Chicago poet Kevin Coval pays tribute to the city’s literary and hip-hop traditions

This interview was published in the AV Club on October 29, 2008.

At turns lyrical and fierce, the work of hip-hop poet Kevin Coval is intrinsically a product of Chicago. Coval's latest collection of poetry, everyday people, is a paean to the city where he earned his chops, attending basement hip-hop shows as a teen and honing his skills under the tutelage of hometown heavyweights like Reggie Gibson and Dan Ferry. Coval is as accomplished as a poet working in 2008 could reasonably be—praise from the likes of Mos Def and Studs Turkel, four-time HBO Def Poet—but he stays true to his roots, still calling Chicago his home and encouraging the next generation of writers through “Louder Than A Bomb”, the youth poetry festival he founded. In  anticipation of  his book release reading at Quimby's this Thursday, the AV Club spoke with Coval about his roots in the Chicago hip-hop community, and how the city's working-class equanimity drives artistic growth.

The AV Club: What was your introduction to the Chicago hip-hop community?

Kevin Coval: I grew up in the suburbs and became aware that if I wanted to hear hip-hop music I would have to go to Chicago. I would get bootleg tapes at the old Maxwell Street—before it was paved over in University Village—and it was through some of the stores and vendors there that I began to hear about an indigenous music scene. I'd be buying bootleg Ice Cube tapes, but then I'd also hear that there was a music night with DJ's. One of the first DJ's I went to listen to was Jesse De La Pena, he had a Monday night set called Blue Group Lounge. That was one of the first spots I went to in Chicago once I got my fake ID at 18. That was sort of an entry into seeing Chicago hip-hop artists—MC's that are still around like Dirty M.F., they would freestyle some sets. At the end of the night, there would also be local MC's or other artists on tour—I saw Redman freestyle there, and other national artists. It was really that Monday night set that really became a regular mecca for me. There was one woman there—it was just dudes packed in a basement listening to Jesse spin. 

AVC: How did you first get involved in the scene? When you started out, were you trying to rap or was poetry the thing you were always focused on doing?

KC: I didn't know anyone who made beats, so it was all a cappella. I was off-beat more than anything, so people called it poetry or spoken word. By the time I first read at an open mic in Chicago—this is about '96—I had left the idea of being a traditional MC and thought of myself as more of a poet. Some of the first spots I went to as an artist, knowing that I had verse in my backpack and if called upon, I could read at an open mic.

A real important spot for me was Another Level, they had a Saturday night poetry spot. It was an afrocentric book store—it's not there anymore, it's where Underground Hot Dogs is in Wicker Park. That spot was amazing, that was the first time that I saw a hip-hop-centered space that had poetry sets. Some of the artists that I met, it was in that space that I met them. They introduced me to a larger Chicago hip-hop poetry community. There was a set down the streets on Monday nights that I started to go to at the Mad Bar, where Cans is now. They had a poetry night, and then after the poetry night they had hip-hop night. That was one of the first places I became a regular at. They sent a couple of teams to the National Poetry Slam, and I was on one of those teams. In some ways, that was my real entrance into Chicago's spoken word poetry scene.

AVC: Was there a certain moment or show when it hit you that this was what you wanted to do?

KC: I made the decision to be a writer when I was 19. I was in Washington DC, interning for Carol Moseley-Brown,  the first black senator from Illinois. I did not like working there, but that summer I became fascinated with writing and reading poetry and made the decision that I was going to write. When I came back to Chicago, I was encouraged by some of the older heads in the community. People who I saw as a younger writer—folks like Reggie Gibson, Chuck Perkins—they kind of encouraged me. I would read a poem, and I wasn't really sure if it hit or not. There was an old writer around Chicago—he's not that old, but he used to be in the scene a little more, I think now he's an elementary school teacher—a guy named Daniel Ferry, who was part of the National Slam Team and had been part of National Public Radio. I remember walking out of the Mad Bar—I think I read a piece about graffiti art and Diego Rivera, and I was not sure how it went, and  he said “yeah, you're doing your thing, you're a writer—continue.” I got encouragement from the older heads in the scene, that's what gave me the confidence to continue.

I went everywhere. Any open mic I could go to—whether it be spoken word, or on some MC shit, I would be out, reading to an audience. It was the affirmation of some of the older heads in the scene that made me think “okay, I'm getting respect from some of the dudes I respect, so let me continue.”

AVC: As you travel around the country and get recognition, what is it that brings you back to Chicago? What is unique about the poetry and hip-hop scene here?

KC: I think the quality of the writer's craft in Chicago is—I would argue—higher than anywhere in the country. There's no real recording or publishing industry in Chicago, so if you are a writer or MC or poet in Chicago, you do it out of love and necessity. There is a growing audience in Chicago for Chicago-grown hip-hop and poetry, but the best MC's in Chicago are delivering mail or school teachers or lawyers. They're not driving in Escalades for the most part, they're working like the rest of the city works. Being an artist in Chicago means that you are part of the working class culture. Your art becomes a product of your labor, so if you keep working at that, you become better and better—writers are made, not born.

One of the things I love about being a Chicago writer, and participating in this rich history of literature, is that we have people in canon who are committed to the craft. I feel honored to be part of the Chicago tradition of writers, both poets as old as Gwendolyn Brooks and Carl Sandburg and as new and fresh as Lupe Fiasco or Ang 13. To me, there is an aesthetic continuum in that canon that has a lot to do with being Chicagoans and has a lot to do with being in the midwest. 

No one cares in Chicago that you do art. You tell someone in Chicago you do art, and they will encourage you to make their cheeseburger medium rare. No one really believes that you can make it as an artist. Theatre in Chicago is diverse because you have storefront theaters that will put out avant-garde or classical plays because they have a love for the form. I think the same kind of work ethic infiltrates the hip-hop and spoken word community too.