Knox Fortune learned his trade in hip-hop, but he wants to make his name in pop | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Knox Fortune learned his trade in hip-hop, but he wants to make his name in pop

The producer also known as Kevin Rhomberg headlines his first show as a solo artist to celebrate his debut album, Paradise.

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Kevin Rhomberg has already shared one of the Grammys that Chance the Rapper won for Coloring Book. Now he'd like to get some love for his own music. - COLLEEN DURKIN
  • Colleen Durkin
  • Kevin Rhomberg has already shared one of the Grammys that Chance the Rapper won for Coloring Book. Now he'd like to get some love for his own music.

International record club Vinyl Me, Please has been surprising its subscribers with a different LP every month since 2013, and in 2015 it launched a parallel seven-inch series with a new gimmick: the records, which contain previously unreleased material, come with generic white sleeves and center labels that don't identify the artist or the songs. Roughly 3,000 of the club's more than 20,000 members (chosen at random) receive each one, and they gather on the Vinyl Me, Please online forum to try to figure out whose music they're listening to each month. In June the mystery seven-inch had dreamy, easygoing pop on the A side and candy-coated but slightly distorted funk on the B side. People made all sorts of guesses, among them the Blow, M.I.A., Kate Nash, and both of Hot Chip's vocalists, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard. Eight pages into the thread, with a hint from a Vinyl Me, Please staffer, the subscribers identified the mystery artist: Chicagoan Kevin Rhomberg, aka Knox Fortune.

It's hard to blame the Vinyl Me, Please subscribers for not realizing they were listening to Knox Fortune songs. That's not to say that Rhomberg's falsetto singing and collage-heavy writing style are generic or forgettable—the problem was more that, as of June, he'd barely released any music under that name. Of the three singles he had out at the time, the oldest was a gleaming, swaying indie-pop tune called "Seaglass," which he posted to Soundcloud in March 2016. (He formally released the songs on the Vinyl Me, Please seven-inch, "Lil Thing" and "24 Hours," later this summer.) He's worked extensively as a hip-hop producer, but the tracks he makes in that context don't sound much like his solo work. And his voice isn't exactly ubiquitous: though he's sung on roughly half a dozen rap tracks, only one of them, Chance the Rapper's "All Night," is well-known. After more than a decade in music, he self-released his first solo full-length, the Knox Fortune album Paradise, in September.

Rhomberg, 25, began tinkering with beats early in high school, and he's been engineering or producing professionally for about five years. As an engineer he's largely invisible to the public, contributing technical expertise but no actual music. As a producer, of course, he's easier to hear—he's made instrumental tracks for some of the city's best rising rappers, including Save Money members Vic Mensa, Joey Purp, and Kami. But that's no guarantee he'll get a credit in the track listing, which is as far as most people ever look for it. Though he worked on half of Season, the 2015 debut full-length by Joey Purp and Kami's duo, Leather Corduroys, you'd be hard-pressed to tell which half. "There's seven or eight songs total that I worked on, and there's literally no way to know that I did anything on that project except 'Mexican Coke,' because 'Mexican Coke' was labeled as such," Rhomberg says. "That was an eye-opening experience too, where I'm like, 'Producers just really don't get that much credit.'"

Before April, when the promotional cycle for Paradise kicked off with the single "Help Myself," to most folks Rhomberg was basically the guy who'd sang the upbeat, frictionless vocal hook on "All Night," an easygoing dance track from Chance's mammoth third mixtape, Coloring Book. When Chance won three Grammys in February, Rhomberg got a piece of the award for Best Rap Album.

Last month, when I met him at the Logan Square headquarters of his management team, Haight Brand, Rhomberg had just received his Grammy certificate in the mail—or rather his father had. He's had a few apartments in Chicago, so he uses his parents' Oak Park address for some of his mail. Unlike some of his collaborators, he can still enjoy the pleasures that relative anonymity can offer. "I still live with the same people, in an apartment in Wicker Park—I didn't move to LA," he says. "I still work with pretty much the same people; I pretty much have the same daily routine. It's kept me grounded."


Knox Fortune with Lido and Peter Cottontale, Grapetooth
Mon 11/13, 7:30 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, sold out, all-ages


Rhomberg got interested in music through skateboarding. After classes at Oak Park and River Forest High School, he'd usually hit a neighborhood skate park, and the skate videos he watched were often soundtracked with hip-hop—before long, he was mainlining the likes of Eric B. & Rakim, MF Doom, Gang Starr, the Beastie Boys, and Kanye West. When he was about 14, a friend started making mashups using Final Cut Pro. "I was like, 'Wow, this looks easy,'" he says. "'You're just throwing this stuff together—it's more math than some higher knowledge of musical theory.'" Within a year Rhomberg was tinkering with a digital audio program called Reason 4. "It felt like an extension of a video game," he says. "It was fun, but you actually wound up with something at the end that was real, as opposed to playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 for five hours and coming away being like, 'I beat it!'"

His brother Mark compares Rhomberg's early tracks to the Zelda soundtrack and other video-game music. "I didn't have a straightforward musical knowledge—I would use a bass to do something a bass wouldn't normally do, not because I was trying to be groundbreaking, but I just did not know what a bass did," Rhomberg says. "I was misusing everything, but in a pretty interesting way." By 2010 he'd finished what he describes as the first track to reflect his evolving identity as a musician, called "Shark Attack."

"It's really chill—it was the first song I sang on," he says. "The satisfaction I earned from singing on something and hearing it become a complete thing actually was what made me comfortable with my voice."

After graduating from OPRF in 2010, Rhomberg stayed in Oak Park. "I didn't think about college," he says. "Everybody else was so stressed about it senior year. I was like, 'I don't want to be stressed out about this. I don't think I wanna go immediately to a Big Ten school or something.'" Instead he worked for his father's company, Northern Lighting & Power, and took general education classes at Triton College, a two-year school in nearby River Grove.

"All my friends had gone to college, and they were having the time of their lives freshman year," he says. "But it was nice, because if I had gone to one of those bigger schools, my life could've been completely different. I met Vic and all those guys while in community college."

By "Vic" he means Vic Mensa, who was still in Kids These Days at the time. Rhomberg knew Cody Kazarian, who managed the band and now manages Vic as a solo artist—they'd grown up in overlapping social circles, though they didn't really become friends till after high school, when a buddy of Rhomberg's roomed with Kazarian at DePaul.

That connection turned out to be an important one. In 2011, Kazarian played Rhomberg's beats for Mensa and Kids These Days trumpeter Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet). The next day, Mensa and Segal asked Rhomberg to help them out at a studio called See Music—and the studio's creative director, Chuck Bein, hired him on the spot. Rhomberg's first job was engineering Segal's solo debut, the EP Donnie Trumpet, which would come out in 2013.

Rhomberg worked at See Music for three years. "They would let me do after-hours stuff, but I wasn't really making money," he says. "I think the studio owner was giving Vic and Nico deals, 'cause we were young. His way around doing that was, like, 'If you're not gonna pay a lot of money, then you can't get me, but you can get Kevin—he'll do it for free.'"

Rhomberg cared more about access to the studio than about money—he'd decided he wanted to be a hip-hop producer, and See Music gave him a place to do it. Working outside one didn't always pan out: "Vic and I were trying to record in Cody's bedroom while he was out of town, and we were up till, like, 3 AM," Rhomberg says. "We were calling the Avid hotline—the company that makes Pro Tools—at three in the morning, like, 'Why does the mike not work?' And they were like, 'We don't know. That's a signal-chain thing.'"
Rhomberg was friends as well as professional partners with Mensa, and through him got close to other future collaborators, including Joey Purp and Kami. "We were in the studio one of the first couple times we met, and I realized he looked like Daniel Radcliffe," Kami says. "We was trying to kick it right after the studio, 'cause we got out pretty early. It was funny because I was telling people, 'Yo, this is Daniel Radcliffe, but he has a throat infection—he can't talk right now.' He'd be playing along and only say, like, one word in a British accent. People would believe us. And we instantly became friends."

Their compatibility was aesthetic as well as social. "It was just crazy to see somebody approach making music the same way we were," Kami says. "He wasn't sending me, like, obvious beats. He was sending me challenging beats that were still amazing." Kami and Joey Purp recruited Rhomberg for their first full-length mixtape as Leather Corduroys, 2015's Season. The four tracks where he's sole producer are among its best and most stylistically adventurous, with ingenious touches such as the industrial clank of "RMS/Launch" and the wistful reversed melody on "Badmon." Season features vocal contributions from only two guests: Chance the Rapper and Rhomberg, who appears on the Krautrock-flavored club cut "Remember Me" (which he also produced).

As Rhomberg became entrenched in Chicago's hip-hop community, he also beavered away on his own nonrap projects. He worked intermittently with high school friends on an indie-pop project called Edith Beake, which got a bit of buzz in 2013 from well-known music blogs, including Passion of the Weiss and Gorilla vs. Bear, but disbanded that same year. They never played live—their lineup was two producers and a drummer—but Rhomberg says they were invited to open for Twin Shadow at the Logan Square Auditorium. Edith Beake released just three songs, and today the only one I can find online is a glistening down-tempo 12-inch mix of "Always in Love," on the Soundcloud account for UK blog Not Many Experts.

About four years ago, when Rhomberg was using the name Fume Fort, he released a beat tape called Stolen Goods, which consisted of finished instrumentals he'd saved before someone stole his backpack full of production equipment while he went skating near Wrigley Field. "I put my backpack down—it had my computer, hard drive, a MIDI keyboard, so much stuff," he says. "It was just horrible." He uploaded Stolen Goods to Bandcamp, but its tracks weren't all that useful as raw material—he'd lost the stems and work files needed to remix them. That release, like much of Rhomberg's earlier solo material, is also missing from the Web now—after Vic Mensa christened him Knox Fortune in 2012, he deleted everything he'd made under other names to avoid confusing audiences.

Over the past decade Rhomberg has had a lot of trouble with losing gear, and most of it he can't blame on a thief. He spilled water on one laptop while he was asleep, and he dropped another down a flight of stairs. He's currently on laptops five and six, and the fifth—which he uses to DJ—was a Christmas gift in 2015 from Joey Purp and Social Experiment bandleader Peter Cottontale, who bought it from Chance's assistant, Colleen Mares. But Rhomberg sees every time he's busted a laptop as an opportunity to improve his production skills—in many cases, he's had to step up his game to adapt to the updated versions of his favorite production software that he installs on a new machine.

No matter what Kami says, this is not Daniel Radcliffe. - COLLEEN DURKIN
  • Colleen Durkin
  • No matter what Kami says, this is not Daniel Radcliffe.

He started working on the material that would become Paradise after he spilled coffee on a laptop in 2014. Counterintuitively, that accident helped his productivity. While studying audio engineering at Columbia College (he graduated in 2015), he was also working at LPZ Studios in the Fulton River District, which was suddenly the only place he had reliable access to a computer. "I had to go to the studio I worked at just to do anything—even to do homework," he says. "Go to the studio super late, do a paper, and then work on stuff for, like, four hours. I was already there, so I was like, 'Might as well just work on music.'"

Rhomberg cobbled together Paradise from a few years' worth of songs. The oldest is the sedate "Stun" (featuring Joey Purp), which he says he finished around the time Season came out in January 2015. But the track that convinced him he could make an entire full-length is the first Paradise single, "Help Myself," which he released this past April. "It stood out to me as, like, 'I like this, I would listen to this even if it weren't me,'" he says. "'How can I bring all of my other songs to this caliber?'"

One thing that elevates "Help Myself" is the guest musicians: multi-instrumentalist and Sza collaborator Carter Lang on acoustic guitar, Ohmme cofounder Macie Stewart on strings, and Colin Croom of Twin Peaks on organ. Though Rhomberg is no stranger to collaboration, he was initially reluctant to bring outsiders into his own songs. "I was always really guarded about my music," he says. "Like, 'I think this sounds distinct because it's exclusively me and that's what makes it distinct.' But then I realized I could only do so much."

Rhomberg also had reservations about releasing his own material, since he'd seen the big changes disrupting the lives of his friends who'd found fame—for the first time, he saw it as a real possibility that he'd become successful enough to be stripped of his relative anonymity. "I'm not a super out-there sort of person," he says. "I do enjoy privacy."

Fortunately, his friends encouraged him. Kami, whose April retro-synth album Just Like the Movies Rhomberg executive produced, remembers a birthday party in 2013 when Rhomberg played him the still-unreleased track "80 Oz of OE." "It was the best thing I ever heard—it was the thing that I wanted to listen to all day," he says. He tried to convince Rhomberg to do something with his music, even though he knew his friend would have to take that step himself. "I think he just found his comfort, especially doing the Chance record," he says. "I think he was just finally, like, 'What else can I do?'"

Rhomberg's connections to Kami and the rest of the Save Money crew have drawbacks as well as advantages—they've opened lots of doors and created lots of opportunities for him, but they've also kept him stuck in the shadow of his more famous friends. When he released the first Paradise singles, the media write-ups he got usually described him in terms of his links to Chance and Joey Purp, even though his solo music has little in common with the work he's done with them. (Rhomberg executive produced Purp's breakout 2016 mixtape, iiiDrops.) Because his most prominent associations are with rappers, his music often ended up on sites whose audiences expected him to release hip-hop.

"I would drop singles and they would get picked up by, like, HotNewHipHop," Rhomberg says. "People would be like, 'These suck.' Duh, you're not gonna like this song, 'cause it's on HotNewHipHop. If you saw on HotNewHipHop a new Toro y Moi song or something, people would be like, 'What is this?'" Rhomberg considered changing his pseudonym again to create a new space for his solo output, but he's hoping that the pop-centric Paradise will work to broaden what the name "Knox Fortune" means instead.

Rhomberg headlines a sold-out show at Lincoln Hall on Monday, November 13—a belated release party for Paradise and his first time performing Knox Fortune material live. He's no stranger to the stage—he's toured as Joey Purp's DJ for a couple years, and he frequently spins records around town—but he's never been the main attraction. Peter Cottontale and Norwegian rapper-producer Lido will both be part of his band, though their rigorous schedules mean Rhomberg will have to build a different group to tour.

Paradise came together piecemeal across three years, but Rhomberg made sure to give it a stable thematic and emotional center. "I chose to stick with timeless elements—love-song-type stuff—stuff that I knew I would never change my mind about," he says. "This was thinking about, like, human things that everybody deals with—broad topics, but also talking about them with honesty."  v

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