertainment. The media is turning autism into entertainment. When I look at Chief Keef, I clearly see someone who has autism. Look at the way his face is structured, or his insensitivity to violence. He needs an advocate. But someone put him out there and exploited that child.” “I think that a lot of rappers are lying,” he adds, before correcting himself. “They don’t lie, they tell half-truths.”
Common, a fellow Chicagoan whom Rhymefest has known since they were young, is not one of these rappers. Rhymefest calls him a true “collaborator,” and explains the genesis of their Oscar-winning song, “Glory,” as follows:
Common called me up and said he needed a song for an independent movie, and it had to be a rap song. And I said, “OK. Let’s say a prayer to the ancestors and have them write the song.” He said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Let’s pray, specifically, to Martin Luther King, Mike Brown, Medgar Evers, and ask them to give us their words. It has to be a mixture of yesterday and today, combined.” We prayed to the ancestors, and an hour and a half later, the words were there. I was sitting there in my underwear, and we just did it right over the phone.
But alas, it still didn’t earn Rhymefest a ticket to the Oscars.
“I’m tired of writing songs for other people,” he says, shaking his head in frustration. “So now, I got to put my own music out there.”He’s trying to shop a new album he’s recorded, Push the World, to potential distributors. The LP boasts songs with members of Bon Jovi and an excellent track with Common and Rev. Jesse Jackson that he plays for me on his Beats headphones. And Rhymefest is also displayed on billboards all over New York City as part of an ad campaign with Kenneth Cole called “The Courageous Class,” highlighting people who’ve made a difference in their local communities.
“If what you do is only about money, then you’re being self-serving and not of service,” he says. “Everything I credit my success with is being of service—helping my father, helping kids with Donda’s House, running for office. If I stop being of service, that’s the day that I cease to exist.”