Courtesy of Thaddeus Tukes

I never considered myself a rapper or a musician by profession. But jazz, jazz is everything,” says South Side native Thaddeus Tukes of his musical career so far. In only his early twenties, Tukes is working to make a name for himself through crafty rapping and a classical background.

“I’m trying to innovate. You can’t just listen to one thing. You need the knowledge of it all. That’s what I’m trying to do, something unheard before.” Tukes’s music, available on SoundCloud, is a mélange of soft jazz and high-spun rap. Some songs feature catchy, upbeat melodies and others are based on lighter rhythms and frequent wordplay. “BlackJack,” along with other songs on his album of the same title, relies heavily on eclectic, percussive beats that could be mistaken for fun lounge music if not for the clever lyrics.

Tukes started his musical career quite young—at three years, on his grandmother’s piano. In the third grade he began private percussion lessons with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and joined the Percussive Arts Society. While his original leanings were classical, Tukes gradually turned to jazz, and by seventh grade had joined jazz programs at Whitney Young Magnet School.

Throughout high school Tukes’s friends grew into fellow musicians, including Vic Mensa and Nico Segal of SAVEMONEY and experimental band Kids These Days. In 2012, Tukes played with Whitney Young’s band at Carnegie Hall, the only concert in which he’s played all of the instruments he knows. This arsenal extends from piano to almost every percussive instrument imaginable, including xylophone, timpani, marimba, snare drum, and vibraphone.

Now majoring in music and journalism at Northwestern University, Tukes has watched peers like Mensa and Chance the Rapper gain acclaim and respect while he works toward his degree. He tells me there are times when he feels he should be out making music rather than sitting in class, but he knows it will soon pay off.

“For my specific situation, college will be more advantageous; it’s helping me make connections, find access to things I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise,” says Tukes. “I’m not on the typical rapper hustle, it’s not something I’ll necessarily have to do, in the long run, [college] will make my life easier.”

Tukes grew up in the Pullman neighborhood, and tells me he’s grateful to have had both parents around to raise both him and his sister. “They were good at keeping me away from a lot going on in the neighborhood,” he says. “I don’t have the typical story of being harassed by gangs, but I’m sure a lot of it was around me. So far, everything they’ve done has been paying off.”

The Tukes family moved near Midway airport for a year and then settled in Hyde Park. Most striking to Tukes about this move was the increased number of police officers in the neighborhood, which he noticed in the years before he left for college. “I know exactly why they do it, but I don’t necessarily like it. It affects the kids who live in the neighborhood who are not students. We might fit a description, but we weren’t making trouble.”

Courtesy of Thaddeus Tukes

Tukes has found some of these same troubles at Northwestern. He has never personally had problems with police officers, but he tells me of issues that surrounded friends before his time. Northwestern’s demographic is strikingly different from Whitney Young’s, which Tukes describes as relatively diverse, whereas Northwestern is “well, honestly, very white.”

“I think the main problem is everyone tries to be politically correct, rather than come off as ignorant, but everyone ends up overcompensating,” Tukes says. But despite these hiccups, he has found Northwestern enjoyable, as well as a playground for performing, producing, and socializing. Indeed, he seems to have enjoyed success at Northwestern: as a junior he’s the founder of a music production club on campus and has been the opening rapper for Northwestern’s Dillo Day concert two years in a row.

“There are institutional things that can stop someone, no matter how much you put your mind to something,” he says. This fact is what humbles Thaddeus, himself a first-generation college student. Reflecting on his South Side upbringing, juxtaposed with his experiences at Northwestern, he understands his life could have gone either way. This is why he’s not a fan of watching the local night news: he hates seeing the faces of kids who’ve been shot, or arrested for committing a crime.

“You know how when you go through things, you know they’re cool, because people don’t normally get that opportunity, but you don’t stop to really comprehend it?” he says. “It takes perspective and opportunity to really understand your current situation, and be thankful for it, and do something with it.”

Tukes has just won the Luminarts Jazz Improvisation Competition, is playing at a Northwestern concert this Friday, and is planning on releasing a new single in the near future. His next big project will focus on Robin Hood as a theme, but that’s all Tukes will reveal for now. He promises me that it will be “musically different than anything we’ve heard before.” Right now, however, his biggest goal is graduation; his future plans are large, but he has some time—after all, he’s only a junior.

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