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Fruchter decided to leave Ruby Hornet to focus his time and energy on one of his other projects—Closed Sessions. That name should sound familiar to local rap fans; since 2009 Ruby Hornet and Soundscape Studios owner and chief engineer Michael Kolar have brought touring rappers into Soundscape to record over homegrown beats. Closed Sessions began as a multimedia endeavor, with Fruchter and Kolar releasing minidocumentaries of the recording process to coincide with whatever music came out of each session. The pair have released a slew of tunes including a compilation recorded at SXSW called Closed Sessions: ATX, which they released in 2011 through New York indie label Decon (also check out Miles Raymer's feature on that collection, "A Hornet's Nest at South By Southwest").
Last year Kolar and Fruchter decided to turn Closed Sessions into a full-fledged indie hip-hop label; the pair have since released a third Closed Sessions compilation and signed their first act, Alex Wiley. With the label picking up steam Fruchter decided to focus his time and energy on building it into a world-class indie imprint grounded in Chicago's hip-hop scene. I met up with him on Saturday—just one day after he formally announced his departure from Ruby Hornet via a post on the blog—to discuss the end of his time as a rap blogger, the idea of building a record label in 2013, and what he hopes to accomplish with Closed Sessions.
Leor Galil: Yesterday you dropped your last post for Ruby Hornet. How does it feel now?
Alex Fruchter: You know what, I feel really good. It feels like there’s a weight lifted off—I was kind of beholden to the blog. When you do something like Ruby Hornet, to actually do it well, you just have to be just doing that. It felt great to just get that last post up, and then just also be right away like, I don’t have to answer my e-mail. I don’t have to write about a random new song.
I really decided to quit, or step away from Ruby Hornet, probably like two weeks ago was when I really knew that this was time to go. So to be able to finally put that post up and do everything the right way, and then go right into Closed Sessions, that just felt great to get that off my chest and let people know. It felt like, "OK, now we can really start." My life was really on hold the last couple of months deciding what to do.
How were you able to balance what you’re doing with Closed Sessions with what you were doing at Ruby Hornet?
When we first started Closed Sessions it really just started out as a content thing. We just got better and better at what that was like, and we just started doing more and more. We made it a real label in 2010, and we released that album with Decon that we did at South by Southwest. And then we did Volume 2 and that got bigger. When we signed Alex Wiley to the label, that really took another step forward.
They [Closed Sessions and Ruby Hornet] played off each other. Through Ruby Hornet I had—that helped me a great deal, like getting access to artists and pitching them. They had heard of me, stuff like that, heard of the site.
We were doing our taxes for Closed Sessions and me and Michael [Kolar] were looking at the amount of money we had put into the label and we were like, "Damn, we were able to get all this stuff going and this was the amount of money we put in, and this was the amount of our time we put in. Imagine if we really just gave this thing a go."
Yeah, couldn't balance them both anymore. I also teach classes at Columbia. I was doing a lot of things not as good as I could, and now I can just breathe a bit. I really want to build Closed Sessions, I think that’s really where it’s really at, and we’re at such a unique time in Chicago that this is our chance, pretty much.
Why is now the time for Closed Sessions? Why was this a point that you decided to focus on that?
Just where the scene is at, and where we’re at as a label, I think a lot of the artists that really fit in our niche and we want to work with, they are gonna get their turn in the spotlight right now. Things were just happening in my personal life, and with the studio more and more artists want to do Closed Session projects. We have people who were sending me e-mails that thought that we were already set up and ready to go, 100 percent. I have artists who were e-mailing me or coming up to me at shows and they’re like, "Yeah Ruby Hornet is great, blah blah blah, man when can I sign with Closed Sessions." They see Alex Wiley doing more and more stuff—and that was another big growing experience too. It’s just like, we’ve signed another human being to this label that has their own ideas, thoughts, that puts demands on us. It’s one thing to be doing a song, or like three songs with Curren$y, he comes in and has no demands besides rapping at a studio and smoking weed, and then he leaves. It doesn’t matter how he feels in the morning, it doesn’t—like, none of that matters. It’s, we do these songs with these artists, we do the documentary, they leave, we don’t really have to cater to their whims.
[With] Wiley it was like, "Man, we have to put more time and energy into this guy, into this kid that took a chance on us," and that’s kind of it. Everything else lined up, things with Ruby Hornet lined up. I felt like I was at a point in my life where writing for a blog was great, but it wasn’t the most exciting thing. I don’t want to just be remembered as a blogger. I had done it for five years, and even five years before that at another site. There are people in place so that Ruby Hornet, while it might change, is not, like, gonna go under tomorrow. A lot people were upset at me at first, like, "You can’t do that, Ruby Hornet is our outlet." It provides something that is very much needed for Chicago’s hip-hop scene.
I just felt like if I stepped away it wouldn’t just be the end of Ruby Hornet, but we’re not gonna get this opportunity again for Closed Sessions and what’s happening. This is our time, and it’s just what I love to do, I really want to be doing this.
In your final post you mentioned labels like Fool’s Gold and Decon, who you’ve worked with before. What about those labels inspires you with Closed Sections? What do you want to replicate—if not exactly—with Closed Sessions?
I think what inspires me most, and what I meant when I said that we could be a like a Chicago Fool’s Gold, or Decon, or Stones Throw, or Rawkus, is just that those labels have such a great brand and community, and they put out the artists that makes great music for what they want to be doing. They don’t care about all the other frills, it’s like they’re always on point with how their releases look. They’re always on point with the artist that they work with. They just are a catalyst for the independent scene where they are. Rawkus was New York, independent, boom-bap hip-hop. That’s what I loved as a kid when I would go to Dr. Wax and just pull out a Rawkus Records 12-inch, and just saw the razor blade, I didn’t even have to know who the artist was, I sometimes had never heard of them yet, but it was just like I know that this is gonna be really dope. Even if I don’t like the actual song, everything’s gonna be crisp, it’s not gonna have any issues with it.
And Stones Throw, they signified their movement in LA, and Fool’s Gold in New York, and Duck Down in New York—a lot of them are in New York. There’s nothing like that in Chicago right now, and that’s what I feel Closed Sessions is and that’s exactly what I want to replicate. And make it so that some of these artists that go from their first thing—just on their own, on blogs, they have a little buzz—and then you have these major labels that kind of swoop in and start picking them off. They have no leverage against a bigger label, they have to leave the city, they’re part of a large machine, they’re gonna get stuck somewhere.
Closed Sessions can be that communal label where all the artists on it work with each other. It’s not like you’re dealing with some big corporation—you’re working with me and Mike from Soundscape. If you have a problem with us, we can’t hide from you. It’s just something where it can be a bridge. Do an album with Closed Sessions before you’re ready for that major label deal and you’re gonna have tons more leverage, you don’t have to leave the city, you work in a great environment. That’s kind of what I kind of see it as.
It sounds so straightforward, why do you think there hasn’t been anything like this in Chicago, at least now?
I don’t know. I think one thing is that it just is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Me and Mike ask ourselves all the time, "Why hasn’t anyone else hasn’t don’t this idea?" Why doesn’t any label—forget Chicago, why isn’t there a Closed Session in any other city? Because it takes a lot of work, money, time, sacrifices to make these things really, really happen and do them consistently and correctly. That’s really all I can say. I mean, I think just people haven’t been able to do it like we have—to have the studio, to have the website, to have the artist relationships, to have all these things really firing on the level we’ve been able to do is tough. I think that’s really why it’s not happening more. That’s why, again, I had to focus 100 percent—I want to focus 100 percent of my time on there, because I see that we’re in a special place with special opportunities that, like, no one else really has the pieces. I think.
It’s obviously a very difficult time for the music industry. Recently Cannibal Ox announced that they’re releasing a new album with help from Kickstarter. Was there anything that you were concerned with when deciding whether or not to make this leap to focus on Closed Sessions?
I definitely am concerned. I’d be stupid if I wasn’t somewhat apprehensive or nervous—and realize that I’m leaving this website with a great following. Just the access I gain with Ruby Hornet to every festival, every show, any artist, almost 10,000 Twitter followers, a certain paycheck every month, and I’m quitting that to run a record label in 2013. It is almost like a step backwards, and I’m definitely conscious of that and apprehensive. Me and Mike are like, "Wow, we’re gonna try to sell music in 2013."
But other than those apprehensions I really am not worried. I feel great, I feel very confident. I feel even if this does strike out, to me at this point in my life I don’t ever want to sit back and think, "Man, I had this chance and I just stayed blogging because I was afraid of taking that risk." If it fails I can always go back, I could go back—I mean Ruby Hornet, assuming it’s still running in a couple of years, it might even be huge—I could always go back and work with those guys. 'Cause me leaving is not—I don’t want anyone to think I hate these guys or nothing. I left it with Sean [CK] and Pedro [Gonzalez] and I’m always there to support and guide them. But I’ve got to do this, me and Mike have to do this, Closed Sessions, this is our only chance. We know, we’re not gonna be just trying to sell regular records. The whole point of why people like Closed Sessions are the differences and the new things we’ve been able to do, so that’s gonna stay the same, we just wanna add a bit of other aspects to it.
And what do you see as, I mean, what are your plans for Closed Sessions in the first few months?
So what we’re doing with Closed Sessions first is finishing Club Wiley, the debut project from Alex Wiley. He’s the first artist that signed to the label, so we are shooting to release this album in May—early to mid May—but I don’t want to say that cause it might be, it might not be. But that’s coming out really, really great. We were in the mixing and mastering stages, or final touches, so that will be first.
And then we are working with Vic Mensa on his solo album called The Internet. We are gonna do a project with ShowYouSuck, and we are putting out, through Closed Sessions, Tree’s new album called Sunday School 2. So the plan really is, a lot of these artists who we’re already working with that are just doing free projects, we have a distribution deal in place. We can just start, "You were gonna put this out for free, put it out through us, we have online distribution, you can still put it out for free if you want, but let’s start getting that track record going, build our name." We want to be that premier independent label, and we are making it a mission to work with the premier independent artists.
Chance the Rapper’s at the studio now finishing Acid Rap, so that’s what we have going on, and from there I think opportunities will present themselves. We just brought Digital Freshness back with Roc Marciano, he ended up doing two songs; we’re gonna put out a special Roc Marciano, seven-inch, depending on how it comes together maybe physical or just digital single and documentary. Then Digital Freshness, the next one . . . We’re gonna be doing them at Schubas, so they’re the new home for that, and we have some artists lined up. We’re gonna keep doing the, kind of one-off things. But really where we want to take it is working with those artists that I just mentioned. You’re gonna start to see that Closed Sessions label on albums. We’re doing Club Wiley physical first, we’re gonna drop physical albums. So that when you see that Closed Sessions logo, you’re just gonna know this is gonna be some really dope hip-hop music.
How do you go about deciding who to bring in to the Closed Sessions family?
That’s a good question. And it is—we do operate it like a family. A lot of the people that I named, like Vic Mensa, we did his first ever project, came out on Ruby Hornet, and he was on Closed Sessions Volume 2, he did a record with [DJ] Babu and Mikey Rocks, so it’s just a natural fit. A lot of these people have been recording at Soundscape and working with us for a long time, we’ve known them for years.
But also it is about that just premiere indie artists, the people that I feel embody what we’re all about. We have the same values as ShowYouSuck, we have the same values as Vic Mensa, we have the same values as Tree, and to be honest with you, any artist that I have to pitch about joining Closed Sessions is not the right artist. These people that I’m talking to you about it wasn’t like I was like, "Hey, let’s meet up, I want to pitch you on joining my label."
When I was gonna be leaving Ruby Hornet, I told all these guys about it ahead of time, and every step of the way they’ve known and they’ve were like, "I love Closed Sessions, I want to work with that." They’re just excited as being of part of this growing thing as I am that they’re a part of it, so that’s kind of how we picked. Like, Tree was at the studio, we did some stuff with him, and he was just like, "I want Sunday School 2 to come out on Closed Sessions." I’m like, "Damn, Tree, you’re super talented, I love your music. Yes, let’s do that." ShowYouSuck, "Hey, man, I had an idea, I want to do such-and-such, I’d love to put it out on Closed Sessions, great idea." Same with Vic Mensa. That’s kind of how it is right now, and that’s how we need to be, 'cause we’re still small and have limited resources, so to work with artists that have dope product. It just organically one day we looked around and, like, "Oh you’re doing a Closed Sessions album."
Are you able to take any of the relationships that you developed at Ruby Hornet and build them into what you’re doing with Closed Sessions? Have you connected with anyone from outside of the city that you've worked with through Ruby Hornet and really brought them in on this stuff?
Yeah, the day before I put up that post I e-mailed as many people as I could—I think you got that e-mail. So that e-mail that I sent you, I pretty much just went through my address book and anyone that I felt I had a good relationship with I sent them a personal thing that was like, "This is what I have to do and I hope you’ll come through and follow me to Closed Sessions."
To be honest, the amount of support that I’ve gotten from that e-mail is beyond what I could have imagined. I’ve had people at other blogs and sites say, "We love the Closed Sessions stuff, whatever you have send it, we’ll post it up." A lot of the artists that have been on the projects have replied, "This is great news, I can’t wait." Curren$y, he sent me an e-mail, just three words: "I’m with you." And that’s all I need. Raekwon sent me a message today, like, "I’m sad to see you leaving Ruby Hornet, but this is dope. Let’s go." That’s been great.
I feel like all the relationships can come. And to the fans too, yesterday I announced this on my radio show and people called in, and so far it’s been great. And I think the best parts of Ruby Hornet, like, that’s still me. I’m still gonna be doing interviews from time to time and we’re still gonna be doing a lot of the content stuff, it’ll just be a different name. I think that most people—thankfully—realize that, and have been very, very supportive.
Backtracking a little, you mentioned when the post went up you had some people who were angry at you at first. What have the general reactions been?
I’d say the general gut reaction, when I had to tell people a couple of weeks ago when I was still kind of posting and nobody had any idea, I remember telling a friend of mine over the phone and he was just like, "Whaaaaat?!" That’s been the reaction I’ve been getting the most. Some of the PR contacts, one girl wrote me back, "You just made me go 'what,' like out loud in the office." That’s been the majority, have just been, "Wow, I associated you with this blog for so long I can’t imagine, but I’m really glad you’re doing that 'cause I love Closed Sessions and I see exactly why."
I sent this to Shake from 2dopeboyz, who I’ve actually met in person a couple of times and had been real cool with—they’re some of the most supportive of everything we’re doing—and he wrote me back, "Man, I was really mad when I saw this title, but after reading your whole e-mail I fully support you." Someone else wrote me back like, "When I read the title of your e-mail I thought it was gonna be to take some corporate job or you were leaving music and I was really upset, but I can’t be, after reading it I support you."
That’s been the general reaction. I told Chance at the studio when he was working on Acid Rap last week; the first thing out of his mouth was like, "You can’t do that." I didn’t realize that people really cared so much about Ruby Hornet. When you’re doing something every day , like even with your articles, right, it’s a big deal when you want to interview somebody, but you probably don’t realize that cause you’re the one doing it every day. It’s like another feature for you to write and you may not grasp how much that feature might mean to the person you’re writing about, and that’s kind of what a lot of people were like, "Man, Ruby Hornet can’t stop, like you can’t leave." That’s been the general reaction, but mostly all positive, like, after that initial surprise, I think everyone sees the same thing I see in Closed Sessions.
You'll be coming up on your first full week doing Closed Sessions. Have you figured out what you’re gonna do this week?
Man, it’s crazy. It’s kind of weird to have somewhat of a normal work day now, but this week is all about getting the website straight. We launched a whole new, redesigned ClosedSessions.com, so we’re still tweaking stuff.
We’re gonna launch a new single and documentary, it’s called “Jerseys and Loafers”, featuring Alex Wiley, Chuck Inglish, and Vic Mensa; they recorded it on Super Bowl Sunday before the Super Bowl.
I’ve been listening to more music these last few days than I think I have the last couple of years, like actually just really like putting my iPod on shuffle and just enjoying music again, so I’m gonna do that. We have a lot of stuff to do, but I’m excited. All the support, everything’s been great. I’m just gonna try to figure out how to not blog, I guess I’m gonna try to have blog withdrawal for the next week.