Mister Wallace & Futurehood Are Liberating Chicago's Music Scene

Mister Wallace

In the back of Reunion Chicago, a community space where members of the media platform, record label, and artist collective Futurehood often meet, there is a floral studio. When I went there to interview the multi-disciplinary artist and performer Mister Wallace last week, large evergreen wreaths were lined up along the walls. The scent of pine was palpable as I asked Wallace what they see when they imagine the future.

“It’s a lot of colors: violet— ultraviolets—, greens, and purples. When I envision the future I envision something that looks more old world than what we see in these post-apocalyptic films of sterility, where large advertisements and things like that have taken over— that’s not what I see. I see water, and green, and life, and vitality, and birth, and Black and brown people, predominantly. I don’t think we have enough images of utopia and liberation and what a positive future can look like.”

This lush vision of the world to come informs much of Wallace’s work as a rapper/singer/actor/dancer/designer/writer (and so on and so forth). For their latest project, which they describe as an era as well as their debut album, combining “genre bending music, life performance, and wellness products,” Wallace embodies the persona of Cool Mom, an otherworldly being from roughly three thousand human years into the future who has “been sent back here to right the wrongs of this time.”

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We met at Reunion because that’s where Wallace was rehearsing for their upcoming performance at the Futurehood & Friends showcase, part of Red Bull Music Festival Chicago, which happened last Friday at Subterranean in Wicker Park. Alongside several Futurehood artists, the event featured some of Chicago’s most talented local musicians and friends of the label, such as KC Ortiz, Blu Bone, and The Vixen. At the showcase, Wallace debuted their live performance for the Cool Mom project on a stage designed to look like the control deck of a spaceship. Behind all the performers that night, a video display made the audience feel as though they were traveling through a field of stars.

“Research and studies have documented that a lot of science fiction narratives exclude Black and brown people from the future,” Wallace explained. “Considering myself a time traveler, and saying that I am a time traveler, is asserting that my body will not have perished. I will not die, and I will exist in a future time.”

While the ‘future’ in Futurehood is mostly in reference to sustainability and laying the groundwork for a better world, it is also an apt term to describe the music released by Wallace and their label-mates. On their song “Whoremoan”, Wallace’s voice is warped by echoes and reverb as it oscillates between pitches, speeds, and inflections. Shifting club rhythms provide the beat under a psychedelic collage of chimes and what sounds like a marimba. Mister Wallace’s music, like Cool Mom herself, is from the future.

The name Cool Mom arose naturally as other members of Futurehood (whom they call their daughters) began calling Wallace ‘Mom’ due to the leadership role they occupy at the label. Since the release of their Faggot EP in 2016, Wallace told me that they have “developed from this militant in your face type faggot persona to a more soul nurturing maternal role.” As part of this transformation, Wallace began to expand their vocal style. They sing more on the Cool Mom album than they have in the past, and are allowing their voice to be more vulnerable.

Even though Wallace describes the persona from their Faggot era as being more confrontational than Cool Mom, the music that they made then has a soft side that hints at their evolution. The title track from Faggot is bright and propulsive, but also reminds me of a lullaby in some strange way. At a few moments throughout the song, and notably at its end, the beat drops out and what’s left is Wallace chanting a few breathy syllables alongside soothing chords from a synth or keyboard. A swell of splashing cymbals fades in and out like a train passing by outside a bedroom window.

 For inspiration on how to structure and manage a growing label as they take on increasing responsibilities, Wallace looks not only to the future, but to the hood of past and present as well.

“Hood culture has always shown different models for how to build societies. The hierarchies that we see in larger society and mainstream society and white supremacy cultured society— they don’t exist in the hood. In the hood, there’s more of an egalitarian mode of expression where everybody has a role and everybody has a say in how things are done.” This sense of collective unity is central to Futurehood’s ethos. At times throughout our conversation, Wallace seemed more ready to discuss their daughters’ projects than their own, delighting in the triumphs of their peers. “We want to bring that intelligence, that creativity, and that survival attitude from the hood to the masses through the music and the way we put on performances and shows. Those models are the models we want to see the world use.”

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Roy Kinsey at Red Bull Music Chicago's Futurehood & Friends.

This egalitarian approach to artistic creation allows for a wide range of styles and sounds to be represented on Futurehood releases. Instead of aiming toward a singular aesthetic as a label, each individual artist is encouraged to create on their own terms, for whatever audience their message needs to reach. On releases by Futurehood, you can find synthpop by Taylor Alxndr, futuristic dance mixes from aCeb00mbaP (who is Wallace’s frequent collaborator and fellow label head), and the rappers Rozay Labeija and Roy Kinsey, whose respective albums Alchemy and Blackie: A Story by Roy Kinsey are two of 2018’s best. On her track “Urgency”, Futurehood artist Linda Labeija recites an impassioned spoken word poem about her experiences as a Black trans woman over a beat by Qween Beat producer Byrell the Great. Futurehood artists draw inspiration from Ballroom, techno, house, hip-hop, avant-garde experimentalism, and more to create a truly original sonic palette across the label’s roster.

Wallace believes that “the Cool Mom project is holistic in its message and can be shown in conversation and in dialogue with my daughters and their work.” While on the Faggot EP Wallace exercised more authoritative control over the sound of their tracks, their new songs are the result of equal back and forth collaborations with their producers. As they describe it, the move toward collaboration is part of the same process of “moving from a place of having to be so independent because I felt so outside or so against the world to a place where I am the leader of a community.” One of their dreams is embarking on a mother/daughter tour with their Futurehood family.

At one point during the rehearsal, two of Wallace’s daughters who perform as dancers in their live show broke off to go over part of their routine. Wallace watched for a moment before turning to me, beaming. “I’m so lucky,” they said. “I’m so blessed.” In that moment, it was clear that there’s no bigger fan of Futurehood and its artists than Wallace themselves. Their smile was that of a proud and gracious mother.

Even though the music released by Futurehood is often inspired by its artists’ experiences as queer Black and brown people, Wallace is wary of media outlets that place too much emphasis on identity without examining the actual music and work the label is doing.

“Right now there’s a lot of conversation about us being a queer label or a label that’s queering hip-hop, but I don’t know if that’s the correct language. I think our label, more than anything, is giving voice to people who haven’t felt like they had their voices heard before and it’s about creating music that is liberating to the artists and the artist’s community, their intended audience. We’re definitely trying to make music and sell it but we are also definitely focused on liberation and healing, and creating music that is healing.”

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Wallace believes that they are able to act as a positive model of a liberated individual through their lyrics. “I think my voice, what I have to say, directly speaks to what liberation feels like or sounds like. And I’m definitely speaking to young queer artists of color, specifically young Black men who feel boxed into that identity and don’t necessarily have examples of what a liberated person in that identity looks and sounds like.”

In some songs, Wallace’s lyrics depict explicit acts of queer sexuality with pleasure and confidence. Other times, they directly address social issues affecting their community. On the track “PnP”, produced by Skyshaker and recorded under the Futurehood adjacent project Banjee Report, Wallace raps about the abuse of hard drugs like meth and GHB among queer people, primarily gay men. The song is ferocious, and bears a grim intensity that distinguishes it from their other work.

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The Vixen at Red Bull Music Chicago's Futurehood & Friends.

As a teenager, Wallace was exposed to Ballroom culture, first through videos on YouTube and then through their own participation in the scene. At Balls, Wallace was inspired to see trans women “exalted to the highest level,” countering the disrespect and harassment they often receive from mainstream society. That same ecstatic celebration of queerness and sense of liberation fueled the energy at the Futurehood & Friends event Friday night. At one point during their set, in a riff on an FBG Duck lyric, the rapper Kidd Kenn delivered the line “this is a faggot party, baby, you cannot get in!” to great enthusiasm from the audience.

Much of Chicago’s nightlife and musical culture is indebted to the contributions of queer people of color, specifically queer Black people, who pioneered house music and other genres and movements associated with the city. Still, these artists have also frequently been denied access to many of the same platforms given to cisgender, straight, and white artists. While Wallace doesn’t seek mainstream approval as an end-goal, emphasizing that Futurehood is a self-sustaining, “by us, for us” operation, they are happy that the showcase is giving them and their daughters greater visibility while also offering them a platform to represent themselves instead of relying on outside coverage.

Although all of the performers at the event have strong ties to the city of Chicago, Wallace states that “Futurehood is a global project and a global community. We consider Chicago a portal, but it’s just one of many portals. And maybe it’s the first portal where the frequency came down to Earth, but then the frequency has spread across the United States, and the world.”

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KC Ortiz at Red Bull Music Chicago's Futurehood & Friends.

Next year, Wallace plans to continue expanding the range of Futurehood’s frequency through the development of a new content stream to be hosted on their website (futurehood.net). They will also continue to branch out into fashion design through creating new merch for the label, citing the brands Hood by Air and Telfar as influences. Their other goals for 2019 include touring South America for the first time and Europe for the second, as well as writing a screenplay.

In the final moments of their headlining set at the Red Bull Music Festival, Wallace decentered themselves from the stage and began to sing the names of their daughters as they came forth one by one. Many young artists use the closing minutes of their shows for a final bid at self-promotion, but it’s the names of their daughters, not their own, that Wallace left running through the audience’s minds:

“I MADE THIS SONG FOR SKY SHAKER

MY DAUGHTER ROZAY LABEIJA

MY BBY GRL ELI. WE LIVING THIS HIGH LIFE (ELIJAH MCKINNON)

I BOUGHT A NEW DRESS FOR PUSSY BABY (MY JOY)

ADAN BOY I LOVE YOU CRAZY

AND WE GOING TO THE TOP CAUSE I WONT STOP, I WONT STOP”

At the back of the stage, the tiny, bright specks that were distant stars flying by had begun to stretch into thin lines. The spaceship was going at light speed. When Mister Wallace finished the lyrics of the section honoring their daughters, They started it again from the top, all of them onstage together, their names linked in a melody carried by the voice of Cool Mom.

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