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Feature Fri Dec 18 2015
Chicago rapper Clinton Sandifer, who is known to most by his stage name "ShowYouSuck," traces the origins of his rap career ten years ago back to his time at the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg. The connections he made at school landed him a job at a skate shop where he met some kids from Northern Illinois University in Dekalb who started booking him for shows, and through those shows, he met his best friend, who later started Artpentry in Bridgeport with Sandifer's help.
"Most of the things I'm around now, I've been there since the beginning, and from all of that, I was able to launch my music," he said.
Lately Sandifer, who is now 30, has had the luxury of turning certain down opportunities that don't fit the vision he has for his career, like that time Domino's asked him to star in an ad campaign as a pizza delivery man -- but didn't want to use his name or music in the commercials. It's clear that the things Sandifer has been working on lately are things that he is genuinely excited to do: from playing local shows almost every other week, collaborating with Chicago's Celine Neon for a remix in October, to releasing two EPs in the next few months. The first of the EPs, titled Alf Fan 420 (which is also his current Twitter handle), will be released by Mishka Records on December 28th.
I spoke with Sandifer at Filter Cafe in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood about pizza and strange Lays chip flavors, writing songs inspired by both his imagination and his real life, sobriety, and that time Wicker Park Fest booked him for the kid's stage because they hadn't actually listened to his music.
A while ago you said that the reason pizza is such a big theme in your music is because it's one of the best ways to bring people together.
Yeah, who doesn't like it? To me, that's a no-brainer.
And it's such a communal thing--you SHARE pizza.
Exactly. A lot of rappers talk about weed a lot because weed is very communal, and pizza is kind of my thing.
In your song "Flip Phone," you mention a girl who has a "ratchet-ass flip phone." She's in two songs, right? Does she know about the songs?
Ooooohhhh-- you just unlocked the code! No one's ever picked up on that before! But she's not a real person. If you take any song where I rap about a relationship, I'm usually rapping about the same imaginary relationship. My songs aren't usually like diaries from my life; I just watched movies like "Something About Mary", and "The Notebook," so now I can write a few songs about relationships. I also like to write about one relationship, and then in the next song, write it from a slightly different perspective: rewind the tape and redo it in a different context.
A lot of the stuff I talk about in my songs and music videos are inside jokes, so that the people who follow me on everything get a little something extra. I like to treat it like the TV show "The Office." You can be someone who doesn't know anything about "The Office" and watch an episode and love it, but, if you saw the two episodes before, you're going to catch a few extra jokes and jabs that mean different things. That's why I love it, because it works on so many levels, and that's what I want my art to be like. I want my fans to get a payoff from paying close attention all the time.
Does that mean you don't write from a personal place very often? You obviously talk about your favorite TV shows and snacks and other obsessions...
Yeah, yeah, and that's easy, because that stuff is personal, but it's not who I am, it's what I like, so it's different. In the past, I've done it in a weird way: I've made personal sandwiches. I'll mention something that's kind of funny, put something personal in the middle, and then put something kind of fluffy right after that. I didn't realize I was doing it for a really long time. But for example, maybe I'll have a song with a line about "Beavis and Butthead," then a quick line about my dad not being around, and then another line about "Daria" right after. But lately, a lot of the music I have coming is a lot more personal and straight up. I think it was time for me to stop bullshitting. Also, I know the shit out of myself now.
Putting positive energy out into the world through your songs and attitude is also clearly very important to you too.
Fuck yeah. One hundred percent. We already have enough bullshit. There's a lot of entertaining bullshit too, but I'm very much a firm believer in the idea that you get back what you put out into the world, especially with rap. Rap has such a bad rap. (Laughs) But for good reason.
I'm really trying to wave the flag of the male feminist rapper, because I don't want to be oblivious to women's struggle in the world, in and outside of entertainment. Just watching my girlfriend [Chicago jazz musician Lili K] and seeing what she goes through as a musician makes it so much more closer to home than it's ever been. It's just silly what women go through; it's bullshit that someone shouldn't have to fucking deal with. So I feel like, if I can make a song about feeling better about yourself, it has to help someone.
At one of my shows recently, a girl came up to me and told me how much it affected her that I had a song about positive body image ["Fuck That Diet, Let's Eat Some Pizza."] That was crazy to me. Because when I'm making these songs, it's just me in a room laughing about how ridiculous it is to have a chorus that says, "Fuck that diet, let's eat some pizza!" but obviously I also know what I'm doing. I am hoping someone's going to be affected by this.
Your love of technology and the internet is clear in your music, but how do you balance that with your work and personal life?
When I go home, I'm off everything. Usually, once 7 o'clock hits, I'm dead on Twitter and Instagram, because I'm at home, so I'm done. I just stopped giving a shit about taking in everything out there after a certain point. I need to build my own memories and my own thoughts. I've written so many songs that are based off watching shit I like and discovering new things, but after a while I realized I wasn't watching or learning about new things anymore. I was just taking in everyone else's stuff and interests.
My thing now lately is scouring YouTube for awesome things. Everything is on YouTube if you look hard enough. You can watch sitcoms with no laugh tracks on YouTube. People who upload full TV show series on YouTube are doing such a public service.
What else have you been excited about lately?
Comedy writing is something I feel like my life is pushing me towards. It's kind of a weird thing because I have a set of music that really appeals to the comedy crowd, and then I have the loud, heavy shit that the kids in the hardcore scene like a lot. So usually, my shows either have the vibes of a hardcore show or a stand-up show. And I choose when I want to play to the crowd. Let's say I'm playing a show with Young Jeezy, so not my usual crowd. I know the audience probably just wants to see Young Jeezy, so I'm just going to have fun with it. There's never any pressure.
I read something about how you never get nervous.
In general, you never get nervous, or has performing always just come easily to you?
In life, yeah. But with performing? When I started, my first performances were rap battles when I was sixteen; we'd go to different high schools to battle other kids. I would get into situations where I'd humiliate these kids at the other school, and we'd get into a fight. So after that, any crowd to me now feels chill by comparison because I've been in more tense situations in music. Any show ain't shit to me now.
What has changed since you've started managing yourself? Is it hard to balance the management piece with everything else?
Yeah, I don't get to focus on the fun stuff, and I constantly talk to people who don't know what they're doing most of the time. But it's fine. I'm not really at a point in my career right now where I really need one. I'm booking a tour right now and I got some help with that, but that's really it right now.
How do you fight through all the noise and bullshit especially as an independent artist?
I just make the music that I want to make, essentially. I'm in this thought process now where making music isn't about standing out. I just want to impress 12-year-old me. That's it. If any opportunity comes, the first question I ask is, "Would 12-year-old me be stoked on this?" and if the answer's yes, I do it. That's the only thing I worry about, because there's too many other things to worry about. If you worry about all the other things people want, you end up being bitter.
You also don't seem limited or defined by the rap genre.
Yeah. I used to get bothered by that. People used to write about me and not call what I do rap, and that used to very much offend me. It was a positive thing for me, but they were also throwing shade at the genre. It's like, yo, I make rap music. My shows can be very metal, but I'm a rapper. I don't play any instruments. I call myself a rapper with good taste. I don't have any musical training or anything like that, and that used to make me insecure, but now I go to sessions with Lili, and I learn stuff about production and other things. I'm not a producer in terms of like, playing keys or anything, but I can dictate. I can dictate all day now. I know chord progressions now. I've just become more in control now. Nowadays, I give myself more musical credit than I used to.
How has living & staying in Chicago influenced you? Have you ever considered leaving?
I'm not going to do that. I've got the internet, why am I moving there for? If I move anywhere, it's going to be to Portland, and it's going to be go off the grid. I'm not moving for music. If I move, it's going to be for my sanity. Portland is my favorite place in the world. I love Portland. Eons ago, I went on tour with Arcade Fire -- before they were ARCADE FIRE! -- and we made a stop in Portland, and I loved it so much that I stayed four extra days. I just kept staying. I'm just a vibe person. And Portland has the proper energy for me.
The one complaint I have heard about Portland is that it isn't really a diverse place.
Yeah, but the whole world is already pretty white, so I didn't really notice that. I've worked in a tattoo shop, I've worked in a skate shop, gone to a lot of hardcore shows. Culturally, my life is already pretty white.
I know that for a while you didn't drink. Is that still true?
I do smoke weed now, but I don't drink.
I read something recently in a book called "Blackout," by Sarah Hepola about how she used to drink to make herself "better," -- more confident or more relaxed in social situations, for example. It made me wonder if one of the reasons you don't drink is because you're happy with who you are. Because the happier I am with myself, the less I feel like I need to drink a lot.
Totally. Yeah. I've always hated things that made me feel different than the way I was already feeling. And my taste buds are like a kid's taste buds; to me, alcohol just tastes gross. People always say, "You develop a taste for it!" but why would I want to eat or drink something I have to develop a taste for? That's just silly to me. I'm not saying, "I'm never going to drink again," because I did used to drink socially at things until I realized, "I don't need to do this. Why am I doing this?"
It does like sometimes you're drinking just to hold something.
Yeah, yeah. I don't give a shit about that. And for a while, weed was never a thing that did anything for me, but I started smoking last summer and I like it a lot. I haven't had a bad experience with it yet. Honestly, after years of doing music, the political side of all of it has worn on my natural patience and chill. Going to events and shows gives me anxiety now. I can't just go be at things anymore. I can't just be at a rap show and just enjoy a rap show without people -- not my fans, but other people -- who come to talk to me because they want something from me. So weed helps with that anxiety a little bit.
You went to college at the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg -- what did you study there?
Fashion marketing management. I've always been a sneaker collector, I've always had an eye for aesthetics, and I was really into graphic tees. I wanted to be a brand rep for an action sports company. I learned nothing from that place. I learned absolutely nothing. Zero. Zilch. But going to that school put me in the position to meet the people that I met that got me here. I went there party to appease my mom, because she had no idea what the hell I was doing with my life, and no one ever showed me you can make a career out of having good taste. I just didn't know. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life for so long. So I just ended up at this school, this awful school. I had to go through so much shit to get that fucking degree, just to learn that you can pretty much apply for a job and say you went to Harvard. No one checks!
Something I think is really interesting these days is how our culture is so focused on being "chill." When we were younger, it was okay to openly gush about the things you love, but now it seems like a lot of our culture is so concerned with keeping an ironic distance between people and the things they care about.
Rap is so much of that right now. People get these opportunities, and you can't even tell that they're excited about it. It's like, you're doing something so insane! I want people to know that I'm excited about the things that I do. Even sometimes when I go to these thing that can be kind of bullshit, I'm still stoked. I just get to do so many things that rappers don't normally get to do. I get to rap at JBTV, and I've done interviews for them at festivals, which is something I never imagined I'd be doing that before. I'm very aware that I get to do things that other rappers don't get to do, so I want people to know I'm fucking excited about that shit.
Why do you think people try so hard to seem like they're not excited about what they're doing?
I don't know. (Sigh) I guess people feel like it's so much cooler to act like you don't care.
And it's a bit of a self-defense mechanism, probably, so if the thing you care about doesn't work out, you won't get hurt. But it seems to me like you never had to get over that. Have you always been so openly excited about what you're doing?
Yeah, I feel like I'm just hyper aware. I know how life plays. I know things don't always work out the way you think they're going to work out, but I'm thankful, because I just feel like I'm not supposed to be here. Not in terms of life generally, but every time I get to do something cool, the whole time I'm there thinking about how I'm still that kid from Bellwood, Illinois, and no one from Bellwood ever does anything. Everyone I went to school with is still in Bellwood, and it's less than 10 minutes from the city. When people from Bellwood go to the city, it's a big deal still. I'm always thinking, "Yo, life wasn't designed for me to be here."
What pushed you to get out of your hometown when everyone around you was sticking around and doing the same thing?
TV. TV raised me, so I didn't see color. The social and cultural restraints that other black kids got I didn't get, because although I have a half-brother and a half-sister in a different house, I technically grew up as an only child. I didn't have an older sibling to go, "This is white and this is black, this is what you're supposed to do." My mom worked tons of jobs, so I just sat in front of the TV at home. "Roseanne" raised me. So when I wanted to work at a skate shop, I just found a skate shop. I didn't think about why I couldn't do it. I was multicultural without knowing it, I guess. I was into all of these different things, and so I just went for them.
So you have this positive personality and attitude about things most of the time. But how do you deal with things when they don't work out?
Some times are easier than others. I get bummed out like other people. But I have the awareness to snap out of those things. And I've just been fortunate enough to not burn bridges, so people help me out.
I love that your identity isn't limited by your success as a rapper, that you still have your hands in so many other scenes, like the tattoo scene, and your involvement in the Artpentry gallery in Bridgeport. What's it like to be involved in so many different things at once?
The winter I released my Dude Bro EP was the most unhappy winter I've ever had in my life. One, it was winter, and everything slows down in winter, but also, all I was doing at that time was rap. And that was never my life. I was always the dude who would go to hardcore shows, work in a tattoo shop... but when I stopped doing those other things so I could focus just on rap, I became just a rapper, and every day I had nothing to do. If I didn't have a studio session, then I had nothing to do. I realized that I needed something else so I asked my friend if I could come back to the art gallery, so I had some structure to my life. I didn't realize that about myself until then, that one thing is not enough for me.
So how are you doing now?
I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life. I have regained an awareness of where I stand in certain things, and I'm lucky enough to have a level head on my shoulders, and less chaotic people in my life. I also did an interview at the end of last year that super woke me up. That year I had toured Europe, I had played Riotfest, and I had done all these short runs on other tours, but I hadn't released an album. So the interviewer asked me, "How does it feel to have what seems like the biggest year you've ever had without releasing anything?"
At the time, I was feeling like I was being compared to my peers in the scene who were exploding on the internet and everywhere, so it sometimes felt like I was doing nothing in comparison, but that interviewer made me realize that I did some of the biggest things I've ever done in my career last year without putting out an official release, which is insane. I accomplished more doing less, and it was the weirdest thing ever. I didn't release a formal project, I didn't write one press release last year, and it felt good. I had the least fan interaction I've ever had on the internet ever last year, so I was feeling like I had lost a shitload of fans, but in real life, I was winning hard as fuck. And I had forgotten that until the interviewer said that.
Your stage name evolved out of a chant you used to do at shows, where you'd shout, "Show so awesome!" and the crowd would respond, "Show you suck!" Do you still love the name as much as you did when it first started?
Honestly, the name for me was clickbait. The content is so more important to me. Like I said, if 12-year-old me would be stoked on it, then I'll go with it, but also, if it makes me laugh long enough, I'll do it. Things that make me laugh don't just make me laugh for a day; I'm stoked on them for the rest of my life. So I think that name is still funny. For someone to to come up to me in public and say, "Hey, you're ShowYouSuck, right?" is still really funny to me. When you have a mic in your hand, you can get the audience to say pretty much whatever you want them to say, and when do you ever get to go to rap shows and tell the rapper on stage that they suck? That's kind of cool, right?
Having "suck" in the name hasn't been as big of an issue as I thought it was gonna be. I thought it was gonna be more of a problem. Here's a funny thing. Five years ago I played Wicker Park Fest, but I played on the kid's stage. And they had to change my name on the fliers to "ShowIsSoAwesome." It's like, what world are we living in? There's way worse names out there. But here's another funny thing. Because of the reputation that I have for making positive music, some people that aren't really into hip-hop think I make corny music, like I'm like the Black Eyed Peas, or something. So I get both sides. Some people who never listen to my music just think I'm bubblegum pop or something.
No one actually listens to the music anymore. People just read reviews. People will watch a half an hour interview, before they listen to a 20-minute EP. It's insane. It's definitely stunted my career sometimes, having this name and a reputation that I make corny pop music, and the fact that I'm not a finesser. But the thing is that you can't be bitter about that. You just have to accept it, and find out where you fit in. That doesn't necessarily mean playing along, but the day you realize that being bitter doesn't help at all, and you let go, is so important. Being bitter about some of the things in this scene eats you alive.
It takes work to be positive, and sometimes you have to remind yourself that you have to keep music fun for you. Whenever I have sessions with younger artists, that's what I ask them, "Is it fun? Is it fun still?" You gotta keep it fun. And if that means doing five interviews in a row, and making up weird answers to keep it fun for me, that's what I'm gonna do. It has to be fun for me first. I've done a lot of shows where people have told me, "You shouldn't do that show!" But to me, I just think, "That's going to be fun. I'm doing that."
ShowYouSuck's new EP, Alf Fan 420, will be released on Mishka Records on December 28, and he'll be at The Empty Bottle on December 21st and The Reaction on New Year's Eve.