It's rare these days to see a Philadelphia music act teetering on the brink of superstardom, rarer still that they are a Drexel-educated hip hop duo who sample songs by Sufjan Stevens and Kate Nash.
But rapper Chidera "Chiddy" Anamege – who, along with producer Noah "Xaphoon" Jones comprises Chiddy Bang – said only in Philly would such a phenomenon be possible.
"Philly definitely was a great starting point for us because there’s a lot of musical influences around," Anamege said on the phone Monday from the dressing room at Conan O'Brien. "That’s what Philadelphia is – a melting pot of a lot of different sounds."
Chiddy Bang was borne out of Drexel University, where Anamege went to study business, though he had been freestyling and cutting mixtapes since the age of 15. The school's much-lauded music industry program quickly caught his attention freshman year. "I found out that the music industry kids had access to the studio on campus and I was on a mission," he said.
"There was a next door neighbor to me in the music industry program and I’d see him every day in front of our dorm, outside the dorm, in the hallways – every time I’d see the kid I’d be like, 'What’s up, I know you guys got the studio, let me get in.' After three weeks of me straight badgering him, he was like, 'Yeah, I know a dude who makes beats that’s really dope and you should get together.'"
That dude was Jones, the son of a West Philadelphia professor who had studied engineering as an intern at the Clef Club and Germantown's Rittenhouse Recording Studios and cut his teeth making beats for his high school friends – and would-be enemies. "There used to be group of kids in my neighborhood who would just walk around at night beating up kids," Jones said. "Once I started engineering beats for the rappers, those kids didn't beat me up anymore."
"He played a track on his computer and I was very impressed. There was nothing that sounded like that. I felt like I could do something along with it," Anamege said. "I had never heard of MGMT or any of those bands, I just come from a straight hip hop background. Noah takes the things we sample and puts them in a different context."
The two began releasing songs online. The group's signature combination of streetwise rap over industry-savvy samples caught on quickly in the college scene. "All the schools in the city of Philadelphia, that definitely helped," Anamege said. "Philadelphians, it's like they want to root for the people that come from there."
By the time Chiddy Bang played their first show at Swarthmore College in early 2009, there was so much buzz around them it was nearly audible. "When we played there, it was amazing. Everyone was singing along – the kids knew the lyrics and that’s what blew my mind," Jones said.
Mo' labels, mo' problems
Chiddy Bang signed with EMI's U.K.-based Parlophone imprint the next year with
plans to release a 2011 album, but the victory brought challenges. "This is the first album we ever really made with a major label behind it," Anamege said. "It took us a while to get things right by their standards. We had the body of work we needed – we had the meat and potatoes of the album done – but with a label it's a whole different ballgame. They're trying to put out a mass album so you have to worry about different things."
"I think that’s what ultimately set us back time-wise – we come from an era where we make a song and put it up on the internet. We’re used to making our own rules and what took us so long is we had to play within their rules to get to a point where the label was fully satisfied."
"Basically before we signed our deal, we were our own filter, so we put out all of our music we liked, all of it for free online," Jones said. "Once we signed, we became aware of a totally different worldview where you can’t put out music for free because trying to make money off of it.
"You can’t put out this song because it's too poppy, you can’t put out this song because it needs to be on the radio. It's hard as a producer to throw away what fans started listening to us for and had a I hard time adjusting to the label thing."
Despite the sometimes-rocky road, Chiddy Bang released their major-label debut "Breakfast" last Tuesday and it skyrocketed to number four on iTunes' top ten chart. A year after their first show at Swarthmore College, they sold out South Street's Theater of the Living Arts. They play to a sold out crowd at the North Star Bar tonight.
Still, both say they have by no means peaked. "There is no one moment where you feel like you've made it. There are little plateaus where you step onto them, then turn around and are like, 'I've never been here before,' then another one – 'I've never been here before," Jones said of the group's building success.
"We'll never settle for something and be like, 'We made it,' because we feel like it's just chapter one of an ongoing story," Anamege said. "We'll just constantly try to keep pushing – there are always more things to do."
'Frat rap?' 'Hipster hop?'
With all of the musical baggage each member totes, Chiddy Bang's sound is hard to define. Drawing a wide audience, from indie-loving hipsters to hardcore hip hop fans, the genre has been described as "alternative hip hop," "frat rap," and "hipster hop."
"I’d say we definitely have one foot in hip hop world and one foot in the pop world. And one in the alternative electronic world," Jones said.
But, because of their signed status, he also considers Chiddy Bang a pop act. "We're on a major label
right now – you basically sign a piece of paper that a large company is going to put out your album and make profit," he said. "When you sign that document, you can say whatever you want, but
you put one foot into the pop world."
"I'd rather deal with the pop world now, when I'm 21, than when I'm older," he said. "It's part of this weird Chiddy Bang internship where I say yes to everything and see what happens."
Anamege agreed. "I think, with any label, you’re going to have to learn to just be happy and grateful to be at 21 going through this because I feel like, by the time I’m 22, 23 and 24, I'll be able to maneuver better," he said.
"We call it space rap from the future," he said of their sound. "We're the type of dudes who spontaneously make music and we can sample anything from any genre – we don’t really care. I think that’s why you can’t really put your finger on what we do because we do everything."
"That's the Philadelphia influence."
Long live Philly
Their time in Philly was instrumental in their development and at least one member plans to one day return for good. Here's quick looks at their present, past and future related to the city:
- Though they currently live a nomadic lifestyle, embarking on a whirlwind tour in the states and abroad, both musicians say Philadelphia is especially significant.
- "To me, Philly is dope. I feel like when we came into this situation when we first went to Drexel the timing was perfect," Anamege said. "The time that we started chopping up those samples, nobody was doing that stuff. We figured out a lane for ourselves and just had to carve it."
- Jones, who recently gave up his South Philadelphia lease, hopes to one day retire in the city. "I love Philly more than anything," he said. "I want to build a recording studio in Philadelphia so kids have a place to learn."
Here's the first single from "Breakfast," "Ray Charles":