Chicago rapper Rich Jones is fueled by the kind of stubborn devotion that's indispensable to any music scene. He's a realist with an optimistic perspective. He'll tell you about bummer shows where the same faces seem to get behind the mike to re-enact the same battles week after week, or he'll confess that he's second-guessed his drive to put on shows all. But he'll also tell you about a gig where he had such a great time onstage that he didn't even care that fewer than two dozen people showed up. Jones has accumulated a lot of stories about throwing shows, especially since he launched a monthly hip-hop showcase at Tonic Room in April 2012. At first he was mostly looking to get onstage with his own group, Second City Citizens, but his series, All Smiles, has since helped Tonic Room grow into a hub for hip-hop in Lincoln Park.
All Smiles celebrates its fourth year with a nine-act blowout on Friday, April 29. Second City Citizens return from a brief hiatus to headline the show, which also includes Legit, who recently appeared on Saba's single "World in My Hands." Troy Boy, Mama Sé, Hongry Bogart, Everest, Shadowmaster MC, and Jordan Looney fill out the lineup, and DJ Elliven spins. I phoned Jones while he was in Texas on tour last week, and we talked about the history of All Smiles, how it's affected his solo work, and what the series means to the local hip-hop community. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Leor Galil: What inspired All Smiles?
Rich Jones: It all started when I was approached by an artist that I performed with who was from out of town. He was asking if there was any venues I knew of that he could get booked at. At the time I wasn't really involved at all with any sort of event organizing or anything. Tonic Room—we did a show there about a year prior, and they really liked it and said if we ever wanted to come back we could do something. I figured—to get the ball rolling—I'd see about if I could maybe start booking shows there. In my mind, I—in kind of a foolish way—was automatically thinking, "This is something I'd like to do consistently."
Obviously from the venue end, they had to see that this was something viable that they could run with, 'cause they're not just gonna let people use the room with no one coming, or if it's not good. So starting April four years ago we kicked off. A big factor in that too was the group I'm in, SCC. At the time, when we were getting booked for shows, it was a lot of working people that we knew were putting together lineups. At a certain point I just kind of figured we should do something where we create our own opportunities, versus always looking out for other people to look out for us.
You talk about creating opportunities for yourselves. How soon after setting up that show were you like, "This is what I want this to be—this is what this series should be?"
Initially, as with most things, there were certainly growing pains. Again, the stated intention was to get us consistent booking, but then as time went on it was definitely also about making sure that I could book my friends. Ultimately I started to see the financial element of it, and realized that aside from making money for us I was also in a position to possibly make money for my friends too—and make them happy while also providing them a place to showcase their stuff. Now, where we sit currently, it's a situation where the group is on a hiatus—we're all working on individual things, but we're all very much still tight—and [All Smiles] really moved more towards curation versus presentation.
Now that I'm traveling around the country and meeting artists from different areas and different cities, it's really awesome to be, like, "Hey, I have a night for you at a venue that I know will go well for you." I've played all sorts of shows around the country, and quite honestly if you get a place where you get at least a minimum 50 people and the vibes are good and everything's gravy, that's really awesome—especially if you're on the road. That's almost all you can ask for, aside from making money—and I definitely make a point to take care of the traveling guys.
You mention you enjoyed playing Tonic Room before you set up the first All Smiles. At what point did that begin to feel like a home for you and a home for the community you're building there?
Definitely within the first year. You get to know the staff, you get to know ownership and the people who are there. They're very genuine people, and no one's trying to scam you or nothing—especially Donnie Biggins, who runs Harmonica Dunn. He's been my point of contact since we started. To have him also now moving into a full ownership role of the venue, it's really cool, 'cause he's always made a point to voluntarily look out for artists and in a lot of ways provided a model for me as well. It's definitely a situation where, due to the room size and due to how it feels on the inside, it's very, very comfortable. In a lot of ways I look at it as kind of an oasis in a neighborhood that doesn't really have too many options like that. Yeah, you've got Kingston Mines, you've got B.L.U.E.S., and those are pretty sweet. But aside from that, kind of having a little hole-in-the-wall spot—one night has a great local group and then the next Dean Ween, that's pretty special.
What does Tonic Room mean to the hip-hop scene now, since you're approaching year number four for All Smiles?
I've really made a point to try to approach the whole spectrum of artists, from the newer styles to the old. I definitely see value—especially if it's presented well, I'm not one to sit here and demand that my music sound or look a certain way. If people can sell what they do and do it well, I'd like to book them, I'd like to show them. In terms of where it fits with everything else, I think we have one of the more accepting or accessible events in the city.
Part of the reason I called it All Smiles is, years back we realized we've been going to underground shows for a long time—just going to shows generally—and there's always kind of a smug atmosphere to it, which it is what it is. For our events, it was amazing to see just how much fun people were having, and see that everyone looked like they were smiling and having a good time. That really rubbed off on me, because I've been going to shows, high school into early college, and the vibe could be . . . I don't know, it just wasn't very friendly. To have a space that presents hip-hop while also making people feel safe and comfortable—we really haven't had any serious incidents in four years, that's the thing that really gets me. We've really avoided having anything really bad happen, which is great. I think a lot of it just is kind of the mentality of the people that come out to the shows. They're just looking for a good time.
How has booking this broadened your perspective of what's going on in hip-hop in Chicago?
If anything, it's forced me to go further afield and check out people—or going to different circles that I might not have normally gone to if it was based just off of my initial relationships in the scene here. It's definitely something where I'm seeing how many wide and wonderful options we have for the genre itself.
This isn't a new thing. I know Rhymefest, when I was a kid, was constantly saying, "We need Lupe with Twista. We need Twista with so-and-so." Just saying these guys have different styles, there's value to them collaborating and showing that these disparate parts of the scene can be locked together in celebration of good talent.
Who are some of the artists you've met who have struck you?
I think one of my favorite nights we had was where I was able to get some of my friends who had within the previous year or two Voltroned into this group called Tomorrow Kings. I was able to get them on a bill with what eventually would be Hurt Everybody, 'cause Supreme Regime was the group that they were all in before that. To have that diverse of a presentation on a bill I thought was pretty sweet, and all those artists kill. Obviously Hurt, before they broke up, they put on a really solid, amazing live show. Tomorrow Kings, they're definitely coming out on the more indie side of the spectrum, and they're bringing it just as hard—if not harder, in their own way.
This year especially I'm trying to incorporate a more instrumental/producer element to it, versus just having it all be MCs. Also, I'm looking at this year to expand it and see about finding more female artists. That's really something, when I look back, that's the biggest glaring hole—I just really haven't booked that many female artists. It's not that they aren't there—it's just I have to work harder at finding them. I know Angel Davanport, I've had her a few summers ago, and she absolutely murdered it. But aside from her and maybe one or two other singers, it hasn't really been a thing. But luckily, this past year especially, it seems like the universe opened up and has provided me with a whole bunch of really interesting, awesome options than I'm looking forward to bringing.
How has doing this series affected your solo work?
It's definitely forced me to evaluate my own performance style, because you see so many people do what they do and you obviously pick up game as you go. It's certainly exposed me to millions of different ways both to do things right and wrong. You can learn a lot from an artist's mistakes as much as their successes, and that even applies to shows that I've done—even though I've performed here a million times, it's not like I've killed it every time. It's like the couch with an ass groove in it—I've broken it in, but I still have to make sure I'm on point when I'm up there. It's definitely been wonderful.