Mike Centeno

When I first hear Chris Crack’s voice, I’m not instantly reminded of his music. He’s soft-spoken, subdued even, in contrast to the booming, fast lyrics he spits in tandem with his friend and collaborator Vic Spencer. When I finally see Spencer, he isn’t quite who I expect to meet either—he’s spent the morning shopping for bathroom supplies with his family, he tells me, as he proudly shows off pictures of his kids. We chuckle over some photos of his daughter making faces until Crack arrives; Spencer hugs Crack tightly before we all sit down to talk about Who The Fuck is Chris $pencer??, an album that not only goes against recent trends in rap, but also against its creators’ demeanors. Yet one thing that feels perfectly natural is the rappers’ friendship and comfort with each other.

Something about Chris $pencer sounds familiar, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what. It might stem from the boom-bap, stuck-in-your-head beats, quick-paced, clever lyrics, or rap-battle style, where numerous songs sound like lyrical fights are breaking out. Their style seems heavily influenced by nineties rap, but as they begin to tell me about their process, it’s clear that their absolute fondness and respect for each other served as their primary inspiration.

Crack and Spencer both started rapping a decade ago, and throughout their careers they’ve both contributed to Chicago’s ever-evolving rap scene. They met each other a few years ago at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas through mutual friends in the business, saw each other perform a few times, and eventually realized the mutual interest they had in each other’s careers.

Who the Fuck is Chris $pencer?? is their first album in collaboration as “Chris $pencer”: an all-in tribute to lyricaLbeauty and free-verse style, magically glued together by energetic beats and a few odd sing-along choruses throughout. In songs like “Play Ruff” and “One Saturday,” it sounds as if a fight might break out, as Crack and Spencer lyrically play off each other in what seems more like a competition than a duet. Their individual voices and styles are worlds away from each other, and one always hears their stylistic differences. “We’re probably everything each other isn’t,” Crack says, “but equally as dope. Some of the things I don’t do, he fills in for.”

The album artwork, created by a friend of the duo, might best represent the album and its dual spirit. The cover features half of both Crack and Vic’s heads, joined together along the middle. “You can picture him, and you think you know what he looks like,” says Crack, “But then you think about it, and you can’t figure it out.” And what the listener hears is a two-headed monster created through combined talents. The album title asks a rhetorical question: who is Chris $pencer, really? Or more importantly, what is he?

Both on the album and in conversation, Crack and Spencer meet in the middle, coming from opposite ends. Crack has been singing since he was six years old. “I’m a singer that raps, not a rapper that sings,” he says, “I let it shine a little bit here, but I’m working on an R&B album for 2017.” But as he says this, Vic quickly matches him, saying, “I’m going to take singing lessons…I’m a rapper that’s going to sing.”

Crack is also dismissive of critics’ nineties hip-hop comparisons, suggesting instead that maybe that’s because the nineties had so many good hip-hop albums—their album is good, after all. Besides, not every track and beat sounds purely vintage—many sound modern, experimental even. But when asked about their process, Vic says that the only thing they do “experimentally” is figure out what they even want to do, from the process of songwriting to choosing their beats. The Chris $pencer style is more about evolution than experimentation, as they create a musical tug-of-war while also layering their talents together to make something that stands on its own, even if it will be a little familiar to fans of either artist.

“The only difficult thing was picking out the beats,” says Crack. “We knew how we were going to do it, but me and him, we’re picky, picky individuals. Certain beats felt like they were the ‘one’ because we would both agree on them instantly.”

“We went back and forth a lot on timing,” added Vic. “I’d say I want to do it like this, Crack would say like this, and I’d be intrigued by what he said, and we’d go from there.” The duo writes and makes everything on the spot, with few beats sent from elsewhere; in fact, one of their pet peeves is setting something new to used beats.

“You must be personally connected to [the music], Vic says, “I remember what studio we recorded this at, what I was wearing, the smells. It was all right there.”

When asked what it is that makes their collaboration so potent, Vic said, “We spend most of our time solely focusing on the music, which when it finally comes down to it, that’s what it’s about. Like our [Pitchfork] review said, we’re not duplicating something or bringing something entirely new to the table, but we add something that was forgotten. We’re against the grain, we have no rules.”

The way they talk about their music and friendship, listening intently to the other and agreeing and laughing along the way, gives me a look into what their studio time might have been like: an evolving, dynamic, positive experience, with the good vibes of collaboration serving as the foundation for Chris $pencer. I wonder out loud if it’s possible to know when you’ve met your soulmate, and they laugh: Crack says no, but Vic, on the other hand, says, “Oh yeah, I knew. That’s why I pushed it so much. I couldn’t just tell him, I had to show him; that’s why we just had to do it.” Crack replies: “I learned a lot from him. I didn’t know that he would influence me so much, that this could make me better, excel us both to the next level.”

And it has: the local and national response to Who The Fuck Is Chris $pencer?! has been an enthusiastic one, and the album has put the two rappers on the map in a way their solo careers never quite did. Beyond anything, Crack and Spencer are grateful for the success they’re now seeing together.

“Music was a way to stay away from trouble,” said Spencer. “Even when you [saw] trouble, music was a way to document it rather than react to it.”

The pair wants to utilize this newfound acclaim to build their upcoming work. The second album will be more polished: a cleaner Chris $pencer. “He’s been there, done that, got his feet wet. We got in all the publications,” said Spencer. “We have to go hard now—he has to pretend he’s not a rookie and keep that sharp edge.”
That being said, they have neither themes nor release dates in mind. “I’m not setting goals,” Crack tells me, “I’m just trying to be better than I was yesterday.”

Spencer says the pressure is definitely there, but that it’s almost essential to the project and its success: “You do things last minute; you cram everything you can in. Time flies. And you have to expect the unexpected. Then you’re shocked and impressed by the outcome. That’s what Chris $pencer is.”

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