Pilsen has long been a creative crossroads, a hub of human ingenuity. Around the turn of the last century it was mostly Czechs (the original Bohemians) and Slavs who chose Chicago’s Lower West Side as the pad from which to launch their pursuits of the American dream. For most that meant the chance to sweat and bend and ache for 12 hours a day at some factory. Today it’s artists — the poets and writers, the painters and sculptors, the dancers and musicians, plus a good deal of misfits and floaters — looking to make the neighborhood their new home.

Trent Davis, a.k.a. Prhyme Rhyme Boss, is one such individual.

Davis was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the late Eighties, though he spent time in Minneapolis, Detroit and Canada. He began rapping at an early age and has produced a string of mixtapes ever since. Now he heads up Chrome Star Records alongside his older brother Kendall, who goes by the name “K Money” (K-$).

When I met Trent at a Gozamos event last year, he’d just moved from Ann Arbor. I wanted to know what made him choose Pilsen as his base of operations.

So, several months later, I caught up with Prhyme Rhyme Boss and had him tell me the story of how it all happened.

 

Interviewer
What made you become a hip hop artist?

Davis
I got my start in Ann Arbor in 1999 when my eldest brother Kendall “K-$” Davis dropped his first mixtape Life in the Deuce Vol. 1. I was 12 years old and had three appearances on the project. He helped me get started and we still work together to this day. In high school we performed our first shows opening for acts like Athletic Mic League, Subterraneous, and even freestyled with the late Proof of D12. At the time I was the youngest member in my former group called Seven Tre Quad.

Interviewer
What were some of your early influences?

Davis
Raised primarily by my mother, me, Kendall and my younger bro Cameron grew up listening to all kinds of music. She would play everything from Shania Twain to Dr. Dre, from Al Green to Pink. (laughs) My father used to work for Prince in Minneapolis as a store manager. I was able to meet him when I was around 7 years old.

It was artists like Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Master P and Cash Money (Hot Boys) that influenced me to actually want to be a rapper. Not until I hit middle school was I influenced by more lyrically driven artists such as Nas, Talib Kweli and Mos Def, also Royce da 5’9″ and Eminem. I wanted to use music as a platform to communicate with people from different walks of life. Groups like Wu-Tang Clan, D.P.G. and The Diplomats encouraged me to unify with some of the best talent in Michigan and to also stand out. They showed me it was important to have a movement behind the music, and most importantly to bring originality to the game.

Interviewer
What made you leave Michigan and choose Chicago as your new home base?

Davis
I lived in Michigan for 26 years. I was the same age as my father when he moved away to Minneapolis. As an artist I felt it was important to branch out and spread my message rather than sit in the same spot. After rocking the same venues over and over, I wanted to step into a bigger arena and find out what I was made of. I was dating a girl at the time who really inspired me and challenged me to take that next step in my career, and Chicago just made sense. I landed in Pilsen, 21st and Damen.

Interviewer
Why Pilsen?

Davis
I got a strong sense of family out here, and that’s what I was looking for.

Interviewer
How so?

Davis
My very first experience in Pilsen was I was visiting my then-girlfriend and I stopped in at the Steak N Egger. The rest is history. I noticed that the people in the community would invest in themselves and work together. Whether a local grocery store or a tamales lady on the corner, their dollars would stay in Pilsen.

Most families I noticed lived together with mom, dad, kids and grandparents. I thought that was pretty interesting and important. These are some of the things I wish African Americans would do more often — keeping their dollars within their community.

I have friends from Ann Arbor who now live in Chicago, but my experience I’m sure has been a lot different. They live mostly north or downtown, which don’t have the same feeling as Pilsen. I’ve met people in my neighborhood a year ago who are now some of my closest friends.

Interviewer
As you’re probably aware, Pilsen is struggling with gentrification — that is, struggling to promote development without selling out. As a newcomer, what’s your take on what’s going on in the neighborhood?

Davis
When I first moved here people told me stories of how dangerous it used to be and how, as a black man, and with my white girlfriend, we may not have been as welcomed 10 years ago as we were then. I’ve talked with people who grew up here and they aren’t necessarily thrilled with the way Pilsen is becoming gentrified.

But I believe Pilsen is a small example of how it is in America. I’ve even thought to myself, “Damn, I see a lot of white people here, so I feel safe.” But why is that? We cannot and should not be afraid of our own people. Minorities — black, Latino, you name it — they should all come together to rebuild our neighborhoods.

Interviewer
It’s like how Dave Chappelle once said: “Black people don’t like the ghetto.”

And I feel you on gentrification. I feel the same way about my old hood, Humboldt Park. I want to see it develop, be safer, be hub of positive activity. But then again, I don’t want it to lose itself in the change.

Davis
No doubt. I’ve been out there and can definitely see the contrasts.

Interviewer
How has moving to Pilsen changed your music, if at all? As a writer, I know how my environment affects my process and what I produce. It either inspires me, gives me a different perspective, or it doesn’t.

Davis
Coming from a place like Ann Arbor, which is now primarily white, moving to Pilsen felt good — just being able to have brown skin, if you get my drift. Moving here helped me gain perspective on the world, a much different world than what I was used to. It also gave me the clarity to be myself and find out who I am.

Interviewer
And how have the people of Pilsen received you and your music?

Davis
I’ve met people in Pilsen who have never really left the neighborhood, let alone Chicago. I inspire them to open their minds and comfort zones. So far it’s been nothing but love and constructive criticism — asking, “What do you really stand for? What are you trying to say?”

As a writer it’s helped me define my artistry. I was able to discover a young talented artist named Alex CHI from the neighborhood, and our chemistry just clicked. He’s only about 18 or 19, but we challenge each other lyrically and I think he could be the future voice of Pilsen and Chicago, period. He’s Latino. I think it’s important that people see us work together and bring out the best in each other

Interviewer
Chicago hip-hop audiences tend to be more socially conscious. Midwest audiences generally. Wouldn’t you agree?

Davis
Definitely. Though the drill movement isn’t really my thing, it captures the pure essence of that demographic of Chicago. The lyric-driven hip hop I’ve heard hear from guys like Natureal, Blaise B, to name a few, is spot on.

Interviewer
I’m glad you brought up drill. What’s your view on guys like Chief Keef? Personally, while I don’t think there’s much art in his music, I do think his music provides a social lense into the mentality of too many inner-city young people. You can’t hate him for the message he’s putting out, since he’s only reflecting the place he comes from, a place molded by history and politics. However I do think the industry takes advantage of that message and markets the shit out of it to clueless listeners.

Davis
I like Keef. The industry, however, is made to exploit. I feel like his message may change a bit as he grows older and progresses as an artist.

I also bump Lil Reese and Herbo.

Prhyme

Interviewer
Do you find Chicago to be a nurturing environment for young hip-hop artists?

Davis
The Chi has a great number of resources one can take full advantage of, but you have to pay homage. A lot of young guys find this out the hard way and may get discouraged, but you have to keep pushing. Where I’m from we don’t have that many opportunities for music and media.

If you’re good enough here, you can make a name for yourself. When I arrived I basically had to start again from the bottom and climb back up. I had to go back to my roots — performing at open mics, networking non-stop. Hell, I was freestyling outside of every club and bar I went to and bouncers would let me in after seeing the larger crowd gathered around. It’s like boxing — I was the champ in my town, but I have to move up the ranks in this new division and weight class.

Interviewer
Speaking of boxing, Mayweather or Pacquiao?

Davis
Mayweather, only because he continues to show that, in boxing, defense and being fundamentally sound wins. And I love his antics and shit-talking.

Interviewer
I agree he’s a great boxer, but it would’ve been nice to see someone shut him up for once. He’s unlikable, and that’s how he likes it.

Davis
Shit-talking is good money. Everything in America is about business, sadly. People either love you or hate you when you’re worth that much money.

Interviewer
Did you go into hip hop for the money then? Cuz I don’t know about you, but chasing my dream is really kicking me in the wallet.

Davis
Woah! I wouldn’t go that far. But, in a sense, yes. As a young kid you are vulnerable to the image of that lifestyle. But like I always say: I don’t want a million dollars, but I know I can sell a million records, with the right budget. My goal is to be able to successfully own, publish and distribute my music. Then I’m good. More money creates problems — B.I.G. was spot on. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant. At 27 I can definitely see where he was going with that.

Interviewer
I agree with the idea that money gives an artist control over his work — how much he can produce, where, how, etc. I just want to be able to write, and to have a life that allows me to write well, which means traveling, meeting new people, seeing new places, experiencing new things, and so on.

Davis
Definitely. It’s been the most important investment for me, and it’s hard. But when you do what you love, it’s worth it. I never wanted to be that guy who says “Oh, I wish I would have done that when I was younger.” No. Never. I didn’t really go to college and live the traditional life like most of my peers, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for any degree.

Interviewer
So you said Lilly’s is your first show in Chicago, is that right?

Davis
It’s actually my first show of the Chi in 2015. However last year it was my first open mic in the city.  The great part about this show is that I’ve performed with a few of the acts involved. It’s great to see that they have discovered each other, and now we are all kind of working under the same wing.

To be welcomed back by artists who I can genuinely call my friends just feels good — to have that type of love in another city.

 

Prhyme Rhyme Boss will be performing at Lilly’s in Lincoln Park on Friday, May 15 at 9pm, and again on June 4. He’ll also be at Blind Pig in Ann Arbor on May 30. His debut album No Name Yet is due for release in July, and he’s expecting to drop a mixtape with Alex CHI before then. The single “Own 2” is available on iTunes. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

[Photos: Cy Abdelnour]

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