Photo by Julia Hale
On Friday, November 23, Chicago-based rapper KC Ortiz performs at Subterranean as part of a showcase organized by Chicago label Futurehood, which supports gay and transgender musicians of color
. She's no longer actively working with the label, founded in 2015 by rapper Mister Wallace and producer Aceb00mbap, but their parting was amicable—there's a reason the concert is called "Futurehood & Friends."
Ortiz is originally from Mobile, Alabama, and moved to Chicago in 2006. She's been writing and recording music for years, but she didn't release any of it until last year, when she put out two albums, Beach Street
and Church Tapes
. Her rapping is playful and upbeat, with lots of attitude and swagger and a distinct southern flavor—on "Shut Up," a track from Church Tapes
, she complains about being underrated in the rap game, but that shouldn't be a problem for long. I had a chance to talk with her about her albums, her dream of writing for Britney Spears, her relationship with God, and what it means to be a trans woman in rap.
Julia Hale: Tell me the story of how you ended up in Chicago.
I'm from Mobile, and after high school I joined the air force, which sent me to Ellsworth [in South Dakota]. And I met one of my close friends there, Velicity Metropolis—[now] she's a local drag queen in Chicago. Me and her became really good friends when I was in the air force. When I went back home [to Alabama], I didn't like it, so I called her, and she was living in South Dakota still. So I moved back out there with her, and then she moved here—and then I moved here.
What did you love about the city? What keeps you here?
The first time I ever came to Chicago was, I wanna say, in 2003. I came here to see a pageant called Miss Continental. It's like a showgirl pageant, but there's a lot of trans women in it. At the time, I hadn't transitioned at all . . . [I thought] I was the only person who thought like that, who had these feelings. And when I saw all these beautiful women I was just like, "Wow, this is real." And since then, I'd always wanted to come here.
What church is on the cover of Church Tapes?
That was my church when I was a little kid, True Vine Missionary Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. They're not there anymore. I actually searched the address on Google Maps, and that's what it looks like now. I don't think anything's in there anymore, but yeah, I got that picture off Google Maps.
What do you think distinguishes your first project, Beach Street, from Church Tapes?
I like Beach Street
better, because a lot of those songs I had recorded so long ago. The project was finally put together, but a lot of those songs are so old. When I get to where I wanna be, I wanna rerelease [Beach Street
], because I feel like it's so good—it's so personal to me, because some of those songs were some of my first recordings. Church Tapes
, I feel like, is more of my spiritual side to a certain extent, but I feel more connected to Beach Street
Are you working on anything right now?
I was going to try to put out an EP by the end of the month, but I was playing the songs to my best friend and he was kinda like, "Well, what are you trying to say here?" And I'm like, "What do you mean?" And he's like, "I feel like if you're not trying to put out a message, why put this out?" And it kind of made me think more. I heard Lauryn Hill say don't put out new music until you have new experiences, because until you have new experiences you're gonna be singing about the same thing you were singing about before. So when [my friend] said that, it took me back to that.
And I don't wanna rush, because I also feel like [Beach Street
and Church Tapes
] are so good, and I don't feel like they've gotten the attention they should. I kind of just want those to sit for a while before I push something else out, because I just feel like they could get a little more exposure. In music now, everyone's just dropping album after album, and you don't get to really sit and take in this
one. There's so much music coming out—like, these two rappers together, then this rapper by themselves, then this rapper with that rapper. It's so much being thrown at you constantly. I remember when I would buy CDs, you would sit there and listen to every track, and now it's so much music being thrown and thrown and thrown. I would rather people just be able to enjoy [Beach Street
and Church Tapes
] before I put something else on top of it.
Who are some of your inspirations or influences?
I have so many, but I'll narrow it down to rap. First and foremost, it's Lil' Kim. I remember growing up, everywhere she went I was just always so excited to see what she was gonna have on. I wanna be an artist that's known for fashion too, so I would put her at the top of my list. Missy Elliott, I love her so much. I love her music, her creativity. She really inspires me, just how she says stuff sometimes, or her inflection on words. So I love her. Eve—I love Eve. I love the crispness of how she raps. Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z. Biggie is a huge inspiration of mine. OutKast. I like a lot of rappers from the 90s and the early 2000s, because that's when I really got into rap.
How would you characterize or categorize your music?
I don't feel like I can . . . when I was in the air force, me and my friends, we were always burning CDs off the Internet. We would drive around and just listen to CDs, and my friends would be like, "What is your taste in music?" Because it would be like "Clint Eastwood" by Gorillaz, and then it went into a gospel song, and then it went into a techno song. When I think of my style of music, I don't want people to know which way I'm coming from—I wanna be unpredictable.
Do you think you would ever explore beyond rap?
One day I wanna be a songwriter. I wanna write for Britney Spears so bad. I want to be a writer—I want other people to sing my songs. I don't wanna just be a rapper forever. I wanna produce music, I wanna learn how to DJ, I want to have a label. I wanna do everything.
I know that God is really important to you. Can you tell me about your religious journey?
It started for me in the church. My grandma is very religious, and we went to church like almost every single day. As soon as I got old enough to not have to go, I stopped going, because I was like, "I'm over that," you know? And plus, I would always hear the stuff that people would say about LGBT people in the Bible, and I was just like, "I'm done with all that."
A few years ago, life just got kind of hard . . . my grandma told me about this video and she told me to go watch it. It was Bishop T.D. Jakes preaching about people who have a bad life, but [he said] it's all going to be returned to you eventually. Like, joy is gonna come to you. Watching that video really spoke to me, which made me wanna hear more of him.
[My return to God] just kind of happened. I can't even explain it. I feel like I've changed so much as a person—I'm not mean anymore, I'm not hateful anymore. It just really helped me. It's so hard to explain.
Has this journey affected your music or how you portray yourself in any way?
I still talk about sex and all that stuff in my music, but I remember before, I would write stuff about people I didn't like, and now I just don't feel comfortable doing that. It's really hard for me to retaliate now, even when people hurt me in real life. It's so hard for me to retaliate, because it's just like, why bother? And a lot of times when I retaliate, I just end up feeling bad later, so it's easy for me to just let it go and to not have to deal with that. I still work on it, because it's a constant process. I came from a rocky environment where you have to kind of be mean or tough or fight all the time, and now I'm realizing you don't have to do all that.
So you would never do a dis track?
No, I often ask myself that, and I just wouldn't feel right about it.
You've said previously, "Because I'm trans, I gotta be dope." What does that mean?
I have to be so good that I don't doubt myself, because they're already gonna try to come at me. So I have to be so good that when they come at me, I know in my heart that what they're saying isn't true. That's another reason I stopped on the EP. I don't wanna put out something just to say it's out there. If I [had] put that EP out that I was working on, if they had said bad stuff about it, I would've probably believed it—because I wasn't grounded. I wasn't sure that this is my best.
I know that you don't like to be called a "trans rapper." Can you talk a little bit more about that?
I feel like it's too gimmicky for me to be known as a "trans rapper." I don't want any type of gimmick. I just want me. I hate when people put [on] all these labels like, "Oh, I'm the such-and-such rapper." It's like, why box yourself in? When it comes to that, the only label I want is great