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How Chicago made Joey Purp

The Save Money rapper’s new iiiDrops comes from a perspective shaped by neighborhoods on both sides of the city’s racial and economic divides.

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Joey Purp started taking the Orange Line from Pulaski in elementary school. - CORY POPP
  • Cory Popp
  • Joey Purp started taking the Orange Line from Pulaski in elementary school.

Chicago rapper Joey Purp grew up all over town—Lincoln Park, Garfield Ridge, Humboldt Park—and it's endowed the 22-year-old with a perspective that bridges many of the city's racial and economic divides. "The thing that makes me stand out as a rapper is the same thing that makes me stand out as a person, and that's the same thing that makes everybody stand out—no two of us have the same story," he says. "If I was to tell somebody everything that happened from the moment I was born to the moment I die—knock on wood that it won't be anytime soon—it's different from anybody else's. And I have a little more sauce in my talk. My shit is a little more seasoned than your average individual."

On Purp's mixtape iiiDrops, which comes out this Friday, his easygoing braggadocio, frictionless shifts in flow, and subtle but power­ful inflections combine to create a colorful, outgoing persona that shines through no matter what the instrumentals do—he sounds like himself against the minimal party-rap thwack of "Girls @," the stately stomp of "Winners Circle," and the thumping, horn-sampling funk of "Photobooth." Purp's perspective on Chicago shines through too. On "Cornerstore" you can practically see the spittle flying as he raps about his experiences as a young black man in a city that's rapidly becoming inhospitable to everyone but the wealthy: "I used to hit the blunt and get lifted and then envision / Making college tuition flippin' a hundred chickens / Now up in the corners where killers used to inhabit / They built a row of new condos where they tore up project buildings."

Purp celebrates the arrival of iiiDrops (pronounced "eyedrops") with a headlining set at Metro on Friday, June 10. He calls it his debut, though he's released an earlier full-length—he says he didn't take rapping seriously until a year after he dropped The Purple Tape in 2012. For years he focused on Leather Corduroys, his duo with rapper Kami de Chukwu: they put out a short EP in 2014, Porno Music Vol. II: This Shit Fucking Raw, and an adventurous full-length, Season, in January 2015. Purp had started working on iiiDrops before he teamed up with Kami, but its current version began to take shape only about a year ago. The mixtape now includes just one song from Purp's first attempt: the sumptuous, soul-sampling "Morning Sex." "That was the beginning of me learning how to rap like me, and with my influences, with my real-life experiences," he says.


Joey Purp, Sonny Digital, Lakim, Lucki
Fri 6/10, 7 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark, $20, $17 in advance, all ages


The Chicago-based collective Purp cofounded as a teenager, Save Money, has become an international force in hip-hop thanks to the success of Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa. Purp is hardly so well-known, but his work has helped the collective develop a reputation as more than just a bunch of wannabes tagging along after those stars. By listening to iiiDrops I got a vivid feel for what the city means to Purp and how it's shaped him, but it came only in glimpses and anecdotes. I wanted a fuller picture, and I thought it might help to ask him exactly where he became the person (and the rapper) that he is today. I didn't need to hear about where he's recorded and performed, but rather about the places that were foundationally important to him back before he and his friends changed Chicago hip-hop.

I traveled with Purp to five spots he chose. We brought along producer and engineer Knox Fortune, who contributed to iiiDrops and appears on Chance's Coloring Book; Purp's manager, Kevin Zheng, with assistant Pui-yu Chan; and photographer and video­grapher Cory Popp. Below are Purp's recollections, edited for length and clarity.



Orange Line Pulaski Station
Near Pulaski and 51st

I used to come here every day, on the way to school or on the way home. I lived far as hell from where I hung out and where I went to school. We moved over here 'cause my grandmother was sick; she passed, and my mom got her childhood home. It was right when I started taking the train by myself. That must have been fifth or sixth grade—until sophomore, junior year of high school.

My brother, he's six years older than me. He taught me how to take the train and shit. We stopped going to school together and I took the train by myself for the first time; I missed my train and I thought the world was over. I was like, "What do I do? I didn't think about this part—I got to the train station, my train left." I'm just sittin' there, callin' my mama, "What do I do?" She was like, "You wait! There's another train coming!"

I was going to Newberry Math & Science Academy, which was a school my brother went to—they got me into it. I guess it's called grandfathering—if your family goes there, you get a chance to go there, 'cause it was a lottery school. I had to give like two hours of comfort time, 'cause if there was no trains or something, or if I missed my train . . . But it was really like an hour, hour and a half, to do anything. Until I started biking—then I was biking everywhere myself.

This is where I learned how to be myself, on my own. Learning how to interact with other people—just learning how to carry myself in society, without my parents, at an early age. It was a cool opportunity to be like an adult. Also it helped me monetarily, if I had any money—I knew I had to get home, I knew I had to get to school. It helped me value what I spent money on and what I spent time on.

This is kinda where I got a sense of what music I like, 'cause I had enough time to listen to one album every day. My favorite albums were like time periods, 'cause every day for an hour and a half I could listen to Tha Carter II, or I could listen to Velvet Underground & Nico or some shit.

Once I got older, I understood that I learned so much of the city, and I learned how to travel, and I learned how to meet new people all because I never had friends in my neighborhood. My friends were always in other neighborhoods—I always left my house, and came back to my neighborhood just to go home.


Oak Street Beach

I probably first came here my freshman year of high school. Honestly, I think the universe brought us here. The first thing to happen was, the McDonald's on Chicago and State—that wouldn't be super populated. We'd meet at McDonald's because it was cheap. We were teenagers; we didn't have a lot of money to spend on food and shit. There was also a corner store right off the Red Line that sold blunts, and we would go to get blunts right there. We could always get somebody to buy us blunts and get somebody to buy us a bottle. Then the Water Tower's right here, and that's where the Macy's was. Levi's 501s were poppin' then, and True Religion jeans were poppin' then—we would go in there and steal jeans and shit. Eventually we just realized that there was a beach right here too. We're like, "Oh shit, it's lit, we could do everything here."

It started with just six of us, ten of us, 12 of us. But after one summer of gathering friends of friends, everybody knew we could meet up here. Sometimes there was 100 of us walking around, literally, sometimes in different groups.

Purp at Oak Street Beach: “I wish it was nicer out, so I could just kick it on the beach like we used to.” - CORY POPP
  • Cory Popp
  • Purp at Oak Street Beach: “I wish it was nicer out, so I could just kick it on the beach like we used to.”

At first it was me, Vic, Chance, Reese, Nikko [Washington]—Art by Nikko—and Nico Segal. There's a ton of people that the public probably wouldn't know, but just as far as the main people—Brian Fresco, Sterling Hayes, some of the people that you see that are involved now, and then a ton of our other friends. The next year of school we met Kami, who's another notable member of Save Money. Me and Towkio—we went to grammar school together, but he went to a different high school, so he wasn't down here with us too much. Knox Fortune we met later. We picked up a ton of people along the way.

We all were from different neighborhoods, so we all had to meet up somewhere; this was our neighborhood away from our neighborhoods. If there was ever a place that you could find any of us, or you could say that we would be at—in the process of hoppin' off the train at Chicago and State and walking to this beach, you would definitely run into us.

It was the place where we learned who we were together, which ones had certain types of personalities in the pack. It's really where we became ourselves as a unit and learned how to be more of ourselves as ourselves. I definitely learned qualities of myself as a leader—and qualities of myself as a motivator and a friend in general.

We did too much stuff here, and a lot of other people started coming here—we created a cultural hot spot for kids. After a certain point it was just so overpopulated, and so many police started coming—everybody was down here doing so much shit. I got a little older, and I was over it.


Halsted and Division

This is where my dad lived, in the now torn-down Cabrini-Green projects. This is where he lived until right after I went into high school, I want to say. I saw my dad every day. He would pick me up from school, and then we would come here to where he lived with my auntie—his sister. He managed a restaurant in Lincoln Park—we would go there, and I would kick it there after school. All my cousins lived in here—half of my family, on my dad's side, lived in the same building.

I remember being really young, being light-skinned—I was mixed, so it was a problem here to be light-skinned and not dark. And it was a problem elsewhere to not be white and be darker, so it was weird as a very young child. As I got older, it was crazy to see the significant difference in the environment between neighborhoods—like the neighborhood where my school was, and the neighborhood where half my family lives. I always noticed how fucked-up it was that some people didn't have the same opportunities as other people.

My dad was living here while we still lived in Lincoln Park—it was actually crazy, 'cause it was almost walking distance. Definitely biking distance. My dad would get me—we would ride our bikes down the bike path up north, all the way to Montrose past where that big-ass totem pole is, and we would come back down to Cabrini-Green.

I knew that people didn't have money here, but where I was at we didn't have money either. We caught a blessing, because we had a family member who had a unit we could rent. It wasn't really different, 'cause we didn't have shit, but everybody else always had something. Once I got older and I started making the decision to travel, I saw it myself. It wasn't just "We get out the car and we're in the projects, we get back in the car, we get out the car and we're in a nice neighborhood." It was like, when I'm on the bus, and I pass the projects and I'm like, "Oh, my dad lives there," and somebody I'm with is like, "Your dad lives there?"

Cabrini-Green never was home. I would stay here sometimes, but it was never like home, 'cause my stuff was always somewhere else; my clothes were somewhere else, my PlayStation was somewhere else. I never saw it as home, but it was my dad's house. There's real connection, 'cause it was where my family was—it felt like a home, but it wasn't my home. I used to kick it in Lincoln Park, and if anything ever happened—like, if I ever got in any fight, or if some older kids tried to jump me, or something like that—my dad and my family was in the projects. For other people in the same place that I was at, it was the other way around; if you stumbled into the projects, you would go running back to Lincoln Park.

When my dad moved, I was still too young. I knew they had to move, but I didn't know the stress of actually having to leave because your building's getting torn down. I had other friends that went to my grammar school; they still lived in the row houses. Everything around them was getting torn down, and their houses were still there. It was weird because it was like a ghost town—half of the neighborhood was torn down, and half of the neighborhood was boarded up. A small amount of people are still here, and it's a neglected area.

The northeast corner of Halsted and Division, where Purp’s father, aunt, and cousins lived in a part of Cabrini-Green that’s since been demolished - CORY POPP
  • Cory Popp
  • The northeast corner of Halsted and Division, where Purp’s father, aunt, and cousins lived in a part of Cabrini-Green that’s since been demolished

I'm more understanding of the value of ownership. Of owning where you live and, now that it's a factor for me, owning your music. Or owning up to things you've done—ownership in general. When you're in a situation that you're completely leaning on something else, literally someone can take everything from you, someone can tear down the building you live in, and you have to scramble to find somewhere else to live.

On the opposite side of the token, there's just the compassion of knowing that there's always somebody with a worse situation than you. 'Cause even when my dad was living in the projects, my mom worked somewhere with an outreach program for the homeless, and I was friends as a child with a lot of people who were in worse situations than I could ever imagine. Knowing that we had very little, I knew that it wasn't always that bad. We always had each other, and we were always having fun. I don't ever remember a time where I was in Cabrini-­Green and I felt like I couldn't do something, or I felt like I couldn't have something, or I felt like I was missing out.



Purp walks along Damen in Wicker Park. - CORY POPP
  • Cory Popp
  • Purp walks along Damen in Wicker Park.

Wicker Park

LDRS 1354, a streetwear store, was over here—that was my first job. I interned at LDRS for a long time. After the period where we were going to the beach, we'd just start coming up to Wicker Park and kickin' it up here. The people at LDRS, they were adults, and they dressed in and sold the clothes that we wore. We looked like weirdos back then, dressin' how we dressed. LDRS was one of the only places where we knew people dressed like that and listened to music like that.

Back then there were not a lot of places in Chicago that were cultured where you could be black. And as long as you were different, and you dressed a little different, thought a little different, you were progressive, you were young—you didn't look out of place here. That's what made you feel in place here.

There's another store called Saint Alfred. I personally—and Save Money, just as a whole—are good friends with the people that run the store. It's like family all over here. A couple of my homies stay right down here. Vic just moved out of this neighborhood. It's our neighborhood away from all our neighborhoods.

It was motivational to know that it was cool to be different. It was just our place to feel at home and feel like we were onto something. We saw that there were other people on the same wavelength. Over here was the type of area where, we'll be young kids just chillin', smokin' weed, and somebody will stop us—"Can I take a photo of y'all? I run a style blog." Or something. It was shit like that that let us know, "OK, there are places that people go, and we don't have to be the different ones. We can be the ones in general, and everybody's kinda like this."

Wicker Park, it's like how it was beforehand—I can come up to Wicker, run into so many talented young Chicagoans. I'm here all the time. It's like home now, man. I'm about to move over here, before the end of the year. I always knew my first apartment would be over here. I just always knew that, man, when I was a shortie—I always planned it.

This part of me hasn't really transferred into music the way everything else has, 'cause it's super current—it's happening right now. It reinforces everything; every time I come over here, I get stopped in the street to take a picture, stopped on the street to say "What's up!" by a kid that likes my music. It's a cool reminder that there's kids like us.



Purp at Fat Tiger Workshop with (from left to right) producer Knox Fortune, manager Kevin Zheng, and Zheng’s assistant, Pui-yu Chan - CORY POPP
  • Cory Popp
  • Purp at Fat Tiger Workshop with (from left to right) producer Knox Fortune, manager Kevin Zheng, and Zheng’s assistant, Pui-yu Chan

Fat Tiger Workshop
1043 W. Grand

We're at Fat Tiger Workshop, a very prominent streetwear store in Chicago, run by some prominent figures in Chicago culture. They've been here for a year. They were in Logan Square for a little over a year, maybe just under two years actually. Before that they ran and managed LDRS 1354, the store I worked at and interned at when I was a teenager.

They showed us that being different was cool, dressing different was cool, listening to different music was cool, being ahead of things was cool. They showed us that being us was cool, and that having a friend group that was different was cool. Having a perspective that was different was cool, and that you could make something out of this. It's cool that we can carry the torch and continue what they started.

They help us with everything, man, and vice versa. There was times where I was fucked-up and didn't have anything—any bread to buy clothes—and a party was coming up, a school dance was coming up, or my birthday was coming up, and they'll give me a whole outfit for free. There's times where I went to see [Fat Tiger co-owner and designer] Vic [Lloyd], and he gave me clothes out of his closet that he didn't want. He noticed that I was a similar style to him, and just figured stuff that he didn't want I could always use—fly shit. They looked out for us all the time.

When I'm not doing anything at the crib, I always come up here. Any day of the week, random time of the week, you can always catch me here, just kickin' it, just talking shit with them. These stores have always been this environment, from when we were 16 and I was a young kid that'd run to the back and get T-shirts for customers—it was them and their friends sitting here, politickin'.

I know how you're supposed to react, as the quote-unquote big homie, when your little homies run up to you with any crazy situation the way we did. Man, we ran into LDRS or the other Fat Tiger with crazy situations, and they would always look out for us, whether we were running from the police or some shit. They let us kick it in the back, 'cause we had just gotten in some trouble. I see the value of having role models; you could always go to them and talk about anything, whether it was shit with girls, or advice on shopping, or advice on when you should do things or how you should move. It was valuable to have somebody who had been through things who was like-minded, so you could see how you're supposed to act.

I hope people support people that support Chicago the way that Fat Tiger supports Chicago. I think it's important for everybody to frequent these places—there's few people that care about strangers the way somebody who designs clothes does. Especially when it's on the level that a Fat Tiger Works or a Saint Alfred does. Truth be told, they're doing this to keep Chicago fresh, to keep Chicago ahead of the curve. Other people are living in your products—you care.  v

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