Credit: Photos of theMIND by Matthew White

It’s a strange time to be making music. In this day and age, if creators gain enough clout and followers, they can release a track along with brand deals, reality-TV show appearances, and essentially everything else that comes with overnight fame.

But what many Chicagoans can attest to is that, chances are, those musicians who were hungry novices on tracks in the last decade are still around today, perfecting their craft. (It’s arguably an extension of unapologetic pride at being part of this amazing city). We may even love them a little more for that, because we’ve watched them evolve across Chicago and beyond, garnering the attention they deserve.

theMIND is one such artist. He won a Grammy for his work on Chance the Rapper’s 2016 anthem “No Problem” and garnered critical acclaim from Pitchfork on his debut album Summer Camp, released the same year. He’s since evolved to produce a more concentrated, holistic body of work that began with his second studio album Don’t Let It Go To Your Head, which featured his top hit to date, “Ms. Communication,” a song about ghosting.

theMIND, whose given name is Zarif Wilder, is one of the artists who define the Chicago music scene, though he didn’t actually have a Chicago upbringing. 

Born in Philadelphia, Wilder bounced around in the foster care system for the majority of his youth before getting adopted. Vignettes from his experience as a young Black boy growing up in Philly often act as a catalyst for his introspective lyrics, such as these, from “Other Side,” 

Outside of my comfort zone/Trying to find myself in songs/Long way from them shelters and foster homes”.

He invites listeners in with personal anecdotes, whether to comfort those whose truths are reflective of theirs, or to internalize a deep, raw perspective. His ability to storytell over a variety of sounds—some R&B, some experimental—is evident in his newest release, an (exactly) ten-minute EP, Coffee Grounds.

Wilder sat down with the Weekly to discuss Coffee Grounds (side note, he doesn’t drink coffee, but is instead an iced matcha oat-milk latte kinda guy) and the resilience, struggle, and joy of his journey as a musician.

South Side Weekly: Can you walk me through the genesis of the Coffee Grounds EP and why you felt compelled to release a body of work like this?

theMIND: The project came about because we were trying to do a reset of [our] sound. Me and Vooo [the producer on Coffee Grounds] had done a bunch of records together. But I was trying to figure out a space that I wanted to be in after Don’t Let It Go To Your Head (Deluxe Edition), and we just found this common ground—the thought of coffee grounds, [and how they] reset the palette after you sniff perfume, so you can sniff more perfume. And the aspect of how caffeine gives you a fresh look or take on the world that day. [Ed. note: theMIND has his own fragrance, Gemini Sh*t, that riffs on Castor and Pollux]

I’ve always linked up with one producer, got trapped in that world for a second and, you know, Summer Camp was just one producer. Don’t Let It Go To Your Head, it was like one producer. Summer Camp was Renzell. I don’t wanna do that anymore, but Vooo can do so many sounds that it just worked. I felt like I was working with like six different people.

Having worked with Chicago artists like Saba, Noname, Mick Jenkins, Kari Faux, Pivot Gang, and so many others, do you want to be known as a collaborative artist, do you want to try to maybe embrace more of just being a solo artist, or is there a happy marriage between the two?

I think that collaboration in general in this world is the best thing that God has given us herself. For us to see someone else’s perspective, and for us to build off of that, and for you to try to make my ideas better, you know, so on and so forth. Or for me to see something in your thing.

I love working with people. I love working with my friends. I love digging them up. I love being able to accent or add something to someone’s already beautiful work. But I will say that I’m moving into this portion of my career, [where] I do want to establish myself as who I think that I am, which is a really cold motherfucker. I think that I’m really good at what I do, I think I’m really good at making music, and I don’t want people to think that I’m only good because I work with good artists. I want people to think that the reason why I work with good artists is because I’m really good. Like, if I bring somebody in, I want to bring people into my world instead of entering other people’s worlds, you know?

On the track “Other Side” you say: “Only started buzzing 2016 / But I’ve been on the scene since ‘07 / On God.” Seven years after 2016, where have you seen growth in your career? 

I still look at all of the years in between not really as time passing, but more as lessons learned. I think that I’ve made a lot of mistakes in music, not because I wanted to or that I was trying to, [but] just because there was no one there. I think so often, we don’t look at humans like that, and we don’t look at other artists like that, and because of that, we don’t look at our partners like that, our parents, anybody … We look at it immediately like, “You knew what you were doing and that hurt me.” And so many times during this past seven years, people haven’t given me that grace, but I’ve given them the grace for them hurting me. And that’s my shit. I’ve dealt with other trauma.

Because of that, it feels like sometimes I found myself on an island, or super isolated. And I felt like I should have been more like them; more cold-hearted, more cutthroat, more like, “Oh I should do this” or I should look at the industry in this way … But I can’t, because as soon as someone tells me that this is an artist, or this is them there, I still look at them like a human.

I think that’s the most fucked-up part, because that’s not what’s happening on the other side. And, no pun intended there, but I do think that sometimes being the liaison of love will also leave you to be the punching bag to a lot of people. I feel like that’s my burden, to hold up my world and my shit, and as much as I possibly can of the people around me, because they help me out so much. So I think I’m just giving back.

You talked about mistakes in music, but do you have any regrets? Do you wish you could go back and change something or is it more so just an “I’m moving forward” stance?

Art, once it’s done and you put it on the wall, [you] can’t touch it anymore. Like, if I said something that was gross or if I said something that was a reflection of my immaturity or who I was at that time. And that’s important for us to know [in] this new age where life stops feeling like it’s linear and everyone just has to automatically be perfect. 

As humans, we grow, we meet people, and that changes us. You know what I’m saying, [it changes us] fundamentally. You gain this sense of empathy. Now, with the internet, we’re supposed to gain it a little bit faster, but at the same exact time, due to systematic oppression, all types of bullshit like that, sometimes people are locked out from knowledge. And that can cause motherfuckers not to know any better. So there’s a lot of things in my life where I just didn’t know any better. And then as soon as I did, that’s when you have the responsibility to do better. I think that if we move with that, that’s how I kind of move in my art now, where it’s just like I’m not going back erasing shit.

I want you to look at that. But I also want you to hear me now when I say that, like, that was a kid, that was a boy, like that was somebody who did not understand the world. My art has been influenced just by the aspect of, the more I know, the more I feel beholden to say whatever the fuck I’m actually going to. I can’t lie. I can’t lie on records.

I’ve always wanted to be the antihero in some of my songs, because I don’t think people speak from those perspectives, specifically in art. They try to be the best version [of themselves], like, “Oh yeah, she hurt me.” No, you hurt her and now you’re acting hurt. You’re gaslighting.

Is that something you want to hold yourself to? Not being able to lie on a record?

For sure. It’s harder, it’s getting harder to write songs. Not because I can’t write anymore; it’s because I have to tell the truth. I try to make up shit, or I could do fantastical shit and try to do all that stuff, but it still has to be based in reality in some way, shape, or form. And if I can’t do that, then the song is gonna sound like shit.

Coffee Grounds EP Album Art

Your music ranges from a track like “9mm” (“Now somehow become a man/You betta not fucking die/YOU BETTER NOT FUCKING DIE!”) to Coffee Grounds, which has a more melodic, laid-back sound. Do you make it a mission to not box yourself in?

Boxes are for messes. And while I might be a mess, I like to see it out on the floor, still to try to figure it out. But I think we’re music nuts; every artist now listens to everything. 

I get it for the sense of awarding people things, but no, I don’t think so. I can name you a hundred better singers than me. But the other thing that I realize with my voice is that I can’t name a bunch of singers who sound like me, and that’s beautiful.

So “9mm” is being unapologetic to the younger version of myself and just being like, “Hey, even though you got handed a shitty hand, you better not fucking die, like, I swear to God, you better not die at any point in this entire situation.” 

I felt like the world looked at me like that, and I felt like the world looks at a lot of young Black boys like that, where it’s just like, you hold a gun up to them and then you give them every instance and every resource to kill themselves. And then when they do kill themselves, you’re like, “Aw.” Instead of it being like, “Damn, like this is a tale of survival, like, how the fuck did you make it out of it?” 

Then when you get to, like, this project that feels so harsh, and I didn’t want to be as harsh. I wanted to tell my story with other aspects of my story that aren’t just trauma. There’s beautiful parts of my story. There’s fun that I had, and how do I tell those stories without getting wrapped up or feeling like I’m just putting my pain up for people to consume? 

I don’t feel like I’m doing that. I feel like I’m trying to create something relatable that people can kind of work through their shit with me. But as we got into Coffee Grounds, I just didn’t want that to be [at] the forefront. Like, Don’t Let It Go To Your Head. It’s supposed to be about trauma and like me not letting that ruin me. Coffee Grounds is supposed to be about me resetting how I look at the world, not looking at it from a traumatized lens, [but rather] looking at it from trying to heal. I’m no longer focusing on the scar or the pain. I’m more so focusing on, like, “Damn, like, that was fun as fuck, I was skating and I fucking skinned my knee.”

So what are your goals right now? What kind of direction are you trying to go in?

I feel like I got the art side down, you know what I mean? I feel like what I [have to do is] work in the music business, you know what I’m saying? You cannot just do music, you have to do the business side as well. And I feel like I struggle at that shit and I fucking suck at asking for help.

I feel like I’m still trapping against the algorithm and shit like that. But also, it’s not even against any of that shit. It’s about, like, I want to make this shit that makes everyone be like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” And I don’t think I’ve made that yet.

You’re going on a Midwest tour with Kari Faux, and you have a show coming up in Chicago on August 24. Do you feel like performing is an extension of your artistry?

You said something earlier about what we were talking about, like going back and re-altering art? Yeah, I can do it live. So, on a live rendition, because it’s only sitting here, I can speak. It’s not me altering the art.

It’s me being truthful about how I feel now. So if I wanted to alter words or the emotion that is there, I can do it in front of you live because that’s me now present rather than me, you playing a recording of me and me altering that. 

There’s so many effects on my vocals, like we pitched them up, pitched them down all over that record, different formatting, all types of shit. And because of that, I think sometimes the actual message gets lost in translation. But doing it live, you just hear me say it, and I look at you and talk to you about that feeling. 

If you’re not a theMIND fan, come to a show; I’ll make you one. You’re gonna leave and be like, “Yo, who the fuck was that?”

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Gretchen Sterba is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She’s been published in the Chicago Reader, HuffPost, BUST Magazine, and more. She last wrote for the Weekly about how Governor Pritzker’s anti-book ban law doesn’t affect those incarcerated in Illinois.

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